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Story:

Author: Girlsgirlsboys

Type: Original Story

Rating: Explicit


Chapter 1: The Cat

"UGH! No, no, NO! It's not right!"

I sigh. Winona, my older foster sister, is such a drama queen. She's always bitching about something. It annoys the shit out of me. This time, she's frustrated with her hair for not getting in the style she wants it to do. I hope it'll style for her, because I'm so sick of listening to her shrieking.

"Dammit! Stupid, damn hair! You WILL style for me! You WILL!"

I wish my foster parents would yell at her, but I know they won't. They constantly spoil Winona, letting her have her way all the time. I'm their foster child, so I'm less important than Winona. I hardly care, though. I prefer to keep to myself anyway. Gary (foster father) and Ann (foster mother) never take any interest in my activities. The only reason they fostered me was so they'd get more points with their rich neighbors. I'd learned from Cookie Dough, Mrs. Sampson's cat.

Yep, I just said cat. I've always had the ability to talk to cats. They're the only ones who ever listen to me. I adore Cookie Dough. She always comes by and talks when I need it. She's this elderly Persian who has children and grandchildren. Her twin grandchildren, Milky and Silky, are absolutely adorable. Gary, Ann and Winona hate cats. Heh. They sometimes see me talking to one of the neighborhood cats and think I'm crazy.

"STYLE FOR ME, DAMMIT!"

I throw my pen down. I'm so tired of Winona's screaming. I pick my pen off the ground, take my sketchbook and go outside. Hell, even there, I'll still here Winona shriek. Hopefully, Cookie Dough will be out there. I sit in one of the patio chairs and open my sketchbook. My sketchbook's full of, you guessed it, cat sketches. This time, I'm working on a picture of Milky and Silky.

Hello, my dear human girl!

I look up with a grin. Cookie Dough threads herself through the metal white fence separating the Foxes and the Sampsons' houses. Cookie Dough is beautiful, especially for a cat of her age. She's ten, which is seventy in human years. Still, she has plenty of energy and a big heart.

"I was wondering when you'd show up, Cookie," I say as Cookie Dough settles in a chair opposite of me.

What's wrong, dear? Something bothering you? Cookie asks as she looks at me with her big green eyes. As if on cue, Winona starts shrieking. Oh. That's it.

I nod with a sigh. "She hasn't stopped," I sigh. "You know, I know Gary and Ann feed me and stuff, but I want love. I want someone to love me for who I am. I'm not perfect. I'm strange, I know I am. But...all my life, nobody has loved me. No one wants me around..."

Cookie's ears perk up. Well, dammit, I adore you, Maren. You're like my human grandchild. Humans are such creatures, she meows heartily.

I smile a little and scratch Cookie Dough behind her ears. "Thanks, Cookie," I say. "I wish I was a cat. Maybe then people wouldn't think I was crazy for understanding you."

Cookie and I sit for several quiet moments together. I'm grateful to at least have her for a friend. She's the only one who talks to me on a daily basis. But I know in two or three or four years, she'd die. She's an old cat and I'm dreading the future of losing her. Suddenly, I drop my sketchbook, pull Cookie out of her chair and hug her tightly. "I wish you were my cat, Cookie Dough."

Oh, sweetheart, Cookie purrs. I stroke her fur and we sit for a few minutes in each other's company. I wish this time wouldn't end.

"Cookie Dough? Where are you, sweetie?"

Mrs. Sampson is calling for her cat. She's seventy years old, the same age as Cookie in human years.

Sorry, dear Maren, but Betty is calling for me to come home, Cookie says. Half her face says she wants to go back to her mistress. The other half says she's reluctant to leave me alone.

"Okay, bye, Cookie. Thanks for sitting with me," I say, hiding my disappointment.

It's my pleasure, Maren, Cookie says firmly. She jumps out of my lap. Good-bye for now! She sashays in her cat way back to her home.

"Mary Rose! Come here!"

Ugh. Ann's calling for me. She always calls me by my full name instead of Maren. I hate it, because Mary Rose was my mother's name and I'm an orphan. Worse, everyone who knew my parents keep saying how much I look like my mother.

I slowly get out of my chair, taking my sketchbook with me. "Yes, Mrs. Fox?" I say. I'm not allowed to call Gary and Ann by their first names or they'll tear a page out of my sketchbook. They've done it before.

"What is this doing on the floor?" Ann asks pointedly, holding a flashy silver scarf in front of my face. It's clearly not mine. Winona has all the flashy clothes, while I wear the same thing pretty much every day.

"It's Winona's," I say simply. "I dislike flashy clothes."

"I'm not talking about Winona," Ann says, glaring at me like I dirtied her floor. "I'm talking about you. This was on the floor."

"So? Winona wore it to school today but ripped it off as soon as she came home," I explain. "She threw it on the floor."

"Why didn't you pick it up and put it away?" Ann asks.

"Because it's not mine," I say, making eye contact.

"You see something on the floor, you pick it up," Ann says in a tone that means she's about to raise her voice.

"Mrs. Fox, there's all kinds of things on Winona's floor," I say in a smart-ass tone. "Would you like me to go pick those up, too?"

Two seconds later, Ann slaps me across the face. "Don't get smart with me, young lady!" she snaps.

I realize how angry I feel. Angry at the fact I'd been forced to live with them. Angry at the four months I've been living with them. Angry at the fact they neglect me in favor of their birth daughter. Angry at the fact their daughter makes fun of me mercilessly. Angry at the fact the parents yell and slap me. Angry at the fact I'm always in trouble for things Winona has done. Angry at the fact they fostered me only to be invited to fancy parties thrown by their rich neighbors. Angry at the fact they don't love me. I'm so sick of tolerating this.

I look Ann in the eye. "You're one of the most awful women I've ever met!" I cry. Ann stops, her eyes widening.

"Wh-what did you say?" Ann asks.

I raise my voice. "You and your husband and your daughter are horrible people! You blame me for everything that goes wrong in your life, everything your daughter does, everything! You're neglectful to me but you spoil Winona to the point she's a fucking brat! Your husband blames me for losing the client he brought to dinner weeks ago! You people only fostered me so you'd get invited to all these parties your neighbors throw! I hate you! I hate you, Ann, I hate Gary and I hate Winona! I HATE YOU ALL!"

Ann says nothing. Her mouth is open and it's moving, like she's trying to form words. I see Gary and Winona standing behind her.

"Oh, Mommy!" Winona cries, flying to her mother and hugging her. To me, she shrieks, "You horrible bitch! How dare you-"

"Shut up, Winona," I snap. Winona's eyes go wide. This is the first time someone's ever told her to shut up.

"How dare you insult my wife and tell my daughter to shut up!" Gary demands.

"How dare you insult me every day of my life?" I snap back. "Good-bye. I hope I never see you again." With that, I leave the house, not caring I'm a foster child and they're my foster family.

A few hours later, 7:15 P.M.

My stomach growls. I shiver in the cold of the night. Nights in St. Louis are cold, especially in fall and winter. The only things I have are my clothes on my body, my sketchbook and my pen. I hug my knees on the curb of the sidewalk in the alley. Please God, protect me tonight, I pray in my mind. Don't let me get hurt. I'm fourteen years old, alone and lonely. Help, please...

Hey, what're you doin' out here?

"Huh?" I whip around. I see a tomcat standing behind me. He has striped grey fur and yellow eyes. He's eying me suspiciously. "Oh, hello. What's your name?"

Hmph. Typical human girl. Sees a cat, asks for its name. What're you gonna do, little girl? Adopt me? the tomcat asks sarcastically.

I feel myself frowning. "Look, I can't adopt you right at this moment," I say. "I can't feed you, nor do I have a home."

Wait just a minute. Did you just answer me? the cat asks, his eyes widening.

"Yes, I just did answer you," I say, resting my chin on my hand. "I can understand you, you know."

Yeah, right. Stupid human, the cat thinks.

"I heard that," I snap. "I may be a little crazy for being able to understand cats' thoughts and talking, but I'm not stupid."

What's your name, little girl? the cat demands. He sounds like he's anxious for my answer.

"What's it to you?" I ask.

Here's a deal; you give me a name and I'll give you a place you can stay for the night, the cat says.

"How do I know you're not fooling me?"

The cat impatiently rolls his eyes. Come with me. It's not like you have anywhere else to go, he says, walking off. I follow him to the hill behind the alley. See over there, little girl? he asks, pointing his left paw at an old cellar just below the hill. That's my place. Now, you can stay there if you tell me your name. And how you can understand us cats.

"My name's Maren," I say. "And don't ask me how I can understand you; I just do. Have since birth."

Good enough, the cat says. C'mon Maren. Let's go to my home. By the way, I'm Tobias.

I follow Tobias to his home. "How do you get in the cellar, Tobias? Cats don't have thumbs."

Tobias rolls his eyes, as if I should know the answer. There's a hole in the ground. That's how we get in, he says.

"Oh, I-wait, did you say we? There's not just you?" I ask.

Tobias nods. He goes to a hole beneath a bush. Wait here. I'll tell the others of your coming. Tobias pops down the hole, leaving me in wait. He doesn't take long, as he pops up a minute later. Okay, Maren, they know. Use the cellar door over there. Bolt it from the inside. And be as quiet as possible. We don't want to risk getting found. They'll separate us.

"Are the cats inside your family, Tobias?" I ask curiously. Tobias shakes his head.

Not all of them. My sister Sheila and her kittens live here, but they're my only family. My sister's mate lives here too. But there is families here, many containing young kittens. So be quiet! We don't want to be separated.

"I understand completely," I say. I go over to the cellar door and slowly get it to open. Looking around to make sure no one sees me, I ease myself inside as not to scare the cats. The steps creak, making me uneasy. I shut the door once I make it to the fourth step and bolt it with an old pipe. These cats sure are clever. All cats are. When I turn around, I see dozens of pairs of eyes looking at me. Some eyes are fascinated, some are afraid, few are indifferent. I mentally count the cats and my count is forty-seven. Damn.

Tobias, why in the hell did you bring a human here?! We're gonna get found! A brown male cat hisses at Tobias. He's a stray. I can tell by the dirt in his fur.

She can understand us, Rocky, Tobias hisses back. Besides, I couldn't just leave her on the street. She might be useful.

Rocky eyes me. His eyes are a deep green. Doesn't look like there's much to her, Rocky snaps.

"I can be useful," I tell the judgmental cat. "I can probably get food for you guys easier than you can get it for yourselves."

All the cats in the room gasp, including Rocky. Tobias rolls his eyes again.

Is she a Listener?! Rocky demands Tobias.

"What's a Listener?" I ask Rocky. Rocky ignores my question.

Yes, she is, Tobias says in a tone that says You-should-know-that-you-dumbass.

"Tobias, what's a Listener?" I ask Tobias.

A Listener, human, is what we call a human that can understand cats' speech and thoughts, a cat answers. It's not Tobias.

From the crowd, an old cat emerges. The cats clear. This is obviously an important figure in the colony of cats.

"So, I'm a Listener?" I say to the old cat, crouching to make myself look smaller.

Yes, child. You are a Listener. They're quite rare, the old cat says. My name is Desdemona, and I am the decision maker of this group. What is your name, human child?

"I'm Maren, Desdemona. It's nice to meet you," I say respectfully.

