The phone fell from Gretchen’s hand and landed in its pastel-green cradle.
“I told him so.”
Baker mewed from the foot of the bed, leapt upon the duvet, and padded into Gretchen’s lap. She cupped the tabby’s upturned face in her hands, making his furry cheeks bunch.
“You heard me didn’t you? You heard me tell him to be careful. That he’d end up busting another leg, another arm, or finally break his neck.”
He purred in reply and when Gretchen pressed her forehead against his, the rumble intensified, reminding her of a car’s engine.
The thought draped her shoulders and Gretchen fought an easy slump into her dented sheets and downy pillow. Instead, she sighed, hefted Baker from her lap, and swung her feet from beneath the covers. Her toes found her slippers like opposing magnets. They embraced her in fluffy clouds and her nightgown swayed around her ankles as they carried her to her walk-in closet. A pull on the string illuminated the clothes hanging at attention beneath the double-decker shelves and her dresser positioned against the far wall.
A hiss erupted from her rows of shoes.
His bright green eyes blinked between her tennis shoes and mules, a silent chastisement for the midnight disruption. He disappeared deeper into the shadows no doubt resuming his nightly stalk of the most stubborn dust bunnies.
Standing on her toes, Gretchen wiggled her suitcase from the upper shelf. The baggage nearly pulled her to the ground, but she caught her balance and unzipping the lid. Into the gaping maw, she arranged her first prim outfit in a pile stacked with outer layers on the bottom, inner ones on top. She filled the suitcase with two more crisp piles and then added matching earrings and a set of pearls.
“They go with everything,” she said to Baker, sitting at the closet’s threshold. “Even hospitals.”
Shaking her head, she dispelled her destination, zipped the bag, and changed out of her nightgown.
With her blouse buttoned, slacks belted, and matching flats on her feet, she extended the suitcase’s handle. Wheeling it into the bathroom, she harvested her vanity kit, slipping it into its waiting pouch. She navigated to her bedroom door, plucked her purse from its hook, double-checked her wallet and her keys as well as her phone, and started for the living room.
The gleam from the gurgling aquarium detoured her march toward the front door.
“You’ll survive, won’t you?”
The clown fish darted around the submerged castle and to the surface when she sprinkled a pinch of flakes. The sucker fish adhered to the glass swished its tail and the angelfish swam on, undistracted in their graceful circle through the plastic seaweed. Dissolving flakes dropped to the turquoise pebbles and Gretchen added an extra three pinches. She tapped the burbling filter, recalling two more weeks before it needed changing. With faith they’d manage without her, she reclaimed the handle of her suitcase.
Despite her firm grasp and meticulous actions, the sense of forgetting something irked.
The cats had enough food and water. The bills were paid. She was off for the weekend so wouldn’t need to call into work—
A pained whine rose from a cage beside the paisley couch, halting her thoughts.
Squatting at the cage’s gridded door, she met the amber eye and the one darkened socket in a head framed in the veterinarian’s plastic cone.
“What am I going to do about you?”
The schedule for his medication flooded her mind in precise dosages from the bottles and vials neatly aligned on the side table. Noting the early hour on the slivered watch at her wrist, she considered bringing him along, but his struggles during even the briefest car rides argued against it. His similar reactions to everyone who had ever come over, from museum coworkers to friends, deterred her from calling anyone and asking for their help.
Chilly blinked his one good eye and mewed again, his white teeth aglow in the aquarium’s light. The sheen brought an unexpected face along with his studded jewelry into Gretchen’s thoughts.
“For whatever reason, you didn’t mind him.”
After fetching and filling baggies, Gretchen picked up the cage and claimed her suitcase. She headed outside, bolted the front locks, and found herself before her neighbor’s door.
A skull head knocker faced her while inside, low voices murmured beneath the beat of a gut shuddering base. Gretchen cringed when she threaded her first two fingers through the eye sockets and tapped three times. Footsteps neared and she backpedaled when someone laughed. Chilly’s whine helped her hold her ground, especially when the door opened, the gap filled with Max.
Tattoos covered his bare torso, the snakes and demons writhing in the light of candles illuminating the hallway and living room beyond. His bulk relaxed and his smile stretched below the piercings at his nose and eyebrow, and made the stud in his chin wiggle like a stuck worm.
His smile receded and he raked a hand across his baldhead crisscrossed with black lines. “I didn’t think we were being that loud?”
“You weren’t,” said Gretchen.
Lowering his hand, his brow furrowed with concern. “Is everything all right?”
“Well, no actually.” She cradled Chilly’s cage against her chest, the plastic sides clacking against her blouse’s opalescent buttons. “I’m afraid I have to go out of town for a bit. You see, my nephew’s had an accident.”
“Nothing serious, I hope.”
“He’s into rather extreme things I fear. Motorcycle racing, spelunking, mountain treks with oxygen tanks, all on no sleep and far too much alcohol.”
