THE SUN set on two foxes huddled by the remains of a wall in the middle of a sea of rubble. Clouds of smoke lingered from the ruin and mingled with the dust that was settling. The orange rays of sun filtered through the smoke and dust and shimmered on the wasteland in a haze. Among it all the two foxes sat, almost motionless in the deepening gloom.
The first fox, a five-year-old kit, was gray. Dust covered her tattered clothes, the bag she clutched, and her black hair. She sat with her back to the wall and held on to the second fox, a white kit of one year. The white kit whimpered in her sisters arms, and it was the whimpering that made the wolf turn aside from his mission.
The wolf went by the name of J.R. Dunsworth. He stopped what he was doing and stared at the two kits in the ruins. As he watched them, the gray kit gazed up at him. No fear existed in her eyes; she just studied him the way he studied her. J.R. almost asked her why she was sitting alone in the middle of this rubble but decided it was none of his business and turned to go on his way.
Hey Mister. The gray kit stood. My sisters been crying for a long time. Shes hungry. Do you have any milk?
J.R. halted and watched her out of the corner of his eye. She looked at him with big brown eyes that flashed gold when they caught the light and tilted her head, waiting for an answer.
J.R. knew he should just say, no and walk away, but two girls in the middle of this death trap was asking for trouble . . . anything could happen to them. They might starve or get captured by slave-finders or . . . J.R. shook his head. Whatever happened to them was not his problem. He had other things to do.
He was about to turn and leave these two on their own when a smile widened on the little girls face in direct contrast to the devastation around her. It was a smile that reminded J.R. of the sun peeking through heavy, gray clouds on a winters day to melt ice and snow and reveal green grass and flowerbeds.
Mister? Did you hear me? she said. Do you have any milk?
J.R. sighed and shook his head. He couldnt leave her here, not with a smile like that. Yeah, kid, he said. Ill get you some milk. He beckoned her to follow and set her and her sister on his speeder.
Where are we going? the kit asked.
Were going to get your milk. J.R. glanced at the hover platform attached to the speeder and thought about putting them on that but decided against the extra work. I dont have any on me.
The kit giggled. Of course you dont have any milk on you. If you did, youd be all wet. She cackled, almost falling backwards.
A smile slipped onto J.R.s face before he realized it, and he sat on the speeder, started the engine, and sped off.
FIFTEEN MINUTES later, J.R. cut the engine of his speeder and coasted to a stop in front of a grocery store. The streetlights hadnt yet come on, but in the twilight, J.R. caught sight of a reward poster. His mouth curled into a smirk at the picture of himself, and he glanced at the list of offenses he had committed: grand theft, larceny, murder, impersonating the royal plumber . . . he chuckled when he remembered that job. Grabbing the door, he took a glimpse at the amount of the reward: $1,500,000.
Alright! He walked in, leaving the two kits outside. I finally broke a million.
The hushed whispers of people who recognized him from his poster, the murmured questions of those who doubted who he was, and, most satisfying, the hushed squeals of the two female cats he had spoken to the last time he was there reached his ears as he walked in.
He made his way past the aisles, glancing at the groceries as he went but could not find any milk. So, he walked toward the cash register.
Hi there, girls. He leaned on the counter and smiled, revealing sharp, white teeth. Remember me?
With a titter and a giggle, one cat said, How could we forget?
J.R. leaned in closer and smiled. Im looking for milk. Where can I find it?
Refrigerator aisle in the back of the store, the first cat said and, stifling a squeal, pointed in the right direction.
The second cat elbowed her. I was going to tell him.
Youre too slow, the first whispered.
Thanks, ladies. J.R. winked at them and sent them into a mass of squeals. He thrust his hands in his pockets and whistled while he waltzed to the back of the store. Lets see, he muttered once he had located his prize, quart, gallon, and half-gallon. Two kits cant drink that much. I mean, the little one cant drink more than a quart in a week, right? He halted and gawked at himself. It doesnt matter. They wont be with me that long, anyway. Ill just find a nice stoop to drop them off on and be on my way. They can become someone elses problem.
He grabbed the quart and walked back to the counter.
