"And where have you been?" Hilda chittered. Lately, her voice had become sharp, like barbed wire hidden under fallen leaves. Her tail twitched in irritation.
"I don't want to talk about it."
Hilda twitched her tail some more and sucked on her front teeth. For a moment, Steve thought she was going to let it go, let him get some much needed sleep, but no. That would have been too easy.
"Sheila said that Tracy said that Millie saw you in the dog yard again." Hilda sat back on her haunches and stared at him from the other side of the nest. Sunlight streaming in through the entrance glittered off her black eyes.
Steve sighed. Knowing there was nothing he could say that wouldn't set Hilda off on a lengthy rant, he chose to say nothing. Instead he curled himself into a ball in the darkest corner of the nest, wrapping his large tail up and around his head. With another deep sigh, the tension in his muscles released slightly and he sank deeper into the cotton batting they'd collected for their bedding. He drifted off to sleep to the sound of Hilda shuffling acorns around noisily, mumbling to herself about how right her mother had been.
Hilda was gone when Steven woke up several hours later. Steve stretched his legs in all directions as far as they would go, toes spreading wide. Then, scratching his belly absently with one paw, he rolled over. He must have been sleeping on his tail funny because it filled with pins and needles as he sat up. From previous experience, Steve knew he'd have trouble with his balance until it felt completely normal again.
He had just lifted an acorn off the pile in the corner when Hilda swooped through the entrance. She deposited two more acorns on the floor of the nest and grabbed the one out of his hands.
"Absolutely not, Steve. Those are for later."
"C'mon, Hilda. I'm starving. I'll bring you two more to replace it."
"That's what you always say."
"I swear." Steve held his paws up earnestly and flicked his tail charmingly. Hilda could never resist his tail flicks.
Hilda looked at him through the deepening shadows. She held the acorn just out of reach. "Tell me what happened this morning."
Steve's tail drooped. "I told you, I don't want--"
"I guess you can go forage for yourself," Hilda said, placing the acorn on top of others and positioning herself in front of the pile.
"Fine." Steve held out his paws. "I'll tell you. Give me the acorn." Hilda handed it to him and he turned it over and over in his paws as he thought. For once in her life, Hilda sat still, waiting. Finally, he said, "It's that damn dog toy."
"Oh, Steve." He could hear the frustration in her voice.
"I know. I know." He bit into the acorn. Through a full mouth he added, "It's just not right. I see it sitting down there, all matted up and I just can't stand it."
"It's not real, Steve." Hilda rolled another acorn over to him as he finished the first.
"I know that," he snapped. Hilda sat up straighter and looked away, trying and failing to hide the injured look on her face. "Hilda. I'm sorry." She looked back at him. "It's just ... I'm not an idiot. I know it's a stupid toy for their stupid dogs to play with." He stopped, disliking the way his throat felt, tight with emotion.
Hilda stroked his tail slowly as he cried. After a while, she said, "I want to understand. I just ... I just don't."
"You can't. You didn't see him like that," Steve said.
Hilda's glittery eyes softened. "Sometimes I wish I had. I wish I was out there on the road with you when it happened. Then maybe I'd be able to help you through this."
"No," Steve said. "I'm glad you weren't. I'm glad you don't understand." He took a shuddering breath. "Nobody should have to see something like that."
They sat together in silence, each remembering Eddie in their own way, until Hilda spoke, "So how can I help? What are you trying to do with that thing?"
Steve looked up in surprise. "Really?"
"I thought maybe I could get it through the fence and send it down the embankment. If I'm lucky, it will roll all the way to the river. If not, we can put some leaves over it or stick it under a log. Anything so it isn't just laying there in plain sight all the time."
Hilda swept up some acorn crumbs with her tail and tossed them out through the entrance. "Okay, then," she said, "what are we waiting for?" She scampered through the hole and down the trunk.
(Story inspired by this video, taken by me on Aug 18.)