BLOOD ON THE ASPHALT
Be especially careful crossing Iroquois Street, Mom always said. You'd think she thought a band of bloodthirsty Iroquois warriors was going to come whooping up in a pickup truck and scalp and murder her. It was just silly. Daria stepped out from behind the bush into the street.
A wave of dizziness sloshed through Rufus's brain. Just as he blinked and rubbed his eyes, the sound and jolt of an impact startled him, followed by a bump-bump as the oversized, tractor-treaded tires of his pickup ran over something. The dizziness was dispelled by a surge of panic-driven adrenalin. Rufus looked in his rear-view mirror. There was something lying in the street behind him. Something mostly red. And there was something in his mind telling him that he didn't want to know what it was. Rufus very badly wanted to be at the Oriole's Nest sports bar right now. He sped on, suddenly cold sober.
Daria reached the other side of Iroquois Street without incident. The only car she saw was two blocks distant and going the other way. She headed up the alley that cut through the middle of the next block to shorten her walking distance a little. Ahead of her, lying in the alley was a piece of poster board. As she drew closer to it, she could read its hand-lettered message: 'Ha Ha Faked ya out'. Daria scratched her head and wondered what that might be about. She guessed she'd probably never know. Shrugging, she walked on.
One day, Daria would look back on this town, with its elm tree branches arching to meet over the middle of its quiet shady streets, its sidewalks beside every street, its regular gridwork of north-south and east-west streets with no cul-de-sacs and no twisted, worm-track housing development street layouts, and even its alleys bisecting residential blocks so that trash trucks could make their collections behind the houses and trash cans wouldn't need to sit out in front of them, with a nostalgic longing. Daria didn't yet know that all towns and cities in the land weren't as people-friendly as this one. But she knew she liked the alleys. They made good shortcuts, and people's back yards were usually more interesting than their front yards.
Daria reached the Algonquin Street end of the alley and turned east along the sidewalk. Ahead of her, she noticed a small movement in the grass beside the street. Approaching cautiously, she saw what she first took for a small rat, creeping shakily toward the sidewalk. A slightly closer look told her it was a very small possum, no more than four inches long, not counting its tail. Where had it come from? Surely it wasn't a pet.
A quick look around supplied the answer. Out in the street, at the end of a surprisingly long smear of blood and gore, were the mortal remains of an adult possum, and what might have been several babies, the same size as the survivor. Daria's stomach turned at the sight. Even so, she noticed that the scene seemed very fresh. It must have happened just a few minutes ago.
Daria turned back to the surviving baby possum. It seemed to have seen her, because it was tottering straight toward her, and making little noises that sounded like sneezes. Daria walked a few steps farther up the sidewalk, and the thing altered its course and came toward her again. Oh, heck. She did not need this.
Daria looked around again, as if hoping to see a Forest Ranger or a Humane Society worker appear from behind a tree to take charge of the little orphan. None did. A tiny sneezy noise drew her attention back to the waif. Reluctantly, she approached it, and stopped about a foot away. It continued to creep toward her, tried to climb onto her sneaker and rolled off, exposing its little pink belly.
Daria gazed unhappily down at the helpless little thing. What was she supposed to do now? Its mother was very dead and it was obviously much too young to take care of itself. She didn't know a thing about the care of baby possums, and she didn't know anyone who might. If she tried to pick it up it might bite her. It certainly had enough teeth. She could just leave it alone, she supposed, and let Mother Nature take care of it. A series of images flashed through her mind, regarding what a dog or cat would do with it. No, she realized, she couldn't just leave it alone.
Sighing, she dropped to one knee and helped it roll over upright. It tried to climb her sneaker again. Hesitantly, she offered it the back of her hand as a bite test. It made no attempt to bite, but nuzzled back and forth over her skin, as if searching for something. She thought she could guess what. "Sorry, kiddo, I'm not your momma. But somehow I think you know that. I think you know your momma's dead, and that's why you're trying to adopt me. Either that, or you think I look like a possum."
Daria very gently lifted the tiny creature onto one hand, held the other hand around it, and slowly lifted it. She thought it seemed pleased. "Now what am I going to do with you, huh? What do I feed you? Where are you going to sleep? Hanging by your tail in my closet?" It regarded her earnestly and sniffed at her, but offered no suggestions.
"Well, I think we'd better go to the library and look you up. The librarian says you can find out most anything on the internet. I guess this is a good time to see if that's true. If not, there are always books, right?" Daria started off back the way she'd come.
"Shall we get you a library card while we're there? Can you sign your name? Say, what is your name. anyway?" The miniscule marsupial stared blankly at Daria, seemingly at a loss for words. "You don't have a name? Well goodness, how inconvenient. I can't just call you 'hey, you.' That’s what I call Quinn. Hmmm. I think I'll call you... Opie." Daria sauntered along toward the library, deep in conversation.
Daria descended the library steps and turned north toward home for the second time that day. She was wearing that solemn expression that adults seemed to find so adorable on children, often to the considerable irritation of said children. If she'd known she was doing it, she might have tried to conceal it, but Daria felt she had every right to look serious right now. A big load of responsibility had just descended upon her small shoulders.
Not for the first time, Daria wished she had a bicycle. She was running up a lot of mileage today, and there might be more to come. Little Opie was going to require more care than she'd thought, and that might include making a trip to the store. She'd asked for a bike several times, but her dad seemed to have a terrible fear that she would fall off it and hurt herself, and she hadn't yet been able to get her mom to overrule him. More adult stupidity. Daria had learned to ride a bike by now, and everyone knew that all kids fell off their bikes and skinned themselves up occasionally. Having a bike and a boo-boo sure beat not having them, unless you were some kind of hopeless whiny loser, she thought.
A faint muffled sneezing noise told Daria that Opie was feeling the need of some attention. She eased off her backpack and set it down in the shade of a bush. It wasn't clear whether he was glad to see her, but he stopped making the sneezing noises, which the information she'd found confirmed were the way baby possums called to their mothers, and he didn't seem to be trying to escape from her hands. She lifted him slowly until they were nose to nose. "You're a lot of trouble, you know that?" she told him softly. "Yeah. You're more trouble than you're worth. Yes, you are! Yes, you are!" The little possum grinned toothily and licked her nose. Daria found she couldn’t help grinning back.
Remembering she was on a public thoroughfare, Daria looked around her guiltily. She didn’t want to be seen crouching by a bush, playing nosies with a varmint. That would be undignified. She opened her backpack. The books were still lying flat in the bottom, holding the pack open and forming a floor. "I gotta get home, Opie, so you gotta get back in your pouch."
Daria gently placed the little opossum inside her backpack, then unhooked the bottoms of the shoulder straps of her backpack and hooked them together to form one long strap, so that she could carry it like a shoulder bag and put one hand inside it occasionally to comfort Opie. He should be fairly comfortable in there. He was in a pouch, out of the sun. It was the best she could do for him till she got him home, at which point, if Helen was there, they might both become suddenly less comfortable.
Daria set out once more for home, far away across the dreaded Iroquois and Algonquin streets.
As she neared home, she recalled that they didn't have anything in the house suitable for a possum of Opie's tender weeks. The information she'd gotten at the library had said not to give him cow's milk, which she otherwise would have. It had suggested canned kitten food mixed with water. Two houses down from the Morgendorffer house, she knocked at the Nelsons' door.
Mrs. Nelson was slightly surprised to see little Darla there, but gave her a friendly smile. When Darla explained what she wanted, she was more surprised, and when she showed her who (or what) it was for, she was very surprised, but she hurried to get it. Returning with a bigger smile, she handed Darla the can of kitten food.
"No, Darla dear, don't you worry about replacing it. I have plenty. No, no, keep your money. Good luck with the little fellow. Let me know how he's doing. You're welcome, dear." Mrs. Nelson smiled and waved as Daria headed for home. A quiet, well-mannered child, if a bit strange. She'd give a lot to be a fly on the wall when Helen Morgendorffer met her daughter's little pet. Mrs. Nelson chuckled. Maybe if she cracked a window, she'd be able to hear part of it all the way from here. Other people's children were so much fun sometimes.
Helen, briefcase in hand, met Daria at the door. "You're late, Daria. Quinn hasn't come home either. I had to eat alone, and now I have to go," her mother said in a half-accusing, half-disappointed tone.
"I'm sorry, Mom, but something came up and I had to go back to the library and get something. Do you have a few minutes? I want to tell..."
"I'm sorry too, Daria, but my time is gone and I have to get back to the firm. I have a lot of work to do." Helen got into her metallic tan station wagon, started it up, and backed out of the driveway, apparently not seeing her daughter waving to her from the front step.
As her mother disappeared around the corner, Daria sighed, turned, and went inside. She considered rereading the care instructions that the librarian had helped her download, but she was quite sure she remembered what she had to do now. She decided she'd feed Opie first, because she really didn't want to do that other thing. Well, now she knew the awful truth about why possums hadn't caught on big as pets.
After Opie had eaten his fill of kitten food, and Daria had rinsed the saucer thoroughly and put it in the dishwasher, she got out the printouts from the library and found the part in question. "Baby opossums must be stimulated to eliminate before or after feeding by gently stroking the genital area with a warm moist cotton ball. Stroke in an upward direction toward the opossum’s tail. You are imitating the action of the mother opossum’s tongue." Even after Daria had looked up the words she wasn’t sure of, she’d had trouble believing this, until it occurred to her that this might be what kept the babies from pooping in the mother’s pouch. It sort of made sense, but it was still gross. Really gross.
Daria got several cotton balls, paper towels, some toilet tissue, a cup half full of warm water, and a plastic grocery bag. After looking around, she laid them all out in front of the refrigerator. There was always a little warm air coming out from underneath the refrigerator. She liked to stand here in the winter when her toes were cold.
