Saturday, October 30, 2010

Masquerade the Scaredy Cat (A Tween Story) by Rebecca Ryals Russell

This is the intro to a new series I'm writing for our Tween market. You can see more of my Tween, MG and YA offerings at

and sometimes Snort, too

            I hate Halloween. I hate it almost more than cleaning the dustbunnies from under the furniture and mowing the grass every week. The only good thing about Halloween is it comes once a year and not once a week.
            Halloween is horrible. It makes my heart race and hair fall out from the stress. Even my teeth ache for months ahead. I have nightmares starting the first of September, just knowing it’s coming. And I hate nightmares.
            I didn’t always hate Halloween. I used to love dressing up in costume and running from house to house ahead of my parents yelling with joy at the bags of candy. But two years ago all that changed.
            I’m Masquerade. This is my buddy, Snort. We’re supposed to be cleaning house, but I just saw the calendar in the kitchen and realized today is September 1st. So now all I can think about is how much I hate Halloween. Maybe hate is too strong. But I dread Halloween all year. It just starts to build into hate from the first of September until the day after Halloween. Then I’m fine for another year.
            Oh, great, here come the dust bunnies again. I’ll just hold this dust pan in their path while Snort chases them out from under the furniture. Funny name for a mouse, huh? When we met I was about to eat him but he sneezed. I thought he was introducing himself so I stopped and told him I was Masquerade. Well, once we’d been introduced we were friends so I couldn’t eat him. Turns out, though, he’s allergic and sneezes all the time. His sneezes sound like he’s saying ‘snort’. So I got cheated out of a meal! But he’s been a good friend and helps with my chores to make up for it. We have a system worked out, you see. Being a mouse, he can scoot around underneath the sofa and chairs and beds much easier than I can. So I hold the pan open and ready to trap those pesky bunnies as he corrals them like cattle.
            I’m guessing the dust bunnies think it’s a game. As soon as I toss them out the door, they scurry to the windows and doors and squeeze back inside through all the cracks in this old witch’s house. I’ve told Windy about it over and over, but she says she has more important things to do than chase dust bunnies, and gave me the job. I don’t know what is so important about sitting around all day watching television, but she’s a witch so I’m not going to ask.
            Windy is what people around here call a helpful witch. She doesn’t hex anyone or use evil spells. She doesn’t even have a wart on her nose – although it is rather long and hooks down at the end. I guess that’s heredity. I wouldn’t know because I just met her about two years ago and her mother had died a few hundred years before that. It appears witches have very long life spans.
            I guess you’re wondering how I came to be a witch’s cat with a pet mouse. Well, about five years ago I woke up in a hospital with no idea who I was, where I was or how I’d gotten there. At that time I was a little girl. A human girl. I dressed and left. I roamed around cities and villages and towns for a couple of years, scrounging for food and stealing clothing off clothes lines where they hung to dry after being washed. Nobody must have missed me because no one ever came looking for a lost little girl. Maybe my parents had been killed in a car accident and that’s why I was in the hospital. I suppose I’ll never know for sure. I would say I was about ten years old then.
            One day I came to a rickety almost ready to fall down cottage at the edge of a small town in the middle of nowhere. It seemed deserted. I’d been traveling on foot for several days without finding food anywhere. I really hoped someone nice would let me in to rest and give me something warm to eat. I was so tired my eyes kept closing as I stood outside the weathered door.
No one answered when I knocked.
I called out, “Anyone home?”
 It was raining cats and dogs, as someone used to say – but I couldn’t remember who, and I was exhausted.
I turned the door knob and the door opened right up. I peeked through a small crack.
“Hello? Anyone home?”
The inside looked so cozy with its worn furniture and fire burning in the fireplace.
“I’m so tired. Can I come in?”
I crept inside and looked around. An old-fashioned floral sofa sat in the middle of the room facing the fire. Beside the fireplace sat a television on a low table. In one corner of the dark room a tall striped chair with wings seemed to watch me. I stared hard at the chair, but it was empty – just a chair. There were no lights on in the whole house. Thin curtains with holes hung at the grimy windows where weak watery light filtered in filling the room with a dismal gray light.
More softly I said, “Hello? Anyone here?” I waited, looking around.
The house was silent except for the television which was tuned to a soap opera. I thought it odd there was a fire burning and the television blaring but no one was around. My stomach grumbled loudly reminding me how hungry I was - as always back then.
I went straight to the kitchen. Bubbling on the stove simmered a pot filled with the most delicious smelling soup I’d seen or smelled in a very long time. I watched the bubbles popping and what looked like vegetables roiling to the surface then disappearing again until I could stand it no longer. I turned and scanned the room one more time, checking the dark corners for lurking homeowners ready to pounce but saw no one. I reasoned whoever lived here wouldn’t miss just one ladle of soup. I scooped up a ladle-full and ate it straight down. It tasted as delicious as it had smelled. It was hard to resist taking more, but I wasn’t a thief. I never took more than I needed and for now one ladle-full was all I needed. My stomach quieted and stopped hurting.
The soup made me thirsty so I looked around for a bottle of juice or something. There didn’t seem to be a refrigerator but I did see some glass jars sitting on a shelf. I guessed it was water and drank one down almost without tasting it I was so thirsty. It wasn’t until I’d finished I realized how sweet it had tasted. When I put the jar back on the shelf I saw a label that must have fallen off the jar. I picked it up but couldn’t read the writing so I put it beside the jar.
            With a full warm belly I retreated to one of the dark corners near the fireplace and curled up to sleep with a pillow from the sofa.

