“Tabby,” Cocklebur’s urgent voice came over the phone line, “I’m really worried about Purr. He... he doesn’t look too good.” The colt’s voice cracked on this last part.
Tabby immediately dropped the pen she had been writing down some notes with when the call had come into her office. She could tell that Cocklebur was especially distraught, indicating something serious. “Is he eating?” she demanded.
“Well, no... I gave him his food this morning before I left for school but he didn’t touch it. And the discharge from his eyes is really bad. Could you... could you come over and take a look?”
“Of course,” Tabby said kindly. “Just make Purr as comfortable as you can. I’ll be there in a minute.”
Tabby hung up the phone carefully, considering the situation. She knew Cocklebur had gotten especially attached to the stray kitten he had found several weeks ago, named Purr due to his highly affectionate nature. Cocklebur frequently came to Tabby for advice on how to care for his various animals, and Tabby had been watching Purr’s condition carefully. He had a severe upper respiratory infection and didn’t seem to be improving. She was afraid he wouldn’t last much longer even with Cocklebur’s careful attention. Cocklebur would be heartbroken if that happened.
Gathering up some supplies she might be able to make use of, Tabby flew out of the vet clinic after hurriedly explaining the nature of her errand to Thomas. Cocklebur’s neighborhood wasn’t located too far from the clinic, so it didn’t take Tabby more than a few minutes to arrive.
She cut immediately through to the backyard, where she knew Cocklebur would be in his “animal hospital”- a rather dilapidated shed on the property. She found him sitting on the floor amid the piles of cages and aquariums for holding his various creatures. He had a blanket on his lap and was gently stroking the little black and white kitten laying there.
“He’s...” Cocklebur’s voice was little more than a whisper. “I think he’s gone.”
Tabby dropped to her knees and checked for vital signs. “I’m sorry, Cocklebur,” she murmured, not knowing how to console him.
A tear slipped down Cocklebur’s face. “Why couldn’t I save him?” he sobbed. “He was the nicest kitten ever. Why did he have to die?!”
“You did the best you could,” Tabby said quietly, wrapping a foreleg around his shoulder. “There’s nothing anyone could have done. You made his last weeks happy for him, and that’s the best he could ever have asked for.”
Tabby was silent as she allowed her young friend to cry for several minutes. Then, resolutely, he wiped his eyes and stood up. “I’ll dig the grave now,” he said bravely, carrying Purr’s body and picking up a shovel that leaned against the wall. Tabby followed him outside behind the shed, where the ground was decorated with makeshift wooden crosses. This was the resting place for the few animals Cocklebur encountered that weren’t able to survive their injuries.
They both paused in silence after the deed was done and a new mound of dirt decorated the graveyard. Though he was putting on a brave facade, Tabby could tell that Cocklebur was still very depressed over the death of his friend. “Come with me to the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe,” she invited. “I’ll buy.”
Sniffling, Cocklebur acquiesced.
* * *
“Tomorrow I think I’m going to set the ground squirrel free. He had a hurt paw when I found him but he’s healed now,” Cocklebur was saying animatedly. Tabby had managed to draw him out of his sorrow for asking of news of Cocklebur’s other patients, a topic the colt thoroughly enjoyed. “And that litter of raccoons I found in the spring without a mother is getting big; I’ll probably release them soon. The littlest one I was worried about at first, but now she’s just as big as her siblings,” Cocklebur beamed.
“Your ability with animals is really special, you know,” Tabby said earnestly. “Have you thought about what you’re going to be when you grow up?”
“Something to do with animals, I guess.” Cocklebur frowned pensively. “Could I be a vet, like you?”
“I think you’d be great,” Tabby assured him.
Cocklebur brightened, but then his expression turned sober. “The schooling is expensive, though. I probably wouldn’t be able to go on to veterinary college.”
Tabby felt sorry for the colt who already had to be concerned with monetary problems as the eldest child of a financially straitened family. “Well, when you’re older you can get a job and start saving. And if you work hard in school there are scholarship opportunities.”