Desdemona smiles. You are obviously one who respects cats, she meows. Desdemona is old. Older than Cookie. I can see why Tobias brought you here. Welcome, Maren. Cats, let us welcome our guest!

Welcome, Maren! every cat except Tobias, Rocky and Desdemona says.

"Thank you for having me," I say, smiling a little. For the first time in my life, I feel accepted.

Chapter 2: The Cat Cellar

After I've been formally welcomed into the group, the cats slowly disband to their own business. Except Rocky. He hisses at me, What good are you humans if all you do is abandon us cats? With those words, he walks away haughtily.

Don't mind Rocky, Maren, Tobias tells me. He was once a loved kitty pet, but his guardian was forced to give him up for reasons I don't know. That broke him inside, and now the only things that mean something to him are his mate and his children.

"Oh, so Rocky's got a mate?" I repeat. "Forgive me for saying this, but his attitude doesn't say 'family-man.'"

Tobias chuckles. It's alright, girl. I've said those words plenty of times and each time, my sister gets annoyed, he says, stretching out.

"Your sister is Rocky's mate?" I ask. "And father of her children?"

Tobias nods. I don't know how they clicked, but they did. It may not look it, but Rocky loves Sheila. The only one who he's ever nice to. She's got him in the palm of her paw.

"Hey, Tobias?"

Yeah?

"Thank you for bringing me here for the night."

...Hmph.

I get down on my hands and knees. The cellar is small, but I can just barely stand in it cuz I'm short. I decide to look around

Helly-o!

A tiny kitten's voice makes me look to the right, to possibly the cutest thing I've ever seen in my life. An orange calico kitten with yellow eyes, smiling up at me. She's probably too young to know I'm human and thus, isn't afraid of me.

Hi-hi! the tiny kitten greets me. I'm Gingersnap, but everyone calls me Ginger. You're the funniest-looking cat I've ever seen! You're really big and your fur is pink. Are you a Sphinx?

"No, Ginger, I'm not a cat," I smile. Ginger is so adorable. "I'm a human. My name is Maren."

Hue-man? What's a, hue-man? Ginger asks, plopping herself down on the floor. Before I can tell her, I hear a familiar voice boom GINGER! I look up and see Rocky. Perfect.

Daddy! Ginger mews happily, pouncing over to Rocky. Suddenly, Rocky takes on a new look. His eyes fill with tenderness and love and he relaxes.

"Ginger's your daughter, Rocky?" I ask. Rocky glares at me, protectively putting a paw over his daughter.

I have four children, human, he says. Ginger is my only girl. What're you doing near my daughter, human?

"Your attitude doesn't exactly say 'family-man,' Rocky. Besides, Ginger is a kitten. She was just being friendly," I say to the cat.

Yeah, friendly, Daddy! Ginger mews again, leaving her father and going to me. Maren is my new friend! She says she's a hue-man. What's a hue-man, Daddy? Is it a type of cat?

Before Rocky can answer, something catches Ginger's attention. It's the short tail in the back of my hoodie. I love my cat hoodie. I've had it since I was four years old. It's a black cat colored hoodie, with ears on the hood and a tail in back. The tail has caught the young kitten's attention.

Ooh! Tail! Ginger meows excitedly, then pouncing on my "tail." She bites it several times before asking me, Are you a kitty, Maren?

I laugh. "No, sweetie. I'm human," I explain. "Humans don't have tails."

Ginger ponders my words, the hoodie's tail between her tiny paws. Then why do YOU have a tail? she asks. Were you born with one?

I laugh even harder. Ginger cracks me up. "Here, lemme show you," I say, slowly taking my "tail" out of her paws as to not pull her tiny claws. I unzip my hoodie, then shiver in the cold night. Still, I hold up my hoodie for Ginger to see.

Ginger's eyes widen, like they're about to pop out of her head. AHH! MAREN TOOK HER FUR OFF! AHH! she scream-meows, getting every cat's attention.

What happened?! a different cat voice cries. It's a female cat, I can tell. Her voice is deeper than Ginger's high-pitched squeal.

A medium-sized female calico emerges. She's smaller than Rocky and has green eyes. She looks a lot like Ginger. I realize this cat must be Sheila, Tobias' sister, Rocky's mate and Ginger's mother.

Oh, hello, Maren, Sheila smiles. I'm Sheila. I see you've met my mate, my brother and my daughter. It was very nice of Tobias to bring you here. A Listener can help us. I hope my family hasn't bothered you much.

"No, not at all," I smile, in spite of the fact Rocky is rude to me whenever he gets the chance. "It's very nice to meet you, Sheila."

What manners! You are respectful of cats, Sheila nods in approval. At that moment, we hear cries of Mama! Dad! Where you?

Three little kittens come, and they're just as adorable as Ginger. They're all so tiny, the biggest not even the size of my hand. They all resemble Rocky with the exception of eye color.

Boys! Shh! Some are trying to sleep! Sheila scolds the kittens. Turning back to me, she shakes herself off and says, Oh, Maren, these are our boys. Our big boy right here is Royal. She nudges the biggest lightly with her paw. This boy here is Prince, the naughtiest of our four and the third of our litter. She faces the second kitten. And Squeak, our littlest boy, is our youngest. He's quite shy, so it'll take a bit before he gets used to you. Squeak shyly hides behind his parents.

"They're all so beautiful," I say in awe. "You've got to be very proud of such a fantastic family."

Thank you, dear, Sheila smiles, leaning forward. I realize she's allowing me to pet her. I do, slowly and hesitantly. Rocky puffs up in pride and pleasure.

At that moment, Squeak sneezes. Mama...I'm cold... he says softly.

I know, honey bun. Come by Mama, Sheila coos her youngest son. My heart aches for the young kitten. Sheila sighs. It's been getting colder recently. Sooner or later, we might have to move, Rocky, she says to her mate.

"Move?" I repeat. "Where?"

Sheila shakes her head. I don't know, dear, she answers. Somewhere warmer. My children could F-R-E-E-Z-E T-O D-E-A-T-H. We-the whole colony of us-lost a kitten last winter. But...we've been here for two years and most of us are unwilling to leave. Some have left already. We may have to leave if it gets colder. She sighs again.

I realize the dangers the cats are in. It's freezing cold in the winter in St. Louis, but according to what Sheila has just said, the cats have lived in the cellar for two years. Many of the cats are kittens. I have to help them, since they've accepted me.

"Where's Desdemona? I need to talk to her," I say to Rocky and Sheila.

Sheila motions with her head to a hole in the back of the cellar. She has her own space in there, she says. She spends almost all of her time in there. I'm certain she's in there.

"Okay, thank you," I say, crawling to Desdemona's space. Taking a breath, I poke my head inside, prepared to help the cats.

Chapter 3: Supplies

"Desdemona? May I talk to you?" I ask the elderly cat. From the moment I poke my head in, the more I see how much help the cats need. Desdemona's space is nothing but a hole. There's nothing but dirt and a few weeds.

Ah, the Listener. Yes, you may talk to me. Enter, Desdemona says. I crawl in and find the space is just about my size.

"Desdemona, I heard from Sheila that it's getting harder and harder to live here," I say. I know it's none of my business, but I need to help.

Sheila is quite the worrier, Desdemona comments. Having a brother who breaks the rules and four curious kittens would do that to you, child. Yes, as she said, it's true. Some of our colony left and in the winter, it's horribly cold.

"If you'll allow me, I can help," I offer.

And might I ask how you intend to help? Desdemona asks.

I swallow. Here goes. "I can go and get some food and blankets for you," I offer. "That way, you won't be so cold and hungry."

Desdemona's eyes widen. You aren't intending on stealing, are you, child? she asks.

I shake my head, knowing I have to explain my story to her. "No, Desdemona. I'm not gonna steal," I assure her. "Tonight...I left my foster family. I'm an orphan. I was stuck with these horrible people for four months until today, I'd had enough and ran away. Tobias found me sitting on a curb in an alley. When I was stuck with my fosters, I took along my belongings. There's blankets and stuff that could help you."

Desdemona ponders all this info. ...It would be marvelous if you could help us, Listener child, she says. While I'm hesitant, your help would be much appreciated here. Very well. I cannot deny I'm quite cold myself, but the kittens must be even colder. Come. We'll announce your idea. Desdemona walks out and I follow her. She goes to the stairs leading to the door. May I have your attention, every kitten and cat? she meows. All pairs of cat eyes look to her. Maren, our recently-joined human, has offered us help. She is willing to go to the house of her suffering to help us. Now, I need two volunteers to help her with this. Who is willing to accompany our human girl?

At first, there's no reply. Then someone says, Fine. Might as well. I'm the one who brought her here to begin with. It's Tobias. I smile. Despite his don't-care attitude, I like Tobias.

Then I hear little squeals of Me! Me! Pick me! Ginger.

No! You'll stay here with your mother and brothers. I'LL go, Rocky snaps. I'm surprised. Rocky doesn't think too well of me.

Very well. Tobias and Rocky to accompany Maren, Desdemona says in a graceful air. She turns to me and says, Please, Maren, be careful. Don't let us get discovered. And please hurry.

"We'll be back as soon as we can," I say. I go to the door and unbolt it. I hear Sheila begging her mate and brother to be careful. I open the cellar door as slowly as possible. After I'm out, I close it slowly.

You ready? Tobias asks.

I nod. "Let's go."

Half an hour later, 8:45 P.M.

We arrive at the Foxes' house, where I'm relieved to see all the lights turned off and the car gone. They've probably gone to report their ungrateful foster daughter had run away. I can just think of the lies they're telling right now.

Damn, girl, this place is giant! Tobias says. Your family rich?

"My foster family is," I mutter. "I was forced to live with them. I'm orphaned."

Tobias goes silent. My cat escorts and I go to the back of the house. "Wait here, you two," I say to Tobias and Rocky. "I'll be as fast as possible." I use the wood-like, crisscrossing thing at the back of the house (I don't know what you call them) to climb to my room. I leave my window open, but I find it closed. Luckily, it's not locked, so I'm able to swing myself inside.

When I'm in my room, I take my backpack and empty it of my school supplies. I fold my two quilts into it, then zip it. I also take a warmer coat for me as well as some thick socks. I then swiftly go downstairs. I look into the pantry and take beef jerky and tuna from the fridge. I take a can opener and some disposable bowls for the cats to eat out of. As I finish gathering food, I hear a car outside.

"I can't believe how ungrateful that girl is," Gary cries. "Stupid kid."

"It doesn't matter, dear. We'll be getting the money for taking her in and she'll be out of our hair," Ann says.

Crap, they're home! I think. I shut the pantry and hurry up to my old room. "In coming, guys!" I whisper as loudly as possible to Tobias and Rocky. I drop my backpack down and then I climb out. I close the window, then start climbing down. I jump down the rest of the way when I get about four feet off the ground. "Let's go! They're home!" I hiss. I take the backpack off the ground and run, Tobias and Rocky in front of me.

"Hey!"

Someone has just yelled at us. I respond by running faster, not stopping till we get back to the cellar. Even then, I quicken my pace. I hurry and open the cellar door. As soon as I'm in, I bolt the door.

Yay! Maren's back! Ginger cheers. Her brothers cheer along with her.

"Yeah...I'm...back," I pant. I sit down on the dirt, tired from my running back.

Did you bring any food? a cat by the name of Milo asks.

