Author: Summer Bird

The Food Critic

The restaurant owner came to the reception area as soon as the celebrated food critic, Mr. Gruff, checked in with the hostess. His first impression was that the man was immensely old. He was stooped over, with white hair and a long white beard and little wire-framed glasses.

Looking more closely, the restaurant owner realized that Mr. Gruff was a goat.

“Is this a joke?” he asked.

Mr. Gruff looked up at him. His eyes were strange. “Mr. Smith, I assume?”

The restaurant owner took a step back. A talking goat? Then he straightened up. He was a professional business owner. He could handle this. “Yes, that’s me. Are you Mr. Gruff?”

“Of course. Here’s my card.” The goat reached into his suit packet and handed over a little card stock square.

Mr. Smith read the first lines. “William G. Gruff, professional food critic.” He put the card in his pocket. “Right this way, sir.”

On the way to the table, Mr. Smith went over his options. He really didn’t know much about goats. Didn’t they eat cardboard and tin cans and such? How could a goat be a reliable food critic? Would his restaurant get a terrible review because the silverware didn’t taste good?

Mr. Gruff slid into his chair and looked around. “I see that most of the people around me are eating large salads. Is that today’s special?”

“It is. Here’s the menu. Would you like anything to drink? I can send it with the waitress who will come to take your order.”

The goat looked up from the menu. “Water is fine.”

Hurrying back to the kitchen, Mr. Smith pulled out his phone and started searching for information. What do goats eat? Apparently not tin cans or cardboard. The silverware was safe.

Salad would be fine. Mr. Smith let out a breath of relief and shared the results of his search with the chef. They could continue on as normal.

He thanked Mr. Gruff for coming after he finished his meal, and life at the restaurant went on. He nearly forgot to look for the review two weeks later. It praised the salads and professional staff. Mr. Smith framed it and put it on his wall next to the other positive reviews for his restaurant.

That would have been the end of it, except that a few days later, a horse in an expensive gown came in after making a reservation over the phone. This led to more internet searches, and some slight alterations to the food she ordered.

And then the crows came. And a family of pigs. And the entire restaurant was booked by a greyhound for his mother’s birthday one evening. The waitresses learned to add the customer’s species when noting down any dietary restrictions.

Time passed. Mr. Smith continued to host a surprising number of animal customers. This was strange, because when he went about town, he didn’t see any talking animals wearing clothes. Where did they all come from?

He did ask, once. A very pleasant parrot that chattered away a mile a minute came one early afternoon for lunch. The restaurant was empty, and Mr. Smith was working at the front desk.

He led the parrot to his table and paused. “Would you like a taller chair?” he asked, looking at the distance from the chair to the table.

The parrot flapped his wings and flew up onto the table. “No chairs at all, thanks. I just want one of those salads everyone’s talking about.”

This was his chance. “Where are they talking about it?”

The parrot squawked with laughter. “Oh, your security clearance isn’t high enough to know that.”

Mr. Smith frowned. Government work? How many animals were working for the government? What did they do?

Well, it wasn’t really any of his concern. He had a business to run. He didn’t have time to get mixed up in any sort of strange government something-or-other. But he did have one more question. “So, did you read Mr. Gruff’s review then?”

“Yes, of course. The extended version. He said that this was the first place that didn’t offer him tin cans or cardboard. You do your research and care about your customers.”

“Extended version?”

“Your clearance still isn’t high enough.”

Mr. Smith laughed. “Fair enough. I’ll get you that salad.” On his way to the kitchen, he was already searching his phone for what parrots ate.

Just Keep Going

Life is made up of opposites. There is day and night, happiness and sorrow, too busy and too bored. And of course, there are good days and bad days.

Somehow, life is predictable and full of surprises. Strange, right?

Sometimes there are bad weeks and bad months and bad years. Sometimes you only know which weeks and months and years were the good ones when you look back on them from the middle of hard times–the contrast makes it seem obvious.

It is important to know that life goes up and down like a roller coaster, because in the middle of a bad year, it feels like things will never be okay again.

Things will be okay again. The tide goes in, the tide goes out. The earth turns. The seasons change. Nothing stays the same. Life gets hard, then it gets better again.

