"All right class, now just like before: we take this number and ask ourselves 'how many times does four go into nine?'—and of course since two times four is eight, then four goes into nine… Ket, pick your head up and pay attention."
The tiger's left eye winked open from behind the crook of his elbow. His yellow iris was met by the rainbow of colors from his classmates, and the admonishing gaze of their teacher. “Sorry Ms. Hupp,” the young tiger cub grumbled and lifted his head up. But, as their teacher continued, chalk-in-hand and scraping against the blackboard, he rested his temple against his palm and his eyelids began to close.
"As I was saying, four goes into nine twice, and so we take the eight and put it here, then nine minus eight is one, so we put that below the bar and carry down the seven… Hey, Ket!"
The cub started just before his head slipped out of his hand.
"Could you please try to listen to me?" She questioned, folding her arms. The black mask over her eyes made her raccoon face appear more angry than she actually was.
The class collectively giggled.
"Yes ma'am," he replied softly.
"I know school is almost over, but you need to—"
"The answer's one-twenty-four, with a remainder of one."
Ms. Hupp flattened her lip line and her chalk-hand rested upon her hip. The rest of the class murmured unanimously, "Oooooooooo~"
"The rest of you hush," She snapped. "Well then, since you have such a mastery of long-division perhaps you'd like to solve the red problem at the back of the section?"
"No ma'am," the tiger cub replied softly, staring down at her feet.
She sighed, "Then you'll just have to be patient and stay awake while the rest of the class learns. And while I'm at it, what's that in your hair?"
The cub's hand reflexively shot up to comb his scalp, and felt a sticky, wet wad of paper.
"Ewww, it's a spit-wad!" The mouse-girl next to him exclaimed with a squeak.
"Again?" The teacher sighed, "Ritzer?"
Behind Ket, a lion cub, two or three ages older than the rest of the class, growled and gave a dirty look. "Why'd I always get blam'n fer doin' tha' kin'a stuff?" He said, his words lazy and half-slurred
"That's because you're usually the one doing it," the white tigress next to him replied flatly.
"Emeral, please." Ms. Hupp said patiently, "Just tell me Ritzer, and I won't get angry: did you or did you not?"
Ritzer crossed his arms. "Na-a-ah!" He said slowly, shaking his head at the same pace.
The bell rang. "All right then, we'll pick this up tomorrow," she fought to be heard above the kids rushing to the back of the room to get their backpacks, "I guess I can extend the homework on this another night then, but I want you to try nine through thirty-one, odd; as many as you can." She panned her eyes against the two dozen children as they rushed past to get out of the classroom door and join the growing mob of the hallway. Her eyes followed Ritzer to make sure he behaved, but once he left it was up to the hall monitor of the day to keep their eyes on him—thankfully.
"See you tomorrow Ms. Hupp!" The white tigress waved as she passed through the door.
"See you tomorrow, Emeral," she waved with a black hand, and waited until a few more stragglers went through the door. "Ket, would you please stay behind for just a moment?"
The young tiger paused to look up at her before hefting his backpack up over his right shoulder. She sat on a nearby desk and ushered him over. "Now," she said, straighting out his hair, "I know you're probably bored and frustrated because you've seen all this before, but I'd really like it if you would pay a bit more attention, instead of listening with your head down all the time. You're a bit older than your classmates and I don't want to have two bad role-models, agreed?"
"Yes ma'am," he responded quietly.
"Look up at me," she cupped a hand under his chin. "Are you all right?"
"Uh huh," he replied, "…I'm just wondering if I made the right choice to repeat fifth grade again…"
"I know, sweetie," she said sympathetically. "You're very smart and you've passed all the tests—well, you're still having trouble in social studies, but you're getting better." She patted his shoulder. “I know it was hard for you and your mom to decide what to do… But at least in staying here there's a lot of familiarity. It may be a little boring, but with the other things that happened recently… Well, one step at a time, right?"
He looked down again, and shrugged his shoulders. "Yeah."
"Oh c'mon.” She patted her knee. “Besides repeating a grade isn't all that terrible."
"Ritzer's been held back twice." He said flatly.
"…Ritzer is…another story. Now, I want you to try and work on staying awake tomorrow okay?"
"Good," she stood, and held out her hand to take him to the door, "Now go on home and relax—but don't forget your homework."
Ket walked through the empty cafeteria toward the doors that led outside. He peeked out the window first, looking at the bus numbers. Three Forty-Nine was still there. He waited. Sure enough, four minutes later Ritzer got on. Another minute passed and finally the bus doors shut and the cat-call of air and engine revs signaled the start of their leave. He waited until 349 was out of sight before stepping through the door, passing the crowd of straggling kids that stayed late or whose parents hadn't come just yet.