“Really?” Cocklebur’s face lit up. “You mean I really could be a vet if I worked hard?”
“Of course,” Tabby said in a voice that brooked no argument.
“And once I’m a vet,” Cocklebur said with determination, “I’m going to find a cure for that stupid infection that killed Purr.”
Seeing tears threatening to spill again, Tabby reached across the table and touched his foreleg. “Hey, if you really do want to be a veterinarian, I could start showing you the ropes at the clinic. It’s never too early to start getting experience.”
Cocklebur’s face suddenly broke out in a grin. “You really mean that? That would be awesome!”
“Sure,” Tabby smiled back. “I’ll be your mentor. Just stop in whenever you can and I’ll show you around.”
“Hi, Tabby! I see you’ve dropped Thomas for a younger guy,” Tamara’s voice said mischievously as she appeared at the table.
Tabby giggled. “Hello to you as well, Tammy. Are you acquainted with Cocklebur?”
“I don’t believe I am,” Tamara said curiously.
“Well, Cocklebur, this is my cousin Tamara. And Tamara, this is my newly-appointed protege pet doctor, Cocklebur,” Tabby performed the introductions with a flourish.
“Well, Cocklebur, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” Tamara smiled.
“Yeah,” Cocklebur said shyly. “I mean, uh- it’s nice to meet you, too.”
“As much fun as this is, I’d better be going,” Tamara said, glancing towards the door. “I just came in to buy a bucket of ice cream, and Philippe and Hugh are waiting for me outside. You two have fun!” Winking, she scurried off.
“Is that Baby Leafy waving to you from the table over there?” Tabby queried.
Cocklebur looked over his shoulder at a table full of his classmates. “Oh, it is! I didn’t know they were here.” Quickly he finished off the last of his sundae. “Do you-?”
“Go on, go on,” Tabby shooed him away. “I’m sure you’ve had enough of this boring adult chatter.”
“No!” Cocklebur protested, and then blushed. “I mean- it was fun. Thanks for bringing me. And for your offer. You’re really great.” Before his face turned any more red, he ran off to join his friends.
Tabby smiled indulgently and prepared to go home.
* * *
Baby Leafy looked at Cocklebur suspiciously. “You’re blushing, Cocky.”
“Am not!” Cocklebur retorted.
“Why were you here with Tabby?” Baby Noddins inquired.
“We were talking about animals,” Cocklebur stated. “She’s going to teach me more about becoming a veterinarian.”
Baby Drummer looked at Cocklebur’s heightened color again. “I bet you got a crush on her,” he challenged.
Cocklebur glared at his friend. “Do not,” he protested.
Drummer stuck his tongue out. “I think you do. You’re weird. Girls are boring.”
“Hey, don’t tease Cocky!” Baby Leafy intervened. “He can hang out with Tabby if he wants to.”
“And what do you mean, girls are boring?” Baby Noddins glared daggers at her erstwhile playmate.
“Well, you are.”
“Grr... I’ll get you for that, Drummer! You’re as bad as Leaper!” Drummer just stuck out his tongue again. Cocklebur and Leafy both rolled their eyes.
* * *
On Monday, after Cocklebur had sat impatiently through a session of summer school and made his daily rounds with his animals, he headed off to the clinic for Tabby’s promised instructions.
He opened the door and found himself in the waiting room, but became a bit flustered as the receptionist eyed him suspiciously. “Can I help you?” she said, looking down at him from behind the desk.
“Um, I’m here to see Tabby,” the colt stammered.
“Do you have an appointment?”
“Then I’m afraid I can’t help. I’d suggest having your parents call and setting up a time for your pet.”
“Oh, Patina, you can leave off your arrogant routine. Cocklebur’s here at my invitation,” Tabby said cheerfully, popping her head out of the doorway. “Come on in, you can help me get set up for the next patient.”
Cocklebur’s face broke out in a grin at the sight of Tabby. “Cool!”
“Don’t let Patina intimidate you; she’s not as sweet and considerate as Sug was, but she’s really not so bad once you get to know her,” Tabby prattled on as she gave Cocklebur the task of rubbing down the fur-covered counter.
