Paul waved off the offer of a bag from the kid with the big smile and took his change. Walking into the sunlight had little effect on his cold nose and hands, as the January wind tossed his beard around the moment he stepped outside. He chucked his receipt into a trash can and tucked the book itself into an inner pocket of his leather jacket. He took a moment before starting his Hog to consider the book; maybe he ought to have got something more sophisticated. But it was done now, and it was for a good cause. He started his bike and roared off. Glares from passersby told him the engine’s loudness wasn't his imagination; he’d have to check out the muffler this evening, but he had a stop to make first.
After crossing into Tennessee and driving a dozen more miles, he pulled into the carport next to a large, pre-fab farmhouse with a porch all the way across the front. “Susan?” he called as he pulled off his helmet.
Paul’s twin sister opened the screen door, but the dark-skinned spitfire who raced across the brown, cold lawn was much smaller. He barely had time to register a Nashville Predators away jersey and orange and black butterfly wings before Emma threw herself into his arms, crowing, “Unca Hog!”
Paul grinned and swung his great-niece in the air. “Ooh, you’ve gotten bigger, Little Girl,” he grunted, setting her on his hip. “You’re gonna be riding my bike soon.” Emma pulled the sides of her mouth apart in a frog face and stuck her tongue through a new gap in her top teeth. Paul laughed. “And you lost another tooth! What did the Tooth Fairy bring you?”
“A dollar and a book! It has aliens in it!”
“Your book has aliens?”
“Yeah! And underpants!” She combed his beard with her fingers as Susan made her way to her brother and granddaughter.
“Aliens and underpants,” Paul repeated. He’d learned long ago that, where kids were concerned, he should just nod and smile.
Susan, understanding the question within the statement, shrugged. “I think the Tooth Fairy musta figured out that she checked it out from the bookmobile six times. If Emma has her own copy, then other kids can read about aliens who love underpants, too.”
“Good to see you, Susan.” He set Emma down and let them lead him to the house. Once Emma went to her bedroom with promises to bring him her new book, he leaned against the bar that separated the living room from the kitchen. “How’s Jenny?”
Susan always sighed at the mention of her daughter, and this time was no exception. “Haven’t heard anything since Christmas, but Carlos stops by every Sunday to see Emma.” She pulled the red container of coffee from a cupboard.
Paul took a deep breath. Now was as good a time to tell her as any. “I was thinking,” he ventured, “that I could come down once a week, too.”
“You don’t have time for that,” Susan protested.
“My boss had to let someone at the shop go. All the new cars are computerized, and everyone else knows how to handle that stuff. Besides, they all have families to support.”
Susan’s hand stilled, her hands almost as red as the red plastic they held. “Why didn't you tell me?”
He shrugged. “It’s only been a couple of weeks. And I’m telling you now.” He took off his jacket.
Susan looked at him pointedly as she filled the glass pot with water. Something thumped in the bedroom. “All right?” she called to Emma.
Paul flicked a smile over his shoulder, holding his jacket tighter as he looked at the old Formica countertop. “And I didn’t know what to do at first,” he admitted. It was embarrassing to tell, even to his sister, but he had to make the best of it. “I could take Emma and free up some time for you. You could go to a church thing or go to Target or something.” He hung his jacket on a peg by the door, then took the new book out of its pocket.
“She’s in kindergarten now, so I have some free time. And you could freelance. Fix up older cars. Or find another garage.”
He nodded. “Until then, though. I might as well help while I have the time,” he said over his shoulder, tucking the new book between two sofa cushions.
Emma trotted out of her bedroom with a large picture book in her hands. There were, indeed, aliens and underpants on it, and he sat on the sofa as she proudly read the book to him. After she finished, she said, “Nana’s taking me to read to animals at the shelter today, and I’m gonna read this.” She hugged the book to her chest.
Paul smiled down at her. “Your Nana told me you were doing this.”
Emma puffed up. “Everyone else who reads at the shelter is bigger than me, but Miz Knowles said I’m the only one in kindergarten who can read good.”
He tweaked the end of his beard at her nose, and she giggled. “I’m proud of you for giving your time to make those animals happy. In fact, I’m so proud of you that I stopped on my way here.” He reached felt around the sofa cushion and pulled out the Dr. Seuss book he’d bought.
