The dream world Josias had found refuge in was sent fleeing by the arrival of a sound that did not belong there. His dark eyes slid beneath their lids, the only movement he allowed himself, as he waited to hear what had set off his internal security system. Each muscle in his small body tensed, ready to strike or flee depending on what news his ears delivered.
The light scratching resumed a few meters away. Josias relaxed slightly. It was just a rat and if he was quick enough, it would also be breakfast. He opened his eyes and let them adjust to the pre-dawn darkness. Though he could not see it yet, the crumpling of trash told him the rat was moving closer.
Josias reluctantly placed the jagged makeshift knife on the ground beside him. He did not feel comfortable without it, but experience had taught him that trying to stab a rodent is nearly impossible. The best way to kill a rat is to catch it with both hands and break it’s neck. Small white scars from previous hunts spread over his tiny dark hands like the stars that littered the night sky.
As he waited for his opportunity to strike, his thoughts wandered to the day ahead of him. Catching this small meal would help reduce the risks he and his brothers would need to take. On good days they could stick to the dump. Bad days meant working through the alleys. Food was more plentiful in the alleyways, but so were predators. Gangs and junkies waited in dark corners for clients and fools, but kids were a special treat. Children brought a high price from the pimps.
Josias fought to contain the shudder that wanted to run through his body at the thought of one of his brothers in the hands of such men. He had spent his life protecting Jean-Michael and Lucky. His brothers looked up to him as a father, and Josias did everything he could to bear the weight of the family on his thirteen year-old shoulders.
As quietly as he could, Josias pulled his legs up underneath him, putting himself in a position where he could pounce. The rat picked its way through the garbage, stopping occasionally to sniff or dig through an empty wrapper. With his weight now set back against his bare feet Josias felt like a cat without claws.
The image reminded him of Lucky. Never before had Josias known fear like on that day. He had only looked away for a moment and suddenly the youngest was gone. Panic raced through him. It took a week for the bruise on Jean-Michael’s arm to fade from how hard Josias had clamped onto him as they searched for hours with no trace of their brother. As night descended, they did the only thing they knew to do and returned to the cardboard tent they called home. Inside sat their brother, gently stroking a filthy ball of fur. Jean-Michael called him the luckiest kid in Haiti and the name stuck.
Josias caught his first glimpse of the rat as it drew closer. Its large eyes scanned the darkness as his nose worked overtime to sort through the million scents produced by the filth that surrounded them. A grey beast that large would no doubt put up quite a nasty fight, but the bigger the rat, the bigger the meal. Pain was the currency of their lives. With it they could buy a meal or pay for a pardon from the hands that sought their small bodies for their own gain. Although he did not look forward to blood was about shed, it was a relative bargain for what he could gain in exchange for it.
The sound was barely more than whisper, but in the middle of the hunt it exploded like a gunshot. Josias knew it was enough to spook their meal and had no choice but to leap. His hands found nothing but air as the rat fled. He was on his feet in an instant, but the cover of darkness and maze of trash provided too much cover for the grey ghost.
Josias turned to Jean-Michael.
“Go back to sleep.”
Jean-Michael rolled over without a reply. His brothers never questioned him. He was their protector. Their guide. Watching other children starve or disappear with each passing day they knew how lucky they were to have a father, even if he was only a few years older than them.
Josias looked up at the fading stars. The sky in the east was already fading to grey and would soon give way the oranges and reds of dawn. Day and night were the only constants he knew. No other guarantees were given to his little family. Safety, food, and shelter could all be taken from them in the blink of an eye. Each day they gambled with life. So far they had won. Some days, just barely. Josias watched the sky and wondered how much longer he could beat the odds. He looked back to the two bodies lying not far away. Another day was coming and he had work to do if they were all to make it through.
Author’s Note: Although this story is a work of fiction, there are thousands of children in the country of Haiti, and around the world, who live a nightmare I could never imagine. I may be poor by American standards, but thinking of them, I realize how incredibly rich I am. My hope is that all those who read this would follow me in giving to help provide basic needs for children who fight just to survive another day. If you do not know where to start you can click on one of the links below. (I am not associated with or will benefit in any way from your gift to these organizations.) I’ll leave you with this quote from Melody Beattie. “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more.”
Copyright © 2012 Adam Drake