The Only Singleton

He’d had a name once, but nobody ever used it, so by the time he left the rose bush and the field behind, he no longer knew it. He’d been born alone, the only singleton in the colony’s memory. Some said he was cursed, and even those that didn’t go that far grew uncomfortable in his presence. Laughter died whenever he entered a room; conversations dried up and blew away like topsoil in a drought year.

Having grown up without brothers and sisters, keeping to himself came naturally. He read books, climbed on the rusted machinery in Fitzgibbon’s shed, and watched as the old farmer tightened belts, lubricated bearings, and checked hoses on the one tractor that still ran. At night, after the farmer had gone to the house, he climbed to the roof of the shed and stared into the night, smelling the freshly turned earth and wondering if it were belts or gears or both that accounted for the regular comings and goings of the moon and the stars. 

It was a solitary life, but it suited him, and that was good, because soon enough his mother had another litter to care for and even less time for him.

Late in his second year, a kestrel carried his mother away. After that, there was no need to read the writing on the wall because the message was plain on the face of every member of the colony. The next time he saw Fitzgibbon load his farm truck, he hid among the turnips and jostled along the dusty road until he felt it rise to meet the railroad track. Then he jumped. It was a simple thing to wait on the crossing’s red-and-white gate and hop onto the first train that passed.

The smokestacks made the decision for him, rising bigger than anything he’d ever seen or imagined against the shimmering blue of a lake so vast it seemed an ocean. When the train slowed, he hopped down and set out, determined to find those massive stacks.

Within minutes he’d singed his paws on asphalt, dodged a Buick, snacked on a hotdog end, and jumped onto a street car heading toward the lake, figuring wherever the beautiful machine went was somewhere he wanted to be. He climbed the side of the trolley, and when he summited there was nothing between him and the sun but warm air flowing over his whiskers bringing the smells of sulfur and cinders to him as he glided toward the Gary Works. It wasn’t until the brakes squealed and the street car jerked to start its trip south that he remembered to jump off.

He followed the tide of men through the gates and into such noise and heat as he’d never known. Overwhelmed, he slipped into the ductwork, looking for a place to build a nest. He walked and walked, turning endless corners in the dark until his tailed dragged behind him carving a thin line between the small prints he left in the fine layer of dust. 

He’d about given up hope when, ahead of him, bars of light pierced the darkness of the ventilation shaft. He crept forward, whiskers twitching. He smelled cigarettes and penetrating oil, scents that reminded him of watching old Fitzgibbon in the shed. He reached the grate and peered down through it.

A gray-haired mechanic, hands stained with grease and oil, bent over a motor, lips moving as he counted the number of times he squeezed the handle of the grease gun. He popped the coupler free, wiped the zerk, and set the grease gun in his tote bag. With a groan and creaking joints, the mechanic rose and pressed a hand to the belts running from the motor to the fan blades. He frowned and reached for a screwdriver he carried on his belt. He fit the bit into the set screw and torqued it maybe half a turn. He tapped the belt again, this time smiling at the way it bounced his hand back. Above him, the nameless rat would have smiled if he could, because he knew that he’d found himself a home in the big city.

Prompted by MIBeertaster (set screw, Gary, Indiana, rat).

Leave a comment with a living thing, an inanimate object, and a location and I will write a story based on your prompt and tag you when I publish it.

Photo by Peter Herrmann on Unsplash