The boy was by the stove hunched over on the ancient plastic and chrome kitchen chair that had been there when she had bought the house. He didn’t look up when she creaked down in the sat-out wicker chair that not even the cat would sleep in because the ends of the broken wicker poked it. The fire was about down to coals so in the dark she couldn’t see much more than a kind of red-splashed stoic face that she didn’t recognize.
“There’s more wood behind you,” she said. “It just needs to be sawed up. That little red bow saw hanging on a nail behind the stove is what I use. I don’t usually cut up the limbs until I need to. Sign of old age, I guess. Save energy. Dunno what for.”
It was a while before the boy moved and even then he didn’t look at her, just slowly took down the saw and sawed up some stove lengths. He handled the saw well and cut with even pulses, so she deduced he wasn’t hurt or sick. Physically. He loaded the stove.
“When I checked a bit ago, the temp was near zero. Too damn cold to suit me.” The cat had showed up by now and when the boy sat back down, leapt into his lap to soak up heat from the fire safely. The boy slid his hand over its fur carefully. He was not aggressive or angry. But he still didn’t say anything. They sat in silence for quite a while until the new wood had burned down to coals.
“You hungry?” she asked. He nodded. “Come on then.” He brought the cat, held against his shoulder gently as though it were an infant.
In the kitchen she opened a can of clam chowder and heated it in the microwave, gave herself a little bit and the rest to the boy. Opened another can of catfood and gave the begging cat a spoonful. Made toast. Milk. Instant coffee (weak) for herself. Watched the boy eat hastily but neatly, slowing down by the third slice of toast with jam. He still said nothing.
“Will you sleep on my couch for the night?” He nodded. She went to fetch a pillow and comforter but he had gone to sleep before she returned, so she had to raise his head to push the pillow under. When she spread the comforter over him, he sighed and turned on his side. The cat joined him in the crook of his knees. She didn’t turn down the thermostat as she usually did to save on the gas bill.
She read in bed for quite a while before her head was quiet enough to sleep. At first light, which came late this time of year, she checked on the boy, who was still deeply asleep. His face was towards her and it seemed almost familiar. She stood looking at him, seeing that his eyes were moving under their lids and wondering what dreams he was watching. He was a good-looking boy with a tender mouth and hair falling across his forehead -- so many of them were like that. His ear, a delicate whorl, had a small gold ring in the lobe. The box boy at her grocery store had big black plugs in both ears and a lot of barbed wire tattooed around his neck. “All boys are partly aboriginal,” she thought, meaning African rather than Canadian Indian, resisting the impulse to brush back his forelock. “All boys are partly wild pony.”
And then she thought about why a boy would just occupy her garage without asking. It was nearly Christmas -- maybe a garage was like a stable.
By the time the cat had followed her back to the kitchen, she had figured out who he was. Jake, son of Luke, who had been her student in school. She was eighty by now, so Luke must be seventy-something. He had been in her earliest classes. Jake was kind of a late baby. She couldn’t remember his mother.
The cat was fed and settled in the window. She read the paper slowly, turning pages as silently as she could, then got dressed and brought her book to the table. It was noon before Luke appeared in the doorway, looking flushed and a little confused, leaning on the door frame.
“Good morning, Luke. Some coffee?” The coffee maker was on the counter. He nodded. Saw the waiting mug. Poured himself the coffee and sat at the table.
“You know my name,” he said.
“Yup. Finally figured it out.”
“Thank you for letting me stay.”
“You’re quite welcome. Toast? Egg?”
“How is your father?”
She was taken aback. She hadn’t heard anything about it. “When did that happen?”
It took a while to sort out the sequence of events. Jake had gone home from whatever he’d been doing and found his father dead on the floor. He hadn’t called anyone and no one else lived there. Presumably his father was STILL dead on the floor. In shock, Jake had walked out the door, down the street, recognized her house from visiting a few times years earlier with his father, and pushed into the garage. He was afraid, wanting to hide. When he had begun to shake from the cold, he had struck a match to the wood already arranged in the stove. Then she had come.
So now it remained to understand what to do and in what sequence. “They might think I killed him.”
“It won’t look good that you didn’t call right away, but we can’t make it look better by waiting any longer.”
“I don’t know what killed him.” She didn't even consider the possibility that the boy had harmed his father.
“Had he been ill or depressed? No blood? No empty pill bottle?”
“Nothing. Just dead on the floor.”
She debated with herself whether to go to the next question. “What about your mother, Jake?”
He laughed a little twisted sound. “Took off long ago. Dunno where she is.”
“Other relatives who can come and be with you?”
“It was just me and dad. And now he’s dead.”
She got up. “I’ll call the police and go with you to meet them at the house.”
The beat cop who met them had also been a student of hers. He was solid and calm. He’d seen such things many times. Now and then people just died. Heart, maybe. Jake sat in a chair, but not his father’s habitual chair, lost in this unreal new world. He didn’t look at his father’s body. Without sound, tears drenched his face.
The coroner came and they turned Luke over. There were no signs or clues -- he was just dead on the floor. Leaving Luke paralyzed, she walked through the house, not knowing what she was looking for. People just fall down dead. It happens. Everything was normal, dishes done, beds made, television off. No signs of struggle. An orderly, trustworthy life. Until now.
“I should have died with him,” said Jake. She didn’t argue. In a way, he had, but now he would be reborn in some new identity. He would belong to other people, mostly strangers at first, and be guided through a lot of questions and protocols about guardians (he was still young but possibly old enough to be declared emancipated), about property and income, how he saw his future. Of course, he didn’t see any future at all now, but it would come, ready or not, the same as his father’s death had come.
When they had carried Luke away, she said, “Get some clothes. You can stay with me for a few days.” He didn’t argue.
She thought what a gift it was to be useful and protective, even in old age. And she thought what a pity to live longer than her student, but it wasn’t the first time.