Protagonize Winter Challenge entry
The contest has concluded, feel free to rate if the urge takes you. Comments, as always, are welcome - rating accompanied or not :)
The rattle of the shopping cart as it was wheeled down the alley was amplified by the foul-smelling walls looming over the scene. The few feet which separated their filthy surfaces was sprinkled with sticky shards of glass from discarded bottles, abandoned bags of trash, and sheets of newspaper were tossed about like urban tumbleweed by sporadic gusts of wind. The brickwork was stained by human fluids of every variety and even the stray cats of the city avoided this particular stretch of land.
It was through this space that Ellie May Harper pushed the shopping cart which brimmed with all of her worldly goods. She had been a ‘resident of the streets’, as she liked to call her homeless state, for almost half of her fifty-one years and had gathered quite a collection of knick knacks in that time. Oh sure, she had lost a few here and there, had others stolen on occasion, but she made sure the important things never got away.
Her prized possessions, which included a completed colouring book that her daughter had given her before the foster care people had taken her away, were hidden at the bottom of the cart, wrapped in her winter jacket, between a thin blanket and her single change of clothes.
As she approached the end of the alley and the steady flow of pedestrians who occupied it, she whistled a tune whose name was lost to memory.
* * *
Jennifer Sweeney was having a very good day.
The sun was shining down between fluffy white clouds, her mother had put her cell phone away for the afternoon and was actually, really listening to her, and Grade 4 was starting the following week. That was the highest grade in her school and she was very much looking forward to not having to put up with any older kids for a whole year.
But best of all her announcement that morning that she was too old, and far too mature, to be called ‘Jenny’ any more had met with complete acceptance. No arguments had been required and her father had decided such a milestone deserved a doubling of her allowance!
From now on she would be called ‘Jennifer’ and she would receive three dollars in spending money each week.
She skipped along beside her mother, a plastic bag filled with school supplies swinging wildly from her left hand and the three quarters which remained of her allowance jingling in her pocket. Jennifer told her all about her plans for the school year and life and shared any opinions she might have on any fellow shoppers her blue eyes happened to land on. They were on their way to the salon for Jennifer to get her hair trimmed so that she would look her best on the first day back.
Afterward they were going for ice cream and she had every intention of using her remaining money to upgrade to a triple scoop.
* * *
Ellie May manoeuvred her cart between the shoppers, doing her best to avoid disturbing them. She still earned many scowls and more than a few snide remarks, but she did what she could and kept on whistling. She had suffered much worse abuse in recent years and besides, it was a beautiful day. She didn’t see any good reason to let them ruin it for her.
She came to a stop at the busy intersection at the end of the block and waited for the light to return to green.
* * *
Jennifer and her mother arrived at the intersection and came to a stop next to a homeless woman. Jennifer smiled up at the funny looking woman with the wild grey hair and a wobbly shopping cart but before the small gesture could be returned her mother pulled her away to a safer distance. Jennifer turned to ask her mother what was wrong but her eyes were set straight ahead and her mouth had formed that thin line that meant there would be no discussion on the matter.
Jennifer frowned before turning back to the woman who was whistling a tune that seemed familiar. She knew she had heard it before but couldn’t quite place it. In a fit of disobedience she twisted her body so that her left hand was hidden from her mother and waved frantically.
* * *
Ellie May saw the little blonde-haired girl waving at her and gave her a small wave in return, her crooked teeth peering out between dry lips as she smiled. The little girl laughed brightly before being yanked back towards her mother.
She looked nothing like her own daughter, but Ellie May’s thoughts turned to her nonetheless.
* * *
Jennifer’s shoulder hurt from her mother spinning her around but she didn’t cry. She was much too old and mature to cry. Jenny would have let the tears flow, perhaps made a scene, but not Jennifer.
The light turned green and they stepped onto the crosswalk, Jennifer looking back at the still smiling woman.
* * *
Ellie May couldn’t have told you why her head turned to the left as she pushed her cart out onto the crosswalk. Maybe she was absent-mindedly stretching her neck. Or she might have spotted movement out of the corner of her eye. Or, however unlikely with her deteriorating hearing, she heard the truck coming.
Regardless of the reason, she did turn. And then she sprang into action, her legs carrying her forward as though the muscles had travelled back in time to her youth, back to her days on the high school soccer team.
* * *
Turning away from the woman with the cart, Jennifer saw the truck before her mother did. Fear locked her legs in place and her mother was jerked to a halt just in front of her. As she opened her mouth to scold her daughter she too saw the blue vehicle speeding through the red light towards them, the driver’s head tilted to the right as he spoke into his phone.
With a strangled cry she pulled once again on Jennifer. But the summer heat had made both of their hands slick with sweat and she stumbled forward holding only empty air. Jennifer and her mother both squeezed their eyes shut and waited for the impact.
* * *
Ellie May slammed the front end of her cart into the little girl’s side with all her might, sending her tumbling forward to land in a heap at her mother's feet.
She had no time to close her eyes before the impact.
But she did have time to smile.
* * *
The nice police officer told Jennifer that the homeless woman did not suffer before she died. But when asked to explain why she had done it, why she had sacrificed herself for a girl she didn't know, he could offer no reply.