Text copyright © 2012 Sonya Lano
“Don’t stand on your hind legs – people are starting to stare.”
“No one’s staring.”
I twitched back my skirt and stepped out of the way of two navy men looking ready to bowl over anything in their way. Fortunately neither glanced in our direction. I peered down my nose at Chesterdown. “You’re a cat wearing goggles and walking on its hind legs; of course someone’s going to stare! And we can’t afford the attention. Not when we’re lying low hiding from The Wardeness.”
The Wardeness. I shuddered. I’d escaped my prison not an hour ago, and once she discovered my defection, she would be hot on my heels in pursuit. She would be here. Somewhere. Soon.
Gooseflesh rose on the back of my neck as if she could see me even now as I stood here in the middle of the teeming Michigan Central Depot observing the people waiting in line at the ticket office. All of those bustling around me would sympathize with her if they knew I’d escaped, because she was one of them.
You must pretend to be one of them, too, Ines! And you must remember to speak English! People don’t like German very much right now!
I wished it hadn’t come to this, but it had. I could still remember the conversation I’d eavesdropped on a few nights ago – being so small, it’s easy for me to squeeze into unseen places and hear secrets that shouldn’t be repeated.
‘We are no longer spies, Mr. Smith. We have moved to America to get away from –’
‘Yes, I know you have. But the war effort needs your help. If you don’t do this we will be forced to intern you.’
‘You know we can.’
Of course there had been no choice but to capitulate, agree to go undercover behind enemy lines – go straight into the Bad One’s army. I wasn’t supposed to know this, which was why they’d snuck off and left me confined with The Wardeness; but they’d left without the most important thing from me. The most important thing of all – the thing that would protect them.
I tapped my hip absently to make sure the invisible shield devices were ready. “Come on, Chesterdown, they’re obviously not here either and we have to get our mission accomplished before The Wardeness catches us. The fate of the world hangs in the balance!”
And it did. Life as I knew it would descend into pure misery if I failed today. We had to succeed.
I set off at a brisk pace, leaving the congested ticket lobby behind and entering the concourse, circling round the room and ignoring its intriguing brickwork in order to search for the dear, familiar faces. I tried to look like all the rest of them around me. Curse my smallness! They were all so large.
“Look at these claws!” Chesterdown flexed his paws as he walked – still on his hind legs, I noticed – and in the sunbeams streaming in through the enormous skylight, his razor-sharp claws glinted nearly as much as the glass in his goggles. Had he plated his claws with silver or something? Those things looked dangerous.
Then I recalled Mark’s words when he’d handed me the goggles through the bars of my window this morning and I nodded importantly to Chesterdown, imparting news of great significance: “The goggles enhance your natural advantages.” Whatever that meant.
“There’s something off about my teeth. Are they extra long now?” Chesterdown bared his incisors.
“Put those things away!” I snapped. “Or someone’s liable to lock you up as a dangerous animal. Concentrate. We need to stop dithering.” I tried to peer through the crowd. It had to be peer ‘through’ because I was too small to see over anyone’s head.
Did I say what a bother it was being small?
Don’t misunderstand: being little has its advantages, such as making it harder for The Wardeness to spot me when she came hunting, but it made it harder for me to find anything, either.
I didn’t see them anywhere.
Then a terrible thought occurred to me. What if their train had already left?
No! Please, not without me getting the devices to them!
I had better ask for help.
“Pardon me, sir,” I stopped a particularly competent looking man in a spanking new suit. “I have need of your assistance.” In my observations of the language in use among The Wardeness and her peers, this always got a man to assist a woman. Fortunately I was an excellent mimic.
The competent-looking man halted and looked down, his eyebrows flying halfway up his forehead when his gaze landed on me.
I cleared my throat and set my mouth into a firm line (putting into action more affectations). “I must know which platform the train taking people to the war leaves from.”
The man continued to stare and I began to doubt the wisdom of stopping him. He didn’t seem to be a person competent of a very coherent response after all. And I was speaking English, too.
Or maybe… Yes, that must be it.
I made an impatient sound. “Yes, yes, I do realize I am a small lady, but that’s no reason to gape so, sir, nor a reason to deny me an answer. You do realize how discourteous you are being? If not downright churlish.” Then, as an afterthought, I added: “Sir.” I was proud of this little speech in The Wardeness’s language.
It obviously worked on him like magic, because a smile touched his lips and he sketched me a little bow. “I am duly chastised, my lady.” And he pointed me out the door toward the ramp and told me the platform number.
I thanked him and couldn’t help but preen a little. My first independent foray outside of my prison and using The Wardeness’s language had proven successful. I set off with my constant companion by my side – er, or not?
“Look at my tail! I’m creating a wind!”
I scrunched up my nose and halted. When Chesterdown created wind, it was an immensely smelly affair. I half turned, ready to request a gas mask, only to see his tail spinning like a windmill and indeed creating a wind. Several women close by squeaked and snatched at their skirts to hold them down as they scurried off in the opposite direction.
“These goggles are fantastic! I’m a super cat!”
“Yes, well, you’ll come in useful if The Wardeness shows up, so let’s go, super cat.”
