Fourteen-year old Frankie Paxon’s custody hearing was delayed yet again. Not enough deputies were available to bring his parents, Ray and Angie, to the Natrona County courthouse on time. This was his parent’s third arrest for manufacturing and selling methamphetamines in their mobile home outside of Casper, Wyoming. Frankie and his attorney Rob Morris had to wait.
“Hey Frankie, summer is coming,” Rob said, browsing through the local section of the Casper Daily News. “Time for the annual state fair inDouglas.”
“So,” Frankie said staring at the tiled floor.
“You’re upset buddy,” Rob said, folding his paper. “This can’t be easy on you.”
“Yo, you don’t know what I feel because you never asked. You’re only here because the county pays you.”
Rob fumbled for words. “We just met this morning, but I do care about you. That’s why I went into legal aid after law school, Fritz.”
“If you care so much Mr. Lawyer, get my name right next time. It’s Frankie, not Fritz.”
The bailiff, a dapper old man in a crisp tan suit, shiny black cowboy boots, and a string tie, called out Frankie’s name and indicated he was next on the docket.
Still blushing, Rob grabbed Frankie’s folder and stuffed it into his briefcase. Once he straightened his glasses and buttoned his jacket, he said, “Ready?”
“Guess my druggie parents must be here,” Frankie said with a smirk, as he followed Rob into the courtroom. “I wonder what lies they’ll tell this time.”
Wearing baggy blue jeans, a torn Denver Broncos T-shirt and high top sneakers, curly-haired Frankie sat next to Rob. Across the courtroom were his parents clad in bright orange prison jumpers, looking haggard and gaunt. Frankie glanced at them once or twice but acted as if they were strangers, not his family.
The old cowboy announced the entry of Judge Estelle Morgan, a fortyish woman with silky skin and dark hair tied in a bun. Peering down from her seat on the bench, she picked up a gavel and called the proceedings to order. She stared at Jon Dixon, public defender for the Paxons, through reading glasses pinching her nose.
“Raymond and Angela Paxon, I have a petition from the Natrona County Children’s Services to sever your parental rights,” Judge Morgan said. “I intend to sign it but I’m giving you a chance to speak to your son.”
Ray stood up, hands in his pockets, and spoke like his mouth was full of bread. “I’m really sorry for all the trouble I caused you, Son. I guess I haven’t been much of a father.”
“Yeah right,” Frankie said, with a shuddering sigh. “You’re sorry the cops busted you and Mom and that you’re going to jail again for a long time.”
Angie flew out of her seat and lunged towards Frankie. Rage distorted her weathered face. “Shut up, you little brat. Wait till I get you for this.”
Court officers as well as both lawyers restrained her and forced her to sit. The sheriff’s deputy immediately handcuffed her.
“I ought to hold you in contempt, Mrs. Paxon.” Judge Morgan was like an angry barracuda. “That’s your son you just threatened. Any more outbursts like that and you’ll face additional charges.”
The judge took on a kind, sort of motherly role. “Francis, stand in front of me please.”
Frankie fidgeted with his hands. When Rob nudged him in the side, he finally got out of his seat and walked toward the judge.
Judge Morgan removed her glasses. “I take great pains whenever I’m put in this position, which, by the way, your parents left me no other choice.” She threw a contemptuous glance at Ray and Angie. “I’m sorry to say your other relatives around here are on drugs, in treatment or in jail. The county found no one in your family suitable as foster parents. I wish I had better news.”
“I’m going to foster care. What’s the big deal?” Frankie said.
“As I was saying, I’m reluctantly placing you into the state’s child protective custody. Because of an unexpected change in plans today, Mr. Robert Morris, your lawyer and not your caseworker, will take you to a foster home where you will reside until the state finds you a permanent home. Any questions?”
“No what?” the judge said.
“Good luck son.”
