This week’s Flash Fiction Challenge is another mashup. Three lists, three random numbers, the final “1,000 words or so” must contain those three things. 4, 3, and 10 mean that I need to include “a murder,” “a found dog,” and “a prison.” What could go wrong?
Now that it’s done, I fear that I haven’t done justice to the idea. The scene and the circumstance were clear in my head, but getting it into 1,000 words needs more work. Even coming in a bit long, it still feels rushed and contrived. Oh, well, c’est la vie.
As always, comments and constructive criticisms are appreciated.
KATE AND MAX
The cobblestones were slick with rain and while the sun must be ready to rise somewhere behind the crowded, ramshackle houses, there was nothing but grey gloom to light the alley. Rats paused in their examination of their refuse treasures to evaluate the threat that the girl might present, but she was small and frail, so they went back to their scavenging.
Kate sat down on her haunches, her back against the stone wall, oblivious to the vermin around her. Her thin clothing did little to protect her from the early morning chill and her tattered shawl was absorbing more of the rain that it was shedding. None of it mattered. Hidden in the shadows, she kept her gaze locked on the windows of the building across the road.
The windows had no glass or shutters to keep out the weather, only bars to keep in the human vermin within. Most of the bars were rusty, the masonry holding them in crumbling to dust. However, the building’s occupants rarely had the strength to stand to reach the window, let alone try to worry loose a bar or two in hopes of escape.
From a second story window Kate could hear wailing and screaming, the shouts echoing across the rough pavement and storefronts, down the empty streets, and presumably up to the ears of an indifferent God. Kate could not decide if the screams made her happy or not.
Suddenly a face appeared between the bars, hands desperately grabbing at the iron.
“It’s not my fault!” the prisoner screamed. “Help me! I didn’t mean to do it! It was an accident! You have to listen to me!” The pleading continued until finally the man weakened and fell silent, still sobbing as he held onto the bars.
From far down the street came the sound of nails clicking softly on the stones. Kate leaned out to look around the corner. Stopping underneath the prisoner’s window was a scrawny, emaciated dog, a short scrap of rope hanging around his neck. He had patches of fur missing and a number of scars, but did not seem to be an immediate threat to her.
The dog barked loudly twice, the sound bringing the prisoner’s head up. Peering down as best he could, the man tried to see the dog beneath him. “Max?” he called, “is that you? Max?”
Max responded with another sharp bark, then started to circle around in the street, looking for a way to get to his master. He kept looking up at the window, barking and whining, but unable to solve the puzzle to reach his side. As he made another pass around the street looking for help, he spotted Kate.
Max danced away a couple of steps, growling and cautious. Kate stood slowly, her knees stiff, and stepped out of the alley. In the street she faced Max, putting her arms out at her side in what she hoped was a non-threatening gesture.
“Hey, kid!” the prisoner shouted down. “Max, sit! Max! Sit!” Max sat, but didn’t take his eyes off Kate. “Kid, you have to help me! Go get your father or someone, make him come to listen to me, I’m innocent. They’re making a huge mistake!”
Kate let the shouts echo away before she turned her attention from Max up to the prison window above her. She seemed to be struggling through some internal battle, not sure if she should give in to sorrow or to anger.
“I don’t have a father,” she said, a quiver in her voice, which was just loud enough to carry to the second floor above her. “He was murdered two days ago by a drunken bum.” She let the words sink in, staring straight at the man. “He was murdered by you, and now I’m here to make sure they hang you!”
Her words hit him like lightning, leaving him whimpering, the sound growing into a wordless wail. Max looked up at his master, turned to walk closer to the building, and added his voice to the howling.
Kate never moved, watching him with hatred and disdain the whole time.
The prisoner’s head suddenly snapped up, listening. Frantic, he turned back to the window and looked down at Kate.
“Kid, they’re coming, I can hear them. Please, I didn’t mean to hurt your father, please believe me. It was all an accident. But now they’re coming and there’s no one left to take care of Max. He’s all I’ve got, he’s a good dog, but he’ll die out there on his own. I can’t bring your father back and I can’t save myself, but I need to save Max and want to help you if I can. So take Max, take care of him and he’ll take care of you, he’ll keep you safe. It’s all I can do now. Please!”
From the cell window came the sounds of a struggle as the man was grabbed by the guards. They wrestled to loosen his grip on the bars and drag him away. From the street, Kate could see his hand still gripping the bars as he fought his final fight.
“Max!” came the call from above. “Max, go with the girl! Stay with her! Go on, Max!” With the sound of several hard blows, the man’s hands disappeared from the window and his screams ceased.
Max had started barking at the sound of his name and kept barking as his master’s voice faded. But with the return of silence, Max stopped. He looked around, confused, uncertain about what to do next.
Kate looked at Max, her head spinning. This was the last thing she had expected of this morning. Consumed by her hatred and anger, left orphaned and destitute to make her life in the streets, she had not yet had time to think past today and the vengeance that the man’s execution might bring.
She had no way of taking care of Max. She didn’t even know how she was going to take care of herself.
What had he said? “He’ll take care of you, he’ll keep you safe.” Suddenly the magnitude of her plight and the grief of her loss crashed down on her. She collapsed against the side of the building, crying.
When she was able to regain some small measure of composure and look around, there was Max, a few feet away, staring at her.
Kate had no idea why her life had come to this, but she could see where she might need Max as much as he might need her. There were going to be many long, cold, and dangerous nights ahead as she figured out how to stay alive in the city, or how to get away to someplace better.
Slowly she extended her hand toward Max. He took a hesitant step toward her, sniffing her hand. When he licked it and took another step forward, Kate quickly scratched his head before grabbing his makeshift leash.
Standing, she quickly moved toward the comforting shadows of the alley, pulling Max along, to meet their fates together.