There were big days and there were small days and there were bad days and there were good days and I suppose I could pick any one of ’em for my “once upon a time.” But if I’m gonna be truthful—and truthful is something I always aim to be—then really there is only one best place to start this story.
It all started with Ivan.
Once upon a time, it was hot and I was sweaty. It was about five months before my thirteenth birthday, give or take. We were someplace in Oregon. Honestly, I don’t even remember the name of the town, but I know it was on the dry, hot side of the state, away from the ocean. The whole world was so yellow and shining from the beating-down sun that you had to squint no matter where you looked. The blacktop of the gas station parking lot radiated the heat right back up at you so it felt like you were getting cooked from both sides. I suppose most barefoot people would’ve been hooting and hopping with that sizzling asphalt burning the bottoms of their feet, but my soles were used to it and I walked along easy as you please. My T-shirt was stuck with sweat to my back. The braid that hung down nearly to my blue jean belt loops slapped wetly against it as I walked.
The man behind the counter looked at my bare feet and started to say something. “Miss, you can’t—” but I knew where he was going with it before he started. That tyrannical “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service” rule is pretty darn universal in America’s gas station convenience stores. I just waved at him and cut him off. “I know, I know,” I said, and kept walking. “I’ll only be a minute.”
I’d never been in that particular gas station before, but it was exactly the same as every other one, so really I’d been in it a million times. Rows of plastic-wrapped junk food. Walls lined with glass-doored coolers full of pop and beer and flavored iced teas. I walked past the metal racks of beef jerky and candy bars to the pot of gold at the end of my rainbow: the slushy machine.
There it was, humming in the corner next to the coffee dispenser and soda fountain. My mouth started watering as soon as I saw that neon-colored sugar slush swirling around under the big plastic dome.
There was a kid standing in front of it, looking up at the churning slurry with desire written plain and clear across his face. He was seven or eight and staring up at the left flavor, which was an unlikely pinkish color labeled “Wild Watermelon.”
“Big mistake,” I said, walking up next to him and grabbing a cup from the pull-down dispenser.
He jerked his head to look at me.
I nodded with my chin at the slushy he was coveting.
“Watermelon. That’s a no-go. Never waste your time with anything that claims to be watermelon or banana flavored. It’s a scam every time.”
He squinted at me, clearly unconvinced.
“Doesn’t matter anyway,” he said. “My mom already said no.” He threw his head back dramatically. “But I’m so hot.”
I yanked down another cup and held it out to him.
“Here,” I said. “My treat.”
The kid’s face lit up.
“For reals?” he asked.
But then his face dropped again, just as quick.
“But Mom said no. I’ll probably get in trouble.”
I shrugged. “You’re probably gonna get in trouble at some point today anyway. You may as well get a slushy out of it.”
He thought about that for a real short second and then snatched the cup from my hand.
“But I really would think twice about getting watermelon,” I added.
My advice fell on deaf ears, and in a flash he was pulling down the nob and squirting glistening pink slush into his cup.
I filled mine with the other flavor, “Funky Fruit Punch,” which was the superior choice in every respect.
The kid looked me up and down as we walked toward the cashier.
“You’re wearing weird clothes.”
I looked down at my raggedy blue jeans and grease-stained white T-shirt.
“I’m basically wearing the same thing you’re wearing,” I pointed out.
“Exactly,” he said. “And I’m a boy.”
“So boys and girls shouldn’t wear the same thing.”
“Well, then you better change. ’Cause I ain’t.”
He had nothing to say to that, which was probably the right move on his part since I hadn’t paid for his slushy yet.
I ignored the hostile, good-riddance look on the cashier’s face when I paid. Like hot asphalt on bare feet, it was something I was used to.
Me and the kid walked through the jangling door and back out into the heat. The highway hummed not too far off in the distance.
The kid took a big slurping suck on his slushy straw. He swallowed and smacked his lips and nodded.
“Well?” I asked. “How’s the Wild Watermelon?”
He ran his tongue over his lips, considering.
“Sweet,” he said. “Weird. Not really like watermelon at all.”
I nodded and took a suck of my delicious, flavored-as-advertised Funky Fruit Punch.