Rob drove through a sparsely populated but tidy middle-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Powder River. When he reached a pale blue, wood frame house with a thriving flower garden brightening the front yard, he slowed down and pulled into the driveway. Behind the screened-in porch were a few wicker rocking chairs, end tables, a magazine rack, and along with a swing. A gray cat with a splotch of white on her chest rested on a comfy pillow.
“This is your new home,” Rob said as he walked toward the house with Frankie by his side.
“I hate cats,” Frankie said.
“Frankie, please, try and get along,” Rob said, knocking on front door. “Your caseworker Jennie Castro had a hard time finding this home.”
Frankie made an ugly face at the cat named Harriet. Birds chirping in the nearby trees sidetracked her attention so she never noticed Frankie glaring at her.
A petite woman with easygoing green eyes and graying brown hair opened the door and said, “You must be Mr. Morris.” With a tiny smile, she turned to Frankie and said, “You must be Francis. Welcome to your new home.”
Frankie said nothing as he trailed Rob into the living room. Happy family photos hanging on the wall, sharing birthday celebrations, holidays, and every day events punched a hole in Frankie’s stiff armor. For a moment, he wished his family life hadn’t been so miserable.
“Frankie, this is Mrs. Shaw,” Rob said. “She’s your new foster mother.”
“My husband Tater, Mr. Shaw, is still at work but he’ll be home later,” Mrs. Shaw said.
Rob moved closer to Frankie and asked, “Do you have something to say?”
Rob rolled his eyes.
“I hope you like animals,” Mrs. Shaw said, trying to pull the plug on a deteriorating situation. “There’s my old dog Sirloin, who’s sleeping somewhere.” She glanced out the window. “We have a horse named Shamus who’s in the barn. We’ll show you around later. And Harriet, the cat you saw on the porch. She’ll be with us for a few months while my sister Candace travels inEuropeon business.” She motioned for Frankie and Rob to follow her to the kitchen. “Would either of you like something to drink? Or eat?”
“No thanks,” Rob said, following Mrs. Shaw into the kitchen. “I have to go. Jennie Castro, the caseworker, will be here next week to visit. Remember, caseworker visits are unannounced.” He opened his wallet. “Here’s my business card. If either of you need me for any reason, please call.” He caught Frankie’s attention. “The school bus will pick you up at 7:00 a.m. every morning. OK buddy?”
“My name is Frankie, not Buddy.”
Mrs. Shaw knitted her eyebrows. “I doubt he meant any harm, Frankie.” Shifting her attention, she asked. “Mr. Morris, do you have to leave already?”
At the same time, Harriet poked her body through the doggie door that led from the porch and she breezed through the kitchen. On her way to the water bowl she brushed by Frankie’s lower leg.
“Why is that cat in here?” Frankie said, staring at Harriet as if she was a roach.
Mrs. Shaw tilted her head. “She’s my sister’s cat and we’re watching her. She goes in and out but mostly she stays in where I keep an eye on her.”
“That’s just great,” Frankie said with enough contempt to sink a ship. “I hate cats.”
Mrs. Shaw sighed and stared at Rob, as if pleading for help.
“Jennie will see you soon,” Rob said as he rushed out the door.
Mrs. Shaw opened the refrigerator and poured herself a large glass of iced tea. “Care to join me? I baked vanilla snap cookies this morning.”
“Francis, this will go a lot easier if you open up a little.”
“Look lady, I don’t want to be around you, Mr. Potato Head, or your stupid animals.”
Frankie stormed out of the kitchen, nearly tripping over Harriet as she lapped water from her bowl.
That was enough. Noticing Frankie barge through the hallway, Harriet scampered the other way. She headed towards the den, nestled in the rear of the house. There, she found Sirloin sound asleep underneath Tater’s desk. To waken him, she nuzzled next to the old dog’s ears. Sirloin was hard of hearing.
“Get up,” Harriet said. “I have news.”
