There was a moan. It was faint, and at first Emily thought that she was hearing things. But it happened again. Emily hesitated.
The moan, if it really did exist, came from the former greeting card store, once called Papercuts. It had been empty for years; even the FOR RENT sign was peeling off of the windows. There was a large crack at the bottom of the window, but that had been there for ages. Emily glanced around. Unlike many of the Manhattan avenues, East End Avenue was completely deserted. Her hands hesitated, and then slowly reached for the metal handle on the glass door. She paused, and then pulled.
Even as she opened the door, dust flew everywhere. Emily coughed.
“Who’s there!” Someone said. It was more of a bark than a question. The voice was not like those of the people who Emily knew. It sounded more like a hiss, sort of like a snake.
“Who- Who are you?” Emily whispered.
Emily ran out of the store. She shook her head. “Emily,” She murmured to herself. “Emily. You didn’t hear that voice. You only thought you did.” Her pace quickened as she hurried off home.
Emily raced through her homework and by the time her parents came home, she was done.
“Emily?” Her mother called. “How was your day today, sweetie?”
“All right. School was normal.”
“Learning anything interesting?”
“Alice called today,” Her mother said. This caught Emily’s attention. “She wanted to know if you were there. Something about a school project. What are you two working on?”
Emily hesitated. She wasn’t working on a school project with Alice at all. Alice was her best friend, and probably wanted to talk to her. But why would she tell her mother that they were working on a school project?
“We’re working on a science project.” Emily improvised.
“What are you doing?” her mother asked. Emily sensed that she didn’t believe the story.
“Um…” Emily paused. “We’re studying plants right now, so we’re going to grow different plants and see which grows… faster.”
“Oh.” Her mother was still slightly skeptical. Emily decided to change the subject.
“How long has the store Papercuts been closed?” Emily asked.
“Oh, about two or three years or so. Why?”
The next day was Saturday. It was nice to have a weekend free of hard school work. Emily finished her homework for the weekend. She used her spare time to call Alice.
The phone rang three times before Mr. Elliot picked up. He quickly handed the phone to Alice.
“Hey.” Alice said in a bored tone. “Listen, Em, I’m sorry, but I’m busy at the moment. If this is some stupid little thing, can’t it wait?”
“Please, Alice, it’ll be quick!” Emily pleaded. “What do you want?”
Emily could tell that Alice had muffled the telephone. She could barely make out the words. “One sec, Pandora.” Emily silently gaped. Alice returned to the phone.
“Um- about our school project…” Emily didn’t know what to say.
“Oh, that? That was just to get your mom to stop bugging me. Listen, I’ll talk to you later. Bye!” Alice seemed in a hurry to leave.
Emily was shocked. “What do you want?” and “that was just to get your mom to stop bugging me” didn’t sound like Alice at all! But what disturbed her the most was that Alice was talking to Pandora Price.
Alice and Emily had always hated Pandora Price. She was what people called “popular”, even though a lot of people hated her. Emily remembered her and Alice’s nickname for her: Prissy Panda. What was the Panda doing at Alice’s home? Emily shook her head. Alice couldn’t be hanging out with Pandora. She must have heard the conversation wrong. Yes- that was it. Alice had muffled the phone anyway, so it would have been easy to hear her incorrectly.
Emily needed a place where no one would bother her, a place where she could hear herself think.
She didn’t know where she was going. Her legs took her to East End Avenue… and led her to the deserted Papercuts. She glanced around, and when she was sure that no one was looking, she snuck inside. Brushing away a dust bunny, Emily sat down on the cold cement floor, and immediately regretted it- the floor was coated with layers of dust. She didn’t get up, though.
“Who are you?” The same hissy voice from last time said.
“I-“ Emily knew that she shouldn’t talk to strangers, let alone sit in former shops with them. “I’m Emily. Who are you?”
The person crept forward. Emily saw its face. She screamed. It was not a person. It was a cat.
“Stop it, will you?” The cat said, annoyed. “I absolutely detest loud noises.”
“You- you… talk!” Emily gasped in astonishment.
