Squiggles and Eggplant

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Chapter 3

To the cats’ surprise, Deefa was waiting for them when they climbed out of the window. Her tail swished back and forth, ruffling the grass she sat in.

“Was I right?” she asked with a bark, standing up.

Squiggles jumped down off the yellow-lidded bin and landed next to Deefa on the grass. “You were right,” he said and rubbed his head against her front leg. Deefa’s tail wagged harder in reply, and she smiled a big toothy smile.

“My nose always knows,” she said.

“Indeed it does,” said Eggplant. He was sitting on top of the yellow bin, his tail hanging down. It twitched back and forth.

Deefa watched Eggplant’s tail. “Something wrong?” she asked, tilting her head to the side.

Eggplant shrugged and jumped off the bin. “Nothing to worry about. We just have a big day ahead of us.”

“And Charlie’s missing!” Squiggles said.

“Charlie? The gray kitty?” Deefa asked

Squiggles nodded. He didn’t know Charlie well, but he was concerned about the young cat. He felt a strong connection to all of the pets in the neighborhood, except for Chester. They had become a part of his life, and it felt strange that a piece was missing.

“Cheer up,” Eggplant said, giving Squiggles a nuzzle. “We can search for Charlie while we look for the spiderwebs.”

“Where are we looking first?” Deefa asked, unsure of what was going on but wanting to be involved anyway.

“I’m not sure we-”

“We’d love your help,” Squiggles interrupted, staring meaningfully at Eggplant. With Charlie missing, Squiggles knew he’d feel better having Deefa around. He looked at the medium-sized dog. She wasn’t large, but she was loyal, and that comforted him.

“Alright,” Eggplant relented. There was no use arguing about it.

They started with Smudge’s backyard and split up. Squiggles found some spiderwebs right away in a patch of flowers and worked carefully at untangling them from the stems with his mouth. He carried them over to the porch and let the clump float down gently.

Eggplant wasn’t having such an easy time. He mistakenly stuck his muzzle straight into the spiderwebs during the process, and it clung to his whiskers and fur. He reared back on his hind legs, batting at his muzzle with both paws.

“Squig,” Eggplant cried. “I need help.”

Deefa was at his side, tongue lolling, before Squiggles made it over. “Look this way,” she said and licked Eggplant’s muzzle in one movement, cleaning off the bits of spider web.

“Thanks,” Eggplant said, twitching his whiskers.

After they were done surveying Smudge’s yard and the first set of spiderwebs had been stacked in a neat pile by the door, they headed out into the neighborhood. Their tails were raised high and, in Deefa’s case, wagging.

They headed down the street to the park as Eggplant suggested. It was a likely place to find spiderwebs because it was full of all sorts of plants, bushes, and trees.

The playground was bustling with small children and their parents. The three of them decided it was best to avoid the area altogether. They stuck to the outer edge of the park where there was a restored outcropping of native Australian plants. The ground was dirt, and shrubs and bushes were scattered around the bases of the large gum trees. A dirt path wound through the area, having been trodden by many schoolchildren on their way through the park.

Deefa stopped suddenly as she caught a strange smell. With a quick bark, she alerted the two cats who came over to the spot she was sniffing by the base of a spiky bush.

“What’s that?” Squiggles asked.

Deefa snuffled in the dirt another time and looked up at Squiggles. “A strange dog has been here, and it was recent. Probably last night.”

“Do you think it has something to do with Charlie?” Eggplant asked. He sniffed and detected the familiar smell of dog urine.

The two cats sat and watched as Deefa sniffled around the area, moving about the plants and occasionally stopping to add her urine to the communication system all dogs used.

After a couple of minutes, Deefa came back over to the cats.

“I can tell Charlie has been in this area, but the scent is old, probably three days or more.”

Squiggles frowned. “Smudge said he’s been missing for at least two days.”

“Can you pick up where he went?” Eggplant asked.

Deefa shook her head. “The scent ends in this area. I’ll keep searching while you two work.”

The spiderwebs were ripe for the picking, and all was going smoothly until Squiggles heard a meow of surprise from Eggplant. He rushed over to Eggplant’s side. Deefa picked her head up from the dirt and grass and rushed over to Eggplant’s side with Squiggles.

Eggplant was standing next to a bush, a look of disgust on his face.

“What’s wrong?” Squiggles asked.

Eggplant took a step back from the bush. “There’s a spider!”

