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No. Twenty-five.

Absent the howling wind and shuffling leaves, human ears would have heard little more than hisses and high-pitched growls that was what passed for conversation between raccoons.

“My goodness, it is most certainly grown cold this evening, has it not?” asked the first.

“It most certainly has grown quite nippy out, my good Roderick,” replied the second. “Regina, what say you?”

“Who am I to disagree with the weather, dear Reginald,” said the third raccoon to the second with a natural air of superiority over her three male companions. She trudged along just behind the first two and quite far head of the fourth raccoon of their small nursery.

“I don’t like it,” he muttered from the far rear.

“What’s Ralph badgering on about?” inquired Reginald, loudly enough to reach Ralph’s ears. But Reginald didn’t care; he and Roderick and Regina didn’t care much for Ralph and his practicality at keeping them all safe from predators and other threats the nursery faced, but she was glad he was around during the times they really needed him. Right now, though, was not one of those times.

“He says he doesn’t like something,” said Regina. “Big surprise there.”

“Correct,” carried on Ralph, oblivious to the sarcasm in Regina’s voice, “I don’t like it one bit. You all saw that owl, didn’t you? It was watching us while we were there at the water’s edge. And now this wind, this cold?”

“What of it, good sir?” asked Reginald. It’s a bit nippy to remind us that galavanting all night without profit from poaching a trashcan or two will cause us to grow even colder inside!” He paused to stand upright, glancing around at his fellow raccoons.

“Good show, good sir,” Roderick said.”Good show, indeed.” Roderick, too, stopped and stood up on his hind legs in a show of solidarity with Reginald.

Regina stopped and put her forepaws to her forehead. “Oh, for fur’s sake.”

“Reginald,” began Ralph, “that is the dumbest thing I’ve heard from you in a very long time.”

Regina glanced back, unsure she had just heard Ralph express her exact thoughts aloud. She opened her mouth to speak but closed it promptly.

“Thank you, Reginald. I think,” said Ralph. By now, all four raccoons had stopped moving and were facing one another in a haphazard circle, all four of them appearing to sit upright. “Look, guys—and Regina—all I’m saying is that things just don’t seem right. It’s like something ominous is blowing in with this wind, and the owl was the cherry on top.”

“On top of what, Ralph?” asked Roderick.

“On top of all of this, Roderick,” Ralph stated, waving his forepaws about him. “There’s just something about all of this I don’t like. Especially that owl, the way it looked at us.”

“You mean the way it looked at you, Ralphie, old boy,” chortled Reginald. “You should know we all look at you that way when you’re not looking. And I say that as your friend.”

A silence widened the spacing between them before they all started laughing, falling down from their haunches. All of them except Ralph, that is. He still stood there, wavering only with the roaring of the wind whipping through the wooded area with a ferocity that would have made the big bad wolf take note.

“Fine,” said Ralph. “But don’t say I didn’t tell you so when things start to get sickeningly strange, like we find ourselves homeless or something.”

“Fine, old boy. As you say, fine,” laughed Roderick. “Now, which way is it to home? This night air is making even me want for a coat. Got one I can borrow, do you?” And he erupted into laughter again, Reginald guffawing alongside him. Even Regina tittered a bit, as though tipsy but still in control of most of her faculties. At times she felt sorry for Ralph in all of his seriousness, but gads, he could take the fun out discovering a stash of overturned trashcans outside of that buffet place they built up by the roadway where the cars drove extra fast.

Cripes, she thought to herself. Am I really starting to think like Ralph, seeing the practicality and the danger in things? I guess as long as I don’t start acting like him…

“Home is this way, guys—and Regina,” Ralph replied.

She hated being singled out like that, the only female member of their nursery quartet. Still it made her feel noticed, like Ralph wasn’t just another pompous raccoon acting like he was the ultimate gift to this little neck of the woods they called home.

Ralph had already begun walking again, this time with the three others in tow. It usually wound up this way: Ralph bringing up the rear at first before finding himself in the lead just as they reached home.

Huh, he pondered. Why is that? Are they using me as…bait?

But tonight he really didn’t care. The temperature had dropped drastically since the sun set hours ago, and the wind continued, unrelentingly. He exhaled with relief at having reached the entrance to their home, a hovel of rocks piled atop one another, with a passage leading deeper into the ground—deeper into the ground where it would still stay warm even if it got so cold it froze above ground. As he did so, he sat back up on his haunches, noticing he could see his breath, a puff of gray in the darkened sky of the woods. The others didn’t seem to notice, as they rumbled along, breaking apart just a few yards before the entrance to find varying places to relieve themselves before retiring early for the night.

As they all went about their business, including Ralph at a tree near hovel’s entrance, he noticed additional puffs of gray, these coming inside their home.

“Fellow raccoons,” Ralph began.

“Thundering trash heaps, Ralph,” Regina said, exasperation and exhaustion heavy in her voice, “what is it? We’re all tired and just want to go to bed.”

“Well,” he continued, “it seems there are other air-breathing creatures in our home. Look, their breaths can be seen coming out here into the cold air.”

“Ralph,” Roderick said. “Ralph, under most circumstances I would be willing to listen to whatever ramblings you had to spew forth—and you do spew forth a lot of ramblings—”

“Here-here,” Reginald agreed.

It was at that moment that Cody let out one of his deep sleep noises. Humans would have found it cute, but the unfamiliarity to sleeping cat sounds caught the nursery of raccoons off guard, and they scampered back a dozen or more yards, huddling between a large rock and a group of young trees.

When the silence resumed, save that of a low murmur of wind, Roderick, Reginald, and Regina exchanged glances before looking to Ralph, his head hung low.

“I told you so,” was all he had to say.

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No. Twenty-four.

The journey south to the wooded area of the pond and owl was relatively short. By automobile, it was a mile and change. As the crow flies, less. But, for a house cat and squirrel, the journey was considerably, both in distance and time. Under the advice of the squirrel, they took a far greater tack, climbing trees and leaping onto roofs and back onto trees and so on. Through their efforts, no human eyes noticed them for more than what seemed a cat chasing a squirrel; other squirrels and area birds that had lived under the terror of the owl for the past several weeks saw salvation in that sleek orange-patterned body as it—first inexpertly, then effortlessly—moved from here to there. Some even chirped or cheeped words of thanks and praise.