“Yes, I talk. You talk, too.” The cat retorted. Emily saw it up close. It had small green eyes, that were large and oval-shaped. It was, for the most part, a reddish-brown with darker brown stripes. Emily stepped back.
“What are you doing here?” She asked.
“What are you doing here?” the cat answered.
“I- oh, all right. Fair enough. Are you a stray?”
“I guess you could call me that.”
“And do you have family?”
The cat looked at her reproachfully.
“Fine,” Emily said. She glanced at the cat. It looked sad. “I’ve never talked to a cat before.”
“Well, I’m not a cat.” The cat said.
Emily ignored this, concluding that the cat was trying to confuse her. “Are you a boy cat or a girl cat?”
“I told you, I’m not a cat!” The cat said indignantly. “But for the record, I’m a girl.”
Emily sighed. “Well, I guess it doesn’t matter, because now I’m going to have to find another place where I can just sit and think.”
The cat looked up at her, puzzled.
“Well, the whole reason why I came here is because I needed to think. Everywhere else is too noisy, and I’ve got a lot on my mind.”
The cat cocked an ear. “Go on.”
“My best friend Alice called yesterday and told my mom that she called about a school project even though we weren’t working on a project together and so I called her back and she was talking to Pandora Price, who is this really mean person at school and Alice and I hate her, and we call her the Prissy Panda, except she was over at Alice’s house and they weren’t arguing or anything, and I still can’t figure out why on earth she would pretend that we were working on a school project!”
“What’s your name?” Emily asked, suddenly aware of the fact that she had not yet asked this. The cat did not answer.
Suddenly, a rat scurried across the floor. The cat didn’t move.
“I thought cats liked eating mice and rats.”
“I told you,” The cat said. “I’m not a cat.”
Emily shrugged. “I have to go, anyway. It’s probably around lunch time now.
The cat looked as skeptical as a cat could manage. “It’s only 10:56,” she said.
Emily stepped back. “How did you know that?” she asked. The cat’s eyes glistened as hers widened.
The cat hesitated.
“Is it just you, who can do that?” Emily asked.
“Well, you certainly seem to lack of this skill.”
“But, I mean, can other cats do this kind of thing?”
“Cats? Of course not! They’re cute, but not nearly skilled enough.”
“Aren’t you- never mind.” Emily said. She remembered that the cat claimed that she wasn’t a cat.
“Aren’t I what? Aren’t I a cat? Do you ever listen?” the cat asked.
“If you’re not a cat, then, what are you?” Emily challenged her.
“And why should I tell you that?” the cat retorted.
“Because, otherwise I won’t believe you. If you’re not a cat, why do you look like one?”
The cat hesitated. “Sometimes,” she said. “Things aren’t necessarily what they look like.”
Emily sighed, exasperated.
“And anyway, if I were a cat,” the cat started, “I wouldn’t be able to talk.”
“If things aren’t necessarily what they look like, then how can things be what they sound like?” Emily asked.
The cat glared at Emily. “I don’t know,” She said in an annoyed tone. “But I’m not a cat. You and your species are just too ignorant to understand that.” She said the word “species” with a sneer, but Emily could almost hear a hint of longing, or regret, when the cat said it.
“I don’t know what you are, or why I’m even talking to you, but I need to get going.”
The cat widened her eyes and looked up at Emily. It was then when Emily realized that the cat was quite small for her species: she was only about the size of a slightly larger-than-normal teapot. “What, did I say something?” She asked.
“Oh, yes. You did. You might just be too ignorant to understand.”
The cat looked genuinely hurt. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I got a bit carried away, I guess.” If it was possible, her eyes widened even more. “Really, I truly am.” She paused. “Please? Won’t you stay just a bit longer?”
Emily crossed her arms. It was hard to resist the cat’s adorable eyes, her purring voice gnawing at Emily’s heart. But still.
“I really, truly am sorry. You see,” she said, and paused for a second again. “Well- it’s just that it’s one my flaws, you see, saying thing that I don’t mean to say… and often they’re quite rude.”
