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Adventures of a cat whis.., p.3
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       Adventures of a Cat-Whiskered Girl, p.3

           Daniel Pinkwater
 
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  Sometimes as you go from one place to another, step into a room or out a door, you suddenly get a mental picture of how you might appear to someone seeing you for the first time. As we entered the small lunchroom that took up a corner of the old stone barn, I got a flash of the three of us: a tiny girl with a strange, crazy gaze, a gray-bearded old man in a makeshift dress, and a tall girl with pussycat whiskers. We must have been fairly noteworthy. But there were no customers in the place to take note—just the proprietor.

  Behind the counter was a tremendously fat woman with a hairnet and a red face. "Apple fritters?" she asked, looking at Professor Tag.

  "Apple fritters!" the professor said.

  Then she looked at Molly. "Apple fritters?"

  "Um..."

  "Apple fritters?"

  "I have money," I whispered to Molly. "It's my treat."

  "Apple fritters?"

  "Well, I..."

  "Apple fritters?!?" the fat, red-faced, hairneted woman shouted.

  "Apple fritters!" Molly shouted back.

  Then she looked at me. "Apple fritters?" she hollered at the top of her voice.

  "Apple fritters!" I screamed.

  "Apple fritters!" the woman yelled, and hustled into the kitchen to make them.

  We took seats along the counter.

  "You know, I bet she sells a lot of apple fritters for a little neighborhood place like this," Professor Tag said.

  The woman reappeared and banged a plateful of apple fritters with powdered sugar on top down in front of each of us.

  "Coffee?" she yelled.

  "COFFEE!" all three of us yelled back as loud as we could.

  "COFFEE!" the woman shouted. Then, with a big smile on her red face, she drew three mugs of coffee from a big percolator and banged them down on the counter, one, two, three.

  The apple fritters were delicious.

  The coffee was fragrant and creamy and hot.

  "I was conversing with a bumpkin just now," Professor Tag said to the apple fritter woman. "He said he has seen flying saucers in this vicinity."

  "They land in the back," the woman said. "My apple fritters have an interplanetary reputation."

  "What, the space men come in for fritters?"

  "Space men and space women. I thought you three might be some of them at first."

  "Ah. Is that why you stuck to one expression—'apple fritters'?"

  "Some of them don't know a lot of English."

  Now, it is a fact that even if you have worked out logically that the odds are vastly in favor of life on other planets, even if you have had experience that supports the idea that travel between worlds is not only possible but common, and even if you have actually seen or otherwise had personal experience of spacecraft or flying saucers, when someone else claims to have had an encounter your first thought is to check out whether they are crazy.

  "I am Professor Tag," Professor Tag said. "I am interested in flying saucers."

  "I am Clarinda Quackenboss," the fritter woman said. "I am interested in making the best apple fritters in the galaxy."

  "When do 'they' tend to stop by?"

  "Could be anytime. Sometimes they are around all the time, and sometimes I don't see any for months. But usually it's at night, and for some reason usually Wednesdays."

  "Could we examine the area where they land?"

  "Help yourselves. It's out back," Clarinda Quackenboss said.

  CHAPTER 8

  Cats and Bats

  In order to get to the back we had to go out of the little lunchroom, and back through the main door and through the old stone barn. It was dark and musty, and there was a disgusting smell.

  "What is that disgusting smell?" I asked.

  "It smells like about a hundred male cats," Molly said.

  "And bats. There are lots of bats here," Professor Tag said. "Look! You can see the little sweeties hanging from the rafters, having their daytime sleep."

  "Where are the cats?" I asked. "I don't see them, just smell them."

  "Maybe the bats ate them," Molly said.

  "Bats don't eat cats. Other way around, if anything," the professor said.

  We gulped fresh air when we came out the back door of the old stone barn.

  "Let's look around," the professor said.

  "What are we looking for?"

  "I don't know. Some kind of evidence that saucers have landed here."

  "And what kind of place is this?"