A bulldog stood at the front of the line. His wrinkles looked like a roadmap of Kingston, capital of Drymairad, with its cross-streets and alleyways weaving across each other. Those wrinkles re-enforced his droopy cheeks, and gray hairs peppered his brown and white fur. He clutched his items in his hands and dumped them on the counter. These prices are ridiculous.
Theyre the same as they always were, the second cat, the one that J.R. had yet to flirt with, said.
Then theyre always ridiculous, the bulldog said.
J.R. sauntered to the front of the line, slid in front of the bulldog, and leaned toward the cashier. Hey, miss me?
What do you think youre doing? the dog growled.
J.R. whipped his laser pistol from his jacket and pointed it at the dog. I know you really dont mind me cutting in front of you, do you, old guy?
The dog glanced at the gun, stiffened, and shook his head.
And because I know Im inconveniencing you, and I appreciate it by the way, all your stuff is on me. J.R. smiled, almost as if he really was doing him a favor.
The dog gathered up his things and fled.
J.R. stowed his pistol in its place, turned back to the cashier, and gazed into her eyes. Youre not really going to make me pay for one little carton of milk, are you?
Her smile extended to fill her face, and she shook her head.
You are such a good person. J.R. pulled her toward him and kissed her. Then he winked and said, Later.
The cat collapsed on the counter with a thump. How can anyone be that evil and that hot at the same time?
J.R. chuckled to himself and gave her another wink before walking out.
He almost tripped over the gray kit. She stood just outside the door and gazed up at him with those big eyes. It felt like twenty-pound weight had been thrust into his chest when J.R. remembered the responsibility he had taken on. Wheres the other one? he said.
The kit pointed to the platform.
Heres your milk, kid.
Thank you. After taking the milk from J.R., she climbed up on the platform, removed a baby bottle from her bag, and unscrewed the top. Then she turned her attention to the milk carton. She turned it over and over and, once she found what she thought was the top, pulled and poked and bit at it.
J.R. chuckled as he watched her attempts. Want me to get that for you?
The kit nodded, and J.R. took the milk carton and opened it. He almost poured it into the bottle for her, but curiosity and a bit of a mean streak got the better of him. He handed back the carton, and the kit, with her tongue sticking out of her mouth just a bit, tilted the carton to pour the milk. But it was too heavy for her, and she splashed milk on the platform, on her clothes, and in J.R.s face.
Oops. She looked up at him. Sorry.
J.R. wiped milk out of his eyes, snatched the carton from her, and poured it into the bottle.
Thank you, Mister, she said and pulled her sister onto her lap and began feeding her. The white kit chugged it so fast that it looked as if she would choke herself.
Despite the smell of milk in his nose, a smile snuck its way onto J.R.s face. He couldnt leave her on any stoop, not such an adorable girl. Who knew if the stoop he would leave her on belonged to someone who would sell them into slavery after all his efforts? He couldnt let that happen.
J.R. scratched the back of his neck and groaned. Hed have to find someone he could trust, and that would entail a little more thought than he had first realized.
The white kit burped, and the gray kit put down an empty bottle.
That was quick, J.R. said.
She was hungry, the gray kit said.
What about you? J.R. leaned on his speeder. When was the last time you ate, kid?
J.R. scratched his ear and crossed his arms. I guess youll want something to eat, too.
She smiled and nodded.
Okay. J.R. muttered and mounted the speeder. Something for the kid.
Can we ride back here? the gray kit said. The fronts uncomfortable.
J.R. waved her off. Whatever, kid.
My names Xena, Mister, the gray kit said.
J.R. motioned to the white kit. And whats her name?
Xena held up her sister. Kathra.
You call me J.R., kid. Ive never been a mister before.
Xena set her sister down and rocked back and forth. My mommy says its not nice to call grown ups by their first name.
Your mommy aint here. J.R. beamed, his ears standing straight up. A way out had just presented itself. Where is your mommy? I can drop you off. She must be very worried.
