Bone Magic

Cover art for Bone Magic

Buster enjoyed warm days, lying in the sun, and guarding the front yard from the intrusion of neighborhood cats. The absolute best thing—resting on his bed beside Alex’s typewriter desk while Alex wrote.

Only that didn’t happen any more. And Buster’s hips ached. He didn’t get walked as much anymore.

Things changed. His puppy days rested in his memories. He didn’t control what happened, even if he wished for change.

💀

The good thing about rainy mornings, besides the smell of the rain on the lawn? Buster didn’t have to walk so far to do his business.

The bad thing about this particular rainy morning? Alex was still asleep in bed. Buster fought not to whimper. He didn’t want to whimper like a puppy, but these days it felt like his bladder was smaller than ever.

Outside the rain came down, soaking the small front lawn. Buster could see it from the living room window. He walked heavily back that way now, his ears dragging on the floor with each stiff step.

Sweepin’ up, Alex called it, affectionately. When he wasn’t sleeping. He’d worked late last night, which meant that Buster hadn’t gotten his evening bathroom break, or his dinner, on time. He’d barely had time to give Alex one welcoming bark before he’d scampered out onto the lawn.

And couldn’t go.

Buster had stood there, left rear leg raised, left leg protesting, while Alex had watched from the doorway. “Come on, Buster. Hurry up.”

He had been trying, but after holding it so long it was hard to let go.

“Buster.”

Then Buster had finally let go and the burning release had smelled sharp and hot as the steam rose from the grass around him.

Now the pressure raised a whimper in his throat. It didn’t seem to matter that he’d gone late last night, now his body was ready to go again.

Buster pressed his nose against the cold glass. Rain poured down from the sky. No long walks this morning. The way his hips felt lately, that was good. Alex loved walking outside, but after their long morning walks Buster could be aching all day while Alex was gone to work.

All that water running down the glass, it made him thirsty. He licked at the glass. It was cold but tasted of cobwebs, not refreshing water. He ran his tongue over his nose to clear the cobwebs. Nasty, dusty things that smelled like dried flies and spiky spiders.

The pain of Buster’s swollen bladder brought another whimper up his throat like a belch. He didn’t mean to do it, but it welled up all on its own. A second later another followed.

If Alex didn’t get up and let him out soon he wouldn’t have any choice but to go inside.

Shame made Buster hang his head down until his ears lay limp on the carpet and his nose snuffled at the dusty carpet. He hadn’t piddled in the house since he was a puppy and only twice then.

The urgency couldn’t be denied any longer. He hated to take measures, but the alternative was worse. Buster breathed in deep. The dust tickled his nose. He sneezed.

Then Buster raised his head, all the way up until his ears fell back along his neck. He closed his eyes and poured all of his fear and bladder distress into a mournful howl.

It rose up like a spiraling bird. It echoed through the house. Guilt over the noise nearly made Buster stop, but piddling in the house? He couldn’t have that.

A thump in the other room made Buster stop. He stood up and walked as quick as his stiff legs could carry him to the door. He stopped there and sat, his head hanging low.

Alex stumbled out of the hallway, rubbing his eyes. “Buster, what the hell?”

Buster whimpered and looked away. His tail rose and smacked the floor once.

“What time is it?” Alex came closer, rubbing his eyes as he squinted at the clock on the wall. “Oh, shit. I’m sorry, Buster.”

Buster still couldn’t bring himself to look at Alex, but he thumped his tail twice against the floor. The pain in his bladder made just about anything else impossible.

“Hang on,” Alex said.

Alex came over and unlatched the door. The snap of the locks signaled the possibility of release. Buster stood and shuffled back as Alex pulled the door open.

“Go ahead, Buster. Sorry, I can’t go walking right now. I’m not dressed.”

Buster was already moving as fast as he could past Alex’s legs, out the door, and carefully, one step at a time, down the steps to the concrete path. Rain pelted his fur but all he cared about was getting to the lawn.

Behind him, the door closed. Buster heard it but he was more focused on where he put each paw. He left the path and his ears dragged against the wet grass. He lifted his head but he just wasn’t tall enough to avoid it. His ears were going to get wet.

Out on the lawn, he sniffed the air. Nothing but the scent of rain and wet earth. No sign of the neighborhood cats or other intruders. Not in this rain. He circled to the far side of the willow tree, which hung down so far in the rain that it was almost like a curtained room, shielding him from prying eyes.

Far enough. Buster stopped, lifted his leg, and —

Nothing. The pressure was intense and he whimpered but nothing was coming out.

Buster closed his eyes, concentrated and listened to the sound of rain pattering down all around him on the willow tree leaves.

Nothing.

Buster’s tongue lolled out of his mouth as he panted. Finally a small trickle, only a few drops squirted out.

Buster whined. He licked his nose. What if the cats came back into the yard?

That finally did it. A stream of hot urine squirted out, faltered, then shot out with more force. Now that it was going he peed easily, freely, and panted more.

He kept peeing for a long time, pushing every last drop out until the stream ended at last.

