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May Bird and the Ever After
May Ellen Bird, age ten, occasionally glanced at the brochure her mom taped tom her door that after noon, and scowled. SAINT AGATHA’S BOARDING SCHOOL FOR GIRLS WITH HIGH SOCKS. A few minutes ago May had taken her black marker and written the word “socks” over what had originally been the last word of the headline. Judging by the photos of girls in stiff plaid uniforms plastering the brochure, girls with “high prospects” was not nearly as accurate.
The woods watched silently through the farthest east window of White Moss Manor as May tried to concentrate on her work. And sometimes, looking up from the curious project strewn across her desk, chewing on a pencil, May watched them back.
Skinny and straight, with short black bobbed hair and big brown eyes, May ran her fingers over the objects before her—a clump of black fur, a lightbulb, a jar, a book titled Secrets of the Egyptian Mummies, and some wire. Occasionally May swiveled to gaze at Somber Kitty, who laid across her bed like a discarded piece of laundry. His belly faced the ceiling and he eyed her lazily.
Neither May nor Somber Kitty knew it, but passing squirrels and chipmunks thought the cat was decidedly ugly. He had huge pointy ears and a skinny tail, and he was mostly bald, with just a little bit of fuzz covering his soft skin. His mouth was turned down in a thoughtful frown—an expression he had been wearing ever since May had gotten him three years before, on her seventh birthday.
May had disliked him immediately.
“He’s bald,” she’d said.
“He’s a hairless Rex,” her mom had replied. “He’s interesting.”
“He looks depressed.”
May’s mom had then explained that “somber” meant “sad,” which also meant “melancholy.” So that was the one thing they both agreed on. The cat was most definitely sad. It was almost as if, from the moment he had set his tilty green eyes on May, he had sensed her disappointment in him, and sympathized.
May had not wanted him, of course. Her first cat, Legume, had died when May was six, and she had resigned herself to a life of grief. She knew there could never be another Legume, which, by the way, is another word for peanut. She’d insisted on wearing black ever since.
But her mom had insisted on another pet. “You spend too much time alone,” she had said with big, brown, worried eyes, even bigger and browner than May’s. Mrs. Bird had long ago given up trying to get May to bring home friends from school.
“Why don’t you invite Maribeth over?”
“She has the chicken pox.”
“She’s only allowed out on President’s Day.”
“Leprosy It’s so sad.”
Finally one afternoon May had stood in her mom’s doorway crossed her arms, and announced that she would accept a cat as long as it was a black tiger.
She got stuck with Somber Kitty.
Noticing her watching him now, Somber Kitty opened his mouth and asked, “Mew? Meow? Meay?”
“That’s my name, don’t wear it out,” May replied.
Knock knock knock.
May’s mom poked her head into the room.
“So what do you think?” she asked hopefully, smiling. “It looks like a great school, doesn’t it?”
May crossed her arms over her waist and looked toward her bed. “Maybe if you’re a nun,” she offered thoughtfully.
The smile on Mrs. Bird’s face dropped, and May felt her heart drop too.
“Maybe it’s okay,” May added. She looked at Somber Kitty who looked at her. Their traded glance said Somber Kitty understood, even if Mrs. Bird didn’t: May could never be happy at a school like Saint Agatha’s, wearing high socks and stuck in New York City without the woods.
“Well, it’s something to think about,” Mrs. Bird said hopefully, biting her lip. “I think the structure would be good for you. I’d live right nearby. And we could tour the city on the weekends.”
Mrs. Bird ducked into the room, stooped down, and made her way to May’s desk. From the ceiling hung a number of objects: a dragonfly wind chime, a clothes hanger strung with old sumac leaves, old dry strands of ivy. At the window sat a pair of binoculars to watch for insects and critters, and a telescope aimed at the sky for looking at the stars.
The walls were so covered in pictures that you couldn’t see the old calico wallpaper. They were drawings of Legume, of Mrs. Bird, of the woods, and of imaginary places and friends and creatures: some with wings and purple hair, black capes and horns, and one particularly spooky one with a lopsided head. There were none of Somber Kitty, who often followed Mrs. Bird’s eyes to the wall with hurt curiosity, searching for a likeness of himself.
Studying the spookier, darker pictures, Mrs. Bird’s eyes sometimes got big and worried again. “You don’t want people to think you’re eccentric,” she’d say, looking more somber than a certain cat.
“You ready for the picnic?” Mrs. Bird asked, walking up behind May and hugging her tight.
May nodded, tugging at the tassels of the sari she’d wrapped around her body like a dress. Because Briery Swamp was too small and empty to have a Day, May and Mrs. Bird always attended the annual Hog Wallow Day Extravaganza and Picnic. It was two towns away, but it involved a parade and games and seeing all the kids from school. “Yep,” she replied, trying to sound bright.
Mrs. Bird kissed the top of May’s head, her jasmine perfume sinking into May’s sari.