When they reached the park, both travelers needed to rest. They found water near the public drinking fountain, though food was a touch more complicated. The squirrel found food immediately from the bounty of the pecan trees. Cody had to resort to foraging.

The trash cans of the park were typically not emptied but once or twice a week, depending on traffic flow to the park. As Cody’s luck would have it, traffic flow to the park had been heavy that day, but the trash cans had not been emptied.

Following his nose, Cody found food. Dragging out white plastic bags, tied loosely and practically brimming with enough food to satisfy a house cat on his first night away from home, Cody managed to eat well. Even though the seasonings were a shock compared to what he was used to, even though there was crispy breading, Cody enjoyed the adventure of eating out of doors without having to wait for his food to be brought to him; he hunted, he gathered, he ate.

Over the course of the meal, though, the sky grew darker. The sun was still high enough in the sky, but clouds of increasing pitch seemed to fly in from nowhere and covered the sun’s brilliance, casting a sense of gloom over the day. The gusts of wind grew cooler, too, until it was no longer getting chilly but was, in fact, getting downright cold.

All burrows in the park were spoken for and would not allow for outsiders—especially since one was a cat—so the companions dashed down the ravine into the safety of the woods where there were more trees and rocky areas offering shelter to any small and flexible enough to fit. Cody and his squirrel companion met those requirements easily enough for the pile of rocks forming a crude but functional hovel. It would keep them safe, keep them warm until the spontaneous storm had passed.

The squirrel shivered near the entrance to their home for the night. Cody yawned and squinted his eyes.

“Chirp-chirp!” This cold is unusual. Owl must be using magic to make journey tougher for

Eyes still closed, Cody responded to the squirrel. “What is it with you, squirrel, that you always talk about yourself in the third person? I’ve never heard you use your name nor a pronoun.”

“Chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp!” exclaimed the squirrel.

“Huh. Didn’t realize it would offend you so much. It just makes it tough to know what to call you, especially like back at the park when there were so many squirrels around. How would you know I was talking to or about you?” Cody was genuinely curious.

The squirrel looked back at Cody and took a few cautious steps in.

“Chirp-chirp-chirp!” it said.

“That makes no sense. You don’t know if you’re a boy or a girl? I mean, I’m fixed, and I know I’m still a boy cat. At least that’s what I hear from my person, so…” Cody trailed off pondering that, with his gender stolen from him when he was still a kitten, did that still make him a “he”? Or was he just going along with what his person called him? Was he expected to base his identity on the thoughts or words of others?

He shook his head to clear his mind.

“Look, I just think it would be better if there was a name I could call you. Something other than ‘squirrel'” Cody said at last.

The squirrel sighed.

“Chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp,” replied the squirrel in an almost acknowledgement of defeat. Squirrels are so plentiful and have such short lives, names never given to squirrels. Squirrels just squirrels. As for gender? Squirrels know ‘mom’ and ‘dad.’ All else gets messy.

“OK, then,” Cody said. “So are you mom squirrel or a dad squirrel?”

“Chirp-chirp-chirp,” said the squirrel, sounding even sadder than previously. Neither. Squirrel not have other squirrel to make more squirrels.

“Oh.” Cody was not going to let the squirrel’s singular status derail this. “Then, if you were to find another squirrel, what kind would you find—a mom squirrel or a dad squirrel?”

“Chirp-chirp,” said the squirrel.

“Of course it would be a squirrel that would make you happy,” Cody exasperatingly replied. “But, which would you want?”

“Chirp.” Squirrel has never given it much thought. “Chirp-chirp,” it said at last.

“A mom squirrel? So that makes you a boy squirrel?” Cody’s curiosity increased again as he opened his eyes and really looked at the squirrel. “OK, yeah, I see ’em now. You’re a boy squirrel. So that means I can use words like he and his and him when I’m talking about you. But you still need a name.”

“Chirp?” asked the squirrel.

“Yes,” answered Cody, “a name. Like my name is Cody, so your name would be…” and he again broke off.

“Chirp-chirp-chirp!” said the squirrel.

“Look, I’m sure you wouldn’t be the first squirrel ever to have a name, so let’s just give you one. How about…Fenswick?”

“Chirp!” replied the squirrel. Cody had never seen a more excited looking squirrel in all of his days, including the ones on Cat TV.

“OK, then. Fenswick it is. Fenswick the Squirrel,” Cody was pleased with himself and his naming ability, having no clear idea where the name Fenswick had come from, but the squirrel seemed happy and that was good enough for Cody right now. Further, the naming gave him a sense of control over the situation at hand, a situation that was growing darker and more dire as evening had indeed set in, and the temperature continued to drop.

Cody tucked his paws up underneath him and his tail around him. Turning his head, he could see Fenswick curled into a ball at a range close enough they could help warm each other.

Outside, in the darkening woods, the owl had begun an early flight through the torrents of wind, searching for food. What his eyes found first was too large even for him.

A quartet of raccoons had just left the fringes of the pond and were making their way back to their home, unaware of the cat and squirrel already huddled there.

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No. Twenty-three.

The soft pat of socked feet on cold tile resonating through the leg of the chair on which he slept roused Cody from a deep slumber. He had dreamt of feathers floating in the air, followed by something else seemingly suspended in flight. Tiny dots like those in the ink-black sky, only so close he could touch them with his nose and his tongue, fluttered about him, drawn towards the ground as every object on this planet inevitably seems to be—even birds, whose very existence defies the laws of nature. And all of those dots en masse made everything about him white. It was a most unusual dream, which said a lot considering he had once dreamt of riding a humpback whale while he carried a trident.

When he had yawned and stretched and came fully to life, Cody hopped down and made for the back door, meowing and purring so loudly he resembled a motorcycle more than a cat.

But it was to no avail, as the person of the house went about the business of the house, ignoring the cats, save ensuring food and water bowls were filled; Cody had no appetite. He was too eager to explore outdoors and inquire about the noises from the night before. But he would have to wait.

Finally, the door opened, but Cody was blocked by his person’s foot and leg.

“Whoah, there, Cody. No outside time for you this morning; I have an errand to run in a bit.You just stay put,” said the human.

Stunned, Cody sat down, too astonished even to lick his fur and pass off as being impassive to what just happened.

