A piercing scream brought Abel upright and immediately out of his nap. A cacophony of animal noises followed. Whatever was happening had drawn the attention of every creature on the estate. Abel reached for the shotgun he kept in the gun closet and limped outside as quickly as he could manage. Dogs barked, cats wailed, the cockatrice crowed, and dragons roared. Abel’s entire universe overfilled with noises of alarm. Some creatures ran toward the intruder, some away, and some froze. Abel followed the dogs toward the disturbance.
A large black dog, burning with blue flame, crouched over the bloody corpse of the basilisk. It growled at the approaching dogs, but continued to feed. When Abel saw what was happening he let out a loud whistle.
“Let it be, everyone. It’s too late for any of us to do anything for Barney, and this fellow’s obviously hungry. Let him eat.” The animals continued to make substantial noise, but the deafening din died down at Abel’s command.
Abel found a fallen tree and sat, placing the shotgun across his knees, radiating calming energy. The animals quieted. The dogs sat nearby, never losing sight of the unwelcome guest. The other animals slipped into hiding.
Abel recognized the blue-flamed beast as a kludde. He only knew one person who kept a kludde as a familiar. Twister. Seeing the kludde here like this caused him to wonder if Twister had died. It was possible the kludde flew here to seek shelter at the Home. The kludde was a ferocious dog-like creature with bat-like wings and powerful front legs ending in rudimentary hands. The wings folded tight against its body, hidden in its fur as it ate.
As the sun set the kludde finished eating the guts of the basilisk. Despite the calmness of the menagerie, the kludde shifted from leg to leg, nervous and anxious. Unable to tolerate it any longer, it ran from Abel, extended its wings, and flew into the Florida sky. Abel gave a little salute as it flew away. He had been fond of Barney the basilisk, but was hesitant to judge the kludde too harshly. The grief of a familiar’s separation from its master ran as deep for the wicked as the benign.
Abel walked slowly back to the house and fed the dogs.
Abel didn’t remember passing out. Solomon, the big black cat, sat next to his shoulder watching over him with a look of concern. Abel rolled on his back and slowly cataloged body parts to determine if any new pains had been added. When he arrived at his skull he was grateful it didn’t feel broken.
The old man raised himself on his elbows and waited a moment to give his body a chance to rebel.
“What happened, Solomon? I must have passed out.”
The big cat nodded somberly.
His body tolerated the shift to his elbows so he pushed himself to a sitting position.
Solomon nudged his broad head against the old man’s right hand and purred softly. Abel rubbed the cat’s head behind the ears.
Abel looked up from his kitchen floor. Bread and bologna, mustard and mayonnaise sat on the counter. He had, he deduced, passed out while making his dinner. He turned over onto his hands and knees and slowly pulled himself up using a nearby kitchen chair. He leaned against the counter, waiting patiently for another dizzy spell. When nothing happened he looked at the clock to determine how long he’d been out. Not too long, about ten minutes. He completed his sandwich, grabbed a banana from a nearly empty bowl of fruit, and carried his dinner to the dining room table. Solomon followed and jumped to the top of the table. Abel pulled pieces of bologna from his sandwich and fed them to Solomon as he ate.
“What am I going to do, Solomon? Who’s going to take care of you all when I’m gone?”
In the evening, with Solomon curled comfortably on his lap, Abel contacted some of his people through the Internet. Facebook friends confirmed his speculation. Twister was dead. Abel spent the rest of the night researching how to care for a kludde. Researching kludde habits could not be done on the Internet, instead he used the library hidden away under the old house.
The kludde was a rare and unusual familiar. A good, but not perfect, rule of thumb was that the more powerful the magic-user the greater likelihood they attracted an exotic familiar. Twister had been one of the most powerful magic practitioners of the last few centuries. And also one of the most obnoxious.
Abel wasn’t accepting any new residents, and worried what would happen to his current group when he could no longer care for them. But some creatures were notoriously difficult, and Abel considered the possibility that the kludde might want to move in. The kludde was a difficult animal, most likely disruptive to any community it joined. Abel worried that without proper guidance the kludde would destroy the harmony of his home.
A confluence of events led Abel to start the home for old familiars when he was young. Within a week of the tragic death of his own familiar, Abel’s grandfather died and left him an enormous estate in Abdera, Florida. That was nearly a century ago.