  I had been sort of expecting an old run-down farm, but this was not that. There were wide lawns, and a driveway leading to a big, strange-looking house a long way off. There were huge trees bordering the driveway on both sides. These trees were like nothing I had ever seen. Their trunks were thick and twisted, with smooth gray bark and weird bulges. The branches were skinny and angular, and bent this way and that, and the roots above the ground were fat and bulbouslooking, like old feet with bunions. The leaves were shiny and metallic-looking, and they shimmered and rustled in the breeze. I had the feeling that the trees towering over us were looking down at us. Somehow they looked as though they could pick up their bulbous roots and walk. They were like ... intelligent trees! And a little scary and maybe evil.

  "It's an old estate," Professor Tag said. "And these are the biggest, oldest, weirdest beech trees I have ever seen."

  "Beech trees? Is that what they are?"

  "Yes, copper beeches, and some other varieties I don't recognize. They have to be way over a hundred years old."

  "Professor, do you get the feeling these trees know we're here?"

  "They're very old trees," the professor said. "They may have developed some kind of consciousness in all their years. And they may not be the only ones who know we're here."

  I didn't understand what the professor meant at first. Then I saw someone approaching us.

  It was a tall old lady with gray hair piled up on her head, wearing a dress not unlike Professor Tag's.

  "How do you do?" the professor said. "I am Professor Tag, on temporary leave from the college while insane, and these ladies are Audrey and Molly. Clarinda Quackenboss, the apple fritter lady, said it would be all right for us to come back here and have a look around."

  The old lady stood very straight, with her hands folded. She had gray eyes and very pale skin. "I am Alexandra Van Dood," she said. "You are welcome to look. Do you know where you are?"

  "I do and I don't," Professor Tag said. "Clearly this is a very old estate, at least two hundred years old. The beech trees are of remarkable age and size. The mansion is of Dutch design, very large and grand—it must be a famous house. But I have lived in this county and city all my life, and I am a scholar, yet I never knew it was here! Madame Van Dood, will you tell me the name of this house?"

  "This is Spookhuizen," Alexandra Van Dood said.

  "What? This is Spookhuizen?" The professor was excited. "Of course I have heard of it, but I did not know it still existed—or that it ever existed. This is Spookhuizen, the ancient seat of the Van Vliegende and Van Schotel families?"

  "Yes, this is the Vliegende-Schotel mansion," the old lady said.

  "And is it haunted, as the stories tell?" the professor asked.

  "Oh, it is most haunted," Madame Van Dood said. "Most haunted."

  We looked down the avenue of tortured-looking trees. The house was big and dark, and the windows were dark. It was covered with cedar shingles that had turned black over the centuries and had a silvery sheen like the leaves of the beeches. The shadows under the porches were the blackest black. It didn't seem to me like a place in which I would want to set foot in broad daylight, and at night you couldn't pay me to go in.

  "We will have to come back here sometime at night," the professor said, causing me to remember he was crazy.

  "If you will excuse me, I must go now," Alexandra Van Dood said.

  And then she was gone! We looked around in all directions but could not see her going away. But here is the funny thing: I thought I saw a big white owl
flitting through the beech trees, Molly thought she saw a white horse galloping over the lawn, and the professor thought he saw a white mouse scurrying through the grass.

  CHAPTER 9

  Back to Abnormal

  "Let's be getting back to the madhouse," Professor Tag said. "I need to change out of this hot dress and then check myself out."

  "You're going to leave the hospital?" Molly asked.

  "Yes, I will cut short my stay, pleasant as it has been," the professor said. "I have some research to do in the library."

  "About Spookhuizen?" I asked.

  "Yes. I want to know who Alexandra Van Dood was."

  "Was? Don't you mean is?"

  "I mean was. Don't you know a ghost when you talk to one?"

  We walked back along the same road to the nuthatch. As we walked a little way behind the professor, who was hurrying, Molly and I conversed.

  "Let me ask you a question. Do you feel at home here?"

  "Here? You mean in Poughkeepsie?"

  "I mean on our version of Planet Earth. Do you feel at home here?"