“The Lorax?” Emma said as she took the book, and then she peered up at him for a long moment. “Its mustache is as big as your beard.”
“Nah, my beard is way bigger,” he said, and then he ventured, “Have you read it before?”
“Yeah. It’s sad with the air dirty and all the trees gone.”
Paul felt a little sinking feeling in his chest. Maybe he should have kept the receipt.
Susan looked up from the apple she was slicing. “Ah, but you remember there’s a seed in the end? Seeds take a long time to grow into trees, but there’s hope that the forest will be as big and beautiful as it was before.”
Emma wrinkled her nose a little. “Seeds take forever. We planted seeds before, and we didn’t see any flowers till after my birthday.”
Susan harrumphed. “Two whole months. How you suffer.” The core went into the trash, and she reached into the cupboard again. “It is sad, but it’s happy in the end, isn’t it? So it’s a very good present.”
Emma smoothed her hand over the cover. “Thanks, Uncle Paul,” she said, and she flung one arm around his waist.
“You’re welcome, kiddo.” He hugged her back. “I like your hair.”
Emma stood, twirling quickly around a few times so he could see the three little Afro puffs starting at the top and going down the back of her head. “I wanna look like Rey from Star Wars,” she said. “She has her hair like this.”
Paul smiled. “She does, but I like yours better. And it’s practical, so it doesn’t bump into your wings.”
Emma wrinkled her nose, puzzled. “Practical?”
“When something makes sense, it’s practical. In your case, it’s pretty, too. I bet if you did them here,” he said, gesturing vaguely at his own ears, “people would start calling you Princess Leia.”
“General Leia? She’s old.”
He let his jaw drop. “Hasn’t your Nana shown you the first Star Wars movies yet?” Emma shrugged. “Blasphemy,” he muttered, and he heard a piece of plastic hit the floor. “Susan, can I do anything?”
Susan popped back up from behind the counter. “You’re helping already,” she said, spreading peanut butter over several pieces of bread. Emma opened her new book and began to read to him.
After lunch, Paul insisted on washing the dishes while Susan supervised Emma getting herself ready to go. He followed on his bike as Susan’s truck led the way over the hilly farmland.
Emma was the first child to arrive at the animal shelter, so the coordinator – Miss Annie – put her in the first room with a German Shepherd and three cats. Emma put her books on the window sill, well out of drooling range, and just talked to the animals first, giving them names and making up stories about them. Paul watched, fascinated, as Miss Annie led three other children to visiting rooms down the hall and got them settled.
“Miss Annie?” he said quietly. “If you get a no show, I could read for a bit.”
The young woman brightened. “Really? We always have more rooms than volunteers. Any pet allergies?” He shook his head. “Wait right there.”
After a few minutes, Miss Annie led him to the room next to Emma’s. It held six cats of different ages, colors, and sizes. At the heavy tread of his boots, four darted for a box in the far corner, but two seemed cautiously interested. Paul pulled his phone out of his jeans pocket and sat in the chair. A mostly-black cat with a white bib, belly, and socks ventured forward and sniffed his boot. He leaned down to let the long, wispy waves of his beard catch its attention. An orange-striped kitten ventured forward as the black-and-white cat put its front paws on his leg and raised itself up so it could sniff and pat his beard.
He put his hand down near its nose. The cat sniffed him, then rubbed the side of its face against his fingers. He heard the high, piping tones of Emma’s voice drift in from the next room, Dr. Seuss’s rhymes interspersed with giggles.
Paul grinned and tapped his phone a few times. “The Greek Interpreter, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,” he said quietly. The orange kitten began to climb his jeans, its tiny, translucent claws digging into the fabric. “God bless the person who thought of putting Teflon in jeans,” he said, not for the first time. The kitten, all long legs and enormous ears, perched on his thigh and started to purr as he let it smell him. It began to push and pull its claws on his jeans and shoved its head into his hand. The black-and-white cat jumped to the windowsill and sniffed the silver cuff he wore on his left ear. A long-haired grey cat stepped out from the box.
He returned his attention to the phone. “During my long and intimate acquaintance with Mr. Sherlock Holmes, I had never heard him refer to his relations, and hardly ever to his own early life ….”