Abel didn’t deal well with the loss of his familiar. Finally, as a way of coping, he started reaching out to those in similar situations. But for Abel, who was never comfortable around people, that meant reaching out to the animal familiars who had lost their human companions.
Abel’s sanctuary became the first and soon, the best-known resort for familiars who had lost their human companions. Friends or families of the deceased often delivered the familiars to the Home. Some familiars made their own way. Dogs and cats and other prevalent familiars were the most common residents, but over the years Abel had seen nearly every type of exotic familiar possible.
To the outside world his estate was now The Home for Retired Show Animals. In the early days he took in retired circus animals as a cover for its true purpose. Blossom the elephant lived there for four years in the 1950s. The most famous circus animal he’d accepted was Carmichael the chimp, who died in 1972 after a long, contentious stay. In the century he ran the home, he refused no one. He kept the familiars hidden among the retired show animals. Then, five years ago, his health began deteriorating and he stopped accepting new residents. Abel retired. His once great menagerie was now a small pack. All of them growing old together.
Many of the animals, most of them now familiars who had lost their human companions, took care of themselves and needed little from Abel, except for dealing with the occasional sickness or disability. What they needed most was a place to call home.
In the middle of a sleepless night he decided he could not allow the kludde to live here. He did not have the strength or desire to accommodate a new tenant.
The next morning, as he cleaned the litter boxes, he heard the dogs bark. He didn’t feel prepared, but he knew he must speak with the kludde.
The cacophony was less than the day before, this time only the dogs barked. When Abel stepped through the screen door he saw why. They barked at a young woman walking up the drive to his front yard, not at the returning kludde.
Abel never had unexpected visitors. The estate lay far away from well-traveled roads. He had long ago removed any signs of the nature of his sanctuary, and he paid a small fee for some obfuscation magic to keep his property off Google maps and other intrusive technologies.
Abel allowed the dogs to continue barking, but they didn’t alarm her. Abel noticed the dogs did not attempt to intimidate her, but instead acted unusually playful. He whistled sharply and they stopped barking and ran to cluster behind him. The young woman waved and smiled. Abel waited.
“Hello.” She smiled and held out her hand as she approached. She looked barely out of her teens, and she dressed comfortably in sneakers, jeans, and a t-shirt. She carried a bulging backpack, straps secure over each shoulder. She stood comfortably near the dogs, and near Abel. A lot of self-confidence for someone so young.
Abel nodded and ignored the proffered hand. “Good morning, Miss. Are you lost?”
Her smile lessened and she awkwardly returned her hand to her side. “I don’t think so. I’m looking for the Show Animal Retirement Home. Are you Abel Gardner?”
“I’m Mr. Gardner, but the home is closed.”
“Oh, shoot.” They stood for a moment in silence as the young woman pondered the new development, finally she asked. “Do you need any help? I’m supposed to find a volunteer position for my school. It’s part of a program. It will help me get a scholarship. I have the information if you like.” She slipped the pack off her back.
“No, thank you. I’m retired now. There are a few dogs and cats here, but nothing I can’t take care of on my own.” Willie let out a bark of disbelief. Abel shushed him.
“Do you mind if I leave you my number? I’ve read a little about this place and even if there’s not much to do, I’d love to ask you about what it used to be like, back when you started. It sounds like a neat place.” She dug around in her backpack until she found a notebook and a pen. She wrote her name and number, ripped out the page and handed it to Abel. “My name is Emma Sanchez.”
Abel reluctantly took the piece of paper, studiously ignoring what she had written. She reached down and petted Willie’s head. “What a good boy!” Willie’s tail wagged.
“Thank you, Miss. If I need any help I’ll give you a call.”
“OK.” She smiled. “I really hope you call. I’d be super helpful. I love animals. I work part-time at the pet store in the mall, and I’m studying to be a veterinarian at the University of West Tampa.” She picked up her backpack, waved goodbye first to the dogs, then reached out to shake Abel’s hand. This time he took it.
“It was a pleasure to meet you Mr. Gardner. I hope to see you soon.” She turned and started back down the long driveway to the road.
As he watched her walk away Abel’s left hand gave an involuntary jerk, he let out a choking grunt and fell to the ground.
Abel awoke in the back of an ambulance. Emma sat next to him holding his hand.
“Grandpa, you’re awake.” She patted his hand. “You fainted. I called 911 and we’re on the way to the hospital.”
“I don’t need to go to a hospital. Take me back home.”
