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Rule Of Hospitality

A woman looking through blinds.

For Round 7 of our contest, we asked you to send us original works of fiction that have a character come to town and someone leave town.

Today, it is a brownstone rowhouse with concrete steps. I stand on the second one and knock. The man who appears at the door wears jeans and a plain gray t-shirt. I tell him that my name is Moira, that I'm not from around here, that I'm hungry and in need of a place to sleep.

A boy comes up behind him. His father in miniature, including the sneakers. He peers out from behind the man, who now examines me and chews on the inside of his cheek.

In these times, I cannot blame him for his hesitation. More than that, he is probably trying to place my accent, which does not match my freckles and my red hair worn in a single, tight braid.

Finally he nods and invites me inside. We sit at opposite ends of the sofa, the son in an armchair, and they watch me eat two slices of nearly-cold pizza. The boy allows me to select an animated feature, and we all watch it together, the boy grinning at his favorite parts. I imagine that he knows the story by memory, having watched it dozens of times. It is new to me.

The phone rings, a call for the boy. He stands in the kitchen speaking with enthusiasm. It gives me a feeling of comfort. I ask the father if it is the boy's mother on the phone. He shakes his head. Only a school friend.

Later, the father brings me a pillow and a blanket, apologizes for the sofa not folding out. I thank him, and say what I always do. You will come to no harm this night.

He puzzles over this, shrugs, and takes his son upstairs. I can hear him urging the boy to brush his teeth, followed by water running. Soon, they shut off the lights. I can hear the snap of the switch in the hallway. An amber glow enters through the window, falls across me like a second blanket. The sofa cushions sag, but I have slept on worse.

At half past two, a boy no older than 15 comes to the back door. He places a bag on the stoop, extracts a small crowbar from within. He looks up, readying himself to work, and sees my face looking out through the blinds. Grabbing his bag, he staggers back, nearly falling off the step, and turns to run.

In the morning I say nothing about it. The father and son give me a bowl of cereal to eat, corn flakes with sugar coating. I say goodbye before thanking them again, and the boy shakes my hand, then dodges behind his father, instantly shy.

I wish I could stay, but I cannot do that. I must move on. Still, I imagine they might not mind my company. They live alone there, the two of them. I just live alone.