Stray by Stephanie Austin


At 6:05 a.m., it’s already 93 degrees. Cheery sits on the curb on the side of Eddie’s, her white tank top strap loose over one shoulder, her pink, flared skirt bunched between her legs. She’s not wearing underwear. She clutches the purse straps in her hands. The bag rests between her feet. It is a beautiful bag — large, white, leather with silver accents along the zipper line. The inside is lined with a deep purple fabric. Plum, maybe. Violet. Violent plum.

A homeless man and his dirty dog shuffle past her. He carries an empty Circle K thirst buster. He tells the dog to sit, which it does, close to Cheery. The man goes into the Eddie’s. The dog pants. Cheery can smell its breath. It’s not dog food breath.

Trapped heat rises from the asphalt. Old tire smell and spilled soda creep around her. The sun perks up, rises higher in the sky. Cheery’s lips are dry. The homeless man is back, and he snaps his fingers and the dog rises. He lets the dog drink from his cup, and then he drinks from his cup, and Cheery is thirsty. She removes her hands from the bag to wipe the sweat off her forehead then rubs her hands on her skirt then takes the bag again.

A car pulls up but can’t park because her feet are in the parking space. The car parks one space over. A man gets out. He wears smart blue pants and a white work shirt without a tie. He does not look at her. He sighs. The sigh instructs Cheery to change her life.

Two police cars pull into the parking lot. Four officers get out, talk to each other in a huddle. Some teenagers, who’d been walking toward the store, turn and cross the street.

Two officers get back in their car and pull out. One officer approaches Cheery and stands above her.


She drums her fingers along the zipper line.

“Excuse me? Ma’am?”

Cheery stretches her fingers then pulls the bag closer.

“Ma’am, I need you to push the bag toward me and then place your hands in the air.”

No answer. The officer looks at his partner. This woman in front of him, head down, burgundy hair — black roots, stringy and falling over her shoulders, body hunched forward is coming down from meth-booze-vape-cigarettes-crack-heroin-stripping-hooking-some other bullshit.

Cheery lets go of the straps and picks up the zipper. The officer steps back and puts his hand on his gun. The officer nods to his partner, who approaches. The officer’s partner also has his hand on his gun. The first officer speaks into his shoulder.

“Ma’am – now you need to push that bag away right now. This is the final warning,” he says.

She pulls on the zipper and the bag opens a quarter of the way. The second officer draws his gun and the business man who’d gone in the store comes out, stops, and calculates how close this situation is to his car. Cheery takes a small breath. The first officer thinks about a cat he hit last summer, right down the street from his own home. It just ran out, probably a stray. Work had been on his mind. He knew when he walked in the door, his wife would have just woken up, and she’d have coffee ready for him, and they’d again discuss how the night shift was not a sustainable plan for their family. That goddamn cat. He felt the impact, the bump. His windows were up, and the air conditioning was at full blast so he didn’t hear the sound of the animal’s scream. His little daughter had a stuffed kitty at home, and she’d been asking for a real one. He didn’t like cats. He pulled over and stood on the side of the road, bent down and squinted, telling himself he wasn’t seeing the animal breathe.




Stephanie Austin’s fiction has appeared in The Fiddlehead, American Short Fiction, Washington Square Review, fwriction: review, Necessary Fiction, Eclectica, The South Dakota Review, Carve Magazine, Emrys Journal, The Sonder Review, Open: A Journal of Arts & Letters, and most recently, in the 2019 Issue of Pembroke Magazine. Flash fiction is forthcoming from Pithead Chapel. Her creative nonfiction had a habit at The Nervous Breakdown and has also been published online at The New England Review and Used Furniture Review. Twitter: @lucysky


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