Buster turned around. The urine marked his spot well, even with the rain he could smell it. The sharp ammonia smell but there was something else. An old bone smell.

He blinked and squinted at the ground.

There was something white sticking out of the wet earth. Buster took a deeper breath, this time ignoring the smell of his pee soaking into the wet earth.

Definitely an old bone. Thick on the end, gleaming wetly in the light. Buster didn’t remember burying a bone under the tree but he could have done. But he didn’t think so. Who knew how long the bone had lay sheltered in the earth? The bone must have been buried until the willow tree’s roots forced it up close to the surface. Then the rain and Buster’s pee had washed away the earth and exposed the bone.

Buster like a good gnaw. It was something to do while Alex went to work all day. He could lay on top of the warm vents by the window and chew as long as he liked, savoring the memories.

He pawed at the bone. The loose earth crumbled beneath his claws, exposing more and more of the bone. It was a good-sized bone with hard thick white walls and a hollow center. The surface was rough and caked with dirt but Buster knew what to do about that.

When he finally got it out he gave it a quick toss with his head. The bone sailed into the air, smacking the wet willow tree branches before tumbling with a muffled thud to the ground.

Buster ambled over and sniffed at the bone. Some of the dirt had come off. He picked up the bone in his teeth and threw it again. It spun off across the lawn, rolling to a stop.

On his fourth throw, the front door opened.

“What you doing, buddy?” Alex leaned out. He was dressed now. Work slacks, shirt, doing up his cuffs as he squinted at Buster.

Buster ambled over to the bone and picked it up in his mouth. He sat down in the wet grass and thumped his tail three times.

“Is that a bone? Uh. You want to bring it inside?”

Buster stood up.

“Okay, I guess. Come on, buddy. You’re getting soaked playing out there.”

Buster picked his way across the wet lawn. His ears laid down tracks like two large-sized slugs. He reached the bottom of the concrete steps and it looked like a sheer cliff.

When he was younger he didn’t mind the steps. He would have launched himself up them without hesitation. These days his hips bothered him too much for that. He had to stop and consider his approach.

“Come on, Buster, it’s pouring rain!”

Alex was right. The rain was motivation to get inside so he could lay by the vents. Buster stepped up, right foreleg first and his hips felt okay. They would until he had to jump up.

Buster got his left foreleg up and turned lengthwise on the step. That made it easier to get his rear legs up. Then he turned, left foreleg first on the next step, turning as he did to walk up onto the next step.

“I don’t know any other dog that does switchbacks to get up stairs,” Alex complained.

Other dogs probably didn’t have to worry about stepping on their ears, or deal with bad hips. But Buster knew that Alex cared. It was hard for Alex to wait, was all.

Alex stepped out of the way as Buster turned and walked inside then obediently stop and stood still. He didn’t move from the small welcome mat inside the door.

From a hook beside the door, Alex picked up a ratty green towel. It had a picture on it of an angry man with big muscles and huge fists. It looked like the man was going to smash something, but Buster wasn’t afraid. He loved the ritual with the towel.

Alex used it to wipe down Buster’s fur like an enormous tongue licking off the water soaking his fur. It wouldn’t dry him completely but Buster wiggled beneath the touch of the towel. He stayed put until Alex toweled off all his feet and wagged his tail happily before heading over to the floor vents.

After rehanging the towel Alex headed into the kitchen. Buster plopped down on the carpet by the vents. From the kitchen came the smell of coffee brewing and the sugary sweet smell of Pop-Tarts in the toaster.

“I have to go to work early,” Alex said. “I’m sorry you’ve got to spend so much time inside.”

Buster dropped the bone on the carpet. Some dirt still clung to it, but that would come off.

“There’s so much to get done, it’s crazy. I was late last night working on the revised production schedules. Just when we think we have it nailed down then she throws an entirely new project at us. Just slip it in, she says.”

Buster turned his head over the vent, letting the warm air blast its way up around his face. The woman Alex was talking about was his boss, a writer named May Baxter. She wrote all sorts of things but was known for her romance novels. Alex worked for the publishing company that she had started to publish her work. Alex was her publisher, which meant that he was constantly working on her backlist and any new projects she wrote.

Instead of working on his own writing. Used to be that Buster would sleep in his bed beside Alex’s desk while Alex wrote. Buster found the sound of the keystrokes soothing. Alex used a typewriter for his first drafts and the clackity-clack of the keys was a comforting sound. But after Cindy—Alex’s ex-wife—left him he had taken the job with May Baxter to pay the bills. There was less time spent writing, and then one day the typewriter stopped working and so did Alex. He hadn’t touched the keys since.

Alex reappeared in the doorway holding a Pop-Tart in a paper towel, his travel coffee mug in the other hand, and his bright yellow messenger bag over his shoulder.

Another change there. Alex still carried the bag but rarely rode the bike anymore. Instead, he drove the twenty some-odd miles to May Baxter’s office.

“I’m really sorry,” Alex said. “I think we’ll catch up soon and when we do you and I will spend some time together. Maybe go camping.”