“Your classmates will be happy to see you.”
May blushed. She doubted it.
May didn’t mention that since school let out, she had made improvements—in secret—getting ready for this exact day. She had gained two pounds, eating sesame-and-peanut-butter balls two at a time, so she wasn’t quite so skinny. Her knees didn’t look as knobby as they had. And she had worked on her smile in the mirror. Usually May’s smile looked like a grimace. But she’d gotten it to look halfway normal, she thought. Girls with nice smiles made friends. Mrs. Bird liked to remind May of this when she came to volunteer on hot-dog days and saw how May sat at the end of the fifth-grade table, curled over her carrots.
“I don’t know how to make friends,” May would say, embarrassed.
“Well, actually, you don’t really make friends,” Mrs. Bird always replied. “You just have to let them happen.”
May didn’t think that was very helpful.
“What are you making now?” Mrs. Bird asked.
May surveyed the pieces in front of her. “A materializer. It makes things you imagine real. Like if you imagine a pair of emerald earrings, it makes the earrings appear.”
Mrs. Bird crouched, moved back toward the door, then turned a thoughtful gaze on May. “Maybe you should be a lawyer someday—then you can make enough money to get me those earrings for real.” May glanced at the materializer. It was supposed to be for real.
“You’d better get a quick bath. I’ll run the water.”
May lounged on her bed, picturing what it would be like if she went to the picnic today, and her classmates couldn’t recognize her with the extra two pounds and the big, real-looking smile pasted on her face.
Who’s that girl? one of the boys, Finny Elway, would say. She reminds me of May.
“They’d see the best me,” May said aloud to Somber Kitty.
“Meow,” the cat replied with interest.
A few minutes later Mrs. Bird’s footsteps sounded on the stairs again, then came the squeak of the spigot being turned off, and the footsteps retreating. May stripped off her sari and walked out into the hall for her bath. Just outside the bathroom door, she paused. Inside she could hear the splish splash of the water being swirled around the tub.
May grasped the ceramic door handle and twisted it, opening on an empty room. In the middle sat a white tub with claw feet, with water gently waving back and forth. Leaning over, she inspected it, then climbed in. May was used to strange things like this. Her mom had always said all sorts of quirks came with a house as old as theirs. May used to insist it was ghosts. But Mrs. Bird had long ago given her one too many stern looks on the topic. So May simply sank beneath the water and let bubbles drift out of her of nose.
When she stepped out of the bathroom in a towel a half an hour later, the steam poured out behind her, engulfing the tiny figure of Somber Kitty, who waited in the doorway, licking his paws one by one. With the cat at her heels, May walked into her room and pulled on the turquoise tank top and shorts her mom had laid out instead of the usual black clothes.
Last summer May had built a tiny shelf that snaked its way around the whole room, way up high. Along the sill was the collection of quartz rocks she’d carefully picked from the woods. Her mom swore they were worthless, but they seemed as dazzling and precious as diamonds to May. There was also a complete zoo of lopsided animals she’d made out of paper clips, a perfect heart shaped pinecone she and Somber Kitty had found together in town, and an onyx brooch left behind by the lady who’d once lived here before them—a lady by the name of Bertha.
The quartz rocks stared at her as if they, too, wanted to go wherever she was headed. Once she was dressed she pulled the smallest one off the shelf and let it hitch a ride in her pocket, for luck.
The picnic was a disaster.
Sweaty and red-faced, May Bird spent much of the afternoon pedaling around the lawn of Hog Wallow Town Hall on a bike with tassels flapping from the handlebars and a stowaway Rex cat who’d insisted on coming tucked into her backpack. She’d spotted a gaggle of classmates across the grass, talking and laughing.
May kept herself busy, scaring crickets out of the grass, then sat against a tree near the picnic table where mothers had gathered, working on her smile.
She overheard the parents talking. “Thank you, we love the house. We’re always getting offers,” Mrs. Bird was saying, adjusting her hat in a familiar way. She had always said the sun on her face gave her wrinkles. “But I think May needs to be somewhere more . . . average.” May’s mom looked down at her hands while she said this.
Unseen, May blushed. She knew that the reason her mom wanted to move was because she thought May needed to be more average. At that moment, Mrs. Bird’s eyes drifted toward May’s direction and widened, embarrassed.
May pretended she hadn’t noticed, plucked grass between her fingers, and then stood up. Without looking up she made her way toward the other kids.
Pollen blew across the grass, and Somber Kitty nipped at her heels. She lifted him up, frowning at him. “I’m going to hang out with the humans,” she said. “Go play.” He kissed her, his tiny pink tongue darting out to tickle her chin, making her wince before she placed him on the grass and gave him a pat on the butt to shoo him away. She nervously straightened out her clothes and made her way against the breeze to where the children had huddled into a tight group. There she tacked herself to the circle awkwardly, like a losing try at pin the tail on the donkey.
