He remembered his home, his real home, not the boxes and rolled up quilts in the alley. He used to live in a proper house in a village far from the city. The houses there were scattered across a great distance so Joshua didn’t have any children his own age to play with. But he had grassy hills, groves of trees, wildflowers, streams and imagination. He would run and pretend the fields and the wood were his own kingdom filled with servants and knights. And in the evening his mother and father would be there in the small house, with a warm meal of beef stew and barley. Then they’d sit by the fireplace and they tell each other stories. When night came they’d tuck him into his warm bed and he’d sleep and dream. In those days Joshua never wanted anything more than what he had.
But on that day his father announced they would visit the city. His mother was all excited, but Joshua was grumpy. He wanted to play in the fields. The day before he’d fashioned a small army out of twigs, twine, and pine cones. The opposing forces lay waiting in the field for their commander to lead them into battle. Now instead of glorious war he had to get into a freezing cold tub and wash. Then he had to change into his best clothes, the stiff shirt with the scratchy collar.
“Can I stay behind?” he asked his voice dripping with utter misery.
They laughed at him.
“Stay here all by your lonesome? Why you’d be bored to tears,” his mother chirped.
“Highly unlikely,” he muttered.
After he’d gotten out of the tub he protested again.
“Please. I don’t want to go.”
This time they only smiled.
He asked a third time as they loaded up the wagon.
“I really don’t want to go. I’m staying!”
His father stopped tying down the luggage. He grabbed Joshua by the shoulders, not hard but still firmly and looked down at him with his deep brown eyes.
He said, “Joshua Sage you behave. This is a very important trip for us. It’s a grand thing for you mother to visit the city in style. I don’t want you ruining any of it. Now buck up. I promise you’ll have a great time.”
But Joshua didn’t.
He hated the ride to the railroad station.
“Isn’t it a lovely day?” his mother asked.
“The road’s bumpy. I’m sore all over,” he grumped.
He hated the standing on the platform waiting for the train. The station was full and there were no benches to sit down on. And of course Joshua couldn’t sit on the ground; he’d ruin his fine, scratchy pants. So they stood there for hours and hours.
“I always wanted to travel by train,” his mother said.
“It’s hot here,” Joshua moaned. The collar of his shirt was now damp with sweat yet still his neck itched.
When the train finally arrived, it screeched so loud the sound hurt his ears. It bellowed steam that made Joshua sweat even more. His parents hustled him up the metal stairs and into the cramped compartment that had a strange smell that stung his nose. When the train pulled away from the station it rattled constantly. Joshua felt the hard vibrations through his entire body. He hated it.
Then the train arrived in the city and all of Joshua’s hate doubled.
“The city,” his mother sighed.
“Isn’t it beautiful?”
Joshua couldn’t see the beauty. He could barely see anything. There were too many people who pushed and yelled. The hard streets hurt his feet as they walked for hours and hours. His parents ignored his moans as they dragged him all over the city.
They squeezed into a building packed with people. The noise and the heat made Joshua sick.
“Here we are in the famous Destinapolis Market!” his mother squealed.
“Anything you want is here.”
Joshua could only see the rump of the fat man standing in front of him.
Joshua said he was hungry three times before they finally stopped for lunch. They took him to a loud and crowded restaurant. He sat on a stiff wooden chair and waited for his food. He was starving and desperately wanted some of his mother’s beef stew with barely. When his food came it was something he’d never seen or smelled before.
“Try it. It’s lamb with pasta,” his mother urged.
“I want beef and barely,” he pouted.
“They don’t have it on the menu,” his father said.
Joshua couldn’t understand why they were doing this to him. He didn’t ask to be brought here. He’d suffered through the heat and the train ride and the streets clogged with people. All he wanted was just to eat lunch; his lunch, the lunch he always ate. Instead they gave him this unknown stew on top of noodles and expected him to be satisfied. That was too far for Joshua. He’d go no further. He was in open rebellion from now on. Despite his empty stomach he merely pushed the little chunks of meat around with his spoon.
“I thought you said you were hungry,” said his father sternly.
“Are you feeling well?” asked his mother.
He gave her another shrug.
His parents finished their meal and they left the restaurant. He thought they were headed home and his mood improved. He’d have another rattling train ride and a bumpy journey on the carriage but after that he’d be home. He’d be in his own bed that night. The next morning he’d have his usual breakfast of bacon and eggs and all would be right.
But instead of the train station his parents took him to a hotel. The porter took them to a strange room with two strange beds.
“When are we going home?” Joshua whined.
“We’ll head back tomorrow morning,” his father said.
His mother giggled.
“We have three tickets to the best show in the city. It will be wonderful!”
“No!” Joshua shouted. He let out every bit of hate he’d built up during the day.
His mother looked at him stunned. Joshua saw the hurt in her face and felt bad. But that just made him angrier.
It’s not my fault. I didn’t want to come. It’s not enough that I came they expected me to like it? How dare they act wounded?
“No! No! No!” he shouted.
His father came back and yelled at him to behave. For the first time in his life Joshua yelled back at his father. He was so mad he didn’t care.
His father stepped forward with arm raised ready to slap his “no’s” out of his mouth. His mother stepped in front of him. Her hands shook. Joshua’s anger faded. He took few steps back and stayed quiet.
“If that’s the way you want it, you can wait here in this room by yourself until we come back,” his father said.
“That’s fine with me,” Joshua answered.
His father took his mother into the next room. They changed into fine clothes. They came back. Joshua sat on the bed. No one spoke. His father gave him an angry look and his mother was near tears. His parents left.
Joshua sat on the bed and waited. And waited.
Outside the sky turned from orange dusk to dark red to night blue.
His parents didn’t come back.
Joshua wasn’t worried. They’d gone to their fancy show. They were eating dinner. They wouldn’t be back before dark. They knew he was waiting for them. This was his punishment.
A man came by the street and lit the gas lamps one by one. The lamps glowed sickly yellow in the dark.
His parents didn’t return. Joshua waited on the strange bed in the strange room.
There was a knock at the door.
Joshua bounded off the bed and smiled. He was ready to forgive his parents. He’d forgiven them the whole ordeal. They’d smile and laugh all the way back home.
Then he stopped in mid stride.
They wouldn’t knock. They’d just come in.
“Joshua Sage?” called a soft voice from the other side of the door.
He felt the warmth go out of him.
The soft voice said, “Joshua Sage it’s the desk clerk. I have some constables with me.”
He remembered the clerk when they checked in. He was a balding man with a beak like nose. There was click as a key turned in the lock. He watched the door swing open. There was the sharp faced clerk. Behind him were two constables in green and red.
Joshua didn’t remember who told him his parents were dead or if anyone told him. No one had to. From the moment he saw the clerk’s face as he walked in, he knew. The clerk had been so terse and business like when he and his parents checked in. But now his face was soft and sad. It was a face that told Joshua the most terrible thing in the world had happened to him.
The constables said some things that he didn’t listen to. Then they took him to the station. They sat him down in a room with a single chair and left him there alone.
He could have sat on that chair in that room forever. Joshua wouldn’t have moved or uttered a word. He would have just sat there with his head down studying the scratches in the floor. But eventually the two constables came and got him.
They took him down the streets and finally left him in a gray building full of shabby sad people; the Charity Shelter.