Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Short Story - "Man's Second-Best Friend" by Melissa M.

There were no potatoes left in the bin.  George lifted the last remaining onion, turning it in his gnarled hand as if it might suddenly turn brown and sprout eyes.  Onion soup would have to do, though his stomach voted for meat and potatoes.

His eyes flicked toward the portrait of Phoebe--the copper frame was worn to a greenish hue on either side.  His wife didn't smile at him from the wall, but her eyes did, and he remembered the smiles of yore: her lopsided smile when she tricked him into thinking there was a skunk in the parlor; her full, heart-shaped smile when she laughed; her soft, barely-there smile when she viewed the flames of sunset. . . . An ache born not of hunger enveloped him, and he let out the breath he hadn't known he had been holding.

Phoebe knew how to peel a potato in ten seconds, how to chop an onion in perfect, tiny squares, all while her soup broth bubbled with aromas better than expensive town restaurants.

He dashed moisture away with the back of a knuckle.  "Can't blame it on the onion, now can I?"  He chuckled at the cat, a tabby with green eyes.  Phoebe had called the feline Sydney, after the sad Dickens character who'd given his life for a friend.  More often she had referred to the tabby as Syd or Syddy.  How he had scoffed at those names!

George and Phoebe did not have children, marrying after the time for such things was likely.  The cats were Phoebe's children, and last of all they'd had Sydney.

After slowly turning to the chopping board, he then impaled the onion.  His eyes were soon flooding in earnest.

~~~

A ball landed inches in front of George's feet.  He stooped and picked it up, his hands trembling, his joints popping like fragile strings breaking.

A snicker sounded.

"Good day, young man," said George, smiling at the boy who slouched amid the bushes.  "Your ball?"

"Yeah.  See if you can throw it here, old man."

Pressing his lips and brows together, George pulled his arm back to throw the pigskin.  His hand muscles gave a sharp tug and he felt the ball slip from his fingers.

The boy laughed, slapping his hand on his thigh.

Why do you even try?  George sighed.  You're not the athlete you once were.  Only the trophy in his bedroom evidenced that he had ever been able to play football.

George trudged the way he had come from.  He made sure he held his head high, even if his shoulders could not stay as tall as they once could.

To town he must go, but he would take the longer way around.  The pinch in his toes went unnoticed.

At the general store, he smiled at a little girl, who hid behind her mother's skirt.  The mother gripped the girl close and turned away abruptly.

Did he look like a killer, a madman?  George ran a hand over his bushy white beard.  It should make him look like Jolly St. Nick--all right, maybe not so jolly--but more often people seemed to think he was a shifty no-good, or worse, a disgusting piece of humanity.  He knew he was old, going on ninety-three, and his skin lined like the wagon-ruts to town, but was there no hope for human friendship at his age?

~~~

George set down the paper sack with a groan.  "Too heavy, Syddy.  But then, you wouldn't know about that."

The cat stared up at him, confirming the words as it remained sprawled out on the chair.

When George thumped a tin on the counter, Sydney sat up with a meow.  The meows grew more insistent when George pried the can open and the smell of tuna permeated the room.

"Just a minute, you vulture," George said with a chuckle.  Sydney was winding back and forth between George's legs.

The cabin was lantern-lit, the glow just enough to see by as dusk came on.  George sat against the quilted pillow on the couch and leaned his head back on the seat.  "I'll just rest here a minute, Syd.  Mebbe I don't need supper . . ."

A questioning meow from Sydney drew his gaze.  "Yeah, I know I should eat, like you, buddy--but this old body is tired."

Sydney jumped up on George's lap and began grooming his paws, rubbing them across his face--first one side, then the other, over and over.  George ran a hand over Sydney's fur, silkiest fur he'd ever felt, except maybe when Sydney had been a kitten.

The cat purred a raspy purr and closed his eyes.

A smile played about George's lips and his eyelids took the same downward direction; images of frolicking kittens and Phoebe's smile blurred and brightened.

~~~

Something woke him--probably Sydney's wild meow.  He never sounded like that.  What was it?  George sniffed, still groggy.  Did he burn supper?  And that crackling, that heat . . .  His eyes flew open.  Flames!  Big, larger than people, and performing a drunken dance.  George pushed himself to his half-numb feet, limping to the front door.  "Sydney!" he called.  The roof was about to cave in--there was no going back in.  He left the door open in case Sydney could come out.

George wrung his hands and squinted into the blinding flames.  "Sydney, come!  Come on, buddy--"  He choked on his words, on the smoke, on more than he could fathom.

Soon the whole cabin resembled a monstrous bonfire.  Boards fell and formed a twisted, fiery mountain.  The land was wet from recent rain, so there was no likelihood of the fire spreading.  But it had done its damage.  George fell to the ground, moaning.  "Sydney, my Sydney."

He bit his knuckle to keep from crying out.  But who would hear?  The owl?  No one cared, even if they did hear!  They had shown that time and again.  A howl escaped his lips.  He rocked back and forth, like when he was a child.

"No use.  No use."

~~~

A businessman and his wife found the body, cold and still next to the charred house.

The woman stared, not moving.  Only her skirt rippled in the cool breeze.

"Old Man George."  The businessman stooped and put a finger on the cold wrist, not expecting, or finding, a pulse.  "I wonder what happened."

The woman touched the pin at her throat.  "Why didn't I do it?  Ask him to our house?"

The man blinked at her.  "That may have done nothing.  You can't blame yourself."

A blackbird flew overhead.  "Can't I?"

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