            “Well, aren’t you a pretty one?” a high-pitched voice said near my ear.
            I felt myself lifted high off the floor by two small hands. Panic seared my brain into inaction. The hands stroked me from head to bottom and cooed about my soft fur. My eyes flew open and my legs tensed. My tail stuck straight out and all the hair on my back stood up. Suddenly I was falling until I landed on my four feet with a thump on the wooden floor. I realized several things at once.
1.      I had a tail.
2.      I had fur.
3.      I stood just inches from the floor instead the usual several feet.
Needless to say, my heart thumped in my chest like I had run a marathon race. I looked wildly around until I spotted two enormous black boots right beside me. I sat down and looked up. I had to crank my neck a lot in order to do that and I thought I must be lying on the floor. I tried to stand up and couldn’t.
“Hello,” I said. “Where am I?”
I looked around for the cat mewing but didn’t see one.
As happened before, I was suddenly flying through the air. I had no control over my body. Just as suddenly I stood on someone’s lap and hands again brushed my back. It felt good and I arched my back for a scratch. Turning around I came face to face with the largest nose I’d ever seen. Two green eyes that looked like bright green traffic lights, stared at me from above the giant hooked nose. It was the face of a girl, though. I felt really sorry for her with that nose. I couldn’t imagine what going to school must be like.
“Hello, kitty,” the girl said again. “Where did you come from?”
“I hope you’re not talking to me,” I said, “because I’m not a kitty. I’m Lucy.” Again I heard a cat meowing but there was no cat in the room.
“I wish I could talk kitty and understand what you’re saying,” the nose said.
“What do you mean ‘talk kitty’?” I snarled. Now the cat sounded angry. Maybe it was locked in a cabinet by accident.
The girl drew her hand back and the smile left her face. Moments later, she smiled again and put me back on the floor. I couldn’t figure out why I was so low to the floor. None of this was making any sense. The boots walked away, thudding loudly across the creaky wooden floor. It hurt my ears. I ran back toward the fire and the dark corner where I’d been peacefully sleeping before this nightmare began.
Nightmare! That was what I was experiencing. I was dreaming. I hate nightmares. I turned around and saw a small black cat. There he was! I knew there was one somewhere. How had I not seen him earlier? I stepped toward the cat and he stepped toward me.
We bumped noses.
Then I stepped back and he did, too. I looked behind the cat at the rest of the room. It looked familiar. I spun around and saw the same room behind me. Frantically I looked back at the cat and he looked back at me with wide, frightened blue eyes.
My eyes!
How did that cat get my eyes? I stepped back with my right feet – feet? - and he stepped back with both right feet. I stood tall and straight and he sat on his bottom then stretched high in the air. This must be a witch’s house, I guessed, and that’s a trick mirror. It makes people look like cats.
In horror I watched in the mirror as two huge hands dropped down from the ceiling toward the cat and lifted it up into the air. Again I flew helplessly upward. But it was the cat being lifted, not me. But I was being lifted, as well as the cat.
NOOOOOOOO! My brain felt about to burst. How did this happen? How could I turn into a cat? How could I get back to my human shape was the real question. The girl draped me across her shoulder like a sack of potatoes and walked away from the fire. I tried to turn and see where we were headed, but couldn’t. Her hand pressed me to her shoulder and I couldn’t move.
“What happened to me? Why am I a cat? What happened to the little girl I used to be? Where are we going?” I asked.
“It’s Halloween,” the girl said. “I have to throw candy to the kiddies and you’re coming, too. Every witch needs a cat and besides, you’re black. That’s perfect. As for the other questions, I guess we can figure that out later.” She tossed a long black cape around her shoulder and grabbed a huge broom that was leaned against the door jamb.
“But I’m afraid of heights,” I said, my heart racing again. I struggled to get loose but this time she had an iron grip on me. My feet splayed outward trying to get a hold of the door jamb or furniture. Then I froze. My head spun in her direction, my nose ran straight into her hooked beak.
“Did you just speak to me?” I asked. “And did you say ‘witch’?”
“Yes to both. I made a potion with a bit of your fur. Neat, huh? I love chemistry.” She walked down the wobbly wooden steps and threw a leg across the broom.
“So why am I a cat?” I asked, relaxing slightly. I was thrilled just to have someone understand me again at this point.
“Because that’s the way you were made, I suppose.”
“But I wasn’t made this way. I was a human girl before I went to sleep.”