But the door soon swung wide open again and the person re-entered, every bit as quick and shoo-ing Cody aside. Within a few minutes, though, the other “I’m going out” sounds came from the foyer of the house. Cody trotted over to investigate but was ignored this time.

He must think I’m still by the back door, Cody thought. Should I try my luck with the front?

Tucked behind the umbrella stand by the front door, Cody lay in silence, in wait. His person fumbled for keys and the plastic rectangle he took everywhere before heading out the door. With the big door swung open to the inside and the storm door swung open to the out, Cody saw his chance as the person dashed back inside for something presumably forgotten. Both doors were left wide open.

Slinking out through a berth wide enough for a refrigerator, Cody found himself in the front yard. Hidden by the obligatory shrubbery found in each of Eulakatza Farm’s front yards, Cody watched his person get into vehicle Cody only saw during trips to the vet and drive away. He took a cautious step into the soft morning grass and was immediately caught by surprise.

“Chirp-chirp-chirp!”

“Oh. You. I might have suspected,” said Cody to the squirrel hanging off one of the yard’s trees.

“Chirp-chirp!” the squirrel said in a tone that was one part excitement, one part sadness. It hopped down from the tree and looked back to Cody, waiting for him to follow. There is something cat needs to see, said the look.

Cody walked alongside the squirrel, imagining themselves quite the odd-looking pair, venturing along the sidewalk, just the most normal looking thing in the world. But, compared to what Cody was about to see, they were, in fact, far more normal looking.

The squirrel slowed before Cody did. When he stopped and looked around him, he saw feathers spread out in a seeming uniform pattern in the grass, just beneath a streetlight. Cody sat and moved his head all about him. The squirrel was positioned just beyond the perimeter of feathers.

“What is this, street art?” asked Cody, laughing nervously.

“Chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp!” replied the squirrel. Cat remember pigeon cat fought with yesterday?

“Yeah, I—” Cody stopped, cold.

“Chirp,” said the squirrel. And sighed deeply. “Chirp-chirp.” Yes. Even though pigeon try to steal squirrel’s doughnut, squirrel is sad at pigeon’s death.

“But what on earth could have done this?” began Cody, still perplexed at the circular explosion of feathers. He looked all about him and then at the squirrel, its tail twitching as it rubbed its paws together.

“Chirp,” said the squirrel. Owl.

Cody’s eyes went wide. Even he was shocked. Never before had he seen such destruction where only feathers remained. Sure, yesterday’s tussle left random feathers here and there in the yard, but nothing like this. It was like the pigeon had been thrown down hard from way up and just obliterated itself on impact. It was the most disturbing thing Cody had ever witnessed.

“Owl, huh?” Cody tried to play it cool, but he wasn’t convincing even himself let alone the squirrel.

“Chirp-chirp-chirp,” said the squirrel in response. Yes, owl. More pigeons, more bunnies, more squirrels will die like this—or worse. Unless cat can do something to help.

“Unless cat?” asked Cody. He suddenly realized who the squirrel meant. “ME? You expect ME to take on this owl thing for you?”

“Chirp!” exclaimed the squirrel. Yes! Cat will take on owl!

“Wait, wait, wait,” interrupted Cody, attempting to collect his thoughts. He was wishing he had not skipped breakfast.

“Chirp-chirp-chirp!” said the squirrel. Squirrel can help cat find owl and cat will fight owl and cat will win and owl’s reign of terror over squirrel and squirrel’s friends will be over!

“WAIT!” Cody was shouting now. The neighborhood responded with silence. The squirrel gave only a blank, hurt look.

“Look, I don’t know if I can do this. I mean, I barely got out of the house today, and I don’t know anything about hunting owls, let alone killing one of these things, and have you even seen how ridiculously huge even ONE of their feathers is?” Cody was ranting, more to himself than the squirrel, but the squirrel listened patiently, waiting for its turn to speak.

“Chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp!” said the squirrel, beginning its tale of venturing to the pond where the owl lived and retrieving one of its feathers before depositing it in Cody’s lawn. He then went on about the adventure to obtain the half doughnut and how the resulting melee proved beyond doubt that Cody was the one that could challenge the owl—and win.

“How long will I be gone?” asked Cody. He was already looking back down the street towards his person’s home, missing the company of his idiotic roommates and his person who fed him every morning and evening. He was pretty certain there were no regular feeding times or food waiting in dishes out here.

“Chirp-chirp-chirp!” said the squirrel. Cat needn’t worry about that! Cat will have grand adventure! Songs will be sung of cat’s bravery and triumph over owl!

Cody listened, recognizing his question had’t been answered. But the squirrel made a pretty good argument: Cody liked the idea of songs and attention and reverence paid to him.

“OK, fine,” replied Cody. “Let’s go find this owl.”

“Chirp-chirp!” cried the squirrel in a fit of emotional frenzy. It ran circles around the cat and twitched its tail repeatedly. Cat will help squirrel!

“Yes, I’ll help. But don’t think this makes us friends,” Cody muttered half to himself, half to the squirrel as they began their journey south to the woods, to the pond, to the owl.

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No. Twenty-two.

Cody stirred in his slumber.

The adventures of the late afternoon involving that squirrel what wouldn’t leave him alone and now pigeons was exhausting for a simple house cat such as himself. He just wanted to keep enjoying the good life of Cat TV, getting fed anytime he gave a certain look or made a certain noise, and napping wherever and whenever he pleased. And right now it pleased him to nap right here, right now. His fellow house cats, however, had other ideas.

Because they had not bravely engaged in combat with a large pigeon, they were not nearly as exhausted and chose to play with a plastic ball with a bell inside of it. They kept rolling it along the home’s tiled floor, the cheap sound of plastic rolling across tile, clacking as it hit the grout every twelve or so inches, accented by the high-pitched tingling of a cheap, tin bell rumbling with its innards. The scamper of cat paws around (and the occasional whoosh of cat body over) him informed him of the goings on in the living room; he didn’t even need to open his eyes.

As he drifted in and out of sleep, he found himself wondering more about these owls. Sure, they were birds, but so was that pigeon. The feather he had found a few days prior, though, was huge. The feathers found from the pigeon after it had taken flight away from the danger that was Cody were a fraction of the size. Just how big were these owl things? And were they as easily distracted by doughnuts as pigeons were? And where did doughnuts come from and how did that insane squirrel manage to get one?