The walk home. He liked the walk home, especially in the fall. But, it was still August; school just barely started. This was when he was at first and at last alone. From seven in the morning to two in the afternoon, he had to deal with people giggling around him, gossiping around him, looking strangely at him, and hiding from Ritzer and his gang at recess—and he ran out of hiding places last year. He thought he would be free, of Ritzer especially, but no; they held him back, and made him feel like he had a choice in the matter. He did well, except social studies he got a C, but that was still passing.
He kicked a rock, and grimaced as it hurt the toe behind his worn shoes. It wasn't fair, really. And now these kids were all new—well except for Ritzer. But that didn't really matter, it wasn't like his old classmates were much different. No one really talked to him and he didn't talk to them. But at least he knew their faces and names better.
He sighed, and tread onward. Nothing could be helped; best just to deal and get it over with.
"Buttons!" He heard a girl's voice shout, "Buttons get down from there!"
The voice came from his right. He was passing the gated entrance to a fancy-looking cul-de-sac, which he rarely passed. He took this route only when he wanted to get home quickly. The cul-de-sac flaunted its wealth; with a pond in the middle, and more green than a golf course, it looked like a quaint place to live if you were rich. It had the most trees he had ever seen in one place besides the park.
He approached the gate and peered in. Several yards away, just at the bank of the rippling pond, a white tigress was focused on the branches of a big and leafy tree. She looked about his age. In fact, as he stared he kind of recognized her.
"Buttons… Come on, dang it!"
In fact he did recognize her. It was what's-her-name, the one who sat behind him next to Ritzer.
She growled and threw her arms up, and paced in a circle with her hand vigorously massaging her forehead. She paused as she spotted a boy, staring at her from the gate. "Hey!" She shouted, "Whaddya think you're staring at?"
"Uh…" He swallowed, raising his voice, "I didn't…" He looked around, "I just heard… Who's Buttons?"
"Buttons is… Ugh, hang on."
She approached the gate, and went over to the keypad on her left, punching in the access code. Three-four-six-nine, Star. The gate's engine whirred and it began to open. She squeezed through the rift. "Buttons is my neighbor's cat," she said, fixing her frazzled, white hair. "He got himself stuck in the tree over there," she pointed at the one she had been standing under just a moment ago. "I keep trying to call him but he won't come down!"
”Call his owners.” He stated.
”They're not home right now.” She said with frustration.
"Why don't you climb up and get him?" He questioned.
She shook her head, "I'm wearing a skirt," she replied, "I can't climb a tree in a skirt.”
”Don't you live here?” He pointed out. “Go inside and change.”
She whimpered, holding one arm by the other hand sheepishly. “I… I don't really like climbing trees… I dunno how to get down."
The gate started to close. Ket looked at the frustration on the girl's face. Was she asking for help? He took in a breath, and stepped into the threshold as the gate passed. He continued on, with her in tow, until he got to the tree. He could see a dark-brown ball huddled up on one of the branches. It mewed at him as he sloughed his backpack off.
"Stupid cat," she muttered.
The boy stepped away from the tree and tapped the heels of his shoes against the ground.
"What're you doing?" She asked.
"You want Buttons down?" He took a breath, and made a running leap to hook onto the trunk of the tree a few feet off the ground, hitting it with an uff. "I'm gonna get Buttons down."
"I didn't mean for you to…" She broke off as he gazed down with such curiously strange eyes. "…It's so high up…aren't you scared?"
He leapt off and clasped his hands on the lowest branch. As his feet swung to and fro he stared down at the girl for another moment, and then without a word, he swung for momentum to lift himself up.
"Well…okay then…" she said, gazing up helplessly. "B-be careful!"
He silently and slowly made his way up the tree—it was not as high up as she made it out to be really. Sure it looked high, but it wasn't such a big deal.
And then he stared down. Unconsciously he gripped the branch he was on a little more tightly. The next branch above was where Buttons was, but he couldn't get to it from the trunk. He had to go out onto the limb a bit where Buttons's branch began to droop so he could reach up and grab on.
Carefully, hand over hand, he began the cautious crawl. Down below, the girl stared up with the most worried expression he'd ever seen, pacing back and forth, and back and forth. He noticed she was wearing his backpack.
"What's the matter?" He asked tonelessly.
"I'm afraid you're gonna fall!" She said, "If you do I'm gonna be so mad at myself!"
"I'm fine." He replied, and her gasp caught his ear as he practically jumped up onto the next branch. Both limbs began to quiver and rustle. Mutters of worriment and words of caution escaped the girl's lips below.