Buster lay down with his head right on the vent, the warm air pouring past his face. He’d like it better if Alex could just work from home again. Camping was cold and uncomfortable and required far too much walking. It was a job for a young dog. Buster closed his eyes and groaned at the thought of a puppy in the house.

“Don’t be like that,” Alex said.

Buster opened his eyes and thumped his tail on the carpet. He hadn’t meant to complain.

Alex came over and crouched down. He actually put his coffee mug down on the floor and ran his hand over Buster’s head. Buster pressed against Alex’s fingers, turning his head to the side just so, and Alex’s fingers dug in scratching gently behind Buster’s ears.

Fantastic. Better than the heater vent. Buster would have been happy to spend all day like this but the scratching ended as soon as it started. Alex picked back up the coffee and stood up.

“I’ll try to get home earlier today, Buster, so you don’t have to hold it so long.”

Then Alex was walking away, getting his coat out of the closet along with an umbrella. Then he didn’t have enough hands for everything so he abandoned the umbrella and went out in the rain with just the coat.

When the door slammed shut and the deadbolt snicked over into place the house felt empty. The clock on the wall ticked. The refrigerator made a noise. The vent kept blowing out warm air.

Buster had the next nine hours to spend and a nap sounded like a good first step.

When Buster woke he noticed two things. First, the vent wasn’t blowing hot air. That happened off and on throughout the day. He didn’t like it any more than he liked cats coming in the yard, and he was equally unable to do much about it.

The second thing he noticed was the bone a few inches from his nose. It still smelled of earth and bone, grass and a faint hint of his pee. All comforting smells. He stretched out a paw and pulled the bone closer so he could give it a good long sniff.

It smelled old, bringing to mind lazy summer days and lazier winter mornings. He smelled the promise of spring embedded deep in the thick bone and the contentment of fall. The years lay deep in the bone. Each one of them captured there while the cow lived its life. It was a cow. Sometimes bones were horse bones. He’d even had a bone from a pig once.

This had belonged to a cow.

Maybe someday another dog would smell his bones, and get a whiff of what his life had been like. Not to chew on his bones, of course. He wouldn’t think of chewing on the bones of another dog.

Buster picked up the bone and started to chew. He still had all his teeth, that was something. His teeth slid along the bone. He adjusted his paws, holding it in just the right spot.

The muscles in his jaw clenched and relaxed with each bite. Tiny bits of the bone shaved off, gritty against his tongue, but as he gnawed he picked up more scents. Days spent out in the cold rain. Being pestered by flies on a hot day. The satisfaction of a mouth full of fresh grass sprinkled with chilly morning dew.

All those memories locked up in the bone, laid down from one year to the next.

Buster had never seen Alex chew on a bone. He knew from long experience that Alex was blind to most of the scents that they passed on their walks. How many times had Buster stopped to savor a particular odor only to have Alex pull him away with the leash?

Buster’s teeth kept gnawing at the bone, polishing the dirty exterior to a gleaming clean bone. The biggest trouble with eating memories like this is that they were gone once the bone was chewed. But there were always more bones later.

Then the bone did something unexpected. It slipped from his paws and floated up into the air. It hung before his nose like a dandelion fluff caught on a breeze, but Buster had never seen a bone float before.

A golden light came from both the open ends of the bone. That light looked like a sunrise on a bright day.

Buster shrank back from the floating bone and barked. His yippee bark, Alex called it, laughing each time. Because of that Buster rarely barked but right now he barked.

Bones should not float or shine like the sun. Bones were for chewing memories.

Next, the bone rotated, first one way and then the other, as if caught by an erratic breeze but Buster didn’t feel any wind and the vent wasn’t blowing either.

He shuffled back another step and barked. He considered running, but running was hard.

The bone stopped spinning and the light at one end dimmed. Something moved in the light, blocking it. The something was dark, about the size of a nasty housefly, but it grew quickly like someone far away who gets bigger when they get close.

In a few moments, even Buster’s eyes could make out that the shape was a bird, a chicken, with a bright red comb and gleaming orange feathers. But a chicken not much bigger than a mouse.

The chicken kept coming closer even though the light and the bone didn’t move. It got closer and closer until it was fully chicken-sized. Then it stepped out of the light into the house.

Buster barked! He barked and barked and barked some more. A chicken in the house!

“Aw, cut it out already!” The chicken said.

Buster stopped barking.

Instead, a whimper welled up from inside and spilled out of his mouth.

The chicken clucked and fluffed her black and white speckled wings. She stretched out one wing, then the other and then flapped vigorously but her clawed feet didn’t leave the ground.

“Oh, oh,” the chicken said. “That feels so good! I can’t tell you how long I’ve been trapped in that bone. I mean really, I can’t tell you! It isn’t as if I’ve got a clock in there!”

Buster considered this and opened his mouth. Another whimper spilled out like drool. He clapped his mouth shut.

“Problem?” The chicken’s head cocked one way, then the other, red comb flapping with each head turn. “Cat got your tongue!”

CABAAWWK! BAAAWWK!