Squiggles’ eyes widened. “Where?” he asked, stepping in to look closer.

“Right there,” Eggplant said, pointing with his nose. A large spider was perched in the middle of the web. “I was going to grab it when the spider came out!” Eggplant said and took another step back.

“It makes sense there would be a spider in a spider’s web,” Deefa said.

Eggplant shuddered. “I know, but they’re so disgusting.”

“I’ll take care of it,” Squiggles said, moving forward. In one motion, he grabbed the large brown spider with most of the web and chomped it excitedly, then swallowed.

Deefa and Eggplant watched their friend in horror.

“What- How could you- Disgusting!” Eggplant said.

Deefa’s panting stopped, and she stared with her head cocked to the side.

“Mmmm,” Squiggles meowed. “I would have loved to eat a spider that big back when I was a gecko. Tasty.”

Eggplant shook his head. Even when he was a crow, he had disliked spiders. They had too many legs, and he didn’t like how they moved about as if they knew something he didn’t.

“We better get back to Smudge,” Eggplant said.

Squiggles meowed in agreement.

Eggplant realized Squiggles had a spider leg sticking out of the side of his mouth. “You’ve got a ..." Eggplant tried to say, but a sick feeling was rising in his stomach.

“What’s that?” Squiggles said.

“You’ve got a spider leg,” Eggplant said and shuddered.

Squiggles tongue circled his mouth, found the spider leg, and swallowed it down.

“Yuck,” Deefa said.

Eggplant felt better knowing Deefa was on his side. He knew the kind of things dogs would eat, and his dislike couldn’t be that wrong if a dog thought it was gross.

“I don’t see why it’s such a big deal,” Squiggles said.

Spiderwebs gathered, they set out to return to Smudge. The three of them darted out of the park and headed back up the street into the neighborhood.

Sitting on the grass under a large pine in his front yard was a cat they all recognized.

“Hi, Sarge,” Eggplant called out to the old tabby, and Deefa gave a quiet hello woof.

Sarge moved to his paws and started making his way across the yellowed grass to the other pets. His fur was a bit patchy, and he looked thin, but he moved with surprising speed. They all bumped noses in greeting, one after another.

Sarge looked at the clump of spiderwebs Squiggles carried in his mouth.

“On a mission for Smudge?” he asked.

Squiggles nodded in agreement.

“We’re also looking for Charlie,” Deefa said.

“Hm,” Sarge said. “I haven’t seen him around.”

“That’s the problem,” said Eggplant. “He’s been missing for two days now, says Smudge.”

“That’s no good,” Sarge said and looked at Deefa. “You’re right to have Deefa with you on your mission. She’s got the keenest nose in the neighborhood.”

If dogs could blush, Deefa’s cheeks would have turned red. “You’re too kind, Sergeant,” she said, and her tail wagged faster.

“I say nothing but the truth,” the old cat said with a slight bow.

“We better get going,” Eggplant said, motioning to Squiggles, who still had a mouth full of sticky spiderwebs. “We should get them to Smudge.”

“Good luck,” Sarge said and dipped his head in farewell before turning to make his way back over to his spot in the shade.

* * *

The trio spent the rest of the afternoon gathering spiderwebs and taking them to Smudge, who collected them in a neat pile in her storage place with other potion ingredients.

When they left Smudge’s house for the third time, Mister Whiskers was sitting on his front porch on a wooden rocking chair. He’d come out to the front yard after a long afternoon of lounging in the sun in the backyard. He called out to the trio as they walked by with a loud meow.

Eggplant’s ears turned at the sound, and he shifted his attention toward the fluffy, brown cat. “Let’s go and say hello. Maybe he’ll know something about Charlie,” he said.

Squiggles and Deefa were happy to follow behind Eggplant as he walked up the driveway and sat in front of Mister Whiskers’ rocking chair on the porch. They took turns bumping noses in greeting.

“What are you three up to?” Mister Whiskers asked, sniffing them.

“We’re looking for spiderwebs for Smudge,” Eggplant said.

“And for Charlie,” Deefa said. “Have you seen him around? He’s missing.”

Mister Whiskers shook his head, and his bushy set of white whiskers swayed back and forth gently as he moved. “I haven’t. How long has he been missing?”

Squiggles filled him in on the details and included the strange smell from the park.

Mister Whiskers frowned. “Hoodie is gone too,” Mister Whiskers said, referring to the Siamese she-cat he shared his home with.