Sitting cross-legged, she held Opie kind of like he was a squeeze bottle of mustard, with his little butt hanging over the edge of her hand, over three layers of paper towels on the floor. He obligingly wrapped his tail around her thumb. After wasting a little time petting and talking to him, she gathered her resolve, picked up a cotton ball and set to work.
After it was over, Daria patted Opie’s little bottom dry with toilet paper, put all the used materials in the plastic bag, and tied it shut. "Well, I guess everything came out okay, huh, Opie?" She held him up and rubbed noses with him. When he licked her nose, she smelled kitten food. "You were a good possum. Yes, you were! You poo-poo’d big for Mommy! Holding Opie in one hand and the bag in the other, she took it outside and dropped it into the trashcan. "But what in the world have you been eating, huh? That was rank!"
Daria changed into her hooded sweatshirt with the pocket in front, thinking Opie might feel a little more at home in it, but he seemed to want to climb all over her instead. He never got more than a couple of feet away from her before he’d come toddling back. Daria was half reading, half playing with Opie when Jake came in.
"Hi, Daddy. How was work?"
"Hi, Kiddo! It would be all right if it weren’t for the crazy clients. What did you do today?" Jake replied, smiling.
"I went to the library, and then I kind of got adopted. Meet Opie." Daria didn’t get up from the sofa, because sudden increases in height seemed to frighten Opie, but she held him up a little in her hands so Jake could see him. "His Mama got run over by a car."
Jake settled into his easy chair with a sigh. "Really? That’s too bad."
Daria said, "Yeah, and all his brothers and sisters, too. It was just awful. Now he’s all alone in the world. He came up to me and wanted me to take care of him."
"Aww, that’s sweet," Jake replied, squinting at the little furry thing in Daria’s hands. "When I was about your age, I found a kitten and brought it home, but would the Old Man let me keep it? No-o-o! ‘Dogs are for boys,’ he said, ‘Cats are for girls!" Jake shook his fist at the ceiling and raised his voice to a shout. "Well, I didn’t want a dog, Dad! I wanted to keep that kitten! And it needed a home! But did you care about that? No-o-o! All you cared about was…"
"Uh, Daddy, you’re kind of scaring Opie."
"Oh, uh, sorry, Kiddo."
"So, is it okay if he stays?"
"Well, a kitten is a big responsibility, Daria. You’d have to feed him and take care of him and clean up after him…"
"I’ll do that. I’ve already fed him some kitten food, and he pottied on some paper towels."
"You’ve got him housebroken already? That’s great, Kiddo! Funny, I thought they needed a litter box…"
"He’s very good. He only potties when and where I want him to, and he’s really quiet. Aren’t you, Opie?"
"Well, as long as you’re responsible and take good care of him, I guess he can stay." Jake shot a glare at the ceiling. "In your eye, Old Man!" he exclaimed, and went back to his paper.
Quinn came in the front door, and saw Daddy in his easy chair reading his paper and her creepy sister on the sofa facing the other way, undoubtedly reading some book. That was about all she ever did.
"Hi, Daddy!" Quinn called in her cute/cheery voice. "Hi, weirdo," she said, in a distinctly less friendly tone.
"Hark, hark, the dogs do bark." Daria said as if reading it out of her book. She didn’t turn around, but two little round black-and-white ears appeared over her shoulder, followed by a furry little mostly-white head with two shiny black button eyes, a little pink nose, and two tiny pink hands holding onto her shoulder. The button eyes blinked and stared at her, and the nose twitched and sniffed.
"EEEEE! A rat!" Quinn shrieked, beating it back out the front door.
Jake jumped and dropped most of his paper. "Don’t screech, Kitten! That’s not a rat, it’s a kitten. Heh, heh, now we have two kittens! Funny, huh?"
"Duh-ADD-eeee! That is NOT a kitten! It’s a big, ugly, nasty rat!" Quinn squawked from the supposed safety of the front door, where she continued to let in flies and impress the neighbors.
Looking again at Opie clinging to the front of Daria’s sweatshirt and observing Quinn’s antics, Jake took in the long naked tail and the four naked paws that looked so much like tiny hands. From this angle he could also better appreciate the length of the creature’s muzzle. It certainly wasn’t a kitten. He squinted. What the heck was it?
"What’s a rat?" demanded Helen, approaching from behind the distracted Quinn, pushing her into the living room and closing the door to cut off the neighbors’ free entertainment.
"That!" Quinn pointed, gleefully ratting out her sister.
"Opie is not a rat, he’s an opossum." Daria stated, as if the use of his correct name might quell further argument. She stroked the little creature reassuringly. "There, there, Opie, I won’t let the screech owl get you."