Cody yawned and squinted his eyes as a bundle of fur went flying past him. He stood and arched his back, squeezing his shoulders into his neck as he stretched out his long limbs, straining to release the lactic acid his muscles had accumulated after so much physical exertion earlier that day. Lying back down, he curled himself into a ball and rested his chin on his paws. Even with the commotion about him with the other cats and the ball, Cody was disinclined to the time or energy to move off the floor onto the furniture. Here, he was something to avoid; up there, he was something to investigate. Cats and their blasted curiosity.

Right now, though, Cody was only curious about just how much sleep he would be able to get if he just let himself. But then he heard it—soft at first and then clearly, like a bell that had been lightly tapped once before being struck with such precise, intended force that it resonated through your very being, letting you know it was still there even though its voice had long left, a ghost in the night.

“Hoot-hoot-hoo.”

Cody’s eyes sprung open.

That’s the sound I heard the last night I saw my bunny! Cody thought to himself. He had sprung up and was attempting to find a window that did not have the heavy wooden shutters closed, but it was no use. The house was secured against anyone from looking in and any cat from looking out. It was like all sight outside of the safe blandness of the house had been voided out to keep the inhabitants from getting any ideas and venturing out.

But Cody had been outside and experienced it. Sure, it was nice, but not near as nice as having a secure structure around you, climate controlled comfort, and Cat TV, and—

Cody snapped himself back to the task at hand: Finding the source of that noise. But by now, the noise had stopped. Cody strained and turned his ears in every direction, changed rooms and tried the same, but he could hear nothing.

What was that? he wondered. What maddening demonic creature on this planet sounds like that? But he knew. Cody knew it was the sound of an owl, a demon in its own right, silently stalking its prey from the air, whooshing down unannounced with outstretched claws to snatch whatever living creature was unfortunate enough to be at the other end of those talons.

A rattling of coows from the roof told him that something had startled the pigeons nesting under his people’s solar panels; there was action up above. Above the edges of the shutters, Cody could make out that the sky had lightened though not quite to daybreak, but he still couldn’t see outside. Unlike the earlier goings on with the other cats and the ball, Cody was completely clueless as to what was happening outside and it made him uneasy.

This was what happened to my bunny Cody convinced himself. At the time, he hadn’t cared enough or been enough aware to know what that hoo in triplicate meant. But now he did. Or thought he did. He knew it must mean owl and that owls mean death for anything smaller than them. Considering the size of the feather he had found all those weeks ago, too, Cody, too, would be counted among critters smaller than this owl.

Shaking his head, he made his way to the water dish to take in some cool, wet nourishment. But then he hear it: The horrifying shriek of a pigeon. He had heard it earlier that day, when he had first begun his attack on the pigeons. Though he had not intended to kill the pigeons, they certainly didn’t know that and had reacted as though the sounds they made would be their last. The pigeon emitting that sound just a moment ago indeed was making its last sound, of that Cody was certain.

He finished taking his drink and then hopped up on the table just beneath the windowsill to listen, to sleep. He would learn more about the sound and the fate of what made it once his person was up and had opened all of the shutters and other window coverings in the house. He just wanted to ensure he was there as soon as possible, just in case his person was there to throw open the shutters so very, very soon.

After not long of waiting, though, Cody reflexively curled himself into a ball and fell fast asleep, this time with his dreams haunted by the sinister bird screams, punctuated by soft hoots from a great horned owl that was not soft in its demeanor, something its prey knew too well, too late.

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No. Twenty-one.

Eulekatze Farm had a lot of trees, but most would do well to hit more than a couple of dozen feet in height with branches that didn’t branch out terribly far. To say they provided shade was only half correct: They provided shade to the lawns beneath them but not to the houses on the lots where each courtesy trio of trees were planted. Consequently, the roofs of each house baked in the near-year-round sunshine, which also made them prime real estate for solar panels—and a lot of homes here had solar panels installed. Unfortunately, one side effect of solar panels were mass assemblages of pigeons which housed beneath the solar panels year-round. Only a few homes had the special netting installed around the solar panels to keep this scourge of the sky out, and the homes around Cody’s people’s house were not included in the handful of pigeon-keeper-outer netting. Which is why Cody and his squirrel friend suddenly found themselves besieged by some either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid pigeons that were after the half-doughnut Cody had shunned.

“CHIRP-CHIRP-CHIRP!” screamed the squirrel as it hopped off the ground to the relative safety of nearby tree trunk. Get off squirrel’s doughnut!

Cody was far less diplomatic, letting loose eons of evolution: His face tightened into a hiss-cum-growl, while his back arched and the hair stood out, claws already extended as he pounced onto the plumpest of the pigeons attempting to grip the hunk of doughnut in its stub of a beak.

The pigeon didn’t seem to know what hit it—indeed, as a suburban pigeon in a city which had a pretty strict “no outdoor cats” rule, the pigeon had never encountered a cat, especially one with as sharp of instincts or claws as Cody—as it found itself swiped and smacked hard against the wooden plank fence separating one postage stamp of a yard from another.

Stunned, the pigeon remembered it could fly and attempted to do so, but Cody was too quick: He tackled and rolled with the bird, hissing and growling noises that surprised and scared him almost as much as it did the pigeon caught in the grip of his claws.

The doughnut has fallen back to the ground, where the smaller pigeon of the duo that had the audacity to come between a cat and squirrel engaged in civil discourse in order to attempt to abscond half of a doughnut. It almost couldn’t believe its luck, making for the hunk of pastry when its line of sight to the doughnut was disturbed by the most crazed looking of squirrels the pigeon had ever beheld—or heard.

“CHIRP-CHIRP!” shouted the squirrel, its eyes locked on the pigeon, ready to pounce.

(And then what, it didn’t know. The squirrel just knew that some ridiculous and annoying excuse for a bird was not getting away from the half-doughnut it had traveled so far and worked so hard to bring back to the cat. The cat’s refusal and seeming indifference to the doughnut was irrelevant; it was the principle of the matter.)

The pigeon took the hint and took flight, leaving its plumper companion behind to tussle with the cat. But the noise the cat was making caused an abrupt ending to the skirmish, as Cody’s person came running out of the house, waving a broom.

“Go on—shoo!” the person bellowed, swinging the broom down hard.