"In fact...I did," I answer, digging in my backpack. I dig out several cans of tuna and use the can opener to open them. After opening them, I place them all in a line and step back, waiting for the cats to eat them. The ever-excited Ginger is the first one to come up. She licks the tuna, her eyes lighting up.

Oh! It's so tasty! Thank you, Maren! Ginger squeals.

Ginger, don't be greedy. Save some for your brothers, Sheila reminds her daughter as her sons go up to their sister and start eating. Soon, all of the cats are eating.

"Don't worry, I'll bring more food for you," I say, ripping open a pack of beef jerky. Taking a piece for myself, I place several strips of the jerky in the bowls. Some cats, such as Ginger, leave the tuna and go for the jerky.

Desdemona looks up from her tuna, tears filling her eyes. You blessed human! she exclaims. This is a feast!

"There's plenty more where that came from," I assure her.

You didn't get in any trouble for this, did you? Desdemona asks.

I stiffen slightly. "No...but don't worry about that for now," I say. I dig my coat out of my backpack and put it on. I pull my quilts out of the backpack and lay them on the dirt floor. "Come on, kittens. When you're finished eating, you can come sleep here," I offer to the kittens. As if on cue, some kittens yawn.

I'm a little sleepy, a kitten named Flower says with a yawn.

Me, too, her sister Petal agrees. They both come to the quilt and lie down.

"Wait," I say. "Before all of you go to sleep, may I...tell you my story?"

Of course, Desdemona says immediately, focusing her attention on me. Go ahead, Maren.

With a nod and a deep breath, I prepare to tell my life's story to the cats.

Chapter 4: My Story

"I'm fourteen years old-in human years," I tell the cats. "When I was two years old, I lost my parents in a house fire." I hear many gasps in the crowd of cats. I feel myself choking up a bit, but I continue. "Since I was orphaned, I've been passed off to numerous foster homes. That's sort of like adoption. It means I live with a family until they're deemed unfit or I'm deemed old enough. I'll be out of foster care when I'm eighteen. Anyhow, I've been with about...six families.

"My first family was the Shirley family. I lived with them for a year, until I was three. Then Mr. and Mrs. Shirley decided having a three-year-old girl around their house was too much work, so they lied, saying I was too poorly behaved.

"The second family was the Davis family. I lived with them until I was five. The family had two sons older than me and honestly, I really don't remember living with them all that much.

"Family number three were the Hoovers. They were an old couple, married for sixty years. They sent in for a boy, but, I was the only child available then. So I was sent to live there. I lived when them til I was eight, when Mr. Hoover died. Mrs. Hoover didn't like me from the start, so she sent me back.

"The fourth family was the Michael family. The patriarch, Mr. Michael, was a drug addict. When his father died, he spent all of his inheritance on meth. He didn't care he had a wife or three children, including a foster child. When Mr. Michael died, his mother gave his wife and kids a home. But she didn't want me. I lived with the Michaels until I was eleven.

"The fifth family were the Dunns. This family had four young boys and the father of the family had died. Mrs. Dunn needed help with her boys. I lived with them until I was thirteen, when Social Services got involved and said Mrs. Dunn's home wasn't proper for me and the boys to live in.

"The final family was the Fox family. They've a teenage daughter named Winona who's older than me. I hate them most. They're nothing but a trio of useless cat-haters. I lived with them for four months, when I decided to run away today. So those are the foster families I've lived with."

I take another deep breath, waiting for the cats' reaction.

Chapter 5: Oh No!

The cats are silent. Even mouthy Tobias is silent.

Were any of those families, save for the last one...good to you, Maren? Sheila speaks up.

I sigh. "I wish I could say they were," I say. "All my life, save for my first two years, have been loveless. I wish I would've died in that fire with my parents."

Don't you dare say that! Sheila snaps. Maren, you've possessed the ability to talk to cats all your life. Surely there were cats who loved you? And love you right now?

I think about Sheila's words and my own words. "Sorry for saying that, Sheila," I apologize. "You're right. I do have cats who love me. Like...Cookie Dough. She lives next door to the Fox family."

You're forgetting a few, honey, Sheila smiles. Royal, Ginger, Prince, Squeak and myself love you. Tobias likes you a lot.

"But...you guys have only known me for an hour or so!" I say.

Doesn't mean we don't love you, Maren! Ginger squeals.

"Thank you..." is all I can say. Suddenly, I yawn. From a glance at my watch, it's only 9:15. "Jeez, why am I so tired?" I ask myself, stretching.

You did a lot of physical work, girl. We do it all the time. Why do you think we sleep so much? Tobias asks.

I laugh. "Well, I guess I just better go to sleep, then," I say. I zip myself into my warm coat while all the cats go to the blankets. I smile. I'm glad I did my part to help them. "Good night, everyone," I say.

Good night, Maren! the cats answer. It's the first time I remember someone saying good night to me and I fall asleep with a smile on my face.

In a dream

I run down a flight of stairs, in my usual busy school. For some reason, everyone notices and greets me. Usually, everyone ignores or bullies me. Not today.

"Hi, Maren! Nice hoodie!" a boy named Ian Pollock greets me. Ian prefers to make fun of me, but I absentmindedly wave back.

"Maren! Nice to see you!" a girl named Rita Fisher says, smiling. Rita just ignores me all the time, but I wave at her too.

"My God! Angela, Susana, look, it's Maren! Hi there, Maren! Are you feeling better? You were out yesterday," a girl named Tanya Rockford says. I stop running. Tanya, Angela Laski and Susana Barry hate my guts for some reason and bully me. They're Winona's friends and are never nice to me, so I suspect something's up. Cautiously, I wave.

"God, Maren, you have such a great hoodie," Angela tells me. "I'm jealous! Tell me where to get one, pretty please?"

"Umm...." I'm so confused. Why're these three being nice to me?

"Maren, I'm having a party on Friday. You've just GOTTA show up!" Susana says.

"You're inviting me to a party?" I spat. My confusion grows. "Gotta go. Bye!" I walk away quickly.

"Bye-bye, Maren! See you later!" the three girls chant. I go to my first class, History. My history teacher, Mr. Feldman, looks up and smiles.

"Ah, Miss Walker. You're just in time. You did marvelously on your history assignment," he says. Now, I know this isn't true. Mr. Feldman not only flunked me on my history assignment, but he humiliated me in front of class to show my work was "not an example of history." The assignment was we had to do a history of something (i.e. history of growing food, history of making clothes, that sorta thing) and I did the history of cats. My work is, not to brag, the one with the most effort. I did several hours of research, got a boatload of library books on interesting cat facts, and I even turned my work in before anyone else did.

"T-thanks," I stammer. Mr. Feldman doesn't think too well of me, either. He thinks I'm not smart, even though I'm smart enough to pass a ninth grade history class. He thinks I spend too much time "talking" to cats and has recommended I see the school counselor. More than once. I hurry up and take my seat. As usual, I don't pay attention to the lesson much.

"Maren Walker!"

"Huh?" I look up and see Mr. Feldman is smiling.

"Miss Walker, your assignment was phenomenal! The history of cats was fascinating to read. Would you mind if I read it?" he asks.

"In front of the class?" I ask like an idiot.

"Of course!"

"Well...o-okay," I agree. I'm so confused my head is starting to hurt. Nobody in this school likes me. They're mean to me, rude to me and just...hate me.

"Here goes," Mr. Feldman grins. "'The history of cats is a fascinating one. Cats are known as meow meow meow...'"

I look up in surprise. "I'm sorry, I think I misheard you, Mr. Feldman," I say. "Could you repeat that last sentence?"

"Meow meow meow," Mr. Feldman answers.

"Huh?" I know I didn't write "meow meow meow" in my essay. Something's wrong.

"Meow meow meow meow?" Rita Fisher meows. She's joined by about three more meowing voices.

"What's going on?!" I demand, springing out of my chair. All of my classmates are out of their chairs and meowing at me. It's so loud, I can't hear myself think.

"Meow meow meow meow meow!" Everyone in class is meowing like cats. I'm the only one speaking English. I mean, I'm talking like a human, not meowing in cat English.

Maren! Maren!

"Huh?!" I hear it clearly. A tiny kitten's voice is calling out for me. And it's a familiar cat voice. Like...Ginger.

Maren! Maren! Ginger sounds urgent. Like she's in trouble. Or...someone else is in trouble. Wake up, Maren!

My eyes flash open. Ginger is pawing me with her tiny paws. She has a look of wild urgency on her face.

Maren! Something horrible has happened! Ginger scream-meows.

"What happened?!" I demand. Nothing could have happened to her family. I brought the food and blankets. But...maybe something else has happened. Maybe Desdemona or one of the cats died.

Before Ginger can answer me, I hear the sound of something being unlatched. My heart grows cold with fear. I check my watch. 5:54 A.M. So early. When I look up again, the cellar door is cracked wide open, letting in the harsh rays of the morning sun.

"Oh no," I whisper.

Chapter 6: Separation

"We found her!" a man calls. The man is no more than thirty-seven. He has cropped brown hair, cold brown eyes and a muscular build. He's wearing a dark brown suit, with a blue tie. I realize he's a cop.

"You found her? You sure, Tucker?" another voice calls. This voice is female. A deep female voice.

"Sure as hell. Short black hair, grey eyes, short in stature. This is our missing girl," Tucker says, eying me. "Miss Walker, c'mon on out of 'ere. We'll get you to our station ASAP, 'kay?"

I shake my head. "No."

"C'mon, hon, don't be difficult, please," the female voice says, coming closer. I'm shocked to see the owner of the voice. Contrary to the muscular, mohawked woman I imagine, the woman is no older than thirty, with long brown hair tied into a ponytail, brown eyes and a curvy figure. She's quite attractive, I gotta admit.

"You're here to take me back to the Foxes, aren't you?" I yell, circling my hand around Ginger. "I'm not going back to them! I hate them! You can't make me go back!"

They're going to take you away, Maren?! Ginger scream-meows.

"No, sweetie, I'm not leaving you," I say. Tucker looks around the cellar, looking at each and every cat. He whistles.

"There's at least fifty in here!" he says in awe. The woman peeks in and her eyes widen.

"Wow...we're gonna need at least five Animal Control trucks to remove these guys," the woman says.

"Like hell you are!" I yell, hugging Ginger to my chest. "Don't you dare do that!"

"Alright. C'mon, Mary Rose, let's get outta here," Tucker says, stepping into the cellar. All of the cats, except Ginger, Rocky and Tobias, move back. Tobias and Rocky hiss at Tucker, while Ginger nestles into me.

"I'm not going back to the Foxes!" I scream. "I will never go back to them! You can't force me to stay with them! Each time you put me with those awful people, I'll run away each and every time! They're cruel people! Why don't you and the state put me with a murderer?! Please, don't make me go back with them!"

"Hello, Animal Control? We have about fifty cats in this cellar," the woman calls on her cell phone. "Send trucks."

"C'mon, Mary Rose, let's go," Tucker says, grabbing me by my arm. I fight him off, then kick him in the leg.

"LEAVE ME ALONE!" I shriek.

"Daniels? She's being difficult," Tucker calls over his shoulder to the woman. Daniels hangs up her phone, then slowly steps into the cellar.

"C'mon, Mary Rose, honey, we gotta go," Daniels says in a softer voice. "The Foxes want you back."

