Ra-Kit continued resting on top of the cage for several hours, too tired to even lift her head when Dr. George or Allison came in to check on their patient. It had been a difficult day and her powers were temporarily drained, but a few hours of catnapping would restore them.
She awoke around ten in the evening to find one of the technicians adjusting Angus's fluids. Evidently, the hospital staff had set up a rotation for checking on their critically ill patient. Ra-Kit made a note of their dedication. She would be sure to place a welcoming hex on their door so animals in need would know this was a safe haven.
Ra-Kit stood up and stretched. She still needed more rest but first she had an appointment to keep. She jumped down from the cage, wincing as she landed on the floor. Oh, how she hated returning to earth and her old arthritic body. It seemed unfair that with all her magical powers she had to suffer so. She strolled over to the bowl which had recently been restocked with fresh kibble and a couple of heaping teaspoons of shrimp feast. Perhaps she'd use a hex of good fortune as well — one that would bring in more business. They deserved it.
After taking a couple bites of shrimp, she walked over to the exterior concrete wall. She sat for a moment and cleaned her whiskers. She thought about waiting for one of the staff members to return to let her out, but then reconsidered. It was no telling how long she might have to wait, and she didn't plan on being gone long. If they came in and found her missing, they would just think she was in some other part of the hospital. A little magic would make it easier on everyone.
Having made the decision, she reached into the invisible pouch under her belly and pulled out a small purple sachet, her private stock of catnip. It would boost her powers as long as she didn't over-indulge. She took a couple strong whiffs, surrendering to the euphoric feeling she so much enjoyed. She considered taking a couple more, but then remembered the mission she was on. Better not, she thought as she returned the sachet to her pouch, then patted the fur to seal it closed.
She must thank her kangaroo friend for suggesting the pouch. It had made her life on earth so much more bearable. As long as she was discrete, she could enjoy the many benefits of her special spice without worrying about it being confiscated. Besides, the belted pouch she'd once used had drawn undesired attention to her here on earth. Humans were not used to seeing stray cats wearing any type of adornment except possibly a tattered collar.
Ra-Kit rose and looked around to be sure she was alone, then walked through the wall to the outside. She stood for just an instant, with only her head sticking out of the wall, and glanced in both directions. Assured that the coast was clear, she completed her passage through the wall. The last thing she needed was for someone to find her rump sticking out of the wall on the other side.
She strolled down the drainage ditch towards the back lot of the hospital. The catnip had taken its full effect by now and she struggled to remember her mission. Oh yeah, it was time for her meeting. How could she forget so easily? She didn't bother answering her own question for she knew the answer all too well.
At the end of the ditch was a thick cluster of trees. She climbed out of the ditch and sat at the edge of the small forest and meowed a couple of times, trying to imitate a tomcat in heat. After a few moments, she heard a soft rustle in the underbrush. She repeated her signal.
“You've been at the catnip again, haven't you?” The deep husky voice from the bushes asked.
“I have not,” she replied quickly, and after a moment asked, “How did you know?”
“It's the only time you use that silly cat call,” the voice replied.
“I've been forced to use a tremendous amount of my powers the last couple of days. I only use it for medicinal purposes.”
The deep bass voice chuckled. “How many times have I heard that excuse? Although I suspect you might be right for once. How has it been going?”
Ra-Kit heard more rustling in the bushes. “Don't come out,” she said quickly. “I don't know how safe it is.”
“Don't worry, I'm only getting comfortable. I'll be glad when we get on the road. Any idea when it will be?”
“Tomorrow, the next day at the latest, and to answer your previous question, everything has gone well, although it's been very draining.” Ra-Kit realized the questions were clearing her head and was disappointed the catnip's effect wore off so quickly.
“He bought it?” The voice sounded surprised. “The whole pack of lies?”
“Of course he bought it. He didn't have any choice in the matter. And as for it being a pack of lies, Sampson, I had to do it this way. We've been turned down by a dozen other kids. No one else on the list would take on such a dangerous assignment. Zak was our last chance, the only other kid who even remotely qualified for this mission. The stakes are too high to risk having him not accept.”
“Ra-Kit, have you no conscience? You almost killed his dog. I know your magic is powerful, but it's also been somewhat unpredictable the last fifty years or so. You had no way of knowing for certain whether that car would crush his dog into the next life or not. It was a huge risk.”