The larger pigeon was knocked free from the grip and hold Cody had on it and immediately took to the air, seeking sanctuary from the crazed inhabitants of the yard. It had managed only a crumb of the doughnut; the rest lay on the grass, not far from where it was originally when all of the brouhaha had begun.

The squirrel had hopped onto the fence and into the safety of a nearby tree where it could watch the decline of things, including its own hopes that it was going to get to enjoy the half of the half of the doughnut, regifted to the squirrel from the cat that had eschewed it from the squirrel.

“What on earth was all of that about, Cody?” inquired the person, panting for breath. Apparently, breaking up melees between cats and birds was exhausting work. “Really, you have been acting mighty strange the past few days. I wish I knew what’s gotten into you. Huh, what’s this?” The person had seen the doughnut.

Cody’s eyes went large, his composure regained almost as quickly as he had lost it when the pigeons had landed in a fit of feather and cooing. He scampered up to the person as he leaned down with arm outstretched towards the doughnut and rubbed against it, as though in desperate plea for affection.

“Oh, I see. Not so tough, are you? You big-ole softy,” said the human, scooping Cody up and onto one shoulder, the broom snugged onto the other. “Let’s go get you a treat, you brave hunter cat.”

With that, Cody was carted back inside, but not before he managed to spot the squirrel on a tree branch. He squinted his eyes in mild annoyance.

Enjoy your doughnut, squirrel.

After the sound of the shutting door and its lock engaging, the squirrel quickly hopped down from the safety of its branch and scattered over to the doughnut hunk. Sure, a nibble had been taken out of it, but there was still quite a good amount of doughnut left. The squirrel scampered up the nearby tree with this remains and munched on it, reflecting on everything that had happened to get to this point, to this enjoyment of something so sweet, so tasty.

Doughnut tastes like victory! Like victory that will come when cat defeats owl, just like cat defeated other bird just now! Cat will help squirrel and squirrel’s friends! Cat is squirrel’s friend! Though cat does not like doughnuts, cat still fought fiercely, fought bravely! This is a good plan! Mmm…and this is a good doughnut, too!

Its belly full of plain cake doughnut and its muscles and mind exhausted from the events of the day, the squirrel made its way back to its home in the pecan tree at the center of the neighborhood. The sun was beginning to sink lower in the sky, so the squirrel decided to retire early, which was as wise a decision as a squirrel could make as the days grew shorter and the hunting time for owls came earlier each evening.

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No. Twenty.

Carrying half of a doughnut a distance of a mile and change is a lot harder than one might think. Especially if one is carrying that half-doughnut in one’s mouth. And that the one carrying the doughnut is an 18-ounce squirrel, leaping from tree to tree.

Despite the challenge of traversing such a distance, the northern squirrel did its very best in keeping the doughnut clasped in its jaws, pausing every now and again to adjust and catch its breath before carrying on with its journey. It managed to resist the temptation to just eat the doughnut itself. The taste of oil and sugar made it even harder to stay focused on making it back to its neighborhood and Cody’s home before the sun set and the sprinklers came on in Cody’s yard. A soggy doughnut would impress no one, especially one with as discerning of tastes as a cat.

Especially as sophisticated a cat as Cody, thought the squirrel. He’s so fancy, the squirrel went on, placing Cody on a higher pedestal than he likely deserved. Like most cats, Cody was one to lick his own butt quite regularly. Sophistication seldom entered the picture.

Finally, the squirrel reached the smaller, yet familiar trees of Eulekatze Farm, and it picked its way quickly, deftly to Cody’s back yard. With its heart pounding and a half doughnut hanging out of its mouth, the squirrel anxiously scanned the yard from a nearby tree. But Cody was nowhere to be found outside. At last, a familiar looking orange lump on a windowsill caught his attention. The squirrel hopped down, twitching its tail as it waited for the cat to notice it. But it didn’t; Cody was fast asleep, soaking up the late afternoon sun as though he were solar powered and in need of recharging. The squirrel was confused, it’s inflated sense of self deflating quickly at such seeming dejection.

Something awakened Cody from his slumber and through his hazy eyes he made out the squirrel in its crestfallen state. It had something resembling a very large nut in front of it.

Goodness, that is one ginormous nut. Why, then, does the squirrel look so sad with such a tremendous trophy? Like most everyone else on the planet, Cody did not understand squirrel behavior. He was surprised to find he actually cared. He yawned and stretched himself out to try and distract himself. The motion caught the squirrel’s attention.

Cat is not dead! the squirrel said to itself. It twitched its tail again in excitement.

“Chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp?” the squirrel inquired of the cat.

Cody yawned in response.

“Chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp!” the squirrel repeated, though this time it was not a question. It grabbed the half-doughnut and scampered into the back yard.

There goes nap time, Cody muttered to himself as he hopped down from the windowsill.

He made his way to the back door by way of the room containing oh, so many books. It was in this room his person spent the most amount of time, opening one or another and turning page after page. He was aware the process was called reading but was uncertain what it meant to do so, other than that his person’s lap made a great napping place when they were enveloped in a book, but his reason for going in was not to nap. On the contrary, he needed to extract his person to get let outside.

“Meow,” Cody informed his person.

“Hmm?” said his person, as though emerging from a trance. Books seemed simple but powerful things.

“Meow,” Cody said again.

“What? It’s not feeding time. Did you want to come in my lap?”

“Meow,” said Cody for the last time, and sauntered out of the room back towards the back door.

“Meow,” cried Cody. He looked longingly at the back door before shifting his gaze back towards the book room.

What is taking so long? Cody thought to himself. The person never—

“Sorry there, Cody,” said his person finally emerging into view. He seemed to be moving more slowly than he had in days gone by, but Cody couldn’t let himself get distracted by that now. He approached cautiously, tail curled as he rubbed himself up against his person’s legs. The human reached down and scratched Cody’s chin and tweaked one of his ears. “Aw, that’s a good kitty.”

Cody allowed himself a moment to purr at the person’s feet before returning to the door and sitting by it, expectantly.

After a moment to model a puzzled expression, the human unlocked the door and swung it up for Cody. Cody looked up and outside before venturing across the threshold onto the cool concrete and the grass beyond. He heard the door close behind him but not lock. The human appeared to be moving back towards the book room.

A moment later, there was a small thud as a hunk of something landed beside him. It was the large nut-looking thing he saw with the squirrel out the window as he roused from his nap. Cody pawed at it to see if it moved.

