Copyright Jennifer Skully
“Can you really talk to animals?”
Translation: “I don’t believe you can. I also don’t believe in ghosts, vampires or Bigfoot. And let’s not even get into the Santa Claus myth.”
Lili Goodweather was used to skepticism from adults, but not in twelve-year-old girls. Children had a wonderful capacity for believing in the unbelievable. Unless it got squashed out of them early on. Which was obvious in Erika Rutland’s case.
A shivering tabby sheltered in her arms, the girl stood on Lili’s back stoop, her grandfather a step behind her like a guardian angel. Erika’s straight blond hair straggled over her shoulders and dark circles beneath her blue eyes contrasted with the pink glow of childhood innocence on her cheeks. Sign of a type-A personality, poor kid.
Lili decided to save the metaphysical explanation of how she communicated with animals for later. “Yes, I can.”
“Well, since you say you can, then will you try talking to Fluffy?” Erika cuddled the animal in her arms.
The cat’s dilated pupils almost obscured the sunflower-yellow irises of his eyes, and the tremors coursing his back made the hair stand on end, giving him a fluffier than normal coat. A muddy blue aura like a churning river shrouded his body.
“Of course I will.” Lili pushed open the screen door, letting in the warmth of the April afternoon.
Roscoe Rutland--Rascally Roscoe as Wanetta had called him--stuck out a steady hand and pumped Lili’s with a firm grip. “We’re happy you’re living next door to us.”
She’d officially moved into Wanetta Crump’s house five days ago, but she’d met Erika and her grandfather during her many visits here when the elderly lady had been alive.
Roscoe had plenty of lines on his face, but they were happy lines, as if he laughed a lot and had thoroughly enjoyed his many years, which, Lili guessed, to be about sixty-five. He also seemed a bit on the thin side, as if he ate to live instead of living to eat.
With a sparkle in his blue eyes, he added, “And my son Tanner can’t wait to meet you.”
Lili had never met Erika’s dad, the mysterious Tanner Rutland. All right, he wasn’t really that mysterious, not like an ax murderer or anything, he just worked a lot and didn’t seem to be home much. Lili had her doubts Tanner Rutland had professed any interest in meeting her. People often said exactly the opposite of what they meant out of politeness, and Roscoe’s glowing statement sounded a little fishy.
Lili’s long skirt swished across her knees and the tops of her boots as she backed up against the open screen door. “Welcome to my home.” Saying that felt grand.
Stepping inside, Roscoe’s gaze dropped to the checkerboard floor, which was once again black and white instead of gray...and gray. “You’ve done a great job with the place.”
“Thank you.” Wanetta’s house had been built in the early 1900s, with a wide front veranda, a swing hanging from the porch rafters, shutters and dormer windows in a tiny third-floor attic. The upstairs bathroom had a claw-foot tub, and of the three bedrooms, Lili had taken one for an office. The living-room fireplace would be wonderful for rainy winter nights, but the kitchen, even with its ancient appliances, was Lili’s favorite spot. She often sat at Wanetta’s big wood table in front of the window to watch the blue jays squawk at each other and dig for worms. The forest was almost in her backyard.
She’d spent the week cleaning from top to bottom, and was thankfully done, since tomorrow, Friday, she had to get back to work at the flower shop.
“Wanetta was grateful for the way you came running whenever one of her cats needed help. Not to mention the litter-box problem.” Roscoe plugged his nose dramatically.
“That was easy enough,” Lili answered. Wanetta had left Lili with seven cats. This week, they’d gotten discombobulated with her move-in. Taking to hidey-holes throughout the small house, they had yet to come out, except at dinnertime or to slip through the laundry-room cat door for a potty break. When Wanetta had first called on her in distress--she’d had a full house of twenty at the time--Lili had talked the cats into using the universal outdoor facilities instead of the indoor carpeting. The house was as fresh as a daisy now, after Wanetta had had the carpets torn out and discovered the hardwood underneath.
“I’m so glad she left you the house,” Roscoe went on.
