Read an Excerpt
At the age of twelve, Thomas Osborn Pitzhughbetter known as Tomhad few interests, little desire, and almost no energy. This was so despite a familymother, father, older brother, and sisterthat loved him. As for school, his teachers treated him fairly; he did what he was supposed to do and received passable grades. But if you were to ask Tom what the future held for him, he would have replied that, other than getting older, and hopefully taller, he expected no change. In short, Thomas Osborn Pitzhughbetter known as Tomfound life boring.
One day Tom was sitting on the front steps of his city house doing what he usually did: nothing. As he sat there a short-haired, black-and-gray cat with gray eyes approached and sat down in front of him. For a while the twoboy and catstared at each other.
The cat spoke first. “What’s happening?” he asked.
“Not much,” Tom replied.
“Doing anything?” the cat asked.
“Just hanging out?”
“That something you do often?”
“How come?” the cat inquired.
The cat considered this remark and then said, “You look like my kind of friend. How about adopting me?”
“Why should I?”
“Got anything better to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well then?”tyle="mso-tab-count: 1" Tom asked, “What’s your name?”
It was not long before Charley the cat became part of Tom’s household. So familiar did he become that when Tom went to sleep, Charley slept next to his head on an extra pillow.
For a brief time, Tomhaving a new friendwas almost not bored. After a while, however, his life settled back into its old, boring routine.
“Hey, man,” Tom said to Charley one afternoon two months after the cat had moved in. “It’s not fair! You get to sleep all day, but I have to go to school.” Disgusted, he flung his schoolbooks onto his bed.
It was the statement more than the thump of books that awoke Charley from a sound nap. He studied Tom, and then stretched his back to curve like a McDonald’s arch. “I am a cat,” he said. “You are a boy. Some would say you had it better.”
Tom sighed. “If you had to go to school every day like I do, you wouldn’t say that.”
“Don’t you like school?” Charley asked.
“Oh, I like it all right,” Tom replied. “The kids are okay. The teachers are all right. Once in a while it almost gets interesting. Mostly, though, it’s just boring. I’d rather do nothing. Like you.”
“What about after school?”
“Boring,” Tom insisted.
“Doesn’t anything interest you?”
Tom considered the question. “Television,” he said at last. “On TV there’s something happening. It’s my life that’s dull.”
“A cat’s life,” said Charley, “can be dull, too.”
“Your life is supposed to be dull,” Tom said. “See, people are always telling me that I should get up and do something. Boy, wish I had permission to sleep all day the way you do.”
To which Charley said, “How about you becoming me, a cat, while I become you, a boy?”
Tom sighed with regret. “Not possible,” he said.
“Don’t be so sure,” said Charley. “Most people wouldn’t believe that you and I could hold a conversation, but here we are doing just that.”
“Actually,” said Tom, “it’s not that interesting a conversation.”
“Whatever you say,” Charley replied as he curled himself into a ball, closed his eyes, and went back to sleep. Tom did pretty much the same: He watched television.
The next day Tom, as usual, went to school. In most ways school was ordinary. Although Mr. Oliver called upon him once and Tom gave a reasonable response, he never raised his hand. Most of the time he doodled, stared out the window, or daydreamed, but about what he could not have said.
At the end of that day, Mr. Oliver announced a special homework assignment. He asked each student to write an essay titled “The Most Exciting Thing That Ever Happened to Me.” It was due in one week’s time.
Tom was worried. He could not think of anything in his life that had been exciting. He did remember a family trip when they’d had a flat tire on the highway. That was not so much exciting as it was nerve-racking.
Then there was the time he was taken to a baseball game, but no one even got a hit until the bottom of the ninth inning.
Tom also recalled the time his mother had thought she might lose her job. That was scary, not exciting.
“You ever do anything exciting in your life?” Tom asked Charley when he got home.
Charley, who, as usual, had been sleeping on Tom’s bed, stretched, yawned, and said, “As a cat?”
“Of course as a cat.”
Charley said, “I caught a mouse once.”
“Was that exciting?”
“It was just a small mouse. My first ever.”
“What did you do with it?”
“Let it go.”