Helen came around the sofa to where she could see better. In the very cozy family room of this small house, this placed her in front of her easy chair, which was a twin of Jake’s. The thing was certainly acting very much like a kitten, and it seemed to enjoy Daria’s attentions. But it was definitely an opossum. "And what are you doing with an opossum, Daria?" she asked, maintaining low tones.
"His mother got run over on Algonquin street. He’s an orphan. I was walking by and he saw me. He called me and came up to me."
This seemed to touch a chord somewhere within Helen, but she shook it off. "Aren’t you embroidering a little bit, Daria? Possums don’t call," she said as she sat back in her chair.
Daria cradled Opie in one arm and stroked his head with her other forefinger. "Baby possums have a noise they make when they’re calling to their mother. It sounds kind of like sneezing. When Opie saw me, he started coming after me and making that noise. He stopped when I picked him up."
From behind the cover of Jake’s easy chair, Quinn piped up. "Sure, I believe that. You look like a possum, ‘spesh’ly your face. You smell like one, too,"
"Quinn, don’t talk ugly to your sister," Jake said, and Helen gave her a cross look. But Daria saw disbelief in the looks they turned back to her and Opie.
"Let’s see if he’ll do it again," she said. She got up off the sofa and put Opie down gently in the middle of the floor, then retreated toward the kitchen area. Opie looked around to get his bearings, sniffed the air a few times, and then made a little sneezy noise. He took a couple of wobbly steps, still looking all around him, and sneezed again. He definitely looked anxious.
"See?" said Daria.
At the sound of her voice, Opie seemed to get a fix on Daria’s location, and he made as near a beeline for her as he could manage, at the best speed he could manage, what with tripping over his own feet every few steps, sneezing as he went. Jake, Helen, and even Quinn watched amazed. They couldn’t miss the little animal’s eagerness to get to Daria.
Opie reached Daria and climbed onto her sneaker. He got hold of the leg of her jeans and looked like he was going to try to climb it, all the while making the soft sneezing noise. Helen blinked rapidly. Daria stooped and picked him up and returned to the sofa. He immediately stopped sneezing.
"It’s all right, Opie, Daria’s got you." Daria sat on the floor in front of the sofa and put Opie on her knee. He checked out the possibility of crawling inside the wrist of her sweatshirt, then began working his way up her leg.
"It’s like he knows his momma is dead, and he knows he can’t make it on his own, so he came to me for help." Daria put out a hand to keep Opie from sliding off her leg.
Daria looked at Jake. He had a sort of mushy nostalgic look, as if he were thinking of what might have been long ago if he’d been allowed to keep his foundling kitten. Helen’s face seemed to be a battleground of conflicting emotions. She was obviously touched to see that the little possum had adopted Daria as its substitute mother, but some other emotion was at work there too.
Quinn was also looking at Jake’s and Helen’s faces, and didn’t seem to like what she saw there. She looked at Opie, then at Daria, then back at her parents. Daria guessed that Quinn wanted to be the center of attention, but was temporarily at a loss for a strategy to upstage a baby possum.
So, she thought, Quinn hates my guts, as always, Dad is on my side this time, and Mom…Mom has doubts. Or something.
Daria got to her feet, holding the little possum close to her so he wouldn’t be frightened. She held him out toward Helen. "Mom, would you like to hold him?"
Helen still seemed undecided whether to take Opie and cuddle him, or take a broom to him. She said, "I have to go start dinner," quickly got up, and escaped to the kitchen.
Daria turned to Jake. "How about you, Daddy? Daddy?"
"Huh? What?" Jake started and looked up.
"Do you want to hold Opie?"
Jake’s apprehensive look switched from Opie to Daria and back. "Uhhh… not now, Kiddo, I, uhh, I’ve got my suit on."
It never occurred to Daria to ask Quinn, but Quinn piped up anyway. "No way, Olay!" she said scornfully.
Daria stroked Opie reassuringly. She looked toward the kitchen door and frowned slightly. It was almost as if Mom didn’t want to get to like Opie.
After dinner, Jake and Helen returned to their easy chairs to watch TV, and Daria took up her usual spot on the right end of the sofa. Opie was clambering around on her, seemingly at random. He seemed to want to wiggle down between the sofa cushions, but Daria was careful to prevent this.
Quinn hesitantly sat on the other end of the sofa, her only other choice being the floor if she wanted to watch TV. She cast an occasional glare in Opie’s direction.
After a while, Opie seemed to notice Quinn. Daria was unobtrusively blocking his progress in that direction, but she could tell that he wanted to get closer to Quinn and check her out.
Quinn glanced over while Daria was holding Opie between her left hand and her thigh. "Ewww! How can you stand to hold that thing like that?" she said in that deliberately irritating tone that she used for most of her conversations with Daria.
"You’re right, Quinn," Daria replied. "I’m being selfish." She lifted her hand and laid it in her lap. "Go to Quinn, Opie."
The little possum, freed from the restraint of Daria’s hand, did what he’d been wanting to do. As if on command, he wobbled off across the sofa cushions toward Quinn. Helen, who’d been half paying attention, looked slightly amazed at this.
