maureen hardegree





critters of  mossy creek

It was the best of cats, it was the worst of cats. It was the age of Whisker Lickin’s, it was the age of feathered toys. My apologies to Mr. Dickens, but the man knew how to sum up a situation. Of course, my youngest son’s sacrifice was much less daunting than facing the guillotine.

Charles Finch, whose first word was “doggie” and who asked for one as soon as he could put a sentence together was now six and hadn’t yet received the pet of his dreams. Before you label me as cruel, let me list the reasons why my husband Will and I haven’t added a dog to our family.

One, Charles wouldn’t be the one taking care of it. Even now, my first grader had to be reminded about his own grooming. If he had the choice, and he doesn’t, he probably wouldn’t bathe. Reason number two, I have three children ranging from high school to elementary age. I didn’t have a fourth child because I’d reached my sanity limit at three. Nobody can say Nancy Abercrombie Finch is a sucker for punishment. A dog would be like a fourth child. Then there’s our old tabby Biscuit who’s been with me longer than my husband. A less frazzling choice than adding a dog to the mix would be to adopt a second cat. Or so I thought.

“Mo-om,” Charles crooned as he entered in the back door and left it open to the unseasonably chilly, spring evening air. “I saw Mrs. Blackshear at soccer practice.”

“That’s nice, dear.” I gestured to the door, meaning for him to push it closer to the jamb. He didn’t get it, so I added, “Don’t heat the entire garage.”

He slammed the door on his sister, whose muffled outraged “Hey!” followed the slam. “You’re such a brat,” Mary Alice growled, re-opening the heavy wooden door. Will followed behind her, carrying the duffel bag Mary Alice had left in the car.

Mitts in place, I removed the steaming broccoli and chicken casserole from of the oven and placed it on a trivet on the table. “Wash your hands and tell Randy to come down for dinner.”

“Ran-dy!” she screamed.

Not exactly what I had in mind.

Will and I exchanged a glance of commiseration, then he took hold of Mary Alice’s shoulders and re-directed her toward the stairs. “When your mother said ‘tell Randy,’ she meant to go to him. He can’t hear you.”

“I can yell louder,” she offered as Charles tugged on my pants leg.

“Let’s not,” I said. “Scoot.”

My fifth-grader rolled her eyes (yes, we’re at that lovely stage of adolescence), and did as she was asked.

Charles tugged harder. “Mo-om.”

“What?” Not completely successful at keeping the irritation out of my voice, I filled the children’s glasses with milk.

“Mrs. Blackshear said someone left a box of puppies at the clinic. Beagle puppies. She said Melvin said they were prolly Bigelowans.”

“It’s probably, not prolly. Did you wash your hands?”

“No, but I was thinking it sure’d be nice to give one of those—”

“We’re not getting a dog,” Will said. After issuing his ultimatum, Will sat in his spot at the head of the table.

I heard the water running upstairs, so Mary Alice must have made her brother hear her without yelling or she decided to wash her hands first. Either way, I knew that was progress.

Charles pouted, slid into his chair next to his father, and sighed. “It’s not a dog, it’s a puppy.”

“Same difference,” I pointed out. “I didn’t see you wash your hands.”

“I used the sanitizer like Dad.” He raised his palms in the air so I could inspect them for dirt. “It’s not fair, Mom. Everyone else has a dog.”

“No everyone else does not,” I reminded him. “Mrs. Clifton told me that the family who moved in across the street, what’s the little girl’s name, Melanie? She has a cat like us.”

critters of  mossy creek

“But she’s dumb.”

It was a toss up as to whether he was referring to Melanie or our elderly cat. Both were female, and Charles didn’t like either of them. I had an inkling he was referring to the little girl across the street, though, since his complaints about her had grown exponentially since the beginning of the school year. He didn’t like Melanie much in August. Now that they’d moved in across the street, he liked her far, far less.

Darn it, I realized with a pang. They’d moved in at least a month ago. Had I invited them to dinner or at least welcomed them with a loaf of banana bread? No, but I’d . . . waved.

Muttering something under his breath, Charles focused on his empty plate.

Things had a way of coming to a head with this boy. I’d find out probably more than I wanted to know about why he thought Melanie was “dumb” soon enough. Pick your arguments, my mother told me, because otherwise interacting with Charles would be one long fight until the day he went off to college, if he went, which since I wanted him to, he probably wouldn’t.

He looked up at me, blue eyes round with false innocence. “Oh, and I guess I shoulda told you Smelanie’s mom called.”

“We do not call our neighbor Smelanie.”

Eyes downcast, he tried to smother his budding smirk.

“I’m serious, young man. Why did Melanie’s mother call?”

He trotted out the fake innocent look again and shrugged.

Lips whitening in exasperation, Will leaned toward our youngest and, yes, most mischievous child. “Punishment’s going to be worse the longer you drag this out.”

Charles mumbled something only a Who could hear.

“Louder,” Will said, checking the time on his wristwatch.

“I pulled her hair at school!” He pouted. “She was asking for it, being all goody-two-shoes.”

Great. My son was about to start World War Three with our new neighbors that I hadn’t yet introduced myself to, and all because Melanie behaved. This part of Charles’s personality had to come from Will’s Finch clan; it certainly wasn’t one of my Abercrombie genes. “That’s no reason to pull the child’s hair, young man. Where’s your folder? What color slip did you get today?”


Uh-oh. The Mossy Creek security alert system: Orange was only one color away from red, the worst color, the color that earned a note home and a trip to the vice principal’s office. “I thought our goal was green all week.”

“If I stay green all next week, can I ‘dopt one of those beagle puppies at the Blackshear’s?”

“No!” Will and I shouted at the same time.

“Can we at least get a dog when Biscuit dies?”

“Charles Albert Finch!”

“But, Mom, Biscuit isn’t even a nice cat. All she does is hiss at me.”

“Because you bother her,” Will said. He looked from the cooling casserole to me. “Where are Randy and Mary Alice?”

I heard the water run for a second time and one set of feet tromping down the stairs. “They’re coming.”

“I don’t bother Biscuit,” Charles said. He slipped out of his chair and walked over to the sink, where Biscuit was lying next her food and water trough. She likes to lie down to lap her water.

I thought Charles had decided to wash his hands with soap and water. But then he looked down at our peaceful, plump tabby.

I warned quickly, “Don’t pick her . . . up.”

Too late. As Charles scooped the cat into his arms, she yelped. Still held despite the warning, she hissed, exposing her tiny, sharp teeth.

“See,” he said, “she doesn’t like me.”

Will stood up. “Put her down. You know she doesn’t like to be picked up. She’s old.”

Charles placed the cat back on the floor. She promptly swatted at his ankle. She gave his leg a nip as well.

“Hands,” I said.

Charles mumbled something about hating cats and goodie-two-shoes girls who like cats as he lathered up.

“Mom, guess what Randy has in his room.” Mary Alice said in her best sing-song, tattle tale mode as she ran to the table.

critters of  mossy creek

Our oldest, Randy, slid into his usual spot with a scowl. “Just shut up.”

“A Victoria’s Secret catalog,” Mary Alice said before I could even venture a guess.

Somehow this wasn’t the way I pictured family dinners proceeding when Will and I talked about getting married and having children.

And Charles wanted to add a poor, unsuspecting dog to the mix? No way.