It didn’t take a genius to realize that the chicken was laughing at him. Buster cleared his throat. “It’s not nice to laugh at others.”

He didn’t normally speak. In fact, he couldn’t remember any time in the past when he had spoken, but it seemed normal enough at the moment. The chicken stopped cawing and turned its head, looking at him out of one eye.

“Yeah, talking, that’s the shit, isn’t it? Dogs like that, right? Shit? You roll in shit, don’t you?” The chicken waggled its rear. “Get all up in there, don’t you?”

Buster’s head dropped automatically as his ears seemed to have gotten heavier by the second. The chicken was horrible, foul —

Why had it come out of his bone?

“Because, you lucky flea-bitten hound, I’m a genie.”

Buster lifted his eyes. Still a chicken down to the long black and white tail feathers. “You don’t look like a genie.”

“And you’d know this, howl?” The chicken clucked, head bobbing. “Did ya get it? Did you?”

Buster ignored the chicken’s antics. “Why were you in the bone?”

“What does it matter? You dim-witted, pathetic wretch? What kind of animal is stupid enough to chew on a bone when there’s no meat and no marrow? A dog, that’s what, but I think you’re beautiful. You chewed it down enough to let me out!”

The chicken flapped its wings again, then fluffed its feathers. “Oh, it feels so good! I’m even going to do you a favor, ugly long-eared mutt, and grant your fondest wish.”

“You are?”

“I am! What’ll it be? Wait, let me guess. Shorter ears?”

CABAWWWK!

The weight of Buster’s ears vanished. It was as if his head had suddenly become as light as a balloon. He flipped his head first one way, then the other, but no ears flopped across his face. He spun in a circle and still couldn’t see them.

“So? So? Whaddya think? Whaddya think?”

Buster whimpered. What had the chicken done to his ears? Buster shuffled over to the windows and squinted. With the rain, it was just dark enough outside that he could still make out his reflection. Instead of his two long ears, he had two tan triangles sticking out of his head on either side.

Ears, of a sort, but they would have looked more at home on a corgi.

“I didn’t wish for these ears,” Buster said.

“Oh, come on, you’re breaking my eggs here!”

Buster turned around and there was an egg lying split on the floor behind the chicken! What would Alex think?

“Every time someone turns down a wish, another egg gets broken,” the Chicken intoned.

“I want my ears back,” Buster said.

“Oh, oh, do you wish you had your ears back?”

Buster had already had just about enough of this Chicken genie from his bone. Instead of a nice chew, he had an intruder in the house taking his ears and breaking eggs.

Buster growled.

The chicken flapped her wings. “CAWWWBAWWK!”

A familiar comfortable weight settled on Buster’s head. He turned his head quickly and was rewarded with the familiar flapping. His ears were back!

“Okay. Okay. I get it, it wasn’t the ears. You like your ridiculous, elephant-envying ears. I get it! But it must suck having them dragging on the ground like that all the time!

More flapping from the chicken, the wind making Buster squint. The wind was so strong that he felt his lips drawing back from his teeth and his ears flying back behind him. It was like being in the car, with his head out the window. Minus the fun.

He teetered and suddenly felt dizzy. The room looked strange. Buster looked around and realized that he was up high. As high as the back of the couch!

Buster dangled his head down. His ears flopped down too but still didn’t come close to the floor. Upside down he could see that he was perched on long thin legs like a hippo perched on a giraffe legs. Except these were longer in the back, not shorter, but these legs hardly seemed sturdy enough to support him and he didn’t like being so high that he couldn’t see the ground in front of his nose.

“I didn’t wish for these either,” Buster said.

“Come on! Stop breaking my eggs!”

And indeed there was another egg smashed on the floor. Buster tried to sit, wobbled, and decided against moving at all. He growled at the chicken instead.

“Fine! Fine! I’ve never met such an ungrateful cur!”

“CAWWBAWWK!”

Buster fell. His paws scrambled at the air without finding purchase and then he hit the carpet with a thud like someone had dropped a bag of cement.

It hurt. Everything hurt. Scaly yellow three-toed feet appeared on either side of his nose. The claws looked particularly sharp. Buster rolled his eyes up and found the chicken watching him with one eye.

“What’s it going to be? Uh? Uh? You gotta make a wish you stinking carpet hound!”

Buster drew in a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. Though his bones ached, this would sure be some memory if anyone ever chewed his bones, he sat up.

The chicken danced back and shook her feathers. “Well? Well?”

“I wish that you —”

“BAWWK!” The chicken jumped in the air and came down again. “Don’t get wise on me! No wishing me back in the bone! You can’t wish me away! So don’t even waste my time!”

Buster looked away from the chicken at the room. It hardly got used anymore. Alex’s desk was a big dusty glass desk in the corner with the typewriter and the computer facing off like boxers in a ring. The computer got used, sometimes, but the typewriter remained unused since it had stopped working. The tray beside it still was stacked with the pages from Alex’s last unfinished novel.

And underneath the desk, back in the corner, was Buster’s bed. That’s what he wanted, time spent snoozing while Alex worked on his book. Alex was always happier when he was writing.

