I’d brought home strays before. Plenty of cats and a one-eyed poodle. But never a human. And not without my parents knowing.
The day started like a regular fall Saturday: dark and cold. November suns always took their sweet time rising. My cat Fudge had woken me once already when it was still pitch-black. Here he was again, marching across my pillow and pulling my hair. At least now it was light outside.
“Are you kidding me?” I asked. “It’s a good thing you’re cute.” I reached over my head and pulled him close, pressing his nose against mine. He purred and dropped his head against my cheek. I kissed his fuzzy striped face. Then he stared at me with his green eyes and tapped me on the chin with a paw.
Below my bedroom, plates clattered, muffled voices shouted out orders, and every once in a while I could hear the scuff of feet or the scrape of a chair move across the black-and-white checkerboard floor. We live on the west side of East Thumb, Maine, on the corner of Abbott and Greenleaf and right smack on top of our diner, the Thumbs-Up. Dad had long gone downstairs to work. Usually, Mom would have been with him at the diner already, too, and by the time they opened at five thirty, Dad would take charge of the griddle, and she would take charge of pretty much everything else.
“Fill the water glasses before the customers’ butts hit the chair,” she’d tell the servers. “Cut the potatoes into wedges. They look tastier,” she’d tell Dad, even though the little squares cooked faster.
These days, with her belly full of baby again, Mom didn’t get to work until close to ten, and she took Saturdays off altogether. She didn’t freak about half-empty water glasses or the shape of fried potatoes anymore, either. The baby was due to arrive in seven weeks, and Mom smiled at everything because of it—the rain, the bowl of fruit on the kitchen counter, stupid bumper stickers on cars. I hoped her smiley state of mind was a good sign. That we’d be lucky and all would go well this time with this pregnancy.
Fudge wiggled out of my arms and went back to standing on my hair. Life seemed pretty easy for a cat. All you needed was a half-decent place to sleep and some food. Not like my life, which lately seemed the opposite of easy. Thinking about it, my brain felt snarled and tangled like a sticky ball of spaghetti.
First, I worried about Mom and the baby a lot. A couple of weeks ago, Mom thought she had felt a contraction. It scared the daylights out of all of us that she could have been going into labor way before she was supposed to. Thankfully, it turned out to be a false alarm. But ever since it happened, she’d seemed extra tired and looked kind of pale.
The other thing I couldn’t get out of my head was the stray who I’d seen going in and out of the empty apartment house across the street. What if she had kittens? I once read in a book that pregnant cats will seek out shelter. Maybe that’s why she liked that apartment? And had she found the small pile of tuna I had left for her yesterday? I guess life wasn’t always so easy for cats, after all.
My bed shook when the door to the diner opened and slammed shut. A sign. Get up! Get going!
I dressed, brushed my teeth, and then poked my head into my parents’ room. Mom snored in her sleep, and I could hear her nose whistle from the doorway.
Our other cat, Reuben, snoozed at the far end of the bed. Waffles, our poodle, had learned the hard way to keep his distance from that cat. He snuggled against Mom in a neat ball. His tail batted against the quilt when he saw me with his one eye.
“Shhhhhh . . . ,” I told him, and closed the door gently.
In the kitchen, I pulled a hunk off of last night’s chicken and wrapped it in foil. Then I grabbed my coat and bag from the rack, tossed on a scarf, and scrambled outside into the cold sunshine.
The wind pushed me like it had hands. Was it saying hurry up?
I never used to wonder what it meant when the wind blew against my back, or if an acorn dropped from a tree and knocked me on the head. I never studied the shape of a cloud and thought that the sky might be trying to tell me something. But since the car accident two years ago, I had started paying attention to everything.
My BFF Joss waved to me from the top of the alley that ran beside the diner. We were both wrapped up to our noses in identical Joss-knitted scarves.
“Hey, Lizzy,” she said. “Did you bring food?”
“Of course.” I patted the outside of the bag slung across my hip.
“I brought a meatball,” she told me.
“She’ll love it. What about the cat sweater designs?”
“What about them?” Joss whipped a roll of papers out of her back pocket and waved them around.
Joss and I had come up with an idea to knit and sell sweaters for cats. We were doing it to raise money for the Community Lodge for Cats & Dogs (the fancy name for the East Thumb animal shelter) where we volunteered. Next Saturday, we were having a cat sweater sidewalk sale in front of the diner. Franny, the Lodge director, was helping us out with it. She thought our idea was awesome. But not Phil, who worked with Franny. He said cats were too temperamental to be “keen” on wearing sweaters. And I could tell that Sid from the diner was iffy, too, just by the slow way he had nodded his head and said, “Oh really,” when we first told him about it.
“Dogs wear sweaters all the time, why not cats?” I had told all the haters. And our teacher, Ms. Santorelli, not only wanted a sweater for her cat, but she wanted us to talk about our fund-raiser to the class on Monday.