“Since I’ve moved in here, I’ve caught a whiff of another cat passing through your backyard. I believe it’s a cat of my acquaintanceher name is Maggie. She’s in search of a home of her own.”
“Is that exciting?”
“For a cat it can be hard,” said Charley. “Why all these questions?”
Tom told Charley about the essay he had to write. “But,” he complained, “nothing exciting has ever happened to me.”
Charley thought for a while. “Tom,” he said after a while, “do you remember what I told youthat you could become me and I could become you?”
“You might find that exciting.”
Tom smiled. “Sleeping all day with no one objecting sounds cool to me. Could it be done?”
“We can give it a shot,” said Charley. “A few blocks from here there’s a neighborhood wizard-cat. It’s that Maggie I just mentioned. We could ask her.”
“Just remember,” Tom warned, “if we make the change, you’ll have to write that essay. It’s due next week.”
“I know. And you’ll get to sleep all day.”
“Sounds good to me,” Tom said. “Anyway, we could do it just long enough for you to write my essay.”
Charley, ignoring that remark, said, “Let’s make the change now.”
“Now?” said Tom. He was not given to making quick decisions.
“Any reason not to?”
“Maybe my parents”
“I’ll handle them.”
With Charlie leading the way, they left immediately.
It was dusk. A thin haze filled the air. Streetlamps began to flicker on. As it grew darker, people hurried to get home. Soon the streets were quite deserted. Tom was glad Charley knew the way.
They went two blocks to the right, one to the left, and then walked through a back alley Tom had never wanted to walk through. Finally they cut through a weed-and-bedspring-infested yard and approached what looked to Tom to be an abandoned building. Its windows were boarded. Tom hoped they would not be going there. But Charley, without a pause, padded into the building’s basement and down a long empty corridor.
Tom, feeling nervous, said, “Do we have far to go?”
“Not too long,” said Charley as he headed up a rickety flight of steps.
They reached the first floor. When Tom’s eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, he realized that the building was full of cats. Some were sleeping. Others sat with tails curled about their feet, staring into the distance. A few prowled restlessly. Charley noddedas if they were acquaintances.
With Charley leading the way, Tom entered a long, dimly lit hallway. Green paint peeled from the walls. The ceiling looked like it might collapse any moment. There were more cats. Some glanced at Tom, but most paid no attention.
At the end of the hallway was a door. In front of this door sat a large cat, the largest cat Tom had ever seen. He looked like a miniature tiger.
Charley approached this large cat with great respect. For a few moments the two cats stared at each other, their tails moving restlessly.
“What can we do for you?” said the large cat.
“A transformation,” Charley said.
Tom saw the large cat’s eyes shift to him, then turn back to Charley. “What’s the reason?” the large cat asked.
“He’s bored,” Charley said. “And he has to write a school essay, ‘The Most Exciting Thing That Ever Happened to Me.’”
“Ah! One of those,” the large cat said as if he had heard it before. “You can enter.”
“Watch your head,” Charley cautioned Tom.
Tom was just about to ask Charley if this kind of transformation was common, when they stepped into a small, dim room. The floor was so carpeted with cats, it was hard to move about. Some cats were big, others small. Some were perched on ledges. Others sat on shelves like books in a library. The whole room throbbed with such a steady purring, it was as if one low note on a bass guitar were being continually thrummed.
No matter where the cats sat or lay, all eyes were fixed upon a raised platform at the far end of the room. The platform was dimly lit by dusty light that drifted through a broken piece of window boarding.
On the platform, on a purple pillow, a gray cat lay stretched out, one cheek resting on an extended front paw. Her long fur made it appear as if she were dressed in silk lounging pajamas. Her eyes were closed to narrow slits. Now and again the tip of her tail shivered delicately.
“Who’s that?” Tom asked Charley.
“Maggie,” Charley whispered. “The local wizard-cat. Most neighborhoods have them. On the street she leads a normal life. Here, she’s a wizard. Stay close and don’t say anything unless you’re asked a direct question.”
Charley padded his way to the platform. Once there he lay down and tucked his front paws under his chest. “Kneel,” he whispered.
“Now, be patient.”
