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Authors: Zilpha Keatley Snyder

Cat Running (6 page)

BOOK: Cat Running
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Ignoring, too, the shouted questions. “Hey, Kinsey. You broke a leg or something?” Or “What’s the matter, Cat? Did you get disqualified?”

Then Mr. Sloan, the principal from Lincoln, shouted, “Get on your mark. Ready. Set. Go.” And they were off and, in her imagination, Cat was off too—heart pounding, muscles twitching, breath coming faster and faster. But when it was over and a long-legged blonde from Elwood had won it, Cat just had to get away. She forced herself to wait until Janet came puffing and panting back to the finish line. She even managed to congratulate Janet—for not coming in dead last. But then she just had to leave. Telling Janet she had to go to the bathroom she forced herself to walk slowly across the playground. She wanted to run. To run and cry and scream with anger.

In the girls’ rest room she washed her face with cold water again and again and then just stood there leaning on the basin—until Janet stuck her head in the door.

“Hurry up, Cat,” Janet said. “The boys’ race is about to start. Come on. Let’s go.”

“Look,” Cat said, “I’m going back to the classroom now. I’ve got some stuff I need to do before I go home. Why don’t you go on out and watch and—”

Janet stared at her in amazement. “Cat. You can’t go now. You can’t miss the sixth-grade boys’ race and the Winners’ Grand Finale. That’s the most fun of all.”

The winners’ race. The Grand Finale, in which the first-and second-place winners of all the other races, both girls and boys, ran against each other. And the race that, to everyone’s total amazement, had been won last year by a very small fifth-grade girl—Cat Kinsey.

Cat shrugged. “I don’t care. Nobody from Brownwood is going to win anything. None of our boys can beat that big guy from Elwood.”

“I know,” Janet said. “They probably can’t. But we’ve got to stay and cheer anyway. For Hank and Benny. Maybe they’ll win if we cheer loud enough.”

Cat gave up and let Janet pull her down the hall and out onto the playground. Pushing through a bunch of parents and teachers and pulling Cat behind her, Janet managed to get a place for the two of them in front, only a few yards from the starting line.

It was a long line. Winning races—as well as winning all that new sports equipment for their school—seemed to be especially important to sixth-grade boys. There were boys of all shapes and sizes in the line. Boys that Cat had known, and beaten in races, all of her life. And boys from the other schools that she knew slightly or only by sight. And then down at the very end of the line she saw someone else—the new Okie boy. Dressed in the same old ragged overalls he wore every day—and as barefooted as ever—the new boy was crouched down, preparing for the start of the race.

Somebody snickered and Cat looked around and saw that other people were noticing the Okie kid too. Noticing and grinning and pointing—pointing particularly at his bare feet. But he didn’t seem to see the pointing—or anything else. As he crouched at the starting line, his tight-skinned, bony face tipped upward, his eyes were as blank and empty as if he were blind. Cat was still staring at the blank eyes when the starting gun sounded and they were off.

At first there was only a wild jumble of swinging arms and pounding feet while a mind-numbing roar rose up from the sidelines. People screaming, “Hurrah!” and “Yippee!” “Yeah, Benny!” and “Go it, Jesse!” Or simply hooting and screeching in an ear-splitting explosion of noise.

Cat didn’t remember the noise from last year, at least not when she was running—as if the running had shut her away in a silent world of speed and strain. But now she put her hands over her ears and winced. Winced, blinked—and then blinked again and shook her head, refusing for a moment to believe what her eyes were telling her. Refusing to believe that, out in front of the thudding, flailing pack—way out in front and widening the distance with every stride—was the Okie boy. His bowl haircut flopping wildly, his skinny face taut and shiny with sweat, the Okie boy was winning the sixth-grade boys’ race—in his bare feet. And half an hour later he won the Winners’ Grand Finale—beating the tall Elwood boy by several yards.

Watching the Okie kid flying down the track in his tattered shirt and bare feet, Cat hated him. She had never hated anyone so much in her whole life.

ELEVEN

B
ROWNWOOD SCHOOL CHEERED SOME
for the Okie kid, but not right off. Not during the sixth-grade race, anyway. In that race there was, at first, only a kind of gasp. A shocked, breathy gasp that seemed to come from everywhere, followed by a stunned silence. And even when the cheers began there wasn’t a great roar. Just a few scattered “Yahoos” from Brownwood kids when they realized that, to their surprise, their school had just won five points—and maybe even stood a good chance to win the ten points that would go to the school that took first place in the Winners’ Grand Finale. And therefore, a good chance at all that Lions Club money.

