For days Joshua wandered the halls, not caring who he bumped into. In the evenings he ate his gruel and rock hard bread. At nights he slept on a ratty mattress in a long hall with dozens of others, men, women, children.
One day he trudged towards the kitchen for the night’s gruel when he saw someone curled up in the corner behind the mattresses. It was a girl so tiny that sitting there with her knees tucked to her chin she was the same size as a pillow. The girl stayed in the corner and didn’t move. The gray attendants served the evening meal only once. If she missed it, she’d spend the night hungry. A little voice inside Joshua, one that sounded like his mother, told him to go over and talk to her.
He tapped her on the shoulder and said, “It’s time to eat.”
The girl looked up at him. She was so much younger than he, no more than five or six.
“What?” she asked.
“You have to go if you want to eat.”
The girl looked at the hallway as if it contained a monster waiting to gobble her up. She shook her head.
He held out his hand.
“Come on. It’ll be all right.”
The girl grasped his hand tightly. Her eyes were a little less sad.
“Thank you,” she said.
And for the first time in days, Joshua was a little less sad and a little less numb. He even managed a smile as he walked with the girl to the dining hall.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Dina. Dina Sprout.”
From that day on, Joshua watched over Dina while they stayed in the shelter. She slept next to him at night and stayed right at his hip during the day. Watching over her became his purpose.
Dina told him her mother had worked in a sewing factory in Rustington until she got sick. When she died, their landlord took her to the shelter and left her there.
A few weeks after he met Dina, Joshua spotted a plump girl about his age who led two round little boys around the sleeping hall. The girl searched for a spot to lie down. He waved her over.
“There’s some space here in the corner.”
The girl grabbed his hand tightly.
“Thank you. I’m Lucinda. Lucinda Quince these are my cousins the Beans.”
The two boys panted, as if the walk across the floor had tired them out.
“Ollie,” wheezed one.
“Rollie,” gasped the other.
Joshua introduced himself and Dina and they all sat down in the corner.
Lucinda’s parents had died in the floods when she was little. After that she lived with the Ollie and Rollie’s parents until they were arrested, convicted and shipped across the ocean.
And so they became five; five in their own little corner of the shelter. Lucinda kept things nice and organized. She had them eat in shifts so no one could steal what little they had. Those eating would hold the bread and the gruel bowls for those watching. The attendants never counted heads, just soup bowls. She also had them play games during the day to keep them busy and get them some exercise. One day they played tag near the storeroom and knocked over some bags of meal. The bags didn’t break and none of the grain was lost but the attendants still sent them out of the shelter and onto the streets.
As they walked, Lucinda broke down and cried. She’d been “it” when the bags toppled over.
Joshua put an arm around her.
He reassured her, “It wasn’t your fault.”
“Quite right,” piped a voice behind them.
They turned around and saw they were now six. A tall thin boy with a wild shock of hair was following them step for step.
The boy introduced himself as Heathcliff Pucker.
Joshua asked, “Do you know what we were talking about?”
“Not really,” Heathcliff said with a smile.
“Then how do you know it wasn’t really Lucinda’s fault?”
“You have an honest face. I didn’t think you lied. So where are we off to next?”
Joshua’s mouth lay open for a few moments while his brain tried to catch up. He felt a tug at his sleeve and looked down at Dina.
“I really like him,” she said.
And with her approval, they were officially six. Soon they found the alley in Dreamer’s Garden and made their home.
Home, thought Joshua now sitting in the precinct house.
Yes that’s home now. Home is where they are; Dina, Lucinda, the twins and Heathcliff. Not the house in the country with the meadows and fields. That little alley with boxes and quilts. That’s the only home I have left.
He longed to return home.