I sneer. "They only want me back for the money it gets them to support me and the fact it gets them points with their rich neighbors," I say. "They hate me. Please, don't make me go back with them. Please don't, I'm begging you!" Tears of anger spill down my cheeks. "I won't go back! Never! No more foster families! No more!"

"Hey, guys, we need your help getting her out!" Tucker yells outside. Two men wearing police uniforms come into the cellar. Tucker and the two policemen grab me, Tucker holding my upper body and the two policemen holding my kicking legs.

"LET GO!!" I shriek at the top of my lungs, kicking harder. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Tobias arching his back. I realize what he's going to do. "Tobias, don't!"

Too late. Tobias lunges for Tucker's left leg, opening his mouth mid-lunge. I'm impressed by the size of his fangs. But my awe ends in horror when Tobias chomps down on Tucker's leg.

"AHH!" Tucker screams, dropping me. I fall half-way to the ground, my head hitting Tucker's shoe. I look over and see Tobias hasn't let go of Tucker's leg.

"Let go, you stupid cat!" Tucker shouts, trying to pry Tobias off. Tobias opens his mouth for a half-second, then bites down again, this time harder. "GET THE HELL OFF!" Tucker rips Tobias off his leg, blood staining his ripped pant leg. Tobias fights back, clawing and hissing and biting. Suddenly, Tucker kicks Tobias into the dirt wall of the cellar.

"No!" I scream, slipping out of the officers' grasp. I duck under Tucker and go to Tobias. "Tobias, are you okay?!" I demand, scooping him up. Sheila is meowing in pain. Oh, my brother! she meows.

Maren...? You're still here? Tobias asks. The kick into the wall has hurt him badly. I feel his heart beating faster from the wild encounter with a cop. Running my hand gently over him, I feel a broken bone somewhere in his left hind leg. "Don't worry, Tobias, you'll be-" I'm cut off the officers grabbing me. "Let me go!" I scream, kicking, careful of the cats, who are wild with fear. I hold Tobias close, but he meows Damn, this hurts!

"Is Animal Control...here yet?!" Tucker shouts, holding his leg in pain. Tobias did a number on his leg in such short time.

"Yep, it's just about...here!" Daniels yells back. I hear cars pulling up as the officers carry me out of the cellar. As I'm being carried out, an Animal Control worker takes Tobias out of my arms. "Tobias!" I yell as Tobias tries to fight, but his wounds aren't permitting him to.

"You're sure difficult, kid," one of the officers remarks to me. He's a tall, dark-skinned man with a crop cut. I respond by kicking his thigh. "Ow!"

"Miss Walker, it'd be a lot easier if you stopped fighting us," the other officer says. I kick harder, but unfortunately, they get me into a black Toyota.

"Let me out!" I scream, pulling on the door's handle. I find they're locked, so I bang on the windows. "What're doing to the cats?! Don't hurt them! Hey!"

About ten AC workers go into the cellar, carrying cat carriers, sticks with nooses at the end of them and other stuff to capture the cats. "No!" I scream, banging on the window with my fists. I bang on the windows until the dark-skinned officer bangs on the window and yells, "Knock it off!" I refuse. I bang harder, not stopping until I see the AC workers hauling out the cats. I'm horrified. They're scared out of their minds. "Stop! Don't hurt them!" I plead. The cops ignore me and I'm forced watch as the terrified cats are taken out of their home. Near the end of the haul, I see Ginger in a carrier with her brothers.

Maren! Help us! Ginger meows. I can't hear her, but I hear her thinking the same thing as she said.

"Don't worry, I'll find a way to help you all!" I promise to Ginger loudly. I have to help my cat friends. They're the only friends-aside from Cookie Dough-I have. They accept me as a human girl who talks to cats-no, a Listener-and befriended me. I need to help them. I continue to bang on the window until I bruise my hands. When Daniels enters the driver's seat of the car, she sees my bruised hands.

"You're a persistent girl, I'll give you that much," she says to me as Tucker enters. "Buckle up, Mary Rose."

I cross my arms and sit back. I will not wear a seat belt. Who cares if we get into an accident? I'd rather die than go to another foster family. No, wait, I can't die. I need to help the cats. With a sigh of half-defeat, I buckle in.

"Stupid fucking cat," Tucker mutters, examining his leg. "That thing did a number on me."

"Ooh, that looks bad," Daniels commented. "I'll get us to the station ASAP so you can get stitched up." She backs out of the field carefully, then turns onto the road. "So, Mary Rose, you wanna tell us why you ran away?" she asks, looking at me in the rear view mirror.

I don't answer her question. Instead, I ask, "What's gonna happen to the cats?"

"They'll be examined by a vet and then put up for adoption," Daniels answers.

"Not the one that bit me," Tucker snaps. "I'll personally see to it that it's put to sleep."

"What?! You can't do that!" I scream. My voice hurts from all the screaming, but I don't care. "First of all, all of the cats have families. You're just gonna separate them?! And as for you-" I turn on Tucker, "You provoked Tobias to bite you! He was trying to protect me! It's your own fault you were bit up!"

"Tobias? You named it? Did you run away and take the Foxes' cat with you?" Daniels asks.

I sneer. "Yeah, right. The Foxes hate cats. Tobias was in the cellar with his sister, his sister's mate and his niece and nephews," I say. "I didn't name Tobias. Tobias' parents named him."

Daniels and Tucker glance at each other. "Mary Rose...how did you know all of that?" Daniels asks. "You've been gone less than twenty-four hours. Did you contact the cats' owner?"

I look out the window. "Who cares what I did?" I say. "Nobody ever does."

Daniels and Tucker quiet. I stare out the window before I ask, "What's gonna happen to me?"

"You're going to be sent back to the Foxes," Daniels answers.

"What?!" I scream, my voice aching. "Please, I'm begging you, don't send me back!"

Daniels looks at me through the rear view mirror. "Why's that? Why don't you want to go back, Mary Rose?" she asks.

"First of all, my name is Maren," I correct her. "Stop calling me Mary Rose. Second of all, the Foxes are awful people. The whole family hates me. The parents think I'm so socially awkward, they call me a freak and they neglect me in favor of their own daughter. They yell at me constantly, slap me and blame me for everything that goes wrong in their lives. One time, Gary-or Mr. Fox-brought home a client for his company for dinner. He was a total jerk to the guy, and so was his wife and daughter. When he unsurprisingly took his business elsewhere, Gary slapped me in the face when I got home from school and told me it was my fault the client was lost because I didn't say anything. Ann, his wife and Winona, his daughter, totally agreed with him. Winona makes fun of me mercilessly and she tries her hardest to make my life hell. Ann slaps me around constantly and on the day I ran away, she blamed me for not picking up a scarf her own daughter dropped. She slapped me for defending myself. So, please, I'm begging you, please don't send me back to them."

Daniels and Tucker drive in silence. "....Mary-Maren, are you telling the truth?" Daniels asks.

"I knew you wouldn't believe me," I sneer. "Nobody ever does. I got so sick of tolerating the behavior for four months. I had to run away."

Daniels and Tucker go completely silent. I cross my arms and sit back. "So, you taking me back to the Foxes?" I ask.

"No. We're going to the station," Daniels says. "From what you're saying, the Foxes are physically and emotionally abusing you."

"W-w-what? Y-you believe me?" I stammer. This is the first time in my entire life someone (other than the cats) has believed me for saying something against one of my foster families.

"Of course we believe you," Daniels says, smiling a gentle smile. "Abuse is a serious matter, not something someone usually lies about. You're going to the station with us."

"What about the cats?" I ask.

"They're going to the local shelter, where they'll be examined and put up for adoption."

"Will I get to see them?"

"Perhaps."

I stare out the window. For the first time in my life, someone has believed me. I'm utterly shocked. Tired, I fall asleep, allowing me to dream about the cats getting their freedom.

Chapter 7: The Case

"Maren. Maren, wake up."

I open my eyes slowly to Daniels shaking my shoulder. "Where am I?" I ask groggily. I know I haven't been sleeping for long, but it was a nice sleep.

"We're at the St. Louis Precinct," Daniels replies. "C'mon. Let's go."

Grumbling to myself slightly, I unbuckle my seat belt and follow her into the red-brick building. She holds open the door for me. "Thanks," I tell her.

"No trouble," Daniels smiles. Her smiling directly at me makes me realize just how unfit her voice is for her. She has a deep voice, but she looks like her voice should be higher.

"Where's Tuck-I mean, Detective Tucker?" I ask. I can't call him Tucker. At least not directly or to his partner.

"Tucker's getting stitched up in the morgue," Daniels explains. I feel my expression go horrid before she quickly explains, "He's not dead, Maren. The cat attacked him."

I sigh in relief slightly, then hold my breath again. I've never been bitten by a cat, but one of Mrs. Dunn's sons were bit once and that escalated into ringworm. It wasn't pretty, not at all. The poor boy was sick and nearly died. "Is Detective Tucker...gonna be okay?" I ask Daniels.

Daniels pats my shoulder. "He's going to be fine," she says. "He might need to avoid running so the wound doesn't open up, but I'm sure he's going to be fine. He was shot three times in the arm once in the line of duty and doctors were sure he'd have to have the arm amputated, but within two weeks, Tucker was back to work and his arm's still working and attached to his body. A cat attack isn't pretty, but he'll be fine."

I smile for the first time. Daniels is a nice person. "Detective Daniels...what do I have to do in order not to be sent back to the Foxes?" I ask her in slight nervousness. I'm not scared of the Foxes, I'm scared of living with them again. I'd rather live on the street than live with them.

"Come with me," Daniels says, motioning for me to follow her. I follow her, ducking past many people rushing along on this clearly busy morning. I check my watch. 7:03. It's still quite early, but the morning sun has risen, shining into the giant windows along the walls. Someone goes and pulls a large curtain over the windows, blocking out almost all of the sun's strong rays. I sigh slightly. That's much better, I think.

I follow Daniels down a hallway and into a room with a table and two chairs. It's dark and dreary. There's two windows in the room, but they're barred. An interrogation room.

"Have a seat, Maren," Daniels tells me.

"Why am I being interrogated?" I ask her.

"We're only gonna ask you some questions to get to the bottom of why you ran away and what the Foxes are doing to you," Daniels answers. "Please have a seat."

I sit down. As Daniels takes a seat opposite of me, I ask, "Can I see the cats?"

"Maren, for the third time, they're going to the shelter," Daniels answers patiently. "Why are you so concerned about them?"

"Tobias-the cat that attacked your partner-is hurt," I explain. "I want to see him. And all the other cats, too. They're all families. Tobias has a sister and a niece and three nephews. There's a lot of kittens in there, too. Please, don't let the shelter separate them!"

Daniels pats my hand. "Maren, if you give me some answers, I'll personally see to it the cats aren't separated and they're all treated."

I take a deep breath. "Okay," I say.

"Why did you run away last night at approximately 5:50 P.M.?" Daniels asks.

"Well, Mrs. Ann Fox slapped me for not picking up a scarf her own daughter dropped. I snapped and yelled at her and her husband and daughter yelled at me," I explain. "I was so angry, since I'd lived with them for four months and the family hates me."

"Can you tell me some of the things they did to you?"