“Oh, all right, but only for a few minutes, okay?” Emily gave in.
“How many minutes is ‘a few?’” the cat asked.
“You want to time me, don’t you. Well, I suppose five more minutes would do.”
“All right. At 11:07, you should go.”
“I-” Emily was flabbergasted. Why would the cat want her to stay, and then suddenly time her until it would be time for her to go? It was all suspicious. And why did the cat talk? Where was her family, what was her name? And why did she constantly say that she wasn’t a cat?
“Wait- I’ve got loads of questions, and I want answers-”
“I never said I would answer any questions. I never promised you anything. Can’t you give a woman some peace?”
“So you’re a woman!”
“So what are you?”
“I’m annoyed,” She retorted.
“Oh, really?” Emily’s face turned slightly pink. She was hot with frustration. Her foot involuntarily stamped. “Well, you know what? I’m annoyed too. Because the only reason why I’m here is for peace and quiet, and you know what I get? I get a talking cat! And though I’m ten times her size, she happens to have a bigger mouth than I do!”
“Would you stop yelling? I hate it when you do that. And besides, I’m not a cat.”
There was a long silence.
“It’s 11:07.” The cat said nastily. Emily got up and left, without any goodbye.
Emily stormed all the way home.
The rest of the weekend dragged on, and Emily could barely find a spare second to herself.
Emily was a little disturbed by Alice’s attitude towards her earlier. And even more troubled by the fact that the Panda was at Alice’s house. She decided to call Alice, and see how things went. But there had to be a point of the phone call… Emily came up with the weak but passable “Are you free next Friday?” call. It wasn’t perfect, since it would normally be a very short call. But she tried it anyway.
Emily dialed the number. Her fingers were usually so used to dialing Alice’s telephone number that she could do it with her eyes closed. Today, however, Emily had a slight difficulty remembering the number, there was so much on her mind. “212, 769, 359…” Emily repeated the first nine digits of the number continuously, until finally she remembered the final “1”.
“What?” Alice sighed as she picked up the receiver. Alice had “Caller ID” installed in her home, so she had already known that it was Emily who was calling.
“I- are you free on Friday?” Emily bursted.
“No!” Alice said, a little too quickly.
Alice sighed. “We’ll work this out in school, okay?”
“Well, then, why don’t we each make a list of the days that we’re free in the next few weeks, and bring it to school!” Emily was determined.
“But- oh, fine, okay then! Just leave me alone for five minutes!”
And with that, Emily heard a click. Alice had hung up.
The next day was Monday. Emily sat in the back row of the bus, where she was sure she would not be disturbed by Pandora. She waited for Alice to plop down next to her, but nothing happened until finally a rather pudgy boy named Peter sat down next to her. He took up more than half of the seat.
She met Alice at Mrs. Binns’ classroom. Mrs. Binns was a math teacher at Emily’s school. Emily liked her; she was very calm and nice, and extremely intelligent. Emily knew that she wasn’t the brightest in math, but she was secretly glad that she was placed in Mrs. Binns’ class. The other teacher, Mrs. Nettle, who everyone called Mrs. Needle, was said to be awfully mean. Neither Alice nor Pandora was in Emily’s math group. Emily decided to sit next to a girl called Margaret Berg, who was considerably nice, not that Emily had ever spoken a word to her.
“Hello, Margaret. Do you mind if I sit here?” Emily asked politely.
“Sure!” Margaret had replied, eagerly. Her long, auburn hair was somewhat curly. She had bangs that nearly covered her eyes. Freckles dotted her cheeks. She wore pale jeans and a white blouse. She looked okay to Emily.
By the time lunch came, Emily’s stomach was growling. She hurried over to the small table where she and Alice usually sat. But the table was completely deserted. Emily glanced around. Alice was standing a couple of feet away from her. “Hey, Alice.”
“So… when are you free?” Emily inquired.
“Well… Not really anytime soon.”
“Erm… July fifteenth.”
Emily raised her eyebrows. “It’s not even March yet,” she said. She knew that Alice was lying. It was as though a big, heavy rock had landed in her stomach.