“Why doesn’t Sugarberry work here anymore?” Cocklebur asked curiously.
“Oh, she wanted more time to take care of Banderol. So she stays at home now and devotes more time to writing her books,” Tabby explained, rummaging through a cupboard. “Say, how are all your animals doing?”
“They’re good,” Cocklebur said. “That stray dog had her puppies over the weekend. I’ll have to start finding homes for them.”
“You can use the bulletin board in the waiting room to advertise,” Tabby suggested as Patina stepped in.
“Posey is here with her iguana,” she said stiffly.
“Oh, great! She can come right in! You can stay here and watch, Cocklebur.”
The delicate yellow pony came trotting in shortly after. “Hi, Tabby! I see you have a new assistant.”
“Yes, this is Cocklebur, pet doctor in training,” Tabby clarified. “Now, how is Herbert?”
“I haven’t seen any problems since his last check-up,” Posey said, letting Herbert out of his transport house.
Tabby checked the reptile’s heartbeat, temperature, and other vital functions under Cocklebur’s unwavering gaze as he took in all of this new information. “I see no problems,” Tabby said as her diagnosis, “except that his scales seem a bit dull in color. What foods have you been giving him?”
“I changed brands recently,” Posey admitted. “It was cheaper.”
Tabby nodded understandingly. “It probably doesn’t have all the nutrients he needs, though. The other brand might be more expensive but it would be healthier for him.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Posey said guiltily.
“No permanent damage has been done,” Tabby assured her, “as long as he eats correct nutrients again in the future.”
“Thanks,” said Posey, as Tabby led her to the door.
“There,” said Tabby, smiling at Cocklebur as she returned. “It’s really not so hard being a veterinarian, is it?”
“That was just a simple check-up, though,” Cocklebur commented. “What about giving shots, or performing surgeries? Those must be a lot more work.”
“Well, this was just your first day. If you want to come again tomorrow afternoon, I believe I have some rabies shots to give. And then-”
* * *
Cocklebur quickly fell into this new regimen of visiting the clinic afternoons after his chores were out of the way. By the end of that week, Tabby had even judged him to be competent enough to administer a shot on his own. Well, she had held the cat down and helped hold the syringe, but Cocklebur had still been able to inject the medicine.
Cocklebur usually stayed on at the clinic until right before his family’s suppertime, which was also closing time for the clinic, so he often walked part of the way home with Tabby, Thomas, and Baby Faline. Cocklebur practically started to seem like one of the family.
On Monday, however, Cocklebur was noticeably disappointed to be greeted only by Thomas, with his idol nowhere in sight. “Tabby had to take Faline to the doctor for a check-up,” Thomas explained patiently. “But if you’d like, you could watch m-”
“Nah, that’s okay,” Cocklebur interrupted, shaking his head. “I’ll just come back tomorrow. Thanks anyway.” Quickly, the colt was back out the door before Thomas could form a reply.
“Well, that certainly makes me feel useful,” he commented drily to Patina.
“He’s got it bad for your Tabby,” Patina observed wryly.
Thomas just grinned. “He’s a good kid. Tabby’s doing the right thing by nurturing his abilities.”
* * *
“Hi, Cocky!” Leafy said cheerfully as she found her friend coming out the front door of his house. “I’m glad I caught you. Do you want to-”
“Not this afternoon,” Cocklebur said, shaking his head. “I’ve gotta run.”
“Oh,” Leafy said, her expression downcast. “Whatcha doing?”
“Going to the clinic,” Cocklebur said succinctly, walking down the path.
“I figured,” Leafy sighed. “Hey... do you think I could come with you?”
“Nah,” Cocklebur said. “I don’t want to impose on Tabby.”
Leafy sighed again. “Yeah, I guess. Are we still going to-”
“Later,” Cocklebur cut her off. “I’m gonna be late! See ya.”
“Yeah. See ya,” Leafy said forlornly as she watched her friend disappear down the sidewalk.
