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Cole and Patch crept out from behind a large tree. Their eyes were focused on an acorn, beside thick, shadowy brush, just a few hops away. Patch pushed through the snow-covered ground ahead of Cole. He stopped, his eyes darting back and forth nervously. He motioned for Cole to move forward. His companion hopped cautiously to his side and they both waited, ever wary of what could be in the brush.

“Almost there,” Patch said to Cole. Patch crept closer to the acorn. He stretched out a gray, furry arm to grab the nut.

Behind Patch, Cole was still scanning the brush. His gaze drifted from the bushes to the leafless tree branches above. There, he saw his friend Russ waving his arms frantically.

“Patch, we need to go back,” Cole shouted to his companion. He was ignored.

Patch wrapped his fingers around the top of the acorn. As his hand made contact with the nut, the brush shifted. A fox burst out from the thorny branches, charging toward Patch and Cole. The sight of the fox’s bleached fangs bit down on Patch’s morale. His heart pounded with the rhythm of the beast’s paws crunching through the snow. His body went stiff, his pupils dilated with fear. He was too frightened to move.

“Split!” Cole screamed. The sound of Cole’s voice melted the fear that froze Patch’s muscles, and left behind a puddle of adrenaline. Patch scurried to life, running with the acorn firmly in hand. He ran the opposite direction of Cole.

The sound of Cole’s shout diverted the fox’s attention. The predator slowed for a moment to decide which squirrel would be the easiest catch. A squirrel carrying an acorn would be a much easier kill than one who had already gained a head start. The fox raced after Patch. Its paws kicked up clouds of snow behind it.

Patch leapt and scampered his way through the dense snowfall. He was desperately trying to outrun the fox, heading toward a tree not far away. The fox was faster however, and closing the distance between the two.

“Let go of the acorn, Patch,” Russ called out from the tree branches above.

Patch would not let go. The squirrel lodged the nut onto his teeth. If he let go of the acorn now, he would starve to death later, he reasoned. He’d rather be torn apart by the fox.

The fox was closing in on her prey. Excited to fill her stomach she snapped at the squirrel's long gray tail. Her saliva coated fangs clamped down on her victim. Patch's heart sank. He desperately leapt to the tree, just out of reach. A piece of his tail tore out from the vise of the fox's teeth. The fox soared into the air with her jaws open to swallow the squirrel.

Patch grabbed hold of the bark and scampered up the tree. The fox, just missing Patch, slammed headfirst into the trunk. She whimpered as her body thumped into the snow.

Patch climbed to the safety of the tree branches. His friends, Cole and Russ, were already scurrying to meet with him.

"Almost died, and still managed to retrieve dinner? Patch, you’ve got to learn when to give up," Russ laughed. “It's been tough this year, but I don't want to lose anyone.”

The winter had been harsh in the woodlands that year. The summer months were mild and the spring before it had frozen over, leaving little time for the birth of new acorns and seeds for the squirrels to eat. Some squirrel families had gathered plenty of food for the coming winter. There were those however, who underwent hardships that prevented them from being able to store food like the more wealthy squirrels.

“Aren‘t foxes supposed to be sly?” Russ called to the fox below who was just now pushing herself to her feet. “That was really crafty, how you slammed your face into the tree,” he laughed. Russ looked much like the fox that he taunted. His fur was a rust colored red, similar to the rest of his family. Russ’s clan had gathered plenty food for the winter. Though they were wealthy in provisions, they could not spare any for others. His clan feared that, should they share in their harvest, they would not have enough food to last through the coming months. Russ, feeling for the hardship of his friends, decided to help Cole and Patch gather food for the winter.

“Look!” Russ pointed at the snarling fox. She was futily leaping at the trunk. “She’s trying to climb up here!" Russ fell to his side with laughter. 

Patch did not join in the amusement. He was staring longingly at the acorn he had just acquired. Patch came from a family of gray squirrels with small white patches of fur on their chests. In previous Autumn seasons, Patch’s father had normally gathered food for his family. Last Autumn, his father had carelessly made a leap from one branch to another in a tree too far away, and fell on a rock below. He broke most of the bones in his body, and could no longer gather food for his family.

Patch took on the responsibility of feeding his clan. He had five younger siblings, an old mother, and a broken father to feed. When the winter came, the food his family had gathered did not last, and soon they were starving. Patch now had in his hand, the first meal his family would have in days. He struggled not to devour the entire acorn himself.

