Whisk and Jumpy were having a typical squirrel-romp through the oak branches, roof-high and fast. Whisk missed a branch on a long jump, and was suddenly falling. Not the first time in his life, but the first time in a long time, and he would catch no end of grief over it. How embarrassing. He spread his paws to cushion the fall when he hit the ground, and hoped there were no cats close by.
Suddenly he realized it was not grass below him. Oh, no, was it that hard stuff they roll their cars around on?
He landed, and bounced back into the air, tumbling over backwards. What was that!?
He landed again, and bounced again, not as high. And getting a little dizzy. This time he sprawled into some fabric, some kind of soft wall, and rolled to the ground. Or whatever it was.
Jumpy was watching from above. “You OK? You were flying, just like the people do when they stand on that thing!”
Now he remembered. Sometimes the people would stand or jump or roll around in this … cage?… this room made out of black fabric with the black, bouncy floor. They would squeal and squawk.
He walked cautiously onto the floor. It yielded to his weight, like there was nothing under it. He jumped onto the wall, and hung there.
“You gotta jump on it, not just walk on it.” Jumpy was sure brave, up there on his branch. Had he ever been on this thing?
Whisk eased down the wall, and stepped back onto the floor. Nothing happened. “You listenin’ to me? Get up on the wall, and jump!”
He climbed up a little ways, and jumped down, braced for the impact of the ground. Suddenly he was flipped head over paws, and rolled to a stop. This was embarrassing! Just then Singer flew over. Great. Now Singer would tell Jay, and Squawk, and all the other bluejays!
Jumping up on the side, Whisk said, “OK, peanut brain, your turn!”
Jumpy stood up on the branch, posed like a dancer, and leapt into the air. Good grief, what was he doing? Down he came, spread out like he was flying. Just before landing, he turned over and landed on his back! The fool!
Up he bounced, taking a rare opportunity to show off in front of Whisk, who always learned new things before he did. Almost always! Down he came again, tucked into a ball, and bounced up again. Next time down, he was ready for a jump, and timed it perfectly. The canvas threw him almost over the fabric wall, and he grabbed onto the wall two body lengths above Whisk.
Looking down, he said with a smile, “What’s the matter, pal? You’re looking like a chipmunk down there!”
That was too much! The ultimate insult! Jumpy saw the narrowed eyes, and realized he had pushed it a little too far.
“Oops.” With a quick scramble, he got to the top of a post, leapt for the nearest tree, and fled for safety.
There wasn’t much that Strider wouldn’t try. This was giving him some pause.
“Go on. The squirrels did it. Had a blast, looked like.”
Hmm. Anything a squirrel could do … would do …
“On purpose?” Fenix and Felix just laughed.
“Of course! At least … how can you really know what a squirrel does on purpose?”
Strider jumped onto the oak, and climbed up to the branch that went out over the trampoline. He sat there, looking. This was crazy. Jumping from a tree to the roof was one thing. From the roof to the ground? Well, depending on the height, and how bad the weather was. But from a tree to something that moved when you landed on it? And looked like it would throw you up in the air again, when you got there?
Cats are not fond of being thrown into the air, even a little ways, even by someone they really like. Hate it, in fact. Despise it. Triggers every panic nerve God gave them, and that’s a lot. Gives them nightmares. Assuming they can sleep afterwards.
“Tell me again, why are we talking about this?”
“We don’t think you can do it. We think you’re scared.”
“Have you done it?”
“Of course not. But you’re crazy, and we’re not. We won’t do it, because it’s dumb. But that never stops you, so we think you’re just afraid.”
Strider thought about that for a minute. Somehow, he felt his reputation was on the line, but couldn’t quite figure out how it made sense that he had to do this, and they didn’t. They were afraid to do this, but that was OK, but if he wouldn’t do it, it was because he was afraid to, and that was shameful? And that was because … why?
Somehow he had gotten off on the wrong foot when the three of them came to this family.
Fenix and Felix had been rescued from inside the wall of a low-rent, dilapidated building, on a hot July 4th weekend. Probably would have died there, if Cowboy hadn’t come in to turn off his computers or something. But Strider was part of that same cluster of wild cats, and he was just as small and cute … hadn’t been trapped in a building, but nonetheless.
Maybe it was because he had sunk his baby incisors into Gardener’s thumb when she dragged him out from under the bush, and was so scared he couldn’t let go. Probably hurt her. That’s why she began hollering and everybody came running to see him hanging there by his teeth. But ever since then, he’s had to prove himself. Over and over. Just never could get past it.
“You asleep up there? Need someone to push you off the branch?”
Cute. Very helpful.
He looked down into the fabric cage. Big deal. Jump down a little ways onto a flat circle, then climb out and drop to the ground, and be done with it.
He walked out on the limb, over the target. OK, just jump down. No big deal.
Just jump. Ready? Sure. OK.
He stood there, looking down. Not quite sure.
Fenix had come up the trunk, and sat on the branch behind him. “Need some help?”
Forget it. He jumped. And seconds later, upside down, out of control, and in full panic, thought it was the stupidest thing he had ever done. As he came down for what he realized would be another bounce, he also realized that they would never, never forget what was now unfolding before their eyes.
He would get even.
Taran sat on the porch corner, watching Pixie chase Squawk, the bluejay. He was playing with her, sitting on a low branch and chattering until she could stand it no longer and broke into a run towards the tree. As she launched, he would let go of the branch, fall towards the ground, and casually take flight, easily moving out of range.
“You ever caught one?”
“Sure!” answered Taran, trying to remember if he ever had. “Keep trying! You’ll get there.”
“Not,” he added, under his breath.
“I hear you can’t even catch a lizard when Strider runs blocking for you!” replied Pixie, settling in for another run at the bluejay.
Oh. So that story was going around.
Strider was still thinking about that episode on the trampoline. He had felt such a fool, bouncing to a stop. Had they done it? No. They had just seen an idiot squirrel do it, probably accidentally, and challenged him to give it a try.
How could he pay them back? It would have to be good, and make them look completely foolish.
Late that night, he found an open screen into the pool area.
This could work. He spent some time practicing.
Next afternoon he challenged Fenix and Felix to a race.
“You slowpokes. You fat, slow, lazy cats. You couldn’t catch my tail if I threw it on the ground like a lizard does.”
They looked at each other. It was time to teach him some manners, obviously. One… two … Strider bolted across the yard. Fenix and Felix launched a hot pursuit. Around the azaleas. Through the hedge. Down the porch. Fast corner, down the side porch. Oops … well, that will slow them down for a second … Clatter, crash. On across the deck, past the trampoline. I’m getting tired. Hope I can get there!
Rounding the corner of the poolhouse, he waited until they came around the same corner, to be sure they would see. He jumped to the window sill and pushed through the loose corner of the screen.
They hesitated. “Told you, you wimps. Couldn’t catch a leaf falling to the ground. Couldn’t catch a butterfly sleeping on a flower!” Throwing caution aside, they bolted through the window and after him.
Now, he thought. This is going to be tricky.
Around the wide part of the pool, down the narrow side, past the diving board, back past the green table. Let them gain. Let them get really close. Won’t be hard, I’m exhausted!
Second time around, slowing down a little, letting them get close. Just behind him.
As Strider came past the diving board the second time, he turned, and ran full speed out the board. They followed, letting his speed convince them that wherever he was going, they could go too.
As he ran off the end of the board, he turned and caught the board with his front feet and flipped under the end of it, disappearing under it, landing on the bricks at the edge of the pool underneath the board. Fenix barrelled past, and launched out over the water, suddenly squawking and flailing out over the deep end. Felix, close on his heels, scrambled to stop, at which point a helpful claw came up from under the board and provided some extra incentive to keep moving. Off he went.
By the time Fenix and Felix had made their graceful, elegant, and truly unforgettable entrances into the nine foot deep, chilly water, Strider was sitting on the diving board, thoroughly enjoying the scene. Frantically, they splashed and struggled to the nearest floating ring. Grabbing it to climb on top, their claws perforated the vinyl, and even as it took their weight it was deflating. But it gave a few moments’ relief. They looked around, seeking something else to move to.
The deflating tire floated closer to the wading pond. Just as it was about to sink, they jumped.
The force of their jump, of course, pushed the tire backwards, out from under them, and left them momentarily floating in the air above where it had been seconds before. And back into the pool. Strider was enjoying this immensely, but thought it might be time to leave. Perhaps he should give his friends a little privacy to work out their personal problems. He stretched, strolled off the board, sauntered back to the window, hopped onto the windowsill, and … after one more delicious glance at the sopping wet cats climbing out of the pool … made his way back to the porch.
Squirrels were chattering in the front yard trees. Laughing, raucously. Sounded like Whisk and Jumpy. Bet they had seen what happened! Love it.
He would wait to tell the story until others began asking … “Why are you guys so wet?” And see what they said.
Strider, Fenix, Felix, and Taran are from The Oak and the Cliff series of books.