Falling asleep was always the hardest part of the day. Curled on the damp cardboard with my shivering siblings, listening to their stomachs growl, my mind was always whirring with plans and doubts and hopes and dreams. Every night I dreamed the same dream: a white picket fence, clean windows, a door with a shining knob. I saw my sister’s cheeks flushed with joy, my brothers eyes alight with happiness.
Of course, waking up was hell.
My eyes would fly open at the first sliver of gray New York light and I would don the mismatched clothing and large, pitiful eyes. I would sit on the step outside the cafe and make sure to shiver loudly as I clutched the tin can and the scrawled misspelled sign. I watched every day as the shining shoes strode purposefully past me without so much as a pause or hesitating step.
Four, maybe five times a day a pair of feet would stop, turn towards me, and a coin would hit the bottom of the tin can with an empty clank. I made sure to sniff pathetically as I thanked the self-satisfied mouths, and once or twice a week one of them would order me a hot cocoa or a croissant from the café.
Of course, I never ate what they bought me. I would bring it home to Sam and Lily and divide it between us. We practically lived on croissants and bagels, although every Sunday I would count out the coins and buy us some bread and maybe even a toothbrush or a can of soup.
And every night, I dreamed the dream. It broke my heart, that dream. Every night it would raise my hopes, only to dash them like a broken piggy bank when the light of the morning streamed into our cardboard home. And yet, in a way, that dream was all I had. I held onto it, because I knew that the night I stopped dreaming would be the night I gave up.
One morning, a worn pair of practical boots stopped in front of me. I held out the can, expecting to hear the dull ring of metal on metal. Instead, the boots and their owner walked over and sat down next to me on the filthy step. Surprised, I looked over and saw bright eyes peering over a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. A smile appeared on the old man’s face as he sensed my confusion.
“Hello, dear.” He had a soft, crackling voice that reminded me of the leather of his boots. “How long have you been sitting here?” I swallowed, not sure what to do. Hesitating, I answered.
“Since about dawn, I would s-”
“How many years, chéri?” He had a soft French accent.
“’Bout nine years, I guess…” He let out a soft tut.
“Why chéri, that just won’t do!” Standing, he placed a small leather pouch in my lap. “I won’t be needing this much longer, my dear. Why don’t you put it to good use for me, oui?” Unsure, I nodded. He stood and strolled away. I watched him go, forgetting for a time about the pouch resting on my legs. I peeked inside and gasped.
White picket fence, here we come.