* * *
That same afternoon, Noddins was out weeding her garden, though for the most part she was pulling up the flowers and leaving the weeds. Upon looking up, she spotted her friend Leafy coming despondently down the sidewalk. “Hey, Leafy! What’re you doing out?” Noddins got up eagerly, rubbing her dirt-stained hooves.
Leafy trotted over to the fence. “Oh, I just went to see Cocklebur, but he was too busy to play.”
Noddins nodded authoritatively. “He’s probably with Tabby. She says she’s been teaching him a lot about animals n’ stuff.”
“Yeah, that’s what he said,” Leafy agreed. “But he never has any time to play any more! We used to get together all the time. Now it’s boring. I miss him.”
Noddins was lost in thought for a moment, then shook her head. “No, no, no. This is never going to work out. Leafy, you’re a cow!”
Leafy looked at her friend strangely. “So?”
“Well, I don’t know if you could marry him or not,” Noddins said pensively. “After all-”
“I wasn’t talking about marrying him, silly!” Leafy scoffed. “I just want to play with him. We had plans to fix up his treehouse this weekend, but I bet he’s forgotten!”
“That’s too bad,” Noddins said sympathetically. “Wanna play My Little People with me?”
* * *
“Hello, Baby Noddins.”
“Just Noddins, if you please. I’m almost thirteen, you know.”
“Sure,” Noddins said, seating herself. “Thirteen sounds pretty old, doesn’t it? I hope it doesn’t mean I have to get rid of my My Little People collection.”
“I’m sure that isn’t necessary,” Elaine assured her.
“Good,” Noddins said. “Where’s Alan?”
“He’s working late at the publishing house and we planned on meeting here for dinner,” Elaine explained.
“Then why isn’t he here?”
“Well, I did get here a bit early.”
“Then I can keep you company!” Noddins offered selflessly.
“I’m sure you can,” Elaine said under her breath. “Your mother won’t be missing you, will she?”
“Oh, no,” Noddins shook her head. “She says it’s a relief to have me out of her hair. Especially now, after supper, when she’s doing the dishes. She says I broke too many plates and stuff so I can’t help her in the kitchen anymore.” She giggled.
“When I was young, my mom and I did the dishes together every night,” Elaine sighed, beginning to reminisce. “That was so much fun... we’d talk about whatever came into mind.”
Never one to miss a good lead, Noddins leaned forward. “Ooh! What kind of stuff did you talk about?”
“Oh... school, and pets, and gardening, and boys, too...”
Noddins eyes lit up. “Ooh! What did you talk about boys?”
“Well... not much, actually,” Elaine admitted. “I never really had a boyfriend in my schooldays. I just had friends. Mom always asked if there was anyone I really liked, though.” She smiled whimsically at the memory.
“Oh.” Noddins’ face fell. This was not as juicy as she had hoped.
“Of course, there were those girlfriends of Thomas’,” Elaine continued on without thinking.
Noddins squealed. “Really??? Oh, Elaine, you have to tell me all about them!!!”
“Well, I don’t know-” Elaine paused, finally coming back to reality and realizing whom she was talking to.
“Please?” Noddins begged.
Elaine hesitated, but knew that once Noddins was on the scent of something there was nothing to throw her off. “Well,” she started out cautiously, “his first was when he was quite young, a freshman in highschool.”
“That sounds impressive, whatever it means. But what about the girl?”
“I didn’t really get to see her that much,” Elaine recalled. “Just a few times when she came home with Thomas after school. I don’t even remember her name, but I always admired her hairstyles when I did see her. I got the impression that she liked Thomas a lot more than he liked her.”
“Did he dump her, then?” Noddins guessed.
“Not exactly, but he kept trying to brush her off. Eventually she found someone new, and he never talked about her after that.”
Noddins kept nodding her head. “This is good stuff so far. But didn’t Thomas have any others?”
“Oh, yes, of course,” Elaine went blissfully onwards, getting too caught up in her topic to think of the consequences. “The next year a foreign filly transferred to the school, and Thomas was quite infatuated with her. She was all he could talk about for awhile.” Elaine shook her head in fond remembrance. “It only lasted a couple of weeks, though. They went out on a few dates and then he reported that they broke up on mutual agreement, but judging from his sullen attitude for a time after that I think she dumped him.”