“Lesson learned, kid. Now you know.”
He looked glumly at the phosphorescent pinkness in his cup.
I sighed. It’s tough, seeing a kid get a bad break.
I held mine out to him.
“Here,” I said. “Trade.”
His eyebrows shot high.
“Sure. I don’t mind it all that much,” I lied. “And you’re the one who’s getting in trouble. Better make it worth it.”
We swapped slushies and I took a sip of Wild Watermelon. He watched for my reaction.
“I think,” I said, “that the flavor designer at the slushy company needs to spend a little more time eating watermelon.” The kid nodded. I tapped my slushy cup against his. “Cheers, kid. Enjoy.”
He said, “Thanks,” and I said, “You’re welcome,” and then he said, “You want a kitten?” and I swallowed a mouthful of syrupy slush and licked my lips and wiped a bit of juice off my chin with my arm and said, “What?”
“You want a kitten?” he repeated. He pointed to where an older boy sat on the curb next to a big cardboard box. “We’re giving ’em away. Want one?”
I looked out at the big, beat-up yellow school bus parked next to one of the gas pumps.
There was no way I’d be allowed to get a cat. It was a no-go for sure. I sighed.
“Well,” I said, “let’s go take a look, at least.”
There were five kittens in that cardboard box, and when I leaned over to look in they all looked up at me with big round eyes and triangle ears and I tell you I was smitten.
“Who’re you?” the older kid asked, and the younger one said, “She bought me a slushy,” and the older kid held out his hand and the younger one handed it over. The older kid took a slurp and smacked his lips and nodded and handed it back. “You wanna kitten?” he asked. They were as brothers as brothers can be, those two.
I eyed the bus again and cocked an eyebrow. He was nowhere to be seen.
“Well, I guess I don’t know yet. It’s complicated.”
Both boys nodded. They had parents. They knew how it was.
“Go ahead, pick one up,” the older boy said. “Take it for a spin.”
I pursed my lips. They were awfully cute, those tiny things with their wispy tails and whiskers. I thought about how I could get away with it.
The kittens mewed up at me, squealing in scratchy little squeaks. That could be a problem.
“Which one’s the quietest one?”
Without a moment’s pause both kids pointed out the smallest one, a gray-and-white-striped puff of fur off by itself a little ways in a corner of the box.
“Something’s wrong with that one,” the younger kid said. “The other ones never shut up. But that one hasn’t made a peep since it was born.”
“Really,” I said, and narrowed my eyes in approval. “She sounds just about right, then.”
“It’s a boy.”
“Check for yourself.”
“No, thanks. I’ll take your word for it.”
I crouched there, looking at that little silent white-and-gray furball.
He looked back at me. He had a very serious look about him. Solemn, even. Like maybe he had it backward and what he thought was happening was him deciding whether or not to pick me. He was not a kitten to be trifled with.
I set my slushy on the curb and reached in and cradled that little thing in my hand as gentle as I could. A hush fell over my whole self when I felt that trembling soul in my big clumsy hand. He was all fragile-feeling bones and feathery fur and racing, frantic heartbeats.
I held him right up to my face. He looked back at me, his eyes huge and ears forward. But he didn’t make a sound. He didn’t meow, didn’t growl, didn’t squeak, didn’t wiggle. We looked deep into each other’s eyes, me and that kitten. My heart got a little bigger with each beat.
I tell you, something changed when that kitten and I looked at each other. Something big. Either something in the universe that had been sitting still for too long started moving again, or something that was moving finally fell still. Either way, it was something.
You see, I’d walked into that gas station alone. And I’d walked out of it alone. Just like I’d walked into and out of gas stations alone every day for, like, years. And maybe, right then and there, holding that kitten, is when I’d just had enough of all that aloneness. It was a quiet moment, and maybe one that anyone watching from outside my heart wouldn’t even have noticed … but I tell you it was a big moment all the same.
The kitten yawned, a jaw-gaping yawn that showed off his sharp needle teeth and scaly gray tongue and a decent percentage of his throat.
“Yeah,” I whispered. “You’re the one, ain’tcha?”
“So you want ’im?”
