Break the Clouds

Submitted into Contest #152 in response to: Write about a character whose life changes for the better.... view prompt

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Sad Friendship Creative Nonfiction

This story contains sensitive content

Content Warning: domestic abuse, panic attacks

When that little boy walked into my store, I could feel my heart break. Woe was scattered upon his freckles, and his sleeves stretched over his wrists. In the dead of winter, he wore only a t-shirt. 

I still remember how quiet his voice was, the soft tingle of the door as it blurred his question: “do you have anything happy I can read?”

My cat, Nemo, let out a small meow, as I craned my neck to see the small boy. He may have been the shortest kid I’d ever seen. His hair fell in chubby curls, and his eyes were large-- they seemed to hold the sun inside them. 

If only that sun remained unfurled by the clouds hanging so heavily at his shoulders. 

“Um…”

“It’s okay if you don’t,” the small boy muttered, tugging at his sleeves, pulling them further over scars he likely prayed I hadn’t seen, “it’s just that I can’t go to the library anymore. I was-um… hoping for… uh…”

“For something to help you feel good?”

The boy’s face fell into relief, curls bobbing as he nodded rigorously, “if it helps, I like a lot of things, just… nothing sad, okay? If you could, uh, well--.” 

His words fuzzed as I began roaming the bookshelves. Nemo trailed behind us, purring loudly as he attempted to wrap himself around the child’s legs. A thin sheen of dust covered countless leather-bound novellas, and  I nodded at the boy’s ramble, rummaging through mixes of dramas, poetry, and children’s books, silently cursing my organizational skills as I did so. 

Eventually, I’d compiled a small stack of stories for the kid. I placed the books on a nearby table, beckoning him closer as I spread them out in an arch, “this one’s about a dog and his lives--”

“Lives?” The boy’s eyes stretched wide, as his fingers hovered over the glossy cover of A Dog’s Purpose, “he has more than one?”

I smiled, and gave him a quick nod, “in the story, the dog lives a life, and then comes back as a new puppy when it’s over. In all of his lives, he’s trying to find his owner again.”

“Is it happy? I want to be happy.” His gaze was pleading, and I could feel an ache take root in my soul. 

I pursed my lips, “it… goes up and down. The book has happy parts, but it can be sad.”

He picked up the book, leafing through the pages, his eyes sorry, “um… I don’t have any money.”

I cast a glance about the shop, and the street outside. Snow piled at the door, and pedestrians milled about in marshmallow-like coats. One look at the boy, and I knew I couldn't send him away, “I’m Claire, what’s your name?”

“B-Beckett.”

I muttered his name over again, bustling behind the counter, and taking a bookmark from my stash, “If you want to read it here, I can hold the book for you.” 

“You… won’t let anybody buy it?”

“As long as it stays, and you use the bookmark when you come.” 

Beckett nodded, reaching up to take the bookmark from my fingertips, “thank you, Miss Claire.”

Just like that, my bookshop gained a tenant. 

Beckett would slip in quietly, avoiding anyone who stepped too close. He’d curl up in corners, ducking into stories, and mouthing along as he flit through chapters. He seemed to devour A Dog’s Purpose, and, before I knew it, he’d moved on to Ronald Dahl’s The BFG

The curly-haired bibliophile quickly became an embodiment of my bookshelves, a doodle on the skin of my store. I’d watch as Beckett shied away from the world, and I’d watch as Nemo took it upon himself to frequent Beckett’s hiding places. With every story the boy skimmed, I became more curious, more involved, in the thunder that seemed to cloud about him. 

Often, I’d catch Beckett’s eyes flickering between pages and the door. He’d jump every time it opened, and I couldn't help wondering why. 

Could it have something to do with the library? Why couldn't he go?

It was a February morning, months later, when Beckett’s storm rose above my head. The sun seemed to blacken as the world outside bled into the boy’s shelter, and I realized why his sleeves were so long. That day, lightning struck, and I became more than a footnote. 

A freeze pressed up against my shoulders as I made two cups of hot chocolate. Beckett, Nemo, and I were waiting for the store to warm up. Beckett’s t-shirt was paper-thin, so I’d wrapped the small boy in my winter-coat; I just couldn't bear seeing his lips so blue. 

