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Lest the Fire Consume

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Derek's mom has left him in the produce section for a minute while she grabs some milk. He's old enough that he can stay there without her holding his hand. It's a point of pride. He's loafing by the eggplants, tapping his fingers over the edge of the counters, and finds himself walking forward without aim.

Sort of without aim, anyway. There is a tiny thumping sound somewhere close, and Derek wants to know what it is. It matches his tapping.

"Derek!" he hears from a few steps ahead, and looks up. Mrs. Stilinski beams at him, her brown eyes crinkling at the edges.

Derek smiles back. You can't not like Mrs. Stilinski, because she likes everyone. Knows everyone, too; she's the children's librarian, and she always has a kind word and a good book waiting for Derek. And sometimes a cookie, even if she makes him go outside to eat it and wash his hands after.

It's been a month since Derek visited the library. They were away from town, visiting relatives, where Derek could run in the woods with Laura and all their cousins, snapping at rabbits and pretending to hunt deer. Fun as that was, it's still a relief to be back in his own woods, where he knows all the good corners to curl up, watching owls hunt mice and reading by moonlight.

Mrs. Stilinski has grown larger since Derek last saw her, her belly all big and swollen. It's where the thumping is coming from, and without thinking, Derek reaches for it.

"Derek!" His mom materializes behind him. "We do not touch people without permission." Her voice is sharp, and Derek cringes. So much for being allowed on his own in the supermarket. "Rachel, I am so sorry."

But Mrs. Stilinski just laughs. "It's fine. He's more polite about it than the average adult, actually." She takes Derek's hand and guides it to her stomach. Derek spreads his fingers, gasping when he feels movement.

Mrs. Stilinski smiles wider. "He kicked! I think he likes you already," she tells Derek in a confiding tones. "You could be my boy's big friend when he comes out, couldn't you, Derek?"

Derek nods and ducks his head, grinning. His mother sighs behind him, but it's a fond sound. She pulls him by the collar, gently because there are humans watching and they'll think she's hurting Derek if she pulls hard enough for him to feel it. "You're very kind, Rachel."

"Nope," Mrs. Stilinski says, and winks at Derek. "Just happy to see my friend again."

Now that Derek knows that thumping for a heartbeat, it's easy to follow, even as he trails after his mom to get the rest of the groceries.