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The Best Pet

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Annabelle lived in an enormous house with two parents who didn't pay a whole lot of attention to her. Her father worked very long hours doing something involving "financial instruments," which were not the sort of instruments one could play in an orchestra, but rather something very dull involving large sums of other people's money. Her mother spent a great deal of time organizing fundraisers for her favorite philanthropic organization. This left Annabelle, who was ten, to her own devices on a regular basis.

Annabelle would have liked a cat or dog to keep her company, but her parents refused. Her mother said she knew perfectly well that children couldn't be trusted to look after pets themselves, and as she certainly didn't have time to look after a pet, Annabelle would have to make do with stuffed animals. Annabelle had a large collection, but found them rather unsatisfying companions.

She was supposed to keep her things in her own bedroom, and her mother would loudly complain when Annabelle would leave her mittens by the door, which seemed a bit ridiculous to Annabelle, given how large the house was. She was not, however, allowed to take food into her bedroom because it might attract pests. Her parents did not believe in corporal punishment but did believe in shouting. The first time Annabelle got shouted at for one of her mittens going missing, she felt absolutely terrible about her own carelessness. The second time this happened, she was fairly sure she'd left her mitten in her coat pocket and hung her coat in the front closet, but since there was no left mitten in either her pocket or the floor of the closet, she supposed she must have lost it somewhere. But when her mother furiously accused Annabelle of somehow causing one of her (cashmere-lined, Italian leather) gloves to disappear, Annabelle realized that this was absurd. She hadn't touched the glove, or her mother's coat. If her mother was going to accuse her of things she was absolutely certain she hadn't done, maybe she should stop worrying about the other things her mother liked to shout about. And after that, she stopped fretting about her lost mittens, and she started sneaking food into her room on a regular basis.

This story really starts with two ginger-maple cookies.

There had been a bake sale at Annabelle's school, and she bought some cookies with her allowance money. She actually bought four cookies, and ate two of them before she got home, but she had two left over, which she stuffed into the sleeve of her cardigan sweater in order to slip them past her mother. In her room, she left them on the lower shelf of her nightstand, a comic laid loosely on top of them so her mother wouldn't see. She planned to save them to eat after bedtime, when she also intended to read a book under the covers with a flashlight. In the meantime, she went to practice the piano; she then ate dinner with her mother.

When she got back to her bedroom, she'd nearly forgotten about the cookies, but once she'd settled into her bed, she remembered them. She reached down for them, but her groping hand found no cookies. She sat up and turned on her flashlight for a better look.

The comic book had fallen onto the floor. One of the cookies was in the back corner of the nightstand shelf. The other was gone.

This was genuinely startling. If both of the cookies had been gone, this might have suggested that her mother had found them. She certainly would have confiscated both of them, if she had. She also would have shouted at Annabelle, but at the very least, she would not have left one cookie behind. Annabelle nibbled the remaining cookie under the covers of her bed as she read Watership Down, wondering what could have become of the other cookie. Could she have eaten it without remembering it? No. Could she have been mistaken about how many cookies she had? Still no. She remembered laying down two cookies with perfect clarity.

Someone, or something, had taken the second cookie.

She thought back to the missing mittens. And the single hand-knitted sock that had gone missing the previous week (which her mother had blamed her for, even though Annabelle had been absolutely positive that she'd put both socks into the hamper). What on earth would want cookies and stray mittens?

The only way to find out was going to require more cookies.

#

Over the next week, Annabelle carefully left a series of things lying out in her room. Snacks left on her desk, or on her desk chair, or up on one of her bookshelves, or pushed to the very back of her nightstand shelf -- those did not disappear. On the floor, or near the edge of her nightstand shelf -- those quickly disappeared, or at least certain snacks did. Chips vanished quickly; so did raisins and other odd bits of dried fruit. The banana got ignored. Annabelle tried peeling it, but unfortunately her mother came in to gather up Annabelle's laundry and stepped on the peeled banana, which led to a whole lot of unpleasantness and a lot more difficulty sneaking snacks out of the kitchen.

Whatever had stolen the cookies, though, wasn't just looking for food. Annabelle tried leaving out some of the odd mittens and socks, and those disappeared too, though not quite as promptly -- except for the time she left out a silk scarf that belonged to her mother. (This was after the banana. Her mother had called her some very unkind names and Annabelle was feeling a bit vindictive.) That vanished very quickly.

She started making a list.

Things that get taken: cookies, chips, raisins, dried pears, nuts from trail mix, Ritz crackers, fleece mitten, cotton sock, silk scarf, Kleenex.

Things that get ignored: banana, apple, half bagel, fleece scarf, school sweater, scratchy wool hat Aunt Lilian knitted, string cheese.

Finally, one night Annabelle carefully left out a sock, a scarf, a whole lot of Kleenex, an oatmeal cookie broken into quarters, and most of a bag of chips. She just hoped her mother didn't come in later because if she did, she was so dead. She pulled the covers over her head and settled down with her flashlight and a book, determined to stay awake.

