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Authors: Zilpha Keatley Snyder

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BOOK: Cat Running
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It wasn’t until she arrived back inside the grotto, breathless and angry and frustrated, that it occurred to her to check to see what damage the kid might already have done, and how many of her belongings he’d already stolen. Realizing that when she’d arrived that day she’d been so upset that she might very well have failed to notice such things, she began a careful inspection.

The two highest shelves would be beyond his reach, but by standing on one of the folding chairs he probably could reach those as well. But nothing seemed to be missing. The pansy vase, the perfume bottle, and the books were in their proper places. Even the horses and the elephant, things that would probably be the most tempting to a little boy, stood just where they’d been before.

And inside the cottage, too, nothing seemed to have been disturbed. The blankets on the ledge, the rug, as well as the chairs and table and kerosene lamp, were just as they had been. She was beginning to think that perhaps the little boy had just found the grotto—had only stumbled onto it today, and by chance onto Cat herself—and hadn’t had time to steal or destroy anything. She had almost convinced herself that was the answer, when she remembered to look at Marianne.

The doll crib—a cradle, actually, that Cliff had made out of an old golden oak rocking chair—was sitting below the ledge, just where Cat had left it. And Marianne was there, too, under the pink doll blanket. Marianne was there; but not just as she had been before.

As Cat pulled back the blanket she immediately noticed that something was, not missing, but different. The difference was a flower, a wilted Indian paintbrush, lying on Marianne’s chest and, tucked in beside her right hand, a small withered apricot. And Cat knew, beyond any doubt, that she herself had never left a flower in Marianne’s crib, and certainly not a rotten apricot. So the boy had been there before, and would no doubt be back.

Cat went out to the edge of the grotto and threw the flower and apricot as far as she could into the thicket, and then she went back to sit on the ledge in the cottage. She sat there for quite a while feeling terribly worried—and at the same time, in a strange, unexpected way, almost relieved.

She didn’t recognize it as relief right at first. She was almost home before she began to be aware of the faint undercurrent of satisfaction that oozed in and out among her feelings of anger and worry about the grotto trespasser. Satisfaction, she gradually came to realize, because she wouldn’t have time now to even think about Play Day. She would have to forget about all that. About the races and the Okie kid, and why his bare feet had made her so angry. All she would do now, could possibly do, was concentrate her energy on protecting the secret grotto. She would have to spend all her time planning and plotting—as well as standing guard every possible moment—if she was going to save the grotto from the little Okie trespasser.

So, beginning the next day, Saturday, and again on Sunday after church, she spent long hours standing guard over the grotto—and at the same time avoiding any discussion of Play Day with her family. To her surprise nobody mentioned the races, or argued about her being gone so much. It was as if they could see she was feeling bad and they knew—well, Father did anyway—that it was his fault. So for whatever reason, when she said, “I’d like to play down by the creek today, okay?” or “I think I’ll take a long walk this afternoon,” nobody argued. So she waited in the grotto every possible minute. Waited and watched, but no one came. And there was no sign that anyone had been there either. No more flowers or apricots.

But then Monday came and another school day and for a while the whole Play Day topic was impossible to avoid no matter how much she tried to keep her mind on other things. At school everyone was talking about Zane Perkins and what a fast runner he was.

“Hey, Cat,” Hank Belton said the minute he laid eyes on her, “I’ll bet Zane could beat you too.” Of course Hank would be the one to say that. He’d always hated it that a girl could run faster than he could.

“No, he couldn’t,” Janet said. “Cat could beat him any day. Couldn’t you, Cat?”

“Oh, yeah? Why don’t you try it, then? Why don’t you and him race?”

And a lot of other people started saying the same thing. “Yeah! Swell! Why don’t you race him, Cat?”

And when she walked away they said, “What’s the matter, Cat? You afraid to try? Yeah, she’s chicken. Cat Kinsey is chicken to race against the Okie.” And some of them even started saying, “Cat’s afraid to race with Zane.” Calling him by his name as if he were another regular Brownwood kid and maybe even a friend. A friend, just because he was a fast runner.

That sort of thing went on all day but Cat just ignored it. Most of the time it wasn’t too difficult. She just wouldn’t talk about racing or even look at people who were talking about it. She wouldn’t look at Zane Perkins, either, except for once when the teacher called him to come up to the board to do an arithmetic problem.

