Written by TriangleDelta
"Hey Mallory, it's the missus!"
Mallory didn't look up from the bream she was slicing. Her knife parted the piece of fish in long, smooth strokes. Soft pink flesh, semi-translucent from how thin it was sliced, fell away as she worked her way down the fish.
The squirrel kept her voice level as she replied. "Ask her if it can wait."
"This doesn't sound like a 'can wait' situation, boss."
Mallory let out a long, slow sigh through her nose. As she finished her current slice, she took another breath in, and then stood up straight. She placed the knife down next to the half-finished pile of fish slices. The movement was deliberate and controlled.
She whipped around, and the squirrel's eyes narrowed as she walked through the kitchen. The few other members of her staff that were working in the kitchen didn't look up at her as she passed. Every member of Mallory's kitchen quickly learned to not let her intimidating presence distract them, or else they would get a sharp reminder about staying on task. Besides, everybody that was on at the moment was doing ingredient prep ahead of the evening - it wasn't exactly a high stress scenario.
She placed a hand on the back of a shark who was busy measuring out bunches of fresh parsley and placing them into containers. He tensed, and glanced over his shoulder at her.
"Finish up my order. And I swear if you mess up the crudo, you're taking that bream's place."
He bobbed his head, then headed over to her workstation. She didn't miss him having to fight back the desire to roll his eyes. She normally would have given him a hard time for that, but instead she made her way over to the doorway.
The impala standing there held the phone out to her, then moved back out of her way when she took it. Mallory ducked into the small space between the kitchen and the front of house, where they kept their phone and a computer for punching in and checking orders. As soon as she was in the small space, she could hear the distorted wail coming from the phone's speaker. She felt a pang of guilt in her guts for having taken so long, but she held the phone to her ear.
"Mal." Dorothy's voice was strained. Behind her, Mallory could hear the sharp wail of a baby testing his lungs. "You need to come. Right now."
"Alright, alright, I'm on my way up. Is he okay?"
"Yep. Just screaming. Come up."
She heard Dorothy hang up on the other end. Mallory stood there for a few moments, just looking down at the phone before she hung it back up. She cursed beneath her breath.
"Baby troubles?" the impala asked, her voice soft.
Mallory glanced over and up at Amina. The impala had an eyebrow raised, and was standing back from her.
Mallory reached up and kneaded at her forehead. "Yeah, that's what it sounds like. You good to cover for me for, uh…" she shrugged, "probably the rest of the shift?"
Amina rolled her eyes. She was probably the only person on staff that Mallory would take that from. "You hired me to do exactly that. I'm sure we'll be able to handle prep and get through one Thursday dinner rush without you."
"Right, right." She made a vague gesture at the impala. "Meanwhile I get to go figure out what to do with a baby kangaroo."
Amina stepped out of the way as Mallory walked by her. "He's your son. Do what comes natural."
"That's shit advice at the best of times. And if you hadn't noticed, what comes 'natural' to me doesn't necessarily line up with a joey."
"Then do what you'd do if he was a squirrel."
Mallory snorted. "Yeah, not sure if that's a great idea."
She stepped out into the main front of house, and walked through the restaurant towards the door. There were only a few customers in at the moment. This early in the afternoon, that was always expected. It was part of why she was in - lunches and afternoons were some of the only times that it was quiet enough for her to actually cook in the kitchen, and not have to manage everybody else's work.
She stepped out the door and into the sweltering heat of the early Toronto summer. She only had to take a few steps down the sidewalk from her restaurant before she turned and unlocked a door in the same building. Inside was a set of stairs, which she walked up. By the time she was halfway up she could already hear the crying. She clenched her eyes shut, and it got louder as she climbed higher. She finally reached the door to their apartment, took a deep breath, and stepped inside.
Even that door had provided some relief from the sound. Inside the apartment, the noise was deafening. She had to bite back a curse as she closed the door behind her. It was a miracle that she hadn't been able to hear it in the restaurant downstairs.
Dorothy's voice was strained, and Mallory could just hear it shouted above the sound of the wailing. The squirrel followed the voice over towards their room, and was preparing to ask what the kangaroo needed when she opened the door.
Then she saw.