Alice’s blonde pigtails swayed as she turned towards Pandora’s table. “There’s space over there!” She said.
“There’s room for one person. Over here, there’s a whole table.” Emily said bitterly.
“I guess one of us will have to sit over there.”
Alice was gone.
Emily was thoroughly shocked. Alice was the one who was supposed to be good at math, yet she accidentally-on-purpose let slip that there was no other way for them to sit together. Emily walked over to the table where Leanne, Margaret, and Katie sat. “Is it okay if I sit here?” she asked.
“Sure!” Margaret said.
“But- well, isn’t Alice-” Katie started. Katie had darker skin, with black curly hair““`.
Emily shook her head. “She isn’t coming.”
Margaret looked sympathetic. “Why, what happened?”
“She just doesn’t like me anymore, I guess. Now she’s friends with Pandora Price.” Emily said.
Leanne sighed. “Gosh, that must be awful. Alice never really seemed like the kind of person who would befriend Pandora.” She had caramel colored hair that was long and straight.
“I know.” Emily whispered. “We used to call her ‘The Panda’.”
Katie laughed. “That’s a good one. And she looks like one too, with her black hair and dark eyeliner!”
Emily felt slightly better when she left the cafeteria.
Emily passed the derelict Papercuts store on her way home from school. By now, she was sure that she had imagined the whole scene with the talking cat. But there was a small nagging feeling in the pit of her stomach that kept telling her to go inside, go inside. As she passed the Papercuts store, Emily heaved one deep breath and slowly opened the creaking door to the former shop.
Almost immediately, Emily coughed and blinked from the dust. There was a slim ray of light that shined through the window, making the dust easier to see. Emily shivered. And there, in the gleam of the light, Emily saw her. She gasped, horrified. Bright green eyes flashed towards her. There it was. The silhouette of a hunched, mangy cat.
“C-Cat?” Emily stuttered.
“That is not my name,” The cat said.
“Obviously,” the cat sneered.
“That is not my name.”
“Then what is?” Emily retorted, somewhat annoyed at how the cat had not yet confided in her this detail, yet expected her to know it all the same.
“Nothing, nothing, go away!” The cat moaned.
“Really, what should I call-”
The cat glared fiercely. “I have no name. Not anymore.” Suddenly, Emily caught a flicker of sadness on the cat’s face.
“What happened?” Emily asked, concerned.
“Get out!” The cat said, suddenly and sharply.
“I said get out!” She snarled.
“I-” Emily started, then saw the frightening glare on the cat’s face. “All right, all right! I’m going!”
Emily ran out of the store and hurried home.
The next day at school, Emily caught Pandora stealing a third grader’s ten-dollar bill in the cafeteria.
Emily glared at her. “Like you needed the money!”
Pandora turned around sharply. Her raven black, oily hair swirled around with her. She had beady brown eyes, with eyelids that were narrowed so that her eyes looked like slits. Emily saw Pandora glance down at her bowl of spaghetti with tomato sauce. She smiled in a false way. Then, before Emily could do anything about it, she threw the bowl at her, dumping its contents on her victim. Emily felt tears rushing out of her eyes, like wet little soldiers trying to break through a barricade, which were Emily’s closed eyelids. It was her good shirt, and she would have to sit through the day covered in wet slop. And everyone would be looking at her…
“Take that, twerp!” Pandora sneered. It was the worst thing she could possible have done. Everyone looked at Emily, and with one glance, the whole cafeteria errupted in laughter. Emily tried to drown out the world around her by slowly walking over to the table next to Pandora’s, the one where Katie and Leanne and Margaret, the only three people who weren’t laughing hysterically, sat. But on her way over to the table, she saw something that, if possible, made her feel even worse. It was a girl, with bouncy, blonde pigtails, who was laughing. She was laughing at her, cackling, shrieking, bubbling with laughter. Emily felt a pit at the bottom of her stomach. It was Alice.