“How tragic!” Noddins said eagerly.
“After that he was very involved in his schoolwork, and if he had any time for girls I didn’t know about it,” Elaine continued. “He did meet someone in college, though, who I got to meet once. Her name was Trish, and she was a bit older than Thomas. She struck me as being very serious and refined, but I didn’t think they went well together. Though obviously that relationship didn’t last long, either.”
“And? Any more?” Noddins prodded.
Elaine shook her head. “The next mare he took an interest in was Tabby, and you know how that turned out.” She sighed happily. “Isn’t falling in love wonderful?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Noddins scowled.
“Don’t worry. Your dream stallion will come along,” Elaine said consolingly. “Just give it time.”
“He’d better. I don’t know what’s taking him so long.” Then Noddins’ face brightened. “But this was a great conversation, Elaine. Is that your husband that just came in? Well, I’ll leave now. Goodnight!”
“Goodnight,” Elaine said, and only then did she faint stirrings of unrest of the confidential material she had just revealed to the notorious Baby Noddins.
* * *
“Tabby,” Noddins asked abruptly one evening when visiting the mansion, “can a pony and a cow get married?”
“Why, have you found a cow with a last name?” Tabby said conversationally.
“Oh, no,” Noddins shook her head. “I mean Leafy. She’s Cocklebur’s friend, you know. I was wondering if they ever fell in love if they could get married?”
“Well, I haven’t heard of it happening,” Tabby said thoughtfully. “But I wouldn’t worry about it. Just because they’re friends doesn’t mean they’ll get married or even fall in love.”
“ ‘Kay,” Noddins said cheerfully. “I was playing with Leafy the other day, y’know. She was complaining Cocklebur’s never around anymore.”
“He does spend a lot of his free time at the clinic now,” Tabby said pensively. “I hope I’m not responsible for alienating his friends from him. Maybe I should talk to him.”
“We’re all teasing him for getting a crush on you,” Noddins giggled. “You think he does?”
“If he does, he’ll get over it soon enough,” Tabby predicted.
“Cool,” Noddins said. “Hey, I just thought of something! I ran into Elaine at the SSSS last night and got her to tell me all about Thomas’ old girlfriends. Wanna hear?”
“Oh,” Tabby’s eyes gleamed and she obligingly refilled Noddins’ glass of lemonade. “Do tell.”
“Well,” said Noddins authoritatively, taking a sip from her glass, “there was one year of school when this really drop-dead gorgeous girl with awesome hair tried desperately to get Thomas’ attention, but he ignored her because he had fallen quite in love with an exotic foreign filly who had just transferred to school. Actually,” the young unicorn was really getting into her tale now, “both of these fillies were twins, except that they didn’t know it, because they had been separated at birth. But anyway, the one Thomas was in love with didn’t care about him, even after he’d swore his undying devotion to her. The other twin couldn’t get Thomas to look her way even though she had fallen hopelessly in love with him. Isn’t it all just too tragic?” Noddins sighed wistfully. “Can I have more lemonade?”
“Too tragic for words,” Tabby agreed readily, lemonade pitcher in hoof. She would have fun grilling her husband later for how much truth was contained in Noddins’ rendition. “Whatever happened to fix this tangled affair?”
“Oh, the first filly found out that the other girl was really her twin sister, so rather than get between her sister and the guy she loved she quite selflessly found another boyfriend and forgot about Thomas,” Noddins explained. “Thomas couldn’t bring himself to forget the other girl, though, until one study hall when she quite ruthlessly told him off in the cafeteria over lunch, in front of the whole school practically! Thomas’ heart was broken for years after that. He was only able to recover and get back to his own self after he declared that he would seek revenge upon the filly that had wreaked havoc with his heart! So in college-“
”Baby. Noddins.” Thomas, who had happened to pass by the doorway at around the time of ‘I ran into Elaine and got her to tell me about Thomas’ old girlfriends’ and had stood transfixed, torn between amusement at Noddins’ twisted retelling and resentment at his sister, could finally stand these fictitious renderings of his past no more. He advanced closer to the lavender unicorn, carefully keeping his temper in check.