  "I suppose I do ... Anyway, I feel as at home as..."

  "As you did on the other version of the planet, or plane of existence, from which you came?"

  "Yes."

  "And let me ask you another question. Did you feel at home there, as though you belonged?"

  I thought. "No, I guess not. Not ever. Not for a minute."

  "Felt alien?"

  "Yes."

  "Alien there, and alien here?"

  "That is not to say I don't like it here ... and there—and I love my uncle, Father Palabra. Just that I never felt..."

  "At home?" Molly said. "By the way, did you know many cat-whiskered people in your home world?"

  "Well, it's not all that common, but of course people have them."

  "Know any personally?"

  "I didn't go to a school, or have a whole lot of friends. Uncle Father Palabra educated me at home."

  "Ever see anyone on the bus, or in a store downtown—anything like that?"

  "No, now that you mention it..."

  "Interesting."

  It was interesting. Had I just assumed cat whiskers were a normal occurrence? Molly had a way of bringing up things that made me wonder why I had never thought about them before.

  CHAPTER 10

  Back to Normal

  "Did you have a nice visit with Professor Tag at the laughing academy, dear?" Mrs. Gleybner asked me.

  "He's checking himself out," I said.

  "So soon? Usually he stays in until the end of the semester," Mrs. Gleybner said.

  "He wants to do some research."

  "Such a nice man," Mrs. Gleybner said. "We're thinking of ordering chicken chow mein, Chinese string beans, and egg drop soup. Does that sound all right to you?"

  I told the Gleybners about visiting Spookhuizen with Molly and Professor Tag. I was sure they would be interested, but for some reason it didn't seem to make much of an impression. I think they were more concerned with things in books, as distinct from things in real life. I thought probably when the professor found stuff out in his research, if he wrote about it, then they'd be all excited. It may be that so many people came into the shop every week, making so many claims that turned out to be empty, that they just tuned out any firsthand mention of UFOs or similar things. It was even possible that they didn't actually believe in flying saucers and didn't know they didn't. They politely listened when I told them we'd heard that flying saucers had been seen landing behind the old stone barn, and then asked questions about Molly, and whether she was a nice girl, and were they helping her get over being insane at the psychiatric place. They said I could invite her to supper sometime.

  I thought a lot about Molly and the professor over the next couple of days. I was thinking I would go back to the loony bin the next Sunday and visit Molly—when she turned up in the store!

  "Molly! What are you doing here? Did you take the streetcar from the institution?"

  "I lit out, Audrey. I couldn't stand it there anymore. They serve shepherd's pie three times a week."

  "Ick. Sounds disgusting. What is it?"

  "You don't want to know."

  "So, does your family know you graduated yourself from crazy college?"

  "Get a hint, Audrey. My family is supernatural. They don't know where I am half the time, and I don't know where they are."

  "They're supernatural?"

  "Mostly."

  "Who or what are they?"

  "They're little weird people who live deep in the Catskill Mountains, bowling and brewing gin. They're almost never seen, and they dress like the seven dwarves."

  "What, Molly? You're one of those Catskill Mountain elves? The ones sometimes said to be the ghostly crew of the Half Moon? The ones who played ninepins with Rip Van Winkle? Funny, you don't look elfish."

  "Well, the men are pretty ugly, but we females are nice," Molly said.

  "So you're not going back to the Catskills?"

  "If I did, and if I could find my family, I'd spend my days crushing juniper berries or herding goats or something. They're completely old fashioned."

  "So what are you going to do?"

  "I thought I'd hang out with you for a while. I could sleep on the floor."

  "The Gleybners have already suggested you come to supper. They're nice. I don't imagine they would object. Tell them you're an elf and they'll insist you stay."

  "Not an elf exactly. More of a dwerg or a fee—anyway, something along those lines. By the way, this is Wednesday."

  "So it is. What about it?"

  "Don't you want to hike up to Spookhuizen tonight and see if any flying saucers land?"

