“Honey, if you don’t feed it, it’ll die like the last one.”
“But Mom,” Garrett whined, as only an eight year old can, “every time I go near the cage it goes crazy and tries to escape. Or kill me.”
She finished rinsing the dishes, dried her hands and turned to face him. “You have to approach it slowly and speak to it in a soft, reassuring voice. If you’re nice to it, it’ll learn to trust you.”
Garrett sighed and looked doubtful. “It’s just mean, Mom.”
“No, it’s just frightened. Try to look at it from the other side. How would you feel if you saw your mom and dad die, then someone grabbed you, took you away from your home and put you in a cage in a strange place?”
“I didn’t mean to kill the mom and dad, it was an accident.”
“I know, and that’s why you’re trying to take care of…what name did you give it?”
“That’s why you’re trying to take care of Freckles, to do the right thing.”
Garrett laid his head on the table and began tracing invisible patterns on the wood with an index finger. “Freckles hates me. He hates me the same as all the other ones did.”
“I’m sure that’s not true.” She took a seat next to Garrett and lifted his chin in her hand. “Nobody could hate you.”
He smiled, only a little.
She let go of his chin and straightened in her chair. “Now, how’s Freckles’ leg doing?”
“I dunno, I can’t get close enough to see.”
She stood and clasped Garrett’s hand, pulling him up. “Come on, let’s go check it out together.”
They left the warm kitchen and crossed the large, chilly expanse of overgrown field behind the house. When they reached the faded barn, she pulled a key from her pocket and fitted it to the lock. As the door swung open, Freckles let out a caterwaul.
“Freckles?” she asked, gently. Kindly.
Inside the cage, Freckles looked a mess. He was very dirty, and it was obvious his crushed leg was beyond repair. She stooped to kneel next to the cage and carefully reached in to stroke Freckles’ head. Freckles snatched her hand and bit her, hard enough to draw blood.
She withdrew with a yelp. “Freckles! Bad!" she yelled. "Bad boy!”
“See?” Garrett asked. “He’s mean, like I told you.”
“Maybe you’re right,” she said, shaking her head with regret and applying pressure to her bleeding hand. “And I don’t think that leg will ever heal.”
“Do we have to—”
She put a hand on his shoulder. “I think so, honey. I’m sorry, but it’s the humane thing to do.”
Garrett hung his head and began to cry softly as she crossed the barn, lifted the rifle from the wall and loaded it. Seemingly aware of what was going on, Freckles let out a low, keening wail.
She returned with the gun and pointed it at Freckles’ head. Garrett turned to leave as Freckles’ cries intensified, but she reached out a hand to stop him. “Garrett, if you’re going to keep catching things and bringing them home, you need to understand what it means to take care of them. Even if killing them is the best way to take care of them.”
Garrett turned back and stood next to her, facing the cage. She leveled the sight at Freckles’ temple and pulled the trigger.
In the millisecond between the trigger pull and the bullet’s entry into his small skull, Freckles yelled, “NOOOOO!!!!!” Then he slumped over onto the hay, lifeless, his mouth and eyes still wide with terror.
Garrett burst into tears and she clutched him close, rubbing his shoulder. “Aw, Garrett. I’m sorry.”
She knelt down, cleared the stray hairs away from his eyes and wiped his face with her sleeve. “This one just wasn’t meant to be.”
The next morning, Garrett’s dad came to his bedside at dawn to wake him. “Buddy?” he asked, gently shaking the boy awake.
Garrett roused enough to prop himself up on an elbow, rubbing his eyes. “What?”
“I’ve got a surprise for you, buddy. To help you forget about Freckles.”
Garrett swung his feet out to the floor and into his boots, suddenly awake and alert with excitement. As Garrett stood and shrugged into his coat, his dad continued.
“This one’s name is Julie, and she’s very nice.”