“Sorry, Mr. Gardner,” said the paramedic next to the girl. “Once we get you into the vehicle we have to go through all the paperwork before we can release you. Besides, the hospital or a doctor might be able to help you.”
“I thought this was a free country. I don’t need your help.” Despite his annoyance he couldn’t generate enough energy to sound truly angry.
“It’s for insurance purposes.” The paramedic turned her attention to Emma. “You should be glad your granddaughter was visiting. Who knows what might have happened if she hadn’t called us.”
“Don’t you worry, Grandpa,” Emma winked so the paramedic couldn’t see. “I’m here to help. Just tell me what you need.”
Abel lay on a bed with small pads attached to his chest and a clamp on his finger. Emma stayed with him, despite his assurance that he was fine and she could leave. She felt compelled to fill the silence and since he answered her questions in grunts or not at all, she filled the silence with abundant information about her life. Abel learned that Emma loved her classes at the University of West Tampa, that she wanted to be a veterinarian since she was a child, that she really really really loved animals, she was on the swim team, and worked in a pet store. He also learned about her parents divorce when she was young, and how her Haitian mother moved to the other side of the continent and how her Cuban father’s job kept him busy and them moving from town to town. He learned that she’d always wished for a home to call her own, and that now she just rented, but she was already saving money to someday buy a house.
Emma also learned some things about Abel. She learned that Abel wanted to go home, that he was ready to be discharged, that there was nothing wrong with him, that he didn’t trust doctors, hospitals, or insurance companies. That they were keeping him against his will, and that he should walk out of here. She learned that he didn’t have time for this; that he was fine and needed to get back to work.
Four hours after being admitted an older doctor came breezing into the room. The doctor smelled strongly of soap. He had a bright chatty style neither Abel nor Emma liked.
“Hello, Mr. Gardner. How are you feeling?”
Wonderful. I’m ready to be discharged.”
“Good, good. I’m glad you’re feeling better. You were brought in because you fainted, is that correct?” The doctor studied the forms attached to a clipboard and clicked his pen open.
Abel didn’t say anything. When the doctor looked at Emma, she nodded.
“Have you had any of these events before?”
Abel again refused to answer, and this time all Emma could do was shrug.
“Have you experienced any temporary loss of vision? Any slurring of speech? Have you felt any tingling or numbness? Any dizziness?” After each question he paused to allow Abel a chance to answer.
Abel stared straight ahead. After the series of questions he said “I’m ready to go home now.”
“Mr. Gardner.” The doctor clicked his pen and slipped it into his coat pocket. “You may be experiencing transient ischemic attacks, or mini-strokes. However, losing consciousness is a big deal, and a little out of the ordinary for TIA. I recommend you stay overnight and allow us to run a CT scan in the morning.” The doctor paused for an answer. When he saw that Abel wouldn’t respond he turned to Emma.
“This is not jail. No one is forced to stay here against their will. However, if your grandfather decides to leave he will be leaving against medical advice. I don’t know his insurance situation, but frequently medical insurance will not cover the cost if the patient does not follow medical advice. Additionally, your grandfather could probably benefit from medication to alleviate whatever is happening. This episode could be indicative of something life-threatening, or it can be something we can manage with medication and lifestyle changes. Ignoring these symptoms could greatly shorten his life, or severely diminish his quality of life.” He turned back to Abel. “I’ll leave the two of you to decide the best course of action. I suggest you stay here overnight for observation. Please tell the nurse your decision.” The doctor stood and nodded. “Mr. Gardner. I wish you the best.”
As soon as the doctor stepped out Abel said, “Find the nurse and tell her I want my clothes. I’m leaving.”
As Emma walked Abel to the bus stop next to the hospital he touched his pocket. He didn’t have his wallet, which meant he didn’t have bus fare. He stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and turned to faced her.
“Miss. I realize my behavior has been brusque, perhaps unpleasant, and, I’m sure from your perspective, uncalled for. All I can say is that I have my reasons, and I am an old man set in my ways. However, today also helped me realize I probably could use someone to help with what remains of the home. I wouldn’t be comfortable with a volunteer, but I can offer you a part-time position if you are interested. You demonstrated excellent character today and I’d be willing to start you on a trial basis.”
Emma smiled. “Thanks! That’s awesome. But, I have to be a volunteer. That’s the only way I can meet the requirements for school. Also,” she looked up and down the street, “I don’t think there’s a bus that goes out to your house. I can call a friend to come pick us up if you want.”