Tom, curious how a cat could have become a wizard, gazed at Maggie.
The gray cat finally looked up. “What’s happening?” she asked. Her voice was small, delicate.
“Maggie,” said Charley, “we’re requesting a transformation. This boyhis name is Tomand myself.”
“Wants to be a regular tomcat, I suppose,” Maggie said. Her silky sides heaved slightly as she enjoyed her joke.
“Actually,” Charley explained, “he’s bored. Wants to sleep all day, the way I do.”
“Lucky you,” Maggie murmured to Charley. With a sidelong glance at Tom, she asked, “Do you really want to sleep all day?”
It took a moment for Tom to realize he had been asked a question. “Absolutely,” he replied. “I love to sleep.”
Maggie sighed. “I’d settle for a decent home off the streets.”
“I’ve got that,” Tom said.
“Whatever,” Maggie mumbled. Then she said, “Bow down. You need to have your heads close together.”
Tom and Charley put their heads side by side.
Tom was not sure what happened next. He sensed that Maggie’s tail curled around and batted him on the forehead. He supposed the same thing had happened to Charley.
The next moment he heard Maggie say, “Charley, enjoy that home of yours.”
“Let’s go,” said Charley. Tom turned and sensed the room had grown much larger. What’s more, he was staringnose to noseinto the face of a large calico cat with curled whiskers. “Beg pardon,” said Tom, as he sidestepped the cat.
He turned to see if Charley was there. What he saw was the leg of the largest human he had ever seen, a boy who towered so high into the room, Tom could not see his head.
Confused, Tom called, “Charley?”
“Right here,” came a voice from the huge boy.
A shock ran through Tom from the tip of his nose leather to the tip of his tail. He understood: He had a tail because he’d become a cat. A cat that looked exactly like Charley, even as Charley now looked exactly like Tom.
They had exchanged bodies.
Tom lifted a hand in front of his face. It was a paw covered with black-and-gray fur. “Cool,” he said. “I’ve become a cat.”
“Let’s go,” Charley urged, and gave Tom a gentle spank on his rump to get him out the door.
Though Tom had spent his whole life in that neighborhood, going home was like traveling through a foreign county. Everything was gigantic. Even things he could recognizelike mailboxesappeared to be twisted into odd shapes. What’s more, he seemed to be at the bottom of a sea of smells. One moment he sensed something delicious to eat. The next moment he had a trembling awareness of danger that was almost instantly followed by a whiff of calm. That in turn was taken over by the delicate scent of friendship. Tom, who had never been aware of such smells, was astonished he could identify them so clearly.
Even more amazing was that his body felt so different. He had never thought much about having hands and feet, or a head, for that matter, unless he bumped himself. Now he felt loose and jangly, as though he were not tied together tightly. He was also very aware of his skin. Some spots felt so dirty he had a desire to lick them clean. Other places itched and were in need of scratching. He even had a desire to stretch out and flex his nails into something deep and soft, like a nice stuffed chair.
The only reason he didn’t do all these things was because he was having trouble keeping up with Charley, who was striding along on long human legs.
“Come on, now. Don’t dawdle,” Charley kept saying. Tom, fearing he would not be able to get back home on his own, hurried.
They reached the house. Tom was about to open the door when he realized he could not do it. Charley did.
: 14pt; LINE-HEIGHT: 150%; FONT-FAMILY: 'Times New Roman'; mso-bidi-font-size: 10.0pt" “Oh, there you are,” came the familiar voice of Tom’s father. “I was getting worried about where you were.”
Tom answered. He said, “Charley and I went for a walk,” but the only sound he heard was a meow.
“That cat seems to know,” Tom’s father said with a good-natured laugh. “Where were you?”
“Just hanging around the neighborhood,” said Charley vaguely.
“Don’t you have homework to do?”
“No problem. I just have to start writing an essay called ‘The Most Exciting Thing That Ever Happened to Me.’”
“Interesting. What are you going to write about?”
“Don’t know. But I’m really looking forward to it.”
“Hey,” said Tom’s father, “I love to hear that enthusiasm for a change.”
