This year, I've decided to challenge my writing skills by creating a weekly short story based on suggestions from my readers posted here or on Facebook. Suggest any three of a character, location, object, or genre, and I will craft a story.
This week's story is one of my own fashioning. In addition, I've decided to start adding images for each of my stories. Enjoy!
John and Bettina “Betty” Cousts, were upstanding and respected members of the town. Though she was more emotive, both of them were level-headed, fair-minded people who cared deeply for their family. They took in Betty’s father, Armand, after his wife passed, though Betty often had to keep her father in check. He had a great deal of anger against the world and had no issue venting his frustrations on those around him. George, John’s brother, was quite the opposite. He was taciturn and soft-spoken, often choosing only to speak when called upon to do so.
The children, Jack, Rebecca, Rose, Tony, and Thomas were as different as could be. Jack was the musician; Rebecca, the scholar; Rose, the humanitarian; and Tony and Thomas…were a twin pair of terrors.
It was late one night when the creature came to them.
The creature was a mass of contradiction. It was not pretty, but there was something about it that commanded attention. You couldn’t help noticing it once it had crossed your path, but it would be impossible to find if you were searching. Its overlarge eyes were lit with a spark of hope, yet guarded with the knowledge of pain. Its age was indeterminate. It appeared both youthful and ancient and as it stepped onto the welcome mat of the family Cousts that fateful night, it let out a pitiable sound that could hardly have penetrated the thick door.
However, Rose happened to be staring out the window that evening, as she oft was wont to do after supper. She spotted the creature squatting upon the welcome mat and she rushed to the door. As she flung it open, the creature shrank back in fear. Rose immediately got down on all fours and approached it, making soothing noises with her throat.
“I won’t hurt you,” she told it.
The creature whined and made no move forward, but neither did it back away. Encouraged, Rose continued toward it. When she came within range, she slowly stretched out her hand, palm down, fingers slightly splayed. There she stayed, not moving, just waiting. The creature’s nostrils flared as it took in her scent. Its eyes widened slightly. Ever so slowly, it crept forward and sniffed her fingers directly. Its nose was both warm and cold. Rose giggled at the touch and the creature leapt back at the sound. The girl stifled her mirth and made her voice soft once more.
“I’m sorry,” she apologized. “It’s just that…well, you tickled me.”
The creature watched her for a moment. Rose didn’t move. Cautiously, it stepped toward her again and its nose brushed against her fingertips. Rose held in her laughter this time. The creature’s eyes rose to meet hers and it took another step forward, bringing its head underneath her hand. It was a gesture of trust and Rose’s breath came out in a small puff against the chilled air as she rubbed the creature’s furry head. Its fur was stiff, yet pleasant to stroke. Beneath, Rose was surprised to find scales. She had never seen a creature with fur growing from scales. The creature itself seemed to enjoy the attention and let out a low sound of pleasure. As Rose continued to stroke it, the creature moved closer and closer to her until it was lying in her lap. It wasn’t as heavy as she had expected it to be.
The door opened behind her and her father appeared.
“What have you got there, Rosie?”
Rose showed him. “Can we keep her?” She wasn’t sure whether the creature in her arms was male or female, but she felt weird saying “it”.
John Cousts wrinkled his brow in thought, but before he could answer, Tony and Thomas showed up. “Ew! What is that?” Tony asked.
“Yeah! It’s ugly!”
Their cries brought Betty in from the kitchen, quickly followed by Armand. “That’s an unusual animal,” she commented mildly.
“She’s a stray,” said Rose. “There’s no collar. Can we keep her?” The creature was trembling in Rose’s arms, awaiting its fate.
Armand peered down at it, his big face locked into its usual expression of distaste and distrust. “Never seen anything like it,” he grunted. “Rose, you put that thing down and step away from it.”
“No! She needs me.”
“Rose!” His voice rose a notch.
“Now, Dad, let’s not rush to make a decision,” said Betty. “Whatever it is, it’s clearly scared and alone.”
“Not anymore. She’s home now,” Rose insisted.
“I think this is something we should discuss as a family,” said her father. “Come inside.”