Abel frowned. She was right, and he had no money or phone with him. “Very well,” he sighed. “That would be most considerate.”
Emma pulled out her cell phone and called her neighbor Denny. Denny didn’t work and rarely had any pressing matters. When she reached him he said he’d be right over.
For the next two weeks Emma stopped by the Home twice a week to help Abel with the animals. Mostly he tasked her with running errands outside the estate. She bought food and litter, cleaned litter boxes, changed the straw for the chickens. The chickens weren’t familiars, Abel just liked them. Abel didn’t introduce her to any of the exotics. Willie loved her and the dogs accepted her immediately. Even Solomon approved.
After two successful weeks Abel began to look forward to Emma’s visits. She was more help than he anticipated.
Upon returning, Abel made arrangements for a visit from his private doctor, which pleased the pack and Emma. The emergency room doctor hadn’t been far off, and Abel’s personal doctor prescribed some pharmaceuticals for Abel to add to his daily diet.
As Emma began her third week, on a Wednesday, the kludde returned.
Abel had worried about this since the first visit and put the sharp-eyed cockatrice on watch. Benny the cockatrice tracked down Abel to alert him while Emma sat in the kitchen tending to the paw of Malwort the cat.
This time Abel was prepared for the kludde. He hoped.
He stepped out into the back yard and scanned the skies. From this distance the kludde looked like a hawk, but it was approaching fast. Abel whistled for Willie and told him to alert everyone. Willie at once began racing around the compound alerting them to the kludde’s arrival. Emma stepped outside to investigate the commotion. She saw Abel staring at the sky, clutching a net in his left hand.
“What’s going on?” Emma could not keep the concern out of her voice. She feared that Abel was having some sort of episode.
Without taking his eyes off the rapidly approaching kludde Abel responded. “Do you believe in magic, Emma?”
“Are you going to do a trick? Is that what this is?” Seeing Abel staring unblinkingly into the sky made her nervous.
“What about ghosts or dragons?” Continued Abel.
“My grandmother believes in all that stuff. She definitely believes in ghosts. I probably don’t, but I suppose it’s possible. There’s so much we don’t know. Maybe they’re like from another dimension or something?” Emma wondered if she should leave. Or, maybe she should call for help. Willie wouldn’t stop barking, but he wasn’t barking at Abel. All the dogs were acting odd. They ran around in a peculiar manner, not all together, but each dashing along his or her own path. She saw the cats, too, moving quickly away from the house. And, what was standing next to Abel? Was it some sort of chicken? She’d never seen it before.
Abel looked away from the kludde and directly at Emma. “Magic is real Emma. So are monsters. I hoped to keep you sheltered from this, but it looks like fate has other ideas. We will be visited by a monster in a few moments. He’s dangerous, grieving, and will almost certainly cause trouble. Please go inside and sit at the kitchen table. I’ll let you know when it’s safe to come out.” He looked back at the sky. The kludde was almost upon them.
“He’s heading for the dragons! Get inside, Emma!”
Emma looked up and saw it. It wasn’t a hawk. It looked like an enormous black dog with giant bat wings. Emma ran inside.
The kludde kept a rarefied died, which helped account for their scarcity. It was uncommon, but not unheard of, for a kludde to attack a dragon. Especially if they could find one particularly old or young. Pinky and Bertelloax, the two dragons living at the Home, were both particularly old.
Abel knew his only chance to defeat the kludde was to ensnare it in the net. He’d spent the early hours each morning enchanting the net for just this purpose. He had never been a particularly powerful magician, and age had only diminished his ability to summon the power.
Abel arrived at the dragons’ lair the same time as the kludde. The dragons were ready. While old, they were still formidable. The fact the kludde was attacking them indicated its extreme situation. Now that Twister didn’t feed it, it was probably starving.
Pinky rose on her hind legs and spread her wings, the kludde hit her in the neck, and wrapped his arms around her. Bertelloax leaped into the air, pumping his strong wings once to get high enough to turn around.
Pinky tumbled over backwards from the force of the kludde’s attack.
‘It must be mad,’ thought Abel. ‘Does it think it can kill both of them? Does it not see all of the rest of us here?’ In its maddened state the kludde probably could kill both dragons, and gave no more regard to Abel and his animal assistants than he might give to sparrows and ants at a picnic. It was a powerful creature under any circumstance, but driven mad by grief and hunger it might be unstoppable.