Tom, curling about Charley’s feet, felt contented. “I’m going off to sleep,” he announced. Charley reached down and gave Tom a reassuring scratch behind the ear.
Tom strolled over to his own bed, leaped up, found the cat’s pillow, and closed his eyes. In moments he was asleep, purring gently.
Charley sat down to compose the essay.
During the next few days, all went well. Tom enjoyed doing nothing, sleeping all day on his own bed. Occasionally he slept in a different place. Once, he went for a stroll in the backyard.
Meanwhile, Charley lived Tom’s life. He went to school. He played with Tom’s friends. He enjoyed Tom’s family.
On the fifth day Tom began to get restless. He was bored with just sleeping. He would have watched television, but he had to wait for others to turn the TV on, and they didn’t always choose his favorite programs.
Twice, Tom started to read the daily newspapers only to be picked up and placed firmly in the litter box. He was not being understood.
Frustrated, Tom ventured onto the streets. Once there he narrowly avoided being hit by a car, had his tail pulled by an infant, was teased by an older child, and then was chased by a dog. By then he’d begun to think he’d had enough of being a cat. He took a nap.
That afternoon, when he got home from school, Charley put his schoolbooks down and said, “Today was not a good day!”
Tom awoke, yawned, stretched, and looked around. “What’s the matter?”
“Remember that essay?”
“‘The Most Exciting Thing That Ever Happened to Me’?”
“Exactly,” Charley said. “You know how hard I worked on it. It was due today. When we got to the moment to share papers, I volunteered to read mine.”
“Mr. Oliver must have been surprised.”
“He sure was. I guess you never volunteered for anything.”
“No way,” Tom agreed.
“Anyway, he called on me and I read.”
Charley held up the pages he had written. “He said my work was a fine piece of writing, but he didn’t want fiction. He wanted something real.”
“What did you write about?”
“Transformation: ‘How I, Once a Boy, Became a Cat.’ Though the whole class liked it and Mr. Oliver admitted it was fun, he said I have to do the whole thing again. Make it real. But every word of it was true!” Disgusted, Charley threw his paper onto his desk.
Tom scratched himself beneath the chin. “You could write about that time you caught a mouse.”
“Oh sure. As if he’d believe that,” said Charley, and he went off in a huff.
Tom, reminding himself that he wanted to talk to Charley about going through the transformation process again, was just about to slip back into a nap when something Charley had said floated through his mind. What was it? Oh yes . . . did Charley say that the subject he had written about was, “How I, Once a Boy, Became a Cat”?
Surely what Charley meant to say was the other way aroundthat is, “How I, Once a Cat, Became a Boy.” Or was he writing about how he, Tom, became a cat?
It was too confusing. Tom yawned and shut his eyes again. But he could not sleep. What Charley had said bothered him.
At last he got up and looked around for Charley, but the boy had gone out. Back in his room, Tom noticed that the paper Charley had written was lying on the desk.
He read it. It was just what Charley had said: a report about a boy who had turned into a cat. This boy, so Charley had written, wished to become a cat and sleep all the time. That was familiar enough. In fact, as Tom went through it, the whole story was his own experience. However, in Charley’s story, the boy’s name was Charley and the cat’s name was Felix.
Why, Tom wondered, would Charley have everything the same, except the names?
“Hey, Charley,” Tom said that night as Charley sat at the desk working on his new essay. “I read your essay.”
Charley glanced around. He seemed surprised. “That’s not like you.”
“You left it out.”
“Whatever. Did you . . . like it?”
“It was fine,” said Tom. “It was pretty accurate, too. Except for two things.”
“You changed the names around. You called the boy Charley and the cat Felix.”
“Oh, right,” said Charley, turning back to his work.
“How come you did that?” Tom asked.
“It was supposed to be true,” Charley muttered.
Tom frowned. “I don’t follow.”
Charley turned around to gaze at Tom evenly. “I guess there’s no harm in telling you now.”
“Telling what now?”
“Well, before I introduced myself to you and you took me in, I was once a boy, and my name was Charles.”
“See, I was bored with my lifeso bored, I began thinking that things would be better if I were a cat. As it turned out, I met a cat. Or rather, this cat introduced himself to me. His name was Felix. Felix knew about one of these neighborhood wizard-cats. Sound familiar? You can guess the rest.”