Rose stood up with the creature still in her arms, but her grandfather let out a roar. “We are not letting that thing inside the house.”
“Yeah! Get rid of it!” Tony shouted.
“I’m not leaving her outside,” Rose insisted, her jaw set. Her parents saw that look and sighed.
“We will put her in the closet,” said her mother, holding up a hand to forestall all protests. Rose wasn’t satisfied with the decision, but she noted that Betty had called the animal “her” instead of “it” and that was progress. “Rose, please give her to me.”
The creature whimpered as it exchanged hands, but made no attempt to flee. Betty cradled it gently in her arms and walked inside followed immediately by her father who continued to berate her for the foolishness of the idea.
“You have no idea where it’s from or what it is! It could be diseased! It could infect the whole family and then where would we be?” The boys agreed in loud voices.
“Dad, we need to discuss this. In the meantime, I’m not going to let the poor creature sit outside.”
He continued to rail against her, but Rose was gratified to see that her mother ignored him. Rose loved her grandfather, but he was a bunch of bluster. She glanced up at her father. His face was serious and thoughtful. She wondered what he was thinking, but her wondering didn’t last long because as they walked into the living room, George, Jack, and Rebecca, who had been playing a game, jumped up at the sight of the animal in Betty’s arms.
Rebecca ran over to her mother. “What a sweet boy!” she exclaimed.
“It’s a girl,” said Rose.
“Actually, I’m not sure what it is,” said Betty, who was holding the creature like a baby and had full view of its undersides. “It appears to have no gender.”
“Where did it come from?” Jack wanted to know.
“I found her outside our house,” said Rose. “We’re going to keep her.”
“We most certainly are not!” Armand hollered.
“We are going to discuss this as a family,” John insisted. “Everyone, please gather around the table. The animal will go into a closet for the time being.”
“We can’t keep calling it ‘the animal’. It needs a name,” said Jack.
“No!” bellowed Armand. “If you name it, we’ll be forced to keep it.”
“Jack is right,” said John. “We should give it a name.”
“Stupid!” offered Tony.
“Ugly!” Thomas added.
“Gone!” Rose’s grandfather yelled.
John looked at Rose. “I think you should come up with the name.”
Rose thought about it. “Zane.”
“Zane?” Jack asked.
“I read it in a book once. I like it. It’s a good name,” said Rose simply.
“Zane it is,” said John. “Betty, please take Zane to the closet.”
“I will. Let me just grab a bit of food for her…er, him…um, for Zane, and then I’ll join you at the table.” Before she could leave, however, there was a knock at the door. “Who could that be? Rose, will you take Zane for a moment?” She transferred the animal back to Rose’s arms and went to the front door.
They barely heard Betty’s surprised greeting before Lilah Vulpina came barreling down the hallway. She was a large woman with a personality to match. Lilah knew everything about everyone. If you wanted to know the town gossip, you went to Lilah Vulpina. She bustled into the room without so much as a, “How do you do?” and stared down at the animal in Rose’s arms.
“Are you all alright?” she asked. “I saw this thing sitting on your porch this evening and I worried that you might be under some attack so I grabbed my coat and hurried over here as fast as I could but when I arrived, I saw that the animal was gone. I had no idea you would bring it inside! Don’t you remember poor Missy Gardner and the loss she suffered when some horrible animal ate her chickens last year? What if this was the very culprit who did it?” She made this declaration with a sweep of her arm and a fat finger shoved in Zane’s face. Zane growled and Lilah snatched her finger back. “See? The little monster is vicious!”
“We are going to throw it out,” Armand told her.
“We are not!” Rose shouted.
“Better yet, we should kill it before it does any more damage!” Lilah announced. The twin boys cheered.
“Now, Lilah, we don’t know what attacked Missy’s chickens and that was almost a year ago. We don’t even know that Zane is dangerous, and besides, she’s much too small to have eaten any chickens,” Betty said in a controlled tone. “All we know is that Zane is scared and alone and we were just about to sit down as a family to discuss what to do.”
“Well, I’ll have you know, Bettina, that as the head of the Ladies’ Society and the chairwoman of the Committee for Town Improvement, this monster cannot be allowed to stay within town limits. We don’t know anything about it.”