The three newcomers stared at him with wide eyes.

“Are you sure?” Squiggles asked. His stomach felt sick. He shifted back and forth on his front paws, a nervous habit he’d had ever since he was a gecko.

Mister Whiskers nodded solemnly. “I couldn’t find her this morning. She’s been gone since last night, maybe earlier.”

“Where did you last see her?” Eggplant asked.

“In the backyard,” Mister Whiskers replied. “She was chasing geckos-” Mister Whiskers paused and looked at Squiggles guiltily. “Sorry,” he said.

Squiggles stopped his pacing. “Don’t worry about it. That’s cats, for you,” he said, knowing full well how the food chain worked. It had bothered him when he first became a cat and realized other cats preyed on his past species, but he’d come to accept it even if he didn’t hunt small animals himself. Except for bugs. He still enjoyed eating bugs whenever he could be bothered to find them in the yard.

Mister Whiskers continued. “She was chasing geckos, and I went in to sit with my people. They like to sit in front of the television at night, and I like to steal the snacks that fall.”

The two cats and Deefa nodded. That was something they all liked doing.

“I slept most of the night, and when I woke up this morning Hoodie was gone. I checked around the yard, but I haven’t seen her. I thought she was just getting into trouble somewhere. She’s known to wander. I thought she’d come home tonight, so I wasn’t too worried. But with Charlie gone...” he trailed off.

“We can search for her as well as Charlie,” Deefa said. Her wagging tail had stilled.

“Would you like to have a sniff around the back yard? Maybe that will allow you to pick up her scent.” Mister Whiskers asked Deefa.

Deefa’s tail wagged slowly. “Yes, of course.”

Eggplant, Squiggles, and Deefa followed Mister Whiskers around the side of the house on the pebbled path.

Mister Whiskers paused when he saw the gate was closed. “Maybe that won’t be possible.”

Deefa looked at the chain gate. The cats would easily scale it but she wouldn’t, especially not with her sore hip.

“Do you have a cat door?” Squiggles asked.

Mister Whiskers shook his head. “It’s too small for Deefa.”

Squiggles looked at the gate, then at Eggplant. “Can you open it?”

Eggplant shot him a smug look. “See, and you thought that would never be useful.”

“This isn’t the time to be rude,” Squiggles said. “Two cats are missing.”

Eggplant let out a sigh. In his mind, it was always the right time to remind someone he had been right and they had been wrong.

“The latch is on the inside,” he said, staring up at the chain-link gate. The latch was similar to the one on Smudge’s gate and would be simple to open, but first he’d have to get to it.

Squiggles caught on to Eggplant’s hesitation and looked up. “Can you tell me how to open it?” Squiggles asked

Eggplant shook his head. “It’s best if I do it,” he said. Squiggles had seen him open many gates before but never watched closely. Eggplant held the special skill close to his heart as a well-kept secret and a point of personal pride. He would have to climb the gate to keep his honor.

“Why don’t you go over the gate first and show me how it’s done,” Eggplant said to Squiggles. “I’ll follow.”

Squiggles scratched himself before looking in confusion at the large cat beside him. “You don’t plan to climb, do you?”

Eggplant only nodded, expression severe.

Mister Whiskers stepped up to the gate. He’d been listening to them talking and was interested in seeing how Eggplant would open the door. “I’ll go first,” said the brown cat. He launched himself at the diamond-patterned grid as he had done many times before. One paw at a time, he climbed up the openings until he was at the top and hoisted himself over. He fell on the other side, landing on all four paws, and looked through at Eggplant. “See, it’s not so hard,” Mister Whiskers said.

Eggplant stared at the height again. Mister Whiskers had moved with shocking speed and agility. He swallowed hard. “Maybe you should go next,” he said to Squiggles. “So I can see it again.”

Squiggles stepped up to the gate and started to climb. He went slower than Mister Whiskers and seemed more careful about where he put his paws. He hesitated at the top but heaved himself over and fell, landing softly next to Mister Whiskers.

“You’ll do fine,” Deefa said from behind Eggplant. She was smiling her usual doggy smile, and it gave Eggplant some much-needed courage.

“Alright,” Eggplant said and stepped up to the gate the way the other two had. He stood on his back paws and put his right paw onto one of the lower diamonds.

“There you go,” Squiggles said. “Now, the other paw.”