As Charley was telling this story, Tom felt increasingly troubled. “Charley,” he said, “are you telling meas you sit at my desk, wearing my clothes, doing my homework, looking like methat at one time you were a boy and then became a cat? But then you decided you didn’t want to be a cat and so became me instead?”
“You’ve got it.”
“But . . . but why didn’t you and that Felix just change back to what you were?”
“Felix didn’t want to be a cat again.”
“Charley, are you saying you found me and tricked me into”
Tom interrupted, “It was what you wanted, too.”
“But that’s outrageous!” cried Tom. “Anyway,” he said, “I’ve had enough of sleeping. I want to change back.”
“Sorry,” Charley said. “Too late for that.”
Tom, who was becoming increasingly upset, stared at Charley. “What do you mean?”
“I prefer being a boy again. This is a great place and your family is nice.” So saying, he left the room, shutting the door behind him.
At first Tom was too astounded to do anything. Then he leaped off the bed and headed right for the door, only to remember that he had to get a person to open it for him. He called to Charley, but it was not Charley who came. It was his mother.
“Want to go out?” she asked, reaching down and chucking Tom under the chin.
“Of course I want to go out,” Tom said in a rather irritated way. But when he spoke, all his mother heard was caterwauling.
“Isn’t it cute the way cats talk,” she said as she scooped him up and set him gently but firmly out the front door. “Now go play.”
An indignant Tom looked up and down the street. It was all very different since he had become a cat. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, trying to sort out the many scents. Then he began to go toward what he hoped would be an audience with Maggie.
It took a while, but at last Tom found the abandoned building. Once again he went into the basement, then to the long, dimly lit hallway, passing through the multitude of cats. The large tiger cat sat in front of the doorway at the end of the hall.
“What can we do for you?” asked the large cat.
Tom said, “A transformation.”
“With the one I was transformed from.”
“Is he here?”
“Then forget it. Anyway, Maggie’s out.”
“Hey, pal, she has her own life.”
“But . . .”
“Beat it, tomcat,” snarled the large cat, and he hissed. Tom backed away and made his way home.
That night Tom had it out with Charley.
“The point is,” Tom said hotly, “you weren’t being honest with me. In your paper you said you were a boy.”
“Then you became a cat, and now you’re a boy again.”
“Now you say you have no desire to change back.”
“I’m being honest, dude,” said Charley. “Come on, you wanted to sleep all day, didn’t you? Just lay about.”
style="FONT-SIZE: 14pt; LINE-HEIGHT: 150%; FONT-FAMILY: 'Times New Roman'; mso-bidi-font-size: 10.0pt" “I know. But that’s more boring than staying awake.”
“Hey, Tom, you made a deal. If you don’t like it, go find another kid who is as bored with things as you were. Believe me, there are plenty of them. A lot of the cats at Maggie’s used to be kids who were bored with their lives.”
“Is that true?”
“Half the kids in your class used to be cats!”
Tom was shocked. “They were?”
“Trust me,” said Charley. “You know the story: Kids get bored. Want to sleep all day instead of going to school. Bingo! Kids become cats. Cats become kids. They’re the lively ones, always raising their hands.”
“But I want to be a human,” Tom cried. “Not some cat!”
“Go find a kid to exchange with you. Now please, leave me in peace. I have to write this essay.”
“But . . .”
Suddenly, Charley picked Tom up, and despite Tom’s howl of protest, put him out of the room.
Tom slipped from the house through an open window. It was quite late, and the moon was large in the sky. He went around to the backyard, climbed the fence, and sniffed. The air was full of pungent smells. The only one he found interesting was the scent of his own home. It made his heart ache. Lifting his head, he let out a long piercing howl of misery. Then another.
A window opened. A voice growled, “Shut up, cat! I’m trying to sleep!”
A mournful Tom slunk out of the yard and onto the street. A thousand distinct odors wafted through the air, a tapestry of smells too complex for Tom to untangle.
He wandered on, paying little attention to where he was going, up and down streets, through alleys, along back fences.
