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Chapter 2

 

Bright Ramble in the Forest

“Well, that went well,” Elian joked, still fueled by the bravado of his fight with Sue. He tried to hang on to the moment of elation but tendrils of panic were already sprouting. He had expected his sister to chase after him but though he slowed, no one followed and he began to wonder why he had stormed away. He should have found a way to hide the cat from Sue and Rob, he thought as he looked over at the cat who was still staring out the windows, tail twitching, ears on alert.

He cruised on, remembering the Amtrack Station in “downtown” Murlock and turned down a main road lined with low, squat buildings housing liquor stores, barber shops, dingy cafes, dusty Laundromats and convenience stores. Passing an old converted gas station, whitewashed and plastered with hand made signs for Murlock Dairy milk, light beer, lottery tickets, Elian breathed in the familiar sights of childhood.. Involuntarily, he looked up behind the store, saw the roofline of a two story Victorian and flinched, for the sharp peak brought a memory of childhood in the house, living as the poor country cousin. He shook his head, thinking, man, that was in the past. It had been years since his uncle had died and he and Sue had finally been orphaned and forced to leave. “That life is over. I’ll never go back to that,” he thought. In the rear seat, the cat began to gather itself and reposed, sphinx-like, across the bench of the back seat. .

Elian was beginning to feel shaky and a bit light-headed. His money would hold out for maybe another week but if he didn’t have something to eat, he’d be too tired to resist the memories that crowded the dusty lanes. He looked in the rear view mirror again and saw the cat’s head drop into its paws. He drove on, trying to enjoy the sunny summer morning. Green leaves colored the sunlight and in the distance, Elian could make out the beginnings of tomato fields.

With the cat safely asleep, Elian parked and strolled toward the station in search of a coke machine and a candy bar but only after carefully locking the doors. The Amtrack station was a converted train station filled with old wooden benches reminding Elian of the stiff wooden pews in the Catholic church his mother had intermittently attended. A large domed ceiling offered the only measure of space over a squarish room where train and bus schedules jostled and a ticket counter stared down a snack bar of a dozen stools. The way out to the tracks remained open and brightened the slate gray coloring of the granite floor and the institutional stucco of the walls.

“Hey!” A friendly voice called out and Elian turned to see the hitchhiker Homer now dressed in a grey uniform, minus his woolen cap, standing behind the ticket counter. “Whatever happened to that cat?”

Surprised, Elian answered,“We chased the coyotes away, didn’t you see?”

“No, my ride was leaving so I had to split.”

“Funny, I didn’t see any cars that morning. You got here pretty fast, it’s only ten.”

Elian was puzzled. This was the fourth time he had bumped into Homer and it was beginning to feel like an odd series of coincidences. While the sight of the older man in a uniform was reassuring, he was certain he had not heard Homer running back to the rest stop that morning. And Elian couldn’t forget that just ten hours earlier, Homer had looked like a homeless bum. Then Elian remembered the branch that had gone flying at the savage coyotes and was surprised to admit he was glad to see Homer again. He was looking less and less like the derelict Elian had taken him to be.

“I was in a hurry to get here,” Homer said. “The station manager won’t hold your job if you don’t show up the first day. I just couldn’t stay but I wondered what happened. Did the cat survive?”

“Yeah, I was surprised the coyotes ran off like that,” Elian said, thinking especially after I found myself out there alone. “I never really thought about it, but three vicious coyotes could have been the end of us!”

“What happened to it?”

“The cat? Sleeping in the car,” Elian said. “I was surprised it still came with me. It was really wild out there in the woods but he followed me back to the car.”

Homer smiled and said, “That cat was lucky you saved him.”

“Dunno,” Elian mumbled, “cat wasn’t so lucky when we got here. My sister and her boyfriend freaked out when they saw the cat and then they got mad, and said I had to take it to the pound. Had to get the cat out of there. Funny thing is, the cat looked like it was enjoying the fight…”

“So you decided to look after your new friend? I’d keep him away from those folks if you can. So what are you going to do, stay in Murlock?”

