For a read-aloud of this story, check out https://anchor.fm/ann-frailey/episodes/Ill-Always-Know-esf87d
“She’ll never know.”
As I tromped along the cornfield-bordered road, I clamped down on the squirming kitten and stared bug-eyed at my friend-sometimes-worst enemy. “Won’t know? As in won’t notice another kitten among her whole slew of critters?”
Janet smiled that patronized smile she had—like she was four years older rather than four months. “Exactly.” She nudged me in the ribs.
My ribs had taken enough from the pounding of my heart. I stopped then and there. A storm was coming, and the kitty was onto it. That and the fact that we were well beyond my property line. “Listen, I’m not a deceptive person by nature. This whole enterprise—”
“Enterprise? We’re not on a starship. We’re in the middle of a blinking cornfield trying to do the right thing by this—” She zeroed in on the clawing bundle of black fur. “Fluff muffin.” With a hand on her hip and one finger-wagging, she launched in. “You’ve got another baby on the way, a husband who is hardly ever home, a house that’s falling about your ears, and a sick grandmother.” She jutted her jaw at the little eye peeking out from under my elbow. “You don’t need—that!”
I shrugged. “But it was in with the chickens—in the coop. Don’t you wonder if that was a sign…from God maybe?”
The roll of Janet’s eyes was positively eloquent. “God has got better things to do. Like, keep people—”
A long rolled “Helll-ooo” stopped us both.
Mrs. Blackstone trundled down the rocky drive and toodle-oooed. “Thought I heard voices. Just coming to check the mail—Al forgot yesterday.” She slapped her hands and chuckled as if her husband’s memory loss tickled her funny bone. “Not that there’s much to see—bills and ads and those obnoxious political adverts. Might as well tell me who to pray to.”
The kitten had had quite enough—and since I had tightened my grip—she probably wanted to breathe as well. The scratch she offered in return, set her free and let loose a naughty word on my part. I would’ve clamped my hand over my mouth, but I was too busy clamping my hand over the long bleeding tear in my forearm.
Janet merely shook her —at the scratch, the freed cat, or my poor literary choices, I didn’t know, and at that moment, I didn’t care.
Mrs. Blackstone, on the other hand, knew a thing or two about mercy and infections. “Oh, let me take you right in and put something on that. It’ll swell up quick if you don’t.” She peered around. “Was that the black kitten that went missing couple days ago?”
Thunder rumbled in the distance.
I let myself be tugged along like the child I wasn’t and glanced at my neighbor. “Was that your kitten?”
“Oh, got so many; I lose count. New litters year round it seems. Some live, some die, some move on…” She led me up the back steps into a warm kitchen. A stew pot simmered on the stove. “Just sit and make—” She glanced at Janet as if she had noticed her for the first time. “Oh, hi, Jan.” She waved to a back room. “Back in a sec.”
Janet pulled out a chair and plunked down as if she had been the one been wrestling a miniature tiger.
I toed a stool forward—my good hand being occupied, trying to stem the flow of blood, which I was certain would cascade down my arm if I took my hand away. I perched on the edge.
“See, I told you. It never was your responsibility in the first place.”
I leaned in and, I’ll admit, my whisper wasn’t gentle. “As it turns out, if we’d left it alone, it probably would’ve wandered home on its own.”
“Not in a million years. You’d have babied it—like you baby everything. Why, you would’ve taken it in at night and fed it leftover hamburger.”
“That’s a crime?”
“How many hours sleep did you get last night?”
“What on God’s green earth does that have to do with—?”
“Here we are.” Mrs. Blackstone waved a vial of dark liquid, a cotton ball, and a package of Band-Aids. “We’ll have you fixed up in no time.”
I sniffed when she unscrewed the top. It smelled faintly familiar but unlike any medicine, I’d ever come across. “What’s that?”
“Oh, a homemade remedy my mama taught me.”
She dabbed the cotton ball in the liquid, motioned for my arm, and grinned.
I was fairly sure I’d make a mess of her floor if I let go of my arm, but her cotton ball commanded compliance, so I flung caution to the wind and extended my damaged limb. You can imagine my surprise when I saw not a flood of leaking corpuscles but rather a long swelling red mark.
As she ran the ointment-soaked swab down my arm, I suddenly knew with blinding certainty the main ingredient in her mama’s home remedy. I gritted my teeth against a fresh onslaught of naughty words. “Is that—apple cider vinegar—by—any—chance?”
“Certainly. Kills germs on contact.”
It was certainly killing something. I hoped not my will to live.
For the first time, Janet seemed to actually feel something for me other than contempt. She winced and patted the hand I clenched in my lap.
As we sauntered back up the road toward my farmhouse, she nudged me in the ribs again. “Listen. I was just trying to make a point. I didn’t expect you to get martyred by an old family cure-all.”
I stopped and closed my eyes. Janet was right. I hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before…or the night before that…or the night… But it didn’t matter. It was my life. I could sacrifice myself in pieces and parts if I chose.
Good Heavens! She couldn’t be…crying… My eyes snapped open.
No, she wasn’t crying—exactly. Just sad. And looked about as tired as I felt.
“I know you’re worried, Jan. But I’m fine. I like extending myself. I love babies and husbands who work too hard…and even killer fluff muffins that show up in my chicken coop.”
Janet considered me through narrowed eyes. “You’re giving me an inferiority complex.”
Janet climbed the front lawn and headed for the porch steps. “Well, when you collapse from exhaustion—you know who you can rely on help you out.”
I sauntered along behind, checking for Bob’s truck in the driveway. He was still home. Good. The back door hinge was loose. I wrapped my arm around Janet and hugged her and then winced at the still searing burn in my arm. “You’re on my speed dial.”
She snorted and waved to the front door. There, sitting as pretty as a picture, sat the black kitten.
I looked at Janet, and Janet looked at me. The kitten didn’t seem to care when Jan picked it up and started down the road.
But I did. And I’ll always know.
A. K. Frailey is the author of 15 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.
Make the most of life’s journey.
For books by A. K. Frailey check out her Amazon Author Page
It Might Have Been and Other Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz