Might as Well Raise Mooshrooms
Orange and red heads bobbed up and down in the local cove, bleating as they surfaced and gurgling when they sank. Alison shook her head. The sheep had gotten loose and gone straight for the water. Again.
She crossed her arms and watched their fuzzy square heads appearing and disappearing in the water, showing no sign that they were considering coming to dry land anytime soon. What was with these sheep? They wanted to be in the water more than any sheep she’d ever known. Her parents had bred the animals for their coloring, but as far as she knew, they hadn’t tried to crossbreed with squid.
Speaking of squid: from the dark smudges in the water, the sheep had attracted some friends.
The sun hung high in the sky, so Alison had time to wade in and get them, but she hated swimming after the little monsters. Wet wool was the worst smell.
“Fantastic,” she muttered, pushing her sleeves up. She pulled some wheat from her pack and walked to the edge of the cove.
“What’s up?” came a voice over her shoulder.
She jumped and whirled. Her best friend stood behind her, head cocked. “Max!” she shouted. “Don’t do that. I thought you were a creeper!”
He shrugged. “Was I hissing? I just wanted to know what you were up to.” He leaned to look around her. “Oh . . . sheep swimming again?”
She was torn between pointing out the stupidly obvious and telling him to get away from the water. She decided on both. “Apple and Lil’ Prince got out again. I’m getting them back”—Max opened his mouth, but she continued, hurriedly—“alone, Max. Your mom will kill you if you go near the water again. And then she’ll kill me twice.”
He looked around with exaggerated focus, shielding his eyes from the sun with his hand. “Hm. I don’t see her anywhere. And I’m already near the water.” He edged closer and dipped his toes in, eyes squeezed shut. Then he opened them. “Did I die?”
“Not yet,” Alison said through gritted teeth. “Just let me get them out of there. If you want to help, go check their pen or something. Figure out why they got out again.”
Max took another step into the water, watching the animals splash around. Alison had to admit, the sheep did look like they were having the time of their lives in the cove. A squid had definitely joined them, its tentacles waving in and out of the water alongside the sheep’s brightly colored heads.
“You know they like me better than you,” he said. “You need my help.”
“That makes no difference, they’ll come if I’ve got food,” Alison said, exasperated. “And no, they don’t like you better.”
But they did. It really annoyed her that the red and orange line of her family’s flock liked her best friend and ignored her. Today was no different; they must’ve thought Max was coming to play with them, because the moment he was up to his knees in the water they bleated happily and began to swim toward him.
He hadn’t even tried to get their attention with wheat.
“Max!” came a loud shout, and Alison winced. She didn’t turn around. She knew that sound very well; Max’s mom made it all the time. “Get out of the water right now!”
She brushed by Alison without a word and ran into the water. Apple and Lil’ Prince bleated in panic and turned to escape, eager to get away from the rampaging, splashing monster that bore down on Max. The squid dove into the deep.
Max’s mom paid no attention. Max had barely begun to protest when his mom grabbed him around the middle and muscled him back toward the beach.
Max struggled. “Mom, it’s okay, I’m not drowning, I wasn’t going any deeper!” he shouted. “Alison needed help with the sheep!”
“I will not risk losing you again!” his mom said, tears already forming in her furious eyes. She dumped him on the sand and put her hands on her hips.
“You won’t lose me!” Max said, but his last words were cut off with a grunt when his mom bent over suddenly and grabbed him again, wrapping him in a tight hug.
“Did you forget I almost lost you already?” she repeated, ignoring his struggles.
Alison looked away, embarrassed. In recent months, seeing others’ family closeness, even the weird closeness Max had with his overprotective family, made her uncomfortable.
“And Alison,” Max’s mom said, letting her son go and putting her hands on her hips again. “I thought you knew better.”
“Don’t yell at Ali, Mom,” Max said, stepping between them. “She told me not to go. I didn’t listen.”
“She should still take care of you. She’s older.”
“By less than a year!” Max protested. “I’m twelve, I don’t need her to be my babysitter.”
“We will talk about this at dinner, you two,” she said, then pointed at Max. “Don’t go into the water again.”
Max sighed. “Yeah, okay. I’ll go check the pens, Ali, and be really careful not to go near any water on the way. I don’t know what I’ll do about my spit, though. It’s pretty hard to avoid.” He spat on the ground and then sprinted away from it, arms flailing in mock panic.
“That’s not funny!” Max’s mother called as she watched him go, tears dribbling down her face. “I don’t want him near the water,” she reminded Alison—as if she’d forgotten.
“I know,” Alison said. “I don’t want to be near the water either. But the pen broke again, and I had to get the sheep back.”
Max’s mom wiped her cheeks and took a deep breath. Composed, she looked at Alison, pity in her swollen eyes. “Why?” she asked gently.
“Why what? Why do I need them back? Because they got out,” Alison said, blinking at her. “Why did the pen break? I don’t know. But I do know the sheep get out, and when that happens, you put them back in. My grandfather had a stupid saying about it, something like ‘When the sheep get out, might as well raise mooshrooms.’ ”
Max’s mom frowned. “That makes no sense. I meant why worry about the sheep? They’d do fine if you let them go wild. You don’t need to care for them anymore. We don’t need the wool, you don’t need the responsibility. There’s definitely no reason to keep breeding them, and fixing the pen just takes you back to your house over and over again. You could do without the memories, you know.” She put a little emphasis on over and over, reminding Alison that going back to her destroyed house wasn’t doing her any good. She patted Alison on the shoulder. “Think about it. I’ll see you at dinner.”
Alison stared into the water to avoid watching her go. The pen had been a ways from the house, through a copse of trees, so when she visited the sheep she didn’t actually see the ruined tree house that she used to call home.
She visited the pen often, trying to be responsible for the sheep. She felt she owed them that much.
But Max’s mom was right. They didn’t need the wool anymore. And Alison was wasting time and materials with frequent repairs on the pens, and losing whole afternoons running after the lost flock.
Then again, they were one of the few sources of joy in her life. She gazed out at the swimming sheep, who happily played with the squid, which had resurfaced and was playfully wrapping its tentacles around Apple. Lil’ Prince was trying to head-butt the tentacles that got near him.
Alison heard thumping steps behind her and, before she could turn around, Max was back, running past her toward the cove. With a whoop he jumped into the shallow water, making the biggest splash he possibly could have, and waded with high, galumphing steps toward the sheep, who greeted him with happy bleats.
Alison laughed and waded out after him, waving the wheat over her head. Even with the threat of getting in trouble hanging over them, Max could always make her laugh and forget about her problems for a moment.
Copyright © 2019 by Mur Lafferty. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.