“Miss Clea, Miss Clea!” Millie ran up to me with some kind of floppy looking animal in her hand. “Look!”
“That’s… wonderful, Millie, what is it?” I wrinkled my nose as the little amphibian looking creature looked up at me and opened its mouth for a second, then closed it with a snap. “Is that a salamander?”
“Yup! That’s what Mister Dean says it is!” Her wiggly little friend managed to twist some, and was hanging by a leg just opening his mouth over and over again. The little dude looked panicked.
“Well why don’t you let your friend go? You know, he likes to be in the water and in the mud just like you like to sleep in your bed at home. We all have places we feel comfortable.”
“Uh-huh,” Millie said, with a disappointed pout. “But I like him.”
As I watched the golden bear disappear into the woods, he took one last look in my direction. “If you like him, Millie,” I said, conscious of how hollow my voice sounded, how distracted I was, “then that’s even more reason to let him go. Get Dean to take a picture and then let him go back to playing where he likes to play.”
That brought a smile to the precious little girl’s face. “That makes sense!” she said. “I wouldn’t like it if somebody kept me from my friends, or if they held me by the leg.”
“Exactly,” I said smiling despite the nagging pain in my guts. “Look, he’s already looking happier.”
“Yeee!” Millie squealed, running off with her hapless, slimy little friend and before long a picture was snapped, and that undoubtedly traumatized salamander was back, slithering around in whatever gross stuff salamanders slithered around in.
It’s a word that I’ve wrestled with my whole life. It’s why I decided to start The Cubby Hole in the first place. I figured that if I couldn’t have a family of my own – and I did, oh God did I ever want one – I may as well make a try and helping other people’s families.
Jamesburg has a few other day cares, but none of them quite like mine. Actually, I was surprised as all hell when I opened the doors the first day and already had three little cubs waiting with their proud parents out front.
At first I thought I’d be content with just taking care of kids. But then that turned into hiring Dean and buying a bigger place. Then it turned into growing into a pre-school, then it turned into two employees and almost thirty kids on any given day.
But you know what? I was still missing something. Successful business, good friends, and a whole lot of love flying around the ethers all around me… but something was still missing.
I knew what it was, of course, but I’d never admit it to anyone else. After all, wasn’t everything going right for me? Wasn’t everything good?
It was, I had to admit. Like, on the surface, everything was fine. I kept cool, I drank some wine with my friends on Fridays and took some nice vacations to the mountains? But under the water?
What’s that saying about ducks? How you never see how hard they’re working until you’re one of them?
I wasn’t ever very good at idioms.
Kinda like love, I thought with a shrug.
It was like a thunder peal ripped through the sky, but it was much thicker, much heavier and more… wooden. I darted off my little sitting place, trying to find the source of the sound, but when you’re inside a forest, finding a tree isn’t the easiest thing in the world. It’s also pretty damn hard to figure out which direction you need to pull a bunch of kids in to keep anyone from getting hurt.
By the time I saw which one was falling – a massive, and I mean massive – pine on the riverbank, it was almost too late.
“Run!” I shouted. “Dean! Malia! Get them out of the river! That tree’s coming down!”
I charged for the kids. Dean had both raccoons under his arms, Malia and Leena were trying to get Millie.
Poor Millie, she could hardly swim. She’d just let her little salamander go and so she was out in the middle part of the river. Right under the falling tree.
My clothes ripped apart, my shirt tearing and my jeans splitting down the seams. In a half an instant, my muscles went tight and hard, tan fur surged out of me, and all around me the world became a thousand times more vivid and clear. Blood flowed through my muscles, making my entire body tingle.
I was running before the transformation completed, and by the time I was full lynx, I was blasting across the distance between the little cub and where I was standing.
With every ounce of strength I had, I charged toward the panicking panther cub. I dove, pushing her to the ground and roughly covering her. The sandbar in the middle of the river had a little give to it, but not enough to keep me safe. I gritted my teeth, waiting for impact.
At least she’ll be safe, I told myself.
I heard Dean shout and then I heard Malia scream. Leena, bless her heart, yelled something I couldn’t understand, and underneath me, Millie wept.
The tree, it was coming. I heard the wind rushing through the needles. I felt the blast of air.
A branch scraped my back. It was about to pin me down to this sandbar, I just knew it. My thick muscle would keep Millie safe, but me? Not a chance.
I closed my eyes, and held them tightly shut.
The pain I expected never came.
Instead, I heard a grunt. I heard a roar, and then I heard the tree crackle and split. I lifted my head to see what in the world had just saved my life.
Not what, I realized. Who.
“You?” I asked in the way you do when you’re staring at death and not entirely sure why you aren’t dead. “Is that… is that really you?”
“Might… want to move…” the massive, muscled-up half-bear groaned. “Like… soon.”
I know I said waiting for fate was just about the dumbest thing I can imagine.
But, yeah. This wasn’t the first time I was dead wrong.