Tom had been walking for about an hour when he heard spitting and hissing. He stopped and listened. It was a catfight. He looked to see where it was coming from, spied an alley, and trotted over.
At the far end of the alley were two cats. One was a sleek brown Siamese, the other a gray cat. The gray one had been forced back against the fence by the Siamese.
“Help!” cried the gray cat. “Help!”
Hardly thinking of what he was doing, Tom let out a howl and dashed down the alley. The Siamese turned to confront him. Tom leaped over him and came down beside the gray cat. Tom hissed, showed his fangs, and raised a claw-extended paw.
The Siamese, confronted by two cats, backed off, turned, and fled.
“He’s gone,” Tom said, panting to catch his breath.
“Thank you,” the gray cat replied.
Tom turned and looked at this other cat for the first time. “Hey, you’re Maggie, the wizard-cat!” he cried.
“Do I know you?” said Maggie.
“My name is Tom. You transformed me from a boy. The cat was named Charley.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t remember. These transformations come by the litter. After a while all you people look alike.”
“A certain blandness. No show of emotion. As if you can’t bother. So, sorry, I don’t remember you. But I’m ever so grateful. If I can return the favor . . .”
“Oh, but you can,” Tom said eagerly.
“Transform me back.”
“To what you were?”
“How does the other onethe one I transformed you withfeel?”
“I don’t think he wants to switch.”
“I’m afraid that’s what usually happens. It makes retransformation nearly impossible.”
“But you can do it, can’t you?”
“Oh sure, but the point is, you have to get the two heads side by side. If one doesn’t want to, and that one is a human, it isn’t easy.”
“I can arrange it!” Tom cried.
Tom led the way back to his own house. They reached it by two in the morning. Finding the window through which Tom had got out still open, they crawled inside.
Maggie looked about. “Nice place you got here,” she muttered.
“Shh,” Tom whispered. He led the way to his room, and by standing up on his hind legsMaggie helpedthey were able to push the door open.
Charley, head upon a pillow, lay fast asleep on the bed.
“Now listen carefully,” Tom said to Maggie, “I’ll get on the pillow right next to him and put my head near his. Give me a minute. Then, you jump on and do what you normally do. Just make the transformation.”
Maggie giggled. “Someone’s going to be surprised.”
“That’s Charley’s problem. He tricked me into this.”
“That’s what you all say,” said Maggie.
Tom leaped onto the bed and padded to his own pillow. Once there he lay down, tucked his paws under his chest, and nestled his head right next to Charley’s.
Within moments Maggie followed. “Ready?” she whispered.
“Ready,” Tom replied.
“Here goes,” Maggie warned.
Tom closed his eyes and waited for the tap on his forehead. When nothing happened he opened his eyes and found himself staring right into the face of a gray cat.
Puzzled, Tom called, “Maggie?”
“The name’s Charley,” the cat said.
“Charley?” Tom cried, and looked down at himself. He was just the way he had been moments beforea cat. In a panic he turned. There, asleep, was a person who looked exactly like he had looked. As for the second cat, it looked just like Maggie.
GHT: 150%; TEXT-ALIGN: left" align=left “Hey,” Charleynow Maggiegrowled, “what’s going on? How come I’m a cat again?”
“I’m afraid . . . Maggie did it,” said Tom.
“Maggie? The wizard-cat?”
“I think so. She did the transformation on herself and you. She’s become . . . us.”
One week later, Tomwho had spent all his time prowling the streetssuddenly stopped. He was in a park not far from a bench. Sitting on the bench was a girl. She was not doing anything in particular, just sitting. Now and again she swung a leg back and forth. Then she yawned, looked at her watch, and yawned again.
Tom watched her for about fifteen minutes. In all that time the girl continued to just sit there, a slight frown on her face. She looked bored.
Tom went forward and sat down in front of the girl.
“What’s happening?” he said.
The girl looked down at him. After a moment she said, “Nothing.”
“Doing anything?” asked Tom.
“Nothing to do,” the girl replied.
Tom got up, stretched, and then rubbed himself against the girl’s leg. “You sound like my kind of friend,” he said.
Copyright © 2006 by Avi
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