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19

Cat Cross Their Graves

In the black predawn that enfolded the village, Lori slowed her running at last. Her heart was pounding hard, but pounding, now, more from her wild flight than from fear. Down in the village behind her, the courthouse clock struck five-thirty, its chimes wavering like underwater in the gusting wind. She ached with hunger. Mama wouldn't have let her go out in the night without eating and without another sweater. Well, Mama wouldn't have let her go out at one o'clock in the morning. No way. Mama would say, "You went out alone in the middle of the night, and look what happened!" But all the same Mama would hold her tight and be thankful she was home.

Except, she wasn't home. She didn't have a home.

She tried not to think about what that man might have done to her, what he meant to do. She'd never heard, not from Mama, not from the kids in foster care, of someone asking school questions before they did bad things to you. Those foster-care people in Greenville, after Mama died, they hadn't told her nothing like that-but then, they hadn't told her anything straight. And then that one welfare woman, she took the money from Mama's purse, Lori saw her take it.

She'd still had almost ten dollars of her own, in her book bag, money that Mama gave her for an allowance. But then in that first home that was like a big jail, they took her book bag, too, and when they gave it back, her money was gone.

She'd pitched a fit, just like Mama would've done. And that made 'em mad, they said she had some kind of mental disorder and shut her in a room by herself for a week. Of course they didn't give her money back. It was five foster homes later that she told welfare she had a pa, and they put her on the plane and sent her home, had a welfare person meet her and take her home to Pa.

She'd been so excited that she'd be with Pa again; and it'd been nice at first, just her and Pa, but then he saw her talking to that man on the street, old Mr. Lummins from the shoe shop. Pa got real mad, told her not to talk to no one. Then he found out she had a man teacher that she liked and he kept asking her questions about him. She didn't know what was wrong with Pa, he started getting real strange again, like before she and Mama left.

When she was little, before she and Mama moved away, Mama was so pale and didn't talk much, and then they moved. Packed up Mama's car and drove for five days to North Carolina where Mama had a friend, Bonnie, they could stay with and Mama went to work in the library in Greenville. After that, Mama was happy, she started to smile again and have fun; they were happy there, just the two of them.

Dawn was coming, the sky getting lighter. She kept looking behind her and listening for his footsteps or the car. She hoped he was dead drunk, out like a light-or better, that he was dead. There was no one on the street. The wind hit hard against her back, pushing her so hard uphill she could almost lean against it. Lights were coming on in a few houses. She wondered how long she'd have to wait until Ms. Yardley woke up. Wondered if she could be rude and ask for something to eat. Maybe old women slept really late and she'd have to hide in the bushes forever.

Was she crazy to come up here and try to ask that old lady questions?

In the yard of a tan frame house, she could see a faucet beside the steps. Crossing to it, she drank from it, getting her shoes wet, then ran because maybe they'd hear water banging in the pipes and come out. She thought she'd never reach Genelle Yardley's number, but then at last there it was. She stood looking up at Ms. Yardley's tall old house. It was the color of pale butter, its walls covered with round shingles like fish scales.

Above the windows were fancy decorations like a fussy old lady wearing lace. Victorian, Mama would say. The house stood close to the street and close to the house on its left. Its yard seemed to be all on the right behind a high wall that was shingled like the house, with fancy stuff on top. Gingerbread. A Victorian house with fish-scale shingles and gingerbread, but not a storybook house. Just strange, and different. Stepping close to the wrought-iron gate, she peered in-and caught her breath.

A faint glow washed across the garden from little lights down low among the flowers, mushroom-shaped lights like houses for tiny people, maybe for The Borrowers. Maybe it was, after all, an enchanted place. She wanted to be in there. Safe, all safe like in The Secret Garden, behind its locked wall. Far at the back, she could make out pale round boulders lining a little dry streambed. Suddenly, looking in, she felt a ripple down her back, and she spun around.

But there was no one on the street or in the other yards. Well, she'd heard nothing; just a feeling. She could make out no one standing in shadow, no movement, but she was not comfortable there.

Moving quickly, she lifted the wrought-iron latch. She felt a surge of excitement that it wasn't locked. She slid inside, closing the gate behind her. Wishing she could lock it, she hurried down the stone walk between flowers and little trees. There were surprises everywhere, flowers among big boulders, benches tucked under the trees. A roofed stone terrace ran along the side of the house, and glass doors looked out on the garden. In one, a light shone. Did Ms. Yardley keep the light on all night? Maybe because she wasn't well? When Mama was so sick, she didn't sleep much except if she took pain pills, then she slept a lot.

