I’m back again for the April edition of the They Have a Story link-up, hosted by Emily Ann Putzke. This picture, for facial expression alone, is now a favorite of mine. There’s so many possibilities those faces can lead to. Here then, is my take on it.
It felt wrong to lounge so brazenly against the storefront of Mr. Ashbee’s Pet Shop. It was a Wednesday, of course, but normally the sandy haired boy stood straight and businesslike, his violin case clutched tight in one hand as he peered through the glass. But today the chirping birds, scampering hamsters, and silky red setter were outside, and under those circumstances, Archie would make loitering his business until a bobby told him otherwise.
“No violin case,” remarked a gruff voice, and the boy looked up into the deep crevices of Mr. Ashbee’s face.
“No sir. My lessons have been cancelled.”
Mr. Ashbee nodded, his fingers tugging at his suspenders. “But you still came.”
“Yes sir.” Archie stole a glance at the friendly setter tied loosely to the door. “I thought I’d say goodbye to the animals.”
Mr. Ashbee’s voice rose and fell like the smoke-scented wind that quivered around the corner. “Well they aren’t all gone yet.” The limpid gray eyes intercepted Archie’s gaze keenly. “At least you caught Maggie in time.”
“Gone?” It hadn’t occurred to Archie that the open air arrangement of the shop wasn’t temporary.
“That’s what I said.”
“Where are they going?”
Mr. Ashbee’s hand shoved into his pocket. “Anyone who wants them.”
Archie took a breath and craned his neck around. The clear glass he usually peered through was smudged, but he could make out the tangled beams and broken plaster crumbled in the center of the shop.
“Hey!” Mr. Ashbee’s hand withdrew, shaking rhythmically. “Don’t look in there boy.”
“I’m sorry Mr. Ashbee. I was just seeing how much work it’d be to fix. So the animals can go back inside. Might rain tonight,” he added, looking up at the clouded sky. “Won’t you be putting them back in?”
Mr. Ashbee turned; his expression never changed but his voice became strong and steady, in a tone that made Archie press his back against the brick.
“It’s no longer my place to put them in. That’s right boy, I couldn’t afford it any longer; especially not with those repairs needed. Do you think people would buy even a small bird when they can hardly feed their own children? Or buy a pup when they’re killing their own pets? Nay, ten years I’ve owned this place, but no more. And neither can I afford to feed them. Not even Maggie.”
At the word, the setter’s trusting eyes shot to her master, and the great tail swept up a puff of plaster dust.
“Not even Maggie,” repeated Archie, glancing away from her when he saw the tall form of Dr. Sutton striding towards them.
Mr. Ashbee stooped, rubbing gnarly fingers under Maggie’s chin. “I won’t watch you starve to death girl,” he whispered.
Archie edged back against the cages and the window, Mr. Ashbee’s brusqueness and Dr. Sutton’s measured comments about the weather beginning to build a tight twist in his stomach. It seemed finally to wrap around his heart when the friendly paw landed on Dr. Sutton’s knee, as he indifferently opened his black bag.
“No,” said Archie, his voice so low and dry neither heard it. “No!” They turned this time, Dr. Sutton seeming annoyed on noticing him. Mr. Ashbee waved his shaky hand.
“Go on home lad. I don’t like it any better ‘an you do.”
“Give Maggie to me, sir! I’ll take care of her!”
“Don’t promise what you can’t give,” was all he said, turning back to the dog.
Forgetting about the suit his mother had neatly pressed, Archie crashed forward, landing on his knees beside Maggie.
“I promise sir! Just listen to me please.”
“Would you mind getting the boy out of here?” Dr. Sutton’s glare was piercing.
An anger rose in Mr. Ashbee, anger at something personified in the sight of Dr. Sutton and his black bag. “Is there a great rush, Fred? Do you have that many more to do? Go ahead…what’s your name?”
“Archie.” He paused for breath, not stopping till it ran out. “I didn’t know the animals were leaving, I came because it’s me who’s leaving; my father’s a flyer and mother works at the war department, so she’s had to send me to the countryside where my second cousin lives. I really can take care of Maggie, honest! I’ll find food every day for her, no matter what! I’ll even grow vegetables if I have to, just please don’t let him…” The sight of Dr. Sutton’s hard face poised above Maggie sparked a sudden dampness in Archie’s eyes, so much so that he never saw the tears forming in the old man’s own gray eyes.
“Hold off Fred. Archie was it? Are you sure your parents won’t mind you doing this now?”
Archie managed to brush his hair and wipe his sleeve against his eyes in the same motion. “Sir, I suppose now that I’m a man of the world, I can make my own decisions.”
Mr. Ashbee looked long at the boy’s honest brown eyes, then nodded curtly at Dr. Sutton, who sighed wearily, shut his bag, and turned on his heel. Archie stood, and Mr. Ashbee patted Maggie’s head before stretching a hand to Archie’s shoulder in an effort to stand.
“Maggie’s yours then, Mr. Archie,” he said, folding the leash into Archie’s hand. “Go with the boy, Maggie,” he added, and the setter rose stiffly, drawing Archie’s gaze. “He needs you more than I.”
Relief and gratitude softened the old man’s voice, and for the first time in Archie’s memory, Mr. Ashbee smiled.