Dorothy was sitting on the edge of the bed, her eyes clenched shut. She was bent over almost double, and her broad hands were placed so that she could hold down and plug her long ears with her thumbs, while squeezing on her temple with her fingers.The rest of her face was scrunched up, and she was breathing heavily. The blinds were pulled shut, and all of the lights were off. The moment that Mallory had opened the door and let both the light and more of Berty's wailing in, Dorothy's wince had deepened.
"Fuck, D," Mallory muttered. She closed the door behind her, being careful to not let it slam. Even with the door shut, and the soundproofing they'd started putting up on all of their walls, the sound was deafening in the small room. She walked over and sat down next to the kangaroo. She didn't reach out and touch her, as much as she wanted to. "Did you take any meds?"
"No. Fuck." Dorothy gave her head a very light shake, and grimaced at even that movement. "Came out of nowhere. I put Berty back down and came in here. Took everything I had just to call down to the restaurant."
Mallory got back up, and then headed down the hallway to the bathroom. She fetched Dorothy's painkillers, and started back. She hesitated, though, and glanced over at the door to Berty's room. She let out a long sigh, then opened the door and slid in. She winced at the deafening sound the small joey was making. She took enough time to go and look him over, making sure that there wasn't anything actually wrong with him. But no, of course - she'd made the same check so many times over the past few months, and there was never a problem. The little demon child was just screaming his lungs out. She'd asked her mom about it on one of their weekly phone calls, and the old squirrel had just laughed and said something about sweet vengeance.
Once she was sure that there wasn't anything actually wrong with him, she slipped out of his room, and headed back down the hallway to her and Dorothy's bedroom. She wordlessly fished a pill out of the bottle, and handed it to the kangaroo. Dorothy only took her hand away long enough to dry swallow the pill, and then she placed it back over her ear.
"This kid's going to kill me, Mal."
Mallory eyed Dorothy for a long moment or two, trying to decide how close the kangaroo was to wanting to break something. Then she shrugged, and said, "Hey, you're the one that said you wanted a baby."
Dorothy groaned. "If I ever see myself from a year ago, remind me to punch her."
"I think it's frowned upon to punch somebody who walks with a cane."
"Remind me to punch you right after."
Mallory saw the slightest hint of a grin playing at the corners of the grimacing kangaroo's muzzle. The two of them sat there for a few long moments, listening to the muffled crying. Every time that Berty's voice rose in a new peel, Dorothy's forehead creased deeper.
At last, Mallory sighed and said, "What do you need? Come on, what can I do?"
"I can't even think right now." Dorothy sat for a few more long moments, and then muttered. "Can you please just, like… take him somewhere? Like anywhere else? My head's going to be splitting for the next few hours anyways. Having him screaming is only going to make it worse."
Mallory blinked at that. Drag a kid who was only a few months old outside with her. Okay. "Right. I can do that."
"The bag should be near his crib."
"Yeah, the bag."
Mallory stood up, and made her way towards the door. She hesitated before opening it, then glanced over her shoulder at Dorothy. "You know, this is one of those times that it would be really helpful to have your parents giving us a hand."
The room somehow felt very quiet, despite the wailing of the kangaroo a couple rooms over. At length, Dorothy spoke, her pained expression not changing.
"Let's not have this conversation right now."
Mallory hesitated, but at last nodded and headed out the door. She paused by the bathroom, and removed the kerchief she was wearing in her hair and her apron. She'd completely forgotten to even take them off as she was leaving the restaurant.
She went back to Berty's room. She tried to ignore the crying as she picked up the joey bag off of the floor. She opened it up and checked through the many pockets on it, making sure that it had everything she needed in it. She would have to pick up some of the formula from the fridge, but that was about it.
Once she was sure that she had everything she needed, she just stared at the bag for a few long moments. The strap was adjusted to fit her. Normally whenever they went out for a walk, Mallory carried the bag, and Dorothy carried Berty in her pouch. Mallory hadn't actually tried the bag on with the main, central pouch of the bag filled since they'd first gotten it.
She let out another sigh. This was going to be so weird. She picked up the bag, and then wandered over to the crib.
When she lowered the bag down, that central pouch held open, Berty kept crying for a few moments, his eyes shut and small body writhing. When he finally opened his eyes, though, and saw the bag, he blinked, and the crying dropped in volume. There was a surprised, and almost confused tone to the next few sobs.
