By Ekta R. Garg
Prompt: You are volunteering at your local city homeless shelter, and take a moment to sit down and talk to one of the residents. He tells you his incredible, unbelievable life story.
Katie leaned against the stainless steel kitchen counter to take a deep breath and pulled an elastic band off her wrist to put her hair into a ponytail.
What…a…day, she thought. She knuckled the small of her back and inhaled long and deep once again.
The swinging door pushed inward, and Tammy entered with a deep tray full of dishes.
“Hey, K,” Tammy said, “guess who just walked in? Your boyfriend.”
Tammy giggled and Katie rolled her eyes. “Thanks. How does he look today?”
Her friend shrugged with one shoulder and put her tray on the counter across from Katie.
“About the same. But he’s asking for you.”
Tammy pulled on a pair of dish gloves and began transferring the dirty dishes from the tray to the deep sink. Katie tried to push the stray hairs on her head flat and then wondered why she was making an extra effort for a homeless man. Then her heart pinched her conscience.
You make it sound like there’s something wrong with him, Katie thought. Have you ever even tried to get to know him? Do you know his story? Maybe he’s not so different from you.
Tammy smiled in sympathy. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Katie said. “Just tired.”
“Tell you what, why don’t you just go and say high to Luca and then take off for the rest of the evening?”
Katie brightened up. “Really?”
“Yeah,” Tammy said. “It’s almost closing time anyway, and for once we’re not slammed. Gavin and I will finish all this stuff and lock up.”
Katie threw an arm around her friend’s shoulder. “Thanks. You’re awesome.”
As she darted from the kitchen, she heard Tammy call, “I’ll put it on your tab!”
She entered the dining area with its dated tables and chairs, and her eyes went to Luca right away. The diminutive man spotted her almost as immediately and raised a hand. He grinned, and Katie noticed that for once he looked clean today. Clearly Luca had found a place to have a shower.
“Hello, my dear,” he said, extending a hand in her direction. She took it and he pressed her fingers with affection. “So good to see you. But what is this? Mon cherie looks so tired this evening!”
“I am,” Katie said. “I spent all day at work on a new project and then coming here this evening…well, let’s just say I’m ready to go home.”
Luca’s cornflower blue eyes dimmed. “Home. I miss my home.”
There’s an opening if you ever needed one.
“I’d love to hear about your home,” she said. She gestured to a nearby table. “Please.”
Luca’s face softened, and his eyes crinkled at the corner. “It would be my pleasure.”
Then he told her. He told her about Engelwald, the tiny sliver of land that had seceded from Switzerland several years earlier. He told her about his position in the royal house.
“We wanted to take a stand, and our mother country refused,” Luca said, shaking his head slowly. “It thrives on its position as a neutral land. It thrives on all the funds it collects and stores. Who wants to give up that security, most of them think. But what is security if you are not true to your heart?”
Katie nodded, but she didn’t know whether she agreed or she just wanted him to keep talking.
“It was nothing like the spy movies you see on the television,” Luca continued, a little sheepish now. “The dozen of us who made the decision to leave simply slipped away in the middle of the night. We left and went to the north, and we staked our claim. We would become Engelwald. And we were successful…for a time.”
They settled in one of the most picturesque areas of the country, Luca said, and the beautiful surroundings bolstered their spirits. Although they had begun with a small group, they would make their voices heard. They would form a counterpoint to the hands off approach of their mother country.
Eventually, though, the royal family sent the royal army after him and his compatriots. One of the members of the court sympathetic to their cause sent word just before the army arrived, and everyone managed to get out of the country…only just.
“Unfortunately we could not all travel together,” Luca said, his eyes searching the air in the distance. “I left Engelwald with the man we had chosen as our king, but eventually we also separated. I managed through a variety of methods to make my way to this country, but I have…not had good luck since I arrived three years ago. But when I came to this shelter and met you, I knew I saw hope in the flesh in front of me and I have begun to believe once again that Engelwald will become a reality.”
Luca stopped talking, and Katie shook herself. She’d long lost sight of the drab beige walls and the old wooden tables and benches. Instead she saw the charming locale of Europe, and when Luca finished his story she couldn’t prevent a sigh of longing escape her lips.
“It sounds lovely,” she said. “I’d love to visit Engelwald one day.”
Luca looked around at the handful of men and women eating their evening meal and engaged in their own conversations. Katie glanced around at the others in the room, but she didn’t know what Luca saw. When he leaned forward, she leaned forward before she even planned the movement.
“You can,” he said in a near whisper. “If you’re willing to help me find the other residents of Engelwald, you can come with us.”
Katie blinked. What had just happened? She’d gone from listening to an idyllic story to getting an invitation to step inside of it.
“Do you think you could help me, Katie?” Luca asked, still in that conspiratorial whisper. “You would love Engelwald. It would do your soul good.”
Her soul? What did her soul have to do with anything? Why did her soul need anything good? Didn’t she have a job on a fast track to an upper-level position? Okay, so she worked long hours and didn’t speak to her parents more than once every few months. She’d forgotten what color her kitchen countertops were, but she could recite by heart the phone numbers of every takeout restaurant around her home within a 15-mile radius. Her last boyfriend had left her almost two years earlier, and without any siblings or close friends she had begun to feel adrift lately. In fact that feeling had brought her to the homeless shelter in the first place. What better way to ground herself, she thought, than to engage with people every single day who literally had no ground to claim?
She inhaled long and deep yet again and folded her hands on the table. She had her answer to Luca’s invitation.