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34

Cat Cross Their Graves

Lori had never been in a jail or even a police station, only in the reception lobby of Greenville juvenile, and that was as ugly as a hospital and stank of disinfectant. This police station, though, smelled like fresh coffee. Cora Lee took her inside and left her there and said she'd come back to get her.

She'd washed her hair before she came to see Pa, and Cora Lee had loaned her a brand-new red sweatshirt and even bought her a pair of new sneakers. The little lobby had counters on two sides with a green plant on each of them. There was a barred door at one side, the door of a little cell; she could see the cot inside. She looked in thinking Pa would be there, but the cop who let her in said that was just a holding cell.

She didn't want to go back into the real jail. But it turned out she didn't have to. He told her to wait, and two officers brought Pa up to the front. Pa looked thinner, and whiter. Like maybe he hadn't eaten or slept very much. He didn't have on special prison clothes like in the movies. Not yet, she thought, getting scared. Just his own jeans and plaid shirt and work shoes. She stood looking at him and didn't know what to say. But Pa knelt right down and put out his arms, so she had to hug him, and she felt all funny inside.

The officer took them into the holding cell and shut them in. She didn't know if the door locked when he closed it. He stood outside the bars, and another cop came to stand with him. There was a woman officer behind the counter. What did they think, that Pa would make a break for it? Lori wondered how Pa liked being locked up the way he'd locked her up. Then she was ashamed of herself, ashamed of thinking that. Pa sat down on the bunk on the stained mattress, and put out his hand to her. "Lori?"

She sat down where he could take her hand but couldn't put his arm around her. She looked at him and didn't know what to say. He said, "I'm sorry, Lori. Sorry I locked you in." He tilted up her chin so he could look at her. "I was scared for you. Scared that man would find you, the man who killed other children. I didn't know what else to do. Didn't know how else to keep you safe. Then when you ran away, I was more scared. I looked for you, and looked for Fenner. I had no one to go to. Or thought I didn't," he said sadly.

"I know. I'm sorry, Pa. That I ran away. Maybe if you'd told me" She looked at him then, and felt all teary. "I thought"

"You thought I didn't love you."

She couldn't talk.

He pulled her over almost roughly and held her, and she started to cry and couldn't stop. He handed her the big red handkerchief he carried in his pocket to wipe his hands on the job. She blew her nose, then sat hiccupping. Pa pulled her close again, held her safe, like when she was little.

"I think the judge will give me home confinement, Lori. After arraignment, until the trial. If I can come home until the trial, will you help me take the plywood off? And wash the windows?"

"Yes, Pa! And clean the house. We can do that together."

"We can. I've been gone a long time, haven't I?"

"Yes, Pa."

"And now, I don't know how long I'll be home. You know I'll have to go to prison."

She nodded. She knew it but she didn't want to know it. "For how long, Pa?"

"No one will know until after the trial. Until I'm sentenced. I have to stop thinking of you as a little girl. We're going to have to make some decisions."

"What decisions, Pa?" She looked hard at him. "I'm not going back to juvenile. I'm not."

"What, then?"

"Cora Lee French wants me to live with her. Until until you come home again."

"Cora Lee French. The Little Theater singer."

She nodded. "Cora Lee, and Mavity Flowers and two other ladies. In-"

"In that house," Pa said, his light brown eyes wide with surprised. "Would you be all right with that?"

"I I think so. I don't have to think about those children." She shivered, but she wanted to make him understand. "They're not there, Pa. They're somewhere else, those children. Somewhere new and bright. They don't care about that place. Even if they did care," she said, "even if they came back sometimes, it would be all right."

"I see," he said, as if he didn't see at all.

"And Cora Lee and Mavity, I would be happy in that big house with them. They even have two dogs, Pa. Two nice big dogs."

Pa smiled for the first time, and hugged her and rumpled her hair like when she was little. And she thought maybe it would be all right. She meant for it to be all right. Maybe Pa wouldn't be in prison very long. Cora Lee said that when you were twelve, life was a tangle of choices. That sometimes you had to make really hard choices, that that's what growing up was all about. Lori guessed that Pa was right, she couldn't be a little child anymore. At least not all the time.