Mallory watched the small kangaroo sniff a few times between peels of crying. She desperately wanted to just scoop him up and drop him in the bag, but she knew that wasn't the way it worked. Eventually she gave the bag a small shake, and muttered, "Come on, little devil. Your mom needs a break from your angelic singing."
It took maybe thirty seconds more, but finally Berty worked his way over to the bag. He rose unsteadily to his enormous feet, glanced into the pouch, and then let himself pitch forward. Mallory felt his weight flop into the bottom of the bag, and she lifted it up. She gave him a few moments to worm around in the bottom of the bag, before she slung it around onto her shoulders.
Without another moment's hesitation, she made her way out of his room. She stopped off at the fridge to grab a bottle of formula, and slid it into one of the side pockets. After that, she headed down the staircase, trying to keep her movements quick. Berty seemed a bit surprised into silence by the movement, and she was hoping to keep him like that for as long as possible.
Mallory stepped out of the stairway and into the heat of Toronto. Now that she was outside, she allowed herself to stop and consider what the hell she was doing.
She glanced down at the bag hanging off of her front. Berty was lying in it, staring up at her now. The expression on his face might be confusion.
The squirrel let out a long sigh. "Well. I guess we're stuck together for the afternoon, huh?" She kept watching him, and he looked back, not making a sound now. She rolled her eyes. "This is ridiculous."
Mallory started walking. She shoved her hands into her pocket and tried to look casual. She was sure that there had to be a way to look casual, with a frigging bag of joey. Dorothy never looked weird whenever they took walks together with Berty. Of course, Dorothy was an actual kangaroo, whereas Mallory was a squirrel who didn't have the slightest bit of experience with pouches.
Or with what went in them, to be honest. She tried not to think about that too much.
She was just turning off of Bloor Street, and beginning to walk towards the market. On the rare occasions that she had some time to herself, back when Dorothy was still pregnant with Berty and they were putting the finishing touches into renovating the space for the restaurant, Mallory had always made a point of going to visit Kensington. It was enough of a walk to let her clear her head, and she knew enough of the vendors and shop owners there to find somebody to talk to.
Mallory was just beginning to fall into a rhythm in her walk, her hands still firmly in her pockets, when there was a sharp squeal, accompanied by an equally sharp movement from the pouch. Mallory's tail shot out rigid to the side as the weight on her front swung out in the other direction, and she almost stumbled. The squirrel glared down, and saw Berty reclining in the pouch. He looked like he was relaxing in a hammock or something. There was a look on his face that could only be described as a grin.
She rolled her eyes, then looked up. There were a few people looking at her, their expressions concerned or curious. She cleared her throat, stood up straight again, and kept walking along the sidewalk.
This kept up for her twenty minute walk over to the market. Every time she seemed to be getting into a rhythm or getting comfortable, he would make some sort of sound, or move unexpectedly, and throw her off. She remembered Dorothy saying something about baby kangaroos being all about those sharp, sudden actions, testing out their muscles. Dorothy, of course, never seemed to react to them when they were walking. Apparently Mallory hadn't gotten used to it yet. Great.
It was as they were getting into the market itself, and the press of bodies within, that Berty decided that she wasn't paying enough attention to him. Mallory was just deciding where she should head to when there was a gurgling noise from down in front of her. She froze in place, and glanced down. The past two months, after the initial couple weeks of sleeping, had at least taught her what that particular gurgle meant. He was screwing his face up, his body tensing as he sucked in a deep gasp of air.
"Not here, oh not here you little devil," she started, and was about to go on, when the kangaroo threw his head back and started to wail.
There was a long awful moment that she just stared down at him, and nobody else in the crowd reacted. Then all at once, she felt eyes turning to her, or people tensing as they pointedly didn't look at her, or people letting out exasperated sighs.
For a moment she wondered whether she should try to hold back the glare on her face as she looked down at him, for the benefit of the onlookers. She very quickly decided that if she was going to suffer through this, though, she wasn't interested in putting in the effort to make it more pleasant for anybody else. Instead, she scooped up the pouch, and held it a bit closer to herself. If the past few months were anything to go by, there was a small chance that would quiet him down.