“We should go,” Cole decided. “Wouldn’t want our luck to run out, right Patch?" he mocked.

“Luck had nothing to do with it,” Patch returned.

“The fox hesitated when we split apart,” Cole explained. “Much like I guessed it would, but that clearly was not enough time for you to get away. Or maybe you just weren’t fast enough.” Cole smirked. "A little less lucky, and you'd be missing more than just a bit of fur from your tail."

Patch remained silent but smiled back at Cole. He grabbed Russ, who was still shouting to the fox, by the fur on the back of his neck and dragged him through the snowy branches. The three friends headed back to their home, The Pine.

***

 

It was believed among squirrels of all colors, that the largest of all the trees in the Woodlands was The Pine. Named after its species, this massive tree housed the largest and most diverse community of squirrels. Each branch of The Pine led to a different squirrel’s home. Hundreds of families had carved holes into the tree for their clans to live in. At the center point of the trunk, a long thick branch was set aside as a social area called the Central Branch. Cole, Russ, and Patch stood on the Central Branch with their treasured acorn in hand.

“No, no you should have seen it from my point of view. I saw the whole thing. Her face hit that trunk full speed before she fell. I'm going to cherish that memory forever.” Russ recanted.

“Wasn’t much to cherish from down there,” Patch replied, as usual, not amused by Russ.

“Yeah, I saw you come close to getting your tail bitten off. You just need to pick up the pace.” Russ taunted, patting Patch on his back.

Cole smirked.

“Right. Well, I’ve got a family to feed.” Patch lifted the acorn. “You guys just keep doing what you do.” The white-patched squirrel walked away.

“Hey wait, what about the split?” Cole asked.

“What split?” Patch turned.

“Did you think you were just going to take the whole thing?”

“Are you joking? You want to split this? Cole, my family hasn’t eaten in days,” Patch explained.

“And my sister is sick! She needs food. I can barely forage for the two of us,” Cole returned.

“You’d really give my family a death sentence like that?” Patch glared down at his smaller friend.

“Are you asking me to prioritize your family above my sister, Patch?”

The two squirrels stood face to face on their hind legs, their chests puffed out.

Russ stepped between them. “You split the food,” he said. There was a moment of silent tension between the friends. Cole and Patch lingered in place, ready to fight one another for the meal.

“Split the food guys,” Russ repeated.

Patch, eyes glaring at Cole, slammed the acorn against the Central Branch. The acorn shattered before the friends. Fragments of the shell rained down to the snowy ground below. The nut concealed within, broke in two pieces. Patch snatched the piece closest to him. “There, it’s split,” he said, turning his back. Without another word, the gray squirrel left to feed his starving family.

Cole remained on the Central Branch with Russ. “I should probably go too,” Cole said. "My sister needs food."

“You weren’t wrong,” Russ said sympathetically.

“I don’t really care if I was.” Cole grabbed his half of the nut and made his way to his home.

 

***

 

Cole’s hollow was carved into the lower trunk of The Pine. His family had lived in the same hollow for generations. The squirrel den was left to him and his sister after the death of their parents. In recent weeks Cole had forfeited the upkeep of the hollow in search of food for his sister. Their home had become dark, damp, and cold without Cole's attention. Russ followed Cole to the hollow.

Acorn shells and clumps of fur were scattered across the floor. Cole had not left his home this way. He panicked for a moment, fearing something had happened to his sister, Emma. The squirrel scanned the small hollow and found her sleeping safely in the back. Cole took another look at the mess and realized there was a message written with the shells: MISS YOU COLE.

Cole smiled. It was the first time he had smiled since his sister had become sick months ago, and he was starved for happiness. He carefully stepped across the floor, being sure not to disturb the message his little sister had written for him.

In the back of the hollow, Emma was curled on a nest of twigs and dead fur. Emma and Cole were a rare breed of black squirrels, not commonly found in the woodlands. They were the only dark colored squirrels that lived in The Pine. Emma's rare coat was withering away because of her sickness. Clumps of her fur was falling from her body. Emma had made the best of it. She lacked the strength to move from her spot, so she made a nest from her withering fur and broken twigs.