“Chirp-chirp!” exclaimed the squirrel in its usual, hyper-exuberant manner.

“I’m sorry, it’s a what?” said Cody, still pawing at the hunk of doughnut. “And why would I want it?”

“Chirp-chirp!” repeated the squirrel. Who would not want a doughnut? it thought to itself. Squirrel wants a doughnut. Squirrel wants this doughnut, but it is for cat. So cat will help us.

Cody pawed at the doughnut a few more times then began licking his long forepaws. He could taste the oil and sugar residue mixed with the squirrel’s own saliva. It was not appetizing.

“Look, squirrel, these nut things aren’t really my thing. Would you like it?”

The squirrel stared in shocked silence.

“Chirp?”

“Yeah, sure,” said Cody. “I don’t eat soft, chewy things like that. Knock yourself ou—”

Before Cody could finish his sentiment, half of the half-doughnut had disappeared in the squirrel’s mouth, moving in a rapid, chisel-like motion. The remaining portion was held in the squirrel’s forepaws. It stopped chewing and dropped what was left of the doughnut in mild embarrassment.

“Chirp-chirp-chirp!” exclaimed the squirrel, attempting to explain why it had brought the rejected gift to the cat.

“Help squirrel? Do you mean help you? What would you need help with? I mean, you traveled who knows how far to get that disgusting—”

“Chirp!” The squirrel had an angry look to itself that made Cody wary.

“OK, sure, perspective is everything, and from the perspective of a cat that is very finicky about what he does and does not eat, that doughnut—any kind of nut, really—just doesn’t do anything for a cat. At least for me.”

“Chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp!’ retorted the squirrel. It seemed to be laughing at Cody. Cody was not amused.

“What do you mean that doughnuts aren’t nuts? It has n-u-t right there at the—”

“Chirp-chirp-chirp!” responded the squirrel. For sure, it was laughing at Cody’s culinary ignorance.

“Laughing at someone is not the best way to get them to help you, you know,” Cody bluntly informed the squirrel.

“Chirp,” said the squirrel in an almost apologetic tone.

“What is it you want me to do? And why me?” Cody tried hard to hide his concern by coming across as condescending. The squirrel was oblivious to this, the sugar from the doughnut still rushing through its system.

“Chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp!” blurted out the squirrel.

“What’s an owl?” inquired Cody.

“Chirp-chirp!” began the squirrel before continuing on. “Chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp—”

The endless string of squirrel chirps was cut short by Cody raising his paw. Instinctively, the squirrel hopped back in fear for its life.

“Chirp-chirp-chirp!” said the squirrel in genuine excitement.

“No, I was not going to hurt you, I just wanted you to stop talking,” Cody said. Then, more to himself, “Feathers, claws, flying death. This does not sound like a very good time. But, again, why me?”

“Chirp-chirp-chirp,” said the squirrel as matter-of-factly as it could.

“Champion? I told you, I’m just a house cat. I’m no champion. I’m not hingspecial.”

“Chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp,” said the squirrel, the slightest hint of reverence in its little voice.

“I’m glad you think—”

But Cody was unable to finish his sentiment as a garbled bird call and flutter of feathers swooped down in the space between the cat and the squirrel, a space previously only occupied by doughnut fragments but now containing the flapping of wings and bird.

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No. Nineteen.

The park at the edge of the still wild woodlands on the outskirts of town was shady and inviting, sporting wide lawns of soft grass, playground equipment for varying ages, all settled on nice mounds of mulch. Flanking the playground equipment—and providing the aforementioned shade—were some of the largest pecan trees for miles and miles around.

Snaking its way through the park was a path of concrete making up nearly a quarter of a mile in length, with width just enough for the park service vehicles that made their way through twice per week to empty trash and recycle bins.

The concrete path was used by walkers and runners and kids on scooters, as well as at least woman in a wheelchair who made her way to the park once a week or so with her family. The children would play on the playground equipment, swinging on the swings, and playing impromptu games of tag with anyone willing to give chase across the expanses of greenery, while the woman would roll lap after lap in her wheelchair, reliving in her mind the delights of running track in her younger and more agile days.

Attached to her wheelchair was a cupholder cradling a container of coffee while in the woman’s lap lay a brown paper bag within which were several plain cake doughnuts—the woman’s favorite—for her and her family to enjoy. Surplus doughnuts and crumbs were distributed to the birds and squirrels frequenting the park and its ample trees.

The squirrels affectionally referred to this woman as Doughnut Lady. Indeed, she had grown in stature and standing in the eyes of the squirrels who greedily gobbled the doughnuts she brought and handed out ever so generously. Or so the northern squirrel had had.

Though it had never personally seen or met Doughnut Lady, word of her works and generosity had spread from one squirrel to the next, one nest, one tree, one neighborhood to the next.

All the northern squirrel knew was that it had to find Doughnut Lady—or some of the good doughnuts she gave out as an offer of enticement to Cody in order to solicit his help in ridding the squirrel’s world of the threat of the owl.

Because who could say no to a doughnut?

Racing again from tree to tree, lawn to lawn, the squirrel eventually made its way the mile and change to the park and its myriad pecan trees. It found a place to rest and wait for the arrival of Doughnut Lady. Fortunately, the other squirrels in the park were not yet awake, still reeling from the pecan equivalent of crapulence; evidence of their hedonistic debauchery the hours before strewn all over concrete and grass.

Though the debris of pecan shells lay everywhere, its scent heavy in the air, the squirrel did not let its hunger get the better of its though; it had again raided the bird feeder and lay still satiated from its own indulgence.

Car doors shut from across the park, and the squirrel lay eyes on its target: Doughnut Lady.

She carved a counterclockwise route along the concrete path towards the picnic table near the pecan tree where the northern squirrel lay in wait. Her kids cut across the lawn, squealing with the delight that came with not being in school and too young for the obligations that made weekends like a second job for so many. Their eyes were on swings and other playground equipment, their minds on the doughnuts in the brown paper bag in their mother’s lap.

After cutting a left turn, the pitch of the concrete path increased to the picnic table, and Doughnut Lady guided her wheelchair in a graceful descent, controlling speed and turns with ease, stopping at the picnic table, where she placed her coffee and the bag filled with doughnut goodness.

The squirrel was on its feet, ready to pounce.