She had to look at him then, wearing another ragged shirt and a different pair of ragged overalls. Too big for him this time instead of too little, with baggy bottoms and a crotch that hung down to his knees. But then he turned around and she found herself looking at his broad face with its strange, uncivilized eyes, dark and deep-set eyes under pointy eyebrows. He grinned then, right at her, and she had to quickly pretend to be staring at the problem he’d done on the board. Studying the problem and smiling sarcastically as if she’d caught him making a dumb mistake.

The next few days she hurried home from school and, as soon as she could, on down to the grotto. She didn’t always get there as soon as she’d like to because Mama, who usually didn’t pay much attention to what she did after school, was beginning to ask a lot of questions and make all sorts of suggestions.

“Cathy dear,” she’d say with a worried look on her face, “don’t you want to help me with the darning today? You used to say you thought darning socks was fun. Remember how we used to see who could recite the most poetry while we were darning?” Or other times she’d ask what it was that Cat did every day down by the creek. But after Cat had made up enough long, boring stories about building dams and catching tadpoles, Mama finally gave up and let her go.

Every day that week—Monday through Thursday—she spent at least an hour at the grotto, without seeing any sign of the trespasser. But on Friday there was a teachers’ workshop in the afternoon and classes were dismissed at one o’clock. So Cat crawled in through the tunnel about two hours earlier than usual. Earlier than usual and earlier, obviously, than the trespasser expected her to be—because the moment she crawled out of the tunnel, got to her feet, and looked around, she knew that he was there.

THIRTEEN

I
T WAS MOSTLY JUST
a feeling that warned Cat that the trespasser was right there in the grotto, a mysterious feeling that something was wrong. Almost as if she had suddenly developed mystical powers, like clairvoyance or second sight. Clairvoyance, most likely.

Of course, the fact that there was a strange object sitting there in plain sight just might have helped too. But she’d definitely started getting the mysterious feeling before she even noticed the pail. A stained and rusted pail made out of an old Shell oilcan with a makeshift baling-wire handle that was sitting just outside the cottage door.

But whether the warning was by way of second sight or oilcan it served its purpose, and Cat was able to make her next move very carefully. Holding her breath, she tiptoed across the grotto and, as she neared the cottage, sank down to her hands and knees. Beneath the side window she rose up gradually until she could see over the sill. And there, inside
her
cottage, her own
private, secret
cottage, was the same little boy.

Sitting on the floor beside Marianne’s crib the ragged and dirty little trespasser was rocking slowly back and forth. Cat could see the back of his bowl-shaped haircut and the bottoms of his dirty bare feet sticking out from under his raggedy backside. His hair was sun-streaked brown. There was something strangely familiar about the color—and the homemade haircut as well. A mental image of a boy’s back as he stood at the blackboard flashed in Cat’s mind and resentment flared up into anger. Jumping to her feet she jerked open the cottage door.

As the door screeched open and banged back against the wall, the little boy jumped up, his eyes wide with fear. Still clutching Cat’s doll against his chest he retreated backward until he bumped into the wall.

“Okay, kid,” Cat yelled, “what do you think you’re doing? This is my house and you’re a trespasser, and trespassing’s against the law. I’m going to tell the sheriff and have you put in jail.”

The boy shook his head violently. He seemed to be saying something but his lips were trembling and his voice was very faint. Big, fat tears began to roll down his cheeks. He started edging sideways, keeping his eyes on Cat as if he expected her to jump on him at any moment, like a terrier after a rat. When he got to the crib he sank down beside it.

Looking up at Cat he moved his lips again, and this time she could make out most of what he was saying. In a high, trembly, babyish voice he said, “I ain’t hurt her none. See, I ain’t hurt her.” He unwrapped the pink blanket and held the doll up for Cat to see. “See? She ain’t hurt a bit. I was just playing with her a little. I was just playing ... The trembly voice broke down in a rush of sobs and the kid bent his head and buried his face in Marianne’s blanket.

As Cat stared down at the sobbing little kid she began to experience a puzzling sensation. A sinking, shriveling feeling—like an inner tube with a nail in it. All the righteous, burning anger was fizzling out, leaving in its place a strange swollen kind of ache that made it hard to swallow and that made her eyelids tight and hot.

“Hey,” she said over the painful lump in her throat, “you don’t have to cry about it. I’m not going to tell the sheriff. At least I won’t if you promise not to come here again. Do you promise not to come here again? And not to tell anyone about this place, ever? Do you?”

The kid cried awhile longer before he raised his face. Still sobbing and with tears streaming down his cheeks, he stared up at Cat. His lips moved but no words came out. Then he looked back down to where he was still clutching Marianne against his chest, and cried harder than ever. So hard, it occurred to Cat that he might be going to strangle and die right there before her very eyes. Then he looked up again and in a wobbly wail said, “Awright. I promise. I won’t tell nobody. And I won’t come no more.” He looked back down at Marianne and sobbed. “I can’t come back no more. Not ever no more.” And he buried his face in the pink blanket again.

“Kid,” Cat said, and then louder, “hey, little boy!” But the kid went on crying—and on and on. It wasn’t until she practically shrieked, “
Hey you!
” that his head jerked up. Staring at his tear-wet face Cat said sternly, “What do think you’re—why are you—how’d you ... ?” And then a little less sternly, “What’s your name, anyhow? You got a name, don’t you?”

He nodded, sobbed, whispered something that sounded like “Sammy,” and went on crying.

“Sammy?”

He sobbed and nodded.

Cat sighed. Okay. So his name was Sammy and he was about five years old and ...

“Sammy,” she said, “tell me something. How the dickens did you find this place, anyway? And how come you’re way out here all by yourself? Don’t you have any folks to look after you?”

Sammy turned loose of Marianne with one hand and wiped his face, smearing dirt and tears across his cheeks. Then he sobbed again, hiccuped, and nodded. “I got folks. But my ma and pa been pickin’ ever day, so I stay with Granny Cooper. Granny Cooper don’t go pickin’ so she’s mindin’ me.”

Not very well,
Cat thought. “Well, then,” she said, “if Granny Cooper is minding you, where is she now? Right this minute. How come she’s not taking care of you right this minute?”

Sammy stared at Cat for a moment. Then his large wet-lashed eyes looked off thoughtfully into the distance and his lips moved in a way that might be just the hint of a smile. “Sleepin’,” he said. “Granny Cooper sleeps a whole lot.” The almost smile faded. Then he looked down at Marianne and whispered something Cat only heard a part of—a part that sounded like “good-bye” and then “Lillybelle.”

“Lillybelle?” she asked. “Did you say Lillybelle?”

He looked up guiltily out of the tops of his eyes and nodded. “I jist calls her Lillybelle. My ma had a doll named Lillybelle onced. Not a corncob one neither. A real store-made doll like this here one.”

“Her name,” Cat said firmly, “is Marianne.”

He nodded. “Marianne,” he said. He looked down again, said “Good-bye, Marianne,” and then added in a whisper, “Lillybelle.” Then he put the doll into the crib and carefully tucked in the pink blanket.

It was right then, at that moment, that something—something about the look on Sammy’s small, pointy-chinned face as he tucked in the blanket—made Cat almost certain of something she had already begun to suspect. “Sammy,” she said, “you’re a girl, aren’t you?”

Sammy looked up, startled—and worried. “I didn’t tell,” she said. “I didn’t tell you, did I?”

Cat grinned. “Samantha, I bet. Samantha?”

Sammy nodded guiltily. “I ain’t supposed to tell folks, though. Not till we get back to Texas. Or when I go to school. Ma says I can be a girl agin when I start goin’ to school.”

“Why does she say that?” Cat asked. “Why doesn’t she want you to be a girl now?”

“I don’t rightly know,” Sammy said. She looked down at herself. At the baggy, ragged shirt and overalls. “Ma says we ain’t got no money for girl things right now. So I got to wear what don’t fit Roddy no more. And Spence too. Sometimes I get to wear Spence’s growed-out-of things too.” She ran her hand down the sleeve of the blue plaid shirt she was wearing—a much-too-big blue plaid shirt with both elbows out and a frayed collar. “This here shirt was Spence’s,” she said proudly.

Cat started to say it was a good-looking shirt but the thickness in her throat suddenly returned, making it hard to talk. She’d found herself remembering the boxes of old dresses she’d run across in the attic when she was looking for things for the grotto. Dresses that she’d outgrown long ago and that were, for the most part, pretty old and faded, but a lot better for a little girl than the ragged scraps of a boy’s shirt.

BOOK: Cat Running
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