People are so weird, he thought, They want help, and when they get it they regret ever asking.
Buttons was staring back at him, alert that there was another presence on his perch.
Very slowly, the tiger shimmied down the limb, pulling himself with his hands.
Buttons, who was not quite at the very end of the limb, began backing up toward it.
"Buttons you hold still!"
Stop shouting, you're just agitating him more…
The boy continued on, and caught a glimpse of his shadow on the murky pond water to his right. The branch began to sag from his weight, and so he slowed down even more. Three feet…two feet…one last foot…
At last, with nowhere for Buttons to go, he was just out of an arm's reach of the cat. He held out his hand; the cat mewed.
"It's okay, Buttons, he wants to help."
Both Buttons and Ket looked down at the girl for a moment, and finally after much consideration and a few twitches of the tail, the cat began to shimmy toward the tiger's outstretched hand. As the cat approached, the boy lifted it up into his arms while sitting upright, and held it firmly against his chest.
Now what do I do?
"Oh crap, no!"
Even as he heard the girl swear, there was still a heartbeat before the branch gave way with a snap! He felt his gut rush to his throat as he dropped straight down. His legs fell free of the branch and he tumbled forward. He saw the grass, the tree, and the sky whip past in a blur and then felt the air forced from his lungs. In his chest and belly, four sharp pains surged through his skin.
"Buttons get off! Get off!"
The pains burned as the cat's claws tore away from his skin. He managed a grunt and then began to cough.
"Oh man, are you all right?"
He opened his eyes, but only saw sparkles. A hand pulled him to his swaying feet.
"Can you walk?"
"…Uh huh," he replied.
"Step forward…that's it…" Her hand was pressed against his back, guiding him.
His eyes began to clear, except for the greenish-purple stripe left behind from the sun. He walked up a somewhat steep driveway, and before he knew it a rush of cool air met his cheeks as the girl opened the door of her presumable home.
"What's wrong? Come on…" She had to almost pull him inside.
The door shut behind him. He was once again led by her a short distance into a kitchen. She pulled out a chair and ordered him to sit. He did so, hesitantly, and felt her hands hook underneath the lip of his shirt.
"I need to take off your shirt."
"Wha-no!" He fought her, trying to push her hands down. "Leave me alone."
"You're bleeding, let me take a look."
"No you're not!"
He pushed her away, and as she rose he saw that she had a few drops of blood on her pink shirt. He looked down at his torso, and saw that he indeed was bleeding. Four patches, about the size of a silver dollar, stained his shirt on the left-hand side.
She tried to get closer again.
He leaned forward and growled at her.
She balked at first, but then furrowed her brow. Her hand rose up, and she rapped his soft nose with her knuckle. "Stop it," she ordered.
His head jerked back with a start, and she used the moment of his surprise to quickly whisk his shirt up, and over his head. There he sat, torso exposed. It was embarrassing, the way she looked at him. It was cold too. He shivered, watching as her hand touched his fur near one of the wounds—he shivered more.
"They're not as bad as I thought," she said, looking up at him with a smile, meeting his lemon-colored eyes. "I'll fix you up, don't worry." She rushed off and disappeared through a pair of French doors.
He heard a light switch flick and a glow spilled out from the doorway aslant the gray kitchen tile. Cabinets opened with squeaks and groans and things were shuffled around and picked up.
She came back out of the room with a bottle, a package of cotton balls, and a box of band-aids in her arms. She set these down on the floor, opened the bag and plucked a cotton ball. She unscrewed the cap on the bottle, labeled Isoproptol-40, and flipped it up with the cotton ball over the its neck. Then she turned her attention to him, cotton ball poised and ready. "This is going to sting…" she warned, and quickly pressed it against one of the wounds.
He winced, and a bit of a hiss escaped him.
She looked up at him and then back down at the wound. "I know, I'm so sorry," she said softly.
He expected her to tease him, like anyone would at school when someone played a prank on him—but she didn't. Instead, her hand snuck into his grasp.
"Grip it and squeeze."
He looked to their hands and then up at her face.
"Go on," she nodded, "it'll help."
Hesitantly he squeezed.
"I know it hurts more than that."
He squeezed a bit harder, and she squeezed back. Sure enough, helped.
She lifted the cotton ball away to his relief and then used the other end to wipe away the last bits of blood from that particular wound. Setting it aside on the floor, she retrieved a band-aid, and practically slapped it on him like a sticker, as if she'd done it a hundred times.
"Better?" She asked with a smile; and received a nod. "Good," she said while loading another cotton ball with the horrible stinging liquid. "One down, three to go. That was the worst one, these won't be so bad."
