Sandi Ward’s shrewdly observed, funny, and wonderfully touching novel tells of a fractured family, a teenage boy, and a remarkable cat whose loyalty knows no bounds . . .
A boy and his cat. It’s an unconventional friendship, perhaps, but for Charlie and Lily, it works beautifully. It was Charlie who chose Lily from among all the cats in the shelter. He didn’t frown, the way other humans did, when he saw her injured back leg, the legacy of a cruel previous owner. Instead, Charlie insisted on rescuing her. Now Lily wants to do the same for Charlie.
She’s the only one who’s seen the bruises on Charlie’s body. If she knew who was hurting him, she’d scratch their eyes out. But she can’t fix this by herself. Lily needs to get the rest of the family to focus on Charlie—not easy when they’re wrapped up in their own problems. Charlie’s mother kicked his father out weeks ago and has a new boyfriend who seems charming, but is still a stranger. Oldest son Kevin misses his father desperately. Victoria, Charlie’s sister, also has someone new in her life, and Lily is decidedly suspicious. Even Charlie’s father, who Lily loves dearly, is behaving strangely.
Lily knows what it’s like to feel helpless. But she also knows that you don’t always have to be the biggest or the strongest to fight fiercely for the ones you love . . .
Praise for Sandi Ward’s The Astonishing Thing
“A beautiful and touching look into the intricacies of marriage and family life, all seen through the loving and unique perspective of the family pet.”
“The Astonishing Thing feels like a bit of a miracle and we all could use a miracle.”
—Holly Chamberlin, author of The Summer Nanny
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Sandi Ward is the author of The Astonishing Thing and Something Worth Saving. She received her MA in Creative Writing from NYU and is a copywriter at an advertising agency. Sandi grew up in New England and now lives on the Jersey Shore with her husband, teenagers, dog, and a big black cat named Winnie. Visit Sandi at sandiwardbooks.com.
Read an Excerpt
A Boy Named Charlie
I worry most of all about the youngest boy.
Bad things have been happening lately. Unpredictable things that I don't see coming.
And someone has been hurting Charlie. I've seen the bruises.
Who would do such a thing?
Charlie arrives home at the same time every afternoon. Usually, I hear his footsteps on the outside stairs, and then the front door swings open. Most days, the doorknob clicks when it shuts behind him, and Charlie is already on the move — flinging his sneakers off, dropping his black backpack in the middle of the hall. He always heads straight for the kitchen to make a snack.
But today, he is early. Charlie opens the door cautiously, looking left to right. He steps into the house and waits on the mat, listening, clutching the strap of his backpack with one hand.
I watch from the middle of the stairs. I startle when I first see him, and scamper back.
He has changed in a most peculiar way, and I hardly recognize him!
This morning, the hair on his head was dark, and he looked very much like Dad. But now his hair is light, reminding me of the snowshoe hare kept in a crate by a girl down the street. What in the world happened to him?
He sees the way I arch my back, whiskers spread in shock. "It's okay, Lil," he whispers. "It's just me."
Why yes, it is. I would know that smooth face and those green eyes anywhere. I feel foolish for scaring so easily. Bending my head, I lick my paws to cover my embarrassment. My feet gather dust from the floors, which the humans rarely sweep. I reflexively clean myself whenever I don't want to be the focus of attention.
When I look up again, Charlie is leaning back against the front door, taking in a deep breath. Okay, so maybe he looks different. But I'll get used to it. Charlie shrugs his backpack off of his shoulder and lets it fall to the floor with a thud.
I hear Gretel, the big family dog, barking in the backyard. She's probably wasting her energy chasing a squirrel, and so Charlie and I will get a nice quiet moment together.
Charlie is such a sweet boy. He comes up a few stairs to sit beside me. His hands always smell like peanuts and pencil lead, although today a strange scent coming from his hair also tickles my nose. Charlie whispers in my sensitive ears: "Lily, Lily, Lil-Lil. Sorry if I scared you." His touch is gentle and soothing, and I lean my head into his fingers. "You're so beautiful," he coos.
I know, I know.
"Look at you. You're gorgeous. All that fluffy fur."
You're not so bad yourself. And I'll learn to love your hair. Just give me time.
Charlie likes to flatter me, but I think Charlie is good-looking too, compared to other humans. I would tell him so if I could. Charlie has grown several inches this past year, and he is getting stronger. He is almost a man. His long legs stretch out over many stairs.
I suspect that this change is something that Charlie did to himself, and it was not a sudden illness or an accident that lightened his hair. He is healthy and has a good appetite. Charlie is at the age when the teenagers start to preen and groom and try to make themselves attractive to other humans. I remember when Kevin and Victoria went through the same change.
