Milo Meets His Match
By David Conte
It was a Tuesday. Milo had just finished his normal early afternoon routine—napping on Mr. Rollinson’s rusty red pick-up—and decided to venture on over to Mrs. Samuels’ garden for a leisurely game of poke-and-claw. After squeezing through Mr. Jenson’s chain link fence, he strutted along the hilly yard that descended onto a jaded cobblestone path, and entered a narrow walkway. He could see the garden, directly across the street from the town center of Splitsville, where various shops and business flourished, at the far end of the property. Inside, colorful flowers and plump fruits bursted with flavor. For those that passed in the midst of their daily activities, it was a welcoming raffle of whatever you like, courtesy of Mrs. Samuels.
Milo didn’t make it far, though, before the sight of something stopped him in his tracks. Who is this? he thought, peering at the concrete square of solitude where a rather strange and mysterious character stood. Milo came closer. Many of the passersby soon began to take notice. “Wow,” said a woman, joining Milo as he looked on in awe. A short man holding a long walking stick stopped in front. Then another woman. And then several more bystanders gathered around. Many had heard of the beautiful and exotic Japanese Mizuki Tree but none had ever come close to such a rarity.
“That’s quite a pretty thing,” someone said.
“I can’t see it,” said a young boy, his view obstructed by the growing circle of onlookers.
“Why it’s spectacular!” said a man with small oval glasses.
“I want one,” whined a young girl. “I want one, Mommy.”
Soon, Mrs. Rolinson stepped out onto her porch. She addressed the crowd. Everyone listened intently to the story of how she came to acquire the marvelous tree. Nobody so much as even glanced in Milo’s direction, however. Milo drew his head down slowly. His smooth feline ears flattening, he put his right paw forward and, turning away from the crowd, plodded back up the cobblestone path and through the hilly yard of Mr. Jenson. While wandering down a path of loneliness, he heard a voice. “Hey there, what brings you up this way?” Milo turned quickly, his tail curling downward. “This is no place for the young or the broken-hearted,” said an old man resting on a wall of rocks. “You look lost. Have a seat and keep an old fella company.”
“Times have been tough for me, too,” explained the old man. “I like to come up here to get away, collect my thoughts. Look at these beautiful oak trees. They shoot up to the sky and guide the sunlight down here to this very spot. It really is peaceful round here.”
Milo walked nearer.
“Last year, I lost them all—my wife and three kids. They were on their way to surprise me for my birthday, but they never made it. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about them.”
The old man’s fine, thin lips were trembling. “I loved their attention. Every bit of it.”
Milo’s stomach grumbled.
“My youngest looked up to me the most.”
Milo raised his paw as if to say he knew.
“At first, about three months ago,” the old man continued, “I thought, ‘There’s no point. No use.’ I had nothing left, a man my age, with my whole family gone. ‘There’s no place in the world for me anymore.’ So I wandered up here. And I made my peace.”
The man’s face lit up with disgust. “I took out my 38 special…. But something about sitting here on this rock and in these woods, something came over me. As the sun beat on down my forehead, I could feel their presence. I knew I deserved better. And I promised myself that I wouldn’t give up, no matter how tormented I became. So, every now and then, I come here to find balance. Sometimes I can’t stop smiling. I love smiling up here.”
Milo stood motionless. It was the first time he had heard of such hardship.
“You know, whatever troubles you, I’ve been there,” he said. “There’ll be days when you can’t stop smiling. Look at you, you’re young. And you’re a lot stronger than you think. You have that to your advantage.”
Milo let out a big sigh as he brushed up against the bony, weathered hand.
Milo retreated back to Splitsville. Who cares if nobody wanted him anymore? He had the old man, and he had his pride. Tired from the long day, he needed some rest. In an abandoned storage shed at the end of a dirt road he laid down for a nap. Immediately, he began thinking of the words given to him. “You’re stronger and braver than you think.” Several hours later, Milo awoke to a morning chill. He had spent the night. Invigorated, he was ready to take on Splitsville. The belief that he was one very cool cat was now bigger than ever.
Prancing past the town center, along the back of Toni’s diner, Milo found his spot on the hardwood deck of a large Victorian home. It was a beautiful sit. He could see Mrs. Samuel’s garden up high from the second-story house, the busy morning parade of pedestrians, and cheery folks conducting business in town. He sat there, with an eye on his challenger. A small crowd was beginning to form. Aye yai yai! Not again, he thought. If he could only get rid of that tree. He could pee on it. No, that wouldn’t work. He could jump on it and claw it to its death. No. Ideas raced through Milo’s head. Furiously, he rubbed his paws across the wooden deck. And then it came to him.
As soon as he pounced forward, Milo had immediately dropped hard and fast off the deck. In fact, he hit the ground with such force that his front paws bent backwards and his body, twice tumbling over, contorted, albeit briefly, to such a degree that a young woman, upon noticing the fall, shrieked wildly at the top of her lungs, “Help! Milo’s hurt! Help!” Milo lay there, belly up, next to Toni’s diner. People in every direction rushed over. Inside the circle that had formed were two strong construction workers, helping Milo back up on his paws. Acting enormously shaken, Milo panned the crowd of faces. All eyes were seemingly fixed on him. He heard the chatter of voices, many asking if he would be okay. “Poor Milo!”
On the inside, however, Milo was smiling with pride. But then something felt amiss. He saw past an opening in the crowd to where the Mizuki Tree stood. Immediately he sensed the disappointment. Across the street and a distance away he saw the approaching stern face. Milo’s body tightened. Then the tall, thin man with thick grey hair turned and walked away.
Everyone started retreating in different directions. Milo remained there, however, his face and body still. He just stared at the Mizuki Tree in awe.
David Conte is a former investigator and ESL tutor whose work has appeared in Literary Yard, Defenestration Magazine, and The Haven. He lives in Massachusetts, USA, with his wife and two boys.
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