by Emily Cogan

***

Simon Dewclaw slouched home. He knew his way through all of the back alleys. He prayed that no one would notice him, although that usually wasn’t much of a problem.

He shook his head as he cut behind Tattered Tiger’s Thrift Shop. He couldn’t stop thinking about that Rainbow Girl, and that sweet smile of hers. Damn if he wasn’t starting to catch some kinda feelings for her, but it didn’t matter. He wouldn’t let it matter. Because yeah, he’d be the first to admit he did a lot of stupid things.

But caring about Rainbow Girl was downright idiotic.

The houses got more and more rundown once he passed Tattered Tiger’s. Simon was so used to the old beer cans and wet bags of potato chips littering the streets that most of the time he just stepped right over them. But today, after hanging out in Rainbow Girl’s neighborhood, he noticed them all over again. No wonder they called his neighborhood The Alley. The place was ugly, and that was putting it mildly. Sometimes he brought a plastic bag along with him and tried to pick up some of the trash, but it always seemed to come right back.

But he couldn’t complain too much, ’cause he got a good haul today. Trash Day was Simon’s favorite day of the week. Not only was his dad gone all day, but if he timed it just right, he could score some pretty cool stuff from all of the rich people’s trash. Trash collection always started in the Alley, which meant the rich people’s trash was ripe for the picking if he got there just after school let out.

Anyway, after Rainbow Girl had gone back to Cloud Cuckoo Land or wherever it was that she called home, he dug his backpack out from behind one of the garbage cans where he’d stashed it. He’d managed to fill it almost to bursting this time. They must’ve had a sale at Big Box Red, which meant out with all the old junk. Rich people almost never shopped at Big Box Blue.

The crazy thing was, the stuff in each store was almost exactly the same, shelf after shelf of plastic knicknacks and cheap clothing. But somehow, Big Box Red’s plastic was better. He didn’t get it.

He also didn’t get why the hell the rich people were always throwing away a bunch of perfectly good things… well, they would be good after he got through with them, anyway.

Simon’s paws went up instinctively when someone touched his backpack. He turned, ready to fight off whoever it was up one side of the street and down the other, but it was only four year old Jamie, blinking up at him. “Hey, Jamie,” he said, bending down so he was on the younger boy’s level.

“Hi, Simon!” Jamie grinned and bounced all around Simon. Then he suddenly stopped and squinted hard. “Hey, are those toys new? I really love that water gun you gave me over the summer. I still have it, y’know. I think you gave me the best one, didn’t you? You must have, I just know it.”

A rare smile creased Simon’s face as he ruffled the fur on Jamie’s head. “For you? ‘Course I did. And yeah, these toys are new. I still need to fix ’em before they’re ready though.”

“Cool, I can’t wait!” Jamie exclaimed, his tail twitching. “Hey, d’you have a rubber duckie in there, maybe? Not for me! I mean, for my baby sister, Lucy. For bathtime, y’know?”

“You’ll just have to wait and see,” Simon said as he walked on.

And even if there wasn’t, he could probably find one. If there was one thing he was good at, it was finding treasures that other people junked. It was a weird hobby, picking through the garbage to look for old toys. One that didn’t earn him many friends his age, although the littler kids like Jamie loved him. Something about saving the rich people’s castoffs, cleaning and fixing them up, and giving them to the kids around here made him feel good.

He was sure he saw another water gun in the pile of toys he’d picked up today, one he knew Jamie would go nuts over. And suddenly he was in a hurry to get home.

***

“Simon! Where are you, boy?”

Simon’s head popped up from the toy car he was putting a new wheel on. He had just finished fixing the stopper in Jamie’s water gun a few minutes ago. “In here, Dad,” he called.

It was almost dinnertime and his dad was finally home. He worked weird hours on account of his job. Most of the time Simon didn’t mind too much, because he liked having some time to himself. He’d work on a few toys, maybe watch some TV. He loved the little TV in his bedroom, a lucky dump find. And damn, had it been busted up. It took him weeks to fix it, poring over his dad’s old repair manuals, but now it was almost as good as new.

Roger Dewclaw appeared in the doorway, his eyes drooping with exhaustion. He ran one paw over his face and stared at his son. “More toys?”

“Yup,” said Simon, spinning one of the wheels between his paws.

“Faye making dinner?”

“Yup.” Spin, spin.

Out of the corner of his eye, Simon saw his dad take one step forward. But the next step never came, and Simon heard him sigh. “I guess… she’ll call when it’s ready?”

Simon met his dad’s eyes for a moment before going back to spinning the wheel. “Yup.”

And then his dad was gone, his shadow moving down the hall. Simon stopped spinning, the wheel dying between his paws. Sometimes he wished he could fix whatever was wrong between his dad and him. Ever since Mom left, his dad hadn’t really been the same. It was like there was this silence between them, filled with all the things that they couldn’t say.

Fixing toys was easy. Even fixing TV’s wasn’t too bad. But how the hell did you fix something like this?

He sniffed the air, filled with baking ground beef. Faye was trying to make Mom’s special meatloaf again. Somehow it never came out as good, and whenever she made it, he just missed Mom even more. He didn’t like sitting at the dinner table, looking at her empty chair. He missed how she’d laugh with Faye, and ask everyone about their day. He missed how she brought together their whole family, but now… now it was like they were like a puzzle with a missing piece, and maybe they’d never be complete again.

And then he remembered something…

He stood on his tiptoes in front of the closet, reaching for the box on the top shelf. One of the things the rich people liked to throw out were old puzzles. After Simon brought a puzzle home, he’d put it together. If it was complete, he’d give it to a kid like Jamie. But sometimes the puzzle had a missing piece. So he would take it and put it in the box with all of the other puzzles with missing pieces that he had found.

He sighed as he opened the box, remembering how his mom used to help him make new puzzle pieces sometimes. They’d put the puzzle together, and he’d cut a new piece out of cardboard by tracing the edges of the pieces surrounding the missing piece. And then Mom would look at the picture on the puzzle box to figure out what the missing piece was supposed to look like. And just like that, she’d draw it onto the cardboard and even paint it in with her paints.

You almost couldn’t tell the difference by the time she was through, ’cause his mom was actually really good at art. Like, so good she was supposed to go away to school for it and everything. But just before she graduated high school, she got pregnant with Faye. Then she and Dad got married, so she never got to go to school. And that was why they hardly saw Gramma and Grampa Longtail.

In a trance Simon spread out the puzzle pieces on his desk, trying not to think about the last time he had done this, with Mom sitting there next to him. If he closed his eyes he could still almost smell her perfume, flowery with a little bit of spice mixed in.

The puzzles were piling up, and he didn’t know what to do with them now. Maybe all of those missing pieces would be missing forever. Because without Mom there, who was gonna help him fix them?

“Dinner!” Faye called after a few more minutes.

It was only then that Simon came out of his trance. He looked down at his desk, surprised to find that he had arranged the puzzle pieces into a rainbow colored heart.

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