Oh, my friend! My little love. My family. Cougar the bright and shining had spent the last three weeks being my furry beacon of hope. Summer was almost here and I would leave this place for good. I spent nearly all my time in the garage. I slept there and ate there with my friend. I couldn’t cook the hot dogs, so I would buy spaghettios and eat them cold.
Everyone was waiting out the school year before they sent me off. I had been to school twice in the last week. Once to give my book report on “Socks” by Beverly Cleary. Once to show up to a parent meeting in the office in my mother’s place. They had called and called the house, but did not get an answer. They sat me down and barked at me. I needed to come to school. I needed to bathe. I needed to wear clothes that fit. I needed to make a damn effort. I needed…what I really needed was anyone who cared to make a difference. What I had was a feral stray cat and spaghettios and $7 in my sock drawer.
They asked for my mother’s work number. I gave them the number of Carney’s Tap where she tended bar at night. I said go ahead and call. They were still barking when I left.
I used to get scared being alone at night when mom worked. Back when she still drove the Cobra, before Cougar, I would ask if I could just come with and sleep in the back seat in the parking lot. She let me do this one time and then not again. She said it wasn’t safe.
But now things had changed. I slept in the garage and Cougar slept on my back or on the high, soft space I had created from old sofa pillows. There were people in the house now that I did not know. When I did go in, I went in and out through my bedroom window and kept my door locked. One of the people staying there was named Howie. He was a mean, hairy guy with giant nostrils and big round eyes. I called him Cowie because he was the closest thing to a minotaur I had encountered. He hated kids. After a week of his moving in, our electricity and phone was restored. My mom kept saying, “See? He’ll take care of us.” But I had already heard him say he couldn’t wait for me to be gone. Everyone was running out the clock.
The cash from my grandparents arrived every week on Friday. I had to get it from the mailbox to my sock drawer unnoticed. I had a routine for this, but Howie had been watching. Friday came and I stuffed the envelope under my shirt and ran upstairs. I locked the door and opened my sock drawer and the magic red box.
Then suddenly the door swung open and there stood Howie.
“What you got?”
“Nothing. It’s just a note from my grandparents. They write to me.”
“Bullshit. You’re a lying little shit, you know that?”
He’d broken the lock on my door. The magic red box was empty. My food money and Cougar’s food money was gone. I still clutched the envelope and bolted for the window. I slid and jumped before he could get to me. He stood there thrashing, cow face all red, nostrils flaring.
“Hey Howie,” I yelled up at him. “You got some white shit on your nose, you fucking thief!”
By the time he hit the door, I was already across the field by I-71. Out of his sight, off his radar.
I walked to Lawson’s like nothing happened. I called my grandparents collect and told them not to send me anything else. I could make it until summer okay. I spent all the money on spaghettios and cat food and a pack of donuts. I had to haul it to the garage and hide it, but I doubted Howie would steal cat food.
“And just let him try, Cougar! You’ll vanquish Cowie and send him to the minotaur cave.” Cougar purred loudly and kneaded my leg.
My mother told me that night that I would be going to live somewhere else until summer. She had talked to the school. She had also talked to Howie. I was to move in with my stepfather’s ex-wife, Barbara. Relief washed over me.
Anywhere but here. That was my reply. Anywhere but here. She almost slapped me.
But then she didn’t.
I had two days. And I realized I would have to say goodbye to my champion, my love, my family, my Cougar. I could not be his feral girl any longer. I had to find him a home.
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