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She thought she heard the cry of a child.
The haunting sound slid through the early-morning quiet just as Tracy stepped out of her car. Still holding the door, she canted her head to one side, listening.
There it was again. Softer this time.
Tracy strode around the concrete-block building trying to pinpoint the origin. But when she came around the side of the building, the street in front of the clinic was empty as well.
The tension in her shoulders loosened and she shivered, pulling her thin sweater closer around herself. Ever the optimist, she had left her warmer jacket hanging in the hallway closet of her apartment this morning, counting on the early-September sun to melt away the coolness of the fall morning.
A movement caught her eye.
She stopped and watched a small boy shuffle cautiously around the corner of the clinic, his head angled down, his thin arms cradling something. He looked to be about six or seven.
Tracy recognized him. For the past two weeks he had walked past the clinic in the early morning on his way to school. The last few days he had stopped to look in the window. It had taken a few encouraging waves and smiles to tease one from his wary face.
Tracy might have been inadequately dressed for the weather, but the boy was even more so. He wore a shortsleeved T-shirt, faded blue jeans and sandals on bare feet. As she watched, he shivered lightly.
"Hey, there," Tracy said quietly, not wanting to startle him.
"I want to see the doctor," he said, sniffing lightly as Tracy came nearer. "This kitten got hurt." He angled a suspicious glance through the tangle of dark hair hanging in his brown eyes.
"The veterinarian isn't in yet." Tracy crouched down. The tiny ball of mangled fur tucked in his arms looked to be in rough shape.
One eye was completely closed, the fur around it matted with blood. A leg hung at an awkward angle. Probably broken.
"What happened?" she asked quietly.
"I dunno. I just found him laying here." The little boy stood stiffly, his body language defensive. "Can you fix him?"
Tracy's heart sank. She knew the little boy couldn't pay the vet fees, doubted his parents could.
"I wanna keep him," the little boy wiped his nose on the shoulder of his T-shirt, a hitch in his voice. "He can be my friend."
Tracy's thoughts jumped to herself, age eight, standing in the kitchen of the apartment she and her mother shared, saying the same words, also holding a kitten.
"Not enough money," her mother had said, though Velma managed to magically find it for other things. How Tracy had longed for that kitten. A friend.
Tracy pushed herself to her feet. "Let's go inside." The boy slanted her a narrow-eyed, wary look, holding back as she unlocked the door and opened it.
"It's okay," Tracy said quietly. "We have to go inside to look at your kitten."
He nodded and slowly stepped inside, his head swiveling around, checking out the reception area of the clinic.
"What's your name?" she asked as the door fell shut behind them.
"Are you a stranger?" he asked, suspicion edging his voice. "My mom says I'm not s'posed to talk to strangers."
"I'm a vet technician," she answered, sidestepping the guarded question. "And my name is Tracy Harris."
He stood in the center of the room, a tightly wound bundle of vigilance, clinging to the kitten like a lifeline. His eyes darted around -- assessing, watchful. They met Tracy's as he straightened, as if making a decision. "My name is Kent," he said with a quick lift of his chin. "Kent Cordell."
She had been given a small gift of trust and in spite of the kitten that might be dying in his arms, she gave Kent a smile. She skimmed his shoulder with her fingers. "Good to meet you, Kent."
The back door slammed and a loud singing broke the quiet. Crystal, the other vet technician burst into the room with her usual dramatic flair. "And a good morning to you, my dear," she called out, then stopped when she saw Kent.
Kent tucked his head over the kitten, his shoulders hunched in defense. Like a turtle he had withdrawn again.
Crystal angled her chin at Kent. "Who's the kid?"
"This is Kent, and I'm bringing him and his kitten to an examining room. As soon as Dr. Harvey comes in, can you send him my way?"
"Not Dr. Braun?" Crystal asked with a faint smirk. Tracy was disappointed at the faint blush warming her neck. From the first day that David had started at the clinic four months ago, Crystal had been avidly watching the two of them, as if it was only a matter of time before they started dating. As a result Tracy always felt extra self-conscious around David -- which in turn annoyed her. She had learned her own lessons about men and their lack of faithfulness. She didn't need to have the lesson underlined with yet another man.
"Just send Dr. Harvey in when he comes."
Crystal pouted. "Okay, okay. I'll just be in the supply room." She swung around, her lab coat flaring out behind her as she strode down the hall.
David Braun glanced at the clock on the dashboard of his truck as he pulled up beside Tracy's rusted sports car. Seven-thirty. He had planned on beating her here this morning and showing that he could be as punctual and time-conscious as she was.
Guess I'll have to put off the good impression until tomorrow, he thought as he stepped out of the truck, taking a moment to look around.
The chill morning air held the scent of fall. Moldering leaves, grain dust from the harvest and the acrid scent of burning.
Below him, nestled in the valley of the Paddle River, lay the town of Preston, the houses guarded by smoothbarked aspen trees, their golden and orange leaves illuminating the morning. The changing of the season brought a touch of melancholy tinged with guilt. In a couple of weeks Heather's family would be convening in the nearby town of Kolvik for the first anniversary of her death. He owed it to the family to take part, even though he had moved on from that sad place.
Excerpted from A Silence In The Heart by Carolyne Aarsen Copyright © 2005 by Carolyne Aarsen.
Excerpted by permission.
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Posted April 13, 2011
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