Pinky could not reach the kludde. It positioned itself perfectly to avoid her jaws and her claws, and was working its way through the armor on her neck with its brutal teeth. Bertelloax came swooping in and soaked the kludde with flame. The kludde screeched and launched himself from Pinky to Bertelloax. The kludde barely missed grabbing Bertelloax’s hind leg, so extended his wings to follow. They both rose in the air. Bertelloax pushing to get far enough away to turn around. The kludde couldn’t quite catch up with the larger animal’s powerful thrusts.
“Bertelloax!” Abel shouted. “Bring him to me!”
Bertelloax made a wide turn and flew back to Abel. Pinky hopped nearby, frustrated. The kludde’s attack had injured her left wing and left it unusable.
Abel set the gun on the ground, and gripped the net with both hands. The more net that touched the kludde the more effective the enchantment. He crouched as best he could.
Bertelloax landed in front of Abel and moved quickly to the side to encourage the kludde to land directly in front of Abel.
Emma stood in the kitchen, anxiously wondering what was going on. An intolerable silence filled the house. In her two weeks of visiting the Home she had never experienced such stillness. Should she help? She convinced herself to step outside to see what was going on, so she could call for help if something horrible was happening. Emma left the kitchen. She saw a dragon and winged dog falling from the sky. She ran toward them, worried that Abel might need some help.
As soon as the kludde landed Abel rushed forward and tossed the net. In his youth he lived along the coast and frequently fished with a net. It was a practiced throw, rusty, but accurate. The kludde stopped abruptly and with astonishing agility danced away. The net fell untouched to the ground. With one abrupt motion the kludde swung at Abel and knocked him down.
Emma came to the water’s edge just in time to see the kludde strike Abel.
The kludde leaped at Bertelloax. Pinky jumped at the kludde. The three began a ferocious battle. The dogs barked, looking for an opportunity to intervene. The cockatrice howled. The kludde snarled, and the dragons roared. A cacophony of animal noises swirled around the fight.
Emma ran to Abel’s side. The kludde had done more than knock him down. The claws had cut through his shirt and into his chest. Abel lay on the ground, his breathing labored.
The kludde let out a piercing shriek and attempted to leap into the sky. Bertelloax reached up with his massive jaws and caught the beast and flung him to the ground.
“Abel! Are you OK? You’re hurt. I’ll call 911.” Emma shook, stunned and upset by the violence near her.
“Wait.” Abel grabbed her wrist with surprising strength. Solomon the cat stepped out of the grass and stood next to Abel’s head, looking into his eyes.
“Let me go! I have to get help.” She tried unsuccessfully to pull his fingers away from her wrist.
Pinky and Bertelloax each let out a roar. Emma looked over. The dragons stood over the prone body of the kludde, trumpeting in triumph. The kludde lay unconscious.
“I’m sorry we didn’t have more time together. You’re a good kid.” Abel’s eyes rolled in his head and he coughed.
“Abel, I have to call 911!” She reached to her back pocket for her phone and remembered she left it in her bag in the kitchen. Abel still held onto her arm, but was losing strength. She pried his fingers off her wrist, and ran back to the house to get her phone.
As soon as Emma moved away, Solomon let out a yowl. He turned to the dragons and let out a complicated series of meows. The dragons turned away from their preening and listened.
Pinky carefully picked up the kludde and carried it next to Abel where she laid the monster next to the old man.
Solomon leaped on Abel’s chest and pushed her mouth into his. She lay like that for a few moments. Panting.
Emma’s hand shook so much she mis-dialed 911 twice. She pushed buttons as she ran back to Abel’s side. She didn’t know how to describe the attack, and when she arrived at Abel’s body, only the dogs and Solomon remained. Solomon rose on her hind legs and stretched out her arms as Emma spoke to the 911 operator. Instantly Emma recognized Solomon imitated a bear.
“Attacked by a bear,” she said into the phone. As she approached she saw that Abel didn’t move. Abel was dead.
Emma couldn’t answer most of the questions posed by the Sheriff. She told him she volunteered at the Home for two weeks, and she didn’t know Abel Gardner well, but she knew he had been ill. She felt protective of the Home and presumed it was in her own best interest, as well as the animals, to not mention dragons and flying dogs. Instead, she told him, she heard a noise and saw the bear, went to get her phone, and when she returned Abel was dead and the bear was gone.