“Come on, come on, dog, you’re killing me!”

Buster looked back at the chicken. “Okay. I wish that Alex’s typewriter was fixed.”

“BAWK? Seriously? I mean, I like give you a chance to make a wish and you want me to fix a freakin’ typewriter? You can’t be serious!”

Buster stood up and faced the chicken. “Yes, that’s what I want. And put a bow on it, with a card that says with love, Buster.”

“Frickin’ crazy mutant canines! CAAWWBAWWK!” The chicken flapped twice, stirring a weak breeze.

A clear high bell rang behind Buster. He shuffled around and the typewriter was still where it had been but the layers of dust were gone. The whole desk gleamed. A bright red bow sat on the top of the typewriter and there was a sheet of paper rolled into the machine with three words typed on it.

“Yeah, yeah, I know, it isn’t a card but it seemed more appropriate you brain-dead fleabag. I’m outta here. I got bigger things to do!”

Buster’s head swung back in time to catch the chicken doing a sort of dance with her legs kicking, wings flapping and then there was a flash of light. When he could see again she was gone.

So were the broken eggs. The bone he’d found lay beside the window. He looked back up at the typewriter. The bow and the paper were still there.

💀

By the time Alex got home that night Buster really needed to pee again. He was waiting beside the front door as Alex came in. Buster paused long enough for one short bark, stood still while Alex patted his back, and then he scampered out down the steps to reach the lawn. It felt so good to plunge his face into the grass and inhale the rich clean scent.

Alex was on the phone when he opened the door for Buster. Alex scratched the back of Buster’s neck and patted his back.

“No, Cindy, that’s what I’m telling you. I just came home and found it like that. I thought maybe you —”

“No? Okay, that’s fine. No. I understand. Yeah, it might have been May. No, I don’t know how she managed it. Yeah, that’s fine. I understand. Bye.”

Alex tapped the screen on his phone and dropped it into his pocket. Buster felt Alex’s confusion about the typewriter. There was only one thing to do.

Buster walked across the room to his bed. He turned around a couple times and dropped down and looked up at Alex.

Alex grinned. “Okay, Buster. I get it. I don’t know who was behind this, but I get it.”

Buster laid his head down on his paws and waited, tail thumping. Alex came over to the desk and sat down in his chair. He pushed with his feet and wheeled over in front of the typewriter.

Buster closed his eyes. There was the rolling noise, the rustle of paper as Alex took out the sheet and fed the machine a new one. Then a key clicked. And another. A pause and then more, several all at once. The familiar pattern picked up as Alex fell into the rhythm.

It didn’t even matter that they hadn’t eaten yet. Alex would remember soon enough and they’d have dinner, then more time spent together as Alex continued his story.

💀

4,717 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 86th short story release, written in May 2012. It remains one of my favorite stories that I’ve written.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Locked Out.

Daily Thoughts

Author's Self-Portrait Went out tonight to lock up our surviving chickens, and only Patty was in the coop. I put on boots and tromped up and around through the woods looking for Third without any luck. No sign of her. Nothing visible in the snow to show any sign of intruders. I got back to the coop, knocked the ice out of the water and took the empty bowl to the house to get it filled.

On the way back my light flashed across something by the back corner of the house—wait, what was that? Third!

She’d roosted on a tomato cage leaning against the wall. Snow covered her back. With the black and white feathers, in the dark with the snow, she was nearly unnoticeable.

Kate said that they’d been hanging out by the back door. We figured that when it came time for them to go to the coop it was already snowing hard. They probably walked along the back of the house until they were close to the coop, at which point Patty walked on through the snow and into the coop. Third, having never been in snow (she’s several years younger, we haven’t had snow like this since she’s been around), must have chickened out. Instead of walking through a few inches of snow she decided instead to perch on the very thin—cold!—wire tomato cage.

I picked her up and carried her to the coop and put her inside to keep Patty company. Crazy chickens.

Final

Cover art for Definitive XML SchemaI’m finishing up my final for my XML class tonight. Nearly done with the test, but not the subject! Comments aside about the class (I’ve submitted my evaluation), I have much more to learn. Next up on this topic is a big book, Definitive XML Schema by Priscilla Walmsley.

Hidden Nests

Lilly wanted undemanding companionship and found it with her two chickens—Patti and Wendy. They provide the best eggs and entertainment watching them running around the yard.

When Patti disappears in the woods she suspects the local cats in her disappearance and sets out to discover the truth.

She never imagined the story appearing on the front page of the Deschutes Valley News!

A story for fans of cozy mysteries and free-range chickens.

🔍

Chicken Cracks Case, the headline read across the front page of the Deschutes Valley News. Lilly liked that one the best, it even had a good picture of Patti, and decided then and there in the line at the Foodmart that she would find a frame and put it up on the wall in the front room. The girl at the register hardly looked old enough to run a register with her black braids forming loops around her ears.

Lilly put the paper down on the little table thing with that machine people used for credit cards. She’d even seen people use those cards to pay  for something like a newspaper, ridiculous.  “How much is that, dear?”