Quinn also did just what Daria expected her to do. She shrieked, sprang up from the couch, and ran and hid behind Jake’s easy chair, disrupting the general tranquility.
Opie stopped about two feet from Daria, as he often had before, and stood peering and sniffing toward the spot Quinn had just vacated. Feeling fairly sure he was about to turn and head back toward her, she said, "Come back, Opie. She might bite you."
Opie, with a last sniff , turned and tottered back to Daria, drawing looks of disbelief from the other three. "Yeah, she might bite widdle Opie," Daria said, picking him up and laying him on his back between her knees. "Or even worse! She might… tickle you! Tickle, tickle, tickle!" Bending over and holding a lock of her hair like a feather, she tickled his little pink tummy with it. "Tickle, tickle, tickle, tickle!" Opie laid his head back and grinned, and thrashed his little feet back and forth in the air so comically that Jake and Helen burst out laughing.
Quinn was furious at being upstaged so badly. "Darn it!" she whined. "How am I supposed to watch TV when Daria’s got that…animal in here?"
Jake and Helen frowned at Quinn. Helen said, "Now Quinn, you’re being a little childish. Daria isn’t bothering you."
It looked to Daria like Quinn was losing points, but she persisted. She screwed up her face into her "I’m just about to cry" look, balled up her little fists at her sides, and stamped her little foot. "No. I’m not! She sicced her rat on me! He was gonna bite me!"
Meanwhile, Daria’s fierce attack rat, still lying on his back on Daria’s knees, was gleefully batting at Daria’s tickling hair with his paws. He had most of Helen’s attention and all of Jake’s. Quinn was seeing firsthand why Vaudevillians hated to follow an animal act.
Quinn was so frustrated she was jiggle-hopping and shaking the back of Jake’s chair. She probably really would cry in a minute. Daria decided to be extra-nice, the better to contrast with Quinn’s performance. "Come on, Opie," she said. "Lets get you fed and set up for the night. We all know how much Quinn loves to watch…" She glanced at the TV screen. "The Saturday Pigskin Predictors. We certainly wouldn’t want to cause her to miss that."
Helen turned to Daria. "Daria, sweetie, your father and I need to talk with you about the possum," she said in her concerned parent voice.
Daria knew what her mom was going to say next, and she understood now why Mom hadn't wanted to risk becoming attached to Opie. She also knew that Mom hadn't discussed this with Dad. She hadn't had time.
"Daddy told me he could stay," she said simply. One other thing Daria knew was that Helen had a parenting book that said that one parent should never contra... tell the children something different from the other parent. And Daddy had spoken.
Helen gave Jake a look that was very carefully not angry, but that clearly said, "We need to talk." Jake gave Helen a slightly sheepish smile in return.
Pretty sure that Opie would be spending the night, Daria got up and put him down on the floor, then slowly backed into the kitchen, watching Opie following clumsily and comically along behind.
Sunday passed rather quietly. Jake took a few pictures of Daria with Opie out in the yard. Quinn, normally a shameless camera hog, refused to be in the same shot with Opie. Daria borrowed Jake’s camera and took more pictures of Opie hanging onto low branches or peeking out of clumps of flowers, and one of him on his back with his little feet in the air.
Daria offered him some bits of banana at breakfast, and he gobbled them down. At lunch, she tried him on a dab of peanut butter, and cracked up at his hilarious struggles to chew it, get it unstuck from the roof of his mouth, and swallow it. He wouldn’t eat a green bean at dinner, though. Daria didn’t blame him. She thought Helen cooked them way too much. Daria didn’t offer him any lasagna.
He played some with her, but he wasn’t as playful as a kitten. His favorite activities seemed to be climbing on her and sleeping. So Daria spent a lot of time on the sofa reading, with Opie asleep in her lap or curled up against her leg. Once Quinn asked her to leave the family room so she could watch TV, so Daria considerately went out into the back yard under the tree. And she only charged Quinn a quarter.
When the sun went down, Daria fed Opie his last meal of the day, pottied him, cleaned up the mess, and put him to bed in his box on the back porch. She stayed with him till he fell asleep, then went back in to watch a little TV. Later, ready for bed herself, Daria finished a diary entry and looked at Quinn’s giant Cinderella wristwatch wall clock. It was about four hours after she’d fed Opie. Time to potty him one last time before bed.
Daria was padding down the dark hallway when she heard voices coming from her parents' bedroom. She resolved to go on by and not snoop, but then she heard her name mentioned.
"But Daria's a smart kid, Helen. She's not going to believe that little tiny thing broke out of the box and the back porch all by itself!"
"Honestly, Jake, do I have to spell it all out for you? Tip the box over on its side, as if it had been trying to climb out and the box tipped over, and push out the bottom corner of one of the screens in some out-of the-way place, where she wouldn't have noticed it, just enough for the little rat to have gotten through."