But the racket of happy children, accompanied by the crackle of wheelchair tires and casters over the remains of pecan shells and twigs and leaves, had awakened other squirrels, as well. They peered their heads and sleepy eyes out of their respective hidey holes to behold the usual spectacle of people in the park. One of these native squirrels laid eyes on the northern squirrel and let out a “chirp” of surprise.

“Chirp!” it exclaimed.

The northern squirrel turned its head quickly while attempting to keep its eyes locked on the bag of doughnuts. It needed the contents of that bag to aid in its mission.

“Chirp!” the park squirrel repeated.

“Chirp-chirp!” the northern squirrel said in reply, as close to a whisper as an excited squirrel could muster.

“Chirp-chirp?” asked the park squirrel.

“Chirp!” the northern squirrel answered. This is going great! it thought to itself. “Chirp-chirp-chirp!”

“Chirp-chirp-chirp?” inquired the park squirrel. Suddenly, other squirrels began gravitating their eyes to the northern squirrel, as well as the bag of doughnuts still lying on the picnic table.

Oh, no, thought the squirrel. Squirrel should not have had said something about doughnuts to other squirrels.

But it was too late. By now, multiple squirrels were venturing out onto various branches to get a closer look at the unassuming brown paper bag, sporting a light grease stain, lying atop a small stack of plain white paper napkins.

The northern squirrel edged its way back to the main branch to began its descent to ground level in an effort to beg for doughnuts—Did Doughnut Lady always take this long to break into the bag? it thought to itself—but it found itself with two squirrels following it in circles, rotating their way down to where the tree met the grass and dirt of earth.

Whether she had seen the squirrels as her cue to open the bag or sh had done so out of pure coincidence was unknown to the squirrel. All it knew was that Doughnut Lady was on the move and soon the manna would flow from her hands. Full as its tummy was, the squirrel still held its mouth agape in eager anticipation of the sweet, chewy goodness that was a plain cake doughnut.

There was a soft thud in the grass at the base of the pecan tree. The northern squirrel and those pursuing it down the tree heard and saw what caused it, causing them all to stop in their frantic scurrying down the tree: Nearly half a golden doughnut lay in stark contrast to the greenery in its impact area.

Less than a second, three squirrels were on the ground, racing to cover the ground to the doughnut, with one of the lighter, leaner park squirrels reaching the doughnut first.

“Chirp!” said the northern squirrel.

“Chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp!” retorted the first park squirrel.

“Chirp-chirp!” repeated the second.

“Chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp!” pleaded the northern squirrel. Please—squirrel needs this to give to cat neighbor.

“Mommy! The squirrels are fighting over the doughnut!” Three sets of human eyes watched the three squirrels squabbling over a hunk of doughnut.

Cat? Asked the first squirrel. Why would squirrel give such an amazing thing to an animal that hates us?

Because the enemy of our enemy is our friend replied the northern squirrel.

Both park squirrels stared, stupefied by the northern squirrels statement.

Uh…what? one of the squirrels finally asked to break the silence.

Cat will be champion for squirrels and challenge the owl that has been venturing out from the woods over there, the northern squirrel told its parkland cousins. Cat helps squirrel, cat helps all squirrels.

The two park squirrels looked at each other, looked at the doughnut, then back at each other.

“Chirp-chirp?” asked one.

“Chirp-chirp!” said the other.

Okay, said the second park squirrel. Squirrels trust squirrel with this most precious of gifts from Doughnut Lady.

“Chirp-chirp-chirp!” said the northern squirrel. Hurray! This will never be forgotten, and squirrel will tell cat and all others of squirrels’ generosity.

And with that, the northern squirrel moved forward and collected the huge piece of doughnut in its jaw to begin the journey back home.

“Look, Mommy!” replied the smaller of the children. “The squirrel’s carrying the doughnut up in the tree!”

“Squirrels are weird,” said the older, as he munched on his own doughnut.

“Hmm,” replied the mother, as she tossed two more pieces of doughnut to the park squirrels, still on the ground, contemplating what it was they had just agreed to with their neighbor to the north.

But they didn’t think long. A few seconds later, both park squirrels were back in a pecan tree, nibbling on a doughnut and wondering if their northern cousin really as going to try to win over the affections of a cat. With a half a doughnut.

That squirrel is weird one said to the other.

“Chirp-chirp!” said the first park squirrel in agreement before devouring the rest of its doughnut.

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No. Thirteen.

All homes in the area came equipped with a door measuring three feet wide and seven feet high. Comprised of a lightweight chemical concoction, in these dimensions (plus roughly three inches in thickness), the front door of Cody’s person’s home had a weighty mass and a faux wooden finish, but all that was insufficient to provide a hearty, wooden knock that was the setup to so many jokes.

Not that it mattered. Of all the heightened sense cats posses, a sense of humor was not one of them. Cody was no exception.

What Cody did have was the problem that the faux wooden door installed as standard for every home in Eulekatze Farm was swung wide open, letting in morning sun, brightening the foyer and warming Cody’s face. A glass storm door was all that kept Cody from venturing out.

Eyes squinted in half euphoria, half meditation, Cody half considered forgetting about the squirrel and just continued living in the moment, but he was suddenly jarred back to reality as he felt a nudge along is right flank and heard the catch for the storm door scrape against its counterpart on the door frame.

“Oh, sorry, Cody. I didn’t see you there,” his person said.

As Cody’s eyes opened, he realized the storm door, too, was wide open. He needed only sprint out the door; he was really good at sprinting.

“Meow,” was all he could think to say.

“Aw, you want to come out? Well,” his person said, peeking beyond the porch. “Let’s see how you do. Come on!”

He’s honestly just going to let me walk out the front door? Cody pondered to himself as he raised his rear from the floor and took a couple of cautious steps forward. The coolness of the air now hit his sun-warmed fur. He breathed in deeply and continued out onto the stained concrete, eyeing the painted garden gnome suspiciously. The storm door closed behind him.

Cody looked all about before spotting the squirrel at the picnic table across the street. It looked especially eager, even for a squirrel.

His person busied himself with sundry chores or whatever it was people did in their front yards at whatever o’clock in the morning. Whatever it was the person was doing, he was obviously not interested in keeping an eye on the cat.