Just as I’d handed Beckett his mug, the door flew open. With a flurry of snow, came a foul-looking creature: I could smell this man’s evening from across the shop and a prod of fear seemed to bruise my chest. The man was disheveled and his eyes glinted with an eldritch callousness. Beckett’s once-rosy cheeks blanched. Instinctively, I placed myself between him and the character. 

“Beck,” he growled, “let’s go.”

Beckett reached up, grabbing the corner of my dress, shrinking backward. 

“Sir,” I said, forcing my way through a smile, “can I help you?”

“I’m ‘ere for the kid, lady,” the man growled, sniffing with distaste, “this where you been hidin’ out, boy? I should’a guessed, place looks cheaper than you.”

“Excuse me, sir?” 

The man gave me a once-over, his eyes greedy. His dark hair was disheveled, and his speech slurred. He smelled as if, for the past millennia, drinking had been his sole occupation. 

Beckett let go of my dress, shrinking behind a shelf as the man took a step toward me, his stride lurid, “I’m his uncle. Get ‘im to come out.”

“Beckett,” I muttered, casting a glance over my shoulder, “do you want to go with this man?” Beckett fell back a few steps, shaking his head, and I turned back to the drunk, “it doesn’t look like he wants to go anywhere with you.” 

A spark roared in the man’s gaze as his fists shook, and, suddenly, I heard a very small voice: “Uncle Roger, please don’t hurt Claire.”

“Long as you come wit’, I won’t lay a finger on your pretty friend.”

“Beckett, stay where you are.” My eyes narrowed as I met the gaze of ‘Uncle Roger’, “What part of no don’t you understand? Get out of my store. Now, please.”

“Beckett, let’s go,” Roger growled, and, again, the boy shook his head wildly.

Nemo meowed as I reached for the phone, lifting it from the wall, “I am giving you one more chance to leave, then I’m calling the police.” 

Roger glared, and my eyes flashed as my fingers dialed 9, “I’ll be back, Beck. You just wait ‘til your lady frien’ ain’t here to protect you no more.”

The door thrashed back into its frame and, suddenly, I heard a barrage of breath, “C-Cl-heea-”

I swung behind the shelves to find Nemo pacing, meowing, as Beckett cried against the wall, hyperventilation tearing its way through his small chest.  

He flinched when I reached for him, and a thought tore itself through my gut: this kid’s been hit. 

“Beckett,” I muttered, crouching down to meet his eyes, “take some slow, deep breaths with me, okay? Inhale… exhale.”

Breathing ironed out the creases between his brow as I walked him through a few more inhalations. 

Tears streamed down his pale cheeks, his hot chocolate now in a puddle on the hardwood. “I--I’m--Claire, I’m s-so sorry!!”

“Beckett, it’s not your fault. None of us are hurt; he’s gone.”

“I n-never should have c-come here!” His hands were shaking hard as his breathing, again, began to escalate. His sleeves were rolled up, and I tore my eyes from the black and blue tracing his forceps, “t-thank you for b-being my friend, Claire, and I’m s-sorry. I wo-won’t bother you anym-more.”

My tone softened, again, as I began walking him through his breaths, telling him, this time, to move his fingers and count down from 100. He made it to 69 before it was over. Somehow, he’d found his way to my arms, and I squeezed him in a hug gentler than his spirit, “Beckett, stay here as long as you need.” 

“Wh-what about when you cl-close?”

“Not tonight,” I muttered, letting Nemo stroke his back along our small pile of affection, “if he’s the one taking care of you, you don’t have to go home.”

“B-but Roger--”

“I’’m not going to let him hurt you anymore.”

The clouds seemed to disperse, if only for a moment, between the two of us. Beckett held me tight, a fear and warmth conveyed in every portion of his touch: “don’t leave me,” it begged, “please, don’t leave me.”

“I won’t,” I tried to say, as he burrowed tighter into my embrace, “I’ll try to make it okay--just watch me, Beckett. Watch, and I’ll break the clouds.”

July 02, 2022 01:01

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