She stood in the middle of the crowded sidewalk, holding him like that for a bit and waiting for him to quiet down while people parted around them. At last, she shook her head, and started walking again. Fuck it. Well, it had been worth a try, at least. She kept him lifted against her, just in case he decided that the warmth was enough to convince him to quiet down.
It was as she was walking through and people kept staring at her that she thought of something. All of her friends in the market had businesses. Markets, grocery stores, things like that. How would she react if one of them walked in with a screaming child in the middle of a business day?
She groaned. The actual answer was that she would invite them in and try to act thrilled to see them. She would try very, very hard to not let the stress show on her face. It would show anyways. She thought about how she would feel if any of her friends gave her that same look.
The squirrel looked down into Berty's pouch again. He was still writhing, sucking in deep gulps of air so that he could continue wailing.
She turned and started walking back the way she'd come, away from the market and the thicker crowds. She would have to reflect on whether or not her assumed reaction made her a bad person later. For now, she just needed to get away from people for a bit, and find something to do with a screaming joey in the middle of downtown Toronto.
It was hard enough to think already with him making all that noise, and with the looks from the people she was passing on the street. Trying to figure out what she could safely do for the next hour or so while she waited out his crying fit would be impossible. Going home wasn't an option.
What had Amina said? Do what she would do if he was a squirrel.
"No," she said aloud, and then looked down at the wailing joey again. "Yeah, no on that one. I may have no idea what I'm doing, but I know better than that."
He responded by continuing to scream at the top of his small lungs.
She kept staring down at him for a long few moments. Well… what else was she going to do?
She bit back a curse. Not like he would have been able to hear it, with all the noise he was making. Then she turned and started walking towards the subway, thinking in her head about where the nearest park with decent trees was.
It was already late afternoon by the time they reached the park. Berty had been quiet enough once they'd gotten onto the subway train. She assumed it had something to do with the vibrations - she was sure she'd heard other parents talking about that with their children before. After they'd hopped off the train and she'd started walking towards the park, he'd grown restless again, making soft sounds and shifting more and more in the pouch. She was starting to feel his constantly shifting weight in her back. At one point, when he gave a particularly hard rock in the bag and gave a small, plaintive noise, she glared down at him.
"You do this while we're climbing, and I swear to god I'll drop you. See if I don't."
Fortunately there was nobody else around to hear that, or to see the blush showing through her red fur immediately after as she realized how much she'd sounded like her mother.
Soon enough they were in the park, and its winding path. It wasn't a proper park - it was more just a small gorge that had been too difficult to develop in the city's early days, and that they'd recently slapped a path onto. From everywhere, they could hear the sound of traffic up above and not too far away. Still, it gave the illusion of being out in the woods.
The few people that they passed on the path didn't stare at her as much as the ones out on the street. It was a bit odd for Mallory. Ever since she'd left home, she'd been in big cities and surrounded by people. First it was New York, and right after they'd moved to Toronto. She hadn't realized it, but she probably hadn't been outside and around so few people since she'd run away to follow her dreams of being a chef.
Realistically, that was the last time she'd spent any reasonable amount of time climbing.
Berty was getting restless again. She glanced down, and he was rocking, trying to poke his head up over the edge of the pouch. The squirrel groaned, and then muttered, "Okay, okay. Let's do something dumb."
She stopped, then looked around. Most of the trees near the path were thin and scraggly. At last, she picked out a maple that wasn't too far away and that had some width to it. She walked over to the base of the trunk, and looked up its height.
It was small compared to a lot of the trees she used to climb - hell, this tree wouldn't even be considered worth the effort in the Ottawa Valley. She'd probably been at the top of trees twice its height before she was five. Here, though, only a few hundred metres away from the rest of the metropolis of Toronto, and with a small kangaroo in a pouch hanging off of her front, it felt like it was towering above her.
She let out a long breath. She glanced down into the bag again. Berty had finally managed to get his hands onto the edge of the bag, and was poking his head out. He was looking up at the tree as well.
"Alright, Berty." When she spoke, he tilted his head a bit further back to look at her instead. "You best pay attention and take notes."
She stepped forward, and slid her fingers along the bark, until her claws found a purchase around the back of the trunk. She took a deep breath, and then hopped up, planting her feet against the base of the trunk. The muscles in her upper arms and her core tensed on well-honed instinct. She felt the pouch give a small bounce with the momentum, and then it slapped against her stomach some.