“Oh, hello, Thomas,” Noddins said cheerfully. “I was just telling Tabby stories about your old girlfriends. Would you like to stay and listen?”
“I think I’ve heard quite enough,” Thomas said grimly.
“Oh,” said Noddins, disappointed. “But I didn’t get to the part where-“
”Yes, yes, I’m sure it was very exciting, but I think you’ve tampered with my past enough for one night.” And wait until I get my hooves on Elaine. What was she thinking, telling Baby Noddins anything?!
Tabby stifled a laugh. “That was very enlightening, Noddins. Thank you for sharing,” she patted the younger pony on the head. “Funny I never thought to ask Elaine about it myself. Well, you can run along now. It is getting late.”
“Okay,” said Noddins, nonplused. “Goodnight. See ya later.” She grandly made her exit.
* * *
Nevertheless, Tabby did not forget the earlier part of her conversation with Noddins, so she brought the topic up to Cocklebur the next day. “I hope you don’t feel pressured into coming here all the time,” she said casually. “I’m sure you have things you want to do with your friends, too.”
“But I like being here with you!” Cocklebur blurted out.
“Still, you should hang out with your contemporaries some of the time,” Tabby said wisely.
“Er... your... own age-group.”
“Are you getting tired of having me around?” Cocklebur asked, looking downcast.
“Oh, no, not at all!” Tabby assured him quickly. “Your assistance has been invaluable. But you’re still young to have a full-time job like this, don’t you think?”
“It’s only afternoons-”
“Same principle,” Tabby cut him off. “Hey, don’t feel bad. I just don’t want you to forget about your own friends. Have you been playing with them much lately?”
“Well... no, I guess not,” Cocklebur admitted reluctantly.
“So you see? You’ve been working too hard lately; you’ve got to take advantage of your age and have fun when you have the chance!” Tabby said encouragingly.
“Can I not come back at all anymore?” Cocklebur asked cautiously, beginning to waver at the thought of his old buddies he hadn’t seen in what seemed like ages. And Baby Leafy.
“Once a week couldn’t hurt, if you still wanted to,” Tabby suggested. “I’m sure you need more time taking care of your own animals, too.”
“I guess you have a point,” Cocklebur said after a pause. “Okay... once a week.” He glanced at the clock on the wall. “I guess I should be getting home now. Thanks for everything you taught me, though.”
“Sure, no prob!” Tabby said, seeing him to the door. “Have a good weekend.”
“Thanks. And you, too,” Cocklebur grinned. “Guess I’ll see you next Friday.”
* * *
“Baby Leafy,” Mommy Leafy called up the stairs, “one of your friends is here!”
Dropping the book she had been reading on her bed, Leafy entertained the faint hope that perhaps it was Cocklebur. She quickly brushed that unlikely notion aside, however, as she trotted down the stairs. Nonetheless, her face lit up with pleasure when she saw who had stopped by.
“Cocky!” she exclaimed gleefully. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh, um, hi, Leafy,” Cocklebur said a bit nervously. “I wondered if you still wanted to help me fix up the treehouse.”
“I thought you had forgotten!” Leafy beamed. “Sure, that would be fun.”
“And,” Cocklebur brought out something hidden behind his back, “I know I’ve been really busy lately, so I brought you these to make up for it.”
Leafy accepted the somewhat-wilted alfalfa blooms with a grin. “Thanks, Cocky! Can we work on the treehouse now?”
“If you want,” Cocklebur said. “I have all the materials ready.”
“Then let’s go!” Leafy took charge, heading for the door. As they walked down the street to Cocklebur’s backyard, the two caught up on all their experiences of the last couple of weeks and found there was an inexhaustible amount of topics on which to converse.
I guess Tabby was right, Cocklebur thought cheerfully to himself as he handed a hammer and nails to his friend. Leafy’s a pretty cool po...cow.