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Rated: E · Short Story · Contest Entry · #2288104
Cardinals are a sign that loved ones who have passed are still here watching over us.
"Bently! Come on, it's breakfast time!"

Charlotte stomped her booted feet and hugged herself to ward off the cold. New England Sunday mornings often meant snow on the ground and always meant frigid temps. Golden fur dodged in and out of the trees along the back yard. Labradors loved being outside, no matter the weather, and Bently seemed to have an extra dose of Lab in him this morning.

Pacing back and forth on the patio, Charlotte cast her mind towards the chores of the day. The fridge needed restocked, the laundry room was crowded with full hampers, and she was sure there was homework that had studiously been avoided until the last minute. Still, the next few hours were hers and Bentley's until she roused the rest of the household.

She lifted her head to call out again but stopped. There, in the nearest pine tree, among the hardy green needles weighed down with snow was a brilliant splash of red. The cardinal shifted slightly on the limb causing it to bob gently. Cocking its head, it turned towards her and flew over to land on a closer bush, still quite a few feet away. It was mesmerizing in its beauty. Charlotte stood still in the silence, her breath clouding out in small puffs, her heartbeat steadying.

A not-so-subtle nudge at her pantleg broke her out of the reverie. Looking down, Bently's lolling tongue and canine smile brought out one of her own. She reached down to scratch behind his ears. When she looked up, the cardinal was gone. Clucking her tongue, she led the way back inside.

Boots, coat, hat and mittens were put out of the way in the mud room. House slippers donned, she took the old towel down from the peg by the door and gave Bently a good scrub all over. Whatever was left would thaw in front of the fireplace, which he claimed ownership of during the winter months. Coming into the kitchen, she smelled the enticing aroma of coffee. Her mom sat at the island bar with a book open in front of her and a cup of coffee. A second mug sat ready for Charlotte.

"Uncle Gill called. He's heading up to the lake for the week. Ice fishing, beer, and jazz music."

The only response from her mom was a soft hum of acknowledgement. She took a sip of coffee and turned a page.

Charlotte stifled a sigh and went to start a load of laundry. Coming back in, she took a few things out of the fridge that needed to get to room temperature for later, then grabbed her notepad and took a stool next to her mom. Wrapping her fingers around her hot mug, she took a sip and lingered over the rich taste and heat that stole down her throat and into her belly. Adding a few items to start a list, she cast about for another way to engage her mom.

"Gill said he expected to bring me back some trout, salmon, even some perch. Sam and the kids will love some fish chowder. I thought you might, too." Charlotte paused for a moment and then took a leap. "Might even enjoy it more if it was something off your own line ... "

There was no reaction at all for a moment, but finally her mom carefully placed her bookmark and lifted her eyes to gaze out the window over the sink. She took a sip of coffee and then left her hand wrapped around the mug, something concrete to hold on to amid the tempest of emotions warring inside. Charlotte wanted so much to wrap her arms around her mother and help calm that storm, but she resisted.

"He and Gill planned this trip every year." Quiet, wistful, her mom's voice was a touch raspy. "I would always pack them salami, spicy mustard, and rye bread. Plus, every bag of sour cream and onion chips I could find in the county. Gill was responsible for the beer. Charlie's job was a couple bottles of whiskey, the good stuff. Have to warm the fingers and the toes, he said."

Charlotte heart ached. "I saw a cardinal, mom. He's still here, you know."

A single tear slipped down her mom's cheek. She reached out to cover Charlotte's hand with her own and give it a squeeze.

"Well, I can always pack some turkey with that salami and some regular mustard, too. Gill can have the chips. I'm taking fruit."

Charlotte wanted to shout with joy, but instead she pulled her mom into a tight hug. It was a start, that's all she had hoped for, and it made her heart soar. Looking out the window, the cardinal was there in the bush. It held still a moment before bobbing and taking flight.

Word Count = 806
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