Monday, September 9, 2013
1st 5 Pages September Workshop - Walker
Name: Ashley Walker
Genre: Middle Grade Adventure
Title: Once Upon a Tiger
When Mei's mother died, 47 cats attended her funeral.
Family and friends were there too, of course, and Mother's colleagues from Chinatown's Cat Clinic. But it was mostly American shorthairs and a handful of more exotic breeds. Chartreux, Manx, Siamese. The Sphinx even made it.
The cats came in carriers and carts, a few on leashes. During the service, they sat and slept and slinked under chairs. The Persian groomed. The Sphinx gazed.
In the mortuary's glow, the cats' pupils narrowed into tiny exclamation points. And as Mei's eyes followed them back to the body, they went liquid, leaking salty tears. How could Mother leave like this?
The question wasn't: What killed Dr. Jun Chang? Mei knew her mother had ignored the symptoms of a Bartonella infection -- a rare case of cat scratch fever. It was just like the doctor to put her needs aside when there was work to be done. What confused Mei was: How could Mother just lay there when she had a 3.30 back at the Clinic?
It was a surgery, no less.
Thinking about practicalities -- as her mother would -- lessened the distance growing between them. So Mei mopped her cheeks and ran through the rest of the (now defunct) schedule. After the Tonkinesse's tooth extraction, they were booked solid with castrations and immunizations, right up until the micro-chipping for that cute new client, Law Hsu. Mei would do it herself. She smiled a little at the thought. Maybe she'd inject the boy along with his kitten but, in Law's case, the tiny tag would be registered to M --
RRRooaaww! The sudden boom of the coffin lid set a post-op Persian caterwauling. His cry rasped, like a sandpapery goodbye kiss. When Mei reached down to scratch behind his pinnae, she flooded the cat's head funnel with a new rush of tears while her own head filled with what was no longer a question.
Mother can't just leave like this!
Cats were her calling and she was always on call for them. Dr. Jun Chang was the only one in Chinatown who saw all saw 73 breeds. And not only that, people brought her rabbits and rodents and retired fighting crickets. Everyone knew her reputation. She never turned an animal away. Some of her clients didn't pay because they couldn't pay ...
This is where it started for Mei.
What else could she do?
When Dr. Jun Chang died, the clinic wouldn't treat these poor animals.
So Mei did.
And that's how Mei became a cat burglar -- albeit a new kind, one who stole for cats.
Duì. Bu. Qi.
Mei ran trembling fingers under each set of Chinese characters. Literally: Do Not Rise. It was a kind of apology. Something said to calm.
Mei hated calming. And apologies.
Sorry, sorry, sorry -- she'd heard it so many times in the months since the funeral. It was a stupid thing to say after a death. (Unless you killed the corpse.) And as for duì bu qi, well, saying that around a coffin was really rubbing it in.
Mei dropped the apology, letting the little sign smack back against the classroom door. Today, there'd be no sorrys of that sort --
Startled, Mei spun around to see her old and pretty much only friend rush down the hallway.
Wen Wu hopped between newly washed black floor tiles and called back, “Sign says: Sorry, classroom closed for cleaning." She paused to offer a familiar warning. "Mei, don't make a mess of things."
Mei waved Wen off with the back of a hand. "I won't even leave a fingerprint." Then, putting one Converse in front of another (and trying not to squeak them), she entered the empty culture classroom. Her heart hammered, but her steps stayed silent. Smooth. No mess.
But as she wove through the desks toward the Silk Spinning Display, Mei’s palms went all sweaty and her lips dried up. She stumbled. Twice.
This wasn't going well. Wasn't very cat burglary.
Then again, she wasn't stealing for cats this time. Today, “for cats” understated the scope of her crimes. That worked because, on balance, “stealing” was really an exaggeration. In the months since her mother’s death, Mei did little more than sneak back into the clinic for syringes and splints and Selederm. This was hardly an offense. But when the clinic re-keyed the lock, Mei had to slip stuff from the shelves of Uncle Shen's pet shop. Her guardian, unlike her mother, didn't believe in charity. He wasn't running “a damn sanctuary.” His interest in animals was purely monetary. Still, Mei had kept the offense in the family.
Mei stopped, soles screeching, before the Silk Harvesting station. She forced a breath -- in, out -- and imagined Jun Chang's fingers expertly threading a needle, finding a vein. In. Out. Then she made a swift and surgical swipe. In …
Out, out, out!
Cupped inside curled fingers, the stuff felt as light as air, soft as silk. But she wasn't after the Display's pricey silk, or the means to make it. She wanted the larvae, the grub, the worms -- Bombix mori.
Really, lifting the silkworms was an act of saving not stealing. Once they spun cocoons, the teacher planned to take the silk and -- with it -- the lives of the moths inside. Mei wouldn’t be accomplice to murder -- even tiny ones. Jun never turned an animal away. Not cat, not cricket.
Mei slipped the silkworms into the box she’d origamied for the job, and then hoisted up the window to check her escape route.
Holy cr- cats! The front entrance was crawling with predators. Host to a whole pride of middle-age women prowling in search of teachers to set on with questions.
And Mei had no champion among them.
A small growl rose in her throat, but she pushed the pain down with the pane. She’d claw her way over the back fence. Anything to avoid Tiger Mothers.
Behind the school, the foggy blacktop was empty except for a few girls shivering in games shorts. Halfway across, one of them called out, “She’ll Flinch.”
Mei ignored the challenge.
“If she doesn’t...” another began, “Wen will.”
Mei hesitated. She was too old for playground games like Flinch. But Wen wasn't.
Setting down her pack and box, Mei turned to find Jasmine Robinson-Lui standing at the head of a circle, arm upraised, fist curled around something.
Mei stepped into the ring of Èrs -- a nickname she’d fashioned from the Chinese translation for 'two'. Kids with two names and too much of everything else. The Smith-Tangs, Chin-Lees and Li-Roberts. Kids with twice the backing of Mei Chang and Wen Wu. Kids who were richerER, meanER and stupidER.
When her eyes met Wen's, Mei raised an eyebrow. Èrs?
Wen lowered hers; the answer from beneath Wen’s neatly sheared bangs was an unmistakable: yes Èrs! And I don’t need your help with them.
But she so did. Wen needed Mei on the blacktop as much as Mei needed Wen in the classroom.
Mei crossed her arms, feeling a surge of fierce determination to save her ungrateful friend. It was the same doggedness (no, cat-ed-ness) that drove her in and out of cat clinics and culture classrooms. It was a grim post-mortuary resolve to do the right thing, the Jun thing.
Even if it was wrong.
Even if, like her Mother's work, it didn't pay. (Crime rarely does, of course.)