“I can never thank her enough for that.” Lili was terribly grateful for the lady’s legacy to her. On her salary at the flower shop, Lili could never have bought a house, even in the little town of Benton, which was nestled in the mountain foothills an hour and a half south of San Francisco. The town was twenty minutes by bus from the beach (and The Boardwalk amusement park, which Lili loved) and the deep forest was only a ten-minute walk outside the back door. As much as she missed her parents after their retirement move to Florida, she couldn’t bring herself to leave her hometown. There was no more wonderful place on earth.
“Grandpa, do you think we could talk about Fluffy now?”
Lili understood how Erika felt. Adults, they talked, talked, talked, when there were more important things to be done. Such as getting to the business at hand and helping Fluffy.
“Why don’t we sit down?” They all crowded around her kitchen table, she in the middle, Roscoe to her left, Erika on her other side with Fluffy in her lap.
Before Lili could do a thing, Fluffy growled low in his throat, and his gaze shifted to kitchen floor central.
Einstein had slipped in on silent kitty-cat paws and was now sitting in the middle of the checkerboard floor, her tail swishing. A regal Russian Blue with soft, sleek silver-tipped fur, she’d been with Lili for seven years, and she was generally a great help in interpreting animal issues.
Looking at Einstein, Fluffy’s muddy-blue aura shifted, deepening, swirling. Lili wasn’t sure if other people saw auras the same way she did; she only knew how an animal’s aura made her feel. And Fluffy was mad as all get out at Einstein.
Einstein merely flicked her tail in irritation.
“I don’t think they like each other,” Erika said as she rolled her fingers in Fluffy’s coat. He settled, and his aura ceased swirling. Erika’s touch obviously had a positive effect.
“Someone invaded somebody else’s territory,” Lili explained.
Einstein had been the invader when they’d first moved in, with an abrupt rebuke from Fluffy, and though Lili had hoped the two could get over the animosity, Fluffy wasn’t backing down. Einstein claimed the marmalade male didn’t like females who were more intelligent than he was.
The guy’s a wimp. What self-respecting tomcat would answer to Fluffy?
Animals thought in pictures and most humans thought in words, but over time, Lili and Einstein had managed to translate their differing thought processes quickly. Lili received an image of a tomcat having his masculinity...er...Einstein could be very graphic in her imaging.
Have some sympathy, Lili admonished. People didn’t realize that names were extremely important in the animal world. Names were images. Alpha dog. Protector. Fluffy lost all his dominance every time Erika called him by the name she’d given him. Animals revealed their names if their owners knew how to listen, not that animals could actually be owned, per se, especially not cats. If anything, it was the other way round; a cat owned its human. That was certainly true for Einstein.
But explaining all that to Roscoe and Erika right now was ill-timed. “Let’s discuss how I talk to animals.”
“Yes, please.” Erika regarded her with intense blue eyes. She had the serious gaze of an old person. Or a skeptic.
Lili flicked her long hair over her shoulders and clasped her hands in her lap. “Well, first I look at their colors.” She touched Fluffy’s marmalade fur. “Not the color of their coat, but the colors around their body.” She cupped and circled her hands for effect. “Their mood is reflected in the colors encompassing them. Just like people.”
“You mean an aura.”
Lili beamed. “Yeah. An aura.”
“It’s supposed to be an electromagnetic field surrounding the body. But I’ve never seen one.” Erika raised an almost white brow several shades lighter than her hair, and her meaning was clear. Since she’d never seen it, it probably didn’t exist.
Skeptic she might be, but little Erika was a smart one. Where had she read about auras? “Not everyone can see them. You have to be...open.”
“What’s my aura look like?”
Well. Erika had a bit too much brown in her yellow aura, as if she were feeling stressed about school, or something. But Lili didn’t want to tell her that. With a child, it could be counterproductive. “It’s yellow. Which means you’re creative, optimistic and easygoing.”
Erika blinked. Once. “Okay.”
Lili didn’t think Erika was those things at all. But she had great potential if she could rid herself of the stress.
Finally, the little girl said, “How else do you communicate with animals?”
“Animals think in pictures. And I can see them. We sort of--” she tipped her head, thinking of the best way to describe how she communed “--send movies back and forth, like Netflix.”