The Sheriff was a tall hispanic man with a paunch. Short hair the color of straw ringed a large bald spot. He looked to be in his sixties and Emma was thankful for his gentle behavior and kindness. She liked him. He seemed like one of the good guys. She sat with the Sheriff in the kitchen. Throughout the interview Willie sat beside her, leaning against her leg. She rubbed his head and stroked his fur as she talked to the Sheriff.
After he closed his notebook she asked the Sheriff “What happens now? What’s going to happen to all the animals?”
“Well, we’ll try to locate a next-of-kin. One of the deputies will look through the house for any contact information. We’ll check his paperwork at the hospital to determine if he listed any emergency contacts. I’ll have animal control come out and round up the animals.”
“What will happen to them?”
The Sheriff looked at her for a long time before answering. “Ma’am, I wish I could tell you something different, but in situations like this the animals are usually put down. They’ll be euthanized.”
“No!” Emma jumped to her feet. “I mean, what if there’s a next-of-kin who will take over the Home? You can’t kill them all if there’s someone who will take care of them.”
“Are you volunteering to take care of the animals until we locate someone?”
Emma didn’t hesitate. “Yes. I will take care of these animals until you find the next-of-kin. I work here.”
The Sheriff nodded. “I probably shouldn’t, but I’m going to allow it. I expect you to call me every day with an update. If you can’t manage, I’ll contact animal control. With any luck we’ll find a next-of-kin, and they can see to the well-being of these animals.”
“Thank you, Sheriff!” Emma wanted to hug him, but resisted the temptation. Willie thumped his tail and let out a little bark. He looked like he was smiling. Emma imagined he was saying thank you.
The Sheriff seemed to think the same thing. “You’re welcome, fella.” He reached over and scratched Willie between the ears.
For the next two days Emma lived in shock and worry. Had she really seen a giant flying dog? Had she really seen dragons? She just met Abel, how could he be gone so fast? Was there something different or weird about the rest of the animals at the home? Had Solomon done an impression of a bear? And, where was Solomon? She hadn’t seen the big black cat since the “Event” as she now thought of it. She left the estate for school and to sleep in her own bed, but she spent most of the day waiting for someone who knew Abel to arrive. Willie stayed nearby, keeping her company as she did her rounds.
When Emma arrived on the morning of the third day a car sat in the driveway. A short, heavyset woman with closely cropped hair dyed bright red sat at the kitchen table. Solomon sat on the table. Emma heard the woman speaking to Solomon as she walked in.
“You must be Emma.” The woman rose and came over to shake Emma’s hand. “I’m Yassi. I’m so sorry. I know this must have been a bit traumatic. How are you holding up? Can I get you something? Do you like tea? Let me get you some tea.” She sat Emma down and began bustling about the kitchen as if it were her own.
“How do you know Abel?” Emma reached out and rubbed Solomon’s big black head. Solomon purred.
“Oh, I worked here for years when I was going to school. But, that’s been a long time ago. Do you want cream or sugar?” Before Emma could respond Yassi had already pulled cream from the ancient ice box and sugar from the cupboard where it rested in a china sugar bowl.
“None for me thanks.”
“I shouldn’t have either one, but I’m going to have both. Strong hot tea with lots of cream and a little bit of sugar.” She sat at the table while they waited on the kettle. “So, tell me a little bit about yourself, Emma. You’ve been helping Abel the last few weeks?”
“Yes. Did the Sheriff contact you?”
Yassi shook her head no and smiled.
Emma wondered briefly how she knew, but decided not to dwell on it and told Yassi how she had come to volunteer.
The kettle whistled while Emma told her story and Yassi poured them each a cup of tea in delicate teacups that seemed incongruous with the hodge-podge of Abel’s kitchenware.
Yassi listened sympathetically. When Emma got to the day of the Event she hesitated. Yassi reached out and patted her hand. “It’s alright, Love. I worked here for years. I know exactly what sort of place this is.”
Emma told her about the monster and the attack. It was a relief to finally be able to tell someone what happened. Emma found herself crying more than she would have predicted. Yassi came around the table and gave her a hug and a wad of tissues. Solomon watched, making occasional mewing noises, and Willie rubbed his head gently once against Emma’s calf.
When most of the crying had stopped Yassi replenished Emma’s supply of tissues and freshened up their tea. “Well, now. You deserve some explanations, and I’m going to give them to you. First, for many years, while this was a going concern, a certain type of people knew this as the Home for Old Familiars, or sometimes Abel’s Home for Old Familiars. Do you know what a familiar is?”