"They slapped me almost every day. One time, Winona-the daughter-kicked me for not getting her a snack after school. They yell at me constantly and I'm the reason everything goes wrong in their lives. Gary-the father-brings clients home for dinner and always treats them horribly. When he loses clients, he blames me for losing them, usually accompanied by a slap in the face. They've done a lot of hurtful things to me, including...uh, I don't...wanna say."

Daniels looks me directly in the eye. "Maren, did they do something even more hurtful than a slap in the face?"

I look down at my clenched fists. The Incident is one of my most hurtful memories. I'd successfully blocked it for three months, but know I have to confess. Suddenly, my fists are wet with tears.

"Maren, are you okay? Do you need to stop for now?" Daniels asks, her voice full of concern. I nod, unable to speak and tears spilling down my face. Daniels gets up and pats my back. "It's okay, Maren. Whatever they did, they'll be brought to justice."

I only nod again. I'm crying for the first time in years. In all of my foster homes, the families never allowed me to cry. Now, I'm just crying an ocean.

"Can I get you anything, Maren?" Daniels asks me. I'm suddenly aware of how empty my stomach is. Last night, I only had a piece of beef jerky.

"M-may I h-have some breakfast?" I ask shakily.

"Of course," Daniels smiles. "What would you like?"

"W-what do you have h-here?" I stutter, sniffling. I wipe tears away with the back of my hand.

"You can have anything you like."

"May I have some bacon, some toast and some coffee?" I ask politely.

"Comin' right up," Daniels smiles, nodding to the mirror north of the room. She walks to the door.

"Detective Daniels?"

"Yes?"

"Please, make sure the cats are safe and together."

Daniels smiles. "You got it." She closes the door, leaving me alone.

My mind is racing with thoughts and memories. I'm remembering the night of the Incident. I clench my fists and squeeze my eyes shut. I don't want to remember it, not at all. I want my family. Oh wait. I don't have a family. Tears fall out of my eyes again. Now that I've been allowed to cry, I can't seem to stop.

"Mom...Dad...I miss you," I murmur. "If you were here, none of this would've happened. None of these horrible things would've hap-" I cut myself off. "None of this would've happened..." I repeat. "None of this would've happened..." I mentally skip over my unpleasant memories (in other words, most of my life) and go to my pleasant memories. I remember when I first discovered my ability to talk to cats. I was two and a half, and with the Shirleys. There was a cat named Seashell who lived with the Shirley's young neighbor. I remember her saying hi to me and smiling at me. I remember smiling back, 'cause I saw a cat. (What two-year-old doesn't smile at a cat?) Seashell treated me kindly. She said hi to me everyday. I go over my other memories of living in the foster homes. The only home that had no cats nearby was the Hoovers, but that was because they lived on a farm and Mrs. Hoover was allergic to 'em.

If Mom and Dad never died...I most likely never would have discovered this ability, I realize. I do have a family. The cats in the cellar...they care for me. And I care for them. I get up hurriedly and knock on the mirror, knowing it's a window for the detectives to look through and listen in on during interrogations. "Excuse me?" I say loudly enough for them to hear outside the mirror. The door opens and Tucker enters, leaning on a crutch. I look down at his leg and through the ripped pant leg, I see stitches. Tobias really did a number on his leg.

"Yes, Maren?" Tucker asks grouchily. I can't blame him. His leg hurts, he's on a crutch and he'll likely be sitting at a desk job for a month or so. Poor man. I step forward.

"Detective Tucker...I'm sorry," I say apologetically. "I'm sorry I kicked you in the cellar. I'm sorry I screamed at you and the other two officers. Most of all, I'm sorry for what happened to your leg. But, please, sir, please don't have Tobias put to sleep. He was scared for me and was only trying to protect me. Please, don't have him killed." I look down, because my eyes are filling with tears again. I'm scared for Tobias' life. He can't die. He's my first friend I've made here. I can't lose him.

I feel a hand on my head. I look up, seeing Tucker take on a softer look.

"Don't worry, Maren, I was angry," he sighs. "I'm not going to have the cat put to sleep. But I wouldn't rest easy if I were you. If they see this, they will put him to sleep."

My heart goes icy cold. How could I've forgotten? "Please, sir, I know I'm asking a lot of you guys and I'm sorry, but please, please don't let them," I beg. "I don't want Tobias to die! Please, call them and ask them! Or let me do it! Please!"

Tucker looks at me for several moments before sighing. "Alright," he says, putting his hand on his neck. "I'll see what I can do. I'll call the shelters."

"Um, Tobias looks like-"

"I know what the cat looks like. I got an up-close view."

"Sir? Could you also look for four kittens, three male brown ones with yellow, green and blue eyes, and a female calico with yellow eyes?"

"Okay. I'll ask for those five."

"Thank you, Detective Tucker."

Tucker closes the door on me. I sit back down, thinking about the cats, but mostly Tobias. I'm terrified he'll be put to sleep. "I can't let him be put to sleep," I whisper to myself. "I just can't let it happen." A horrifying image appears in my head. I imagine Tobias, strapped to a table surrounded by nurses. "Don't worry," they tell him. "You won't feel anything." I can just see Tobias trying to break out, but his restraints aren't letting him. I imagine one of the nurses holding a needle. "Good-bye, kitty," the nurse says as she puts the needle into Tobias' back.

Just as Tobias is about to be killed in my daydream (or bad daydream) the door opens. I jump.

"Are you okay, Maren?" Daniels asks me. She's carrying a plate of bacon and toast and carrying a mug of coffee.

"Y-yeah," I answer.

"Here," Daniels says, placing the breakfast in front of me. As soon as it's in front of me, I grab at the toast and stuff it in my mouth. I'm starving. I chew it quickly, then bite again. "Wow, you must be hungry," Daniels remarks. I can only nod. I eat quickly to satiate my hunger. Now that I think about it, I didn't have dinner last night. I had a single piece of beef jerky.

"Thank you very much," I thank Daniels after finishing the two pieces of toast. Daniels smiles.

"You're welcome," she says. I take a sip of coffee. "I didn't know how you liked your coffee, so I dropped some sugar in it," Daniels says.

"It's fine. I don't mind sugar," I smile at her. I drink the coffee, then sigh after my sip.

"Maren, we looked you up in the system," Daniels says. "You've certainly been sent to a lot of families, haven't you?"

I nod, then start on my bacon. "Six in total," I say. The bacon is delicious and juicy. The best bacon I've ever had.

"Maren, three months ago, you were admitted to the hospital," Daniels says. "Can you tell me why?"

I freeze mid-chew. The time have come. I have to explain the Incident. After swallowing the piece of bacon and washing it down with a sip of coffee, I feel my heart speed up. "I guess I can't hide it anymore..." I say. Slowly and quietly, I go over every detail of what happened three months ago. During the middle of it, I start crying again. With every detail, Daniels' eyes widen in horror. When I'm finished, I'm a mess. I'm sobbing and sniffling.

Daniels is completely silent for a few minutes. She gets up and hands me a tissue box. "...Maren," she says, "are you willing to press charges against the Foxes?"

I look up at her through my tear-filled eyes. "I-I don't h-have a l-lawyer," I stutter. I blow my nose.

"Now you do," a voice says. I look north of the room to see a young woman around Daniels' age. She has shoulder-length black hair and grey eyes. She's shorter than Daniels, but gives the appearance of being tall.

"W-who are you?" I ask her.

"Assistant District Attorney Shauna Brunswick," the woman says. "Maren, it's clear the Foxes are abusing you. You need justice. I'm here to act as your lawyer for this case."

"I can't pay you," I tell her.

"There's no need for you to do so," ADA Brunswick says. "Let's worry about getting you justice. Maren, if we're going to build a case against the Foxes, we need you to tell us everything they did while you were living with them. Then, we'll have you sign a confession. Understand?"

"Yes, ma'am," I answer.

"Come with me," ADA Brunswick says, motioning for me to follow her. I lift up my plate and mug, but Daniels says, "I'll take care of those, Maren. Go with ADA Brunswick."

I nod. I follow ADA Brunswick out of the room and out onto the main room, where the foot traffic has slowed down a bit. I check my watch. 7:51.

"Where is she?!"

Oh my God. I'd recognize that voice anywhere. My heart becomes an iceberg and I freeze in my tracks.

"Where the hell is she?! We're her foster parents!"

ADA Brunswick notices I've stopped following her. "Maren, what's wrong?" she asks.

"Why're they here?" I ask her. I feel my frozen heart speed up. The Foxes are here.

I see Gary and Ann rudely push past officers. Their eyes fall on me. "Oh, Maren!" Ann cries with obviously fake concern. She runs to me. "Maren, why did you run away?" she asks.

"Get away from me!" I yell, stepping behind ADA Brunswick.

"Maren, c'mon, we're going home," Gary says, stepping forward.

"No, you're not," a deep male voice says. I look over and see a man, who's about in his sixties. He's not balding, but his deep brown hair is thinning. He's coldly glaring at the Foxes.

Two officers step forward and handcuff Gary and Ann. "What is the meaning of this?!" Gary demands.

"Gerald and Ann Fox, you're under arrest for abuse," the thinning-hair man says to them. "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford one, one will be provided to you free of charge-"

"WHAT?!?!" Ann shrieks. "What right to you have to arrest me and my husband?! All we did was foster her ungrateful ass! This isn't fair! THIS ISN'T FAIR!!!" She's still shrieking when the officers lead her and Gary to a cell.

"Hey, the Head of City Council is an old friend!" Gary yells as he and his wife are locked up. "I'll have all of your badges taken away for this!"

ADA Brunswick puts her hand on my shoulder. "C'mon, Maren, let's go do that confession," she says.

"What about Winona, their daughter?" I ask her.

"Two officers are picking her up from school as we speak," ADA Brunswick says. "Let's go into the Captain's office. We'll have more privacy and-" she cocks her head to the Foxes' cell, where Ann is still shrieking "-silence."

I follow her into the Captain's office. I can't believe this, I think. I'm pressing charges against the Foxes. Maybe, if all goes well, I can free all the cats. I sigh. "One can only hope," I whisper.

Chapter 8: The Loss and the Scare

After I get done repeating what I told Daniels and signing my name on the paper, ADA Brunswick takes it away and places it in her bag.

"I'm gonna make some calls," she tells me. "Arraignment court is tomorrow morning at ten. You know what arraignment is, Maren?"

I nod.

"Good," she says. "I gotta some phone calls. Detective Daniels will show you out."

As if on cue, Daniels appears at the door. "C'mon, Maren, let's go," she says. I get up, but not before turning around and saying "Thank you" to ADA Brunswick.

ADA Brunswick smiles. "You can thank me when we nail the Foxes," she says, picking up the phone on the Captain's desk. I get out of the room, with Daniels following and shutting the door.

"Hey, Maren!"

I look over at Tucker. He gets up from his desk. "I called Animal Control and found most of the cats were taken to the Rainbow Paws Shelter on 1683 Pebble Drive. A few of the cats are at Whiskey Pines Shelter on 2374 Old Brook. Both shelters are open. If you wanna see 'em, they're there."

"Thank you so much!" I cry. Tucker smiles a bit. "Okay, I gotta-oh wait, I can't drive," I realize. "How am I gonna see 'em?!"

Suddenly, the thinning-haired man steps forward. "Daniels, could you please take Maren to see the cats?" he asks Daniels.