Pots of cyclamens lined the tearoom windows, red and pink brighter than Christmas candy, their colors shutting out the stormy sky. A blustery wind rattled the glass but within the cozy, paneled room firelight blazed. Before the licking flames on the brick hearth, a table had been set with high tea. The aroma of hot, savory party fare, of broiled crab sandwiches and little broiled sausages on toast, and of rum cake and other rich sweets mingled with the scent of brewing tea. The guest of honor sat at the head of the table. She had come directly from the hospital. She wore a red cashmere dress, warm and soft and becoming. Her white hair was freshly washed. She was tucked into a wheelchair, a red blanket over her knees, her oxygen tank hooked rakishly to the side of the chair in the manner of a ranger's rifle carelessly slung from the saddle.

The party was smaller than originally planned, cozier, less formal. Wilma Getz represented Friends of the Library but she did not plan to make a speech. On Genelle's left, Lori was seated where she could see the fire; on her right, with her back warmed by the blaze, was Lucinda Greenlaw. On down the table from Lucinda were Mavity Flowers, Wilma, and Cora Lee French. Down from Lori sat Ryan Flannery and Charlie Harper, both the younger women polished and scrubbed and wearing the first skirts either had had on since New Year's-and Dillon Thurwell, who was all cleaned up, too. Dillon wore a pale blue cashmere sweater, a matching skirt, pumps, and sheer stockings. The ladies were all decked out in party finery and Genelle was enjoying every minute, though she often had to hold up her oxygen mask to breathe at all comfortably.

Genelle watched the waiter, in his white crisp jacket, refill her teacup. This young, strapping fellow looked like he spent his off hours surfing, maybe lived for surfing, supporting his habit with this steady job. It made her both frightened and glad that this young man would be surfing and partying in Molena Point long after she was gone. She watched the three cats, tucked up complacently on the window seat among a tangle of bright brocade cushions. Frowning, she studied the far corner, where the cats were looking, all three very still, their ears sharp, their eyes wide with some secret excitement. Dulcie's green eyes blazed suddenly, then slit closed with a little smile; and Genelle thought that a warmth touched the room more compelling than the heat of the fire, a presence as powerful as had, once, so graced the silver screen. This did not frighten Genelle, but made her glad.

She thought about Patty planning the menu long before she died, and she wished she could eat more to please Patty, wished her digestion along with all her bodily functions had not turned so delicate. Part of the process, she told herself. And she told Patty, You were lucky in that respect. No sense being sentimental. Surely this life, as seen now from Patty's side of the veil, occupied only a tiny moment, a fraction of a second compared to the unknowable eternity that lay beyond.

The waiter went on around the table filling teacups, then turned away. Genelle sugared her tea, breathing in the delicate, steamy scent. Beside her, Lori laid a hand on hers. "It's not as formal as I thought. I didn't want to come, in my jeans and all, and not know how to act."

"Your red sweatshirt is elegant!" Genelle said, laughing. "And your manners are elegant, too. I am so glad you came!" Even laughing made her weak. She took a breath of oxygen, like some old wino, she thought, nipping at his bottle.

"It's Cora Lee's sweatshirt. It smells of jasmine. Cora Lee wants me to live with her after while my father's away. But now, before the arraignment hearing, until they let him leave the jail, I could stay with you. If you'd want me. If I could maybe help out."

"I'd like that," Genelle said. "Our friends are taking turns staying at night, but you could help a lot. You could read to me, too. And as for your living with Cora Lee, I think that's a fine plan." She looked hard at Lori. "Would you like to live there?"

"I'd love it." Lori grinned. "And I sure am tired of camping in that basement."

Genelle helped herself to oxygen again. "Your pa loves you, Lori. He was terrified for you, he felt he had no other choice than what he did."

"I know. But if he'd told me-"

"What would you have done? If he'd told you?"

"I don't know," she said, surprised. She'd have to think about that. "I guess Pa didn't have much faith in the law to protect me, though."

"Sometimes the law can't do as much as they'd like. Your pa did the best he knew how. And he does love you. No matter where your pa is or what happens, he will keep on loving you." Genelle reached from her wheelchair to put her arm around Lori.

"At Cora Lee's," Lori said, "there's a window seat looking down. On the canyon where I told Pa it didn't make any difference. But I guess maybe it does."