"But it's so small! I don't think it's big enough to survive on its own!"
"It's a wild animal, Jake. It will have just as good a chance as any other wild animal. It got along fine without Daria up until yesterday. Now take it out of town and set it free."
"Up until yesterday, it had a mother to take care of it," Jake half-whined.
"Jake! Whose father are you, Daria's or that damn possum's? Daria is much too young to be trying to raise a wild animal as a pet! She doesn't know anything about them, and neither do we! They could be naturally vicious. They could carry diseases. If they're such great pets, why doesn't everybody have one? Answer me that! Honestly..."
Daria had heard more than enough, and had decided what to do. She turned the knob and opened the door. Her parents, shocked, stood there staring at her like deer in the headlights. Guilty deer. Daria looked at Jake for a second, then turned her accusing stare on Helen.
"Did someone say 'honestly'?" she asked.
With a visible effort, Helen recovered herself. "Daria, how long have you been standing out there?" she asked.
Daria shrugged. "I don't have a watch."
Damn literal-minded kid, Helen thought. "What did you hear?"
"Plenty. You want to kill Opie." Daria paused for a second, then, "Humans are naturally vicious. Humans carry diseases. Are you gonna take me out in the country and set me free too?"
Helen swayed under the impact of her daughter's accusing stare. "Honey, we don't want to kill him, we just want to put him back in the wild where he belongs."
"That will kill him. He belongs with his mother, but his mother is dead. So I have to take care of him," Daria stated.
"Sweetie, just because you found him doesn't mean you're responsible for him," Helen pointed out reasonably.
"Yes it does."
Helen was confounded. All her education, all her training in argumentation, logic, and dialectics availed naught against the massive moral certainty of Daria's simple statement. She tried another tack.
"Daria, I know he's cute. Most baby animals are cute. But that doesn't mean he'd make a good pet. He's a wild thing. Don't you see, there must be a reason almost nobody has a pet possum, even if we don't know what it is. You just don't know enough to..."
"You guys." Daria shook her head, a sort of sadness in her gaze now. "You’re always talking about what a smart girl I am, but you don't really believe it."
Helen saw an opening. "Honey, being smart isn't the same as knowing..."
Daria held up a little hand that stopped Helen in mid-sentence. "I know more about possums than you think I do. I know how to take care of orphaned baby possums. I know they're not vicious. They actually make pretty good pets."
"Daria, there's just no way I'm going to..."
Daria held up her hand again. "Mom. I don't want to keep Opie as a pet. I never did, even before I found out why other people don't."
This left Helen totally off-balance, as if a heavy door she'd been pushing hard against had suddenly vanished. "You... uh, well... why?"
"Wait right here." Daria disappeared down the dark hallway and came back with several sheets of paper. Finding what she wanted, she handed one sheet to Helen and indicated a couple of paragraphs. "Read that."
Helen held the sheet up to best catch the light and scanned the indicated paragraphs. "Oh, that's just gross."
"Tell me about it."
Helen looked at Daria, her surprised expression blended with equal parts horror and respect. "You mean you've been..."
Daria nodded. "About every four hours."
Helen stared again at the sheet of paper she was holding, then at the others in Daria's hand. "Where did you get this?"
Jake tugged tentatively at the paper in Helen's hand, and she relinquished it gladly.
Daria replied, "The library. I downloaded it off the Internet, just after I found him, before I brought him home. That’s why I was late for lunch yesterday."
"You mean you knew you'd have to... do that... and you knew you didn't want to keep him, and you brought him home anyway?" Helen looked mystified.
Daria, although surprised Helen still didn't seem to get it, nevertheless knew exactly what it was Helen didn't get. With childlike simplicity, she went straight to the point. "He would have died if I hadn’t. I have to do the best I can for him."
Helen perceived a possible argument to be made. It was hypocritical, she knew, given what she'd been planning to do with Opie, but... "Sweetie, the best thing you can do for Opie is to turn him over to someone who's qualified to care for him properly."
Helen could feel Daria's green eyes looking right through her. Daria said, "Right. That's what I decided."
Helen almost physically staggered this time. Daria had done it again. She’d feinted and ducked, and Helen had gone right where Daria wanted her.
"What you decided? Uh... what did you decide?"
"There are people who do this, who take care of hurt and orphaned wild animals until they can set them free. They have licenses. They're called..." Daria looked through her printouts and put a little finger under a big word. "Re-ha-bil-i-tators."
Helen was amazed that her daughter could read a word like that in third grade, but she pushed that aside for the moment. "And is there one of these rehabilitators here in Gaithersburg?"
"The librarian thinks there’s one somewhere close, but not in town," Daria replied. "But I haven't found his name and phone number yet. When I do, we can take Opie to him. I'm just trying to keep him alive till then. Now, can I count on you guys to leave him alone till tomorrow morning?"
Helen looked down at her daughter, standing out in the darkened hallway in her little jammies, computer printouts hanging at her side, looking back up at her with that searching gaze, and experienced the genuinely strange feeling that she wasn't the adult in this conversation.