The glass door was open, she could see the thin white curtain at the side blowing in and out. Maybe a nurse had come real early. When they took Mama to the hospital and Lori had to go to juvenile, she didn't see Mama anymore. They wouldn't take her to see Mama. Mama died alone. That hurt so bad. Approaching the glass, she paused.

Maybe the old lady was undressed in there, with nurses doing things to her that she didn't want to see.

Maybe she should go away now. Go back to the library before it got light, hide in her cave again. She didn't know what to say to Genelle Yardley, she didn't know how to explain why she'd come.

Except, that old woman had worked for Pa for a long time before he got mean and silent. She would know things about Pa that she, Lori, didn't know, that she needed to know. If she wasn't too sick, maybe Genelle Yardley could help her understand why Pa had turned so mean. She wished her stomach would quit growling. She hoped Ms. Yardley wasn't so sick that she was cross and wouldn't talk, like Pa.

Drawing close enough to the glass to just peek in, she saw that the room was empty. The bedclothes thrown back, a wheelchair standing in the corner. She could smell bacon, and syrup warming. That made her stomach really rumble. Was Ms. Yardley in the kitchen eating breakfast? She stood looking in, wondering if she should knock.

"Good morning," a voice said behind her. She spun around.

Down at the end of the terrace, in the shadows, there was a bench, and someone sitting there.

"Good morning," the woman said again. "Have you come for breakfast, child?"

"I I'm looking for Ms. Genelle Yardley."

"I'm Genelle. Come sit down. Cora Lee's cooking pancakes. She'll make more than I can ever eat, she always does."

The thought of pancakes was like a warm light in a dark cold room. Lori approached the woman. Drawing near, she saw the shiny metal tubing of a walker standing beside the bench where she sat, and a cart with an oxygen tank on it, like when Mama was sick. Was this Cora Lee a visiting nurse come to cook Ms. Yardley's breakfast? Mama had had a visiting nurse, arranged for by the welfare people, but that nurse didn't make breakfast, she'd been sour and unpleasant; Lori hadn't liked her any better than that first welfare woman.

"Come, child. Come sit down."

Lori went to sit beside the old lady. She was tall, you could tell that even when she was sitting, tall and very thin. She had dark hair with gray in it, cropped close to her head. Her eyes were so dark they looked black. Her face was lined and sagging and her eyes were red, as if she'd been crying. She was dressed in a pink satin robe and pink slippers. She had a wadded-up tissue in her hand.

Lori remembered her now, from the shop office. But she'd looked stronger then, not so frail. The old woman's mention of pancakes and the smell of bacon cooking made her lick her lips. Ms. Yardley must have been weeping for a long time because there was a really big wad of tissues in the wastebasket beside the bench. Lori sat sideways on the bench, not quite facing her; she didn't like to look at someone who was crying.

"I like to eat early," Ms. Yardley said, tossing the tissue in the wastebasket. "I like to see the dawn come." She looked hard at Lori. "Even this morning, I love the dawn. Especially this morning. You can call me Genelle."

Lori looked at her with interest.

"You must like the morning, too, child, or you wouldn't be out so early. Are you all right? Is something the matter?"

Lori nodded that she was all right, then shook her head. No, nothing was the matter. She thought it funny that Ms. Yardley didn't ask why a child was out alone, so early, almost still the middle of the night.

"What is your name?"

"My my name" Lori could see, behind the old lady, a little table set for two, with a white cloth and wicker garden chairs. She listened to the comforting kitchen sounds from inside the house, the clink of plates and the scraping of a spoon on a pan.

The old woman squinted, leaning closer. "Could you be Lori? Lori Reed? Jack Reed's child?"

Lori was so surprised she wanted to leap up and run away. "I I'm Lori." How did she know? Did Ms. Yardley remember her? She'd only been six, a baby. Now Genelle would start asking questions.

But she didn't, she only smiled, and blew her nose, which was already red from blowing. "I'm sorry about the tears. A dear friend has died. But surely that isn't why you have come?"

"Oh," Lori said, embarrassed. "No, it isn't. I'm sorry."

"I'm not weeping for her, she was in her eighties. Though it was an ugly, terrible death. I'm weeping for me because I'll miss her."

Lori didn't know what to say. She didn't really know how to think about people dying. It was hard enough to think about Mama. She didn't know what to think about dying. Grown-up talk about death made an emptiness come in her. "It's a nice garden," she said. "It's like The Secret Garden." Probably this old woman had never heard of The Secret Garden.