"Sure thing, Cap," she answers. "Let's go, Maren."

"Thanks, sir," I tell the man. He smiles at me. As I'm following Daniels out, I realize the detectives are the first humans (aside from my parents) who are nice to me.

Daniels leads me to her car. It's a dark blue P.T. Cruiser with an Arizona license plate. "You're from Arizona?" I ask her in awe. She grins.

"Born and raised," she says proudly. She unlocks the car doors and I let myself in. When I'm buckled in, she climbs into the driver's seat. "Which shelter should we visit first? Rainbow Paws or Whiskey Pines?" she asks.

"Um, Rainbow Paws, please," I tell her. She pulls out a GPS and punches in the address. "Thank you very much for doing this," I say. "I'm very grateful."

It's no trouble," Daniels assures me. She starts the engine and places the GPS on a stand on the dashboard.

"Why did you move to St. Louis from Arizona?" I ask her out of curiosity. I've nothing against St. Louis, just curious. Daniels came kinda far from Arizona.

"Well, I moved here after I graduated from college to care for my sick aunt," Daniels explains. "When she died, she left most of her money to me. I bought an apartment here and grew to love it here. I attended the academy and a few years later, I'm working as a cop."

"Detective Daniels-"

"Call me Emily."

Emily Daniels. She looks like an Emily. "-Emily, if you don't mind me asking, but how old are you?" I ask. "You're quite attractive, so I hope you don't mind."

"Thank you," Emily smiles. "I'm thirty-three."

My guess was close, but she looks slightly younger than she actually is. "I see."

"Maren, may I ask you a question?"

"Sure..."

"Why do you go by Maren instead of Mary Rose? If I had a name as beautiful as yours, I'd proudly show it off."

I hold my breath for a second, then sigh. "You might've seen on my record, but when I was two, my parents died in a house fire," I explain. "Mary Rose was my mother's name. I miss her and I don't like being reminded of her death. Everyone who knew my parents say I look a lot like my mother. It's painful for me."

Emily nods. "I see," she says. "My father was killed in the line of duty when I was fifteen. He was shot by an escaped inmate. I'm often told by people who knew my father I highly resemble him, mostly in personality."

We drive the rest of the way in silence. Fortunately it's only a five-minute drive. Next thing I know, we're pulling into the parking lot of Rainbow Paws. I throw open the door and run like an excited child to the front entrance. I push the door open. It's a nice place inside. It smells fresh, like lemons. There's two fans on the ceiling, on and fanning the lemon-scented air around. A young woman, no older than twenty-four, looks up and smiles.

"Hello, may I help you?" she asks, her voice dripping with a Wisconsin accent.

"Um, yes," I say, stepping forward. "About an hour and a half ago, Animal Control delivered some cats here. May I see them?"

"Ah, yes, AC did deliver about forty cats here," the lady confirms, checking her clipboard. "Come with me." She gets up, her blonde hair swinging behind her in a ponytail. She leads me and Emily to the back of the shelter, to a room filled with large cages. In the cages are almost all the cats from the cellar.

Flower and Petal look over at me. It's Maren! they scream-meow. She's here! She's here! Their meows attract all pairs of cat eyes to me. Soon, all the cats start meowing.

"My, they must really like you," the young lady remarks to me. "Take as much time as you like. Call me if you need anything." With that, she walks back to her desk.

I go over and quickly scan the cages. Everyone is accounted for except...Rocky, Sheila, Royal, Ginger, Prince, Squeak, Tobias and Desdemona. "Hey, guys," I say in a soft voice, crouching down. All of the cats are meowing so quickly and at the same time, I can't understand a single word. I'm just happy most of them are together and safe.

Maren, listen to me! a cat named Orchid says. Orchid is the mother of Flower and Petal. I look in her direction.

"What is it, Orchid?" I ask her.

Rocky, Tobias, Sheila, Royal, Ginger, Prince and Squeak were all taken to a different shelter, Orchid explains quickly, possibly because Emily is standing nearby, petting a cat named Dusty. Please, make sure they're all okay, especially Tobias with his wounds.

"After this, we're going to the shelter the family's at," I tell her quickly and quietly.

Wait! Orchid says urgently. Someone is about to leave us, Maren. Please, say good-bye to her.

"Someone's about to-" I cut myself off, my eyes widening. "Do you mean..."

Orchid nods. Yes. I do. Please, ask for her. We'll be fine. But let her express her thanks.

I get up and go to the doorway. "Excuse me, ma'am?" I call to the receptionist. "I counted thirty-nine cats. Where's the last one?"

"Oh." I catch the sadness in her voice. I hear her get up from her desk. "Come this way, please." The receptionist leads us to another room. It's a small room, with a few pictures of flowers and skies and clouds. In the middle of the room is a table. On the table is a crochet blanket and wrapped in the blanket is Desdemona. Her breathing is heavy and raspy. I gasp, realizing Desdemona is dying.

"The poor thing doesn't have much time left," the receptionist says sadly. "Our vet says she most likely won't see the end of today." She sniffs.

"Desdemona!" I gasp softly, rushing over to her. I wrap my arms around her frail body. She slowly opens her eyes.

Oh, Maren, she mews in a barely audible meow. You're alright. That's a relief. I was worried about you. She coughs a couple times.

"Yeah, I'm here, Desdemona," I say softly, slowly petting her.

Maren, listen to me, Desdemona says weakly. You are a Listener. Do not be ashamed of it. Do not deny it. Do not hide it.

"Desdemona..." I murmur softly, tears filling my eyes.

Maren...I never fully expressed my thanks for your help last night, Desdemona says softly and weakly. My time was supposed to come last night. But you appeared and kept me alive for another night. I almost starved to death last night. Now, I'm dying of old age. Thank you, Maren. I'm happy to die with you by my side. With a lick of thanks, Desdemona nestles into the blanket and closes her eyes...never to open them again.

"Desdemona? Oh no!" I cry into the cat's body. Emily pats my shoulder. I cry for minutes before the receptionist pats my shoulder, saying, "We have to remove the body. How would you like to put this cat to rest?"

"P-please." I look up. "Cremate her, then spread her ashes over the hill of Maple Corn Drive.

The receptionist nods. "Alright," she says softly. "I'll call."

"Thank you." I wrap Desdemona in the crochet blanket. "Good-bye, Desdemona," I say, kissing her head. "Don't worry about the other cats. I'll make sure they'll stay safe." I step out of the room and go back to the other cats' cages. I step as far back so all the cats can see me. "Desdemona died just a few minutes ago," I announce softly and sadly.

The cats begin crying and moaning over Desdemona. I cry into my hand. After a minute of crying, I pull myself together for the cats' sake.

"I'm gonna visit the other shelter now," I announce. "I'm gonna visit the other seven cats there. But I promise all of you, I'll get you your freedom." I step into the doorway. "Good-bye for now."

Good-bye, Maren! Please free us! the cats reply. I step out of the room to the office, where Emily is waiting.

"Ready to go to the other one?" she asks.

I nod. "Yeah. Let's go." I turn to the receptionist sitting at her desk. "Thanks for your help here."

"No problem," the receptionist smiles. Her mascara is running. She's been crying. "I'm sorry about your cat. Don't worry, I'll make sure she's put to rest comfortably." She dabs her eye with a tissue.

I don't answer. I hurry outside, afraid I'm gonna start crying again. "Emily, the next place is Whiskey Pines," I remind Emily. "It's at 2374 Old Brook."

Emily nods. "Right. Let's get going."

I get in Emily's car. I gotta see Tobias and his family, I think, buckling in. I gotta make sure they're all safe. Especially Tobias...oh God, please don't let him be dead. I suddenly remind myself of the fact Tobias might be euthanized for biting and scarring Tucker's leg. I bite my lip in nervousness.

"Maren? Is something wrong?" Emily asks, starting the car.

"Actually...yes," I answer. "Tobias-the cat who bit Tucker-there's a high chance he'll be euthanized for injuring Tucker's leg. I'm worried he's been euthanized already."

Emily's expression changes. "Alright," she says. "We'll get ASAP."

It's a twenty-minute drive from Rainbow Paws to Whiskey Pines. I'm so nervous. I break out in a cold sweat, wring my hands and chew my lip.

"It's going to be alright, Maren," Emily tries to assure me. "It's going to be alright." I'm not assured, though. Tobias is the only thing on my mind right now.

When we arrive at Whiskey Pines, I don't wait until Emily parks. I jump out while she's driving through the gate, slamming the door behind me. I bolt through the doors of the shelter.

"Hello," a woman greets me. She's not as young as the receptionist at Rainbow Paws, but she's around Emily's age.

"Hi," I pant. I'm out of breath from running so fast. "Did...Animal...Control bring...some cats here?"

"Actually, yes, just a little while ago," the woman confirms. "They brought in seven cats, three adults and four-"

LET GO!!!

My heart stops beating for a minute. I could never forget that voice.

"Tobias!" I scream, running behind the desk to the door leading to the back of the shelter, ignoring the woman's cries for me to stay out of the area. I follow Tobias' yowling to a room on the far left. I'm in the nick of time. Like in some horror movie, I see three doctors strapping Tobias to a table. "STOP!!!"

The three doctors all turn to look at me, startled. "What're you doing back here?" one demands. "No one's supposed to be in the area."

I run over and cover Tobias with my body. "Please...don't kill him," I beg, clutching Tobias tightly.

Two of the doctors try to pry me off, but I respond by gripping tighter.

"Young lady, we found blood and human skin cells on the cat's claws and teeth," the doctor not trying to pry me off explains. "If it was a simple bite and scratch, there wouldn't be as many skin cells or as much blood. But this cat's teeth and claws were practically soaked with blood and skin cells. It's law we do this to prevent it from happening again."

I start sobbing. "He was trying...trying..." I'm sobbing too hard to answer.

"He was trying to protect her."

I look in the doorway at Emily.

"Ma'am?" the doctor on my left says.

"My partner forcibly tried to remove this young lady this morning," Emily explains. "Her cat was trying to protect her. Please, don't kill him."

I look at the doctors. "Please," I beg softly.

The doctors look at each other. After a minute, they sigh.

"Alright," the doctor on my right says. "But listen up, young lady. If we see this cat's claws and teeth soaked in blood again, he's getting euthanized. Understand?"

"Yes, sirs," I say, running my hand gently over Tobias. There's a cast on his left hind leg. "Thank you so much."

"Before you go, we need you to fill out an adoption paper," the doctor on my left tells me. "Also, bring him back in a week. He injured his leg pretty badly, but other than that and a minor cut, he's fine. This one's a fighter."

"Thank you," I say as the doctors unstrap Tobias from the table. Immediately, I hold him to keep him from attacking the doctors. "Excuse me, I was told six other cats were brought here. Can I see them before I go?"

"Sure," the doctor on my right says. "Follow me." He leads me, Tobias and Emily to a room. Unlike Rainbow Paws, where they keep the cats in cages, they keep their cats in a big pen at Whiskey Pines. There, I see Royal, Prince, Ginger and Squeak playing with the cat toys in the pen. Rocky and Sheila, however, are close together. Sheila is noticeably frightened.

I enter the room, where Ginger is the first to notice me (of course).

MAREN!!! she shriek-meows. She abandons her play and bounds over to me. Her family follows her, except Rocky (of course).