Eggplant’s opposite back paw followed the first, and he was standing on the gate. His weight pressed down on his tiny paws. “This hurts!” Eggplant said, shifting his back paws under his weight.

“That’s why you have to move quickly,” Mister Whiskers said.

Eggplant stared at the brown, long-haired cat and realized he was a bit chunky himself. If Mister Whiskers could do it, so could he. Slowly, Eggplant began to move his way up the chain-link gate. One paw after another, he pulled himself higher and higher. The three other animals cheered as he ascended with a mix of barks and meows.

Finally, paws sore to the point he thought they would surely fall off, Eggplant reached the top of the gate.

“Now, pull yourself over the bar,” Squiggles said as if it would be an incredibly easy thing to do.

Eggplant pushed with his back legs and pulled with his front paws until he was next to the bar. With great effort, he hoisted himself halfway over the top of the bar. His front half was on one side of the yard and his back half dangled over the other. He kicked his back legs in the air. “I’m stuck!” he meowed.

“You’re fine! Keep going!” Mister Whiskers said, but Eggplant detected a hint of laughter in his voice.

Eggplant regained his senses and pulled himself the rest of the way over the bar. He fell, not exactly gracefully, onto all four paws on the other side of the fence.

Now the celebration was real, and his audience meowed and barked their excitement that he’d made it over the top.

Eggplant panted, partially from the strain of the task and partly from fear, but he felt a great sense of pride. He sat down, allowing his shaking back legs a rest from the incredible effort they’d put in.

The others allowed him a minute of rest while they waited.

Eggplant gave himself a scratch while he waited for his heart to stop racing. When he felt ready, he stood and began the process of opening the gate.

The latch was a little higher than Smudge’s gate, and it was hard to jump on his tired back legs. Still, everyone was watching. He jumped and batted with his paw but missed. The second time, he put a little more force behind the jump and batted the metal latch successfully. After a couple more tries, the latch had moved almost all the way free of the hook. He tried again, incredibly conscious of the others watching him work.

Unlike when he climbed the gate, his audience sat silently. Even Deefa’s tail had been stilled in concentration as she watched.

After a particularly forceful smack with his paw, the latch slid to the side, and the gate swung open.

“Come on in!” Mister Whiskers said, inviting Deefa through the gate.

The three cats moved back so the gate could open all the way. Once Deefa was on the other side, she gave Eggplant a big, congratulatory lick.

“Impressive!” she said.

For the second time that afternoon, Eggplant glowed with praise. “Let’s get to work,” he said.

Deefa and Squiggles followed Mister Whiskers into the rest of the backyard. Eggplant followed behind a bit slower, still catching his breath.

Mister Whiskers’ back yard seemed huge in comparison to Smudge’s. In reality, all the neighborhood houses had similarly sized yards, but the decoration made them each feel like they had a unique size.

Mister Whiskers’ yard was mostly bare. The ground was covered with evenly-cut, medium-length grass and smelled as if it had been recently trimmed. A colorful children’s play structure sat near the fence. There was a large plastic car, a small blow-up pool, and two football goals.

Deefa set about sniffing. The cats watched as she snuffled the grass, ears perked up as she went, tracing around the yard. She went over to the play structure and stopped, then looked down at a fluffy toy, threadbare in some places. “Is this Hoodie’s?”

“That’s her favorite toy,” Mister Whiskers said.

Deefa pushed her nose against the indistinguishable, four legged stuffed animal, doing all she could to take in Hoodie’s scent. The toy had been chewed nearly to pieces, and was an excellent example of the scent Deefa should search for. With the scent in mind, Deefa began to follow Hoodie’s trail around the yard. At one point, of her own accord, she paused to pee on one of the field goals before moving on. When she was done with the yard, where the scent was older, she traced the scent back the way they had come. She sniffed along the side of the house, to the gate, and out away from the house with the three cats in tow.

“She went this way,” Deefa said. “I’ll follow it as far as I can.”

The three cats looked among each other.

“I’ll wait here,” Mister Whiskers said. “The children will be done with football practice soon, and I like to be here when they get home.”

“That’s a good idea,” Squiggles said. “Eggplant and I will come with you.”

Eggplant shook his head. “I think we should wait until tonight. There are far too many people around now that the kids are out of school.” He was also far too tired to run about the neighborhood, not that he wanted to say that out loud.

Squiggles shoulders sagged.

“You should go with Deefa. I’ll stay here with Mister Whiskers,” Eggplant said.