“Like a witch’s cat?”
Yassi shrugged. “On a rudimentary level, that’s the gist of it. But it’s more than cats and it’s more than witches. Certain folk, practitioners of magic, bond with certain animals, think of them as the witches and wizards of the animal world. And the two fit together like jigsaw pieces. They become companions, but the companionship is so strong they are like one entity. When one dies… Well, very often the other cannot go on. The grief, the loss is unbearable. But, some, both human-type animals, and non-human-type animals do not, or cannot, die. They continue. Abel kept a home for the animal familiars who lost their human companions. And, it’s more than cats. All types of animals can be familiars, even insects, reptiles, and monsters.
“The animal you saw is a kludde. As rare a beast you’ll ever find. It was the familiar of a man named Twister. Not a particularly good man. Twister died and his familiar went mad with grief. I suppose when he arrived here he was looking for something, a place to be, but was also deranged, and acted out. He probably didn’t mean to kill Abel, but here we are.”
“What happened to the kludde?” Emma took a drink of tea. The warmth spread through her belly, back, and chest and relaxed her.
“The dragons subdued the kludde.”
“I THOUGHT those were dragons.”
“They are. Pinky and Bertelloax. They’ve been living here since I worked here. The world is much stranger than you’ve been taught, I imagine.”
“So, what happens now? What happens to all these animals, to all the old familiars?”
“That’s a good question, a question I’m sorry to say I can’t answer at this moment.” Yassi changed the subject. “Tell me more about your life. Do you have family? What do you want to do with your life?”
So, Emma told her about her father and mother and about college and her studies to be a veterinarian, and how she thought Florida was over-developed and needed people to stand up for green space and nature. And about how she loved animals because they were somehow more honest and understandable and when they loved you it was as close to unconditional love you could find in the world.
Yassi was easy to talk to and she made Emma laugh. When Emma noticed the time more than two hours had passed, and the room had become crowded. A dog lay in each corner, two cats rested on the counter, a ferret lay next to the table leg. Solomon still sat on the table. Willie lay at her feet. A cardinal, an owl, and what looked like a cockatoo had entered somehow and perched on the tops of the cupboards. And, something she couldn’t quite identify lay in the shadows just beyond the interior doorway. Looking around Emma felt warm, happy, and satisfied. She was going to miss this place. With a start she realized who surrounded her.
“So, all these animals,” she gestured to the crowded room, “are familiars? Someone who lost their human companion?”
Yassi took a quick glance around to room. “Yes. That’s right.”
Yassi laughed. She had a marvelous laugh. “More or less, yes.”
“What’s going to happen to them all?” Emma realized she was repeating herself, but there was no other question worth asking.
“Well, we’ve taken a vote…”
“When?” Emma interrupted.
“While you were talking. We’ve taken a vote and we want to ask you to take over the Home for Old Familiars.”
“Oh, I couldn’t! I don’t have the skills, the background,” she gestured around her. “I… I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
“You wouldn’t be working alone. You wouldn’t be doing much different than what you did before. Except you’d have to sign some paperwork and stuff. Basically, you’d own the home, but still only be an assistant here.”
“But, own it? Why me? Why don’t you take it over? You used to work here. I bet you’d be great at it.”
“That’s a little more complicated than it sounds. Technically, I’m dead, and not in a position to own land in the state of Florida. It’s a long story.
“Also, keep in mind this is simply for the transition as we relocate some of our guests to different homes. It’s going to take some time, but we need a caretaker now.”
“But, how will I know what to do? What about the dragons! I don’t know how to take care of a dragon.”
“We have someone who does. Who, as you’ll see in a moment, also cannot be an owner.”
“I need you to prepare yourself. This will be a shock, but don’t panic.”
The kludde stepped into the kitchen. Emma, for the first time ever in her life, let out an involuntary shriek. Without thinking she stood, prepared to flee. Willie growled deep in his throat and Solomon flipped his tail back and forth. A twitch of nervousness rippled through the room, but ended quickly.
The kludde knelt and rested its broad, strong hand-like paws on the floor. The talons clicked on the tile. The wings were folded close to its back, so close that if Emma didn’t know they existed, she might not have noticed the wings at all.
“Emma, meet Abel.”