"Hi, guys," I say softly, crouching. I set Tobias carefully on the floor, keeping a hand on him should he try and run away.

Oh, Maren, I'm so glad to see you! Sheila meows. I was terribly worried about you.

"Don't worry, Sheila, everything's gonna be fine," I assure her. "I'm gonna free all of you and-"

YOU? Free US? Rocky interrupts sarcastically. Please! You're a useless human! You got us all separated from each other and now, we're living in this strange place! Everything was fine until Tobias was stupid enough to bring you to our cellar! Desdemona was wrong about you. You're not useful to us, you're worthless!

All of the cats quiet. I'm silent. I understand Rocky's pissed, but wow.

Rocky, how dare you?! Sheila snaps at her mate. If it weren't for this "useless" human, Squeak wouldn't be here! He was freezing to death last night before Maren came and gave us blankets and food! Everything was NOT fine! Living in the cellar wasn't nice, but it was the only place we could go! I hated living there! I don't like it here either, but it's paradise compared to that damned cellar! I only lived there because I love you! If it wasn't for the fact I love you, I'd have left faster than you can say 1-2-3!

My mouth opens, but no words come out. Gentle, docile Sheila just yelled at her mate. Wow. I didn't expect that.

Rocky's eyes are wide with disbelief. He's trying to say something, but he can't say anything. He's just as shocked, if not more, at what his mate just did. I notice Royal, Ginger, Prince and Squeak have backed away from their parents, scared at all the yelling.

Tobias looks from his sister to his brother-in-law to his niece and nephews. You two better tone it down, he says to Rocky and Sheila. You're scarin' your kids.

Sheila looks over at her frightened children. Oh, sweethearts, I'm sorry, she purrs, going over to them. I got impatient with your father. I lost my temper.

Mom...do you still love Dad? Prince speaks up.

Of course I do, Prince, Sheila answers firmly. I'll always love your father. Sometimes, moms and dads yell at each other. It's all part of a relationship. She looks over at Rocky. Rocky has stalked away, sitting in the corner by himself and pouting like a child. She sighs.

I look at Tobias. "Should we go now and leave 'em to work things out?" I whisper.

Tobias nods. I think that'd be best, he agrees.

I stand up. "Well, guys, I'm gonna hafta leave for now," I tell the cats. "But I promise I'll be back soon, 'kay?"

Uncle Toby, why aren't you in here with us? Royal asks his uncle.

I'm...leaving, Royal, Tobias answers carefully.

Can we leave too? Ginger asks.

"Not right now, sweetie," I tell her. "I hafta to take your uncle with me. But I'll be back for you soon, 'kay? Be good kittens for your parents. Can you do that?"

You bet, Maren! Ginger answers cheerfully. I'll be waitin' for when you come back! She lifts her paw and waves. I grin. She's so cute, I can't get over it.

"Alright. Bye, everyone. I'll see you all soon." I lift Tobias off the ground and carry him out.

Bye-bye, Maren! Royal, Ginger, Prince and Squeak all chant. I don't hear Sheila or Rocky.

I go to the front desk. "Um, I have to fill out an adoption paper for this guy...?" I say, holding up Tobias.

"Ah, yes, here," the receptionist says, handing me a clipboard and a pen. I go sit on the bench and fill out the sheet of paper. After I hand the clipboard back to the receptionist, she says, "Oh, almost forgot. There's a ten dollar registration fee."

I feel my face fall. I don't have any money.

"Here," Emily says, pushing a ten-dollar bill in front of the receptionist. She takes it and places it in the register.

"Thank you," the receptionist says sweetly. "Hope to see you again."

I follow Emily out in awe. "...Thank you," I tell her.

She smiles. "You saved that little guy's life," she replies. "I know you've no money on you, so it was the least I could do."

I open the passenger door and climb in. I place Tobias on my lap and buckle my seat belt. I check my watch. 9:25 on the dot. I yawn, suddenly aware of how tired I am. I got like eight hours of sleep last night, I think. How the hell am I tired?

"Tired, Maren?" Emily asks.

I nod slightly. "A little," I admit. "I guess I didn't sleep so well last night." "Not to sound ungrateful," I add under my breath to Tobias.

"When we get back to the station, you can sleep," Emily says.

"Thank you for doing all of this," I say. "I'm really grateful." I hold Tobias and slowly stroke his fur. I go over the events that've happened in the past hour or so. I hug Tobias slightly. "I'm glad I was able to save you," I whisper softly.

...Me too, Tobias meows. By the way, Maren. The other cats at the other place...how're they?

"They're fine, but..." I swallow. "Desdemona died earlier this morning."

She's dead? Tobias repeats in surprise.

I nod. I'm still sad over Desdemona's death.

Tobias is silent for the rest of the way.

When Emily, Tobias and I arrive back at the station, Emily takes me to a room east of the main room. It's a medium-sized room, filled with bunks.

"Here you go, Maren," Emily says. "You can sleep here for as long as you like."

"Thank you so much, Emily," I tell her. She smiles, then closes the door, leaving me and Tobias alone.

I yawn. "I'm gonna sleep for a little bit, Tobias," I tell my cat friend.

Me too, Tobias agrees, yawning. I get an eyeful of his huge fangs again. I can't help but admire them.

I choose the bunk farthest from the door, north of the room. I climb up to the top bunk. I've always felt more comfortable in high places than in low places. Heh. I smirk to myself. Like a cat, I think. "See you in a bit, Tobias," I say, setting Tobias on the bunk with me. I can't help but notice him tense up. "What's wrong?"

I've...never slept in a bed before, Tobias admits. I've spent my life sleeping on the ground.

"Would you like to sleep on the ground?" I ask him.

I think that'd be best, Tobias agrees. I jump out of the bunk and set Tobias on the floor. Much better, Tobias meows.

"See you in a bit," I tell him. I'm asleep before my head hits the pillow.

Chapter 9: My Day at the St. Louis Precinct

I sleep peacefully until about noon, when I awake. I grumble under my breath, 'cause I'm tired and the nap was the most peaceful rest I've had in a long time. I didn't have to sleep with the dread of waking up to people I hate with every fiber of my being.

Hey.

I look at Tobias, stretched out on the floor. I realize I forgot he was here with me and that I'd brought him here. "Oh, hi, Tobias," I smile at my cat friend.

You've been sleeping forever! Tobias meows in annoyance. I'm so bored! One can hardly run around here, or jump very high. The only thing to do is talk to you, and you're not much of a conversationalist.

I snort as I swing my legs out of the bunk. Nobody likes hearing the truth about themselves, especially if it's from someone you care about. "Sorry you're bored," I say to Tobias. "I'm afraid there's nothing I can do for that. I-oh man." I just realize I'd left my sketchbook in the cellar. It's been hours since the cats and I were taken out of it, but it feels like days.

I hop out of the bunk and slide my boots on. Then I sit on the lower bunk, unsure of what to do.

As if on cue, Emily enters the room. "Oh, good, you're awake," she smiles. "I was wondering when you'd wake up. I'd like to go get some lunch. I wanted to see if you'd like to come."

"I'd like that," I tell her.

Hey, what 'bout me? Tobias demands. I'm hungry, too!

"Oh, I forgot you had your kitty friend with you," Emily says. She frowns in thought. "Hmm...the only thing we can really do is leave him here until we get back. Would that be okay?"

Um, no, it would NOT be okay if you left me here! Tobias meows in protest.

"Tobias, I'll bring you back some food," I promise him quickly. "Maybe some nice hamburger. Surely you've had some of that?"

Tobias' face twists into a thoughtful expression. He does remember having hamburger, maybe outta someone's garbage. He's an alley cat, after all. It's what they do. ...I remember that wonderful brown meat, he meows. It was the most delicious thing I've ever eaten. The people threw away half of it. I ate it all. It was soo good... Tobias hungrily licks his lips.

"I'll get you some if you stay here and behave yourself, okay?" I tell him.

Fine. Some boredom is worth it if I get to taste that little piece of heaven again, Tobias agrees with a grunt. By the way. The meat came in a white bag with yellow and red on it. There was a big yellow M on it-

"McDonald's, got it," I say, forgetting Emily is standing there. "We'll be back. Behave yourself, Tobias."

Don't take too long, or I might die of boredom, Tobias warns, stretching out on the floor. I leave the room and Emily shuts the door behind me.

"So, your cat like McDonald's?" Emily says with a smile of amusement.

"You'd be hard-pressed to find a cat who doesn't," I say.

We pass about three other interrogation rooms. I pass the one with Ann in it first. I stop in my tracks.

"Mary Rose isn't the easiest child to deal with," Ann says, dabbing at her eyes full of fake tears. "She rarely talks to us and she doesn't talk to other children her age. My husband and I have tried to treat her like family, but she rejects all of our efforts to do so." Lies pour out of Ann's mouth like a waterfall.

"That's not true," I say, gritting my teeth in anger. "None of that is true."

"Maren? Is something wrong?" Emily asks.

"Yeah," I sigh angrily. "She's lying. Every word out of her mouth is a lie."

"Mrs. Fox?" Emily looks into the window. "Don't worry. If she's caught lying, which I have no doubt she will be, she'll be in legal trouble. She can't lie under oath or she'll be held in contempt of court. Don't think much of it."

I force myself to leave Ann's window. I turn to Gary's. He's telling all the lies his wife is telling. After tearing myself away from his window, I get to Winona's.

"My parents and I tried to be nice to Mary Rose," Winona says in an exaggerated upset tone. She's crying the same fake tears as her mother. "But Mary Rose isn't nice! She never talks, she rejects my efforts to make her a sister, she's just awful!" Winona blubbers.

"They're all lying," I say in anger. I'm so angry and tired of the lies. This family can't tell the truth. The worst thing about this is, they're all skilled liars, especially Ann. It's gonna be hard for ADA Brunswick to prove they're guilty.

"Let's go, Maren," Emily says quietly, drawing me away from the window. "I know you're angry, but just be patient. You'll get justice."

I follow Emily. She's right. I have to be patient. There's nothing I'd love more than to see the Foxes crucified.

Emily and I sit in silence during the drive. She knows I'm angry about the Fox family's lying. She drives to the nearest McDonald's. "What would you like?" she asks me.

"Cheeseburger, no tomato, no pickles, extra ketchup with large fries and a large Coke," I say immediately. The words pour out of me. I haven't had fast food since I was twelve. Now that I'm being offered, I'm takin' full advantage.

"You must be hungry," Emily remarks. "And for your cat?"

I've already forgotten about Tobias. I know he must be starving. "Um...two plain meat patties and some milk, please," I tell Emily. "I'm sorry for all this. I haven't had fast food since I was twelve."

"Wow, that's really long," Emily says. She pauses to order. After the order is taken, she says, "I thought a month without fast food was long. You haven't had it in two years."

After Emily pays for the order, she hands me my Coke and the bag of food. It smells like the most wonderful smell, combined with more wonderful smells. I nearly tear up.

"Thank you," I say to Emily.

"You're welcome," Emily says. "Let's get back to the station so you can feed your cat."

We drive back to the station. It's only a ten minute drive back. Once we're inside, we head back to the bunk room.

Tobias is stretched out on the floor, his eyes closed. Once I'm inside, his eyes shoot open. Finally! You're back! Did ya bring- Tobias doesn't finish his sentence. His nose begins twitching. His eyes widen. Girl, whatever you've got in that bag, hand it over, he orders me.