“Zane is going to be part of our family,” Rebecca said. Rose was grateful for the support.
“Not if I have anything to say about it!” Armand declared.
“Dad…,” Betty warned.
Lilah laughed; an ugly sound. “Animals aren’t family members, dear.”
Lilah’s cruel mirth incensed Armand. Red-faced, he turned on his daughter. “This is what comes of filling the children’s heads with nonsense. I told you before that treating pets like family members is foolish. The children need to learn boundaries! I raised you better, Bettina!”
“Pets are family members,” said John. “Growing up, I had a dog named Candy and she was my most trusted confidante. I could tell her things I couldn’t tell others. Didn’t you feel that way, George?”
George, caught on the spot, answered quietly. “I…loved Candy, but I’m sorry, John. I didn’t consider her family.” Betrayal and hurt strayed across John’s face.
Lilah seized the advantage. “You can’t just adopt anything, you know. Why, you might have rocks become part of your family! Why not chairs? Would the table be able to vote in next year’s mayoral election?”
“She has a point,” George said softly. Rose was disappointed; her uncle was usually on her side.
“She’s being ridiculous,” scoffed Rebecca.
“Your pets don’t vote in any election, Lilah,” said John with heat in his voice, “and this isn’t your family so whatever we decide, it’s none of your business.”
“It’s the town’s business,” Lilah avowed, “and I will be bringing it to the attention of the public.” She stormed out.
“You and your foolishness,” Armand began, but Betty cut him off.
“Rose, give me Zane. The rest of you, go sit down at the table. We are going to discuss this.” They were silent as they followed her instructions. Rose took her place near her father, who sat at the head of the table. Her grandfather chose the seat opposite him; at the foot. The twins and George sat near Armand while Rebecca chose the seat next to Rose and Jack sat across from her. Betty sat next to Jack once she returned. “Now, we are going to discuss this calmly.” Before she could continue, there was another knock at the door. “Oh, for goodness’ sake!” She rose and went to answer it.
She came back with the town veterinarian, Dr. Patrick Van Drem. “Where is the little guy?” he asked.
When John raised an eyebrow, Betty explained, “Lilah told Patrick about Zane and said that he should be checked out.”
“I came right over. Don’t want any dangerous animals around here,” the doctor said.
“I don’t think Zane is dangerous,” said John.
“Then let’s check him out,” said Patrick Van Drem.
“Zane is in the closet,” said Betty. “I’ll show you.” She led him from the room and an awkward silence descended upon the Cousts family.
It was broken after a few minutes, predictably, by Armand. “I don’t think that vet knows what he’s doing. He’s never been a very good doctor.”
“Dr. Van Drem is an excellent vet,” Rebecca disagreed.
“You don’t know that,” said Thomas.
“Yeah, you’re not a vet,” said Tony. “How would you know?”
John broke in. “Patrick is a trusted family friend and a well-respected veterinarian. Whatever he says after his examination, we will accept as truth.”
Silence settled once more.
After what seemed like an hour or two, Patrick and Betty returned. “As far as I can tell, there’s nothing wrong with Zane. Still can’t make out a gender, but Zane seems disease-free and has a loving temperament. In my professional opinion, there’s no reason not to adopt the animal.”
“Thank you,” said Rose.
The doctor winked at her. “I’ll see myself out.” He suited action to word.
“What a quack!” Armand commented.
“We are going to put this to a vote,” said John.
“A vote?” George asked.
“Yes. Majority will rule and whatever the choice is, we will all abide by it.” He looked at each one of them in turn.
“That means if the majority votes to throw Zane out, you will agree to that?” Armand asked.
John glanced at Rose. Her mouth tightened into a line. “Yes,” he said, giving her a hard look. “If it comes to that, then we will all agree to that.” Rose’s expression darkened but she stayed silent.
“Fine,” Armand grumbled.
“We will go around and vote, one by one….” John was interrupted by knocking at the door once more.
Rose stood up this time and hurried to the door. She opened it a crack, but that was just enough for Lilah Vulpina to push her meaty hand against the wood and slam it open, forcing Rose to stagger backward. “Mrs. Vulpina, we are in the middle of…”
Lilah pushed past her, book in hand, shouting as she went. “There is precedent that must be upheld!” Rose dashed after her.
