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Cat Cross Their Graves

"Genelle's asleep," Wilma Getz said, taking Lori's hand. Lori watched the former parole officer uncertainly, then glanced up at Cora Lee. She'd seen Ms. Getz in the library. Did Ms. Getz remember her from when she was little and she had gone there with Mama? Did Ms. Getz know who she was? A parole officer had to be nosy, had to be the kind to ask questions.

There were two other women with her, a small wrinkled woman who always wore a white maid's uniform-Lori had seen her around the village-and a tall, redheaded woman who was younger and had freckles. They were sitting in a small waiting room at one end of the hospital corridor, a flowery room with magazines, nothing like the empty, medicine-smelling corridors. Cora Lee drew Lori to a couch and introduced them, using only Lori's first name. Lori tried to mind her manners. Mavity Flowers lived with Cora Lee. The redheaded woman's last name was Harper; Lori was sure she was the wife of the chief of police. Oh boy, she'd really stepped in it. Even if Pa hadn't told anyone else that she was gone, by now he might have asked the cops if a runaway child had been found. And the chief's wife would likely know all about that.

Mrs. Harper wasn't dressed like Lori thought of a cop's wife; she wore faded jeans and a pale-blue sweatshirt over a green turtleneck, and muddy, scuffed boots that smelled of horse. Her hair was really red, long and kinky, and was held back with a piece of brown yarn crookedly tied. When she rose and left the room, Lori was afraid she'd call the station. She'd said she was going for coffee, and to see if Genelle was still sleeping.

"Sometimes," Mrs. Harper said, "the nurses get busy and forget to come tell you when someone's awake." She looked at Lori. "They have cocoa. Or a Coke if you'd like."

"Cocoa, please," Lori said, swallowing.

Cora Lee said, "Mavity and Wilma and Charlie and I have already seen her. She got sleepy, but we thought we'd stay in case she wanted company again, or maybe a malt from the cafeteria, something besides hospital food." The waiting room was like a pretty parlor you'd see in North Carolina, with peach-colored walls and a flowered couch and matching flowery chairs. The only thing missing to make it into a little southern parlor, like their Greenville neighbors who had nicer houses than they did, was doilies on the arms or little figurines on a shelf. Sitting on the couch between Cora Lee and Ms. Getz, Lori didn't like to think that Genelle might not go home again. Mama died in a hospital. Alone.

"She asked for you," Ms. Getz said softly. "She's already stronger than when we brought her in."

"She was by the bookcase when she fell?" Lori asked.

Ms. Getz nodded.

"Why was she by the books, all alone, and without her oxygen?" Lori had such a sinking feeling Genelle might have been searching for a book for her, because they'd been talking about books. Because Genelle had asked if she'd read Roller Skates, and Lori had said no. "What book was she looking for?"

"She I don't know," Ms. Getz said quickly. "Quite a few books had fallen."

Cora Lee was studying Lori, her brown eyes deep and caring. "You know she has a lung disease, one that cannot be cured. It makes her weak, Lori. Easy to take a fall."

Lori nodded. "Cancer," she said softly. And she thought, Like Mama.

Cora Lee said, "As pressure in the lungs increases, one is apt to faint. It's not surprising that she fell. But what the doctors are looking at now is an increased pressure in the heart, too-pulmonary hypertension.

"Genelle doesn't want to do anything radical. She's willing to take her medication, but" Cora Lee put her slim hand gently on Lori's arm. Her nails were perfect ovals, not too long, prettily rounded, and polished a pale coral. "Does it make sense to you, Lori, that Genelle doesn't want surgery? Doesn't want any huge and cumbersome effort to prolong her life? That she doesn't want to linger when it's so hard for her to breathe, and will become harder?"

"It makes sense," Lori said, hurting inside. "What could the doctors do? What do they want to do?"

"They could put a shunt in her heart, to open the vein wider so there's less pressure. Genelle doesn't want to do that."

Lori tried to understand how Genelle felt. "I guess I guess she's not afraid."

"No," Cora Lee said. "She's not afraid. Genelle holds a clear vision of what she believes comes next, when we leave this world. I can only believe her, I have no reason not to."

"Nor do I," Ms. Getz said. She smoothed Lori's hair with a surprisingly gentle hand. She was a tall woman, and slim. She had what Mama would call good bones. She was wearing faded jeans, freshly washed and creased, a white turtleneck sweater that looked soft enough to be cashmere, and a tweed blazer with little flecks of pale blue among the tan and cream. Her brown boots were well polished. Though she had more than enough wrinkles to be a grandmother, she didn't look like a grandmother. She looked tougher and stronger than grandmothers in books and movies. Lori had never known either of her own grandmothers.

"Over the years," Ms. Getz said, "Genelle has collected works written by many scholars and medical people about an afterlife. Well, you can find proof of anything if you try; there's no way to know until we get there-but I'll throw in with Genelle."

Lori liked Ms. Getz. She talked to her, as did Genelle and Cora Lee, not as a child. They didn't talk down to her the way that welfare woman did. The little wrinkled lady in her white uniform, Mavity something, watched them and said nothing. Lori couldn't guess what she was thinking. She had no idea that there was another presence in the room until she heard a deep and steady purr. Looking around her and then down into Ms. Getz's shopping bag, she laughed out loud.

A pair of green eyes looked up at her from the depths of the bag, and Dulcie purred louder. Ms. Getz said, "Genelle was asking for my little cat, so I smuggled her in. You won't tell?"