"Hey Em." Cole sat next to her bed with Russ. "I brought some food. Are you hungry?"

Emma opened her weary eyes. "Starved," she said. Her eye color was deteriorating from coal black to a light gray. Cole had a hard time meeting her gaze. She eagerly stretched out a hand for the food. Emma broke the nut into two pieces. She kept one half close to her, and offered the other half of it to Cole. "Share?" she asked.

"I ate the first half before I got here," Cole lied.

Emma hesitated for a moment to make sure Cole would not change his mind about sharing the food. Satisfied that he was not hungry, Emma began to devour her meal.

"Thanks for the message Em," Cole said.

"I meant it. I miss you." Emma had already finished her half of the nut. "I missed you too Russ. Why don't you ever come to see me?"

Russ laughed nervously to himself a bit. "You know I would have, but I've been busy protecting Cole from foxes," he winked.

"Russ has been helping me gather the food," Cole explained. "Nourishment is scarce this year."

"I'd rather just have you here."

"You know I can't. I need to keep you healthy. That's what's most important." Cole stood up. "We need to go Em. I have to find as much as possible before there's nothing left."

Emma grabbed Cole by the hand. She squeezed tightly, looked up at him with her gray eyes. "Stay with me," she said, coughing.

Cole pried his hand out from hers. "Emma, I need to go. I'm sorry."

"Alright, tell Patch I said hi." Emma sighed. She curled up in the dark corner of the hollow, her dead hair and twigs her bed. Emma closed her eyes and imagined her brother and his friends hopping through the snow, gathering food. She imagined Cole leading the way to a grove full of acorns; Patch grumbling as he carried handfuls of food back to The Pine, and Russ making fun of him. She imagined all of these things and she wished that she could be with them.

***

 

"Did you see how bad she's gotten?" Cole asked Russ. The two squirrels climbed the massive trunk of The Pine. They were heading to the Central Branch from Cole's home on the lower branches. Russ was considerably farther ahead of Cole, but would slow down for moments to let his friend catch up.

"Yeah..." Russ trailed off. "She- I'm sorry Cole." Russ laid a hand on Cole's back.

Russ’ touch did not bring Cole comfort. It made him feel worse. Cole closed his eyes and began pulling at the fur on his head. He groaned and tilted his head up, trying his best to keep the tears from falling down his cheeks. "Russ, what can I do? How can I save her?"

"Cole." Russ removed his hand from his friend's back. "Maybe you can't. Maybe you should just-"

"Ugh," Cole cried. "She's too young to be going through this."

Russ was struggling to continue with the conversation. He had an idea of how he could help, but he was not sure if Cole would like his suggestion. He scratched his head, and debated whether he should share his thoughts.

"Russ, what can I do? I'll do anything," Cole said. His despair was a fissure down his throat, that caused his voice to crack.

Russ imagined Cole would disapprove of his suggestion, but he could not stand idle while his friend pulled himself apart over his sister's sickness.

"Sharik," Russ suggested. His ears laid back and his head hung low as he waited for Cole to lash out. There was only silence.

***

 

"I know how you feel about her. I know you don't believe, but she's helped my family through a lot," Russ told Cole. "I'm sure she knows something." The two friends were scaling the highest branches of The Pine where Sharik resided.

Even through the harshest of winters, The Pine had always held strong. The evergreen's needles stayed alive under the hazy sun and frozen ground. The high branches of The Pine were shorter and thinner. Though the branches were weaker, they were safer than the lowest branches where Cole and his sister were forced to live. At the lowest branches a predator could snatch a squirrel not paying attention to its surroundings.

"Russ, I'm willing to listen but I don't like this," Cole said. "I don't like feeding into the superstition. I don't want to be party to the exaltation of this creature. You hold her up like she's flawless, yet I recall her teachings failing many of us. Multiple interpretations of her cryptic word leads to needless squabbling between our own. She could come down to us and explain her teachings simply; help us. But she perches herself on the highest branches of The Pine and looks down on us while we suffer, die and starve. And still you revere her to be better than the rest."

 

Russ ignored Cole's rambling. He had heard it all before. Doubters amongst the squirrels always vocalized their views. In the past he had tried to argue against them, even argue against Cole, but it was a fruitless effort. There was no point in trying to reason with him, because he knew that when things looked hopless, doubters eventually turned to Sharik. 

