The girl sat down on the bench next to the vendor's little stand, paws clasping an overloaded vanilla cone she'd just bought from them, but she didn't eat it. Instead, she stared along the path that bordered the lazy, glimmering breadth of the river, gaze so distant she barely noticed the people dotted along it, chatting, walking, sunbathing, feeding the ducks and swans, and dipping their toes in the water.
“They'll be 'ere in a minute,” the rat vendor told her, voice coarse but soft at the edges. “Regular as the proverbial clockwork, they are.”
“They?” the girl enquired, raising a brow. “I thought...?”
The rodent sighed, shoulders sagging. “The little un's gone, yeah, but she insists they came back to 'er, that they're...lookin' after 'er until 'er own time comes.” He sniffed, and cleared his throat. “I jus' think she's strugglin' so much she...she can't let 'em go...”
The girl's eyes dipped as a pang acute as fire hit her, but she forced it away. “I...know the feeling...”
The vendor regarded her sympathetically. “I'm sorry if'n I spoke out of turn, but...” He trailed off. “Ah – 'ere they come...”
The girl looked up; she pretty soon spotted the short female raccoon heading towards them, partly thanks to the vividly coloured shawl she wore, partly to the faint limp in her left leg, and partly to the odd way her right arm stretched out and down, wavering as if grasping onto the hand of someone small and active...but no-one was there.
Tears stung the girl's eyes, but she blinked them away; she focused on her ice cream, eating it in a few sharp bites, all the while fighting to get control over her suddenly erratic breathing. When it was finished she stared at her paws as they fiddled anxiously in her lap, only responding when a quiet voice rich with warmth called to her.
“Patty! You're home!”
The girl stood up, returning the beaming smile of the raccoon with a shy one of her own. “Hey, Auntie. Good to see you. I've missed you.”
The coon gave her a light hug, then, paws settling on her shoulders, looked her over. “My, what a fine figure of a raccoon-girl you've grown in to. Don't you agree, Tag?” She looked down, as if a child were stood beside her, then the smile widened. “He agrees!”
“I'm not sure I do,” the girl murmured, staring down at herself, at the flat chest, the pale, slightly coarse fur, the undersized tail, and the thin hips. “I've barely grown out at all.”
“You've done just fine,” her Aunt assured her, arms dropping. One of them then jerked outwards, like it was being tugged; the elder raccoon chuckled, gazing fondly at thin air. “He's getting impatient. He does so love his ice cream.”
“Don't make him wait on my account,” Patty gently insisted, only just keeping the quaver from her voice.
“You always were a sweetheart.” The elder raccoon kissed her cheek and squeezed her paw, then turned to the vendor, ushering an unseen cub ahead of her.
The girl could so easily visualise the vibrant, soft-furred little raccoon boy with the nick in one ear, the faded yellow neckerchief and the dot on his belly bouncing eagerly to the ice-cream stand; raising up on his tip-toes and resting his paws on the counter he watched raptly as the rat filled a cone with the chocolate variety. A tearful blink, a rub of the eyes, and he was gone.
“So was he,” she near-whispered, voice cracking.
“Is, dear; is.” Her aunt took the cone, paid for it, thanked the vendor, then turned to her, free paw patting an invisible head. “I always knew he'd come back; he promised, and he...”
“I know.” The girl drew a smile from somewhere.
“Feel free to visit us, any time.” With a wave the elder raccoon, again ushering nothing in front of her, moved to a tall-backed wooden bench across the path, looking out over the river.
The girl made no move to follow, just stood and watched as her aunt patiently settled her unseen child on the seat, then sat down alongside them. All Patty could see was the elder raccoon's shoulders and head, but she could imagine well enough what was happening. A ruffle of a perky little set of ears, nimble paws accepting the treat, a permanently grinning muzzle making a cheerful mess of eating it, a handkerchief to dab away the remains even as playful fingers dotted brown on wood...
Her vision wavered as her eyes watered; she blinked and rubbed and shook herself, then looked up to see her Aunt starting to walk back the way she'd come, still grasping an invisible paw. Her attention was then drawn the other way by a call, to an approaching pair of grey foxes, the male wearing a dapper boater at a jaunty angle, the female in a deep green tank top and sandals.
She waved and, bidding the rat vendor farewell, walked onto the path to greet the vulpines. As she passed the bench, she caught a glimpse of brown specks dotting it. She tried to ignore them, but some instinct saw her investigating; she found a scattering of ice cream fingerprints freshly laid across the backrest of the seat, as if a small paw had trailed along it but moments ago...
She stared at them for some time, shaking, a hand to her mouth, her eyes stinging and blurring, oblivious even to the paws taking light hold of her shoulders, and the concerned voices enquiring. She wiped her vision clear and stared after her Aunt, strolling peacefully along with a bouncy little raccoon boy, a nick in one ear, a faded yellow neckerchief bobbing, holding her hand and chattering away to her.
He looked over his shoulder, smiled a bright, gap-toothed smile, and mouthed five words to the now openly weeping girl.
“I always keep my promises.”