"Hey, we have stuff for us, too," I tell him. I dig out Tobias' meat and milk. I take the lid off the container for the meat and use the lid as a bowl for his milk. Once the food is prepared, Tobias bounds over with Ginger's excitement. Ginger. I really miss her.

Tobias wastes no time. He tears into his meat, chomping at it. Cats don't chomp their food. They swallow it then they grind it in their stomachs. Nope, not Tobias. He chews it, savoring the flavor.

"Little guy must be hungry," Emily comments.

"He hasn't eaten since nine last night," I tell her. I sit on the bench and prepare my own food. The smell drifts out, making my mouth water. I eagerly unwrap my cheeseburger and waste no time biting into it. Bliss. Pure bliss. I taste everything put into the burger. It tastes soo good. After swallowing my first bite, I take my first sip of my Coke. The liquid spills into my mouth, filling my mouth with liquid bliss. I haven't had soda since I was twelve, when I got a small soda with my meal of fast food. It's all so good.

"You really must like it," Emily comments in amusement.

"Absence makes the heart grow fonder," I say, biting my burger. "I haven't had this stuff in two years. I've missed it." I continue to take big bites out of my burger. Five huge bites later, it's gone.

"You must've really been hungry," Emily cmments in surprise. Her own burger is only half-finished.

I can only nod. My mouth is full of fries. Mmm...they're soo good. Crisp and salty. Fast food is one of man's greatest gifts. Ha...I'm gettin' excited over fast food, I think. I look back at Tobias and see him lapping up his milk. His meat is all gone.

"Hey, Maren, does your cat have a name?" Emily asks.

Tobias looks at her and glares. I'm not her cat! What do you think I am, some kittypet? And my name's Tobias, he meows.

"His name's Tobias," I tell her.

"Tobias...oh, that's right. You've said that," Emily says, looking at Tobias.

Yes, she has said that. You just haven't been payin' attention, Tobias says.

"My sister-in-law had a cat like you," Emily says to Tobias.

I'm sorry for your sister-in-law, Tobias says.

"She loved that cat," Emily smiles. "My brother used to joke she loved the cat more than she loved him. He was such a sweet little kitty."

So...how was he like me? Tobias asks.

"What happened to her cat?" I ask. Cats are my most favorite thing in the world (of course) and Emily's usage of past tense signals something happened to the cat.

"He died last year," Emily answers.

"Oh. I'm sorry," I sigh. I look at the table. Hearing of the death of Emily's sister-in-law's cat reminds me of Desdemona's death just hours ago. I feel like I'm gonna cry, but I force myself not to.

"It's alright," Emily says. "He was an old cat. About seventeen."

"Still," I sigh. "Your sister-in-law loved him." I think of Desdemona and her peaceful passing earlier today. She was totally comfortable it was her time. "I don't understand," I whisper to myself. "How could she be comfortable with death?"

"Maren?" Emily says. I shoot up.

"Oh, um, nothing," I say quickly. I feel tears in the corners of my eyes. I miss Desdemona and Ginger and all the other cats.

"Maren," Emily says softly, "it's alright. We don't have to talk about this anymore."

I nod and down the rest of my Coke. When it's gone, I suck on an ice cube.

Someone knocks on the door. "Come in," Emily calls. An officer walks in.

"Excuse me, Detective Daniels, we found this in the cellar," he says, holding out a flat, purple object. I immediately recognize it.

"It's mine!" I cry, hopping out of my chair and snatching it out of the officer's hand. I calm down. "Thanks for finding it," I tell the officer. The officer nods and closes the door.

"What's that, Maren?" Emily asks.

"My sketchbook," I reply. I open it and check to see if all of the sketches are still there. All of them still are and I sigh in relief.

Emily gets up and takes the trash off the table. "Maren, I've got to get back to work," she says. "Are you gonna be alright in here until about six?"

I check my watch and see it's just after one. "Uh, yeah," I reply.

"Do you need anything?" Emily asks.

"No. I'm gonna sketch," I reply, sitting back at the table. "Thank you for the food."

"You're welcome," Emily smiles. She opens the door. "I'll come check on you later, okay?"

I nod. She closes the door, leaving me with Tobias. I open my sketchbook and flip to the page with Cooke Dough's grandchildren, Milky and Silky. My eyes widen. Oh no. Cooke Dough. I've forgotten all about her. She must be worried out of her mind right now. She hasn't seen me since yesterday afternoon and she usually greets me in the morning before school. I make a mental note to stop by Foxes' neighborhood to assure her I'm okay. I look down and touch up on Milky and Silky's sketch.

Hey, what're you doing?

I look down and see Tobias sitting on the bench next to me, looking at me curiously. "Sketching," I reply, turning back to my work. I erase something here, add something there until the sketch is complete. I lean back and look over my work.

Who're those? Tobias asks, looking at the sketch.

"Milky and Silky," I answer.

I thought you said those foxes you lived with hated cats, Tobias says, a frown forming on his face.

I snicker. "I didn't live with foxes, Tobias, the family's last name is Fox," I tell him. "And they're not my cats. They're the neighbor's. The Foxes do hate cats, though. Remember Cookie Dough? I mentioned her earlier? Milky and Silky are her grandchildren."

Tobias nods. I suddenly get an idea for my next sketch. Flipping to a new page, I begin to draw the outlines. I take my time, erasing and adding lines when necessary. I get so absorbed in my work I forget Tobias is sitting next to me, looking over the sketch. I draw the outlines of the body, the eyes, the mouth, everything. I get lost in the outlining, making sure it looks right.

Why're you drawin' a bunch of lines? Tobias asks, looking at the sketch.

"They're not just a bunch of lines, Tobias, it's the outline for the sketch," I explain. "Every sketcher needs to have an outline for their work."

Tobias looks at the outline. Who're you drawin'? he asks.

I grin. "You'll see."

I touch up on the outlines before beginning the portrait. I carefully shade one place, erase a mistake in another and soon become completely absorbed in my work. My pencil soon gives out, but I see two sharp pencils on the table. Emily must've left these, I think as I take a pencil. I turn back to my sketch and continue to work on it.

I don't notice when an hour passes by. I briefly take a break to stretch and I see Tobias has been watching me the entire time. "Why're you watching me, Tobias?" I ask him.

'Cause I'm so bored, Tobias replies in his famous You-should-know-that-you-dumbass tone. Besides, I'm curious to see who you're drawin'.

I grin as I sit back down. "I'll be finished in...maybe an hour or so," I tell him.

An hour? he whines.

"Maybe two," I say. "I want this sketch to be as flawless as possible."

Tobias breathes a breath of annoyance. Fine, he says, lying on the bench next to me. But can ya at least say somethin' every now and then? You're too quiet when you draw and I'm goin' insane just listenin' to the sound of the birds chirpin' outside. It's killin' me that I can't hunt 'em.

"Okay, I'll talk, but I might lose myself," I tell him, sitting down. I start on the sketch again.

How old did ya say you were? Tobias asks.

"Fourteen."

You're really young, Tobias comments. You're only two years old.

"Yeah," I say, erasing a mark. I pause and look at him. "Hey, how'd you know how young I am? In cat years?"

I once heard some human woman say that one cat year is seven years for you humans, Tobias answers.

I turn back to my sketch. "Hey, Tobias, how old are you? And how old are Sheila and Rocky? Oh, and their children?"

Sheila and I are both three years old, Tobias answers. Rocky is four and Royal, Ginger and Prince are all five months old. Squeak is three months old.

"You're only twenty-one," I say. "In human years." I look at Tobias out of the corner of my eye. Since he just mentioned his age, I can see he is young for a cat. "Hey, can I ask ya a question? About Rocky?"

Yeah, what's that?

"Why does Rocky hate me so much?"

There's a silence for a few minutes. I look over at Tobias and see him sigh.

Rocky doesn't hate you, he only thinks he does, he tells me. He believes he hates all humans. It broke him when his beloved guardian abandoned him. He's only really angry right now. He's angry 'cause he was taken out of the cellar, he's angry he's in a shelter and he's angry 'cause Sheila yelled at 'im. He's really hurtin', Maren. His anger is just his sadness turned backwards. He took his hurt out on you. As for your first meeting, he only hated you 'cause you were human. Tobias looks at me. He's not a bad cat, Maren. He's a broken one. His family has repaired most of the brokenness, but he stills hurts for his guardian.

I stop sketching and think about this info. Rocky's beloved guardian abandoned him and left him to die. He was left all alone until Sheila and Tobias. "I know what Rocky's goin' through," I say, sketching again.

You do? Tobias says.

I nod. "Yeah. I miss my parents a lot. I still hurt for them. The only difference is Rocky has a family who loves him. I don't have a family."

You have us, Tobias says quietly. I stop sketching again and look at him. Sheila quickly accepted you into the family. The kids love you. Especially Ginger, he continues. Ginger slept next to you last night. And she was so excited to see you at the shelter. It's gonna take Rocky time to accept you. But right now, you have us. We're your family.

My brain registers Tobias' words. "Thanks, Tobias. I needed that," I tell him.

The smallest grin appears on Tobias' face. Hurry up and finish that drawing, girl, he orders.

"On it," I say. I throw myself into my sketching, Tobias' words ringing in my head. We're your family. I smile. Tobias is right. I love Sheila and I love the kids. I love Cookie Dough and Milky and Silky. I love cats so much.

The sketch takes two hours to complete. When it's finished, I check it over. It is, in my opinion, my best work yet. "Hey, Tobias, wanna see the sketch?" I ask Tobias.

No, I've only been waitin' for three hours to see a blank piece of paper, he says sarcastically, but his eyes are of curious excitement. Girl, show me now.

I flip up Milky and Silky's sketch to show him. "Whaddaya think?" I ask. Tobias' eyes search the paper, taking in all of the details. His eyes shone with fond recognition.

Did ya draw this from memory? he asks.

"Yeah," I answer.

If ya did, you should be hired for a drawing job, he says.

"It's my best work," I say.

I've never seen a picture of Ginger this good, Tobias says. Then again, this is the first picture I've ever seen of Ginger. It's great work, Maren.

"Thanks," I say, looking over the sketch. I'm proud of how my sketch turned out. The picture of Ginger is nearly identical to the real-life version, but it's captured her playful and cheerful personality.

"Hey, Maren?"

I look up and see Emily in the doorway. "Hi, Emily. What's up?"

"My shift ended early today. If it's okay with you, I'd like for you to stay at my place tonight," Emily tells me. Her offer is surprising to me, but I take a moment to consider it. The bunks at the station are hard and uncomfortable (not to sound ungrateful) and the bathrooms are on the other side of the building.

"Sure," I say, standing up. "C'mon Tobias." I gently pick Tobias up.

Where're we goin'? Tobias asks, uncomfortable. I've discovered today Tobias hates being picked up.

"Emily's place," I tell him, following Emily. "We're staying there tonight." I follow Emily out the door to her car and buckle in, on the way to the Daniels residence.

Chapter 10: Emily Daniels

I follow Emily to her P.T. Cruiser, carefully holding Tobias. I open the door with a finger then get in, closing the door. I set Tobias in my lap and buckle my seat belt. Emily sticks the key into the ignition and backs out of the parking lot. We

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