Susie shook her little flashlight desperately as it flickered and went out. The battery must have died. Hiding deep under her covers, she had been about to escape to the Shire with Bilbo, her current literary hero. She didn’t dare turn on her bedroom light in case her mother noticed. Her mother had a habit of going outside to look up at Susie’s window to make sure her light was out. If it was on, her mother was liable to barge into the bedroom, followed by Hank who would be trying to calm her down. Depending on her state of intoxication, she might snatch the book away, knowing that this was the worst punishment she could inflict, ranting about the price of electricity all the while and sometimes about Susie’s father for good measure.
“Got your nose in a book all the time and letting your imagination run wild, just like he did. He was going to be an actor and find himself. Couldn’t have found his butt in broad daylight,”was a typical refrain. “He was neither use nor ornament. He was the sperm donor, that’s all. I’d never have married him if I hadn't fallen pregnant with you.”
Hank had been mortified when Susie asked what a sperm donor was.
“Don’t talk like that in front of the girl,” he’d said angrily. “No call for it. None of it’s her fault.”
Her mother used to be remorseful and try to make up for her rages the next day by taking Susie to the movies or cooking her favorite food, but now she didn’t even seem to remember blowing up. She’d accused Hank of making things up more than once when he’d referred to something she’d said.
Susie liked Hank. He was okay as a stepfather, given what she’d read and heard about them from the other kids at school. He was preferable to some of her mother’s previous boyfriends. He was a big easy-going bear of a man who, despite his lack of experience with kids, was kind to her in an off-hand way. He tried to head off her mother’s worst tantrums which Susie appreciated.
“She can’t help it, kid,” he’d say gruffly, as Susie stood, numb with pain, trying not to cry after one of her mother’s outbursts. “She doesn't mean it. It's the drink talking and she swears she's going to cut back.”
Susie, who couldn’t remember her mother being any other way, had her doubts but had dutifully nodded.
Now, emerging from the covers, she blinked as she noticed that the room was flooded with icy white light. It was bright enough to read by. Clutching her book, she padded over to the window. The cold pale face of the moon stared down dispassionately. The garden, a nondescript patch of scruffy lawn and straggly shrubs by daylight, looked mysterious, sparkling with frost and punctuated by oddly shaped dark shadows. It was the kind of night on which strange things might happen. Susie gasped in delight as the fox emerged from the darkness, paused and looked up at her window. Its eyes glittered as its gaze met hers for a few seconds before it trotted off. She had seen the fox often enough to feel possessive. It was her fox, the closest she’d come to having a pet. When she could, she left table scraps under the bushes for him. The fox slipped off into the darkness and Susie sighed as she became aware of the voices downstairs. She listened intently.
For now, the voices were low and punctuated with laughter. She relaxed a little, only to stiffen again as she heard the clinking of glasses. She sighed. She should have known better by now. It was always too good to last. The gaiety would turn to accusations and the voices would become shriller and louder as the level in the bottle dropped. This time Hank stormed out, slamming the door behind him before the volume had even risen. He had taken to staying out late more often recently. She suspected his patience was wearing thin, a pattern which had happened with his predecessors. He stumped off across the garden and disappeared down the alley behind the house. Susie hoped he would stay but was resigned to the fact that most good things in her life seemed to end abruptly. Although the room was chilly, she remained on the floor by the window, entranced by the way the moonlight transformed the world into silver perfection. On a night like this she could forget for a while that she was the geeky kid with the weird mother. Her mind wandered from the Shire to the fox with his gleaming eyes, detouring to a tropical island, anything but reality.
She jerked out of her reverie as something moved through the shrubbery below. She recognized a couple of boys from her class. Wiley Morgan and Joe Fitts. They were the troublemakers, the ones who smoked, drank and bragged about their exploits with girls. Susie gave them a wide berth at school, grateful to be beneath their notice most of the time. She wondered what they were doing in this area. Neither of them lived nearby. Puzzled, she watched as they climbed the fence and headed for Hank’s tool shed. He liked woodworking and was very proud of what he called his workshop. He’d even started to teach Susie. Vaguely recalling something about burglaries in the neighborhood, she hurried downstairs.
Her mother was sprawled on the couch, snoring. She swatted Susie’s hand away and turned over, mumbling as Susie tried to wake her. Susie gave up. Grabbing a heavy carved walking stick that Hank had made and proudly displayed in the living room, she crept out of the back door. Her heart thumping, she tiptoed across the lawn, keeping to the shadows as much as possible. There were muffled voices and a crash of breaking glass from the shed. Susie crept closer, clutching the walking stick in sweaty palms. She heard laughter and the clatter of things being overturned.
“Get out of there,” she said. Her voice emerged as a squeak. She took a deep breath and tried again. “I said, get out of there.”
The noises paused, then a head emerged. She recognized Joe Fitts. He began to laugh when he saw her.
“What the …look, it’s that loser kid. The one with the drunk mother. Beat it, kid. You didn’t see us if you know what’s good for you.”
“Leave Hank’s things alone,” Susie said.
“Oooh, listen to her,” he said. “Hey, Wiley, get a look at this.”
He pushed her aside, contemptuously sniggering as she staggered back. Suddenly an unfamiliar sensation of rage flooded over Susie, against her mother, against Hank leaving, against her whole stupid, shitty life. Without thinking, she swung the walking stick against his shins with a satisfying whack. He fell with a cry of pain as she hit him again. As Wiley emerged from the shed to investigate, an unearthly screeching split the night. It sounded like a soul in torment. Wiley yelled in terror and ran for the fence, scattering screwdrivers and chisels as he went, ignoring Joe’s cries for help. Lights began to go on in the neighboring houses and at that moment, Hank rushed up.
“Whoa, there, don’t kill him,” he said, grabbing the walking stick as Susie reared back, ready to smash it down again. He awkwardly scooped her into a bear hug. “It’s okay now, hon.”
“They were trying to take your things,” she sobbed, suddenly limp. “My fox screamed at them and scared them off.”
“I think you had as much to do with that as the fox,” said Hank, with a grin.
"He's getting away," Susie said, noticing Joe limping off into the darkness. "Stop him."
"I think he's learned a lesson," Hank said. "He won't show his face around here again and you just let me know if he gives you any grief at school. Let’s go inside.”
Susie’s mother was sitting up, groggily rubbing her face.
“What’s all the racket?” she said, slurring.
“Our daughter was out there trying to fight burglars. She could have been killed. I should never have left her alone with you in that state. Things must change around here. You get help or Susie and I are gone.”
Susie’s mother stared at him, opened her mouth to retort and closed it again. She lurched unsteadily upstairs, and they heard the shower turn on.
“Susie, I’m sorry. Your mother and I haven’t done right by you. I haven't had the courage to give her an ultimatum, but from now on things are going to be different. I’m not saying everything’s going to change overnight, but we need to do better. Will you give us a chance?”
“You’re not going to leave?” Susie whispered through dry lips.
“No, girl. You’d make me look like a coward for running away.”
Susie grinned in relief and flung her arms round his neck. He patted her back gently.
“Off to bed now. It’s been enough excitement for one night.”
Susie paused at her bedroom window. The moonlit scene was once again tranquil. As she watched, a dark shadow darted across the lawn and into the bushes.
“Thank you, Mr. Fox,” she murmured as she slipped into bed.