The man sneered at Simon. He wore a fine suit and walked with an unnecessary cane. A pretty blonde woman was hanging onto his arm. Heavy waves of cologne and perfume crashed over Simon. It was fresh and sharp, but gentle and lovely. Simon closed his eyes and breathed it in. He could hear the man jingling change in his pocket. Simon opened his eyes again and stretched out his ragged hat just a bit closer. The man flinched away from him.
“You really should make something of yourself, boy,” the man said. He looked over Simon’s head and surveyed the pile of leaves Simon slept on. It was too scratchy to be comfortable and the leaves were too thin to provide any real warmth, but it was better than sleeping on the solid ground.
“Yes,” the woman chimed in. Her voice seemed to come straight out of her nose. “You do know that winter is nearly upon us, correct? I suggest you find a way to keep warm.”
They continued on their walk, coins jingling with every step. Simon looked at his little den again and then back at the rich couple. Without thinking too much about it, he snatched a stick up off the ground and set off behind them. He carried the stick like a cane and marched with his shoulders back and his chin up high, just like the man was doing. If he wanted to be like them, he would just have to do what they did.
He kept his distance and followed along in silence. They stopped at a small flower vendor. The woman sniffed at the flowers, but when the salesgirl offered them to her, the couple laughed and tossed the flowers back at her. They walked on, but only after offering her one final sneer. Simon followed along, but he picked a few flowers along the path. He couldn’t afford any from the vendor, so that was the best he could do. As he passed the flower vendor he made sure to give her his meanest sneer. Her eyes went wide and she covered her mouth with her hands. Simon’s stomach twisted, but he had already moved past her. This is what it felt like to be rich and powerful, he just wasn’t quite used to it yet. The flowers did smell incredible though. Much better than his little weeds.
The couple stopped again when they came upon a musician singing a sweet ballade. They peered into the man’s violin case and laughed. Simon wondered what was so funny. As they moved on, he slid up to the case and looked inside. The man had earned a few meager coins for his music. It was beautiful though. It made Simon think of church choirs. He almost offered the man a smile, but he remembered what he had set out to do, and so he forced a laugh at the man’s pitiable wages. Simon’s stomach twisted tighter.
He followed the couple all the way to their house. He watched them from outside. It was large and ornate. More than one fireplace burned bright inside. A mountain of food was prepared on the table. They sat together and picked at the food before them, seeming more dissatisfied with each bite. Simon watched as a large man in a white hat was brought before them and chastised. The food was carried away and thrown in the trashcans outside of the house. Simon’s mouth started watering. He could smell the food even from a long way away and it was incredible. He wanted it, but something beat him to it.
A thin black cat crept through the darkness and jumped up on the can. The lid slipped off and crashed onto the ground. The cat jumped in shock but returned to the food after a moment of hesitation. Simon watched as the man jumped up though, having heard the crash, and ran outside.
“Get out of here!” the man screamed. He picked up rocks and threw them at the cat. Screeching and whining, the cat raced back into the shadows. Simon’s heart raced. He inched back, not wanting to draw attention to himself. He knew what he had to do.
He ran home, back to his pile of leaves, and set to work right away. He gathered sticks and built walls and a roof. He decorated the little house with his leaves so that it would look presentable. He walked around, gathering what berries and apples he could find and laid them out in his house. When the feast was ready, he sat and took one bite of each piece of food. After that, he threw the bitten piece into a pile outside of his house.
Once finished, he sat in his house. His stomach still rumbled, but at least his trash pile was respectable. He had no fire, but he had shelter. He had-
A noise came from outside. Simon inched out, moving as silently as he could. There he found that same skinny, black cat. It had followed him home? He looked around and snatched a rock up from the ground. This was it. He had to do everything the man did. That was the only way to be successful and rich.
He brought his arm back, preparing to launch the stone. He hesitated. The cat froze, seeming to sense the danger, and looked up at him. They stared eye to eye for a moment and then, with a gut-wrenching stab of regret, Simon set the rock flying through the air.
The cat screeched and dodged the stone before running away into the darkness. Simon knelt there in the darkness, wondering what to do. He couldn’t take it anymore. He couldn’t live like the man. It hurt too much. Sobs poured out of him as he rose up and tore down the shelter he had built. He broke the sticks over his knee and tore the leaves into little pieces. He screamed into the night and cried until he couldn’t cry anymore.
When his eyes dried, he was there, alone in the darkness. It was too much to bear. He got up, grabbed the sad remains of fruit from his trash pile, and set out into the night. He called out for the cat, dropping grapes here and bits of apple there. He walked around until the sun rose, calling for the cat, but the cat never came.
It was only fair. Why should the cat ever trust him? He trudged home, feeling as though the world around him weighed three times as much as usual.
He almost didn’t see through his tears, but when he reached his home his heart leaped. The cat was there! And it had brought every single grape and every single bit of apple back. Simon’s tears were renewed, though this time he didn’t know the word for what he was feeling. He fell down in front of the small creature and took it in his arms, holding it in an embrace that brought more warmth than any mansion of fireplaces ever could. His fur was soft and he purred loud in Simon’s ear.
They feasted together. They ate every single sweet bite, leaving only the apple cores behind. Once they had finished that, Simon picked up the cat, now named Maslow, and set off on a walk. Simon picked more flowers along the path and when they arrived at the flower vendor, he offered them to her with a sad smile.
“Your flowers are lovely,” he said. “Want to pet Maslow?” Her eyes watered as she took the cat from him and pet him around the ears. Simon made sure to sniff every flower and then, as he tried to walk away with Maslow back in his arms, the salesgirl offered him a single flower for free.
Simon beamed. “Really? Thank you!” It was a bright orange flower and it smelled like spring. Simon walked on until he came to the musician once again. He stood and closed his eyes, swaying with the music. He felt as though his body was being lifted from the ground. It was the greatest thing. The music paused and Simon opened his eyes again.
“I have no money,” Simon said. He stepped forward and placed his orange flower in the violin case. “This is the best thing I have.”
The musician responded by playing a brand-new song, just for Simon and Maslow. They stood and listened until the last note and then they moved on. They walked until they came upon the house of the rich couple. The house provided shelter, warmth, food, water, and all the things a person might need.
Simon hugged Maslow tighter and Maslow purred in response. Simon turned and walked home with a smile on his face for all to see.