“Fifty cents, ma’am.”

Ma’am. When had that happened? Lilly clucked her tongue softly and pulled out the small beaded change purse she had made down at the classes they held at the library. The black and clear beads sparkled, but it was the small red beads on the comb of the chicken that really caught the light.

“That’s pretty,” the girl said. “Where’d you get it?”

“I made it.” Lilly stroked the front of the purse. “That’s my girl, that’s Patti.”

“You named your chicken patty?” The girl smiled. “Really?”

“Why? I like the name, it was my dear aunt’s name.”

The smile vanished as quick as a snake into a hole. “Oh, sorry.”

Lilly waved a hand, then snapped the purse open. “Don’t worry about it dear.” She dug out two quarters, a Delaware and a Texas, and held them out. She nodded at the paper. “That’s my Patti too.”

The girl took the coins and looked at the paper. Her smile flickered back to life. “Oh, I saw that. It must have been so scary! How did it happen?”

Lilly looked around. No one in line, it wouldn’t take long to tell anyway. “Well, the reporter didn’t get the whole story, you know. This is what happened.

🔍

Patti’s a barred rock hen, or a Plymouth hen, but she’s called barred rock on account of her black and white feathers. I have a little place just out of town, past the railroad tracks. It isn’t much, only a couple bedrooms but since I live by myself that’s one more bedroom than I need. But sometimes my son comes for a visit and brings my grandson, so it’s nice to have then. My house sits on a little more than an acre of land but all along one side and the back it is wooded and overgrown. I pay a kid to mow the rest of it.

I don’t do much with all that space. I’ve never had a green thumb. I thought about getting a pet but I can’t stand dogs with their running around and jumping and barking all the time. Plus you know what dogs will get into, disgusting animals. Cats aren’t much better and the way they look at you, sometimes I feel like they’re imagining that they are lions and are curious how we might taste. So I decided that a chicken or two would be about perfect. They’re pretty easy to take care of and unlike dogs or cats they’d actually do something useful and provide eggs. Those so-called free range eggs you’ve got here go for almost four dollars a dozen! I can’t afford that much and they aren’t much better than the cheap eggs that have almost no color to them at all.

Over at Mike’s Feed and Seed I picked out two little barred rock chicks. Nothing but little balls of mostly black fluff back then. I named them Patti and Wendy, from Peter Pan. The feed store sold me everything I needed to raise them up, even a coop with a little fenced in yard.

Right off the bat I could tell them apart. For one thing Patti was always the smartest. She jumped on top of the feeder first, she came when I called her first and pretty soon it was clear that she was the boss. Wendy, poor thing, is about as bright as an earthworm.

We got along fine, three hens living on my little place. The girls grew up and started laying me the nicest eggs you’ve seen. The coop has a little door at the back where I can get the eggs out and most mornings that’s my breakfast. You can’t get fresher eggs than eggs fried up in a skillet the very morning that the chicken laid them!

But all this trouble started a few weeks back. I let the girls roam my property during the day, but they always come back to the coop at night and they always lay their eggs in the nest box, usually before I let them out. Then all of a sudden there was only one egg in the nest box and I noticed that Patti had run off somewhere.

Of course I thought right away that she must have gone into the woods, usually the girls did go into the woods during the day. Cooler there, I suppose. I wouldn’t have worried except she didn’t come running when I went out the back door. Most of the time if I went out the back door they come and then I throw them some scratch corn. They tear up the grass some but I don’t worry much about that.

When Patti didn’t come I went looking for her. Wendy, poor dear, was in the coop’s fenced yard but she hadn’t found her way out the little door yet. That first day I found Patti under their favorite apple tree right at the edge of the woods. She’d made herself a little nest there beneath the tree in the grass. Chickens can get broody, so I took her egg and carried her back to the coop. I kept them both locked up for two days so that she’d give up on the idea of making a nest in the woods.

At first that seemed to work fine but two days later she disappeared into the woods again.

I looked but Patti wasn’t back under the apple tree and she didn’t come when I called. I did see the big ginger tom cat from Mr. Aiken’s house next door. He slinked off quick when he saw me coming until he got over the fence. I never liked that cat, always strutting around like he owned the block. Mr. Aiken walks like that sometimes too, thinks he’s something important working at the bank. I don’t know about him, but that tom cat probably fathered most of the unwanted kittens in the neighborhood. I’d suggested before to Mr. Aiken that he get the tom fixed and the way he looked at me, you’d think that I’d suggested he get his own parts snipped!

I worried that maybe the tom had gone after my Patti, and when she didn’t come back that night I was scared he’d killed her.  The next morning I put on my yard boots and went out to look for her. Poor Wendy was fussing in the coop, I could tell she was worried too, especially being all alone.

I went up the hill first past my fruit trees. It isn’t much of an orchard, mostly apple with a few pear and cherry trees thrown in bit I usually get a few pies out of it all. There’s a path back up there into the woods and I few times I’d seen the girls go up that far from the house.