It was the crunching of the potato chips that woke her. Her flashlight was still on. Carefully, she pulled the covers off her head and looked around the room.

Silhouetted by the flashlight against the dark wood of her dresser, Annabelle saw a tiny -- really tiny, smaller than a guinea pig -- hippopotamus, snuffling around on her rug for the last of the chips. She held her breath, hoping she wouldn't startle it. The hippo ate the last chip, then grabbed the sock and trotted toward her closet. When Annabelle shifted to follow it with her flashlight, her bed springs creaked. The hippo froze, dropped the sock, roared at her -- a tiny roar -- and scuttled off at high speed without the sock.

A hippo. A hippo? Was she dreaming this? Annabelle put down the flashlight, and went to the bathroom to assure herself that she hadn’t been dreaming. Then, since any time she tried to eat in dreams the food disappeared, she ate the remaining cookie pieces. Definitely not dreaming.

The hippo had bolted into Annabelle's closet. Her closet was extremely messy; after carefully unpacking everything in it, she found a small hole in the back corner. She lay down and peered into the hole with her flashlight and concluded that the hole led into the bathroom next door, but not the bathroom itself, into the area with the pipes and stuff. There was actually a panel screwed into the wall that also led into that area, and she tiptoed downstairs for a butter knife so she could unscrew it. When she took it off, she could get a good look at the pipes and the back of the bathtub, but she didn’t see the hippo.

She put on her bathrobe, but left her slippers behind because she was quieter in just her socks. For two hours, she hunted through the house, thinking up excuses in case she accidentally woke up her parents. (“I thought I heard a mouse” was a bad one; if they set traps, they might hurt the hippo. Maybe if she heard them coming she would hide the flashlight and pretend to be sleepwalking.) Finally, she found it in the back of the linen closet, which turned out to have a hole leading from the guest room. The hippo was asleep, resting on a nest of mittens and socks, nestled delicately into shredded Kleenex and the silk scarf. Annabelle looked at it for a long moment. It was real; it was really a hippo; it was sleeping in the back of the linen closet for real. Then she eased the pile of old sheets back into place, and closed the closet door, and went to clean up her own closet and put the cover back over the plumbing so her mother wouldn't know what she'd been up to.

#

Annabelle had heard stories about people taming squirrels enough that the squirrels would eat out of their hand. She purchased herself a bag of potato chips, hid it in her underwear drawer, and started trying to do that with the hippo.

She'd already succeeded in getting it used to coming to her room to find food. Next, she started sleeping with her desk lamp on, so it would stop considering light to be an indication that it ought to scurry away. As long as she stayed motionless in her bed, it seemed comfortable with the soft light of her desk lamp.

Getting it used to her being out of her bed was harder. After a few sleepless nights, she started curling up and just sleeping on the floor. She knew the house hippo was coming around because the potato chips were gone in the morning, and she could move them closer and closer to her sleeping self.

One hiccup there: her mother caught her on the floor one morning. (The potato chips, fortunately, were long gone by then.) "I'm more comfortable this way," Annabelle tried, which sent her mother into a concerned flurry of phone calls to furniture stores about an extra-firm mattress. Annabelle did not want an extra-firm mattress -- she quite liked the nice, soft bed she had now and fully intended to go back to sleeping there once the house hippo was completely used to her.

"I'm sorry," she said, dolefully, hoping she was owning up in time to prevent a mattress purchase. "It's not really that it's more comfortable. I've been pretending that I'm Sara Crewe from A Little Princess and she sleeps on a very hard bed after she loses all her money. I was going to do that for the next month. After that, I was thinking I'd pretend to be Hazel from Watership Down and sleeping in a warm burrow full of rabbits and a soft bed is much better for that."

Her mother was exasperated, but to Annabelle's relief, stopped talking about a new mattress.

The house hippo taming was going swimmingly. It was willing to eat chips off the edge of Annabelle's blanket; it was even willing to eat chips laid out on her carefully arranged hair. She started sleeping on the floor, one arm flung out, chips within inches of her hand; then up against her fingertips; then in the palm of her hand itself.

One night she felt a tickle against her palm and opened her eyes to find the hippo nibbling the potato chip she'd carefully laid there. She'd been trying to lie perfectly still but she must have twitched because the hippo looked up and straight at her. She waited for it to roar, or bite, or scuttle away, but instead it dipped its head and went calmly back to eating the chip.

The next step was to get it to eat out of her hand while she was awake and sitting up; that took lots more patience but eventually worked. And finally, as long as Annabelle was completely alone (and offering snacks), the house hippo would come out in the evening when she was doing her homework, lean up against her leg, and let her scratch its head.

#

Unfortunately, later that year, Annabelle's parents decided that they had termites.

