It was an unfortunate time to be living, no matter what one’s designation was. The bombings had knocked the country off its feet and left it hanging by its fingertips to the edge of a cliff, like a hiker who was shocked to be pushed off the trail by a former friend. The fear that accompanied the dangling was too much; all that was desired was a firm foundation.
Sasha was only twelve, but she knew what the “D” spray painted in bold black on the door meant. Still, it was shocking to see it staring back at her. She blinked. It was still there, uncompromising. She felt Cosmo brush against her legs and reached down to pick up the large yellow cat, cradling him in her arms. He let her rub his belly as her mind raced.
Who had turned them in? Surely not Mr. Turner, who’d been so understanding as to let Sasha and her father stay on in the rented house after Papa’s stroke. For many years, Papa had managed the store for Mr. Turner. He was always the first one there and the last to leave. Papa loved that store, and Mr. Turner loved Papa’s work.
Mr. Turner understood that since Papa was now confined to a wheelchair, he simply couldn’t meet the job requirements anymore. Or do any other job, for that matter.
Sasha opened the front door, her ears assaulted by raised voices of two people she cherished.
“Tom, how could you have done it? We’re not Drainers; we’ve just fallen on hard times.”
Her father’s words were garbled. Sasha knew not being able to speak clearly hurt his pride as much as his useless body did. She crept forward.
Mr. Turner looked at his feet and sighed. “It was Melinda. She was afraid, Oscar. It's the law now. She was afraid if she didn’t report you not working, our family would get in trouble.” Mr. Turner wrung his hands. The lines on his face looked deeper than the last time Sasha had seen him. “I’m sorry.”
Mr. Turner reached out to touch Papa’s arm. “I’m sorry,” he said again.
Sasha went back out the front door, closed it softly behind her, and rested her head against Cosmo’s . No time to cry. She had to think now. Quickly.
Then she saw them. The sisters! The ones who visited the store. The smaller one often commented on Cosmo’s beauty when they passed the house. If time allowed, she asked to pet him and ended up nuzzling her face against his. Sasha had always swelled a bit with pride when this happened; Cosmo had been hers from a kitten, and she knew she had raised him well.
“Good afternoon!” Sasha called, as the two girls approached. “I wanted to speak with you for a moment if I could.” Sasha spoke clearly. It was important to sound dignified.
She saw the older girl look toward the door and grimace when she noticed the “D”. Sasha released the breath she was holding when the girl stopped, halting her little sister with an outstretched hand.
“What is it? We’re in a hurry this afternoon.”
Sasha nodded. “I’ll be quick then. As it turns out, my father and I will be leaving town soon, and Cosmo here can’t go with us. I’m looking for a new caretaker for him, and I know your little sister has often admired him when you’ve passed.” Sasha smiled down at the little one, whose gaze was fixed on Cosmo. His purr was audible as he lolled in Sasha’s arms and raised his paw to gently graze her cheek. “I realize you might have to ask your parents first, and as I don’t have much time, I needed to ask right away.”
The older girl sniffed. “We don’t have to ask. Our papa will let us have whatever we wish.” She raised her chin and looked down at Sasha. “It’s only a matter of if we want such a beast or not. After all, he’s a cat that belongs to Drainers. Is he as lazy as you and your papa, only taking and never giving back?”
Sasha squashed the anger that rose in her chest. She hated this older girl immediately, but the younger one would treasure Cosmo. People who loved animals could easily recognize it in others. And these girls were rich; Cosmo would have everything he needed.
“Oh, no! Not at all! Cosmo has always earned his keep. He’s a great mouser, and he’ll snuggle up to you at night, keeping you all warm and cozy. That’s just one of the things I’ll miss most about him.”
Although the younger girl had moved forward and rubbed Cosmo’s silky head, the older one remained unconvinced. Sasha forged ahead.
“He’s nothing like us. He deserves better than the life he’s had so far with me. I know you can give him that.” Even though shame ran through Sasha and she longed to bite her own tongue in two, she looked directly at the older girl as she spoke, praying no lie would be detected.
Sasha saw it when the older girl relented, her pride stroked and satisfied. “He is rather beautiful.” She reached her arms out. “We’ll take him.”
The little girl clapped her hands twice and spun around. Sasha smiled as her stomach lurched. She buried her face in Cosmo’s fur for the last time and then handed him over.
She didn’t notice Mr. Turner until she made it to the porch.
“Sasha,” he began.
“I know, Mr. Turner.”
“I’m going to try to help, Sasha. It won’t be much, but I’ll do what I can.” The wetness in his eyes matched her own.
She bit her bottom lip and walked with as much dignity as possible into the house, the menacing "D" now blurred by tears that fell freely.
It was the memory of that last embrace and the assurance of Cosmo’s safety that kept Sasha’s heart warm on many nights that followed. The morning after Mr. Turner’s visit, she and Papa were driven from their home and forced to join a small group of others who had been rounded up in the early morning hours. After the deportation to a different town, she was immediately separated from her father. She didn’t know for sure what had happened to him, but there were rumors about the fate of sick Drainers. Her heart broke when she heard them.
It was only because she was a healthy child that she was put to work in the home of an old rich widow, who made it her business to support the charities in her town. “I may be old,” she was fond of saying, “but I’ll never be a Drainer.” Then she’d narrow her eyes at Sasha and frown.
At night the old lady turned the television up to ensure Sasha heard the words from the leader of the Esteemed: “We are building back our country, stirring the dredges of society up or throwing them out altogether. We will stand strong again.”
One evening as Sasha dusted, her eyes were drawn to the gnarled little dog that rested in the widow’s lap. “I had a cat. Before I came here.”
“Is that so?” The widow rested her hand on the dog, who snored softly.
“Yes. He was very special to me. I hope to have one again someday. When things are better.” Sasha paused. “I mean, when things are different. From how they are now. Not better. Different. That’s what I meant.” She watched the widow’s face to see what trouble her words might have brought upon her.
The widow, though, threw back her head and laughed and laughed. “Oh, child. Don’t you know? You’re bought and paid for. Things will never be different for you. You belong to this family now. We’ll make sure you’re never a drain on society again.” In her amusement, the widow slapped the arm of her chair with her bony hand.
Sasha winced. “I’ll stay here always? This is my life from now on?”
“Well,” the widow continued, “I suppose a future owner in the family might decide to free you. But I certainly wouldn’t count on it.”
Sasha, feeling a bit faint, sank into a nearby chair.
“What are you doing, girl? Get up! Get busy! I have family arriving soon. A granddaughter. One of them anyway. The other can’t be bothered with me anymore--too busy with the young men.” The widow paused, tilting her head to the side. “In fact, I think I hear the car now.”
Sasha rose and looked out the window. A sleek, gunmetal vehicle pulled to a stop in front of the house. When the driver emerged from the front and opened the back door, a small girl stepped out, cradling a large yellow cat whose every marking was imprinted in Sasha’s mind. Her heart swelled.
“Thank you, Mr. Turner,” she whispered.