Xena gazed at her sister, ears falling. I dont know. She took us to my Auntie Roses house. She said shed come back for us, but she never did. Then Auntie Rose said that it wasnt safe for us at her house and took us to her friends house. But then her friend said it wasnt safe, so she took us to her friends house. And then She paused and counted. And then the ground shook, and all the buildings fell down.
J.R. felt his muscles creak. He hadnt moved since she started speaking. Arent you scared, kid?
My mommy said that when I get scared I should pray, Xena said.
J.R. rolled his eyes. Really?
Xena nodded and lifted her eyes. Ive been praying a lot. And . . . She beckoned to him. When J.R. leaned down and cocked his ear, Xena clasped it and pulled him down so that her nose tickled the fur inside his ears. And if I start crying, she whispered, Kat will cry too. Shes a crybaby. So I dont cry anymore. She let go of his ear and then shrugged. But sometimes I do even when I try really hard not to.
Kathra yawned, and Xena repositioned her and covered her with a tarp. Shes sleepy, Xena said. She misses her bed.
J.R. looked at the child. She had lived through the destruction of Jelu and hadnt been reduced to a blubbering mass. What an extraordinary girl! Had she been bawling when he found her, J.R. would have certainly dumped her on a stoop without a second thought. But she was different; she was brave; she reminded J.R. of himself.
He gazed down the road and sighed. Miles of asphalt separated him from the only soft, safe bed that he knew of. He wouldnt be able to rest until he had given them that, not after all they had been through. Dont you worry, kid. Ill take care of you.
Xena smiled so wide that it made her squint. That smile made J.R. realize exactly what he had done.
Am I crazy? He ran his hands through his hair. What am I doing?
Youre finding me something to eat. Xena giggled. You sure forget easy.
J.R. bit the inside of his cheek and clenched his fists. Easy, J.R., easy, he muttered. Youll only have to keep them for a few days. Once you find someone suitable, you can dump them and be rid of this problem forever. He started the engine and took off.
J.R. ROLLED over in his bed and groaned. His muscles ached from riding his speeder all night long, and as hard as he tried he could not remember why he had done that. The brown canvas curtains were drawn to keep the sun out, but the numbers from his alarm clock cast a red glow on his blanket. It was 8:30 A.M. He had only fallen asleep two hours ago. What had woken him up?
He groaned again, rolled over onto his stomach, and settled in to go back to sleep.
The sound of a spoon clattering against a bowl came from the kitchen. J.R. shot up and listened, ears pricked and fur on end.
A chair scraped against the kitchen floor.
A growl rumbled from the depth of J.R.s throat as he removed his laser pistol from its place inside his pillowcase. The fact that he was a professional thief didnt mean he would allow anyone else to steal his things. Those intruders were messing with the wrong wolf.
Kathra, stop wiggling! a small voice said.
Everything flooded back to him. The kid had fallen asleep after eating one of those fast food kid meals, and J.R. had ridden all night because wanted her and her sister to wake up in a warm bed rather than on the cold road.
He cursed, stowed his pistol in his pants and covered it with his shirt, and then stumbled into the kitchen.
He found Xena sitting at the kitchen table with Kathra on her lap. Xena was feeding her sister something brown floating in milk and taking bites of it in between.
Theres nothing to eat in your fridge, she announced.
Kathra giggled and thrashed her arms and legs.
Is that right? J.R. stumbled past them and opened the fridge. It was empty except for some beer, baking soda, water, and butter. He retrieved a glass of water, seeing as it was too early for alcohol.
Youre out of milk, too, Xena said. And your cereals yucky.
J.R. halted and turned to her, ears pricked. I dont buy cereal.
I found it in your cupboard, Xena said.
He stepped forward and peered into the bowl. Brown, fuzzy chunks of what had once been corn or wheat floated in the white liquid leaving green trails in its wake. Dont eat this.
Xena sighed and thrust her bottom lip out. But theres nothing else to eat in your house. Dont you go to the store?
Not if I can help it, J.R. muttered. You want to go to the store, then?
We can make a list. My mommy does that.
J.R. yawned and shook himself awake as Xena yammered on about all the things she wanted. Perhaps it wasnt too early for alcohol.
To part 2