Short story first published in Dunes Review, republished by FreshInk app
Francie had an affinity with animals. As an infant, she rarely cried when she woke but lay quietly in her crib taking in the antics of our old hound as he tracked smells, real and imagined, through the nursery. She was only a toddler when the dog started to fade. I can still picture her sitting beside him on the floor, gently patting his back with chubby, dimpled, hands. She understood animals. Once at the zoo, she must have been around four, Francie was chattering away about the chimpanzees when another mom marveled at my daughter’s observations. A baby Jane Goodall, she said, which made me laugh. But Francie took a keen interest in all species. Most recently, it was birds. She loved birds.
Our new neighbor hated them. Francie and I were filling one of the bird feeders in the backyard when he knocked on our fence. It wasn’t a privacy fence, just a few horizontal boards at waist height to delineate property lines but he rapped his knuckles on the wood to get my attention. I suppose that was polite but didn’t feel it. He was short and muscular, the kind of body built at gyms. He wore jeans and a tight black t-shirt to show off what he obviously worked hard to achieve. He introduced himself.
“Howard Johnsen, with an e,” he said as though I might mix up the man with the motel chain. “I see you like birds.”
“Yes, well, my daughter is the real ornithologist,” I said walking over to the fence. “I’m just the birdseed buyer.”
“Do you have a key to my house?”
I hadn’t even had a chance to introduce myself yet, but thought I recognized a specific desperation in Howard’s question.
“Oh no,” I said, “did you lock yourself out?”
“The previous owner said she gave a set of keys to the neighbor.”
“Maybe you can get in through a basement window?”
“I’m not locked out.”
“She said she gave you keys to feed her cat while she was away.”
“Oh, the poor dear, her cat died a couple years ago. Such a sweet woman but she obviously couldn’t live on her own anymore and her sons were .. . “