A few painful minutes later, the last band-aid was placed. "There we go," the tigress spoke contentedly, and picked up all the bloody cotton balls to throw them away. "I know butterflies aren't what you want but it's all we have."
"Your band-aids," she explained, shutting the cabinet where the trash can was, underneath the sink.
He looked at his torso to confirm the fluttery pink bugs against yellow, green and blue backgrounds. "Oh…that's all right, I guess…"
She approached him again, and once more checked the worst of his four wounds. She looked up at him again—a thing she had done several times now—and with a smile said, "Ket."
He blinked. "What?"
"Your name. It's Ket right? I thought I recognized the back of your head."
"Oh…yeah, I sit in front of you in class…"
"My name's Emeral, but you can call me Emmy if you want; everyone else does."
"Okay…Emmy. Thanks for…for, um—"
"No problem," she said, scooting a chair to face him and sitting upon it. "My mom is a nurse, so she taught me how to take care of people if they're hurt."
"Where is she—your mom?"
Why am I talking to her? I wanna get out of here…
"She's at work now. So is daddy…he's a lawyer. What do your parents do?" She noticed as his gaze averted and he fell silent for a moment. Quickly she altered the subject. "Are you hungry?"
"…No," Ket replied. As if to betray him, his stomach growled.
She giggled—but not the teasing kind of giggle he was used to. It was a different, unfamiliar giggle. "I think you are." She poked his belly, avoiding the band-aid. "I'll make you some Insta-Mac." She hopped from the chair.
"What's Insta-Mac?" She repeated back with surprise. "You must be joking! It's only the greatest-tasting combination of noodles and cheese ever-ever!" She opened a cabinet door and pulled out what looked like one of the little plastic cereal-bowls from the school's cafeteria. She peeled off the lid and put some water from the fridge into it, and then used a stool to reach the microwave.
The boy didn't know of any microwaves outside of the one he'd seen once in the teacher's lounge when the door was left open—which it almost never was. The noise from it was sort of irritating. And must it use such high-pitched beeps?
The tigress pulled herself onto the counter and pushed the buttons, which made high-pitched beeps. She pushed another one and the microwave came alive with its low thrum. She waited on the counter, legs hanging over the edge and tapping her heels together.
The tiger felt her eyes on him but he didn't dare stare at her if he could help it.
At last the microwave stopped and she opened its door. Cup in hand, she hopped down from the counter, but not before pulling open the drawer nearby and getting a spoon.
He could not avoid looking at her as she came back and placed the cup and spoon in his hands.
"No thanks necessary," she said, "It's the least I can do for you helping get Buttons out of the tree…"
He gripped the spoon and moved it around a bit in the noodles. They made a weird sound, but it smelled kind of good. He lifted the spoon up with a large glob of the stuff.
She raised up a hand to stop him; "No wait it's too—"
He shoved the whole thing in his mouth.
The good taste came with a side of scalded tongue, but he managed to huff it until it cooled and swallow it down anyway.
"Jeez," she said, "I didn't expect you to eat half of the thing in one bite." She shook her head with a sigh. "Well, I'll leave you to eat in peace. I'm going to go change." She hopped out of her chair and went to the entrance of the hallway where she had ducked into the powder-room. But not before she stopped and turned. "Don't you go anywhere, okay?"
"…Okay," he replied with shifting eyes.
She ran down the hall with a smile. Ket. She thought, Ket, Ket, Ket. He was sort of cute—quiet, shy, maybe a little weird…but he had some muscles, that was for sure! The way he tore up that tree! She had seen him since day one, learned as everyone else had from the grapevine that he'd been held back. She didn't see why, he was practically a genius, and even though the other kids teased him for it, she thought it was kind of cool. But he never really spoke in class, and was almost never seen at recess.
Who would have thought he had a heart for helping a girl in need?
She opened her closet after changing into shorts and a clean shirt, and began rummaging through the clothes she didn't usually wear. She knew it was somewhere—Aha! She pulled a out a shirt that was boyish, one she normally used for sleeping in since it was a size too big. It would just fit him!…Maybe.
She slowly crept back down the hall—she couldn't appear too excited; he seemed so nervous and she didn't want to scare him away. He was so sweet and nice… Crud, what was his name…? Ket. Ket, Ket, Ket…
"Hey, Ket, I found a shirt for—"
She turned the corner into the kitchen. The half-eaten Insta-Mac cup lay upon its side on the table, toppled over from the weight of the spoon. The backpack and bloodied shirt were both gone. She ran to the front door and took a step outside into the glaring sun. She shielded her eyes, and heard the gate begin to shut to her left.
She looked over and watched as it whirred, and then clanged into locking position.