The added weight jarred her a bit, and her stomach and back tensed to absorb the impact. Her eyes locked onto the pouch, and the small head poking up out of it. Fuck, would that bounce have jostled him too much? Was he about to start wailing again? Was she damaging his developing brain and Dorothy was going to ream her out when she got home?
Then Berty giggled, and Mallory blinked. He didn't react other than that. It took Mallory longer than she would have liked to figure out, and then she almost laughed herself. She was worried a frigging kangaroo in a pouch being bothered by a bounce. Great.
She started making her way up. It was an awkward, slow thing at first - there were no branches particularly close to the ground. For the first ten or so feet, she was just shimmying up. She would slip her claws up higher along the back of the trunk, until she found an area where she had good purchase, and then kick her feet up higher. Each time, the joey pouch bounced, and Berty gave another small, delighted giggle.
It was hard going. Mallory's muscles remembered days of climbing when she was young, but they didn't have the same conditioning she'd possessed when she was a teenager. Soon enough, there were aches building out along her forearms from the strain of supporting her weight. The added weight of Berty didn't help matters, and neither did the small slaps every time he bounced back down against her. At first they weren't too bad, but eventually the impacts started making her feel tender.
When she finally reached the lowest branches, she let out a gasp of relief. She slid one arm free from around the back of the trunk, and then wrapped her fingers around the top of a thick branch. There was a small moment of vertigo when she let go with the other hand, and her weight shifted. Berty made a grunting noise, and Mallory snorted breathlessly. "Kid, I swear if this is when you start making things difficult…"
He didn't move, though. She got her other hand onto the branch, and was then able to slide her arm up overtop. With a great heave, she pulled her body clear up and onto the branch. When she got her feet underneath her, she stood up slowly. Her muscles felt loose and woozy, and she wasn't entirely sure of her balance on the uneven surface. The squirrel's tail was tense and twitching around, righting her balance whenever she started feeling unsteady. It was on high alert, in case Berty decided it was a good time to try thrashing around in the pouch. Her hands found other, higher branches to hold onto to steady herself, and she finally let herself breathe more deeply.
She looked down to check on Berty again. The little kangaroo was looking all around, now. Mallory let herself follow his gaze. They were still standing quite close to the tree's trunk, and with the branches thick above them. The light making its way to them was filtered green through the leaves. It was like they were in a giant green dome, with the brown of the branches sticking up and out around them all over the place.
Mallory reached down and gave the bag a small nudge. Berty gave out an annoyed coo. She snorted. "C'est rien, ça."
She started climbing again, working her way up from branch to branch. Now that she wasn't shimmying, she was able to speak softly, reminding him to keep watching, to keep paying attention.
As they got higher, Mallory slowed down, and had to be careful to test her weight on each branch. Even if she'd still had that inherent understanding of the strength of the branches from her youth, she couldn't trust anything with her son's added weight on her. She at last found one branch that was a bit thicker and longer than the rest higher up. She walked out along it, using her tail to balance herself, for as far as she was comfortable. Then, she sat down, straddled the branch, and slid herself out just a bit further.
They pushed out through the canopy of leaves, and the gorge opened up around them. It wasn't the most magnificent view that Mallory had ever seen while climbing a tree. Hell, she could just make out some of the cars driving along the roads that lined the gorge. Still, she felt satisfied. Accomplished. She probably hadn't climbed a tree since early on when she and Dorothy had started dating.
She reached down and hefted the pouch a bit higher and firmer against her. Berty's gaze shifted from looking around and down at the gorge and nature path down below, to looking up at her with wide, enormous eyes.
Then he gave a small kick, that hit her flat in the chest. She blinked, and then coughed and wheezed at the unexpected impact. She'd already been out of breath from the difficult climb. She shot him a small glare, and the look on his face might have been a grin.
She eyed him for a long few seconds, thinking about all the things mothers were supposed to say about their kids. Calling them little angels and such. She snorted.
"Avec tes mères? Non. Tu n'es aucun ange. Ta mère est un ouragan. Je suis un monstre. Et toi? Tu es une terreur."
He only replied by shifting a bit, so that he could press against her. Apparently the kick had been meant to tender up his pillow. She rolled her eyes.