Russ climbed atop a small tree branch. "We’re here," he whispered.

At the end of the highest branch of The Pine nested a pure white owl. Her stance was tall, powerful, and peaceful. She looked to be made of the world's white sky and glittering ground. Or maybe the world was made of her. Small black dots speckled her lower back feathers.

Her back was to her visitors. She twisted her head in a circle until it faced the two squirrels; her body did not move. Large yellow eyes stared sharp and fierce at the squirrels climbing along her branch. She looked confident, magnificent, flawless, and divine. Cole struggled to look at her.

Russ bowed before the bird. She nodded to him. Cole also bowed before the bird. He did not bow for reverence, but as courtesy to Russ. He also bowed to ease the tension he felt. Cole had never been up so high in a tree before. The view made him feel small and insignificant. The woodlands were massive compared to him. This tree was just a small dot in a landscape filled with pines till the mountains on the horizon. Then there was this bird standing before him, perched so high that she could gaze upon all the woodland. She was amazing though he did not want to admit it. He hated that just seeing her made him feel weak and foolish. The way her glowing yellow eyes focused so intently, made him uneasy; and so he bowed.

"Nothing can be gained-,” the owl sang.

"-Without giving," Russ recited.

"You've climbed the highest branches of this tree," the owl spoke. "You can gaze upon my world and see all I know. Why have you come to me, Children of the Pines?"

"My friend comes before you today because his sister is ill. He seeks a cure. I know that you would have an answer," Russ said. "Please prove to him your wisdom. How can he help his sister, wise Sharik?"

The owl stared at Cole. Her fierce yellow eyes seemed to pierce through him. Was she seeing something in him that others could not see? No, this bird could not be that wise. She was just trying to come up with something to say, Cole reasoned. She would take a guess as to some cure for his sister based, on information she could gather observing him. It would more than likely be cryptic like her teachings, he assured himself.

"A rose withering alone loses its beauty in vain," Sharik advised.

The two squirrels sat in silence, waiting for the owl to say more. She did not. Sharik turned her head around, aligned it with the front of her body, and looked over the woodlands from her high vantage point. She looked out over the snowy forest, maybe even past it, her yellow eyes seeming to gaze at something more.

"Thank you," Russ said, still bowing. "Thank you for your wisdom Sharik."

"Wait. Are you kidding me, Russ?" Cole asked. He stood up and pointed a finger at the bird. "I ask you about my sister and you tell me about a flower? That's your wisdom?"

"Stop it." Russ grabbed Cole.

"No. I'm not the same as you Russ. I'm not going to be fooled by this. She isn't wise at all. She makes no sense. What are we supposed to do with this? Huh? How is that going to save my sister?"

The owl did not reply.

"Answer me," Cole shouted with his arms raised. Still the owl did not answer. "Just as I thought," Cole sneered. "Silent when we need answers."

"Cole, please," Russ begged. "Not here, not in front of Sharik."

Cole shoved Russ aside, and began his decent down the branches of The Pine.

Russ lingered a moment. He stared at Sharik. She did not look back to him. Ashamed, the red squirrel pursued his friend down The Pine.

Cole had gotten a good head start. He was descending rapidly, snapping twigs as he made his way back down to the rest of his kind. The black squirrel took careless leaps from branch to branch. He wanted to be as far away from the bird as possible. His mind was racing, angry that he had even given her his time.

"Cole wait," Russ called out, struggling to keep up. He scrambled down the pine limbs. "Cole, will you just stop?"

"My sister's life is in my hands, Russ," Cole called back. "I will not stop."

"She may not be wrong," Russ yelled from up above.

Cole stopped instantly. He twisted his body and crawled up the trunk of The Pine, back to Russ. "What do you know?"

"I saw a flower."

Cole waved dismissively to his friend, annoyed. "I've no time for this Russ." He started to turn away.

"When we were gathering food, I saw a flower. It was a beautiful red flower. It was withering away. I saw it. I'm sure that's what she wants us to find."

Cole's brow rose. His eyes opened wider, his demeanor humbled. Cole felt that his soul had opened up, that some imaginary weight had been taken off of him. He did not realize it at the time, but he had found hope. "Where was it Russ?"