Claire Arneson stood at the center of the group of kids. Instead of being pulled into the usual pigtails, her hair was down and combed across her back, shimmery as mountain water. Two bright, pink-ribboned barrettes held back her bangs. May had always wondered why she couldn’t be more like Claire, when Claire made being herself seem so easy. She always had something funny to say. She never looked big-eyed and serious. And she had a million friends, none of whom were bald cats.
“I’m only allowed to have eight people,” Claire was saying, “Maribeth’s coming, and Colleen. . . . Finny, can you come?”
May smiled big as Claire singled out the kids that would attend her annual Kites and Katydids birthday party. Maybe they hadn’t even recognized her yet. Maybe Claire would invite her to the party, thinking she was inviting a mysterious stranger.
“Hey, May . . .”
May brightened and nodded as Claire turned to her, her heart doing a jig in her chest. “Isn’t that your dancing cat?” Claire pointed one perfect finger across the lawn and all eyes followed.
Oh. Disappointment. “Yes.” May tried her nongrimace smile again. It felt like the old one—grimacelike.
The whole class remembered Somber Kitty because May had brought him in for her “How To” report in February. Everyone else had done their reports on things like “How to Make a Bologna Sandwich” and “How to Sew a Pillow.” May had done hers on “How to Teach Your Cat to Dance.” It was one of the few times May’s classmates had actually noticed she was alive in a good way (They’d noticed her in a bad way many times.) It had also sort of been cheating, because Somber Kitty, despite his general sadness, loved to dance and had known how since he was a kitten.
“That was so cool!” Finny Elway said.
May cleared her throat, her disappointment fading. They thought she had a cool cat.
“Yeah,” Elmore Smith said. “But the best was when May tried to fly off the roof of her mom’s car with that bunch of balloons, remember?” Everyone burst into giggles. May’s heart sank. She tried to smile, as if she was in on the joke. She rubbed at the scar on her knee from that incident, which had happened at last year’s picnic. Ever since then she’d been afraid of heights.
“Hey, remember May Bird, Warrior Princess?” Maribeth asked. Now the laughter exploded, and May began to really and truly blush, remembering the day the photo had fallen out of her social studies textbook onto the floor. It had been a shot of her and Somber Kitty pretending to be Amazon warriors hiding in the trees. In it, May had on her black sparkly bathing suit that made her feel like she was wearing the night sky, and a belt wrapped around her shoulder with long sticks tucked beneath the strap for arrows. Mrs. Bird had said May shouldn’t dress like a half-naked wild thing, but she had stuck the photo into one of May’s note-books to surprise her and make her smile. It had surprised her by falling out. It hadn’t made her smile. It had made her want to sink into the gold and green tiles of the school floor.
“Remember when May forgot to lock the bathroom door on the bus trip, and it swung open?”
May shifted from foot to foot, looking at the ground to hide her flaming face. She gazed toward the adults’ table helplessly, wanting to make sure her mom couldn’t see. Luckily Mrs. Bird was still busy talking with the other grown-ups.
It was the three-legged race that saved her. The mayor of Hog Wallow announced that everyone was to line up across the lawn by the pink flag.
No sooner had he said it than, shouting and laughing, the children went tearing across the grass. Dazed, May dragged herself after them, her long skinny legs straggling. Races were her favorite. She was deadly fast.
But you needed a partner for a three-legged race. And everyone paired up without her.
“Mew? Meow? Meay?” Somber Kitty asked, appearing out of nowhere and rubbing against her shins.
“Cats can’t race,” May said with a sigh. They watched the racers line up, and then the starting bell went off, and Claire and Maribeth pulled out in front. They were way slower than May would have been. But May would have traded her speed for a partner to race with.
She turned around and walked back to her bike, far away from the crowd, and plopped down next to it in the grass.
“I think if I could go somewhere else, I could be someone else,” she whispered to her cat. She picked a puffy white dandelion out of the grass between her sandals and blew at the seeds.
Somber Kitty, who always seemed to know May had no one else to tell her feelings to, mewed in agreement, though he had no idea what she was saying.
“But that doesn’t mean I want to move to New York,” she quickly added.
Then she slumped. She felt as heavy as a sack of beans. But then, a sack of beans never got embarrassed or did stupid balloon tricks in front of other sacks of beans or forgot to lock the bathroom door. Come to think of it, life was probably easy for all the beans of the world. Being a sack of them wouldn’t be so bad.
May picked another dandelion and blew on it. “Maybe I’d rather be a sack of beans,” she told the fuzzy white floaters. Somber Kitty meowed disapprovingly.
“Don’t worry, Kitty. I’m not going anywhere.”
Somber Kitty rolled himself into a ball and continued to stare at her. He didn’t look so sure.
“Unless you know something I don’t.”
At the edge of the grass, the trees watched her.
They knew better.