The fluffy dog, about the size of winter galoshes, opened his eyes and said, “Just remember one thing. I’m not as crabby as you are when I disturb your nap.” The dog rolled over and sat up. “What’s going on?”
“The newest foster child is here and I don’t like him,” Harriet said. “He’s not at all like the two nice boys who left last month. I miss how they fussed over me which of course I deserve. That new brat Frankie had the audacity to tell Mrs. Shaw he hates cats.”
“I wasn’t crazy about you either when you first showed up. But you grew on me.”
“It’s only natural you’d love me. Who wouldn’t adore a devastatingly gorgeous cat like me?”
“When you stop gloating about yourself,” Sirloin said, picking at a tiny twig on his underbelly, “I’ll listen to what’s going on.”
“Behave like a gentleman and stop grooming yourself,” Harriet said. “I was minding my own business drinking water when that beast tried to stomp on my tail.”
“Are you stretching the truth, as you sometimes do, or are you telling the truth?”
“The great Harriet never lies.”
“That’s a little more serious,” Sirloin said. “From what I know about foster children, he’s probably having a hard time. Mrs. Shaw will help him warm up to us.”
“Take my advice and stay out of his way.”
The dog moaned slightly. “Oh great cat, my old bones are aching. Drop in on Shamus, our horse friend, so he knows about our new guest? Too bad humans don’t understand us. You could talk to Mrs. Shaw about the boy.”
“Quit fooling around, dogbreath. Wait till this kid takes his anger out on you. You’ll be sorry.”
Frankie had skipped breakfast and lunch so luscious smells from the kitchen whetted his appetite. At home, he mostly fended for his own meals. The kitchen cabinets held scant amounts of packaged foods and canned goods. To survive, Frankie stole money from his parents drug stash and treated himself to fast food. His favorite was extra cheese pizza with sausage topped off with a strawberry ice cream cone and sprinkles. When he felt lonely, which was often, he invited himself to a friend’s house and had dinner with their family. He often stayed late to enjoy his friend’s company and avoid the confusion at home.
With dinner was nearly ready, Mrs. Shaw took off her apron, turned down the burners on the stove, and found her husband resting in the den on his comfy chair.
“Now that you’ve changed clothes and freshened up, knock on Frankie’s door and see if he’ll join us for dinner. He’s been hiding all afternoon. I bet he’s hungry.”
“He’s probably nervous, too. All the kids are when they first get here. I guess they can’t help it, considering the bad situations they come from.”
Before leaving, Tater bent down and glanced at Sirloin, sleeping soundly on a fluffy pillow. “Looks like somebody had a rough day. Where’s Harriet?”
“Probably on the porch, looking at birds, or sleeping on our bed,” Mrs. Shaw said. “Tater, take it slowly. Frankie has an attitude sharp as a pick ax.”
“I can handle him.”
Tater took a deep breath, put on his slippers and shuffled a few steps down the narrow hallway. In front of Frankie’s bedroom door he rapped once. “Hi Frankie, I’m Mr. Shaw. It’s dinnertime and we’d like you to join us.”
A few seconds passed so Tater said, “You can stay in there all night if you want to, but Mrs. Shaw fixed a special meal. My wife’s a good cook.”
“I’m not coming out,” Frankie said.
“What if I come in?”
Tater nudged the door open and slowly inched his way inside. There, he found Frankie sitting on a chair, rocking back and forth. The boy stared out the window at the sun setting behind the snow-cappedGrand TetonMountains.
Keeping a safe distance, Tater stayed by the door. “Have dinner with us. If you’re still uncomfortable, go back to your room, but at least eat something.”
Frankie chewed on his lip. Both arms were wrapped around his slender waist. Although he was a teenager, his eyes pleaded with Tater to be pick him up and hold him.
“I take it that means yes. Follow me,” Tater said.