Before long, we hear a bus rumbling down the narrow road in front of our house. It is big and yellow, so you can't miss it from our windows. A group of teenage boys ride on the bus in the afternoons to get to the sailing club across the street, and then they go out in boats on the river.
The humans enjoy living on the river, but I stay away from it. When I was younger, I would sneak through the fence across the street and pad my way under the boat trailers to get to the water. But the salt marsh is pungent and wet, not a good place for a cat. One time I accidentally fell into the river. The water was cold and dark, with no bottom. My feet flailed in nothingness and I barely managed to scramble out, my claws sunk into the mud. My fur was so heavy when wet! I still have nightmares about that day.
Another time, there was a red fox hiding in the marsh, and I had to run for my life. It was terrifying. Not that I had a doubt I could outrun that fox, because I'm fast and nimble. But the river doesn't interest me much anymore.
The teenage boys go out in their boats every day, until spring turns to summer. But before they do that, they run. They sprint right past our house. It's part of their routine.
"Here they come," Charlie whispers to me, shifting to get a better view out the big picture window.
Most days, Charlie will make himself a peanut butter sandwich and then watch the boys from the safety of our home. He can be shy, cautious about who he talks to. But maybe it's just curiosity. Perhaps Charlie wants to observe, without being seen.
I would understand that. I know a little something about curiosity.
Two years ago, I think Charlie hardly noticed the boys at all. Last year, he started watching from an upstairs bedroom.
This year, he usually stands behind a sheer curtain in the living room, stuffing his face with his sandwich. And he watches. I suppose that he is now the same age as some of the boys that sail on the river. I wonder if he knows any of them from school or the neighborhood.
The boys run together, like a pack of dogs. For the first couple of weeks, the days are so cold they can see their breath in the air. The boys jog past in sweatshirts and sweatpants, wearing hats that cover their ears. But now that spring is breaking, they wear shorts and thin jackets. There are usually a few big, strong, older boys in the lead. Then comes the middle of the pack, and there are always some stragglers at the end. They run around the block repeatedly, circling three times, before heading to the boats. Charlie is usually done with his sandwich, taking the last bites of the crust, by the time they are on their final round.
Sometimes he frowns, watching them. He occasionally moves away from the curtain, as if afraid someone will see him.
Other times, he looks wistful. As if he wishes he could join them. He seems lonely sometimes.
I have never seen Charlie run in my life. So this may not be the right activity for him. I wonder if he will ever try it.
Today, as soon as we've watched the boys run past, Charlie stands and heads upstairs. "C'mon, Lil!" he calls to me, and I follow.
First he walks into the bathroom. I jump onto the toilet to watch him. When he lifts up his shirt, I see it: faded bruising, turning from purple to green. On his side, by his ribs.
I have seen this kind of thing twice before, both recently. I know it means he has been injured. But I haven't seen Charlie hurt himself here at home.
It's truly terrible. The bruises on his body have convinced me that someone must be hurting him. But I don't know who to blame.
I tip my head to ask: What happened to you?
Charlie sighs, and stares at the mirror. I sometimes puzzle over why humans look into the shiny wall, but I have concluded they see a reflection of themselves. And in that reflection, they find the answers they seek.
I don't see anything but a silver sheen when I look at the wall. It's something of a mystery to me.
Charlie takes both hands and messes with his newly lightened hair so it stands up every which way. I blink. I would find it very uncomfortable for someone to push my fur around like that. But it doesn't seem to bother him.
We both flinch at the same time as we hear the front door open again. Charlie straightens out his shirt. I know he won't show anyone that he has been hurt.
When he is injured, he hides it.
"Charlie!" we hear from the front hallway. It's Kevin. He is bigger, older, louder. He gives Charlie all kinds of advice and orders. I think Kevin often feels the need to confirm his place as a dominant human in this house. His voice booms up the stairs. "I know you're here. I see your backpack. What the hell's going on? The principal stopped me in the hallway to say no one could find you. He was about to call the police, but I told him you probably went home, and I'd check." There's a pause. "Hey, Charlie. Answer me."
"SHUT UP," Charlie yells back, not leaving the bathroom. "It's none of your business. You're not Dad. So stay out of it."
Oh dear. Did Charlie leave school in the middle of the day again? I always worry about Charlie getting himself into trouble.
"CHARLIE." The voice gets louder, and we freeze. Heavy footsteps let us know Kevin is coming up the stairs. Charlie's face creases in concern. "Mom and Dad are too busy at work to keep getting calls from the school." There are three hard knocks on the door. "I'm coming in."