I called out, here chick, chick, but she didn’t come. I didn’t hear a peep out of her. The only thing I did hear was a soft meow and the slinky black and white female from the house on the other side of the woods came strolling out of the trees as if she owned the whole place. She had that self-satisfied look that cats get when they think they’re being especially clever. She sat right down there and started licking her paws clean. I couldn’t see if there was any blood on them, but it made me terribly worried. I tried getting into the woods but those blackberry vines grow all over there and I couldn’t get through. The whole time that cat watched me as if mocking me. I became convinced that she had killed Patti. So convinced, I’m ashamed to say, that I picked up a stone and threw it at her.

Of course I didn’t hit her, my aim isn’t that good. It didn’t even scare her. She sat and watched the rock fly past and then several seconds later she picked herself up and strolled off through the blackberry brambles as if she didn’t have any care in the world!

I was of a half-a-mind to go around the front to my neighbor’s yard but the people that live over there, they never seemed like the friendly types. Some nights I’d heard them scream at one another, the husband and his wife. He’s a whip thin guy with sunken eyes. Every morning he’s out running past my house down the street, wears shorts no matter what the temperature. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in anything else. The first few times that I saw him go past when I was outside I called out a friendly hello. You know what? He never even so much as looked at me, just grunted and kept going. His wife was such a frail looking thing, all pale skin and even skinnier than her husband. She liked to wear lots of jewelry, but you could tell it wasn’t anything special. Anything bright must have caught her eyes the way bright things attract crows.

It was the fact that they weren’t all that friendly that stopped me from going around that day. After I couldn’t get through the berry brambles I decided to wait and see if Patti’d come back on her own that night.

Even when it got dark she didn’t come back. I was just about convinced that one of those cats had gotten her. I could tell Wendy was worried to, in her own dim way. That night it rained and then I felt really bad, because if she wasn’t dead that meant she was sitting out there in the rain somewhere. She might have gotten up in a tree and gotten some shelter, but I couldn’t hardly sleep for all my worrying.

The next day I got up early and drove into town. I bought myself a pair of pruning shears, the little ones, over at the feed and seed. I also got myself a pair of gardening gloves. Then I went straight home and went up the hill to those berry brambles. I had my cell phone with me in case I fell or twisted an ankle, the shears and I dressed in sweats that I didn’t mind getting dirty. I snipped and snipped those berry canes out of my way. They were good gloves I had gotten at the store, for twelve ninety-nine they had better be, and I didn’t get stuck at all but sometimes the thorns did catch on my sleeves. After I got past the canes to the trees it was a little easier. I snipped little branches and was able to get back into the woods for the first time.

There was a path of sorts but it was dark back under there and rain still dripped from the branches above. Now and then small branches or brambles blocked my way and each time I snipped and shoved them out of the way. I called for Patti but she didn’t answer. Pretty soon the path started down the hill. It went around two boulders almost as large as me and a big cedar tree that leaned over them. I almost didn’t even see it but as I went past the shape of the eggs caught my eye.

Patti! Except she wasn’t there. I got down on my hands and knees and crawled under the low-hanging boughs of that tree, breathing that rich cedar smell and a sort of musty smell beneath that. Right between the rocks, beneath the tree was a small nest and three eggs. I recognized the eggs, those definitely came from Patti. There were even a few of her feathers in her nest.

But not my girl. That convinced me that the cat must have gotten her and left nothing but a couple feathers. I picked up her eggs and slipped them into the pouch on the sweat shirt I was wearing.  I was about to leave when I looked up and there, deeper between the rocks beneath that tree I saw a human skull looking back at me!

That gave me a fright! I almost screamed it scared me so much. I think in situations like that you discover what you’re made of and I looked at that poor unfortunate woman’s skull. One side was all bashed in and the critters hadn’t left but a few scraps of meat on her bones. Her head had fallen forward but I could just see beneath the leaves and needles heaped on her a bit of a necklace catching what little light there was. I didn’t touch it, I know better than that, but it made me think. It looked like something the neighbor’s wife might fancy and I hadn’t seen her in a good while. Him, I saw every day, out running. But I usually saw her coming or going in that little Nissan she drove.

Well, just thinking that was enough for me to crawl out of there very carefully. When I got out I took out my cell phones and called the police.

“This is Mrs. Burges, I’d like to report a murder, please,” I told the dispatcher.

“Ma’am, are you in danger?” he asked.

“I don’t think so,” I told him. “Not unless my neighbor finds out I found his wife.”

“Where are you?” he asked.

“I’m in the woods behind my house. I was looking for my chicken but I’ve found a body instead. I did find a nest near the body, and I’m sorry, I took the eggs before I saw the body. It looks like it has been covered up but I could see the skull and it is all bashed in. There’s a necklace like she wore. That’s how I recognized her.”

“Can you give me your full name and address?” he asked.

So I gave him all of my information and told them what I knew, that I hadn’t seen my neighbor’s wife in some time and that she liked cheap jewelry. I only had to see those delicate cheek bones and I knew it had to be her body. The police dispatcher told me he’d have units out right away to my property.