“Yeah,” I answered through a little smile that was just growing on my face. “Yeah, I want him.”
It was about the truest thing I ever said.
Now, I knew I’d never get permission to keep the warm little ball of perfection I was holding in my hands. It was a “no” without a doubt, and I knew it.
I knew he wouldn’t be happy when he found out. But I also knew that the thing he was always saying was “wherever your heart wants to go, go there and don’t look back.” And where my heart wanted to go was definitely looking back at me with eyes that were bluer than a Blue Razberry slushy.
“Who’s that weirdo?” the younger kid asked his brother, and even though I was still stuck in a love-at-first-yawn eye lock with the kitten, I didn’t have to look to know who they were talking about. I glanced over my shoulder anyway, ’cause I now had a contraband kitten to keep concealed.
There he was, in all his glory.
Brown jeans with more hole than jean. No shirt, no shoes—there is no doubt he would get no service. Skinny, with bony shoulders and ribs poking out all over the place. Long, shaggy hair pulled back with a bandanna. A big, bushy beard that hung down almost to his collarbones. He was scraping all the bug corpses off the bus’s windshield with the little squeegee on a stick that gas stations keep by the pumps, and he was half-dancing and whistling while he did it. He looked totally Funky Fruit Punch. Which he was, so … again, flavored-as-advertised.
“That,” I answered, lowering the kitten to my belly to keep him out of sight, “is Rodeo.” Both kids squinted up at me. “He’s my dad,” I added.
“That dude’s your dad?”
“Yep.” I lowered my face and my voice and whispered, “But don’t tell him that, okay?”
Both boys nodded with their serious, syrup-stained faces. They were the kind you could trust, those brothers.
I looked back at the bus, that kitten pressed up against my T-shirt. Rodeo was doing his cleaning shuffle all around the front of the bus. If I was gonna make this kitten-in-my-hand a kitten-in-my-bus, I was gonna need help.
I looked at the little kid, who was sucking hard at his slushy and still eyeballing Rodeo.
“Could you do me a solid, kid?” He scrunched up his eyebrows at me. “A favor,” I explained, and he nodded.
“You see those back windows on the bus with the curtains that got stars on ’em?”
“That’s my room. I need you to—”
“That’s your room? Like, your room room?”
“You live on that bus?”
“I never knew no one who lived on an old school bus.”
“Well, you can’t say that anymore, can you?” I handed the kitten over to him, gentle as could be. “Here’s the deal. Ain’t no way Rodeo is gonna say yes to this kitten. Yet, anyway. So I’m gonna go ahead and get on and go to my room. Meet me with the kitten at my window on the other side in like a minute. Okay?”
The kid looked at his brother. His brother shrugged and nodded, the kid looked back at me.
“So me and you both are gonna get in trouble today, huh?”
I grinned at him.
“Guess so. But heck, if kittens and slushies aren’t worth getting in trouble for, what in the world is?” I grabbed my sunglasses from where they were hanging off my T-shirt collar. They were big, huge round brown things with thick plastic frames. One dollar at a New Mexico flea market, and worth every penny. I slid them on, turning the lights down on the world. “You ready?”
I sauntered up to the bus, sipping at my watermelon slushy like I didn’t have a care in the world.
Rodeo looked over at me when I swung open the accordion door. He was scraping at a grasshopper leg with his thumbnail, his tongue out in concentration.
“No bananas?” he asked.
“No, sir,” I said with a little salute, though to be truthful I hadn’t remembered to look.
“Well, shoot,” Rodeo said, and then flashed me that toothy smile that I could never help but smile back at. “On to the next stop, then.”
I shot him a hand pistol and climbed up the stairs into the bus, all casual and slow. I walked past the rows of seats and Rodeo’s little bed and then on through our living room, past the bookshelves bolted to the wall and the couch bolted to the floor and the garden of plants growing in planters bolted under a window. Through the windows I saw the kid walking toward the back of the bus, his hand covering a little lump under his shirt, his walk as easy and smooth as my own. He didn’t even look in Rodeo’s direction. He was a natural, that kid.
I pushed through the curtains into my room. It was hot and stuffy back there, but once we got rolling it’d cool down. I went straight to the window and pulled the curtain to the side. There was the kid, looking up at me with his mouth open and his hands full of kitten.
