Millie’s daughter-in-law was an angel. When Jeremy brought home the diminutive red squirrel, she’d questioned how so delicate an animal could thrive alongside her robust son. Patricia surprised her. Raised in a nest with six rowdy siblings, the girl could probably hold her own against a nest of adders. Millie would have bet against her son if the two youngsters ever found themselves at odds. Which was unthinkable, of course. Jeremy adored his little bride.
When the boys stood in for their father, taking on the lion’s share of the work at the Squirrel Tree Inn, Patricia assigned herself to maid duty, to laundry, errands, and helping Millie serve when the dining room at the top of the massive oak tree was busy enough to require more paws.
Lately, of course, that was almost never.
There was still plenty to be done around the inn, and without Patricia’s help, Millie might have given up on the whole thing after Trevor’s death.
When she stepped inside, clutching her battered bonnet by the ends of its silk ribbons, little Patricia stood in the lobby, arms extended, with one of her children dangling from each paw. She’d caught the twins by their scruffs, and from the look on their faces, they’d already been thoroughly scolded.
“What have they done this time?” Their mother asked. “I caught them racing for their den as if the devil had their tails.”
“No, just me,” Millie smiled and shook her head. “And nothing terrible. They’ve been decorating poor Elijah again.”
“Oh no.” Patty’s eyes darkened.
Before she could start in on the twins, Millie waved her paws, waved the bonnet like a white flag. “It’s fine, really. The poor thing barely noticed. Sometimes I think… I wonder if…”
She’d meant to get the kids out of the heat, but her mind went back to the toad’s odd warning, to the conflicting proclamation of both assistance and danger.
“They can stay in their rooms this evening,” Patty announced. “Maybe supper alone will take some of the mischief from them.”
Millie doubted anything could do that, nor would she want it to. But she knew the twins preferred to eat alone, safe from any lectures about their table manners. So she nodded sagely for their mother’s sake and flashed them a covert wink when Patricia looked away.
They both stuffed their paws over their muzzles and managed to look contrite as they were set down and shooed off to their room. Their bushy tails twitched as they departed in a way that suggested they already worked on their next plot.
“What will I do with them?” Patty sighed. A smile that was both blissful and unconscious passed over her muzzle and she looked, once again, like the angel she was.
“Love them,” Millie said. “What else is there?”
They both laughed, but the sound drowned in the clunking steps descending the spiral stair. It wound up and down the oak’s trunk, and Millie’s eldest appeared in the stairwell beside the front desk.
Jeremy paused at the sight of his wife and his mother. He held a mop over one shoulder, a bucket in his free paw, and his fur was damp from his rear paws to his knees.
“Another leak?” Millie felt like sitting down, like running away.
“Only a small one,” Jeremy said. “And it’s all fixed. Thankfully, Jacob found it on his way out.”
“Oh good,” Millie sighed and then suffered a bolt of panic. “What do you mean on his way out?”
Jeremy paled, the skin around his nose turning ghost white beneath his silver-gray fur. His tail fell, laying sad and limp on the stairs behind him.
“Where was he going?” Millie’s chest tightened. She counted the minutes until dinner service and she smelled, suddenly, the distinct aroma of something burning.
“I-” Jeremy looked at his wife, who already scooted toward the stairwell. “He said something about the leaves.”
“I’ll get him.” Patricia paused only long enough to hop on her tiptoes and plant a brief kiss near her husband’s ear. Then she scurried up the stairs, faster than any of them and the most likely to retrieve their errant cook before the guests arrived for dinner.
Jeremy stared after her, deflated and sagging.
“Help her,” Millie said. “I’ll check the kitchen.”
She bounded past him, certain it would take a few moments for the order to sink in. Moments she didn’t have to spare. If her nose was right, the hazelnuts for the evening’s soup were currently about six minutes past done.
Millie fled down the last arm of the spiral, the twelve stairs leading to the inn’s underground level where the storage room and kitchen nestled between twisting roots. As she ran, the scent of burning hazelnut thickened. At the bottom she turned right, bursting into the kitchen with her heart pounding in her ears.
The main oven smoked faintly around the door, a pot simmered on one of the burners, and bowls of ingredients adorned the counter top like festive decorations. There was no order to the way her youngest son ran his kitchen, no sense to it, and absolutely no discipline.
Millie lunged for an oven mitt. She stumbled and nearly tripped over a fluffy ringed tail. The potholders snagged on her reaching claw, tumbling to the kitchen tiles where a familiar raccoon curled into a pose of deepest slumber.
He was drunk again, but then, Roger was always drunk.
She stepped over him, stuffed her paws into the only mitt still waiting on its hook, and danced sideways to the oven. The tray of hazelnuts emerged in a cloud of smoke, and Millie set them on top of the oven and glared at them.
Trevor would have cut off his own tail before he served something that crisp, but as she eyed the mess her youngest had made of dinner prep, Millie already calculated how many she could save, if it would be enough to finish the soup, and how many of the remaining guests would call the front desk to complain about the food later.
Her paws trembled. She stuffed them into her apron pockets and closed her eyes against the press of frustrated tears. Trevor would roll over in his grave if he saw the mess she’d made of things.
“Hey, you got em.” Jacob bounced through the door and leaped over the sleeping raccoon. She heard his steps, didn’t need to open her eyes to know he was grinning, dancing through his evening without a care in the world. “Thanks, mom. They look great.”
“They’re burnt.”
A spoon scraped as he stirred his soup. Did he mean to just dump the ruined nuts in and pray no one noticed?
“They’ll be fine. Look.”
Despite herself, Millie peeked. Her youngest leaned in beside her, smiling and as bright as the polished ladles hanging on the wall. He was sterling from tip to toes, beautiful and bold and about as responsible as a leaf on the wind. When he saw her watching, he plucked one of the nuts from the sheet and popped it into his mouth.
“Where were you?”
“Just nipped out for some fresh air,” he said. “The storm is gorgeous from the top of the tree.”
Millie tightened her paws into fists. Her claws bit into her pads and she breathed through her mouth, panting softly, feeling the urge to scream or bolt, to leave them all here to do this without her. She was losing it, and she loved them all too much to let them see it. Instead, she focused on an easier target.
“What is Roger doing in the kitchen?”
“Too drunk to make it up the stairs.” Jacob grabbed a spatula and began selecting the least charred nuts, dropping them one by one into his pot. “Must have started somewhere else tonight.”
“I haven’t seen him in a few days.” Millie turned away from the tragic soup making and focused on her most regular regular. She sighed, and then she reached for an apron and draped it over the sleeping animal. “Must have had it hard, don’t you think?”
What would drive a sensible man to a life of semi-consciousness? For a breath, Millie imagined it, considered the freedom of senselessness and the luxury of just blacking out when things became overwhelming.
She bent over, tucking the fabric around as much of Roger as possible.
“Who knows?” Jacob said. “I’ve never seen him sober enough to ask.”
Her anger ebbed. Jacob had never asked for this life, had never wanted to cook in his father’s inn. He deserved to be free even more than she did, and she knew he longed for it, dreamed of a life where he could do whatever he pleased.
He was young still, and he was wasting himself here. She opened her mouth to apologize, to promise for the hundredth time that this was temporary, that she’d find a full-time chef soon, even if neither one of them believed it anymore. She started to speak, but before a single syllable emerged, someone above them shrieked.
There was a pause like a held breath, a moment when the whole inn froze and listened, and then the screaming began in earnest and everyone moved at once.
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