“And how are you feeling today, Ms. Goldwell?” Joseph asked meekly.
“Eh, as well as a woman with old bones can be in this horrible weather!” she coughed, not exactly looking at him.
It’s all that smoking you do, he thought to himself. “Then I hope that you’ll be feeling better when I see you next Thursday,” he smiled as he bagged her groceries, “it’s supposed to be gorgeous weather all of next week!”
“Ugh, don’t believe those liars!” she jerked her shopping cart, signaling she was getting impatient with all the waiting.
He nodded as he tried to work faster. When he was done, he carefully placed the several paper bags in the cart.
He often thought about the first time he bagged Ms. Goldwell’s groceries and hurriedly hauled them into the cart, ripping one of the bag’s handles. She gave him a sharp, silent look with her hooded, hawk eyes, making him feel like the biggest fool on earth. Joseph tried to break eye contact, but he could still feel the heat of her laser eyes on him.
Yet, the following week, and every week after that, she chose the counter where he was standing bagging groceries, though there were five other counters with faster, better, older baggers. They would snigger when she lined up at his counter, pleased she always went to him.
Joseph was eighteen, about to graduate high school, and was saving every penny of his meager wages so he could leave home and go to the farthest place from there.
That was when Ms. Goldwell came in. At first he was hoping that, since she clearly took a liking to him, she might befriend him and bestow some wisdom and, yes, wealth on him. But as weeks of them exchanging snippets of conversations wore on, he realized that his daydreams were childish and ridiculous. This was no Hollywood movie where the grumpy old woman would turn out to have a mushy marshmallow of a heart, waiting to be rescued from her loneliness by a doe-eyed young man in need of kindness, guidance and finance.
He pushed her cart out of the supermarket, ensuring he didn’t walk too fast ahead of her tiny figure; she didn’t like that. When they got to her Mercedes, he waited for the puckpuck signal and the trunk to open automatically before he gently hoisted the stuffed grocery bags and lowered them into the back of her car.
They then did the same spiel they’d been doing for the past ten months. Her deformed, arthritic fingers would fumble in her purse for what seemed like a lifetime while he slowly secured the groceries in place, pressed the trunk button and pretended he didn’t know what she was doing.
She would then find a crumpled dollar bill somewhere and take it out, cursing the dark, arthritis and the messy purse. And almost without fail, the bill would slip through her yellow-stained fingers and roll somewhere beside or under the car, and he had to dive looking for it around her leather shoes and thick, beige stockings. He always wondered if she did that on purpose.
“Thank you for that!” he’d say, wearing his most charming smile and turning around to return to the store before Mr. Holmes was mad at him.
Joseph was adamant about going through with his plan. He would soon turn eighteen and finally be able to leave his fifth foster home and go to find his mother. The last he heard, she was in Kentucky with her brother. He just wanted to tell her he forgave her for everything before moving on with his new life.
The break-in would have to be executed on the night of prom. He would go to prom, alone of course, leave for a few hours, execute the plan, very straightforward really, and slip back in unnoticed, which would ensure he had an alibi.
He didn’t really need an alibi because there was no way anyone would trace the robbery back to him. But he liked to cover all bases. “Crow,” his foster mother would call him when she could never prove that he’d stayed up late or snuck in after curfew or faked an adult’s signature. He was always sweet and calm and had an unwavering smile that made his small dark eyes disappear.
For the rest of his shift, Joseph had a smile, an absent-minded smile. The smile of a young man with a crystal-clear plan. As he bagged wealthy people’s groceries, he envisioned how he would do it for the hundredth time.
Tomorrow he would put on the musty, black tux his foster mom fished out of her dead husband’s closet, hemmed the pant legs (temporarily, because why would Joseph ever need it again?) and make his way to the dance hall to attend his much-awaited prom. Unlike other teenagers who dreamt about dances, kisses, fancy suits, and dresses, Joseph feverishly fantasized about prom as his one-way ticket out of his loveless foster home and lifeless foster town.
He was going to be free! And no one was going to be hurt in the process either.