Out of desperation, Frankie reluctantly tagged along behind Tater and joined the Shaw’s for dinner. A red-checkered tablecloth covered the round wooden table. Each setting had a ceramic plate with silverware on a folded white cloth napkin. In the middle sat a vase with a bouquet of freshly picked daisies from Mrs. Shaw’s garden.
Frankie was impressed. In better times, he remembered eating meals as a family in the cramped kitchen of their mobile home. It was nothing fancy but they ate together. That was a long time ago when Frankie’s parents worked at the plastics factory before it closed down. His parent’s self-esteem plunged when they couldn’t find work. Trouble started when his parents manufactured meth to make ends meet. Drug dealing was supposed to be temporary but the arrangement spiraled out of control. Memories of those happier days soon fizzled when reality set in.
From his seat at the dining room table, Frankie was surprised by the amount of food available. He helped himself to ample servings of Yankee pot roast with gravy, creamy mashed potatoes, and fresh string beans. He even dug into the tossed green salad, a rarity at home, and grabbed two hot seeded rolls.
“We’re glad to have you with us,” Tater said, as he buttered his vegetables and took a bite of salad. “Feel like telling me about yourself.”
“Nothing to say.”
“How about I tell you about me?” Tater waited for Frankie’s response. When there was none, he continued. “I’m aViet Namvet. Got drafted in 1967 when I graduated from high school. Not what I wanted but that’s life. Served two years in the Army until I hurt by enemy crossfire.”
That caught Frankie by surprise. “What happened?”
“Can’t remember much except the pain. I came to in a chopper on my way to an Army hospital,” Tater said. “The bullet ripped a hole in my back and made me lose a kidney. The service discharged me so I came home toWyoming. Mrs. Shaw and I got married and we’ve lived in this house ever since. Raised three children.” He stopped, sipped water and said, “I work for a gas company over at the Powder River Basin. It’s hard, grimy work but good money.”
“Why do you take in foster children?” Frankie asked.
The Shaws glanced at one another.
Mrs. Shaw put down her fork. “Children need us. We raised three healthy, well-adjusted children and we think we’re good at what we do. We enjoy helping young people like yourself.”
Frankie had nothing to say.
“Shamus needs feeding,” Tater said. “If you don’t mind, I could use a hand spreading clean straw around his stall. We also had a delivery yesterday of hay and I haven’t had time to store it yet.”
“Yeah, if I have to.” Frankie showed the enthusiasm of bricks.
Sirloin lumbered through the dining room on his way into the kitchen. He looked up as he passed by, barely wagged his tail, and kept going.
“How’s my best dog?” Tater said.
“Tater, I’m a little worried about him,” Mrs. Shaw said. “He’s slowing down a lot lately. Maybe I should call the vet.”
“He’s 15 years old, darling. In dog years, he’s nearly 90. If I live that long, I’ll probably slow down too.”
“That’s a dumb name for a dog,” Frankie said. “Sirloin.”
“We think it’s cute,” Mrs. Shaw said. “Tater found Sirloin in a dumpster when he was a tiny ball of fur. We had to feed him with a medicine dropper for the first week. Tater had steak for lunch that day and somehow the name just stuck.”
“When you’re done with supper, please help Mrs. Shaw with the dishes then meet me in the barn,” Tater said.
“I didn’t do dishes at home,” Frankie said. “Why should I do them here?”
“Son, our own children had chores up until they left for college. All our foster children helped around the house. You’ll be no different,” Tater said, without raising his voice.
“Make me do dishes.” A sharp edge cut through Frankie’s voice.
“You have a choice, Frankie,” Mrs. Shaw said, as if she was laying out simple options. “Either help with the dishes or go to your room.”
“You’re not going to hit me?” Frankie asked.
“No, we’re not. What’s it going to be?” Tater said, standing with his arms akimbo. “The dishes or your room?”
In a huff, Frankie stacked the dirty dishes into a pile. He carried them into the kitchen and left them by the sink. As he started to walk away, he bumped into Mrs. Shaw.
