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Midnight Shift

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She changes the dishtowel lining the shoebox as a candystriper might, with quiet efficiency.

"Did he take the milk?" her husband asks.

She shakes her head, looks over her shoulder. "Maybe we should put in another towel."

He adjusts his glasses, peering down into the box. "Maybe that would smother him."

She frowned. "What do you know about raccoons?"

He rubbed his temple. "Just what I got from the ASPCA." He watched the poor thing's chest rise and fall rapidly, concerned. "Should I take it to a vets'?"

"The drive's too far," she gently shifted the dishtowel, making a blanket for the tiny animal. "Maybe he'll feel better in the morning." It was a false hope. Even Calvin seemed to know the poor little guy was near death.

There was a certain futility to her husband's shrug. "I shoved a stuffed pepper into the oven. If you're hungry…"

She wasn't, but she could try to shove down a few morsels. "Okay."

 

***

She had turned her stuffed pepper into a hash of meat and rice and pepper flesh, her fork listlessly poking at the thin skin.

"Waste not, want not," he recited sonorously.

She leaned on her right elbow, glaring up at him. "Don't try to tell me eating peppers builds character. That doesn't even work on Calvin."

He smirked over his glass of wine. "Everyone could use more character."

She scowled and moved the vegetables across the plate. "I wouldn't be that bold."

"I thought we agreed years ago that character is the cement that holds this family together…." He frowned. "You really are worried."

She put down her fork. "What are we going to tell Calvin if the little thing doesn't make it?"

He put down the glass and sighed. "We'll be honest."

"You really think we should?"

"Don't you think he's been warped enough by life?" Calvin was born warped – they mean it in the best of ways, referencing an imagination that knew no bounds.

"All right," she agreed, taking a small forkful of pepper, enjoying the texture, the flavor, this second of freedom.

***

He woke up in front of the TV set to find her gone. In the kitchen she sat, asleep over the shoebox containing the raccoon.

The ceiling fan spun to life over her head with a merry whirr, scared her awake. She turned sheepish at his appearance.

"You have paperwork to do."

He shook his head. "It's almost three. Let's get to bed."

"But, maybe he could use more milk…"

"He's sleeping," he said. "Not in any pain."

She relaxed as she got up, took his hand, and walked with him up to their room, pausing at the doorway to Calvin's room.

Their son tossed disconsolately in his bed, lost in a dream, clutching on to the solid presence of Hobbes.

His mother looked at Hobbes and felt a shudder of recrimination pour through her; there seemed to be something disquieting in his dark button eyes, accusing her of failing in sparing Calvin this lesson in loss. She blinked and it disappeared, her imagination on overdrive.

"What are you thinking of?"

The answer was complicated. "When he's awake, he's so sloppy and out of control," she said. "But sometimes…"

"…He's so considerate. Don't let the little monster fool you. When he wakes up he'll parachute a Mrs. Butterworth bottle out his window onto Susie's head."

"You didn't see him with the poor little thing. He was almost sweet." Maybe Calvin had a special tenderness for animals.

"He's not a brat all the time. Sometimes he can be nice. Sometimes." He rested his chin atop her head. "Comes from you."

She pushed him fondly as they headed back to their room. "And you," she said, squeezing the hand holding her to his body, trying to hold the dawn back until the poor thing found solace in the morning light.