Love Me, Love My Alpaca
By: Jezzy Wolfe

Jericho Flanders was not a hermit…he just didn't care much for socializing. He preferred to pass his time on the gravel shoulders of Highway 28, tossing dust and pebbles over the toes of his worn work boots and gnawing hay straws as he trailed the lengthening shadows. Every evening, once he finished tending his fields, he took a walk to Dixon, stopping at the corner store inside the town limits to purchase a cold pop. Savouring his carbonated treat, he headed home against the first glimmer of stars that danced across a deepening cobalt sky.

Just him, the wide country, and Josephine.

"We are the guardians of God's highway, girl," he declared, breathing in a lungful of fresh air as he stretched his arms to the horizon. Josephine hummed beside him in agreement, matching his stride. Occasionally she would wander away long enough to drop a pile of dung in the roadside grass, but she always came back, announcing her return with affectionate clicks. She nudged his ear, tickling him with her whiskers, and he showed his approval by scratching her hairy neck.

#

Teddy and Mary Sneedburger were on the way home from visiting family when they decided to stop in Dixon for pie. They needed a break from traveling. Highway 28 cut through the Midwestern plains without many worthy attractions, and they'd been on the road since breakfast. The country diner lured them in with windows framed in ruffled curtains of red and white eyelet, gingham covered picnic benches, and checkered tablecloths topped with daisies in white glass vases.

"Why, they're the most gorgeous little things I have ever seen!" Mary said, her voice bubbling over the twangs emitted from an old jukebox by the door. She plucked a daisy from its vase and shoved her nose in it. "Where'd they come from?"

A gum-popping waitress rolled her eyes at Mary's excitement as she sat them in a booth, and readied her notepad for their order. "They grow wild for miles along Highway 28," she said. "You'll see them when you get out on the road. But if you happen to spot an old man and an alpaca, you better not stop to pick them."

"And why is that?" Mary pursed her lips.

The waitress ignored her question, instead scribbling down Teddy's order of ham sandwiches, coleslaw, slices of peach pie, and milks over ice.

"I'll be back with your food," the waitress replied, tucking her scratch pad in the pocket of her apron and retreating to the kitchen. Minutes later, she returned with a tray balanced on her palm.

Mary watched the young lady set the plates and glasses in front of them, and said, "What's an alpaca?"

The waitress busied herself with their napkins and straws to avoid eye contact with the pushy woman. "Jericho is a persnickety old coot, and he's got an ornery streak in him. Gets real bent out of shape if he catches folk picking the flowers or leaving garbage on the road." She placed their eating utensils on the table. "Take my advice: if you see them, it's best you just keep driving."

Leaving them to their meal, the waitress sauntered to a table in the far corner, where the only other customer in the diner sat, bent over a coffee mug. They watched her lean towards the gentleman, speaking too softly for them to hear.

He replied in a voice so loud they jumped in their seats. "What was that? I can't hear you!"

As he turned his head, the Sneedburgers spotted the small hole below his baseball cap where his ear should've been. He handed the waitress a bouquet of daisies, and she gave him a fistful of dollar bills.

"Thank you," he shouted.

Mary leaned towards her husband and asked, "What's an alpaca?"

He paused to think. "I believe it's a brand of lawnmower, dear." Taking a bite of his dessert first, his face lit up. "That's some good pie! Say, did you notice our waitress is missing two fingers?"

Mary giggled around a mouthful of sugar and peaches. "You're absolutely right—this is good pie!"

#

The setting sun highlighted the skyline neon orange as they turned onto Highway 28. They asked for directions back to the main road from a one-armed gas station attendant next to the diner. Leaving Dixon's town limits, Mary spotted the sea of daisies that raced along both sides of the road. She squealed with delight.

"There's so many of them!"

"Yes there are, dear," Teddy said. He eyed the endless acres of crop fields. "Look at all that unused land! That right there is some mighty fine real estate."

"Pumpkin?" Mary cooed, rubbing his arm. "Do you think we could pull over for one teeny, tiny second? I would love to pick some daisies to take home."

He blinked at her, the dollar signs in his eyes clouded with confusion. "What was that, dear?"

She leaned against his shoulder, walking her fingers up his chest. "You know what this place needs," she purred. "A shopping mall. I bet if we took a little walk, we'd find out who owns all this land."

He pulled the car onto the shoulder so fast the tires left streaks of black smoking rubber on the asphalt.

#

Jericho didn't like the looks of the sedan parked on the side of his highway, and Josephine's gravelly hums mirrored his distaste. He rested his hand on her back to calm her, but tension rippled under her thick fur. They watched a couple climb from the vehicle, a high-pitched shriek carrying on the wind as the woman bent to rip daisies from the earth.

"Damned city folk," he muttered under his breath.

Josephine, more vocal with her displeasure, emitted a bellow that mimicked a flattened French horn. The couple stopped and turned to face the road. Four pairs of eyes locked across the highway in a tense moment of silence.