“I’m broke, I can’t really leave. Have to find work.”

“You know I just got this job selling tickets but I heard they need a night janitor. I can tell you who to talk to...”

Homer’s recommendation was good as gold and Elian scored a chance to fill the evening janitor’s slot starting the next day. Homer advised him to say as little as he could, be pleasant, don’t mention the cat and don’t talk about Sue. Despite his travel rumpled clothing, Elian managed with a quick wash in the station men’s room and a quick search through his car for a printed resume. The cat still slept, but now had rolled onto its back, belly fur fluffed out between four upended paws.

Later, at the lunch counter, Homer and Elian munched on hamburgers while the waitress refilled their cups with thick, strong coffee. Out of the corner of his eye, Elian spotted a blur of orange and realized the cat was sauntering into the station. “How did he get out of the car,” he sputtered, as he rose to intercept the cat who spotted Elian, raised his tail banner high, and began trotting towards him.

Suddenly, Homer looked up and called out, “Purrty! Hey, you purrty cat! Get over here boy!” The cat came to a dead stop.. He stared balefully at Homer as his ears and whiskered flattened.

“Cat doesn’t seem happy to see you,” Elian said, “Uh, watch out!” as the cat advanced on Homer with ears down and fangs grinning.

“Is that the cat?” Homer asked. “Hey Marcy, look at this huge cat!”

“Well, he’s a beautiful cat,” the waitress cooed, “How about a dish of milk?” The cat swerved and eagerly trotted up to the counter.

“Isn’t it against the rules to have animals here?” Elian wondered.

“Honey, I own this lunch counter,” Marcy said easily, “I decide who we serve.”

“He seems to understand you,” Elian said to Marcy, “he sure makes friends fast when there’s food around.” The cat looked up quickly with a glance that Elian thought looked a lot like reproach.

“He just doesn’t like to be called purrty,” Homer said, “likes to think he’s a big mean hombre. ”

My name is Bramble, not purrrty, and Homer is an idiot. Elian heard.

Puzzled, he said, “What?”

You heard me. And Homer knows my name is Bramble. Ask him.

“Uh,” Elian said but he began to think. Casually, he turned to Homer and asked,
”What do you think I should call him?”

Grinning, Homer replied, “He already has a name. It’s Bramble, silly name for a cat, especially when he’s a kitty with delusions of lionhood!”

My name is Bright Ramble through the Forest. And you are Homer the Simpleton’s son.

Elian looked stunned. He had always been a quick study but this was too much to accept when sober. He asked, “You know this cat, Homer?”

“Almost all my life. He won’t talk to everyone, just people he thinks are friends. Or that he decides he’ll be friends with. Don’t you Purrty?”

My name is NOT purrty, you Neanderthal! Elian heard a voice not unlike his own and realized that Marcy was not hearing it. She shot a puzzled look at Homer who was shaking with laughter. Elian himself could hardly keep from whooping out loud with delight.

“What are you all laughing about?” Marcy said as she turned away to take another lunch order.

Elian looked at the cat, thinking, why don’t you talk to Marcy?

The cat, who had been peacefully lapping up Marcy’s offering of dairy creamer, looked up suddenly and Elian heard, “What are you staring at?” with flattened ears and stretched lips.

When Marcy left to take the order to the grill, Elian asked Homer, “Why doesn’t he talk to Marcy?”

“Dunno.” Said Homer. “Only talks to people he chooses.”

No,” the cat corrected him, “Marcy can’t hear me. I don’t know why. Only some people like you can.

“So why did you get mad when I asked you about Marcie?” Elian asked.

Bramble looked puzzled, then sighed with a small feline puff, “I can do telepathy and I can teleport. I cannot read minds. Wouldn’t want to. Humans frankly are rather tiresome. So you have to talk to me.” The cat glanced at Elian as he groomed his whiskers, meticulously wiping away every stray drop of creamer that had splashed in his eagerness to enjoy that special treat. In the relaxed atmosphere of the lunch counter, Homer and Elian played with the cat who accepted their attention with a regal disdain, peppered with dry remarks that only they could hear.

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