He wanted to live, and yet he wanted to die. But most of all he wanted to get away from the hands. Horrible, knobby hands reached out for him, searched the dark for him. Evil hands wanted to touch him, save him, wash him, slap him, punch him. Disembodied hands wanted to break his skin, crush his bones, pry his lips open and make him speak.
He didn’t want to speak; he didn’t need the hands. Wasn’t it enough that he was king of the alley? He had a cardboard box that was toasty warm, a grocery cart that was well oiled with stolen axle grease, and five pounds of aluminum cans. Such great wealth made him feel a little smug, as he closed the lid on his box and curled himself into a tight ball.
It snowed all night. As the snow fell, drifting over the tops of the brick buildings that fenced the alley on three sides, the groans and curses of his neighbors faded away. Their shuffling feet and frighten whispers were just a memory, now. Perhaps, some of his neighbors had gone to the shelter; perhaps, some of them had died of exposure. He wouldn’t know for sure, until he lifted the lid of his box and peeked outside.
He should get up and rake the snow off his box, but he felt lazy this morning and strangely numb. It was a good feeling, this sleepy malaise that separated him from everything outside the box.
His knees ached from being bent too long inside the box. He toed the paper door open and stretched his legs outside the box—only for a moment, he told himself—and his joints popped with grateful satisfaction. Icy water dripped from his roof, and there was a dark brown mountain ranged decorating the sides of his box. The snow must be three feet deep outside.
He really should get out and brush the snow away, but he felt himself falling asleep again. The alley was so quiet and peaceful now. It wasn’t very often that he felt completely secure from the hands. His luxuries were few, and he couldn’t afford to waste them.
The wind whistled a merry tune and blew through the open door of his shrinking house. The sound was sweet and crisp, void of human lies, void of curious footsteps, and oh-so lonesome. Too cold for the wrinkled hands, he thought and smiled.
The box crumbled, until it was nearly touching his nose, and the smell of wet cardboard filled his nose. He had forgotten about his feet; they were still sticking out of the box, but he couldn’t feel them anymore, so it didn’t matter.
He felt a weird sensation of being lifted up. His stomach lurched a little in panic, but his mind told it to hush. Finally, his body stopped shivering, and he was grateful for that.
Below him the hands sank into a barrel of fire. The hands blackened and curled into smaller and smaller pieces. Was it a dream? If so, it was a good dream—the best that he had ever had. He smiled and closed his eyes….