by Ron Van Sweringen
The old man hunched over the battered grocery cart sought nothing more than protection from the biting wind. It was late afternoon, getting colder and he badly needed a place to spend the night. A graffito covered dumpster filled one corner of the alley, directly behind Donaldson’s Furniture Store. The usual trash and litter covered the frozen ground around it, but today something else caught his eye, something he had been hoping for. A large shipping carton of heavy cardboard, big enough for him to sleep in. Still pungent with the smell of newness, a nicer abode than the hard iron steam grate he shared the night before. Unable to sleep, for fear someone would rummage his belongings.
The metal grocery cart with its squeaking wheels, held the possessions of a lifetime. Tonight the most precious of these would go inside the box with him. He worked slowly in the last hour of daylight, his strength beginning to fade. He was stooped, with a hunch-back, the deformity hard to discern under the several layers of clothing enveloping him. Only his long white hair attracted attention, flowing from under a red knit cap, pulled down tightly over his ears. By the time the old man had finished, darkness was falling. Sleet bounced down on him and his hands ached from the cold. He was about to crawl into the small shelter, when he heard it for the first time.
Facing the icy wind, his old eyes searched the dark alley and silver puddles of freezing water. Then he heard it again, stronger this time, the pitiful cry of a tiny kitten, looking like a black lump of coal. Its wet fur matted down, the little creature huddled against a brick wall. “Here kitty kitty,” the old man called softly, seeing the little animal. “Here kitty kitty,” but to no avail. It made no movement, but only continued a mournful cry.
Pulling his scarf tight against the pelting sleet, the old man slowly made his way over the icy ground toward the little animal. He halfway feared it might withdraw as he approached, but it did not move. When he reached down with his tattered gloves, the kitten showed no awareness of his presence and when he looked at the tiny black face, he knew why. The small eyes were covered with a milky membrane. It was blind.
“Here kitty kitty,” he whispered, tucking the trembling little body under his coat, “let’s go home now.” Inside the cardboard container, a thick white candle glowed from the center of an empty mayonnaise jar. Its dancing flame lit the darkness and amazingly, began to warm the chilly air. The bottom of the box was thickly padded with newspapers, old blankets and quilts from the grocery cart. A bed pillow was pushed up behind the old man’s back and blankets covered his legs and feet.
A picture of the “Last Supper” torn from a magazine was thumb tacked to the side of the box. Though creased in the center and dog eared at the edges, its beautiful colors still glowed in the soft light. After he was settled in, the old man gently withdrew the kitten from inside his over-coat. It had been lulled to sleep by the new found warmth. When he sat the little animal down, it swayed back and forth trying to stand up. “Are you hungry little friend?” the old man said with a smile. He opened a crumpled brown paper bag and rummaged through it, before emptying out the contents. He took two small plastic containers marked coffee cream and peeled back the tabs on both. The kitten lapped them up hungrily, once the cream was touched to its mouth. Next the old man fed it a few small pieces of chicken, from half of a sandwich he was eating. Soon the little animal’s stomach was stretched tight as a drum.
“Guess we’ll keep each other warm tonight,” he whispered, holding the black ball of fur against his face. “You can sleep here next to my heart, where you’ll be safe,” he laughed, tucking the kitten away in his chest pocket, under a sweater and the worn grey top-coat.
Snow began falling and everything was quiet as the two friends slept under an electric star advertising Peace on Earth and Donaldson’s Furniture Store that Christmas Eve.
Check out more Christmas short stories in our Terrific Tales section, and watch for more to go up between now and Christmas!