Ra-Kit could feel her temper flare despite the catnip and knew it was because her companion was right. It had been a big risk, although a necessary one. She had been able to swerve the car at just the last instant, and it had been enough. She didn't enjoy hurting animals, not even a dog, but their mission was too important to be overly concerned with what she liked and didn't like.
“Listen Sampson, his dog will be fine. I promise. It'll take him a while to heal, but he will with time. Meanwhile, we have Zak's promise to help us. We couldn't get that with any of the others.”
“You haven't told him what it is he promised to do, have you?”
“No, crazy, I haven't,” Ra-Kit shouted, then in a calmer but strained voice, “I told you that was my plan. If I had told him up front, there was too much of a chance he'd turn me down. He might have decided to take a chance and let the vet save his dog.”
“Would she have been able to?” Sampson asked.
“No, I'm afraid not. The injuries were more serious than I had anticipated. I admit it. For a while, I wasn't sure I'd be able to bring him back, but he's fine now. Really.”
“And now what?”
“Zak will be back tomorrow to visit. I'll tell him about our mission. Then, I'll bring him out here and introduce you.”
“What's he like?” Sampson persisted.
Ra-Kit didn't answer at once, but considered the question. “It was no mistake he was twelfth on the list. Oh, he has a great love of animals, at least as strong as the others, and he does believe in magic. No problem there. But it's all covered with a thick coating of self-doubt and low self-esteem. On top of that, he's shy as the dickens. He won't believe he can do what we ask him. That's why we must make him think he is the perfect choice.”
“It doesn't get any easier does it?” Sampson asked with a sigh.
“No, it sure doesn't.” Ra-Kit suddenly felt very tired. “I'll see you tomorrow. I've got to get some rest.”
* * *
Zak finished brushing his teeth and placed his brush back in its receptacle. It had been a long day. Normally he would enjoy the chance to stay up until this late at night but not under these conditions.
Zak walked down the hall to his room. Anyone walking down the hall would be able to instantly recognize which room was his. The door was decorated with a collage of animal faces. Scattered through it were a couple of his favorite magicians, including an old picture of Houdini, the greatest magician of all time as far as Zak was concerned. For some reason, magic and animals just seemed to go together. Zak had always thought there was something magical about animals. One of his greatest wishes had been granted today. He'd finally been able to talk with an animal, although he would have preferred if it had been under different circumstances.
Even so, remembering his conversation with Ra-Kit excited him. At the same time, he couldn't help but wonder what trouble she had talked him into. What type of favor would a magic cat expect for saving the life of a loved one? Zak suspected it would not be a small one.
Zak pulled the covers back on his bed. It felt odd getting ready to go to sleep without his trusted companion, but he knew Angus was in good hands.
What if I can't do it? What if that blasted cat asks me to do something impossible? It would be just like a magic cat to do something like that. If I can't accomplish it, what happens then? Will she try to take my soul away? After all, she is a black cat. Okay, not all black, but it might not matter.
Well, so what? What choice did I have? Was I going to let Angus die? Of course not. I made the only choice there was. Like Luk always said, “Make a choice, then make it work.” His older brother was always saying stuff like that. What was more irritating to Zak, Luk lived his life the same way he spoke.
Boy, it would be great to be able to walk across the hall and talk to Luk right now, but his older brother had decided to stay at Appalachian after his sophomore year to take a couple summer courses. The recent move to North Carolina had been an improvement. In California, a whole country had separated them, but when you're a teenager without a driver's license or your own car, a three hour drive to the mountains was still way too long a trip.
Zak had just shut off his light next to his bed when the phone rang. Probably Dad calling, he thought. Let's see, was he out of town tonight or just working late? Zak couldn't remember. His dad's schedule was just too busy and confusing for Zak to keep straight. He heard the sound of Calida's footsteps coming down the hall and then stop in front of his door. She knocked lightly.
“Zak, are you asleep yet?” she asked in her nearly perfect English. It was one of the things that irked Zak the most about his stepmother. Her dark complexion and jet black hair contrasted sharply with Zak's nearly white blond hair and blue eyes and clearly revealed her Mexican blood, but she spoke with only a trace of an accent which Zak found disconcerting even though he knew it was from her training as an interpreter.