We threaded our way down the ramp and through the bustling tunnel, Chesterdown flicking his tail at people and raising skirts and me holding my head high and counting the platforms. Yes, I am one of you, my confident look told everyone who glanced my way, surprised. Don’t think anything of my smallness or of my accent. Or of the cat strutting upright by my side with the spinning tail and the magic goggles. You’ve seen things like this before. Just move on.
I swept along on the stream of humanity up the proper stairs leading outside and onto the platform, where lovers and families were clustered together hugging and kissing and saying tearful farewells.
I wasn’t here for a tearful farewell. I was here for a practical purpose: to give shields to the dearest, bravest spies on Earth.
I only had to find them first. Among all these huge people.
What a curse it was being small!
Then, through a sudden parting of the crowd, I saw them – at the same moment I spied The Wardeness headed straight toward them. I gasped. How had she passed me?
“Chesterdown! The Wardeness!” I pointed. “She must not get to them! Go!”
Cat fur flew out behind him as he shot off through the throng, his ginger stripes blazing in the bright sunlight slanting between the platform roofs.
Get her, Chesterdown, shred her to little itty bitty bits!
Meanwhile I bolted through the swarm of people, zigzagging left and right and ducking under swinging elbows. Where were they? I’d just seen them a moment before!
Then there they were. They saw me. We froze and stared at one another for a second. Their mouths opened as one.
“Ines?” Disbelief, joy, sadness, all mingled.
Control yourself, Ines. You must—oh, stuff it.
I sprinted toward them. “Mut—” No, use the right language. “Mother! Father!”
And then I was in their arms and it descended into a tearful farewell after all. Their arms were around me and their dear scents were around me and their love was around me and everything important to me in the world was around me, at this very moment. This is how I wanted it to be, for now, for always.
Everything was perfect but at the same time it wasn’t because they were leaving.
Vater straightened first, trying to look stern and as if he wasn’t crying, but he was smiling through his tears anyway. Mutter pulled back, still crouched down, and gripped me by the shoulders. “Ines, what are you doing here? Where is Miss Marsh?”
Miss Marsh was that shrill voice screaming in the background, unseen through the multitude, but Mutter and Vater didn’t need to know that. I had a mission to accomplish.
I straightened to my full height of 11 years. Mutter, sensing something of import, dropped her hands from my shoulders and eyed me gravely.
I reached for the invisible shield device hooked at my hip. “I have something for you. Duck your head down.”
She bowed her head obediently and I slipped the shield over her shoulders. “This is an invisible shield,” I told her. Made from my love. “It will bring you back home safely.” I turned to Vater, motioned him down to my height and slid the second shield over him. “It will keep you safe from all harm.”
They exchanged grown-up glances and I knew they didn’t believe me, but I accepted that. They didn’t even believe Chesterdown could speak. It didn’t mean the magic didn’t work. Just listen to Miss Marsh’s shrieks… or don’t.
Speaking of—she came trotting up, quite the worse for wear, her hat askew, the ribbons frayed, her brown hair straggling halfway down her back with a few pins still clinging to the limp curls for dear life, her skirts – what was left of them – ragged and hanging in tatters just past her knees.
“Why, there you are, Ines! You naughty girl! You’ve led me quite a merry chase. Not that it’s made me merry – oh, no, quite the opposite – but I love you anyway.” She limped up to us, nodding at my parents. “Good morning, Mr. and Mrs. Klein.”
They both stared at her. It was Vater who was the rude one and asked, “What happened to you, Miss Marsh?”
“Ah, me, no matter, that!” She fanned herself and laughed as if it were a joke she didn’t really think was funny. “The wind just dragged me halfway across the platform, is all! And I must have snagged my skirts on a nail because they’re quite shredded to bits.” She shook them out and a few more lone tatters drifted off them. She looked up quickly, as if embarrassed to have witnessed their defection.
Chesterdown marched up to stand beside me, crossing his paws across his chest. The sunlight glinting off his goggles made me squint when he looked up at me and waved an imperative paw in Miss Marsh’s direction. “She didn’t even see me!” he groused.
“Ines,” Mutter crouched down beside me again, dragging my attention away from my goggled cat, and her trembling hand smoothed down my blond hair. “We have to go.” She pulled me into an embrace that ended too quickly and was already walking away with her portmanteau before I could blink. Vater replaced her and I clung to him, afraid he would vanish as swiftly as she had, and my tears soaked through his crisp white shirt.
“Ines, my girl,” he murmured into my hair. “Be brave.”
Yes, I must be that.
I nodded somberly and let him go. He curled his big hand around his traveling case and straightened, touching my hair one last time before he nodded to Miss Marsh, strode over to the train, and boarded.
My shields would safeguard them, I told myself. I was sure of it. As they blended into the Fuhrer’s territory and gathered their information in secret, with no one in the world to protect them or know who they really were, my love would be there at its strongest.
“Why didn’t she see me?” Chesterdown broke into my thoughts, still stuck on Miss Marsh’s unawareness of his assault.
I shrugged and hazarded a guess: “Perhaps one of the special features of the goggles is invisibility?”
“But it’s no fun being unseen!” he wailed. “How is anyone going to give me credit for my bravery?”
“Take heart, Chesterdown.” I patted his head and waved as Mutter and Vater smiled out the window of the departing train. “The greatest heroes often remain unseen.”