“We’re not done yet,” Mrs. Shaw said. “Scrape food off the dishes then load them into the dishwasher. After that, you can help Mr. Shaw in the barn. He needs help storing the hay and spreading straw.”
“I thought his name was Tater.”
“That’s his nickname,” Mrs. Shaw said. “His real name is James Carl. But you’ll call him Mr. Shaw.”
While Frankie finished, Mrs. Shaw opened a can of cat food and scooped the contents into a food bowl. In waltzed Harriet wiggling her nose. When Harriet finished eating, she ducked underneath the table. By then Sirloin showed up for his dinner. Mrs. Shaw filled his dish with a generous amount of soft kibble.
“Frankie, I’ll be right back,” Mrs. Shaw said. “I want to make sure everything is cleared off the dining room table. Before you go to the barn, let’s talk about a shopping trip for new school clothes.”
Sirloin moseyed over to his dish, which sat on the floor next to Harriet’s and nibbled on his food. Due to his age and lack of teeth, he ate slowly.
From her hiding spot, Harriet kept a close eye on Frankie’s every move. His gruff attitude was unbecoming but all the boy did was put away dishes. Bored, Harriet moved on. Swatting at birds against the porch window held more of a punch. Just as she was ready to leave, Frankie snuck behind Sirloin and lifted his big foot as if to kick the old dog. Harriet swung into action and charged at Frankie. Back arched, she spit and mewled, creating quite the feline frenzy.
“Shut up you stupid cat.” Frankie held up a dish towel and tried to smack her, but Harriet evaded him by bouncing off the table and landing on top of the fridge. She bared her fangs and hissed.
Hearing the ruckus, Mrs. Shaw rushed into the kitchen. “What’s the matter? Why is Harriet carrying on like that?”
“I swear it was an accident,” Frankie said. “I was finishing the dishes when I tripped over her. I didn’t mean to hurt your cat.”
“Please be careful,” Mrs. Shaw. “Where is Harriet? Is she hurt?”
“Up there.” Frankie looked up. With the innocence of an altar boy, he said, “Hey Harriet, I’m sorry if I stepped on your tail.”
Since stiff-neck Harriet refused to come down off the fridge, Mrs. Shaw used a step stool to reach the cat. She lifted Harriet into her arms and felt the cat’s body to check for signs of injury. Mrs. Shaw realized Harriet was OK. She hugged her and carried the cat into another room, far away from Frankie.
“I hope he didn’t hurt you,” Mrs. Shaw said, as she stroked Harriet’s back. “This boy will be a challenge.”
Harriet soaked up the tenderness like a stray starved for affection. She rewarded Mrs. Shaw with a soft meow.
“My sister Candace described you as one tough broad, but I’ll keep an eye out for you, just in case,” Mrs. Shaw said.
Back inside the den, Mrs. Shaw fretted over Sirloin to make sure her dog was unharmed, even though Harriet did all the hooting and hollering. Satisfied, she picked him up and took him out to take care of business. While the dog futzed around the back yard and sniffed the bushes, Mrs. Shaw watched Tater show Frankie around the barn. As the sun slowly disappeared, she cradled Sirloin in her arms and brought him inside. She left him on a pillow in their bedroom.
As the dog rolled over to sleep, Harriet appeared. “I told you he was trouble.”
“Maybe you’re right. He tried to kick me while I was eating,” Sirloin said.
“Be glad the great Harriet was there to protect you,” Harriet said. “Did you see how he tried to whack a lovely cat like me? I was nearly killed but I showed him who was boss, didn’t I?”
“Mrs. Shaw says kids who act like that must be angry because of their previous home life,” Sirloin said. “They were probably abused.”
“What, now you’re the canine philosopher?” Harriet said. “Stay out of his way if I’m not around. I hope my Candace comes home soon.”
“Have you checked with Shamus yet? See if he’s bothered him?”
