By Dean Lappi
Val shifted for the hundredth time on the frozen cardboard floor of the refrigerator box that was home. No matter what position he tried, the pain deep inside his stomach remained. He knew what the pain meant. He had watched his wife die from cancer fifteen years earlier.
He listened to the sounds of the city at night, sounds that had filled his life for so long. The wind blew in gusts, muffling the occasional honk of a taxi horn in the distance, or the drone of a passing car or truck on the overpass above him.
Val shivered as a gust of frigid air buffeted the cardboard walls of his home. His sleeping bag had been high-quality when he’d had it donated to him, but now it was ragged and couldn’t keep him fully warm, especially not in weather like this. He had made it through fifteen Chicago winters living outside, and he hated the cold. But he had witnessed too many friends freeze to death when the temperatures dropped as low as they were now.
Footsteps approached, the unique cadence—step…slide…step…slide—telling him it was Meredith. She had shattered three bones in her leg long ago and had never gotten it taken care of by a doctor, so it had healed at a sharp angle, making it impossible for her to use it. She tapped the cardboard and he pushed the flap up to let her squeeze inside, the blast of cold air taking his breath away before he could close it again. He unzipped the sleeping bag, held it open and Meredith crawled inside, pressing hard against him.
Val reached around her and pulled the zipper up around them both. It was an adventure-style sleeping bag made for winter temperatures down to minus 20F, so it fully enclosed their heads, leaving a small hole for air to enter. He reached out and hugged Meredith tightly as she shivered uncontrollably. He whispered softly, “You’ll be alright. You’ll be alright. I’m here. You’ll be alright.”
He had asked Meredith to join him tonight during the early evening hours, when the temperature had already begun to rapidly plummet. He knew it would likely drop to 30 below tonight, but she was a proud woman, and as tough as they came. She had smiled and touched his face, “You are a kind soul, Val, but I’ll be just fine.” But Val knew that the four blankets she had were not enough to keep her warm against such dangerously low temps.
He pulled his mittens off, then hers. Her fingers were ice cold, so he pushed them down inside his pants until they rested against his inner thighs, the cold shocking him.
Meredith tried to pull them out with a weak protest, but Val shushed her quietly, “This is the warmest part of my body. You need to warm your fingers or you could lose them to frostbite.”
She sighed, then nodded and flattened her hands against his skin. He closed his legs, enveloping her hands with warmth.
After fifteen minutes, Meredith had stopped shivering, and her hands had finally warmed up somewhat. She snuggled closer to Val and whispered, “You were right about the cold, Val. Thanks for inviting me in.”
He smiled in the darkness. “You can stay here as long as you need, but I think you should go to a shelter tomorrow, at least for a few days until it warms up outside again.”
Meredith didn’t say anything, and he knew she wouldn’t respond to his request. She had been living on the street for as long as him, and like himself, her demons would keep her out here.
She leaned forward and kissed his cheek. “You know what day it is?”
“I have absolutely no idea.”
Meredith chuckled, “Just like a man to forget. It’s Valentine’s Day, Val.”
Val smiled. He knew it was Valentine’s Day. And Meredith knew that he hadn’t forgotten the day. It was a ritual they performed every year.
She snuggled closer. “I have a present for you.”
“But I didn’t get you anything, Meredith.”
Her hand slid up his thigh but stopped just short of his private area. “Do you want your present?”
Meredith’s husband had killed their daughter Annie, and had raped and left Meredith for dead. She had spent a month in the hospital, but her mind could not heal, so she had come to live on the street and had been here ever since. Just the thought of sex was a horror to her. So, her offer to Val every Valentine’s Day showed her love for him beyond what he deserved.
Val solemnly gave her the same answer he gave her every Valentine’s Day, “Not this year, dear Meredith. But maybe next year?”
She snuggled closer to him, taking her hands out of his pants and laying her head against his chest. Her voice softly filled the sleeping bag, “Thank you, Val.”
He kissed the top of her head and held her tightly. “Happy Valentine’s Day, dear.”
They both settled into a comfortable sleep, each keeping the other warm.
In the morning, Val awakened to her cold and stiff body next to his. She had been having severe headaches, along with bouts of double vision, a sign of a tumor or aneurysm in her brain. Val had asked to take her to the hospital once, but she had said no. Now it was too late.
Val closed his eyes tightly against the tears that welled up. He softly stroked her hair and kissed her head. “Goodbye, dear Meredith. Please give Annie a hug for me.”
He held Meredith for most of the morning, then unzipped the sleeping bag and crawled out of his box. He struggled to his feet, swaying a few moments before getting his balance. Val tilted his head back and closed his eyes to the bright sun, his nose going numb in seconds from the extreme cold. Straightening his shoulders, he walked to the nearest street corner and hailed a taxi. Surprised when one actually stopped, he climbed into the back seat and handed a crumpled twenty-dollar bill to the driver. “Please take me to the hospital.”
He looked out the dirty window to get one final glance at his cardboard home where Meredith lay before the taxi sped away. He would call the police from the hospital to report her passing.
Val leaned his head against the seat with a sigh, then closed his eyes and whispered, “I’ll see you soon, Meredith, but hopefully just not yet.”
Find out more about Dean Lappi from his Amazon Author page.