itâs so good of you to come. This is Aaron.â
âI prefer Buster,â he said pleasantly, and held out one hand. The glove was stained but not completely filthy.
âBuster, then. And Gwen. Iâm Mia.â
âPlease, wonât you come with us? Buster can tell you his whole story in the shelter where itâs warm. When my replacement arrives, Iâll be happy to take you back home as I promised.â
That had been a selling pointâshe didnât have to ride the subway back home with a cat. Everything else connected to this trip was insanity. âThat was very kind of you.â
âCome on, Arthur,â Gwen called. âBring your earnings and put them in safekeeping for the night.â
Arthur rose from his seat on the concrete, a lanky grasshopper unfolding angled legs. He was all knees and height when he stood, and not much older than Buster, perhaps thirty-five or forty. He tipped a worn baseball cap at Mia. âSorry âbout sayinâ I had a child.â
âWell, you fooled me once,â she said lightly. âWonât happen again.â
They headed down the sidewalk and turned at the corner, a nippy breeze greeting them with a quick little blast.
âHow is my little dude Rory?â Buster asked, switching his hold on the box to two hands and pulling it close to his chest. âI miss him.â
âHeâs going to be all right,â Mia said. âHe talks a lot about you. You two must have had quite an adventure.â
âHeâs a smart kid. We lived pretty good out here, but I knew he couldnât stay. I just had to convince him it was better to go live in a house where it was safe.â
âGlad you did. Is that Jack there?â
âHa, man, datâs Jack in the Box!â Arthur hooted at his own joke.
âIt is,â Buster acknowledged. âI didnât want to leave him alone. Everybody loves Jack. Someone would take him.â
âDo a lot of your friends have pets out here?â Mia asked.
âSome. A couple have dogs. Not too many have cats; they get too wild living out here. Jack is different.â
âI remember him as a kitten. As I recall, heâs a gorgeous cat.â
âThat he is. Rory grabbed him from the house when his mom got in trouble, but then he wasnât allowed to bring him to the foster home. I never saw a little kid work so hard not to cry. Thatâs when I said Iâd keep Jack safe until Rory could have him.â
âAnd now you canât keep him either,â Mia finished.
âIt would be hard.â
They reached the front of St. Sebastianâs; a red sandstone building next to a church, it was caked in the dust and grime of a dilapidated Brooklyn neighborhood but nonetheless wore a dignified air. The instant Gwen opened the door, warmth, light, music, and the lingering aroma of warm bread banished the cold unfriendliness of the street.
âWelcome to St. Sebastianâs Shelter,â said Gwen. âWe serve over two hundred meals a day and up to a thousand on holidays. In the winter we can bunk up to a hundred people easily and up to two hundred in an emergency. We have few real amenities aside from cots, sleeping mats, heat, and food. We have toilets and very minimal showering facilities. Our most prized possession is a fairly new jukebox, which visitors can use until ten thirty every day. Itâs quite popular, as you can hear.â
Mia didnât recognize the rap song playing. It was far out of her limited repertoire of favorite artists.
âWe try to keep current music for them. There are all genres. You could very well hear Miranda Lambert next and Green Day after that. Nothing offensive, but otherwise we donât discriminate.â She smiled. âWe sneak a few hymns in there too. They get played on occasion. Come on in. We can talk in the small office off the kitchen.
J. Aislynn d' Merricksson