“Netflix are DVDs you send through the mail. I don’t think that’s how you do it.” Obviously Erika was a literalist.
Roscoe made a sound a bit like a stifled snort.
“It’s the best analogy I could come up with,” Lili offered.
“It was a very nice try.” Ah. Erika was a polite literalist. “May we please begin? I have homework to finish, and my dad will be upset if I’m not done with it by the time he gets home.” The child was definitely a tough nut to crack.
“You might as well face it, Lili, Erika doesn’t think you can do it.”
She’d dealt with a lot of nonbelievers. It didn’t bother her. Really. She was so not bothered by it. Most pet owners didn’t care how you helped their animals, even if they figured it was nothing more than intuition and lots of probing questions, as long as their problems were solved. In the end, Lili figured out the meaning in the images she saw and unraveled the mystery. That was all that counted. “I promise to try my best, Erika.”
“My dad says don’t confuse efforts with results. It’s all right to say you don’t think you can help Fluffy.”
Don’t confuse efforts with results. Well, that was a rather cut and dried way of looking at things. What if a little girl studied as hard as she could and still got a C on her test? Didn’t that mean the teacher, or the parent, needed to try again as much as the child did? Lili was starting to understand the dark circles beneath Erika’s eyes. Performance anxiety.
Lili leaned forward and scratched Fluffy under the chin. The cat shivered. “Why don’t you tell me what happened, why you think something’s bothering him?”
Erika blinked. “Isn’t that cheating? My dad says that’s how palm readers do it. They study your body language and ask a bunch of questions before they even start reading your palm, then they use all the stuff they learn and make it sound like they actually read it in your hand. People are very gullible. And that’s not magic.”
“I never said what I did was magic. I just listen.” Lili touched Erika’s hand. “But there’s lots of magic in the world. In things like the beauty of a sunrise or an early morning mist rising through the trees or the salty taste of the ocean on your tongue. Don’t you believe in magic?”
“Those things aren’t magic. They’re nature.”
The poor child. “Then I guess you don’t believe in magic.”
“My dad says magic--”
Lili cut her off. “I’m not asking what your dad thinks. What do you think?”
Behind her, Roscoe held his breath. Lili felt it in the very stillness of the kitchen air.
“Sunrises and mist in the trees and the ocean are there all the time, so there’s nothing magic about them.”
But every sunrise was different, and each time you strolled through the trees or scuffed your bare feet in the sand was unique. Erika Rutland couldn’t see that.
Every child was born with the ability to see the magic in a sunrise, yet somehow, by the age of twelve, Erika Rutland had lost that ability. It was a tragedy. Maybe it was because she’d lost her mother when she was only two. Lili had learned that from Wanetta. “Why did you bring Fluffy if you didn’t think I could help him?”
Erika glanced to her right. The answer was obvious.
“Your grandfather talked you into it.”
“He said it couldn’t hurt.”
It wouldn’t hurt, and Fluffy would get better, but Lili wasn’t sure Erika would get over losing her ability to see magic.
“All right. Let’s talk about the goal here,” Lili said carefully. “We want to help Fluffy. So any information you give me can only make this quicker and easier.”
Roscoe raised one white eyebrow. “Go ahead, honey.” Then he winked at Lili.
Ah. Here was the believer in the family.
“He sleeps on the porch at night,” Erika finally said, “but he wasn’t there this morning when I got up to feed him. And he didn’t come when I called. He wasn’t even home by the time I had to leave for school.”
“We heard the coyotes last night,” Roscoe added.
Coyotes, while a natural part of life in the mountains, could be terrifying. Lili had heard them last night, too. They did hunt by day, but their howls carried farther in the stillness of the night. The sound of a pack zeroing in on the scent of some little animal was enough to send chills down the spine. The excitement of the chase, and worse, rang through their collective voices, an eerie, eager yipping and howling. Wanetta’s cats slept inside.
“I thought Fluffy was a goner,” Erika whispered. “He’s always there in the morning for his crispies.”