“No yet, but I’m going to the barn now. The brute was out there earlier.”
Mrs. Shaw moved his pillow into her bedroom. At first, the dog resisted the change. Every time Mrs. Shaw left him alone, Sirloin sauntered back to the den. Only when Frankie was around did Mrs. Shaw close Sirloin in the bedroom. That didn’t sit well with Harriet. She popped in and out of the den and had access to her friend at all times. To see Sirloin, Harriet parked herself by the bedroom door.
Mrs. Shaw, lugging an armful of dirty clothes, saw Harriet and said, “Let me guess, you miss Sirloin?”
She opened the door and Harriet scooted inside.
“Keep Sirloin company for a while. I’ve got so much to do and he’s probably lonely.” Mrs. Shaw spoke as if Harriet could respond. She shut the door and was gone.
“I’d rather be in the den,” Sirloin said. “That’s where I always sleep.”
“You’re safer here,” Harriet said. “You can’t defend yourself the way the great Harriet can. I’d rather cuddle with him than be on the defense all the time, but he leaves us no choice.”
Sirloin curled into a ball. “Maybe he’ll change and leave me alone.”
“Maybe I’ll bark, wag my tail, and catch a Frisbee.” Harriet looked at Sirloin’s closed eyes and limp tail. “Guess I might as well sleep too.” Harriet jumped on the bed, got comfy and fell asleep.
Not long after the sun rose one day, Mrs. Shaw brewed a pot of coffee. Waiting for Frankie to join her, she assembled the ingredients for French toast. He had mentioned liking that for breakfast. Rubbing sleep from his eyes, Frankie came into the kitchen, Mrs. Shaw fixed him a mug of hot chocolate.
Sitting together at the table, she asked, “Do you want to visit your parents? I don’t mind driving you.”
Frankie scrunched up his eyebrows. “What for?”
“Because they’re your parents.”
“My classmates think Mom and Dad were killed in a car wreck. You won’t tell anyone the truth, will you?”
Mrs. Shaw seemed rattled. “Are you ashamed they’re in prison?”
“My friends at this school would think I’m a low life, just like they did at the last school I went to. I can’t go through those hassles again. Don’t talk about my parents anymore.” Frankie glanced at the clock. “I better go. The school bus should be here.”
“You’ll miss your breakfast. I was going to make your favorite, French toast.”
“I’m not hungry.”
A week or so later, Frankie sat at the kitchen table with Mrs. Shaw, eating a bowl of corn flakes. Harriet pushed through the doggie door and breezed through the kitchen.
“You think she’d let me pet her?” Frankie asked.
“I thought you didn’t like cats,” Mrs. Shaw said, her eyebrows arching. “Why the change in attitude?”
“I don’t know.”
“Harriet is not just any cat. Be gentle with her,” Mrs. Shaw said. “She is used to being the center of attention.”
Mrs. Shaw called Harriet, who at first ignored the requests. So Mrs. Shaw walked through the house until she found Harriet in the den, cuddled next to Sirloin. She picked up Harriet and brought her into the kitchen.
“Take your hand, Frankie, and rub her softly against her back,” she said. “If she likes it, then play with her ears. Remember to be soft and easy.”
Harriet hissed like a demon.
“She doesn’t like me,” Frankie said.
The cat squirmed so much Mrs. Shaw had to let her go. “Give her time. She’ll come around. We’ll try again when you come home from school.”
Zipping through the house, Harriet found Sirloin snuggled under Tater’s bed. She leaned her body against him.
“Wake up,” she said.
“The bully wanted to touch me and Mrs. Shaw let him. I was almost mauled to death.”
“I doubt it,” Sirloin said, lashing his tail from left to right. “Maybe he’s softening.”
“Wouldn’t you run if you saw him coming?”
“My dear, I’m too old to run from anyone, even from you.” Sirloin lifted his head off the floor. “Honestly, if I saw him coming and I was alone, yes, I’d be nervous. But he’s been
here for a while and he deserves a second chance.”