Helen came into the kitchen, rubbing her face sleepily and squinting in the soft light of dawn, and got out the can of coffee. She looked out the window and was surprised to see Daria, curled up on a rug on the back porch, asleep next to Opie’s box.
Helen rapped on the windowpane, careful not to hit any of the small potted cacti on the sill. "Daria! Daria, wake up!"
Daria stirred and tried to rise, but had to roll over onto her right side to do so. She staggered into the kitchen, rubbing and shaking her left arm as if it had gone to sleep on her. The hair on the left side of her head looked like it was hiding a large tumor.
"Why did you sleep out there, Daria? Didn’t you believe me when I said we wouldn’t bother Opie?" Helen asked, sounding a little hurt.
"Hmm? Oh, uh, no. I mean, that’s not why. After he pottied the last time, I was gonna stay with him till he went to sleep, and I guess I went to sleep, too." Daria, evidently having quite a few kinks to work out, was rubbing and stretching various parts of her body. "If I’d planned to do it, I’d’ve borrowed a couple of sofa cushions. I sure will next time," she muttered, rubbing her hip.
Helen smirked a little. "I can’t believe you spent the whole night out there with nothing between you and that concrete but a rag rug."
Daria nodded ruefully. "Mmm, yeah, me too. I kept meaning to get up and go to bed in another minute."
Helen smiled. "Well, it’s almost time you’d be getting up anyway. Go get dressed and come have breakfast. It looks like you may need a few extra minutes with your hair."
Daria made a little grunting noise and staggered off down the hall.
Helen rinsed off her bowl and spoon and put them in the dishwasher, and almost in the same motion got out a clean bowl and handed it to Quinn, who was just shuffling in, looking grumpy. "Hurry up, Daria, you need to start looking for that man who takes in orphaned animals."
"Already found it." Daria hung up the phone, tore a sheet off the notepad, and held it up.
"I called the animal shelter. They had his name and number on file. He lives about five miles out in the country. When can somebody take me out there?"
"I think I can get off early today and pick you up at school. How about that?" Helen suggested, wishing her office assistant were that efficient.
"I can't leave Opie alone all day, and I don't think they'll let me keep him with me in school."
"Oh, piddle. Probably not. Well, you're not staying home from school all day. Dial his number and give me the phone."
As Helen discussed a time on the phone and copied down directions, Daria took Opie out of her shirt pocket and began petting him. Quinn glared spitefully at the little creature over her cereal bowl.
"So they're finally making you get rid of that nasty thing. Well, it's about time! Good ribbons to it!" She stuck out her tongue at Daria and returned to her cereal.
Waiting till Quinn had a mouth full of cereal, Daria spoke low to Opie. "That's her. Now remember what I taught you." She held the tiny possum so that he was facing Quinn. "Kill!"
Quinn made a smothered squeaky noise, dropped her spoon, and fled the kitchen.
Helen looked around at the disturbance. "Where did Quinn go?"
"I think she spilled some cereal on her shirt," Daria replied.
"Well, tell her the bus will be out front in seven minutes, and then you come out and get in the car with me. I’ll take you to school after we take Opie to the rehabilitator’s."
"Okay, Mom." Daria finished her cereal and went down the hall to the room she shared with Quinn. The door was closed. Daria was about to reach for the knob, half expecting it to be locked, when an idea occurred to her. She dropped to her hands and knees by the edge of the door, and lightly began scratching on it with two fingernails, while making soft little high-pitched snarling noises. Hearing an "eep," the sound of running footsteps, and the squeak of bedsprings from within, Daria grinned, got up, and crept quietly back down the hall and to the door. "Hey, Quinn," she whispered as she exited the house, "You’ve got seven minutes to catch the bus."
Daria and Opie watched out the window of Helen’s station wagon as Jake said something to the man at the desk in the garage, then handed him his car keys. Jake then walked quickly across a short stretch of asphalt and got into the front passenger seat and got in. Opie seemed to become more excited as the car began to move. Daria told him, "Better enjoy it, Opie. This might be the only time you get to ride in a car." Front paws on the windowsill, standing on Daria’s hand, Opie watched fascinated as the world rolled by.
After a ride that seemed amazingly short, and hardly any formalities or conversation at all, the time had come. Daria spoke earnestly to Opie. "Have a good life, Opie. Do what the nice man tells you. Be sure to look both ways before you cross the road, and don’t you even think of crossing Algonquin Street. Goodbye, Opie!" Opie licked her nose one last time. Daria gently handed him over to the man and slowly followed her parents out the door, looking back several times.
As the car pulled away, Daria continued to look toward the house by the highway with all the pens and the small barn in back, even though there was really nothing to see now.
Helen asked, "Are you all right, Daria?"
"Oh, sure," Daria replied. "I wanted to do the best I could for him, and I did."