Meandering along as only cats can do, tail twitching every now and again, Cody felt the coolness of concrete transition to the soft, natural crinkle of the front yard’s grass. The sound of the storm door opening and slamming shut behind informed him that he was either trusted more than a cat should be or that his person had forgotten about him. Cody hoped for the latter.

Dashing across the street to the park, Cody met up with the squirrel and, in spite of the daring adventure he was already having, asked in a somewhat bored tone and side-eyed glance, “Now what?”

“Chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp!” said the squirrel.

“I’m sorry,” started Cody, “but you want me to go where?”

“Chirp-chirp-chirp!” the squirrel replied.

“Yes, I’m sure it’s very pretty there, but I’m a house cat. You must have me confused with some of my larger cousins.”

“Chirp!” the squirrel all-but-shouted in the most unconfused tone it could muster.

“How far away is this place, anyway?” Cody replied, attempting to hide his growing concern with mild annoyance. Despite his longing for adventure and doing adventurous things, what the squirrel was proposing was far more than Cody felt capable of handling.

“Chirp-chirp-chirp!” said the squirrel.

Cody melodramatically shifted his gaze over his shoulder, pretending to be keeping an eye on his surroundings as every good predator did. Or so he supposed.

“Well, I have no idea how far a mile is, but it certainly does sound far. And how would we get there—walk?”

“Chirp-chirp!” cut in the squirrel, not recognizing the cynicism in Cody’s voice.

“Surely you’re joking. I mean I was.”

“Chirp-chirp-chirp.”

It was the first unenthusiastic sound the squirrel had uttered.

“OK, look, maybe sometime I can wander down to this pond place with you, but today’s not really—”

“Cody!”

His person had spotted him from across the yard and was starting quick strides towards him.

“Great, now I’m in trouble.” Cody wasn’t sure he believed it himself; as a cat, he was able to get away with a lot, although wandering out of the yard and across the street was new territory. “Look, squirrel, I really want to help you out, but I just am not sure I’m your cat. I—I gotta go.”

The squirrel had scampered up to the safety of a tree, obscured from view of the quickly approaching person, but where it could still see Cody as he turned around and uttered a pathetically cute “meow” before being scooped into his person’s arms.

Pensively, the squirrel sat in the tree, pondering its next move. Squirrel need to improve squirrel’s approach with cat. Maybe cat would like a different present.

And the squirrel ran up the tree quickly, making for the park on the upper edge of where the still-wild sections within the town limits could be found.

Squirrel must find Doughnut Lady. Doughnut Lady can help squirrel.

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No. Twelve.

This space unintentionally left blank.

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NaNoWriMo 2021

No. Eleven.

Brian Doyle, in his essay “Joyas Voladoras,” writes that “[n]o living being is without interior liquid motion.” To move that liquid, everything from a worm on up the food chain has a heart of some sort, something to pump that liquid that keeps us churning; for mammals and birds, Doyle says, those hearts have four chambers and beat approximately two billion times over the course of each creature’s life.

The squirrel that had deposited the owl feather in Cody’s people’s backyard just before sunrise, when it was still dangerous for would-be owl food to be out and about. The squirrel accepted that risk, betting on the notion that, by what would be the owl’s bedtime, the owl would be well-fed enough to not bother with something as big as a squirrel. The gamble paid off, as the owl was, in fact, feasting on the remains of a mouse far from the pecan tree the squirrel called home; the squirrel, of course, was oblivious to this, as most squirrels are oblivious to most things that do not directly involve seed or nuts or the obstacles standing in between.

Even as the squirrel raced across the neighborhood in pre-dawn hours with the feather again clutched in its jaws, even on the previous day’s journey to get the feather, did the squirrel’s heart rates—its beats per minute, or BPM—rise much above its resting rate of around 130 BPM. But now, Cody’s eyes locked with his, the squirrel’s heart rate was reaching astronomical proportions, clocking in faster than should be possible, giving even the beloved hummingbirds—or “flying jewels,” the joyas voladoras—of Doyle’s essay reason to pause and think that squirrel should probably calm down a bit before it suffered an aneurysm or something. Its heart rate was easily north of four hundred BPM.

Fortunately, it did, in fact, calmed itself a bit before letting out its inquisitive “chirp-chirp” to Cody, which, in squirrel-speak, was an invitation to chat about their mutual enemy. Sadly, Cody did not comprehend this and merely stared at the squirrel, eyes nonplussed at having been greeted simultaneously by the largest bird feather he’d ever seen and by being chirped at by a squirrel.

To recover and give himself a chance to gather his thoughts, Cody returned his attention to the feather on the ground.

Heart rate on the rise again, the squirrel hopped from tree to the courtesy privacy fence separating one house from another and proffered a peace offering to Cody: A pecan.

Cody, predictably, was unimpressed as the pecan bounced softly in the grass.

“Chirp-chirp?” the squirrel again inquired.

“No, I do not want to go someplace else to—” Cody began but cut himself off.

Did I just understand that squirrel? Cody asked himself. And is he understanding me?

Cat understands squirrel! Squirrel understands cat! the squirrel ecstatically said to itself, its mind now racing as fast as its heart.

“Chirp-chirp-chirp!” the squirrel exclaimed aloud. “Chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp?”

“Where, exactly, do you propose we go to have this conversation? This yard’s not terribly big.”

“Chrip-chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp!”

Does everything with squirrels get said with such excitement? Cody asked himself. The squirrel waited with anticipation at Cody’s response. Finally, he gave one.

“Yeah, going outside of the yard isn’t something that we house cats get to do. I’ve not figured out the whole doorknob thing, and my person’s just weird about opening whatever doors I want whenever I want.”

…although that is their purpose Cody finished to himself, almost squinting his eyes in a grin.

“Chirp-chirp!” The squirrel sounded like it was breathing through its teeth with the sort of enthusiasm reserved for extra special occasions, but Cody presumed this was a normal occurrence for squirrels. Or this one, anyway.

Of all the squirrels…

“Fine, I’ll try.”

“Chirp!”

“Ugh. Whatever. OK, I’ll do it. How’s that?”

“Chirp-chirp-chirp!”

And, with that, the squirrel sprinted along the fence, hugging the right angle that ran towards the front of the house, near the rendezvous point had been arranged. Or at least discussed. Maybe mentioned. Cody wasn’t sure; he wasn’t paying attention. He was, after all, still a cat, even if he was now a cat that could now communicate with squirrels.