I pinched the latches with both hands and slid the window down with as quiet a clunk as I could manage. The kid reached up and held the kitten high. It hung limp in his hand.
“Huh,” I said. Even with me leaning out the window, the kitten was still a couple feet below my hand. “Hold on a sec.”
I ducked back inside and looked around. I pulled my old straw cowboy hat off the hook on the wall and shook my jacket off a wire hanger and then flattened the hanger out straight. The hat had a long braided chin strap and I hooked the hanger through it, then lowered the whole thing out the window.
“Go ahead and put him in the hat,” I hissed, and the kid did. Careful as I could, I pulled the hat up, kitten and all. In a jiffy I had that kitten in my hands. He looked up at me as content as can be, like riding a cowboy-hat elevator up into a school bus was just a part of his daily routine. I was liking that cat more and more every second, and I’d liked him a whole heckuva lot to begin with.
I stuck my head back out the window.
“Thanks for the slushy,” the kid said.
“You’re welcome. Thanks for the kitten.”
The kid shrugged, which I thought was appropriate.
I heard the bus door squeak and shudder closed. A second later that big ol’ diesel engine fired up and shook my room with its rumble. The kid took a step back.
“Well, see ya, kid,” I said.
“See ya,” he said, and walked away around the back of the bus.
There was a big box of books by my bed and I tipped it over, dumping the books onto the floor. I sat the box between my bolted-in shelf and my bolted-in bedside table and set the kitten down inside. He looked awful small and lonely in there. So I folded up an old T-shirt and stuck that and a little stuffed dinosaur in there with him. He sniffed the dinosaur, looked up at me, and then laid down with a little plop.
I looked at the pile of books on the floor next to the box, and the shiny gold title of my favorite one caught my eye: The One and Only Ivan. It was a sign for sure.
“Perfect,” I said. I reached down and scratched the kitten’s head with one fingernail. He closed his eyes, leaning into it. “Ivan,” I whispered. “That’s your name. Ivan. Whether you like it or not. But I hope you like it.”
Ivan sure didn’t look like he minded it.
“Now, I gotta make sure Rodeo doesn’t get suspicious,” I said. “Stay put.”
Rodeo had gotten up into the driver’s seat by then. He slid his own sunglasses on and tossed a handful of sunflower seeds into his mouth, shells and all. I knelt on the seat behind him and leaned over his shoulder.
“Ready to roll, Coyote?” he asked me.
“Ready as rain,” I answered with a grin. “Where we going?”
He disengaged the parking brake and flicked on the radio. Freaky hippie electric guitar wailed out of the speakers.
“Only one way to find out,” he said. He slapped the dusty dashboard of the bus and shouted, “You ready, Yager?” He gunned the gas pedal, making that old bus engine roar, and then he popped the clutch and we started forward with a jerk. His head bobbed to the music and his lips pursed as he worked on tonguing those seeds out of their shells. “Give me a howl, Coyote!” he hollered through his mouthful of seeds.
I threw my head back and howled, a high and happy coyote wail that echoed off the riveted metal roof. I hoped Ivan would hear me and know I was still there. And I hoped like heck he kept his mouth shut and didn’t try to howl back.
All the front windows were open and the air started moving around, fluttering the pages of books and cooling us down. I lowered my head and saw the two kids out the window, sitting on the curb next to a box that was one kitten short. They were both looking at me with curious wrinkles on their forehead. The little one was back to sucking on his—my—Funky Fruit Punch slushy.
I shrugged at them—the most fitting gesture, I thought—and threw them a big wave. They waved back, in unison. Good kids, those two. The kind of kids you almost wouldn’t mind seeing again.
We pulled out onto the highway and the engine growled as it struggled up to speed. The black ribbon of road stretched out forever before us, just like it always did. I took a sip of my slushy and nodded my head along with Rodeo’s to the beat of the music.
I had a kitten. Which definitely meant I had a problem.
But, heck. I already had problems. And now I also had Ivan.
And that sure seemed like an improvement either way.
Copyright © 2019 by Dan Gemeinhart