Emily sat with Margaret, Katie, and Leanne for the next few days. Alice made no attempt to keep their friendship together, and Emily didn’t want to ever think about her again. Unfortunately, this was impossible, for on Thursday, Alice decided to make her move.
Emily was taking her usual detour on the way to her lunch table, in order to bypass Alice’s and Pandora’s, when Alice started to follow her. Emily kept on walking, though glancing nervously from side to side. Finally, Alice stopped. Right in front of Margaret, Leanne, and Katie.
“Hi,” Alice said. She had an unusual sharpness to her voice. “Where are you going?”
“Why are you sitting here?” Alice demanded.
“I’m sitting with my friends.” Emily thought this was a safe term to use in order to describe her peers, now that she had been eating lunch with them for about a week.
“They’re your friends? Them?” Alice sneered.
“Yes,” Emily said.
“Why am I even talking to you?” Alice said. “You want to be friends with people like that?”
“They’re nice!” Emily defended them.
“I bet they don’t even wear-”
“Look at your friends!”
“Pandora’s cool,” Alice said in a tone that pushed Emily over the edge.
“Stop it!” Emily was close to bursting into tears. “Stop it! I bet you’ll be picking on little kids for their lunch money now, won’t you!”
Alice was stunned.
“Go away!” Emily said. She looked around, and realized that everyone had been watching her little fight with Alice. She turned beet red and walked over to an empty table, all by herself, where she could cry and nobody would notice.
Emily decided to stop by the Papercuts store again. She slowly pushed the unlocked door open and walked inside. “Hello?” She called.
“Hello,” The cat said.
“I don’t know what to do,” She said, and she told the entire story to the cat, who just nodded every once in a while.
“I understand,” She said. “I want to tell you about my life. I think then you’ll know what to do.”
“At first, I was born to a mother of six. My mother was a cat. So were my siblings. I was not,” The cat began. “I had certain… abilities. I was born speaking Cat, English, and Ibis-”
“Ibis?” Emily questioned.
“You know, the bird. Anyway, I could tell time from my head. And I had another power. I just didn’t know it at the time.”
“What was it?” Emily asked eagerly.
“Not now. But my family was afraid of me. My owner was too. So I was shipped off to another home. There was a nice family there too. I decided to stop using my powers, with hope that they would keep me. And they weren’t afraid of me, they loved me. So they kept me. They fed me well, they named me Mary. We were all happy. But something odd happened. Years went by. Years, and years. Mr. and Mrs. Chaplin died, and eventually their children did, too. But I remained young and alive. People found me and took me to a shelter. I went through 7 families but still was alive. I had not yet died. I was special. One day, a young girl decided to adopt me. She was Lily. She was so sweet, and kind, and loving. I loved her, too. She called me… I can’t say it. She used to tell me her stories, and it was so hard to keep quiet when she talked. But I resisted, and she kept me for 7 years.
“Until one day, Lily was telling me about how she was being made fun of. She told me how she was being made fun of by some schoolmates when I spoke. I spoke to her. And she screamed, and she told me that I wasn’t a cat. And she took me out, and left me on the streets. And here I am. Abandoned. Lonely. I miss Lily. I loved her. I was so devastated. And I am dying. Dying, Emily. Dying. I won’t live any longer than a year or so. I will be a cat.”
Emily suddenly felt so sorry for the cat. She looked at the poor thing, and saw a tear running down it’s face.
“I know what you mean,” Emily said. “I’m not supposed to dwell on things like this. I’m supposed to move on, right?”
“Yes,” The cat said. “We’re all trying to be puzzle pieces. We’re all trying to fit in. Sometimes we can’t. We just have to move on.”
“Why can’t you live forever anymore?” Emily asked.
“It’s because there are some things that can’t heal.”
“I’ll be your friend,” Emily said. “I’m not afraid of you. And I’m going to be friends with Margaret, Leanne, and Katie. I’m not going to be obsessed with Alice anymore.”
“Good,” Said the cat.
“You can come home with me,” Emily said.
“All right,” the cat said.
So the cat followed Emily home.
Age 12, Grade 7