Russ crawled along his branch, away from Cole. His ears laid back, his head hung low. Once again he found himself in a position where he did not want to talk to Cole. He did not want to tell him what he knew, but he had to. "I saw it from up in the tree where I was looking out," Russ told Cole solemnly. "It was past the fox's den."

***

 

Cole and Russ knocked on the outer rim of Patch's hollow entrance. A frail gray squirrel crawled to the entryway. Her body was thin, her spine visible through the skin on her back. She looked up at Cole with beady, blank, black eyes. The child was one of Patch's siblings. She was starving.

"Lilly." Cole smiled awkwardly, disturbed by her sight. "May we come in?" Lilly did not respond. She stared at Cole with her blank eyes. She was losing her mind from lack of food and water, he reasoned.

Cole entered the hollow anyway. Patch's home contained multiple chambers for his family. From the main chamber, six halls would twist and turn through the heart of The Pine, leading to individual chambers for the whole family. Patch's clan had once been much more prestigious than Cole's family, and they could afford to live in the higher branches of The Pine.

The main chamber Cole was standing in, housed a feed box. The lid to the box was left opened. Cole peeked inside, small remnants of food remained in the box. Meals were being rationed tightly here.

Within the chamber, four other squirrels laid huddled together for warmth. One of the squirrels was losing his fur and was placed at the center of the pile. Cole recognized Patch's father in the huddle with his broken, twisted leg.

"This is terrible," Russ whispered.

"Yes, it is." Patch emerged from one of the halls, glaring at Cole. "What do you want?"

"I need your help," Cole told him. "My sister is- There's a flower. Sharik says it will cure my sister, but I need your help getting it. It's past the fox's den.”

"So?" Patch crossed his arms.

The response shocked Cole. His mouth dropped open. The surprise turned to anger. Russ grabbed Cole by the shoulder before he could shout out. Cole, quickly calmed himself, regained his composure and tried to reason with Patch.

"I just need the flower, you can have the food you gather," Cole said, looking at the other squirrels in the pile. "All of it."

"Is this true Russ?" Patch asked, doubtful that Cole would be willing to give so much.

"No splitting,” Russ said. “All the food is yours."

"Then I'm in," Patch agreed, extending a hand to Cole. Cole eagerly extended his own. The two squirrels shook hands.

The three friends departed from Patch's decrepit hollow in search of food and hope. Though none of them would admit it, they were relieved to be together again.

 

***

 

Russ had already taken his usual position in the tree. He could overlook everything in the clearing from there. The rusty squirrel could see the red flower withering past the fox's den. If only there was a way to get to it without being seen. He wouldn't worry about that now. Russ focused on the fox's shadowy brush.

Below, Cole and Patch crept on all fours into the clearing. They both took short hops through the cold snow, closer to an acorn. They reached the acorn quickly. The brush had never wavered. Patch grabbed hold of the nut. He looked back at Cole happily. Cole was not smiling.

Cole stood on his hind legs and nervously scanned their surroundings. He anticipated the fox would come from any direction. Maybe she was hidden behind a tree this time instead of the brush.

 

"I don't like this, Patch," Cole said.

"Can't accept that we actually got something easy? Hey Russ," Patch shouted. "Who says nothing can be gained without giving, huh?" Patch laughed. That was the moment Russ began to wave his arms.

"Run!" Russ shouted to his friends.

Just as they had done before, Cole and Patch dashed in opposite directions. Cole veered himself around the fox's den while Patch scampered away from the brush. The fox burst from the bush charging at Cole. The black squirrel ran with all of his strength. The fox was gaining on him. Why was she so close? Then Cole realized that the fox had caught on. She didn't hesitate to decide which squirrel to chase as she had done before. She simply charged straight for him. The fox attacked the squirrel that stood out most on the white canvas, the squirrel with the black fur.

"Cole run for the trees!" Russ shouted. Cole ignored him.

Cole pushed himself forward. He was determined to grab the flower. He looked ahead to his destination. It was too far away. The fox was much too close. There was no way he could make it. Cole knew he was going to die.

"Don't stop Cole," Russ shouted from above. The rust colored squirrel leapt from the tree. He broke through thin branches, floated down with the snowflakes, and sucked in the cold winter air.

