At the Gates

Note: This is a YA short story.

At the Gates – Excerpt

1. Monday

Grace heard the whimpering before she saw the dog.

She was on her way home from school, hands shoved deep into her jacket pockets, head hunched down, watching the pavement. Her iPod buds were in her ears–it made people leave her alone–but the music wasn’t playing. She’d forgotten to charge the iPod last night, and it was out of power. It had cut out half-way through ‘Welcome to the Black Parade’, leaving her ears ringing with the silence.

If it hadn’t been out of power, she would never have heard the dog. And if she hadn’t heard the dog, everything would have been different.

The whimpering was coming from the alley. High, close walls of Victorian brick enclosed the alley in deep shadow. Most people would have hurried past, but Grace had never been able to turn away from an animal in distress.

Her mum would kill her if she brought another dog home. But what else could she do? It wasn’t like she could leave it there.

There had been a time when her mum wouldn’t have minded, when her mum would have even come out and helped Grace carry the dog in. Found a blanket, warm milk. Would have sat up half the night. Before. That was how Grace thought of that time. Just, ‘Before.’

Taking a quick look around, Grace stepped into the mouth of the alley. The shadows closed in, like black cobwebs drifting down. She shivered.

Jeez, Grace. Still afraid of the dark?

You bet.

She dropped down into a crouch and held out the back of her hand for the dog to sniff. If it was hurt or frightened, it might snap to protect itself.

The dog was huddled against a bin, wrapped up like an old, balled blanket. If it hadn’t been for the whimpering, Grace wouldn’t have even recognised it as a dog.

“Come on, old thing. I won’t hurt you.”

The dog turned its head to look at her. The whites of its eyes were sharp in the darkness.

“You really are a poor old mutt, aren’t you?” Grace said, keeping her voice soft.

Its coat was matted and dirty. In places, its skin was bare. If it had been clean, Grace reckoned it would have been white and brown, but that the moment, and in the poor light, it was a near-uniform grey. The dog whimpered again, then stretched out its muzzle towards her.

“Good girl.”

No collar.

The dog licked Grace’s hand with a dry tongue.

“So,” she said, “will you follow me, or do I carry you?”

#

Her mum wasn’t in, and neither, thank God, was Malcolm. But Sean was running wild with little Craig from across the street. She bumped the door closed behind her with her hip. Two eight-year-olds let loose and uncontrolled. Perfect.

The headache that had settled behind her eyes after she’d left the alley thumped once, like a giant heart.

“What the hell are you two doing?” she snapped.

The two boys stopped in mid-shriek. Craig’s eyes widened.

“You’ve got a dog.”

Grace shifted the poor beast in her arms. “You don’t say.”

“You have,” Craig said, excitement pitching up his voice.

“Mum’s going to kill you,” Sean said.

“No, she’s not,” Grace said. “Because you’re not going to tell her. Okay?”

“She’s going to kill you.”

Grace pushed past the boys. They parted.

(Like dry bones under iron wheels).

She stumbled. Where the hell had that come from? She didn’t feel well.

She would put the dog in her bedroom with a bowl of water and something to eat. Rice. She’d heard that was good for sick dogs, and this dog was really sick. She was shivering in Grace’s arms, and her skin moved loosely over her bones.

“I’m going to call you Hope,” Grace whispered in the dog’s ear.

“You better go and see Mr. Uri,” Sean called.

Grace closed her eyes. “Why?”

“Because he hasn’t paid his rent. Again. Malcolm’s getting mad.”

“And he’s making smells,” Craig added.

She heard their footsteps slap on floorboards.

“Don’t go outside,” she shouted, to the sound of the slamming door.

#

Craig had been right about the smell. The corridor stank of boiled vegetables, or worse, boiling laundry. Between the smell and the headache that was still swelling behind her eyes with every pace, Grace felt sick.

Mr. Uri was her mother’s tenant. Somehow, they’d inherited him with the house when her mum had bought it. Grace didn’t really understand how that had worked. She’d only been a kid when they’d moved here. But she did know it had made the house cheap enough for her mum when they couldn’t afford anywhere else. That had been ‘Before’. Before Malcolm and before his money. Grace was glad. Mr. Uri was the best thing about living here. Sometimes she thought he was the only good thing.

She stopped outside Mr. Uri’s door. The smell here was atrocious. If Mr. Uri was cooking in his rooms again, Mum would have a fit.

She laid a palm on the hard wood of the door. She could feel the rough grain against her skin. Her nerve endings seemed hypersensitive. Fever, she thought, and hoped she was wrong.

There was a virus going around school. Half her friends had come down with it. She had almost hoped Dean would catch it so she could have an excuse to go around and nurse him, but no such luck. She’d been sure she hadn’t got it, though. She never got the flu. And the last thing she needed right now was

(…bodies choking on swollen tongues…)

to be sick. God!

She let out a breath. She was not going to give in to this virus.

“Mr. Uri?” she called gently.

No answer. She hadn’t really expected it.

She rapped.

Still no answer. She smiled. Here we go.

She tried the handle, and of course it was open. He’d told her that he never worried about burglars. “What can they take that I haven’t already lost?” he’d said. But she knew he really left the door unlocked so that she could come right on in.

She pushed the door open and stepped through.

The window was open. Bright late-afternoon sunlight slipped between the swaying curtains. Grace could hear birdsong from somewhere outside, but she didn’t know where; there were no trees in this street, no parks nearby. Mr. Uri sat in his armchair, head resting on the wing. He was dozing, and snoring slightly. His thin white hair haloed his wrinkled scalp in the sunlight.

Funny. There was no smell in here. It must have been something else. Not the drains, she hoped. God, how she hoped. She’d be up to her shoulders in them before Malcolm would even consider calling a plumber. Good for her character, Malcolm would say, but Grace knew he was just tight.

She crouched in front of Mr. Uri and took his frail hand.

“Mr. Uri?”

He let out one final, shivering snore, and then blinked at her.

“You were sleeping, Mr. Uri.”

He smiled. His smile always made him seem far more frail, like he was a shed skin held up only by memory.

“I had just closed my eyes. To enjoy the silence.”

Grace backed up and seated herself in the chair opposite. Mr. Uri frowned. “You look pale.”

“Maybe a virus.”

He shook his head. Whenever he did that, she found herself worrying absurdly that his head would come tumbling off and she would have to catch it.

“You should be in bed, not visiting old men.” He laughed. It sounded more like a dry cough.

“It’s Monday,” Grace said. “You forgot your rent.”

He straightened slightly, a dry stick unbending. “Not at all. It is on the table.” He gestured, shaking.

“Admit it,” Grace said. “You only forget so I have to come and fetch it.”

Mr. Uri looked away. “An old man gets lonely here.”

She leaned forward and took his hand again. “I know.”

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