Jericho and Josephine both winced as a feminine screech rattled their eardrums.

"Hold steady, girl," Jericho warned, as the woman barrelled towards them.

"Ain't she just precious? I've never seen a llama up close before!"

"She ain't no llama," Jericho spat, puffing out his chest.

The man approached, the swagger in his steps implying importance, and perhaps an unbeatable deal on a used automobile. He flashed a toothy smile. "No dear, that's not a llama. That's an emu."

"Oh Teddy, don't be silly! An emu is an ostrich!" She reached out to touch Josephine's nose, who warked and jumped away from her hand.

"An ostrich is a bird, Mary, not an emu," Teddy replied. He scratched his chin. "Is she...a goat?"

"With that long neck, pumpkin?"

"Oh yeah. Good point. Maybe she's one of them miniature ponies," he said with a nod.

"Good God, what is wrong with you people?" Jericho groaned. "She's an alpaca, for Christ's sake!"

The couple didn't move, staring at the old man as if he spoke a foreign language. After a quiet second, Teddy replied. "Isn't that a lawnmower?"

"What are you, some kind of moron?" Jericho snapped.

Mary, distracted by the clusters of daisies waving in the evening breeze, bent over and tugged a few more blooms. As the delicate stems ripped, Josephine bellowed at her backside, stomping her feet in the dirt.

Mary cooed. "Would you like a snack, pretty girl?" She pushed a daisy against Josephine's mouth.

"You best not be doing that," Jericho warned. "Josephine don't take kindly to people defacing God's property."

Mary laughed, waving away his advice with her handful of already wilting flowers. "Don't be silly! She's just hungry. I can hear her belly growling!"

"That ain't her belly," Jericho said.

"Is this your land, sir?" Teddy interrupted. "Let me introduce myself. Teddy Sneedburger, real estate investor. You have the fine makings of condominium potential here. Let's talk numbers."

Mary was back to gathering daisies, pulling up as many as she could wrap her hands around. Josephine followed at her heels, her hums and shrieks ignored by the persistent woman, who bent to tear up fistful over fistful of flowers. With her attention diverted, Josephine took advantage of the moment and head butted Mary's derriere.

But Mary, who wasn't exactly the sharpest needle in the pin cushion, just laughed. "You're a playful darling!"

Jericho cut off Teddy's sales pitch. "Sir, if you don't restrain your wife, Josephine's gonna get mighty ugly."

Teddy frowned. "Mary isn't hurting her." They watched Mary attempt to throw her arms around the alpaca's neck, only to fall off balance as Josephine sidestepped her embrace. "See? They're just playing."

Josephine's eyes bulged and a deep rumble erupted from her throat as Mary tried to feed her another broken flower.

"You're asking for it, ma'am," Jericho warned. "I'm telling you, she doesn't like that!"

Teddy pulled a pen and scrap paper from his pocket, and scribbled numbers on it before offering it to Jericho. "What if I told you I could get you this for your land?"

"It ain't for sale," he snapped, his attention on Mary, who was trying her best to hug Josephine. The alpaca continued to growl and wark, pulling her head up in an unmistakable gesture of hostility. "Why don't you two hop in your car and get on up the road before there's trouble?"

"I don't see why you're so upset," Teddy said. "My wife is just showing your llama some affection."

"For the last time, she ain't no llama! Now, take your wife and get outta here before she kills all the flowers!"

As if to emphasize Jericho's outrage, Josephine jerked her head back and screeched, hurling a ball of green sludge at Mary's outstretched hand.

Teddy gagged.

"That disgusting beast spit on me!" Shaking her hand wildly, she tried flinging the noxious spittle off her fingers, but it clung like tar. "What a horrible creat—"

A distinct sizzle stunned the couple silent for only a few seconds before Mary screamed. She flailed her arm about when smoke began billowing from her hand, but to no avail. The smell of burning flesh filled the air. Mary's cries were deafening.

Teddy rushed to his wife's side in time to see three of her fingers shrivel and fall off, landing in the dirt like overcooked cocktail sausages. They stared at the charred digits, unsure of what they should do next. Teddy pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and bent to retrieve them, but he was too slow. A turkey hawk swooped in front of them and snatched the fingers off the ground, flying off into the sunset with its snack.

Teddy's attempts to calm Mary were muffled by the rising timber of her screams. They huddled together, scrambling towards the car. Teddy's distant shouts were indecipherable over Mary's hysteria as he flung open her door and shoved her into the front seat.

Jericho shrugged and held out his hand, beckoning Josephine to his side. They watched the sedan fishtail onto the asphalt and disappear over the horizon. Clicking softly, she nuzzled his ear as he scratched her neck.

"I don't know about you," he said, as they resumed their walk to Dixon, "but I'm awful thirsty. Being the guardians of God's highway is hard work. How about I buy you a cold pop?"

Josephine hummed.

End

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