“I don’t know if I could be so forgiving,” Harriet said.
“Be a good cat and try,” Sirloin said.
“The great Harriet has to think this over.”
While cleaning out the barn on a cool, crisp Saturday morning, Tater asked Frankie, “Feel like riding Shamus?”
“You ever rode a horse before?”
Frankie came alive. “I had a horse named Misty, but we couldn’t keep her in our mobile home park. We boarded her at my uncle’s place. Dad drove me over there all the time. I rode her, I brushed for her, and fed her. I did all kinds of odd jobs to make money to pay for her care.”
“What happened to Misty?”
It was like a fog rolled in, blanketing everything. Frankie’s bunched up his fists. To keep Tater from seeing his tears, he turned away. “Dad sold Misty when I was in school. He needed money to feed his drug habit. I was so mad. That horse meant everything to me.”
Tater saw the hurt shattering Frankie’s heart. He held him and said, “Son, I’m sorry.” He let go after a few seconds. “That wasn’t fair.”
Frankie wiped his eyes. “He took away my only friend.”
“Let’s saddle up Shamus and ride through the pasture.”
A tiny smile brightened Frankie’s face. “I’d like that.”
Ever since Frankie showed mild signs of adjustment, such as cooperating with a few household chores and completing some homework assignments on time, Mrs. Shaw relaxed her guard a tad. Besides, Sirloin had so much trouble being locked in the den that she started leaving the door open again. If Frankie was home, though, she kept an eye on him when the animals were around, just in case.
One morning, Harriet visited Sirloin. As always, the dog was zonked out. Harriet poked him in the side to awaken him.
“Get up,” Harriet said.
Sirloin was startled. “Can’t an old dog get any rest around here? I was dreaming about eating a big steak until you came along.”
“Frankie’s been acting nice. He’ll never be as refined as my Candace, mind you, but I find his behavior in recent days somewhat tolerable.”
“Isn’t that good?” Sirloin asked, barely lifting his head off the pillow.
“I’m still suspicious. All cats are. That’s why we have nine lives and you mongrels only have one.”
“You had to wake me to insult me?”
“I see you’re uninterested in your own safety,” Harriet said, kind of snarky. “Maybe I shouldn’t bother worrying about you.”
“Oh, stop the attitude for crying out loud. Thank you for alerting me.”
“You’re just saying that to appease me. I’ll go someplace where I’m wanted.”
Having said that, Harriet was gone.
Harriet perched on a windowsill on the front porch and spent the afternoon gazing at birds. When one of the feathery creatures came too close to the window, Harriet got all riled up and rammed her paw against the window as if to nail one. Frankie noticed Harriet all alone on the porch. He stepped outside and sat on the swing.
“Hi girl,” he said.
Harriet froze, not sure what to make of him.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said. “We can sit and look at each other for a while or you could sit on my lap.”
Slowly, Harriet inched forward. She let Frankie pick her up.
“That’s better,” he said. “I know you’re just any cat, but I need somebody to talk to. The Shaws are good people, but nobody understands me. Maybe cause I never give them a chance.”
Frankie continued to push the swing with his legs. The rocking motion soothed him. “I hate my parents for what they did to me. They turned our home into a drug factory. You’re lucky cats don’t get involved with drugs. All kinds of seedy people came and went through our house. It made me sick. Now they’re in jail and I hope they get their lives together.”
Frankie hugged Harriet. “Will you love me?”
Later on a delightful Saturday afternoon, Frankie was in the front yard, trimming the hedges. Errands demanded Mrs. Shaw’s attention. Behind the house, Tater had his hands full cleaning the barn and brushing Shamus.
A teenager cruising down the road in a pick-up truck suddenly screeched to a halt. The youth with the nose ring wore a T-shirt that revealed muscles with multiple upper arm tattoos. He jumped out and swaggered towards the Shaw’s front yard.
