It was nerve wracking, heading out through the woods to make rounds by himself for the first time. Not because he was afraid of getting lost or encountering trouble in the form of a legendary demon, but because he was now solely responsible for the health and well-being of his patients. His patients. Not Ian's, not anyone else's, but his.
Oh, he was used to the pressure of responsibility, and Ian had assured him that he was more than ready, but there was a whole other level of pressure on a doctor as opposed to a corporate CEO.
As a palliative to his frazzled nerves, Sean replayed in his mind again what Elijah had said to him right before he set out.
"I am so proud of you, Sean, and we are so lucky to have you as our doctor now." Elijah had kissed him and bestowed his blessing, and then said, "I promise, you won't be alone."
He had to hold hard to that thought, Sean decided, as his new Jeep Cherokee made light of the sugar sand and bounded across it. Elijah was right. He wasn't alone. He had a supportive loving partner, family and friends, and an entire community of Pineys behind him.
And, he discovered moments later, a squirrel. Literally behind him.
Glancing in the rearview mirror, Sean unexpectedly encountered a pair of beady black eyes staring back at him. "Holy shit," he exclaimed, his heart jumping into his throat, and instinctively he slammed on the brakes. The Jeep slid to a stop in a spray of sand and pine needles, and a very indignant, and talkative, gray squirrel pitched face forward onto the passenger seat.
With a spate of indecipherable (to Sean at least) chatter, Rocky scrambled up, leaped onto Sean's shoulder, grabbed the short hairs above his right ear, and tugged. Hard. Sean had no trouble whatsoever deciphering that message. The temperamental squirrel was, in a word, pissed.
"Ouch! Rocky, let go! I'm sorry, but you startled the hell out of me." Sean fished in the pockets of his jacket and found a stray peanut. "Here. Have a peanut."
Rocky let go and accepted the peace offering. He deftly opened the peanut, dropping the bits of shell down the collar of Sean's shirt, and tucked the two nuts into his cheek pouch.
"Friends again?" Sean asked, and for answer Rocky snuggled into his neck. "Good. But that doesn't explain what you're doing here and why. Or what I'm going to do about you. You can't go on my rounds with me, but if I drive you home now, I won't have time to see all my patients before I have to go to the hospital." He sighed. This was not how he had envisioned his first day as a full-fledged doctor going.
The obvious answer occurred to him. He took out his cell phone and called Elijah.
"I have a stowaway," Sean said when Elijah picked up. "Can you come and get him?"
"But Rocky wants to go on your rounds with you," Elijah said.
"You mean you knew he was in the car and you didn't tell me?"
"He wanted to surprise you."
Sean huffed a laugh. "Oh, he surprised me all right. I almost had a heart attack when I looked in the rear view mirror and saw Rocky's eyes staring back at me."
Elijah giggled. "I did tell you that you wouldn't be alone."
"I thought you mean figuratively, not literally," said Sean. "But why on earth didn't you tell Rocky no? I can't take him on my rounds, Elijah."
"Because..." It seemed patently obvious, but it was surprisingly difficult to come up with a reason. "Well, he might scare my patients or throw nuts at them," he finally said.
"Rocky has promised to be on his very best behavior," Elijah solemnly assured him, and Rocky chattered softly and patted Sean's chin with his paw, as if to corroborate what Elijah had said.
"And he's going to sit on my shoulder while I examine my patients, is he?" Sean asked.
"If you look in the back of the Jeep, you'll find a small carrier for him, plus food and water. Any time you need him out of the way, you can put him in there, give him some nuts and water and he'll be fine," said Elijah.
"You've thought of everything, haven't you?"
"I tried to. He really wants to be with you, Sean. It's very sweet."
Sean knew he was doomed. It was sweet, damn it. As temperamental, ornery and opinionated as he could be, Rocky could also be utterly irresistible. And truthfully, the idea of having company on his rounds was kind of nice, once he got over the shock of discovering his stowaway, that is.
"All right, we'll give it a try and see how it goes."
"Your patients are going to love Rocky, and he'll help calm them down if they're worried or nervous. Animals are great for that."
"Maybe, but if he throws any nuts or pulls any hair," Sean rubbed the sore spot above his ear, "I'm holding you accountable."
"He won't," Elijah assured him. "Now you better get going. I'll see you at lunch. Love you, Dr. Sean."
"Love you, too, Woodjin." Sean rang off and sat there for a moment, fighting an urge to laugh hysterically as he pictured his patients' faces when he showed up with a gray squirrel perched on his shoulder. But then again, this was the Pines, and everyone knew he was the Woodjin's partner. It might not surprise them at all.
He tucked the phone back in his breast pocket and said, "Ready to go on rounds, Rocky?"
For answer, Rocky took a death grip on Sean's collar with his small paws.
Sean laughed. "Maybe I should look into a seat belt for you. I wonder if they make them squirrel-sized."
Then he put the Jeep in gear, and the Sean and Rocky show hit the road.