The toad had slept in her yard for seven seasons. He moved very little, spoke even less, and aside from a brief week when the snows covered his warty hide and she feared he’d freeze solid, had been no trouble at all. Millie’s friends had suggested she evict him. He paid no fee at the inn, but then, he’d taken no bed either. Her patrons ignored him, and her son’s children had grown fond of dressing him in assorted hats and scarves when his slumber proved deep enough that he failed to shoo their antics away.
His name was Elijah, and of all the guests Millie welcomed to The Squirrel Tree Inn, he was by far her favorite.
Not that the inn had many visitors of late. Millie shooed her grandchildren away from the old toad’s shadow and tilted her furry gray head to one side. They’d put her bonnet on him, tied haphazardly below the wide chin and barely covering a single wart on the top of his massive head. It perched there, a straw and dried flower protrusion between his huge, bulging, blissfully closed eyes.
“Now how am I supposed to get that off?” Millie’s fluffy tail twitched in irritation and a chorus of tittering giggles echoed from behind one of the oak tree’s massive roots.
Elijah had chosen the yard for his seasons-long nap, and he’d nestled in between the roots where the children played. He could hardly find fault if they’d adopted him as part of the furniture there, as entertaining as the see-saw or the rickety swing that hung from the overhead branch that was the inn’s first floor.
Bathrooms. Bathrooms that needed to be cleaned. Floors that needed to be swept and a whole day’s work ahead of her once she sorted out how to de-hat the snoozing toad.
Millie and her late husband had run the inn since before their children were born. They’d kept the place impeccable, and she meant for that tradition to continue, even if the rooms were usually empty now. It felt wrong to do anything less.
“Just a little more business,” she whispered. “A few paying guests, is that too much to ask?”
Popping onto the tips of her rear paws, she reached for the satin ribbon and snagged the very end with a single claw. Gently, every so carefully, Millie tugged at the half bow the twins had somehow managed to tie without disturbing Elijah’s rest. She held her breath, held her tail still, and felt the ribbon slide.
The hat shifted to the right, knocking against a bulbous eye that was suddenly quite open.
“Oh.” Millie let go and fell back on her tail.
The toad blinked, his eyes sinking briefly into the recesses of his head before popping back up, both open now.
“Elijah,” Millie stammered, watching the hat tumble down the bumpy back. It landed in the root’s shadow, spawning another round of giggling from the twins. “I’m so sorry, sir. The little ones. I can imagine how they’ve been, and with their parents working so hard to help with inn and no real companions their age…”
She paused when she ran out of air, blinking, nearly bursting into tears just at the thought of it. No families staying in the inn. No children standing in line for their turn on the big swing. Once The Squirrel Tree had been a constant bustle of activity. It had worked for them together.
On her own, she was making a mess of it.
“If only Trevor hadn’t…. If I knew half of what… It’s all fallen to me.”
Elijah’s eyes closed again. They sank lower so that they might have been only twin warts, only slightly larger than the rest. Millie flicked her tail and watched him settle in again, wondering how long he’d stay. If the inn crumbled around her, if she lost everything that they had built here, would the solitary toad still sit, years later, among the ruin she’d made of her life?
“It’s hopeless.” She whispered it, confessed to the silent toad what her heart feared most of all. She couldn’t do it. Even with her sons’ help. She was failing. The inn was failing. All that was left of Trevor would be gone soon. “I can’t do it.”
The twins bolted, springing across the yard and leaping the see-saw. They raced for the tree trunk, for the inn’s door and the huge, hollowed-out rooms inside it. Millie watched them, red and gray, two streaks of fur and energy. What would they do, if the Squirrel Tree closed? Would her boys go their own ways? Who would she have then, when it all ended?
“Help is coming.”
The toad’s voice was a branch cracking, the slow snapping of thin ice, the scratch of claws against hardwood. When Millie turned around again, both eyes regarded her as impassively as ever. The wide mouth, however, was open just enough to display a fat pink tongue. It rolled back and forth inside that massive maw as if searching, tasting for the next word.
“Elijah?” Her fur stood on end. Another breeze swirled through the yard, this time cold as ice, carrying the first reminder that autumn would end soon.
“Soon,” he said. A noise like mud bubbling came after, and the old toad tilted his head to one side, spat out a lump of something slimy before continuing. “Help will come, but you must see it for what it is. You must see past…”
He fell silent again. As she watched, one eye slid shut, sank slowly into the toad’s head. The other lid drooped, and Millie’s patience evaporated. His words had stirred both a light and a terror inside her. Her body leaned toward the toad, bending of its own accord.
He started, jerked in a full-body twitch and opened both eyes wide and high again. Her face was close to his lips, close enough for him to open up and swallow her whole had he wanted to. Millie saw the yellow streaks in his watery eyes, and she smelled whatever muck he’d coughed up on the ground between them.
“Danger.” The huge toad whispered it, and Millie went stone still. He shuddered, parted his lips one last time, and then clamped them shut again.
His eyes sank back into his head. His breath stilled so that he might have been a carved figure, as silent and lifeless as the roots that heaved from the earth around them. Millie shivered and straightened. It might be days or months before he spoke again. The breeze lifted her errant hat, and she jumped to one side and chased it, snatching the ribbon firmly this time and reeling it in like a kite.
Her tail flipped back and forth, and her thoughts clouded like the sky above, far beyond the tangle of branches that was her oak tree, her inn, her family’s home. Danger, he’d said, but also help. One was more than welcome and the other… the other set her tail flipping again. Her paws tightened on the ribbon, claws poking neat pinholes in the satin while she ground her front teeth together.
She had enough on her plate already, more than one widowed squirrel and her family could manage on their own. She didn’t have time for danger, and if it came knocking at her inn’s door, she’d just have to send it packing.