Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Tramp

A boy with a parrot on his shoulder was walking along the railway tracks. He stumbled sometimes, when the white cane he held and swept back and forth in front of him along the ground missed something that could trip him. A grimace came over his lips when he stumbled, angry at himself, at the cane, at the rock or whatever it was that made him stumble. The parrot on his shoulder never said a word; the little plastic voice box inside it had broken a long time ago. Only a couple safety pins kept the stuffed bird in place on his shoulder, stuck through its feet to attach it to the shoulder of his shirt.

There was a rhythmic thunk-tink thunk-tink as the white cane hit the metal of the railroad. He walked just outside of the tracks, making the same trip he'd made every day for the last two months. Along the railroad tracks, across the little wooden bridge that spanned a creek just big enough to require a bridge, and then into town. Town, and freedom. Maybe they wouldn't catch him this time. The thought made him move faster-- and stumble more often.

He strained his ears, trying to listen over the scrape of his shoues on the gravel and the thunk-tink of his stick for the sound of pursuers. A hand reached up and squeezed the stuffed parrot on his shoulder for luck. Maybe they wouldn't come. Maybe they didn't realize he was gone yet. Maybe this time would see him into town, and find someone to hide him until they gave up, and he wouldn't have to worry about them anymore. He squeezed the parrot again. Maybe.

That was when he heard the first sound of footsteps other than his own. Waving his cane wildly in front of him, he ran, tripping with every other step but never quite falling. Forward-- always forward. They had found out earlier than usual that he was gone; usually, he was at least heading away from the rails and towards the bridge by the time he first heard them. This time... he might not even get to the bridge.

His cane whacked against the changing switch for the rails, sending a jarring feeling up his arm, but signaling him to turn aside, veer to his right, and make way for the bridge. The footfalls of his pursuers were catching up, going faster than he was. He wasn't going to make it.

The ground underfoot changed from gravel to earth, the rustle of fallen leaves replacing the crunch of shoe on gravel. His pursuers were still on the gravel. if he could keep from falling... maybe... He squeezed the parrot.

His cane thumped against one wooden post of the bridge that crossed the creek, and he dashed onto in. Only he had come up on the wrong side of it, and rather than his foot landing on the bridge, it landed on nothing, and he tumbled into the cold thigh-deep water. He almost lost hold of his cane as he sputtered, trying to right himself. Rather than climbing back out and crossing the bridge, he started swimming across.

The water got much deeper toward the middle, until he couldn't feel th bottom no matter how hard he stretched his toes downward. The thump of boots on wood sounded next to him, and he knew he was caught. He struggled to fight the current, to just go away from the bridge and the hands that were no doubt waiting to haul him in. But it was too strong for his six-year-old legs to fight for long, and it swept him away. He quit fighting and let it carry him. Fingers brushed his hair, his coat-- and didn't get hold. Shouts reached his ears, dimmed for a moment as he went under the bridge, and loudened again as he came out on the other side. And they faded away as the water carried him out of reach faster than he could ever run.

Shivering and soaked, he came up on the bank in a place he didn't know. He reached a trembling hand up to feel that the parrot was still there. Yes. The stuffed animal was as soaked through as he was; there was no way the voice of it would ever work again, he was sure. If the stuffing didn't dry out right, the thing would probably rot from the inside out, and it wouldn't be any good at all anymore.

Tugging himself up the bank and to the trunk of a tree, the boy sat and unfastened the two safety pins that held the toy to his shirt. A third safety pin held closed the ripped seam at the bottom of the bird, between its feet. He unfastened that one too, and dug a pair of fingers up into the wet stuffing, feeling around. There was the plastic voice box, and... for a moment, he thought it was gone. Then he felt the small, hard lump tucked into the bird's beak. Squishing and twisting the parrot and his fingers, he fished it out.

Turning it over in his hands, he wondered what the smooth, round object really looked like. It wasn't much bigger than the first knuckle of his pinkie fingers, and it wasn't quite perfectly round-- it felt more like there were dozens of little flat surfaces cut into it, so small and so carefully done that it just seemed round. It felt kind of like a marble, but if it were just a marble, they wouldn't be after him. Closing his fist tightly around it, he let go of the parrot. It was ruined; he wouldn't need it anymore. He hadn't heard any sound of pursuit in some time. He had gotten away. Gotten away for real and for good this time. Exhausted, he slept with his back against the trunk of the tree. Even the sound of a passing train didn't wake him.

The man who jumped off the train had the look of a hobo, but he preferred to be called a tramp. He saw the sleeping boy and doubted he had any food on him, but maybe he had money. Very carefully, the tramp searched the boy's pockets, but there was nothing that could be of any use. Then he saw something glittery in the boy's hand. Grinning a snaggletoothed grin, he took it.

And was arrested for stealing one of the largest extraterrestrial peridot gems when he was found.

When the boy woke up, he was at first upset that his prize was gone, then glad to be rid of it. Wearily, he got to his feet, took up his white cane, and walked.

I wrote "The Tramp" for a First Line Fiction contest, and to be perfectly honest, I had no idea what I was really doing. Like so many of my ideas, I had loftier goals than could be told in less than 1000 words...

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