Russ landed on the fox's face, clawing at her eyes. She yelped under the surprise, and the annoying sting of his nails. The fox slung her head back and forth. Russ was thrown off of the beast and into the snow. He crashed against the frozen ground. Russ rubbed his head and opened his eyes in time to see the fox charging for him. He was too weak to move. Russ watched Cole reach the flower. The sight filled him with pride. It helped him to ignore the pain of the fox's jaws clamping down on his body as she dragged him into her den.

“Russ!” Cole screamed. He watched the fox pull his best friend into the brush. With tears streaming down his face, Cole grabbed the thorny stem of the flower. He held his breath as he squeezed down on the thorns. Blood spilled from his hands staining the snow. The squirrel cried out in both physical and emotional pain. He pulled the stem out from the ground, gasping. Cole looked down at his wounded palms, both of them stained with blood. He crawled up the nearest tree to meet with Patch above.

 

"Where's Russ," Patch asked fearfully. “He was up in the trees. Where did he go?” Patch grabbed Cole’s shoulders, shaking him. “Where is Russ, Cole?”

“He jumped out,” Cole wept. “He saved me.”

“Why did you need saving? Didn’t Russ yell for you to go to the trees?” Patch waited for Cole to defend himself. Cole looked down to the ground and shook his head. Patch looked from Cole to the thorny flower he held in his hand and remembered why Cole had come to the clearing. Patch grabbed his friend and held him close. Cole broke down, sobbing uncontrollably into his friend’s shoulder.

 

***

 

Cole left Patch behind when they arrived at The Pine. As promised he left the entire acorn to his friend. The black squirrel climbed the highest branches of The Pine. He was determined to get answers, and there was a snow owl that had much to answer for. He had reached Sharik’s perch, his lips bled from carrying the thorny flower in his mouth. He crawled across her small branch, his blood leaving a trail behind him.

"Nothing can be gained-," the owl sang as Cole reached her branch.

"-Without giving," Cole snarled. "And my friend has given all, that my sister may live. Tell me, oh wise Sharik, why did you let the fox kill him? Why, when you could so easily have stopped her?"

"You regretfully give your lives so that she and her young may live." The owl twisted her head around, her body unmoved. She looked at him with her fierce yellow eyes and recited her mantra. "Nothing can be gained without giving."

"Russ did not give his life so that a fox could live," Cole shot back. "He gave his life so that I could get this flower. Now tell me how this will save my sister.”

"That flower will not save her," the owl said.

Cole's stomach tightened. He thought of Russ being dragged into the fox's den. Imagined his friend being ripped apart. "My friend gave his life for this!" Cole screamed. "He's dead now because of your advice. This is your fault!” Cole waited for a response. “Do you even care? Look at you. You could easily swoop down and gather nuts for us, but you simply sit above and watch us die. Why do they revere you when there is a starving family of gray squirrels that you could be helping? Russ was one of your believers and you could have saved him."

The owl of purest white stared at the squirrel of obsidian black. She blinked her eyes and twisted her head to face forward. Cole was left staring at the owl’s back.

"Of course you didn't." Cole began to weep. "You didn't, because you're pathetic." The squirrel dropped the flower from the pine tree. The flower drifted among the falling flurries. It landed gracefully in the snow next to The Pine far, far below.

Cole climbed his way back down The Pine, eager to get away from the horrible bird's perch. He thought about what the bird had said as he descended the pine tree. He repeated her words angrily. "You regretfully give your lives." He thought about Emma, home alone, and sick. She needed food. Now he had no way to get it.

Russ regretfully gave his life, Cole thought. He repeated it over and over in his head. Russ regretfully gave his life. If that was the way the Owl had let the world be, then he would embrace it. The world, her world, would regretfully give so that his sister could live.

Cole decided that Patch's family would give their food so that his sister could survive.

 

***

 

It was nightfall before Cole had made it back to his hollow. Emma was sitting in her makeshift nest, still awake.

"I haven't seen you all day Cole. Where have you been?” Emma asked, coughing. "I've been waiting for you."

"I was getting you a gift." Cole held an acorn out to her. At nightfall, it had been simple for Cole to steal the food from Patch's hollow without being seen. He was hard to see in the darkness of night. His black fur had made him easy to spot in the snow but difficult in the shadows. He had crept into the entrance of his friend's home while they all slept in their pile. The lid to the food box was left open. Cole had simply walked inside and stole what food the starving squirrels had left.

"A whole one this time. All for you.” Cole handed his sister the stolen food.