“Hey foster boy, where’s Mommy and Daddy?” the thug said. “Still in the slammer?”
“Leave me alone, Joey,” Frankie said, backing away from the fence. “I’m not bothering you.”
“Now you’re scared,” Joe said. “You little punk, I ought to break your legs after the way you dissed my kid brother. Then knock out your teeth,”
For balance, the teen grabbed the fence and hopped over then charged at Frankie. He knocked him over. “No one makes fun of my kid brother and gets away with it.”
Frankie stumbled on the short staircase leading to the house. From the bottom step, he looked up and said, “I’m sorry, Joe. I didn’t mean what I said. Really.”
Joe scoffed at Frankie. “Poor little foster boy, begging for help. Ain’t that a shame.”
It wasn’t a shame. Harriet heard the commotion and flew out an open side window. In a flash, she was at Frankie’s side. Just as Joe was about to pounce on Frankie, Harriet landed squarely on Joe’s head. She dug her nails into his scalp and acted like it was a scratching post.
Joe let out a high-pitched scream. “Ouch, you stupid cat. Get off me.” He reached up and swatted Harriet away.
Harriet fell to the ground but stood her ground. She hissed at Joe and bared her fangs.
“If you think some rabid cat’s going to protect you, think again,” Joe said. “You’ve had it. And so has that cat.”
Joe was wrong however. Harriet charged Joe, scraping both lower legs with her sharp claws. The surprise knocked him off balance. As he fell to the ground, Harriet was ready to sink her teeth into his hands when Tater appeared.
“What’s going on,” he said to Joe as if he was the school principal. “Get up and explain yourself.”
Joe brushed off his pants and stood. He pointed towards Harriet. “That cat bit me. I want her reported to animal control.”
Tater noticed the frightened look in Frankie’s eyes. “What’s wrong, son? Did this young man hurt you?”
“I was just leaving,” Joe said. “Ask your smart aleck foster son why I paid him a visit.”
Joe got inside his truck, slammed the door, and sped off down the road.
Tater picked up Harriet and saw that she was OK. He said, “Frankie, let’s talk.”
Together, they headed towards the kitchen. Tater poured them each a glass of lemonade. They took seats around the table.
Frankie explained what happened at school earlier in the week. For no good reason, Frankie had poked fun at the boy because he wore leg braces and walked with a limp. His older brother Joe paid Frankie a visit for payback.
“That’s not a very nice thing you did,” Tater said. “What made you say such hurtful things?”
He stared at the floor. “I don’t know.”
“You’re angry, son,” Tater said.
“No I’m not.”
“Your dad sold Misty while you were at school, that made you furious. Didn’t it? Now you’re living with strangers.”
Frankie stared at Tater with teary eyes.
“You’ve got lot bottled up inside,” Tater said. “If you don’t want to tell me, talk to the school counselor.”
Frankie sniffled. “I’m not crazy.”
“I didn’t say you were crazy,” Tater said. “I saw a counselor for a long time when I came home fromViet Nam. War is ugly. I needed someone to talk to.”
“Did you feel better?”
“I never forget about the horrors of the war, but yes, it helped talking to someone about what I went through,” Tater said. “Give it a try.”
“I guess I could, at least once.”
“You also owe that boy an apology. Let’s drive over there and settle this like men.”
Harriet pranced through the room and nuzzled Frankie’s feet. Then she purred.
Frankie smiled as he reached down to touch her. “She came to my rescue and I’ll never forget that.”
Tater’s head cocked to the side. “Harriet did that?”
“When I was on the ground, scared about what Joe would do to me, Harriet just appeared. She jumped on his head and scratched the heck out of him. I wanted to hug her.”
“You said you hated cats.”
For the first time since he came to live with the Shaws Frankie broke into a genuine smile. He reached down and stroked Harriet’s ears. “Thank you Harriet. Maybe cats are my friends after all.”