Kevin has to push to get the sticky door to open. All of the doors in the house get jammed in their frames. Nothing quite fits as it should.
Charlie and I both take a step back. The bathroom is small, and Charlie is up against the shower curtain. "Stop," he begs. "You're not Dad. Stop shouting at me."
I wish I could say: I agree.
I don't like it when humans yell. It makes my fur stand on end.
Kevin's eyes open wide. "Holy hell. What did you do?"
Charlie shakes his head. "I just missed a few classes. Gym. And study hall. No one cares. And maybe math — okay, I missed math too."
"No," Kevin interrupts, "your hair."
Charlie looks over at me, but there is nowhere to hide. Nowhere to go. I don't know what to tell him to do.
Kevin starts to move toward Charlie, with his hand up as if he wants to touch Charlie's hair, and Charlie flinches. I instinctively hiss! I spit like a sparking blaze in the fireplace. Just a warning: Stay away from my boy.
Kevin moves back to where he was.
"Kev, please. I went to Karen's house and we dyed my hair. It's not a big deal." Charlie tries to move, but his legs are up against the tub and there's nowhere to go. "Please just leave me alone."
Kevin steps out of the bathroom, hands up in surrender. "Wow. Dad's going to love that. I don't even know what to say, just — wow." He backs up slowly, as if he's afraid I might attack him. "Okay. Good luck when the principal calls Dad. He's gonna love this. Really. Dad will love it. Skipping school for that? Man. Good luck, buddy." He turns and heads down the stairs, shaking his head.
Thanks for nothing, I wish I could call after him.
Charlie and I look at each other. I don't think the hair change is so bad. It's already growing on me. I think Charlie looks rather interesting.
I let Charlie pick me up, going limp in his hands. I'm not a small cat. But he places me carefully on his shoulder as if I'm delicate cargo, and carries me to his room. We both lie down on his bed, right on top of the red wool blanket. Charlie and I enjoy lounging in his bedroom upstairs, staying away from activity. The afternoon sun peeks through the slats of the blinds and casts a warm light. We don't have a view of the river since his bedroom faces the backyard, but through his window I can see down into the garden lined with bright pink rugosa and the woods beyond. Charlie sighs and puts his big blue headphones over his ears; I hear a beat playing. I curl up near the bruise on his side.
Poor Charlie. He is the youngest in this family. He often seems sad and I wish I could do more to make him feel better.
Charlie is my favorite human. He's the one who chose me. He walked up and down the long hallway full of hundreds of cats where I was waiting to be adopted, and as soon as he saw me, he pointed me out to Dad. I was the only one left of my litter, and I missed my siblings terribly, living alone in a cage. As soon as our eyes met, I knew I'd found my soul mate. Charlie has the most amazing human eyes, and they lit up when he looked me over.
There is a reason I was the last one chosen in my family. It is something unimportant — something that makes no difference to me — but the humans notice it.
I was injured when I was young. My siblings and I were born in a cold house, and a human who I can hardly remember liked to move us out of his way with a kick. I was only a kitten when I unexpectedly received a hard jolt from a heavy boot one night, and my back leg was broken. The pain was horrible. My siblings were in no position to help me. There was nothing any of us could do but stumble to get out of the way when we heard the human coming. Finally, one day we were put into a bag and the next thing I remember is waking up in a cage.
Humans smile when they see my face, but frown when they first see me walk. My gait is not graceful, because my back leg never healed quite right.
But rest assured it does not slow me down. No — just the opposite. I take pride in my speed. I have worked hard to become as strong as any cat who lives on the river.
When he saw me in the cage, Charlie lifted me carefully with two hands and told Dad, "I want this one. Look at her long fur. Why hasn't anyone adopted her yet? She's so cute." He laughed. "She's practically hugging me. Look at her, Dad. I love her already. She wants to go home with me."
When the woman in charge of the cages put me on the ground and had me demonstrate how I walk, I looked up at Charlie and Dad to watch their reaction. And I tell you this: They did not frown. No.
In fact, Dad gave a small smile and nodded, as if I were exactly what he wanted. Charlie looked up into his father's face, and that was that. Their minds were made up.
"She's a little different," Dad said quietly to Charlie, his hand on the back of his son's head. "I like that. You know, it's okay to be a little different."
Charlie bit his bottom lip, and I knew that he agreed. And I guessed that, perhaps, Charlie was a little different himself in some way.
So they brought me home and named me Lily. Dad found a nice bed for me, which I appreciate and sometimes use during the day. But at night I sleep with Charlie on his bed.