Max chuckled. “Sounds like my kind of guy.”
Gretchen sniffed, catching the distinct smell of beer and something sweeter riding on the man’s breath. With a shudder at whatever else might be within, she plowed on.
“Regardless, he’s ended up in the hospital again and me being his only relative, his life falls into my lap.”
“Mother hen huh?”
Gretchen bristled. “It’s called being the responsible one.”
Max raised both hands, the Chinese characters on his palms warding off her scowl. “That’s what I meant.”
Sighing, Gretchen tempered her irritation. “Sorry, it’s early and,” she pouted at the stone dragon on the stoop, “everyone always seems to take his side.”
“Well, what can I do for you?”
With shaky arms, she raised Chilly’s cage. “I was hoping you’d be able to look after this one.”
“Oh hey.” Max waggled his fingers in greeting before sticking his index finger through a square in the door. Chilly mewed and his low purr trickled into the night.
“I was wondering if you might be able to look after him?”
“The Chill-man? Of course.”
“Chilly,” she said with added emphasis, “has a specific regime to deal with his current…difficulties.”
“The eye, yeah I remember finding the poor guy in the lawn.” Max sandwiched the cage between his massive hands and claimed it from her in a deft lift. Putting his face to the bars, he softened his voice. “Couldn’t play nice with crows could we?”
Gretchen fetched the pills and cat food she had bagged and her notebook from the side of her suitcase.
“I’m afraid the drops might be difficult to administer,” she said, scribbling out the doses and timing. “He needs to take the antibiotics every six hours. I find it’s easiest to hold the edge of the cone to keep him still and to grind up the pills into one of his treats.”
“Sure.” Holding the cage by the handle, Max poked his finger back through the door. “We can do that.”
Gretchen cocked a brow at him. “Unless you think it’s too much.”
“Not at all.” Max lowered the cage to his side and leaned against the doorjamb, causing the wood to creak. “I had this Rottweiler once who had an infection in her thigh. This pit-bull had gotten his teeth into her and man was that messy.” He pointed at the cage. “This won’t be a problem.”
Gretchen clutched the baggies and paper close. “If you’re certain.”
Gretchen slowly offered over the baggies and torn page. “I shouldn’t be more than a couple of days.”
“Stay as long as you need.” The lot of medication and instructions disappeared into his fist. “Anything else I can do to help you out?”
Gretchen glanced at her neighboring ranch house, and imagined Baker waiting at the door, Leopold stalking her closet, and the fish with their bubbles. “If you’re willing….”
“You name it. It’s not every day I get to make up for scaring a new neighbor so much she calls the police.”
The reminder burned Gretchen’s cheeks. “I’m sorry about that.”
He waved off the apology. “It’s happened before.”
“I bet so.”
She winced when Max looked to the ground and nudged a pebble with a hairy big toe. “But you were saying?”
“I was.” Gretchen glanced at Chilly, whose purr resonated. “There’s a key beneath the second garden gnome to the left of the front door, the one with the red hat. If you wouldn’t mind feeding the fish and refreshing the water in the cats’ dishes?”
Max met her eye. “Consider it done. I imagine they have litter boxes too?”
“I don’t want to put you out too much.”
He laughed, the wings of the beast tattooed on his belly flapping with each jiggle. “You should have seen this circus I used to work for. The elephants. Man, did they leave something behind.”
Laying a hand on her chest, Gretchen swallowed a nauseated gulp. “I can’t imagine.”
“Anyway.” Max’s features sobered. “I’ll take care of them and anything else that pops up. You just save the day for your nephew.”
“Again,” said Gretchen.
“You might think about cutting him some slack too you know?”
“For being foolish?”
“He’s being himself.” Max shrugged. “Nothing wrong with that.”
Gretchen glanced over his mottled hide, at the candlelight within, the warped shadows moving against the walls like living creatures, and the skull knocker overlooking their conversation.
“I suppose.” She worked up a genuine smile and grasped the handle of her suitcase. “Thank you for your help.”
“What are neighbor’s for?”
“Let’s hope I can return the favor.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” said Max. “Safe drive now, we’ll see you when you get back.”
With a wave, Gretchen descended the stoop and strode down the pathway cutting through the lawn in need of mowing and miniature statutes of elves, toadstools, and other mythical beasts hiding in the blades. They seemed to watch her passage like tiny guardians.
Taking their protective gazes with her, she stowed her suitcase into her beige Volvo and placed herself behind the wheel. She nestled her purse on the passenger seat and buckled her seat belt. With the engine humming, she set her eyes on the road and activated the blinker before pulling away from the curb. Her house with its critter menagerie receded in her rearview mirror, but catching sight of Max’s abode, she had a sudden swell of confidence she had left them in as adept hands as the ones into which her nephew had fallen.