  "Oh, I hadn't thought about that! Sure. Let me tell Mrs. Gleybner you're staying to supper, and we can start out right after. It's chicken with peanuts and hot peppers tonight."

  "Yum!"

  CHAPTER 11

  Fuzzing Saucers

  Supper was just as I thought it would be. The Gleybners were crazy about Molly. The only way they could have liked her more would have been if she told them she was an extraterrestrial alien. But being a Catskill Mountain dwerg, which turns out to be Dutch for "leprechaun," was almost as good. The funny thing was, once they got done saying ooh and aah, and how exciting it was that Molly was descended from the little guys in the story about Rip Van Winkle, they treated her like an ordinary kid, one they liked and were interested in—which was nice. I could tell Molly enjoyed being with the Gleybners. I asked if it would be all right if Molly stayed with me for a little while.

  "I can sleep on the floor," Molly said.

  "No need for that," Mr. Gleybner said. "We have a perfectly nice folding cot in the closet. I'll just wheel it into your room after supper."

  "We're going up to Spookhuizen tonight to see if any flying saucers land," I said.

  "Don't get abducted. And take sweaters," Mrs. Gleybner said.

  Even though Molly was little, with little short legs, she was a fast walker. I had to stretch to keep up with her.

  "I wonder if we'll see flying saucers," I said.

  "I hope so," Molly said. "I'm also interested in seeing your reaction to them if we do."

  "What do you mean?" I asked.

  "Oh, just what you think about them," Molly said. "You're an unusual person."

  The apple fritter place was closed and dark, but the main door of the old stone barn was open, and we went in. The bats were awake and flitting around; we could hear their wings rustling. We hurried through and emerged in back with a lot of bats flying over our heads. The moon was already up, and it made the beech trees appear a hundred times spookier; also the roof of the old mansion shone silvery in the moonlight. The place was completely silent, and we breathed quietly and didn't even whisper.

  I felt a little scared. It was a perfect setting for a ghost, and I was half expecting to see Alexandra Van Dood, but she never appeared. Molly and I stood in the shadow of the eaves of the old stone barn
and watched and waited.

  We didn't have to wait long. It was a clear night, and every one of the millions and millions of stars shone brightly. A shooting star flitted this way or that every few minutes. And some of the stars seemed to pulsate or throb ... and there were some that seemed fuzzy, or blurry, bigger than the other stars, and maybe not so bright. Some of these fuzzy stars moved, but they didn't flit or streak like meteors. After a while, I realized they were moving toward us—and they were not stars but fuzzy places in the sky.

  Molly poked me. I poked back. The fuzzy lights were definitely closer, bigger, and they were moving slowly and gracefully across the sky.

  And closer. And closer. And showing beautiful colors that changed. And closer.

  I had sort of expected machines, metal machines, maybe making machine sorts of noises, maybe clanking, maybe whirring, maybe shooting fire like rockets, maybe with electric lights flashing on and off. It wasn't like that. They were quiet, almost silent—but I could hear them, or feel them. And instead of being things made of metal, solid things, they seemed to be ... Well, I can't say what they seemed to be. Soft: I knew they were soft. And they were warm. And they made me feel ... content, and happy, and almost a little sleepy in a pleasant way.

  Throbbing, vibrating, thrumming, I could feel it in my bones. And the saucers, more like gigantic fuzzballs, were really close. The whole place was lit up bright as day—only it wasn't bright, it was the softest kind of light. I'd say it was pink, but that is just as close as I can come to describing the color—it was no color I had ever seen. I could hardly take my eyes off the saucers, but I made myself glance at Molly. Her mouth was hanging open and her eyes were staring—just like mine. She looked stunned—happy but stunned. By this time I was experiencing the flying saucer fuzzballs as if they were music. And perfume: an amazing scent, it was like nothing I'd ever smelled—the closest I can describe is pineapple with a hint of mint or maybe catnip. It made me dizzy. And there was a taste in my mouth like the best cookies anyone ever ate, or never ate. It was also like taking a bubble bath.

 
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