Annabelle wasn't sure what had led them to this conclusion; she certainly hadn't seen any termites. They'd had a pest control person come in and he said they had termites, but then he would, wouldn't he? He also said the house would need to be fumigated, which meant packing up all the food and house plants, moving out for a week, dropping an enormous circus tent type thing over the entire house and filling it with poison.

"You'll need to take the pets, too," the pest control person said to Annabelle's mother, who assured him, "Oh, we don't have any pets."

This was not going to work. "But, Mom," Annabelle said. "Fumigation chemicals are some of the most toxic chemicals known to man! Or at least used, I mean, for anything. This can't be good for the house!"

"Neither are termites," her mother said, irritably.

"I feel sick at the very idea of them putting poison in our house!" Annabelle said. "There has to be an alternative!"

"Heat treatments," her mother said, "but those don't always work, and anyway, our house didn't qualify; a heat treatment could set it on fire."

A heat treatment sounded less worrisome than fumigation and Annabelle tried to talk her mother into getting a second opinion, both on the termites and on the heat treatment, but her mother said they'd already paid a deposit and the fumigation was scheduled for that weekend.

As much as it was going to be a betrayal of the trust she had painstakingly built with the house hippo, she was going to have to trap it and take it somewhere safe until the fumigation was over.

#

For the trap, she borrowed one of the plastic shoebox type things her mother liked to use to store out-of-season shoes under her bed, and punched some holes in the lid with a pointy screwdriver she found in a drawer. She carefully arranged the bottom piece on her floor and propped up the top with a stick. She baited the trap with peanut butter on toast, since that was truly the hippo's favorite and she hardly ever made it, her mother was too likely to sniff out the peanut butter. Desperate times called for desperate measures.

The hippo clearly sensed that something odd was going on (her parents were still up, downstairs, clattering around as they packed up every scrap of food and moved it out to the car for the next day) and Annabelle had to stay up extremely late to catch it. It did finally come out, nervously, then caught a whiff of the peanut butter and trotted right over. Annabelle didn't even have to yank out the stick; she just reached over and lowered the box gently over the hippo and then snapped the lid on tightly.

"I'm sorry," she said, a little tearfully, and then carefully picked up the box and tiptoed downstairs and out of the house.

Annabelle's next-door neighbor had a garden shed in their back yard with a broken lock they hadn't fussed about getting repaired since they didn't really expect anyone to steal their garden rake or the lawnmower. Annabelle carried the hippo inside. She made it a nest out of her favorite sweater and a fluffy throw pillow from the couch, and then ripped open an entire bag of potato chips and filled up a low bowl with water for it to drink. Then she let it out of the box. It roared at her and then scuttled away and hid behind a stack of plastic pots and a half-empty bag of garden compost. "I'm sorry," Annabelle said. "I'm sorry. But my parents are going to fill the house with poison. You need to stay here until they're done. It's the only way to keep you safe!"

The hippo made an unfriendly noise from the back of the shed. "I'm sorry," Annabelle said again, and then she ran back to her house before her parents could lock her out.

Her mother decided that since they'd have to vacate their house for three days, they'd make a little vacation of it and go to an indoor water park. Annabelle would have enjoyed the water slides quite a bit more if she hadn't been worrying about her hippo. Should she have left more potato chips? What if the hippo got hungry? What if he was cold or scared? What if a raccoon ate him? And most of all -- what if he never, ever trusted Annabelle again?

Finally, the weekend was over and they could go back to their house. Annabelle was expecting the house to smell funny after being filled with poison but the only smell was the lemony cleaner used by the cleaning crew her mother had hired to come in and scrub down every surface before they came back. Annabelle helped carry in the sacks of cereal, counting the hours until her parents would go to bed and she could sneak out the back door.

She'd provisioned herself with a bag of ginger-maple cookies; if nothing else, she figured, she could lay a trail of cookie pieces from the garden shed leading back into her house. If the hippo was still in the shed. If it hadn't been eaten or just left and moved into one of the neighbor's houses, instead.

"Hippo?" she said softly, opening the door to the garden shed. She stepped inside and sat down, setting a piece of ginger-maple cookie on the ground by her feet. "Hippo, are you here? Are you okay?"

In the dim light from the neighbor's security light that made its way through the open door and the dirty window, Annabelle looked around. The shed was dark and quiet, and she couldn't tell whether the nest she'd made for the hippo had been slept in, or not.

She hugged her knees -- it was chilly in the shed -- thinking about the ginger-maple cookie that had disappeared, and how if she’d never known the hippo was there, she could have saved herself a lot of trouble. And sadness, if the hippo never came back and she never found out what happened to it. Pets are hard. But it was worth it, she thought. Even if she never saw it again, having it for a while? It was worth it.

“Hippo?” she said again, her hope starting to fade.

Then she heard the faint scrabble of something shifting around, and the hippo ambled out. It sniffed at the cookie piece, then nibbled it. It looked up at Annabelle for a long moment, silently. Then it trotted to her and climbed into her lap.