“I think most animals dream of being human,” she said.
“But it wasn’t a . . .” the witch plopped me onto a wooden stick. I nearly fell off one side until I grabbed hold of it with my claws and she caught me with one hand.
“You must balance on the stick.”
“I can’t. I’m afraid of heights. Please don’t make me do this,” I pleaded.
“You mean you’re acrophobic? Funny thing for a cat to be. You always land on your feet when you fall and you have nine lives after all. I can help out with the balancing part though. I’ll put a little platform for my new little cat. What’s your name?”
Instantly a wide wooden plank appeared beneath me across the broomstick.
“My name as a girl was Lucy,” I said in a trembling voice.
“That won’t do for a cat. How about. . .” the witch who was just a girl barely older than I had been put her index finger to her chin and tapped it. “Masquerade! It’s perfect for a Halloween kitty.”
“If you say so. Does this mean I’ll never be a human again?” Tears welled up in my eyes blurring the witch’s young face.
Suddenly the wind rushed through what I knew now was my black fur. I crouched as low on my platform as I could and grabbed it with all of my claws.
“Probably not, Masquerade. I like that name. Don’t you?”
Once I got over the initial fright of flight I rather enjoyed the rush of the cool wind through my fur. It tickled. I even managed to open my eyes. Blurred lights sped past as we raced through the town streets. The day had become night sometime during my nap and the yellow streetlights blazed. They bathed the night in golden circles.
On the streets below I heard shouts and giggles and squeals of delight as well as fright as the witch soared around on her broomstick tossing candy to the children below. Occasionally she cackled, like witches in story books, but usually she just laughed.
Her behavior wasn’t what I’d been told about witches, though. A memory suddenly exploded in my head. A woman sat on my bed reading from a book filled with short stories and pictures. The story she read was about a witch who stole children from the town and ate them. Then two children wandered near her house and burned her up in her own oven. This witch wasn’t like that one at all. This witch laughed with joy as she tossed candy to the kiddies.
I crept to peer over the edge of my platform so I could see the kids dressed in their Halloween costumes. Goblins and ghosts, Dracula and Frankenstein, mummies and hobos, princesses and ballerinas ran screaming from house to house while parents strolled the street chatting and laughing. It was such a pleasant scene. I vaguely recalled similar nights when I ran from house to house and shouted at the top of my lungs begging for candy.
The platform tipped slightly as the witch reached back into her bag of candy for another handful.
I forgot to hold on.
Head over heels I tumbled through the air. My legs spread out and claws extended I scrabbled at the air trying in vain to clasp onto anything and stop my fall. I wasn’t ready to use up one of my lives already. In swirling, gasping, dizzying circles the trees and road rose to meet me.
Then the platform smacked me in the chest and I was splayed flat again, panting and crying.
“Gotta hold on, Masquerade,” the witch said. “You only have nine lives, can’t be falling off each time we go for a ride.”
The broomstick angled sharply upward as we barely scraped the top of a tree. Down below I heard gasps and screams – but not of joy or pleasure.
“Did you see that?”
“Her cat almost bit the dust.”
“She’s good on that flying broom. Lucky cat.”
I remained flattened like a pancake throughout the rest of her shift as candy distributor. I didn’t want to see any more trick-or-treaters. I didn’t care about the costumes or the candy. I just wanted solid land beneath my feet.
Eventually the witch pointed the broomstick up and we jetted into the black night. I assumed we were headed home. That thought struck me oddly. I was already thinking of her rickety cottage as home. I hadn’t had one in so long, I guessed it was an okay home. And it wasn’t all that bad being a kitty. I had free food that was pretty tasty and friends and a warm bed beside a warm fire. Life was pretty good.
Except for the flying part.
That’s when I realized I would always hate Halloween.

Written by Rebecca Ryals Russell YA/MG Fantasy Author. The Seraphhym Wars Series: Odessa available April 2011, Guardian (of the Prophecy) available September 2011. The Stardust Warriors Series: Zarena available July 2011. Don't Make Marty Mad, a horror story available October 2011.

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Anonymous said...

Great Halloween story! Thanks for sharing it.

Linda S. Prather said...

I enjoyed reading this, Rebecca. Thank you for sharing.

Rhobin said...

I had a little black scaredy cat just like the one in the photo, although I'm sure she was never a little girl. I hope not at least. Sammy hated anyone strange coming to the door, so she loathed Halloween, too.

Fun story.