That night he couldn’t sleep with excitement as he pictured his new life. The plan was seamless like water in a stream: go to stupid prom, sneak out, get rich, go back to prom, carry on as usual until graduation, LEAVE.
Simple yet grand.
On Friday he couldn’t focus on anything. He ate breakfast in silence, didn’t understand a word of what his teachers explained in class and looked at his foster sisters with sadness they noticed but didn’t understand. They didn’t know that he was going to leave them behind. They were good to him, they really were, and he was sorry to leave them in that cold house. He had to do it, though, or he would lose his mind… and what was left of his seared soul. The farewell letters were ready; he would slip them into their backpacks before leaving in a few weeks’ time.
The prom was a blur of blaring music, shimmering lights and swaying bodies, some intoxicated with raging hormones and some intoxicated with waging substances. But Joseph was high on adrenaline and thrill. The thrill of a plan so plain, it’s ingenious. Could it have been just a coincidence that the prom venue was mere minutes away from Ms. Goldwell’s house? He didn’t think so. It was a sign from God, or maybe Satan, that it was time to change his life around, fast.
Joseph made a scene where he got into a loud scuffle with two geeks from the physics club and made sure the chaperones got involved, so they’d remember him being there. Then, at half past midnight, he started retreating from the dance hall and slipped out into the night, picking up his empty backpack on the way out.
At 12:43, he was behind Ms. Goldwell’s dark house. Protected by the huddled trees and rendered invisible by the streetlamps he’d shattered with his slingshot the night before, he slunk into the backyard
He slipped on his gloves and Balaklava and stealthily peered into every door, keyhole and window, just like he’d done twice before.
When it was clear that the old lady wasn’t watching TV or getting a midnight snack, he wedged his screwdriver between the wooden back door and its frame, and to his surprise, the lock offered no resistance at all, as if it was another conspirator against the little hunched grump.
This was easier than expected. He had not planned on going upstairs. The plan was to find the burgundy leather purse she always carried, fish out the swollen wallet, and go home. He wasn’t interested in stealing jewelry or cracking safes. Just a fat wad of cash and some credit cards was all he needed to get started. Despite his young age, he knew that greed would ruin the plan’s beauty.
His heart was beating lightly; no need to be nervous, he reminded himself. If he heard her coming down the stairs, he would simply run to the open door and disappear into the night. Back to prom.
He adjusted his phone’s flashlight to the lowest possible brightness and strategically looked around him. His foster mom always put her purse on the hook by the door, nothing. Sometimes she threw it onto the kitchen table, also nothing. His friend Larry’s mother always put it on the dining-table-turned-office-desk. He flitted around inaudibly. Maybe he was a crow after all, cunningly hunting for his shiny treasure.
His composure surprised and almost frightened him. What else was he capable of doing without batting an eyelid? Right there, he promised himself not to let this become a way of living or even a habit. He was only stealing from a filthy rich woman who nobody liked. The contents of that wallet would probably not leave a dent in the tower of her wealth.
He knew he was a victim of the system. The system gave Ms. Goldwell everything, relying on her to give back to the downtrodden. People like him. But the system let him down, so he had to pull himself up. Ms. Goldwell would always be privileged by the system. She would be OK.
He tiptoed to the kitchen, and there it was, the burgundy bag, slung on one of the kitchen chairs. The kitchen was filthy, full of unwashed plates and half-emptied grocery bags. There were even chicken and fishbones lying on the floor. He reminded himself that this was not the time to look around, though he was curious to see the state of the rest of her house.
As he reached for the bag, he decided to put the whole thing in his backpack to save time. Just as he turned around to leave, he heard light scratching. He froze. Were those footsteps? Should he hide or should he make a run for it and risk her seeing him? He held his breath and pricked his crow ears to hear properly. But the scratching was coming from right behind him. He turned around, curious to determine what was making that noise.
He opened the cupboard under the sink and there it lay, a scrawny creature the size and color of a football. It shivered slightly as it cowered behind the pipes, but its big yellow eyes watched him with anticipation and distrust.
“What are you doing there, little kitty?” he whispered.