"Only you can decide that," Genelle said. "Whether you want to live where you can see that gravesite. Only you can know how that will make you feel."

"That's what Cora Lee said." She looked up at the waiter as he offered a tray, and she took four tiny crab sandwiches. "I guess it would be all right," she said stoicly. "I guess you learn to live with stuff." When a second waiter appeared, she took six little sausage sandwiches.

Grinning, Genelle thought, Shell be all right, Lori will be all right. And when she looked down the table at Cora Lee, Cora Lee smiled, watching Lori with true affection. Across the table, Charlie and Ryan shared a satisfied grin.

But Wilma was watching the cats. As was Lucinda. And Genelle understood clearly the look that flashed between the two women and the cats: Joe and Dulcie and Kit were just as pleased for Lori as were their human friends. And Genelle thought, certainly not for the first time, that there was more in the universe, far more, than most folks imagined-or cared to know. She sipped her tea, and nibbled a sandwich, and when again she looked into the shadows, she imagined that she heard Patty laughing.

Genelle Yardley died three days after her tea party, died quietly in her bed in the middle of the night. At the moment of her passing, a warm and gentle breath moved through her house and garden, pushing away the windy gusts that rocked the night. For a moment, it seemed, the wind was still. In the next room, where Wilma and Lori slept, the windows stopped rattling. Lori woke and sat up in bed, reaching for Dulcie. The little cat stood on the bed looking out to the garden, then turned to look at Lori and pushed her head against Lori, purring.

Taking Dulcie in her arms, Lori held the tabby cat tight. Across the room, Wilma woke. She saw the child sitting up clutching Dulcie, and she knew. Even across the village, the kit, sleeping between Lucinda and Pedric, woke and sat up. With one soft paw, Kit woke the old couple and looked at them and could say nothing.

And, blocks away in Clyde Damen's upstairs bedroom, Joe Grey woke hissing and backing into the pillow and into Clyde.

"What?" Clyde said, rolling over staring at the tomcat. "You have a pain? I told you, you ate too much shrimp."

Joe only looked at him. He didn't know what was wrong, didn't know what to think. Didn't know how to look at what he had sensed in his dreams.

In Genelle's house, Lori and Wilma listened, then rose and went to Genelle's room. She lay unmoving. There was no hiss of oxygen. Reaching out a gentle hand, Wilma felt Genelle's pulse; she waited a long time, trying Genelle's wrist and then the artery in her neck. Bending, laying her face against Genelle's ribs, she listened for a heartbeat. At last she shook her head, covered Genelle more warmly, and gently covered her face.

Genelle Yardley was laid to rest on a little hill at the edge of Molena Point cemetery. It was midday, and sunny, with a brisk wind off the sea. Genelle's view would be down over the rooftops of the village to the sea, if anyone thought she would linger to enjoy that earthly vista. After everyone who had gathered had at last turned away and gone, after the grave had been covered and the sod laid over, and it was evening and growing dark, the three cats came down from the oak tree.

They had waited a long time for the tractor to fill in the grave, a utilitarian process they didn't much care for, and for three workmen to lay the squares of sod. But they had still felt the sense of Genelle there with them. Almost, Dulcie said later, as if she laid a gentle hand on Dulcie's head. Now the cats, backing down out of the oak tree, stepped right onto Genelle's grave, onto the freshly laid new grass. They stood very still, listening. Facing into the wind. And they said their own cattish prayers for Genelle Yardley.

Though they knew she didn't need prayers. They looked up at the darkening sky and at each other and wondered not only where Genelle would go now and where life had come from in the first place, but wondered about themselves. Where they had come from, and who they were, and where they would go at some future time.

"Wonders," Dulcie said softly, "that we are not yet meant to know."

Kit stared at Dulcie, round eyed. Joe Grey licked his paw and fidgeted and didn't like to think about this stuff.

But suddenly the wind died again. All was totally still, the wind still. The cats waited.

They felt warm; they felt loved; they felt like laughing. And then at last they turned away, moving as one, and padded solemnly down the grassy hill, toward the village. Toward this life again, toward their own warm hearth fires; and they walked close together, so close that their shoulders touched, and their whiskers and ears touched, and their very cat souls joined with something huge that moved with them as they slipped away through the falling dark.


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