On a bad art day, a bad life day, a bad hair day, know that it will get better—and JUST KEEP GOING.

Charlie’s Room: The Red Hat

One year, soon after Charlie was born, Marianne gave Isaac a red knit cap for Valentine’s day. “Did you make it for me?” he asked.

“No, I bought it at the market. But it looks warm, doesn’t it?”

Isaac put the hat on. It was warm and soft and just the right size. “I love it!” he said. And he wore it often. February was still quite cold, so he wore it many times that year.

They also took pictures of baby Charlie sleeping inside the hat. The brim was pulled up near his chin, and he looked like he was in a tiny sleeping bag.

Isaac loved his red hat. He was careful with it, and didn’t loan it out to anybody. And yet, years and years later, the hat looked worn. It wasn’t nearly as red or soft. There were spots where the yarn was stretched thin and matted.

One morning, as Isaac was getting ready to leave, Charlie looked up at him and frowned. “You need a new hat, dad.”

Isaac put his hands up to hover protectively next to his hat. “I love this hat. It’s as old as you are, you know.”

“Yes, yes.” Charlie rolled his eyes. “I’ve seen the pictures.”

“It’s hard to believe you were that small, right?”

“I got bigger because I got older. Just like your hat got older.”

Isaac covered his ears. “I didn’t hear that.”

“Mom!”

Marianne came out of the kitchen drying her hands on a towel. She looked at Isaac and frowned. “You need a new hat.”

“See?” Charlie folded his arms across his chest and smiled.

Isaac stepped towards the door. “I really have to go now. Maybe we can talk about this later.” He opened the door and stepped outside. “Bye.” He closed the door and hurried to his car.

When he arrived at work, he left the red hat on his desk. It almost felt like he was sitting at the bedside of an old friend who had been given a terrible diagnosis. “Don’t worry,” he told the hat. “You have plenty of good years left. I’ll bring home a movie and some ice cream and they’ll forget all about this terrible new hat idea.”

The movie and ice cream distraction idea seemed to work. They had a fun evening, and nobody mentioned hats once. Isaac hid the hat under his pillow just in case.

He was pretty sure they wouldn’t get rid of his favorite hat without his permission, but he didn’t want to take any chances. There was that one time that his mom threw out his favorite boots just because there was a hole in the toe. For weeks before that he stuffed newspaper inside and his foot had stayed mostly dry and his socks were only a little stained by the newspaper ink.

It wasn’t that he had a hard time throwing things away. Not usually, anyway. But when something had enough good memories attached to it, it was hard to give it up.

Things that were well-loved had a certain glow about them. Miss Marta’s gray shawl had that glow. So did one of Mr. Johnson’s ties that was covered in tiny elephants, and Charlie’s lucky socks, and Marianne’s tiny green earrings. To Isaac his hat glowed brightest of all, but that might just be because it was his and he loved it best.

The next morning, when Isaac put the red hat on, Charlie frowned, but he didn’t say anything. Marianne stepped out of the kitchen to say goodbye. She looked at the hat and frowned. But she didn’t say anything about the hat either. Isaac relaxed. His hat was safe.

A month later, it was Valentine’s day. Isaac hummed happy birthday to his hat as he put it on. He was looking forward to an evening of pizza and board games.

Marianne and Charlie met him at the door after work. Charlie held up a lumpy present wrapped in shiny red paper and taped closed with what looked like most of a roll of tape. “I just finished your present.”

Isaac finished putting his coat away and changed out of his shoes. Then he took the present and examined it from all sides. “Let’s go sit on the couch. That looks like it may take a little while to unwrap.”

“You aren’t going to try to open it without ripping the paper, right?” Charlie tugged on the present. “I’ll open it. You take too long.”

Isaac kept a tight hold on his present. “It’s my present. Unwrapping it is part of the fun. Enjoy the journey.”

Marianne sighed. “Let’s go make cocoa. He’ll still be unwrapping when it’s ready.”

Luckily, Isaac discovered a corner where the tape was applied less densely, and soon enough he was able to slide out a soft, bright, red, knit something. “Is this a hat?” he asked. He wasn’t sure how he felt about a new hat. Could he really replace his old hat and all the memories it represented?