The cat tentatively ventured out of the cupboard and into the patch of light his flashlight cast on the floor. He put his open backpack on the hard tiles and crouched down, slowly scooping up the cowering cat.
“I didn’t know Ms. Goldwell had a cat!” he told the little creature rubbing its head on his tuxedo.
He didn’t remember ever packing cat food into her bags full of frozen foods, sugary drinks and cigarettes.
Joseph knew he was being reckless by sitting with the cat when he should have been running back to prom, but he reminded himself that no one would notice his absence. Plus, he kept his ears pricked for the devilish snoring piercing the air.
When Joseph was little, his cat was his only solace when he ran to bed crying after a beating or a berating. Cottonfluff, which was the same color as this one but meatier, would climb in bed with him and rub her head on his arms until he moved them away from his face and stopped crying. She was technically his mother’s cat, but she would only hiss at her and favor him with her cuddles.
Since then, whenever he was placed in a new foster home, he would beg his new parents for a cat, but he never got one. One time, when he was with the Stephensons, he found a stray cat behind his school. He scooped it up and smuggled it into his room. When the bed was pulled apart and the door was scratched, they were both back on the street. The Stephensons were the only family he didn’t hate, but he was an “ungodly” liar to them now.
He sat on the crumb-covered tiles and lifted the scrawny cat to his face to feel her warm fur. Something didn’t feel right, though. Her hair felt patchy and uneven. He had a sinking feeling in his stomach but wanted to check first. He cradled her in the nook of one arm and held the phone’s flashlight over her. A sudden surge of rage possessed him as he saw the singe marks all over her head, back and sides; some new, some old.
Joseph’s breathing became fast, shallow and irregular. The whole world became a tumbling blur, like the inside of a dryer, and he wanted to throw up. Like a crow spotting shiny objects, he spotted a large, pointy knife simply resting on the counter. No drawers needed to be thrown open or inspected. The knife was dirty, but it would do the job just fine. He put the cat down, grabbed the large knife and ran upstairs, two, sometimes three stairs at a time, almost tripping in the middle. The snoring got closer and closer and he became more delirious with demons from the past dancing with newborn, but just as powerful, ones.
Like a madman, he leaped into the overly furnished room and spotted her, lying on her side, face half-buried in the oversized pillow. Her open mouth was drooling into the pillow and her vulture eyes were half open, pure white, no pupils. He turned on the bedside lamp with a punch from the butt of his knife. She stirred but didn’t wake. He grabbed her shrivelled neck with his left hand while hoisting the knife in the air with the right. Her eyes shot open in surprised horror, but she couldn’t move or scream.
“You stub your cigarettes on the cat, you bitch?” he asked as he plunged the knife into her chest, but it hit a rib, so he pulled it out.
She winced in pain, flailing her arms and kicking her legs.
“You lock her up in the closet so she doesn’t wake you up?” He hissed, plunging the knife in her side.
She tried to shake her head, but his grip was too firm around her neck.
“You feed her SCRAPS?” He yelled, warm blood oozing all over his hands.
She made whiny noises, but he wasn’t listening.
“This one is for burning her everywhere…” plunge.
“This one is for not feeding her for days on end…” plunge.
“This one is for locking her up when she begged to go out to play… just once!” plunge.
“This one is for making dad leave…” plunge.
“This one is for … kicking her when all she wanted was your love…” plunge.
But she had been long dead by then.
He stood there for a minute, looking at the carnage, the crimson white sheets, the splattered blood on the wall, on his tux, on his shoes. The abomination with bulging eyes lay motionless in front of him and the knife kept dripping in his hand and he finally realized he was supposed to run away. He dropped the knife and ran downstairs, grabbed his backpack and ran into the fresh night air.
Outside, there was no one. No blood, no ugliness. Just peace. For the first time he knew what peace felt like.
He took a deep breath and ran. He ran and ran and ran until he found himself at the stream behind his house. He collapsed on his usual boulder, hidden away by the weeping willow. Catching his breath, he took off his gloves and balaklava and watched them sink into the bottom of the water.
Then he heard a scratching noise. Faint and barely audible. He pricked his ears and from his backpack came: meow.