But Genelle's face lit right up. Her wrinkles deepened into a smile and her eyes brightened. "That's exactly what it's like! That's what I meant it to be when I planned this garden, when I had the wall built. A secret garden. You're a reader, child."

"I love The Secret Garden, I almost know it by heart. And have you read the Narnia books?"

"Oh, many times. I still read them every few years. I almost know them by heart! Sometimes Asian comforts me as no formal religion could ever do." The old woman laughed. "I decided long ago that when I die, that's the first place I'll go. To sail with Reepicheep into Asian's country and on, 'beyond the end of the world.'"

"Through the water lilies," Lori whispered, enchanted. "In a little coracle among the water lilies."

"Exactly. 'Where the waves grow sweet, there is the utter east.'" Reaching, Genelle took Lori's hand. "Why are you out so early? I'll tell Cora Lee to set another place." She seemed not to expect an answer. Or maybe she'd forgotten her question. Lori remained quiet.

"There's a little cat farther up in the garden," Genelle said. "Do you see her? How intently she's watching us. Up by the wall, among those white flowers." Genelle pointed up among the round boulders.

Lori looked up the garden. In the first faint gleam of dawn, she could see a cat crouched among the shadowed rocks, a dark silhouette that at first had seemed only another shadow. It was definitely a cat, looking down at them. It made her think of the library cat. But Dulcie wouldn't be way up here. There were cats all over the village, lots of cats.

"I used to have cats," Genelle said, "I'd always had cats until my Melody died. When Melody went, I grieved so. I never let another cat into my life, not ever." She reached for another tissue, but she wasn't crying now. "I remember that you used to go to the library with your mother when you were little; you learned to read long before kindergarten. I used to tell stories to the children on Saturdays; do you remember? You used to come to listen, you were always there for Saturday-morning stories, curled up in a corner of the window seat."

Lori remembered those story hours, sitting snug with the other children all among the cushions. How could she have forgotten that Genelle Yardley was the storyteller? Ms. Yardley mustn't tell Pa that she was here.

But better she tell Pa than that horrible little man with his rope and scary questions. The memory of his hands snatching her and hurting her, the feel of the rope tight around her; being unable to move or get out of that place filled her again. Afraid she would die there; a drowning, falling emptiness, with no one to cling to.

Genelle squeezed Lori's hand. "I'm sorry about your mama; I read it in the paper. I supposed you'd come back after she died, come to live with Jack."

Shaken, Lori nodded.

"It's hard to talk about death. My friend Patty wasn't young, and she'd made a good life. But your mama was so young. She went before her time, and that was very hard for you." Genelle touched Lori's chin, lifting her face so their eyes met. "Death is not the end, child."

Lori just looked at her. She didn't know what to say. She squeezed Genelle's hand. "The stories you used to read to us in the library, they were good stories. I liked Bran and the Celtic kings."

Genelle smiled. "You remember the correct way to say Celtic. I hear Cora Lee coming with breakfast; she'll be happy that we have company." Reaching for her walker and pulling it to her, the old woman rose unsteadily, leaning into the metal cage. Lori wanted to steady it as she had for Mama, but the old woman seemed so self-sufficient that she was shy about offering help. And the old woman moved slowly to the table.

"Cora Lee lives down the street," Genelle said as she swung herself from the walker into the wicker chair, shoving the walker aside. "She's my neighbor, one of the four ladies who come to help me out. They've been very kind." She hadn't touched her oxygen cart. Mama, when she was so sick, if she got the least bit excited she had to put on the oxygen mask. "Cora Lee's a singer, she's with our Little Theater. She's quite wonderful."

Cora Lee appeared on the terrace carrying a tray. The smell of breakfast, of bacon and pancakes and syrup, wrapped around Lori like warm arms. Made her long for Mama and for their little pine kitchen in Greenville where they'd been so cozy. Lori knew Cora Lee, too, knew this tall woman, knew her from the library when she, Lori, was little. She was the first lady with darker skin that Lori had ever seen; she used to come in the reference room and talk with Mama. She was so beautiful with her close-cropped curly black hair and her dusky complexion, with her creamy silk dresses and long legs. Lori hoped Cora Lee wouldn't remember her. She kept very quiet, and she breathed easier again when Cora Lee went back to the kitchen for another plate and silverware and a glass of milk.

"When I die," Genelle said, "I'm leaving the household things to Cora Lee and her three friends to help pay for their new home. Oh, they know about it, it's no secret."

Lori squirmed and stared at her hands.

"Child, one can talk about death. Death is a natural thing. At my age, I have a special license to talk about anything I choose-I can say what I wish!"