“Of course it is.” Charlie grinned. “I made it for you myself. Mom helped.”

Isaac looked down at his new red hat. It glowed even brighter than the old one. “I love it,” he said.

The Short Shelf Life of Cookies

Once there was a baker who was so tired that she mixed all her ingredients up and somehow ended up baking oatmeal raisin cookies that were alive. They didn’t have arms and legs like the little gingerbread boy from the story, so they didn’t get up and run away.

Instead, they sat and watched her with their little raisin eyes, and shrieked in terror if she stood too close. So, she left them to cool and left to make another batch. She was more careful with the second batch, and the cookies were perfectly normal.

She picked one up. No shrieking. She bit into it. There was a lot of screaming, but it was coming from the other side of the room.

The baker put the nice, normal cookie down with a sigh, and turned to face the terrified cookies still cooling on the cookie sheet.

“I’m not going to eat you,” she said. “I don’t eat anything that can ask me not to eat it.”

“Please don’t eat us,” the cookies said at once.

“I won’t. There. See? Everything is fine.” She stepped closer. The cookies watched her, but didn’t yell.

“So you’ll let us go?” one of the cookies asked.

“Go where?” the baker looked around the room. “Where would you go?”

“Someplace safe for cookies,” the cookie said.

The baker thought for a moment. Was there a place like that? “You know, the shelf life for cookies isn’t very good, but I could probably freeze you for up to a year.” She brought the cookies over to the freezer and set them inside. “See?”

“Too cold!” the cookies said.

“Well, then you’ll probably only last a week or so. That’s not long.”

“Can you take us to see the world?” one of the cookies asked.

“The world? In a week?”

And that is why the baker ended up sneaking a briefcase full of cookies into the movie theater. When the lights went out, she opened it on her lap and turned it to face the screen. She shushed the cookies when one of them started to talk, and they soon settled in to watch the film.

She had to close the briefcase a few times when someone passed by, but overall, the movie was a success. The trip to the library was less so. The cookies were completely unimpressed by the shelves of books.

“I don’t hear any stories,” one of the cookies said.

“I don’t see any stories,” another said.

The baker closed the briefcase and left the library. At the art museum, they were checking bags, so she turned and left without the cookies seeing anything at all. When she got back to her car, they were very disappointed, and complained loudly until she closed the briefcase again.

In the park, a dog ran up to the briefcase, barking and wagging his tail. The baker barely managed to close the briefcase before the dog ate any of the cookies. It was a very close call.

“We don’t want to see the world any more,” the cookies decided. “Let’s go back to the movies.”

The baker took a week off, and spent most of it at the movies with a briefcase full of living oatmeal raisin cookies. The cookies had many interesting questions about the movies they watched. They didn’t really understand the idea of fiction, and believed that every story they watched was completely true.

And so, after a film about a magical world, the cookies had many questions about magic. “Can we do magic?” one asked.

“Maybe,” the baker said. “Talking cookies already sounds kind of magical to me.”

“Oh.”

The cookies began to whisper. They muttered to each other through the next two movies, but refused to tell her what they were talking about. The baker was a little nervous.

Everything seemed well when she covered them with a tea towel and left them on the counter that evening. She checked the movie schedule for the next day, and made a plan for what to see. The cookies probably only had a few good days left.

She paused to wonder what the effects of mold would be on the poor cookies. Would it make them lose their memories, or would they suddenly be angry or act like zombies? What would zombie cookies act like?

She never found out. The cookies were gone in the morning. Had they been eaten? Had they figured out magic and used it to transport themselves somewhere else? Maybe they started to mold a little early, and mold made talking cookies disappear?

The baker missed the cookies, but was rather relieved that she didn’t have to deal with zombie cookies. She really didn’t want to know what happened to someone bit by a zombie cookie.

After the cookies left, the baker was much more careful when she cooked, especially when she was tired. She also started watching more movies on her days off. And she never ate another oatmeal raisin cookie again. Even if they didn’t talk, it still felt like the raisins were watching her.

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