Cats had excellent internal clocks. If you didn’t wake up to give them what they wanted, they woke you up. Einstein would sit on Lili’s pillow and stare at her until she opened her eyes.
“You must have been worried about him all day at school.”
The girl’s eyes misted, and her bottom lip trembled. It was the first sign of emotion she’d displayed. “I was,” she whispered, then sniffed. “He was hiding under the front porch when I got home this afternoon.”
“About an hour ago,” Roscoe clarified.
“What was he like when you found him?”
Erika folded her body over the cat, hugging him against her abdomen. “He scuttles under the bed or behind the couch if I move too fast. And he hasn’t stopped shivering.”
Definitely some sort of trauma. Lili looked at Einstein. All the cat did was blink.
Lili would have to go in blind. “Let’s get started.”
She leaned into Fluffy and stared into his yellow eyes a long moment. His pupils adjusted even as she watched, her reflection shifting and morphing in his gaze. Staring at an animal could be a sign of aggression, but she’d discovered it also could be a form of hypnotism. Although who was being hypnotized, she was never quite sure. Finally she closed her own lids and found herself sitting in a tree with a long stretch of open meadow before it and the dense forest behind it. Well, she wasn’t exactly sitting, but cowering high up off the ground on a branch, her body scrunched up against the trunk. She smelled wet grass, damp earth and the grape-jelly scent of a carpenter ant. An oak tree. Carpenter ants loved oak trees. The ants tasted good, too, like grape jelly, just as they smelled.
Dead leaves rustled off to the left of the tree. Lili trembled with Fluffy’s terror. Something was out there. A human smell, yet rank, like raw meat left out in the sun. Light filtered through the trees, flashing off a gray object covering a human head, a helmet. And a sound, like the thud of a mallet into a wet, squishy sponge. The human wielded a tree branch or a stick, using it as a weapon. It rose and fell, rose and fell, repeating the horrible squishing sound each time it landed on...something. A misshapen thing on the ground.
Goose bumps peppered Lili’s skin. Her heart raced as Fluffy’s did. She wanted to run, but she didn’t want the human to see her. All she could do was cower in her tree and hide.
Lili couldn’t breathe, terror clogging her air passages and setting loose a drumbeat in her ears. She opened her eyes and dispelled the image. Einstein crouched in the middle of the checkerboard floor, her fur standing straight up along her spine. While Einstein couldn’t see into Fluffy’s mind, she could tag along on Lili’s trip, catching glimpses of what Lili saw and definitely feeling the terror.
It was Fluffy that amazed Lili now. His colors swirled and lightened, then he blinked and started purring. It was the oddest thing, as if sharing the vision eased his burden.
Erika smiled and bent to nuzzle Fluffy. “He’s purring.”
Lili didn’t catch a single sarcastic image from Einstein.
She couldn’t tell Erika or her grandfather what she’d seen. What Fluffy had seen. Lili had to think first. Was it real? Had she misinterpreted?
Roscoe looked at her, the laugh lines on his face distorted into worry lines. “Are you all right?”
She was far from all right. Fluffy was far from all right despite his purring. But she couldn’t tell Roscoe. “I’m fine. I always feel disoriented--” freaked out! “--after I do that.”
Her hands were shaking, and she clasped them in her lap.
“Wanetta never said it took this much out of you.”
It never had before. But then she’d never seen anything like this. She was used to dealing with nothing more severe than cat-box issues and dogs that snapped at their human’s hand.
Lili smiled, and she forced it all the way into her eyes to make Roscoe feel better. “I’m fine. Really.” Though fine was a word that could mean anything from “I’m okay but not great” to “I’m totally lying about how I feel.”
She had to act normal. She had to come up with something to tell Erika and her grandfather that wouldn’t worry them. At least until she figured out what to do. “Fluffy was hiding in a tree last night--” she gulped, searching for a lie “--while the coyotes were out. So he’s a little wary right now. I think the best thing is for you to keep him inside at night until he calms down.”
Fluffy hadn’t seen coyotes running some poor animal to ground. Lili didn’t think she’d misinterpreted anything.
Fluffy had witnessed a murder. A human murder.