Squiggles perked up. “Alright, if Deefa doesn’t mind,” he said, looking over at her.

Deefa’s tail wagged. “I don’t mind at all.”

Eggplant and Mister Whiskers sat on the front porch on the rocking chair and groomed each other while Deefa and Squiggles took off down the road, following the scent trail.

After a short while, Mister Whiskers’ children, Eden and Aster, came home. Eggplant had often seen them playing with sticks and balls and race cars in the street. The two boy children were about twelve. They took turns scratching each cat between the ears and under the chin, then raced inside where Eggplant could hear the television switch on in the living room.

“Those are good kids,” Eggplant said after they’d gone.

Mister Whiskers purred his approval. “They are. I hope Hoodie comes home soon. They’ll be devastated, and so would I.”

Eggplant looked back out at the street, watching for Deefa and Squiggles. He wondered what Mister Whiskers must be feeling. He tried to imagine how he would feel if Squiggles disappeared, but it was difficult.

They’d been living together for the last two years. After Eggplant had been turned into a cat, Smudge had convinced him to stick around the neighbor’s house, knowing they had no cats of their own. After a short while of purring and allowing his belly to be scratched, they eventually took him in and became his family.

A year later, when Squiggles was turned into a cat, Smudge knew the house for him. At first, Eggplant reflected that he hadn’t been happy to share the attention of his people and only allowed him over because it was a favor for Smudge, but Squiggles’ bubbly, caring personality had grown on him.

Eggplant looked back at the street again, wondering what was keeping Deefa and Squiggles.

He shook the emotion from his mind. Squiggles was with Deefa, and, even though the sun was going down, he trusted Deefa to keep Squiggles safe.

When the sun had gone down and both Mister Whiskers and Eggplant were starting to worry, they spotted Deefa bounding up the street, followed by Squiggles.

The two cats jumped off the porch and ran across the yard to meet the other two.

“Did you find anything?” Mister Whiskers asked.

Deefa shook her head. Her tail wasn’t wagging. “Hoodie’s scent went down to the park like Charlie’s did, and they both seem to have gone to the same area. But the trail goes cold after. I’m sorry. I’m sure they’ll both turn up soon. Maybe they’re together?”

Mister Whiskers shook his head. “Hoodie liked to keep to herself.”

“Well, I’m sure they’ll turn up,” Squiggles said, but he couldn’t hide the fear in his voice from the other animals.

* * *

Eggplant lay on the couch on Josh’s lap. Of the people Eggplant lived with, Josh, who had just turned eleven, always knew how to give the best scratches. Eggplant purred while Josh alternated rubbing him between the ears, under his chin, and along the sides of his face just the way he liked. The television blared human nonsense that occupied most of Josh’s attention, but he still knew how to give Eggplant the scratches he deserved

Eggplant lived with five people. There were two parents and three children: Nicole, Josh, and Jake. Jake and Nicole sat on the couch nearby, also watching the television. The parents were in the kitchen, preparing the evening meal for the family.

Well, most of the family. No matter how much Eggplant begged, he was stuck with the dry biscuits he was always served.

Squiggles meowed from the hallway nearby. “Eggy, come here.”

Eggplant sighed. “Do I have to?”

“Yes,” Squiggles meowed.

“Whatcha talking about?” Josh said to Eggplant and gave him an extra scratch under the chin, making him purring again. Eggplant wished for the umpteenth time that he could speak with his people. He’d tell them how unfair it was that he had to eat biscuits, and he would reprimand them in their language for the times they poked his belly in a way he didn’t like.

Squiggles meowed again, calling for Eggplant’s attention.

“Squiggly!” Jake called toward the cat and giggled. Jake patted his lap trying to convince Squiggles to come and sit on him, but Squiggles had other things in mind.

Eggplant hopped off of Josh’s lap and started toward Squiggles.

“Aw, come back!” Josh said, calling after him.

“What is it?” Eggplant asked Squiggles

Squiggles lay down on the cold wood floor. “I’m nervous about the missing cats. What if we go missing next?”

Eggplant licked Squiggles on the forehead. “Neither of us will go missing.”

Squiggles looked at his front paws. “I keep thinking how sad Charlie and Hoodie’s families must be. Imagine what the kids would think if we didn’t come home one day.”

Eggplant sat next to Squiggles and cuddled up close. “I’ll keep you safe, and we will find the other cats.”

“Promise?” Squiggles asked.

“Promise.”

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