There was more cheering for the Grand Finale. By then, half an hour later, a great deal of talk had happened. All over the Brownwood playground people had asked, “Who is he?” and “Where did
he
come from?” And “Does he really go to Brownwood School?” There had been answers from the few people who knew, and before long the answers were everywhere. “Yeah, he goes here. He lives in the Otis ranch Okietown down the old Brownwood Road. Calls himself Zane, or something like that. Yeah, that’s it, Zane Perkins. Yeah. Hurrah for Zane!”

And by the time the winners from all the races were lining up for the Grand Finale a lot of people, at least a lot of Brownwood people, were shouting, “Atta boy, Zane. Go it!” And “Show ’em your heels, Zane.” But right then, louder than all the other voices, some Elwood kid yelled, “Yeah, Okie. Your bare heels!” And a lot of people laughed.

But the new boy didn’t seem to hear any of it, not the cheering, or the insults and laughter either. Running like before, as if he were blind and deaf to everything outside himself, he beat out the Elwood champion by several strides and everyone else by yards and yards.

Cat waited only until he crossed the finish line before she pushed her way through the excited crowd and hurried to the sixth-grade room. In the cloakroom she got her sweater off its hook and was reaching up for her lunch pail when she suddenly stopped and stood perfectly still, biting her lower lip and breathing deeply.

All alone in the privacy of the cloakroom—breathing in the familiar atmosphere of library paste, sweaty clothing, and stale sandwiches—she tried desperately to shut out the sound of cheering from the playground. Shut out the cheering and the anger too. To swallow and smother the wild, aching rage she’d felt when the Okie kid won the Grand Finale. But it wouldn’t go away. Grabbing her lunch pail off the shelf she ran down the empty hall, out the front door, and down the street.

Later she remembered heading for home, but she found she couldn’t even be sure which route she’d taken. She couldn’t clearly recall if she went the way she was supposed to, the long way, the half mile on School Street and then along Burks Lane to the old Brownwood Road. Or if she’d taken the forbidden shortcut over Three Sisters’ Ridge—which she sometimes did when she was in a hurry. She didn’t think she’d run much of the way either—but she wasn’t even sure of that. But whichever route she’d gone, she eventually got home and went directly to the kitchen, as always, to wash out her lunch pail and put it away in the pantry. She was getting out a clean dish towel when Mama came into the room.

“Cathy. I didn’t know you were home already,” she said. She put her hand under Cat’s chin. “Your face is all flushed. And you look exhausted.”

When Cat turned her face away Mama hurried to the sink to fill a water glass and then to the icebox to chip a thick chunk off the block of ice. But then, as she handed Cat the cold glass, it began, just as Cat knew it would. The questions about Play Day.

Cat pulled out a chair and sat down. She swirled the glass slowly and carefully and then sipped the icy water before she answered, “Fine. Everything went fine.”

“Oh, I’m so glad.” Mama took the colander off the sinkboard and went to the pantry for potatoes. Cat waited, pressing the cold glass to her cheeks and forehead. Mama had washed the potatoes and started to peel the first one before she asked. “And—and did you race?”


No,
I wasn’t in any races.” Cat paused to take another sip of water. “I meant it when I said I wasn’t going to run.”

“Oh, I see.” Mama was on the second potato before she went on. “And the prize money? Who won the Lions Club prize money?”

Cat shrugged—as if it hardly mattered, at least to her. “Brownwood, I think.”

“Didn’t they announce the winner and give out the ribbons, like last year?”

“I guess so. I didn’t stay to find out for sure. But this kid from Okietown—the one I told you about who’s in my room? Well, he won the sixth-grade boys’ and then the Winners’ Grand Finale. So we probably got the prize money.”

Telling about the Okie boy made the anger come burning back, and the sound of it must have been in her voice, because Mama put down the potato she was peeling, turned around quickly, and stared at Cat with a puzzled frown.

“No, I’m not angry about it,” she said when Mama asked. “Why should I be angry about it?” Then she slammed down the empty glass and left the room. Halfway down the back steps she came back to say, “I’m going for a walk. Okay?” She didn’t wait to hear the answer.