We crossed the street. Abbott Avenue was noisy with traffic and dotted with gas stations and convenience stores, but Greenleaf Lane was quiet and lined with fat trees, chain-link fences, and apartment houses.
Sandwiched between two dirt lots, diagonally across from the Thumbs-Up, a three-story apartment house loomed like a mangled shipwreck in front of us. A huge tree, which still had a lot of faded leaves hanging from its branches, crowned the roof as if it were trying to help pretty up the place.
We stopped on the sidewalk in front of the porch. A rusty number 4 dangled off an even rustier mailbox attached to a piece of siding. A couple of long planks of wood had been nailed across the door. KEEP OUT was painted on one of the planks in orange paint. If paint could talk, those two words would be screaming at us.
“The last time I saw the cat, she jumped in there.” I pointed to a loose sheet of plastic over a first floor window.
Joss rewrapped her scarf. Even without our matching knitwear we looked like a pair. Shoulder-length brown hair. Blue eyes. Freckles.
“Come on,” she said, grabbing my hand. We hurried up the rickety steps. “The tuna is gone. She must be here.”
We moved closer to the broken window. I peeked in.
“Wait,” Joss said, taking a step back, “is this like breaking in? I don’t want to go to jail or anything.”
“It’s okay to break the law to save a life. Lives if there are kittens, too,” I said. “Plus, they don’t put twelve-year-olds in jail.” Though I wasn’t positive about that.
“What makes you so sure the cat has kittens?” Joss asked me.
“Why else would she keep going in there?”
“How about to get out of the cold?”
“Maybe. But if you were a hungry cat,” I said.
“Which I’m not.”
“But if you were, wouldn’t you hang out at the back door of a diner instead of here? That’s just common sense.”
The wind grabbed a bunch of dried up leaves that were piled in the corners of the porch and whipped them around our feet. A big fat warning sign? Trouble is swirling around me? Or maybe opportunity at my feet! Which was it?
Joss watched me watching the leaves. “They’re just leaves. Nothing else,” she said as if she could read my mind, which I really believed she could sometimes.
“Let’s go,” I said.
I checked the rotted windowsill for broken glass that might be sticking up, then I pulled back the tattered plastic and stepped through. Joss followed.
“It’s not so bad in here compared to how dumpy it is on the outside,” I said, looking around.
“I was thinking the same thing. Except for the dead leaves.” There were little mounds of them everywhere.
The room we stood in was round. Sun poured through tall windows, and we both squinted. There was a plaid recliner with the stuffing coming out of one arm next to a massive fireplace that took up half of one wall. A mirror hung over the mantel, with a few cracks zigzagged through its glass—a sign of bad luck for someone—though I didn’t break it, so not me! A pair of doors with fancy glass knobs opened up into a hallway.
“No cat here,” Joss said, checking underneath the chair.
The house turned way darker and a whole lot colder as we walked down the hallway, away from the sunny round room. There were fewer windows, and most were boarded up or covered in plastic.
In the kitchen, I peeked inside an open cabinet under the sink. One of the doors had fallen off and it looked like a nice hiding spot for a cat. But all I found was a dirty towel and a box of damp matches.
Back in the hall, Joss tapped her cell phone and turned on the flashlight. The floor lit up in front of us, and we stepped inside a bathroom. The tub was full of grime and enough dead leaves to hide under.
“This bath needs a bath,” Joss joked.
Above us, something made a loud snap. We both jumped.
“What was that?” Joss grabbed my arm.
We heard it again, but this time it was softer. I pointed to the torn plastic over a broken window just above the toilet. “I think the wind must have caught it,” I said.
We were back in the hallway heading toward another room when Joss stopped suddenly. I smacked into her.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I heard a little squeak.”
“Heeeere, kitty, kitty,” I sang in a high-pitched voice. I unwrapped the chicken.
We peered inside a bedroom. “Look!” I pointed to a hole at the bottom of a closet door. We walked closer, and the gray cat jumped out at my feet. “Hey, you! There you are!”
“She looks hungry,” Joss said, kneeling to pet her. But before Joss or I had a chance to offer it food, the cat scooted back inside the closet.
“See! I bet she has kittens in there!” I opened the door. Joss shined the light inside. Right away I saw the bulging backpack.
Two yellow sneakers that I nearly stepped on.
Two jean-covered knees tucked under a chin.
A small hand with a tiny tattoo.
Joss screamed and dropped her cell phone. I screamed, too. The cat shot out of the room like a rocket.
And the girl in the closet said a single word:
—Martha Freeman, author of Zap! and the Secret Cookie Club series
—-Kelly Jones, author of Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer
—-Beth Vrabel, author of The Reckless Club, Caleb and Kit, and the Pack of Dorks series