“That’s not Abel! That thing killed Abel!” For one topsy-turvy moment Emma felt sickened by the thought that she had been wrong all along. Yassi was not her friend. This was not a safe place. And the kludde was here to kill her, or worse. She calculated how far she could get if she bolted and ran. She felt her shoulders contract. She stood frozen by the table, too terrified to move.
“It’s a little more complicated than that. First, let me warn you, if you decide to help out here at the Home, you’re going to experience some weirdness. Maybe even a little danger. I don’t want to hide anything, or sugarcoat the situation. Here’s some weirdness to get us started. The kludde killed Abel’s body, the dragons injured the kludde. Abel’s body was too damaged to sustain life. Solomon moved Abel’s soul from his human body to the body of the kludde.”
The kludde bowed its head to Emma. Emma sat abruptly, her head swimming.
“This is Abel. Unfortunately, the human brain doesn’t map perfectly onto the kludde brain, so he doesn’t have all of Abel’s memories, or wisdom, or knowledge. But, he has enough to help you around the home, and to take care of things while you are away.”
“I see. He can mostly still take care of the place, but can’t own anything because he’s a monster. And you can’t own it because you’re technically dead. So, I’ll own it, but you guys will help me out?”
Yassi nodded. “Just until we find a home for everyone. As you might imagine it’s not easy to find homes for old familiars.”
Emma nodded, letting it all sink in.
“I think maybe yes? But, guys, I seriously need to sleep on this before I decide anything.”
The next morning Emma knew exactly what to do.
When she arrived at the home she found Yassi out back treating Benny’s bumblefoot. It was the first time Emma had ever seen a cockatrice up close. She recognized it as the funny-looking chicken that stood next to Abel on the day of the event. The range of colors in the cockatrice feathers was truly astonishing. Willie ran up to greet her. Emma kneeled down and gave him a big hug and rubbed his head. The other dogs bounded up to greet her.
Yassi came over, wiping her hand on an apron she wore over jeans and an old Florida State Fair t-shirt. “Well, you’re here early.”
Emma grinned. “It came to me this morning when I woke up. I know what I want to do!”
Yassi laughed. “Good! What do you want to do?”
Emma hesitated. It was a big step and she wasn’t sure if Yassi and Abel and the familiars would go for it. Finally, she spit it out. “I want to re-open the Home.”
Willie woofed and wagged his tail. Yassi frowned and shook her head slightly. “I don’t know…” she muttered. “It might be more than a regular person can handle. I’m not sure if you fully appreciate how… weird life among the elder races can get. Not to be too blunt about it, but you’re young.”
“But, it won’t be only me. I’ll have Abel here to help me. And Willie, and Solomon. And you’ll be around sometimes to help. And you said yourself the familiars like me. And if other places like this existed it would be easy to find them another home, but you said it was hard to find another home, so there aren’t many places like this. Like this was. And I’ve always wanted to work with animals. And, I’m going to college. I am learning how to care for animals, and my time is flexible. And, even though they’re familiars there’s still plenty of regular animal health issues I can learn about in school. And… and I’d be really good at it!” Emma had never desired anything so much in her short life.
“Let me find Abel and some of the animals and have a little talk. Why don’t you go make some tea for the two of us.” Yassi turned to walk down to the dragon den. Willie gave Emma a wink and trotted after Yassi. Solomon came out of the house and rubbed against Emma’s leg then ran off to follow Yassi and Willie.
Yassi returned as the kettle started to whistle. She was smiling.
“We’ll do it.”
“Yes!” Emma thrust both her arms in the air, then moved to hug Yassi.
“But…” Yassi held her back. “This is a trial. We’ll see how it goes. If it doesn’t work out, then it’s only temporary. All it means at first is we’ll hold off finding a home for the familiars that live here. We’ll give you a chance to run the place, with our help. If it doesn’t work, then we’re no worse off than we are now. In fact, we’re probably a little better because there won’t be such a rush. And if it works out, well it’s a happy ending for all isn’t it?” She thought for a second. “Well, except for Abel. Not completely a happy ending for him, but I suppose it could have been worse.” She smiled broadly and enveloped Emma in a hug. “Good on you, child. I wish you much success. The world’s been missing a place like this since Abel retired. Don’t think it’ll be easy, because it won’t, but loving those around you will carry you a long way.”
Emma poured them both a cup of tea. Willie sat at her feet. Solomon sat on the table and purred. She was home.