Now that I am older, I appreciate Charlie even more. I know who looks out for me. I know who loves me best. We are as close as animal and human could ever be. So I wish I could do more for him.
No creature should be mistreated. I did not deserve it, and neither does Charlie. I remember the fear, the constant knot of anxiety in my stomach that I felt when I heard the bad man coming. And I recall how humiliating it was to be too small to fight back. It makes my eyes sting and nose quiver when I think about it.
Believe me, if I knew who was hurting Charlie, I would scratch his eyes out.
* * *
I am sound asleep when the doorbell rings. Charlie jumps up, and I scramble to my feet. It is a loud musical chime that always makes my heart leap. We hear Kevin's footsteps clomping down the front hall, and the door creaks open. Gretel's nails click on the wood as she follows Kevin, and she gives a sharp woof woof woof! Her bark of warning echoes up the stairs, but Kevin scolds her, telling her to quiet down. Adult voices murmur, and Charlie puts a hand on my back.
There is a long pause. "Charlie," Kevin calls up the stairs, his voice breaking. He does not yell this time, which almost makes it worse. "The police are here to talk to you."
Like I said, bad things keep happening.CHAPTER 2
Charlie walks down the stairs slowly, one hand on the railing. I watch from the top of the stairs.
Two young men in blue uniforms stand in the doorway. They don't step inside, but they study Charlie, looking him over from head to toe several times, as if he must be hiding something. As they question Charlie, Kevin folds his arms and says "sorry" quite a few times with a stern glance at Charlie, as if he is Dad.
Which he certainly is not.
"I'm fine. I'm safe," I hear Charlie plead. "My older brother is here. There's nothing wrong. I just didn't feel well, so my friend Karen brought me to her house. Then I came home."
There are many more questions. One of the men, with a shaved head, writes down Charlie's answers on a pad of paper.
"It won't happen again," Kevin promises, putting one hand on the doorframe, as if he's getting weary and needs to hold himself up. Charlie hangs back, as if he's nervous the men might try to snatch him and take him away.
The men warn Charlie that he cannot just leave school anytime he feels like it. Finally they go, getting back into their fancy car in the driveway.
Once they're out of sight, Charlie whirls around to face Kevin. "Why didn't you call the principal back?" He has tears in his eyes, and his bottom lip trembles. "Why didn't you tell him I was home?"
"I did." Kevin shakes his head. "That's what I don't get. I did call him right back, and I told him you were fine." He chews on the inside of his mouth a moment, thinking. "I guess when the principal called Dad, Dad probably told him to send the cops anyway. Just to teach you a lesson."
Charlie puts one hand on his forehead, and takes in a deep, shaky breath. I walk over and throw my body against his ankles to help him calm himself.
"Jesus, Charlie. You deserve it," Kevin mutters as he walks away, moving down the hall. "You bring this stuff on yourself."
Charlie frowns, watching his older brother.
"I don't deserve it," he whispers. But Kevin is already gone.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Something Worth Saving"
Copyright © 2019 Sandra Ward.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 - A Boy Named Charlie,
Chapter 2 - Serious Face,
Chapter 3 - The New Man,
Chapter 4 - Powerful Medicine,
Chapter 5 - Rifle Range Poker Run,
Chapter 6 - Rock Star,
Chapter 7 - Making a Terrible Mess,
Chapter 8 - Rocking Chair,
Chapter 9 - The Clever Fox,
Chapter 10 - Faking It,
Chapter 11 - Wedding Photo,
Chapter 12 - Soap,
Chapter 13 - Bees,
Chapter 14 - The Kissing Problem,
Chapter 15 - Strawberry Fields Forever,
Chapter 16 - The Lawyer,
Chapter 17 - Walking Disaster,
Chapter 18 - The Gun,
Chapter 19 - Stupid Little Twerp Brother,
Chapter 20 - Mistaken,
Chapter 21 - Temporary Amusement,
Chapter 22 - Bright Yellow Gloves,
Chapter 23 - Impressionable Teenager,
Chapter 24 - Snow Day,
Chapter 25 - Gorgeous,
Chapter 26 - Obviously Completely,
Chapter 27 - Purple Headband,
Chapter 28 - The Best, the Sweetest, and the Greatest,
Chapter 29 - Very Unkind,
Chapter 30 - What Happened in the Garage,
Chapter 31 - Better Offer,
Chapter 32 - Brave,
Chapter 33 - Tourniquet,
Chapter 34 - Chalk,
Chapter 35 - Going to Camp,
Chapter 36 - A Man Named Mark,