That made Lori smile.

"I figure if the four ladies have an estate sale of my things, they can clean up. There are some fine old antiques and paintings, and my jewelry. The house and some other property I own go to the library. I have no one else." Genelle looked at her, gently amused. "I'm quite matter-of-fact about death, it doesn't scare me anymore. Now I'm more curious than afraid. Like Reepicheep, I keep wondering what exactly does come next. What that world will be like."

"Does something come next?" Lori whispered. "How can you know that? How could anyone be sure?"

Cora Lee sat down at the table where she could see the garden, and served Genelle and Lori's plates from a huge stack of pancakes. She took two small cakes for herself, passed the bacon around, and poured two cups of coffee.

"You can't doubt that there's more after this life?" Genelle said softly to Lori. "Sometimes, don't you sense your mother nearby?"

"Maybe," Lori whispered, glancing uneasily at Cora Lee. "I want to."

Genelle put sugar and cream in her coffee, looking over at Lori as casually as if they were talking about the weather. "Someone once said that this world is a nursery for souls."

"Like school lessons?" Lori said with dismay.

Genelle laughed, and slathered butter on her pancakes. "No, I don't think of it like that." Lori had already buttered her pancakes and poured on syrup; she tried to eat slowly, but they were so good. She couldn't get them and the hot crisp bacon down fast enough. "I think we just dive into this world," Genelle said, "and start swimming-among all its splendor and its pain. That we make the best strokes we can, swim the best we can. That we make a little glory around us, or we don't. Does that make any sense to you?"

Lori nodded, chewing. She wasn't sure. A picture came in her head of Mama diving down through green water to be with her, but then turning and flying away again too soon. Genelle looked up at Cora Lee. "You look tired, my dear."

Cora Lee nodded. "I guess we're both tired, grieving for Patty. Did you sleep at all?"

"Yes, my dear. I slept. My grieving is partly a celebration of Patty's life and what she did. It it's the shock of how she died that's so hard."

Cora Lee nodded.

"But you did not sleep well," Genelle said.

"There there was some excitement at our place. We were up late." Cora Lee's voice was soft as velvet. Instead of saying more, she opened the morning paper that she had brought on the breakfast tray and handed it to Genelle.

Large on the front page was the picture of a skull and part of a skeleton. A man in a white coat knelt over the small bones half buried in the dirt with weeds growing around them. The bones of a child. Shivering, Lori rose and stood behind Genelle where she could read over her shoulder.

The grave of a child was discovered yesterday at 2792 Willow Lane, when Cora Lee French, one of the four owners, was digging weeds in the back garden. Another resident, Mavity Flowers, was also present, along with the police chief's wife, Charlie Harper. When Ms. French uncovered the child's small hand

The picture of the child's skeleton shocked Lori so that she backed away. Cora Lee reached to take her hand. "It scared me," Cora Lee said. "Reminded me of something that happened when I was a little girl. The police came-Captain Harper and both detectives and then the coroner. And later a forensic anthropologist. But the paper says that." Cora Lee did not talk down to Lori, like in juvenile hall where some of the case workers had talked down to her because she was twelve. Like if you weren't grown up, you couldn't understand anything.

The identity of the child is not known, nor has the cause or date of death yet been determined. The child has a wound in the skull. Police have cordoned off the area and guards are posted. They request that residents stay away. Forensic anthropologist Dr. Alan Hyden has

Lori read with more interest, her fear subsiding. No one knew how old the body was, or if it was a boy or a girl. Couldn't they tell? The child was about nine, Younger than me, Lori thought. The police and anthropologists were still digging, as if there might be more bodies, when the paper went to press. As she read, Lori glanced up the garden at the cat among the boulders. It was still watching them, staring so hard that it almost seemed to be listening. And it did look like Dulcie. Same black, curving stripes, same tilt of its head. Beside Lori, Genelle watched the cat, too. When Lori thought about dead children, she thought about throwaway children in the foster homes. That was what the cook in juvenile called them, throwaway children that no one wanted. She watched Genelle pull her oxygen mask to her, and breathe deeply. She didn't realize she was pressing against the old lady until she felt Genelle's arm around her. She hoped she wouldn't be afraid to walk back down the hill to the library now, after seeing that picture.

She'd be safe once she was inside, though. He wouldn't dare come in there after her, would he? Had he killed that child, years ago? How long had that body been there? When she went into the library, if she put the screws back in the window lock, maybe he couldn't get in. The rest of the library was locked tight. When she looked up, Cora Lee was watching her almost as if she knew what Lori was thinking-and as if she really cared.


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