by Heidi Hodges
There once was a boy, who wasn’t really a boy. He was only seventeen so he wasn’t a legal adult yet, but he was beyond boyhood. He never considered himself a teenager either. Being a teenager seemed to him a time of rebellious experimentation that he never got to experience. No, this boy, this man, had been living on his own since he was fifteen years old.
His parents had died. Instead of going with the strangers from Social Services, he ran away. He didn’t run far, but they never found him. Maybe they never looked for him — there was no one around who would have checked in on the situation.
He’s been completely alone for over two years now. Two years may not seem like a long time to some people, but these years contained the growth of a new universe for this young man.
When he ran away, he didn’t go far. Just across town to the wooded area behind Public Works. He had grown up taking camping trips with his family and when he learned from Social Services that he wouldn’t be able to stay in his house, he figured the woods would be a good place to live.
He never stole anything, but he was still able to find everything he needed, even clothes. It was amazing what people just threw away. Especially people who lived in town homes. They had the most lucrative trash — he didn’t know why. Not only was he able to build a home for himself, he was able to provide his own food.
Picking old vegetables and fruits from the trash is dirty business, but he did what needed to be done. The seeds stuck to the gooey flesh weren’t trash anyway. They had so much potential. He rinsed them off, gave them their own special plot in his wooded abode, and cared for them until he had a disorganized garden of tomatoes, berries, garlic, cucumbers, peppers, onions, corn, and more.
He ate like a woodland king when the weather was warm enough. He ate like a city bum when the weather was cold, however. He frequented dumpsters much more often in the winter, especially those behind restaurants. He had no money and no way of earning any. But still he lived a life full of adventure.
One day in late spring, he came back to his home to see he had a visitor. As far as he knew, no person ever knew his plot existed, but this cat had come to find him.
“Hello there, furry little one,” the boy said, kneeling down.
The cat did not run away, but timidly approached and sniffed the boy’s outstretched hand. The cat then rubbed his head against the boy. It meowed and looked up, hopeful.
“If you’re hungry I’m sorry I don’t have much for you,” the boy said, opening the canvas bag of food he had just collected, mostly stale bread. “Definitely no cat food and no meat either.”
The cat stuck its head in the bag and pulled out a piece of bread that was soggy with some type of sauce. It then began chewing.
“Well, alright, if that suits you,” the boy said. He sat down and they ate their small meals together.
The cat stayed with him for almost a week. It stayed and napped for hours at a time. And sometimes it left for most of the day. The boy didn’t know where this domestic cat had come from, but he sure liked having it around. It had been such a long time since he had any sort of company, anyone to talk to. And the cat kept the squirrels and rabbits away from his crucial garden. On his “grocery runs” as he thought of them, he made sure to get something extra — fish or meat — for the cat, too.
On the sixth day, however, when the cat came back from one of its long outings, someone had followed it. The boy was napping in his hammock when he heard the rustle of footsteps approaching. They were too near before he could think of anything to do. He sat up, panicked and shocked, as a woman walked right into his secret garden.
“Oh!” The woman said, perhaps equally as shocked when she moved the branch from her vision and saw what, or rather who, was before her. “Oh! I didn’t expect to… Have you seen a big, grey cat? Oh, there you are!” She spotted the cat scratching its claws on a thick, rough tree.
“Come here, you.” She bent down and the cat immediately bounded over and leapt in her arms. “You’ve had us worried sick. Thank you so much for finding him,” she added, looking up at the boy. “He’s my daughter’s and she’s been so upset since he’s been missing. She’s on the spectrum and doesn’t have many friends…”
She trailed off as she took in the whole of her surroundings. The hammock, the old canvas tent stuffed with blankets, the fire pit, the handmade rain barrel propped up in a tree (so the boy could shower), the garden, the old pots and pans, everything that the boy had collected in the last two years. Her gaze lingered on an old blue speckled pot that looked very familiar.
“Do you… You don’t…” She kept looking between the things and the boy, searching his face for some kind of clue. “What is this place?”
The boy looked down and licked his lips. “It’s just a place I like to hang out. You know, to get away.”
“That’s a lot of food,” she said.
“Well your cat is good company, but can eat a whole lot,” the boy tried to joke.
The woman nodded, but didn’t look convinced. “This is Spaghetti,” she said, nodding to the cat. I’m glad he was able to keep you company.”
The boy only nodded.
“Look…” she started, looking nervous. “Thank you for looking out for him. Do you… Would you like to have dinner with us tonight? As a thank you. I’m sure Juliet, my daughter, would like to thank you, too. She’s fourteen. Maybe you two would get along. After all, Spaghetti seems to quite like you both.”
“I…” The boy started, but then the words got lost in his throat with a croak.
“No pressure,” the woman said. And she finally smiled.
The boy looked up and saw another entire universe in that one smile, one filled with love.
“Okay,” he managed. “I’ll come.”
“Do you have to ask your parents? I can talk to them if you want,” she said.
The boy looked down again. “No.”
The woman nodded to herself and left it at that. “You can follow me. It’s not a far walk,” she turned and gestured kindly, still holding Spaghetti firmly in her arms. “What’s your name?”
“My name’s Romeo,” the boy answered.
The woman almost stopped and asked “Really?”, but checked herself just in time. Instead she said, “I’m Emily. It’s nice to meet you Romeo.”
Romeo nodded again and tried out his own smile.