Something in her voice caused Helen to look in the rearview mirror and Jake to turn around. Daria pretended to pick something up off the floor so they couldn’t see her fumbling in her pocket for a tissue.
"Eww!" Daria pulled her hand out of her windbreaker and looked at it.
"What is it, Kiddo?" Jake asked.
"Look, Daddy!" Daria said, holding open her windbreaker. Opie can potty all by himself now!"
"Eww! Jake echoed. "Um, that’s great, Punkin! Err, Honey, Daria’s going to need a clean shirt before we drop her off at school."
Helen didn’t try to turn around and look, but she did manage to free one hand long enough to smack herself in the forehead. Daria smiled. Mom was funny sometimes.
"Red" Herrington was in a foul mood. He pulled off his boot and threw it at the wall. "Damn stupid worthless 'Oles!" he swore.
The Orioles had lost again. After agreeing that the umpires should be shot, he and his drinking buddies had gotten into a nasty argument about whether the manager or the pitching staff sucked worse. Having given up on making the drunken baboons see reason at about the same time as his money had run out, he'd blearily left The Oriole's Nest, oozed into his battered pickup, and swerved his way home.
He'd almost made it, too, even missing all the mailboxes that lined the ridiculously narrow lanes of the cramped, rundown trailer park, until he'd run over that damned tricycle belonging to the little blond urchin next door. He was pretty sure the little red piece of scrap had messed up his tire. It had pissed him off so badly that he'd hit his own steps before he could get the truck stopped. They probably couldn't be straightened this time, either.
He ought to make the b:+<h in the next trailer pay for the damage. She should have kept her damn curtain climbers from leaving their damn toys so close to the street. If she hadn't run her husband off, she could stay home and take care of them proper instead of being gone all day working. And if there weren't so many damn women working, he'd have a better job. "Red" threw his other boot at the wall. The panel split. Damn rotten flimsy trailer! Probably made in Japan.
So, after having to use his front bumper as a substitute step (and falling off three times), he'd finally gotten in, only to realize he hadn't gotten a board to cover up the hole in the floor. The damn hole was almost as wide as the hallway now, and he'd had a hell of a time getting past it in his condition without falling in again. He'd had to empty a cardboard box, open it out, and cover the hole with it as best he could. He hoped it would keep out most of the mosquitos.
But it wouldn't keep out those damn dogs, he knew. Well if they tried to get in here again, he'd kill the sonsab:+<hes! Hazily, though, he remembered that he'd forgotten to buy more shotgun shells again. Well, he'd just club the damn things over the head with the damn shotgun. That'd learn 'em!
About to turn in for what remained of the night, Rufus remembered that he hadn't brushed his teeth. Well, he'd be damned if he was going to try to get past that g&&damned hole again. He grabbed the bottle of Old Turkey Buzzard off the nightstand, took a healthy mouthful, swished it around, and gargled it briefly before he swallowed it for a nightcap. That would do. His breath would be like roadkill in the morning, he knew, but he'd be so hung over that he probably wouldn't even notice.
Wearily. Rufus rolled into bed, pulled up the sheet, and turned out the light. Aahh, that felt so good. He lay there for a few seconds before he realized that he was still wearing his street clothes. Oh, screw it, he decided, and threw himself into the arms of whoever the hell was the god of sleeping drunks.
Sometime later, Rufus awoke with a sharp pain in his chest. As he lay there, he thought he heard scratching and scrabbling in the room. Then the pain came again, this time higher. Alarm penetrating his stupor, he turned on the light.
The floor looked very wrong. It was fuzzy gray instead of shaggy green, and it wasn't just spinning slowly, as it usually did at times like this. It was humping, crawling.
Then something heaved itself onto the bed, and something else bit him in the neck. Rufus yelled and knocked it away, but another one took its place, and more of them climbed up onto the bed. Possums. His room was full of damn possums! Rufus batted frantically at them, but they clung to him, and they bit.
If anyone had been outside in the trailer court in the pre-dawn hours of that morning, they might have seen many small furry forms, dimly moonlit, waddling or trotting toward Rufus "Red" Herrington's small dilapidated trailer, and disappearing into the darker darkness beneath it. They might also have heard a few muffled yells and screams, as of an alcoholic awakened with the D. T.'s.
The police, however, turned up no one who would admit to seeing or hearing anything that night. The evidence, such as it was, was inconclusive. There were signs that Rufus had struggled, and there were plenty of signs of the presence of possums in the trailer, and even possum teeth marks on what remained of the corpse. But of what had killed Rufus Herrington, and what had eaten most of him before the possums had arrived, there was no sign. One detective suggested that the Coroner attribute the death to "spontaneous human consumption."
The case would probably never be closed, but it would soon be forgotten. No kin showed up to claim the body or to prod the investigators. No one seemed to feel the loss of "Red" Herrington. And there were many strange occurences and unsolved crimes in trailer courts. That was just the way it was.
La la LA la la.