By Jillian Locke
She walks the streets, bags in hand, always wearing a hurried, frenzied expression. She scuttles with her feet slightly turned out, and there seems to be a sort of limp or restriction to her gate. Always traveling by foot, through sun, rain, or snow, she sheds and piles the layers on as the weather necessitates.
The central part of town, the retail part, seems to receive most of her foot traffic. She carries varying plastic bags filled with unseen treasures; essentials to her; a comb, some tissues, wet wipes she picked up at a restaurant, small samples of soap wrapped in cheap paper, the kind easily swiped from hotel bathrooms, small bags of travel peanuts, a miniature toothbrush and toothpaste that she was able to swipe from the trial size aisle at WalMart. Thermal shirts and a few pairs of socks she picked up at the Salvation Army, a tattered book left behind at a coffee shop.
She carries all of these things with her and walks, frenzied, always rushing to get back home, always fearing that someone has discovered her, taken her things, thrown away her tent. Scurrying from the busy streets to the hidden train tracks, she steps carefully, as the tracks have been unemployed for long enough to gather hordes of overgrowth and trash to clutter where screeching engines once rumbled.
Securing the bags by transferring them to her left arm, holding it out for balance and leaving her right arm free to catch her if she slips, she begins the slow decent down the dirt hill, navigating through weeds and discarded beer cans and used condoms and crush cigarette butts, trying desperately not to step on or fall into any of the wretched debris. She hates this part, hates having to leave her hidey hole, hates leaving what’s left of her life exposed and vulnerable and unguarded.
She reaches the bottom without having dropped a bag or stumbling, and continues the frenzied rush to reach home. The cold was coming raw and strong this year, and early too. She would have to gather more supplies, make more of these wretched trips, when all she wants is to stay holed up in her shelter, away from the judging eyes of the town.
The river was screaming today, the icy wind gusting through the little valley. The branches that usually provided a welcoming canopy across the well-worn path transformed into boney fingers lunging at her face, reaching for her eyes. She ducks down, sprinting the 50 feet to her tent, her hidey hole, her refuge.
Days like this, weather like this – cold like this – always makes her think, reflect. She thinks about her childhood, her beautiful home, her warm home. She loses herself in the warmth of the fireplace her father always kept stoked, the hot chocolate her mother would make for her after a long afternoon of sledding and igloo-building, and the steaming, excruciatingly delicious beef stew served up for dinner, leaving enough for leftovers. A stocked fridge, a microwave, a stove. A tea pot, a coffee maker, spoons. All of these luxuries, all of these amenities that had become such a distant part of her past. But on days like this, when the wind was howling through her tattered tent, when the tears in the fabric gave way to abusive slices of exposure in the form of rain, snow, sleet, or falling shards of ice from the overhanging trees, these memories became vibrant. She could feel the heat of the fire place licking her face, clearing her nose of the chill that never went away. She held her steaming cup of hot chocolate under her chin, letting the aroma tickle her newly thawed nose, the heat swirling up her nostrils and down the back of her throat. Then the beef stew would come, hearty chunks of carrots and potatoes and mushrooms and celery, all seasoned to perfection, filling the massive chunks of meet with juice and flavors that harkened to a time of comfort, security, abundance, fullness. Foundation.
She lays down and buries herself in the pile of blankets and sleeping bags and quilts she’s accumulated over the years. She was able to save her favorite childhood blanket from the fire, once a thick, vibrantly colored covering of lush blues and greens and purples and browns weaved into swirling patterns. The yarn was soft and dense, all at once, providing sometimes too much warmth when she curled up on the floor, her tiny frame enveloped in this thick cloud before the fireplace. She remembers the heat, the extreme heat, how back then she would throw the blanket off when the heat became too much. She wonders how she could have ever felt too hot.
When she dreams, she sees the flames. She tastes the smoke, feels her throat closing up, gasping for air. She feels her eyes burning, her hands burning after she grabbed the scorching doorknob, her room filled with smoke, trapped. The carpet was smoking, her bare feet singed, running back to her bed, helpless. Screams rising with the flames, muffled with the thickening smoke. A ladder, slammed against her window, shards of glass shattering as the fireman broke his way through. Down the ladder he took her, flames bursting through the bathroom window to her left, the playroom window to her right. Her parent’s windows were on the other side of the house, the same side as the chimney, the side where the fire started.
The woods caught fire and spread quickly, taking a half an acre before the flames gave up. Sometimes, even now, she wakes up with the smell of burning branches, smoldering ground and squirrel flesh swirling through her nostrils, the same way the steam from the hot chocolate used to, the steam that melted her frozen snot, her father lovingly holding a tissue to her nose, telling her to blow.