“I wish you could talk,” Cassie said to Simon, her nose pressed up on the thick glass of his aquarium. The pudgy lizard lounged on his branch under the warm glow of a heat lamp. The heat felt good that cold morning. Cassie had walked over to Simon’s bookstore, the Unknown Realms in the dark before school. She was supposed to wait for her mom before doing so, but she didn’t want to wait another minute before visiting all her favorite animals that lived there. Slipping into the story early was easy. Her mom kept the extra key in the cookie jar shaped like a parrot which never ever had any cookies inside it.
She waited for Simon to do something, but the lizard didn’t pay her any attention. She straightened the sign in front of his aquarium, the one she’d made back in third grade that she had labeled Simon the Wise in wobbly purple letters. Cassie ducked around the counter to the pantry behind it. The rotating door creaked open when the nine-year-old pushed it to move past the dry cat food and gerbil pellets to get to box of crickets.
Cassie wouldn’t open a box of bugs for anybody other than Simon. “I hope you know your food makes me all wriggly inside,” she said as she lifted the aquarium lid up. She tipped in a few grasshoppers before slamming the box shut again.
Simon darted forward, his earlier stillness forgotten. He chomped down the first insect before running after another. Cassie laughed. “I knew you weren’t really napping, you big liar. I’ve a question for you later, but first I better help feed your friends. I don’t want them snacking on my homework again! The teachers never believe me when that happens.”
The grasshoppers in the box jumped. Cassie hurried to return them to their proper place. She didn’t even get the pantry open before something smacked into her leg hard. Before the creature could headbutt her again, Cassie leaned over and scooped up the calico cat. “Jemima, you have less manners than your kitten,” Cassie whispered in the cat’s ear only to have the mother cat lick her on the nose. Cassie set her down after a hug. Jemima pushed her head into Cassie’s leg like the cat was some sort of furry bulldozer. “I’m going to feed you. Didn’t Aunt Liz give you anything to eat last night? Or did Pancake steal it all while you were bathing?”
As if on cue, Pancake made a move for the girl’s shoelaces. Cassie stepped back, cat food bag in hand. She tried to get her laces free but Pancake chomped down and tugged at the same time that his mother pushed. They weren’t big enough to force Cassie to move, but they did make balancing a bit uncomfortable. She didn’t want to step on them after all. “What is with you two?” she asked. They didn’t stop trying to herd her even after she fed them. Adults would talk about herding cats when they were cranky, but Cassie didn’t think this is what they met.
It wasn’t just the cats trying to move her. When Cassie tried to turn into the chapter book corner after putting food in the cat bowls, Rhubarb the Rabbit loped next to her and refused to get out of the way. Then the chickens were following her. One even tried pecking at her sock which was pretty bold with Pancake right there. The overgrown kitten sometimes forgot that birds were his friends the way the shark in Nemo sometimes forgot fish were not food. It was almost as if the animals were trying to tell her something.
Cassie tugged on one of her dark pigtails. “Ok, fess up. Is this a movie? Please tell me you aren’t going to sing and dance. Aunt Liz doesn’t like it when you perform.”
Jemima flicked the tip of her tail and stalked off toward the picture books. The other animals slunk off that way as well, all except for Pancake. He rolled over and stretched, his clawless paws stretching wide. Cassie stepped over him. She looked up at the clock on the wall with the snake wrapped around it. Twenty minutes until she had to go to school. Any later than that and she’d be late.
Sighing, the girl started back to get her backpack from where she left it by Simon. She slid it onto her shoulder. Was Simon’s aquarium open a bit? Cassie frowned. It was crooked and open by at least an inch on one side. Making sure it was secure, the girl wondered how it got loose. She’d had it closed before, hadn’t she?
Loud clucks and squawks erupted from the opposite end of the store. Cassie checked Simon again before going to see what was wrong. The lizard lay on his log with his eyes closed in a post-breakfast nap. Cassie did tap the glass this time and there was no reaction. The chickens were getting louder and louder.
“Don’t make me break out the water,” Cassie called, grabbing the squirt bottle just in case. It was for when Pancake got too carried away in his book climbing but maybe it would work on chickens too.
When she got to the picture books, the chickens were circling around something in a tizzy. They scattered when Cassie stepped forward. She didn’t need the water after all, which was a bit disappointing. She loved the animals but water was kind of fun too. With the chickens out of the way, Cassie could see a picture book lying cover down on the floor. Jemima sat next to it, her ears back. The cat swatted the book with one paw.
“Hey now, you know Aunt Liz doesn’t like it when you use books for toys.” Cassie picked up the book and turned it over. A big chicken butt was pointed at her. “You birds got upset about this?” The girl shook her head. “It’s funny. Nothing to get mad about.”
Bells rang as the store door opened. “Cassie,” her mother said, frustrated. “You’re not supposed to walk in the dark by yourself.”
Cassie slid the picture book back onto the shelf without opening it. “We wouldn’t have finished the chores then before school. The animals were hungry, Mom.”
“Aunt Liz can feed them without your help once without a disaster. If they were hungry enough she’d hear them upstairs,” her mom said, crossing her arms.
“You like it when I’m responsible at home,” Cassie said. “This is being responsible here. It was only two blocks.”
Cassie’s mom rolled her eyes. “Then you’ll like this. Time to be responsible going to school.”
The girl shook her head. “The animals are upset about something.”
That got her hair ruffled. “Of course they are. They won’t have you to spoil them for a whole eight hours.” Cassie’s mom pushed her out the door, but there was time for one last look around the store. The animals that had the run of the store were still by the picture books. They didn’t often hang in groups like that. Cassie searched out Simon and was surprised to see his eyes were following her.