Gruff

by Lydia Ondrusek


He decided to open the gate and go down into the drainage way despite the grass being so long, or perhaps because of it. The miniature jungle was the most likely draw for the cat. Its sides were deeper than he was tall, forming a concrete river (with its own bridge) and the grass filling it was almost as high as he was.  Up past his waist, anyway. 

Bad maintenance. Dirt or something washed in, was ignored, and the grass took over. He pushed through the green river, late sun beating on his head and making him sweat, counting over the unfairness of it all. He didn’t call, Gruff never came for him anyway.

The city should have mowed it, he thought. Or someone should. They should have put something on it to kill it. When was the last time someone came down here, anyway? There could be a dozen dogs here in the grass, or raccoons, or possums, or anything. They could all be rabid. They could be waiting to jump on him and tear his throat out. He’d stumble up that winding path he’d half fallen down, and collapse in someone’s alleyway, and not be found for days because nobody went in the alleys unless they had to, just like they never went down in the drainage unless their wife’s stupid cat got out the door and took off down the stupid alley into the stupid drainage filled with stupid grass.

Maybe he’d be lucky and a coyote would get Gruff. Although he’d probably be sent out looking every night when he got home till he found some indication of what had happened to his wife’s “baby Gwuff Gwuff”. Or till the thing got hungry and came home.
  
Was that a rat? Gruff would never come home if there were rats here. Rats carried diseases, didn’t they? Plague. Hanta virus. Weren’t they rabid too? A mosquito buzzed near his ear and he slapped at it. West Nile.  Nasty way to go. The city should spray more. They needed to be more careful. It was easy enough to deal with things, you just had to pay attention. He worked hard, paid enough taxes, he shouldn’t have to go down in the stupid drainage after the stupid cat and deal with stupid grass and West Nile mosquitoes.

How could it be this hot? It was the concrete. Even with the grass on. Had to be.  

The walkover bridge between neighborhoods made a dark spot in the distance. The cat would like that, wouldn’t he? Probably all kind of nasty things stupid cats would be interested in under there. He pushed his way through the hot green waves, arrived panting at the edges of the dimness.

He was bent over, catching his breath with his hands on his knees, when he heard the voice. Cool as the shade, female. “I’ve been watching you. Looking for something?” He raised his head, wiped his eyes to clear the sweat.

She was crouched in a sort of ledge nearly above his head, as high as she could get up against the walkway; young, pale. A street person. A teenager? Not too dirty. Runaway? Self-possessed, like a cat.

“Cat,” he said on an exhalation.

She slipped out to where she could stand, extended her hands like a magician. “Not here. A big orange guy came by earlier, but I couldn’t get him to come in. I think I spooked him. You want to come in, cool off? Bright out there.”

His eyes followed her gesture and registered the unmistakable signs that someone, probably the girl, was living under the bridge. A pallet arranged, things piled carefully – the remains of a fire in a cleared area, the meaty smell of something that had been cooked. He wondered what, and pushed the thought away.

He had to ask. “You’re living here? You’re a runaway?” He got closer, tried to speak like a parent, or at least an uncle. “Forget the stupid cat, walk out with me, we can call somebody about you. Let’s get you some help.”  

She laughed, throwing her head back. Closer now, he saw even in the minimal light that crept as far as where they stood that her teeth were large, and pointed; he watched with a kind of frozen fascination as she ran a red, red tongue over them. Eyes as old as forever glinted. “Oh,” she said, “I don’t need any help... well, maybe a little...since you’re here..." She took a step toward him, a teasing feline sort of a bounce, and somehow he managed to turn and run from the shade. From the dark.  He plunged back into sunlit overgrowth, heart pounding, wishing he was one of the invisible small creatures he could now hear all around, scattering and scuttling. More laughter and a shout behind him.  

“I’ll keep an eye out for your cat!” 

When he arrived on his doorstep, Gruff was waiting. Maybe the cat wasn’t so stupid. There were derisive yowls at his amateurish attempts to operate the key, and when the door finally opened Gruff shot in first, grumbling, tail up. Loud crunching came from the kitchen.

There was a note on the entry table. He picked it up. “I think Gruffie must have snuck out when I got home. I’m going to go look for him, I’m terrified he got down into the drainage area.” He stood looking at the note for a long minute. Then he put it down on the table and closed the door.

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