"Thank you Cole," Emma took the acorn with shaky hands. "But, I would have much rather just spent time with you. Our time is short," she said as she bit into her food.

"Don't say things like that," Cole told her. "You're going to make it through this. You're too strong for it. You need to get your rest and eat."

"Cole."

"Yes Emma?"

"Where are Russ and Patch?"

"I- Emma..." Cole lay next to Emma's nest. He sighed deeply. The squirrel closed his eyes exhausted from his long, painful day. Cole did not want Emma to see the tears swelling in his eyes. He found it difficult to watch her eat the food he had stolen from his friend's starving family.

"Night Cole," Emma said as she curled her worn body in her bed of dead fur.

"Night. Emma."

"Love you."

***

 

“Cole! Cole wake up.” Patch pounded on the entryway to Cole’s hollow. “Cole come on, I need your help.”

Sunshine beamed through the entry of Cole’s hollow onto his eyelids. He forced one of his eyes open to find Patch barging into his home. The obsidian black squirrel struggled to keep himself awake, still exhausted from the previous day.

Patch grabbed Cole. “Wake up. I need you. They stole it!” He began to shake the black squirrel furiously. “They stole my family’s food!”

Cole pushed at Patch, trying to stop the shaking. Patch was stronger, and his grip was hard to break. “Patch stop,” Cole forced out. “Stop shaking me.”

Patch let go and took a step back. The panic was showing on his face. “We need to go to the clearing. Someone stole my family’s food. I- I have to get more. They’re going to starve to death Cole!”

Guilt gripped Cole’s throat like a vise. It squeezed hard, not letting the lies spill from his mouth. Reality made his stomach clench together, his blood tingled in his veins. Patch’s family was going to starve to death because of him. Without Russ they would not be able to gather food from the clearing. The food he had stolen was their last.

“Just come up with a plan that the two of us can do,” Patch said. “You’re smart, you can do this.”

Cole stared directly into his friend’s eyes. He could feel himself falling into the misery he had caused Patch. He desperately tried to formulate a plan, but always came to the same conclusion. The fox would catch on, and one of them would die. His best friend had already given his life for this. Now Patch’s family was going to die and it was his fault. There were too many lives weighing down on him.

He gave up.

“I can’t,” Cole said. “We won’t make it.”

“You aren’t even trying!” Patch shouted. “Nothing can be gained without giving, Cole. Remember that? And what about Emma? She needs food too.”

Cole turned to his sister who was still sleeping beside him. She had a pleasant look on her face. He smiled. She hadn’t stirred once, even through all the shouting.

"Emma," Cole said.

She did not wake.

"Emma?" Cole shook his sister. She did not stir. "Emma!" He began to shake her more furiously. "Emma wake up!" he yelled. "Emma!" Cole grabbed her head and shook it back and forth, tears streaming down his cheeks. "This isn't happening to you. This isn't happening!" Cole fell to his knees. “Emma!” he screamed, between sobs. “Emma…”

***


It had been hours since Cole realized his sister had passed away. It was the most time he had spent with her since she became ill. The short time she had left, he had spent trying to gather food. She had withered away alone in the hollow, without her brother there for comfort.

Patch sat in a corner of the hollow, his head bowed. He had listened to Cole cry for hours and said nothing. The gray squirrel was having trouble finding a way to comfort his friend. He felt partially responsible; making Cole split the food they had found the day before. Patch felt selfish, having demanded that Cole help him find food while his sister lay dead in a nest before them.

Cole carried his sister outside the hollow. Patch did not follow. He stayed in the corner of the hollow and kept his head bowed. The two friends did not speak to one another as Cole left the home.

Cole carried his sister out of The Pine and down to the snow covered ground below. A single withering rose lay in the pure white winter snow. Cole dug a hole in the snow and laid his sister's body within. He placed the rose on top of her burial place, and sat down beside her. Cole stayed until he could see the sun no more and the sky had become as black as his fur.

The owl of pure white swooped down to a branch above the squirrel of obsidian black. She looked down upon the squirrel and said, "A rose withering alone loses its beauty in vain."

The squirrel looked up and solemnly replied, "I understand," as he finally learned to cherish his time with his sister.


Copyright © November 29th, 2009 Shawn Troutman

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Publication Date: 04-01-2010

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