I wasn't used to cats or, for that matter, any other life form that seemed so upset and vulnerable. Their pointy, triangular faces, their incessant mews, their perfect little paws and claws and plump bald bellies were so very different from what I knew because all I really knew was a dog named Cleo (to my way of thinking Marty the land shark didn't count).
"I'm calling this one Sugarplum," Amanda declared, cradling the all-white kitten in her cupped hands and rocking him or her back and forth.
"Then I'm calling this one..." Timmy hesitated, as if he had prematurely pressed his buzzer on Jeopardy! and didn't really have an answer for Alex. "Um... um... Blackie," he said triumphantly.
At the time this seemed perfectly appropriate and original. "I don't have a name for this one," said Keith, holding little Mr. Tux, his voice trailing off in a manner we all recognized as a potential preamble to tears.
"Me either," I said, gently stroking the one with the mustache. Secretly I was pleased with the way our game of "musical kittens" had worked out. In my opinion, Poncho Villa was the best, the runt and my favorite.
Suddenly Keith laid Mr. Tux on the ground and made a lunge for Timmy's kitten.
"I want Blackie. Who says he belongs to you? Give him to me, he's mine."
Timmy sprang to his feet, pulling Blackie into the security of his chest as he backed away.
"Get off me or I'm telling Mum." Ordinarily, especially if there was nothing much going on, Amanda and I might have looked on as the two of them got into it, Keith bigger and stronger, Timmy tougher and more resilient, their fights guaranteed to end in tear-streaked dirty red cheeks all round. But on this occasion, Amanda's maturity and wisdom were their undoing.
"Do you really think your mum will let you keep him?" she asked.
I wasn't sure whether the question was directed at Keith or Timmy, but Keith latched onto this perspective, shaking his head. "Not after you killed our goldfish."
"Did not," said Timmy but without conviction.
"I know my mum and dad won't let me have a kitten or a puppy," said Amanda, wistfully. "I ask them every birthday and Christmas and they always say no."
Though no one turned to look at me or ask me directly, I felt as though I was the kittens' last hope of finding a home. The thing was I'd never really considered why my parents didn't have a cat or dog of their own. They both seemed to like Cleo, so what was holding them back? Maybe all I had to do was ask.
"I know," said Amanda, briefly offering Sugarplum up to the heavens before planting a kiss on the kitten's pink nose. "We'll go ask the Cat Lady what to do."
This should have been my cue to raise an eyebrow and work a little apprehension into the reply "Cat Lady?" but Keith beat me to it. "Do you know her?" he said, with the kind of veiled reverence normally reserved for celebrities.
"No, but I know where she lives and my dad's met her and I heard him telling my mum 'she's a little strange but well-meaning.' " I had never heard of the so-called Cat Lady, making her no less mysterious than Bigfoot or the Wizard of Oz. And what did Amanda's dad mean by "strange but well-meaning"?
"Come on, it's just down the street," said Amanda, already ten yards ahead of us. "We can leave the bikes here."
So, armed with a kitten each, Keith still whining over being dealt Mr. Tux and the fact that none of us were prepared to swap, we marched off in the direction of a small cottage hidden behind a forest of vines and dense thorny vegetation. If we had celebrated American-style Halloween, this would have been the spooky house no kids in the neighborhood dared to hit up for trick or treat.
"What a pigsty," whispered Timmy as Amanda knocked on the dilapidated front door.
Excerpted from Ever By My Side by Dr. Nick Trout. Copyright © 2011 by Dr. Nick Trout. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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