“Well, you should send them to my neighbor’s property too, or how else are you going to arrest him?”

“The officers will take care of everything when they get there Mrs. Burges. You should go home and wait for them,” he said.

I agreed. I was sure that the cat I’d seen was just as murderous as its owner. It must have killed Patti and ate her. At least he didn’t eat his wife. And I planned on going home. I didn’t want to get any more mixed up in that business than I already was, but as I started back I heard a chicken squawk.

I recognized Patti’s squawk right off, plus Wendy was back home safe in her coop and this was much closer. I picked my way on down the path and realized that this part of the path was much easier to walk. The branches didn’t block it. At one point I stepped to the side to avoid stepping in a muddy section and saw a well-formed sneaker print in the fresh mud. I felt a shiver run through my limbs. It had to have been made that morning, because the rain last night would have ruined the print!

I hurried on and in a short distance I reached my fence only to find a gap had been snipped through the wire. On the other side was my neighbor’s property and the woods soon gave way to clear ground. I stepped through and went right to the edge of the woods, hiding behind a clump of hazelnuts. You know what I saw?

Him! My neighbor, the runner, carrying Patti upside back toward his house! He’d killed his wife and now he was going to kill Patti too!

Well, I wasn’t going to let that happen.

I marched right out there after him but he was fast. Must come from all that running. I lost sight of him when I had to detour around an old rusted heap on his property. When I made it around that I saw him down the hill, behind his house with Patti dangling upside down. Worse than that he pulled out a knife!

I yelled at him. “Hey! That’s my chicken!”

He jumped but he didn’t drop Patti or the knife. He scowled at me. “I found it on my property. I don’t see a collar on it.”

“Who puts a collar on a chicken? Point is, that’s my chicken,” I told him and marched right down there into his yard.

Now, that might not seem real smart but I couldn’t let him kill Patti and I didn’t think he’d go and do something stupid like killing me over a chicken. I stuck out my hand.

“Now hand her over!”

He looked at Patti and then looked at me and then he shook his head. “Even if she was your chicken you shouldn’t let her go on other people’s property. Seems to me that you forfeited any right to her when she came over here. And you’re trespassing.”

“She only came over here because you cut my fence,” I said. I knew right then that wasn’t the right thing to say. He hadn’t put it together where I’d come from until I said that.

His eyes narrowed and he pointed that knife at me!

I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared. My heart beat so fast that I thought it’d burst. But I was also plenty mad.

“How dare you! How dare you point a knife at me! You’re nothing but a chicken thief and a bully!”

Things might have gone really bad right then but my cell phone rang. He lowered the knife when I took out my phone. He couldn’t know who was calling, but it made him rethink what he was doing I expect.

“Mrs. Burges, this is the police dispatch. I wanted to let you know that the police are nearly to your house.”

“Don’t come to my house,” I said. I looked at my neighbor. “I’m at the neighbor’s house, that’s 423, and he’s threatening me with a knife.”

“Hey!” He shoved the knife in his belt. “Don’t say that!”

“Please hurry,” I told the police. I covered the phone with my free hand. “That’s the police, I’d recommend you hand over my chicken now.”

“You called the police over a chicken?” he asked.

I didn’t answer, I just held out my hand, and when he gave me Patti back I cradled her in my arm. Poor dear, her beak was wide open as she panted. She must have been so terrified to be hanging upside down and threatened with a knife.

“Tell them I gave you your chicken back,” he said.

It was about right then that the police cars pulled up in front of his house. I didn’t answer him. I just walked around his house out into the front. The dispatcher was still on the phone. “I see them now, they just pulled up.”

“Are you still in danger?”

My neighbor had followed me into the front, he had a sullen look on his face but he wasn’t threatening anyone with the police right there. “I don’t think so, no. Thank you.”

He spread his hands out when the police came through the gate with their guns drawn. “Hey, I gave her back her fucking chicken!”

I looked back then and smiled at him. “Oh, I didn’t call them about my chicken. I called them about your dead wife up the hill on my property.”

I think they call that expression dumbstruck.

 

🔍

Lilly shrugged. “There wasn’t much to say after that, the paper got the other details correct. It looks like he killed his wife after she threatened to leave him. He didn’t want her body on his property, but he wanted it close by. I think he figured no one would find her there and he was probably right, I wouldn’t have found her if it hadn’t been for Patti.”

There were other people in line now but they all had smiles. Lilly picked up her paper and held it up so that everyone could see her chicken that had led her to the body. Maybe not on purpose, but without her his wife wouldn’t have been found at all.

The girl at the register shook her head. “That’s amazing.”

“Of course since then Patti won’t go near the woods,” Lilly said. “I think getting grabbed by a murderer scared her too much. But she’s laying her eggs again.”

Lilly looked at the picture again on her way out. Yep, before she went home she was going to go over to Target. They’d have some affordable picture frames there and then the front page of the paper was going right up on the wall.

🔍

3,619 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 58th weekly short story release, written in February 2011. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Candle’s Bridge.