She ran most of the way. So hard and fast that the anger, as so often happened when she ran, was soothed or perhaps smothered from lack of air. But she knew it was still there. She felt it seeping back the moment she reached the grotto. Hurrying to the cottage, she went in and slammed the door behind her. Sitting on the padded stone ledge, hugging her knees against her chest, she could feel it oozing like liquid fire behind her eyes and beneath the skin of her face. But after a while it began to fade and other thoughts and questions began to seep through—questions she didn’t want to ask and thoughts she didn’t want to deal with.

She wanted it back now, the burning hatred that she’d felt before. Wanted it back to burn away the troublesome questions that were turning the pure, clean anger into something ugly and spiteful. Squeezing her eyes tightly shut, she reminded herself of all the things she’d been thinking on the way home from school. Thoughts that fed the angry flames like kerosene on a burning log.

What right had he to run in the Brownwood race, anyway? To run in the school race and win the prize money for Brownwood, as if he were really a part of the school and town, instead of just a dust-bowl beggar kid who lived in a dirty shack in that terrible shantytown? What right had he and his whole family to even be here in California, living on land that didn’t belong to them and probably stealing things every chance they got, just like Ellen always said? And how could he possibly have the nerve to run—out there in front of everybody—IN HIS BARE FEET!

That was the worst part. That, she suddenly knew, was what made her angriest of all. The fact that he’d had the nerve to ...
But she didn’t want to think about that. Her mind was just starting to pick at the idea the way you pick at a half-healed scab, to skirt around the edges of why it made her so furious that even though he had no shoes and must have known that everyone would laugh at him, the way people always laughed about anyone who didn’t wear the right kind of clothes—only worse, much worse. Bare feet was certainly worse than ...

It was right then, at that very moment, that she began to be aware of a strange scraping noise. A noise that was coming from just outside the door of the cottage. Something seemed to be pulling on the door, trying to open it. Trying and then trying again, while the door squeaked and scraped and refused to budge.

The slightly crooked door had always been hard to open, and when you slammed it hard, as Cat certainly had when she came in, it took a good strong yank to get it started. Cat sat still as death, hugging her knees harder and harder, as the unseen hands tugged and pulled and tugged again. But then it began to give, scraping out slowly over the rough, rocky floor.

It scraped once more and suddenly it was open and there, standing in the doorway, was a very little boy. A ragged, filthy little boy no more than four or five years old was standing right there in her own secret, private grotto, staring at her with wide, frightened eyes.

TWELVE

F
OR ONLY A MOMENT
the dirty little ragamuffin stared at Cat before he caught his breath in a strangled gasp and disappeared. He was there and then, almost in the blink of an eye, he wasn’t. Shocked, stunned, and strangely frightened, Cat sat as if turned to stone for long frozen seconds before she could even begin to think sensibly about what she had just seen.

Her first reaction, the weird feeling of fright, wasn’t sensible at all. There obviously wasn’t anything dangerous about a tiny little kid, even a ragged, dirty one. A little boy only a few years old wasn’t anything to be afraid of, of course. However, there was a lot to fear if he was from Okietown, because now that he’d discovered her grotto he’d probably tell everyone. Tell all the terrible thieving people in that awful place and ...

Suddenly coming to life, Cat came down from the ledge and across the cottage in one flying leap. She shot out the door, glanced quickly around the grotto, and then crawled frantically out through the tunnel. She ran downstream at first, pausing only when a boulder or bush or clump of saplings offered a possible hiding place. As she darted around boulders and pawed her way through bunches of underbrush, she finally calmed down enough to ask herself what she would do if she found him. What would she say and do if, rounding this next clump of saplings, she came face to face with the dirty little Okie trespasser?

At first she didn’t have any idea—but she soon came up with one. She would scare him. She’d grab him—shake him—yell at him—tell him that if he ever came back, if he ever told anybody she’d ...

That was about as far as her plans went, but as it turned out it didn’t matter anyway, because the little boy seemed to have vanished as if by magic. He wasn’t anywhere downstream, or upstream as far as the rapids. Nor was he still hidden somewhere around the grotto thicket, which she explored much more carefully when she finally returned to where the search had started.

BOOK: Cat Running
12.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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