Zak wondered what she'd do if he answered yes, but decided not to test it. He hated to admit it but Calida had really come through for him and Angus today.
“No, ma'am. I'm still awake,” he replied as he turned the light back on.
“It's Luk on the phone. He'd like to talk to you.”
Zak jumped out of bed. “I'll be right there. Don't let him hang up.”
Ignoring the slippers at the end of the bed, he ran barefooted down the hall into his dad's bedroom. He still couldn't think of it as where Calida slept as well.
“Hi, Luk, what's happening?” he asked breathlessly.
“Hey, dude, what's happening with you?” Luk returned their customary salutation. “I hear you've had a rough day?”
“Yeah, I'll say,” Zak replied as he climbed on the bed and tucked his feet under his legs. “I was just wishing you were here so I could talk with you. You must have felt my energy.”
“That I did, Zak-my-boy. Plus, Calida called me earlier and left a message on my voicemail.”
“Oh,” Zak said a little disappointed. He had hoped Luk had called because of some secret brain signals they shared. Oh well, sometimes it seemed they had a knack of knowing what was up with each other.
He told Luk about the accident but left out the part about speaking with a magic cat. He wanted to tell Luk but it seemed too complicated to go into over the phone. Before he realized it, twenty minutes had passed and Luk had to get off the call.
“Listen, I can't talk much longer. I'm about to run out of minutes, plus I've got a huge exam tomorrow in biochem. I sometimes think it would be easier to switch my major from pre-med to phys-ed but we Bates are always up for a good challenge, right Zak?”
Zak said yes, although he wasn't sure he'd count himself as one of those Bates.
“I wanted you to know I was thinking about you. Try not to worry about Angus. He's a tough little dog. He still has a lot of cats and squirrels to chase.”
Zak thought again about telling Luk about Ra-Kit, but knew it would take too long to explain. Besides, he was less sure with each passing moment whether he'd really spoken to a magic cat.
“I know he's tough. I taught him to be that way. When are you coming home?”
“Not sure, but until I get home don't give Calida a hard time. She really wants to be your friend, Zak.”
Zak didn't answer at once. His relationship with his stepmother was a sore subject and not one he liked to talk about with Luk. Luk just didn't understand. He'd been almost grown when their father had remarried, and he wasn't around the house like Zak was. He didn't understand that Calida couldn't replace Zak's mom. As hard as she tried, she couldn't. And Luk didn't know what it was like going to school and having everyone laugh at him when they saw them together.
Zak had tried explaining how strange he felt whenever other kids saw Calida and him together for the first time. “She's your mom?” they would always ask. Then Zak would have to go into this long speech about how she was his stepmom, then they'd ask what had happened to his mom, usually guessing that his parents had been divorced.
Zak would have to go on to explain that his mom had been killed in an automobile accident and then someone would always ask for details and, in no time at all, Zak was right back there on the day his dad broke the news to him that his mom wasn't ever, ever coming home. All because his dad had gone off and married Calida without so much as talking with him first.
“Maybe I could come visit you,” Zak said.
“I'd really like that but I believe Calida told me your first day of school is tomorrow. I don't think starting out the New Year missing your first several days is a good idea. You don't want to have to repeat another grade, right? Besides, don't you think you better stay there and look after Angus?”
Sometimes it infuriated Zak how right his older brother could be. Of course he didn't want to repeat another grade. He didn't want to go through them the first time. He just wanted out of school, or at least to stay at one long enough to make a few friends. Not that he really needed friends as long as he had Angus. The thought reminded him how close he had come to losing his only friend and of the pact he had made with God. He figured whatever it was Ra-Kit asked he would have to do. He'd agreed to it with a magic cat and with God. There would be no backing out.
“Well, I just thought I'd ask. Study hard, Luk. Learn enough for both of us,” Zak said, but his mind was still on the promise he'd made. He said good-bye and hung up the phone.
As he returned to his bedroom, he thought about what lay ahead — a new school year at yet another new school. Ugh! Oh well, he'd worry about that in the morning. Tonight, he needed to get some sleep. Unfortunately, his worry machine had already cut on, and he ended up tossing and turning for over an hour before finally falling asleep.
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