Lori laughed again. "I won't tell." And as Lori leaned over to pet Dulcie, Mrs. Harper returned to say that Genelle was awake and they could see her, one or two at a time. "You go," Mrs. Harper said, touching Lori's shoulder.

Following Cora Lee, Lori felt cold and afraid. Afraid to see Genelle here in this hospital that, beyond the pretty parlor, was chill and unfriendly and smelled of medicine and sick people. Passing the partly open doors of the rooms, she could see people propped up in metal beds, or lying flat and pale with tubes sticking out, as if they were already half dead. Some were watching TV, though, and that was nicer.

Genelle Yardley was sitting up in bed beneath a white blanket and white sheets, reading a little paperback book that looked like all the weight she could hold in her pale hands. But when she saw Lori, she smiled, laid her book open across her lap, and put out her hand. Her smile shone bright, and her faded brown eyes looked so pleased that Lori didn't dare be afraid or uneasy.

"Will you read to me?" Genelle said when Lori sat down beside the bed in a straight wooden chair. "My eyes grow tired, even my hand gets tired. Do you know this book?"

Lori shook her head.

Genelle handed the thin volume to Lori, her finger marking the place. "I'm not very far, you could start again, I'd like that. It's a story written for grown-ups, but maybe you'll like a bit of it."

Lori opened to the first page, and was at once drawn into the story, "'The baloney weighted the raven down,'" she read, " 'and the shopkeeper almost caught him as he whisked out the delicatessen door. Frantically he beat his wings to gain altitude, looking like a small black electric fan. An updraft caught him and threw him into the sky. He circled'"

Cora Lee Watched the child and the old woman for a moment, then slipped away, quickly returning to the waiting room, to Wilma and Charlie and Mavity.

"I don't think she needs us anymore, for the moment. Moral support is wonderful, but a child with a book is better. Except" She looked at Wilma. "Genelle was asking earlier for your little cat again. Maybe she and Lori would both like to have her there."

Amused, sharing a secret look with Charlie, Wilma rose with her shopping bag. "I'll just hang the 'Do Not Disturb' sign on the door so no nurse walks in and finds a cat in the hospital. Who knows what that would stir up."

In Genelle's room, Wilma settled into a small upholstered chair and set Dulcie's shopping bag by the bed. Dulcie, looking out, met Lori's pleased glance, but Lori didn't stop reading. When the door was securely closed, Dulcie reared up out of the bag and jumped onto the bed.

Genelle wasn't as pale as Dulcie had expected. Lori sat close beside her on a straight chair, her feet dangling, her voice soft but clear. " 'One mausoleum was set away from the others by a short path. It was an old building'"As Lori read, Dulcie nosed the blanket and slipped underneath, out of sight. Gently Genelle reached under and stroked her ears.

"The front door itself was open," Lori read, "and on the steps there sat a small man in slippers. He waved at the raven as the bird swept down"

Dulcie purred and dozed, listening. This story always made her smile. Genelle was smiling, too.

'The raven was puffing for breath a little and he looked at the small man rather bitterly. "Corn flakes weren't good enough," he said hoarsely. "Bernard Baruch eats corn flakes, but you have to have baloney."

"Did you have trouble bringing it?" asked the small man, whose name was Jonathan Rebeck.

"Damn near ruptured myself." The raven grunted.

"Birds don't get ruptured," said Mr. Rebeck a little uncertainly.

"Hell of an ornithologist you'd make."

Dulcie thought Lori seemed to like the story, and surely she liked being allowed to read swear words. Dulcie put her head on Genelle's hand, purring. The sound of the child's voice and of a good story cheered them all, made the sterile room seem less like a hospital.

And it wasn't until much later, until Genelle slept again and Lori and Cora Lee had left, until Dulcie and Wilma were alone in the car that Wilma said, "She's been hiding in the library, right? That's what you didn't want to tell me."

Dulcie looked innocently at Wilma.

Turning out of the parking lot, Wilma reached to stroke the little tabby. "That's where you've been going, when you disappeared downstairs into the library basement. When I couldn't find you anywhere. That's where you've been when I thought you'd gone on out your cat door, then you would appear so suddenly, among the stacks."

Dulcie practiced making her green eyes wide, and knew she was fooling no one.

"I found tabby hairs on the basement air vent," Wilma told her. "Tabby hairs on the bricks behind the little bookcase. I wondered what you were up to. And then, I've seen Lori in the library carrying armloads of books, but she hasn't checked out any books. I didn't think too much about that until just a little while ago, when one of the staff called me.

"She didn't want to tell the head librarian. She'd found the bricks in the wall poked in every which way, and some of them out on the floor, leaving a gaping hole. When she got a flashlight and looked in, someone had hidden a blanket in there, and a thin mattress and a backpack."

Wilma looked sternly at Dulcie. "Had to be either a very clever homeless person or a child."

Dulcie licked her shoulder and said nothing.

Wilma turned onto their street. "No one has reported a child missing. I would have heard that. Nancy Barker also said she saw a man in the basement as she went down. He said he was looking for the large-print books, but something about him made her uneasy."

She looked hard at Dulcie. "Does Cora Lee know anything about that man, know who Lori's hiding from? Does Genelle? Whatever's going on with that child, Dulcie, whatever you've been keeping from me, it's time to spill it."

Wilma's tone let Dulcie know that her patience was at an end. That Dulcie had no further choice but to tell her.

| Cat Cross Their Graves | c