“Lilah, this isn’t a good time,” John told her.
“Not for you, it isn’t!” Lilah crowed. She held up the book and thumped it with her other hand. “The laws of our town clearly state that any woman adopting a child must apply for custody by submitting a written letter with adoption fee to the richest lady of the town.”
“Gee, I wonder who that would be,” Rebecca muttered.
“Lilah, this is not a child,” said Betty.
“You are going to treat it like a member of the family,” said Lilah.
“Yes! With love and compassion!” said Betty.
“Next, you’ll give it an inheritance!” said Armand.
“Don’t be silly,” said Rebecca.
“Additionally,” said John, “those laws are antiquated. They also state that women cannot hold any position of authority. It forbids the growing of mangoes within town limits. It also enables any boy under thirteen to steal toys from other children without retribution.” Tony and Thomas looked at each other with glee. “We don’t follow those laws anymore.”
“Aw…,” said the twins.
“Nevertheless, the law is the law,” said the obstinate Lilah. “And it’s not just me. I represent members of the town who feel the same way.”
“This is not a town issue!” John insisted.
“It is now,” said Lilah.
“Why?” Jack asked.
“Because you are members of this community and your actions reflect on us all. If you decide to take in this abomination, you will be bringing danger and misery to all of us,” insisted Lilah. “You would force an entire town to recognize this monster as part of our community and we have a right to protest.”
Patrick walked in behind Lilah. “I’m sorry to bother you, but the door was open, and I had an old bed and some bowls that will make Zane feel more comfortable here.”
“The animal isn’t staying,” said Lilah.
“That depends on the family,” said John. “We are going to vote and we may decide to keep Zane.”
“And you have that right,” said Patrick.
“Not according to the law,” said Lilah, thumping her book once more.
“I have already determined that Zane is not a threat to anyone,” said Patrick. “There’s no reason to protest.”
“You don’t know everything,” said Lilah.
“Some of us believe that you’re a complete quack,” said Armand.
“We are going to vote now,” said John. Lilah opened her mouth. “You don’t get a say,” he told her. “This vote is for members of the Cousts family only.” She frowned, but said nothing.
“Rose,” said John.
“I vote that Zane stays,” said Rose.
“Armand,” said John.
“The monster goes,” said Armand.
“One to one,” said John. “Tony?”
“Two to one. Thomas?”
“That’s not an option, Thomas,” John reminded him.
“Fine. Get rid of it,” said Thomas.
“Three to one. Rebecca?”
“I want Zane to stay,” said Rebecca.
“Three to two. Jack?”
Jack looked troubled. “I’m not sure yet. Can you come back to me?”
“Son, you have to make a decision. You’re a part of this family,” his father told him.
“I know. I just need to think about it more,” said Jack.
“Very well. George?”
George would not look at his niece. “I think that Zane would bring more trouble than not. Especially with the town so divided. I vote against Zane staying here.”
“Four to two,” said John. “Armand shared a confident smile with Lilah. Patrick was stone-faced. “Betty?”
“I believe that all that Zane needs is a place to belong, to feel loved and accepted,” said Betty. “I think Zane should stay.”
“Four to three. Jack? Are you ready?”
Jack looked at Armand, then at Rose, and finally at his father. “I think that Zane should stay,” he said simply.
“Are you sure?”
He took a breath. “Yes, I’m sure.”
“It is a tied vote,” said John, “and that means it comes down to me. I have no desire to see this family or this town divided or upset. My brother is right about that. However, I think that, at this point, it would be impossible to make a decision without people being upset. So I have to think of what is best for Zane.”
“For Zane? Are you crazy? It’s an animal!” Lilah shrieked.
“Zane is a member of this family,” said John, “and deserves to be treated as such.”
Rose’s heart felt like it would burst. She ran from the table and opened the closet door. There was Zane, snoozing next to two almost empty bowls. She scooped Zane up into her arms and hugged the animal tight against her.
“No matter what happens now,” she said, “you belong to us. Welcome to the family.”