They stayed up there for a while. Once the twin pressure of holding his weight while hugging the branch with her legs and balancing them with her tail started to make her back twinge, she climbed back down. By the time they reached the ground, it was already early evening.
Their trip back was uneventful. He decided to start complaining and making noise while they were waiting for the subway, but he quieted back down once they were on it and the vibrations were calming him. The walk from their stop back to the restaurant felt very long for Mallory, and she was dragging her feet by the time they arrived.
Mallory walked by Ouragan's front window. The dinner rush was just starting, by the looks of things. She only cast a quick look inside. People were seated at tables or by the bar, and she could see her staff getting into the swing of things, taking orders, serving drinks, and bringing out food. She didn't bother to check in. She wouldn't have had the energy to berate even the meekest of the serving staff.
The squirrel as good as crawled up the stairs to their apartment, and cracked the door open. It was blessedly quiet. She walked gingerly to the door to her and Dorothy's room, and cracked it open a bit, peaking in.
Dorothy was lying facedown on the bed. She wasn't covering her ears anymore, though, and there was none of that rigid tension from earlier. Mallory cleared her throat.
"How's the migraine?"
Dorothy groaned. She shifted and turned on the bed, so she was looking over at the door. "Not head-splitting anymore. More just throbbing bruise pain at the moment, so long as I keep out of the light."
"Did you have dinner?"
"I'll warm something up."
"Alright. Give me the devil."
Mallory slipped the rest of the way in the door, and closed it behind her so that no extra light would get in. She pulled the bag off of her shoulders, and her back ached with the sudden loss of weight. She handed the bag to Dorothy, then turned and headed out into their kitchen.
She didn't bother with anything fresh. She normally kept some leftovers from the restaurant in the fridge, for the nights when she and Dorothy were too exhausted to put much effort into making food. She dumped a pasta dish into a pan, and heated it on the element. She wasn't sure what Dorothy's sensitivity was at the moment, but she didn't want to set anything off from the beeping of the microwave.
The squirrel slid the food onto two plates, grabbed a couple forks, and then ducked into their room again. Dorothy had gotten Berty into her pouch, and was feeding him. She was sitting up now, and speaking softly to him. Mallory put Dorothy's plate onto the bedside table next to the kangaroo, and then sat on the bed to start onto her own food.
"So what did you two do with your afternoon?" Dorothy's voice was soft. Mallory guessed she was still feeling sensitive about sound.
"I took him climbing."
The kangaroo raised an eyebrow at her. "Climbing? He can't even walk yet."
"Hey, whenever we go to visit my family, he's going to have more squirrel cousins than I can count." Mallory pointed her fork at Dorothy. "I won't be responsible for him being teased about not being able to climb a tree."
Dorothy snorted, and gave her head a weak shake. Mallory let the silence reign for a bit longer before she went on.
"Speaking about family though…" Mallory trailed off as she saw Dorothy tense. She steeled herself, then continued. "Dorothy, we named him after your dad specifically so we could stay on their good side. How bad would it be if we asked them for some help?"
"But we can't do this alone." Dorothy shot her a look, and Mallory rolled her eyes. "Okay. Maybe we could. It would be much easier with help, though. Look, there are going to be times that I won't be able to drop everything to come help. I'll drop it anyways if I have to, but you know it's dumb for us to make ourselves struggle when your parents are right here, in this city, and willing to help."
Dorothy was quiet. At length, she picked up her own plate and started eating. Mallory didn't press her further. By the time that they were finished eating, Berty was sound asleep in Dorothy's pouch. Only then did Dorothy sigh.
"Okay. Fine. I just hate asking them for help."
Mallory nodded, and held in the flood of relief she was feeling. She picked up the plates, and put them on their desk. They could deal with dishes in the morning. "Thank you."
"I'm also afraid of them…" Dorothy made a vague gesture. "I don't know. Brainwashing him or something. Convincing him to go into a life of investment banking or something that he doesn't want."
Mallory snorted as she walked over to the bed. "Please. You think a pair of stuffy old kangaroos will ever be able to convince a child of ours to do anything?"
Dorothy rolled her eyes as Mallory leaned down to kiss her. When their lips parted, she muttered, "You raise a good point."
"Want me to put him to bed, or is our demon spawn sleeping with us tonight?"
"God, let's not risk waking him up. They'll hear me screaming down in the restaurant."