It never completely gets dark on those back roads.
There are stars, deceptively few.
And velvet consumes and velvet erupts:
the softness is the leaves and the dirt paths and stables and skin. And eyes.
Clint glared out at the passing scenery from the backseat of his social worker's old chevy. He didn't want to go to a new foster home, especially one so far away from everything – from his old school, from his friends, and from Barney. Not that he'd seen his older brother since two foster homes ago, when Barney had taken off in the night without Clint. Now Barney wouldn't be able to find Clint when he came back.
If he came back.
Clint crossed his arms over his chest. It had been two years since Mom and Dad died, and Clint had gone through five foster homes. No one wanted to adopt a ten-year-old dummy like Clint, and he kept getting punted back into the system.
No one had wanted to adopt Barney either, but Barney hadn't cared – he'd just left.
The car turned off the main road. They bumped over a narrow bridge, then rattled down a dirt road for another ten minutes through short, scrubby forest.
With every bump, Clint's stomach hurt a little more. This was so far away from everything. What was he going to do out here? He'd heard stories about older foster kids being adopted out to people who used them for unpaid labour, and worse stuff. Well, Clint told himself, he wasn't going to stand for that. No way. If anyone tried anything, he'd run away and try to find Barney.
And if he couldn't find Barney, then maybe he'd join the circus.
The car slowed to turn in at a driveway. In the afternoon sun, Clint could see an old farmhouse, a big barn, and an ancient old truck. A dumb-looking horse stood behind a fence.
Clint hated it.
His social worker pulled the car to a stop and turned off the engine. The man said something, indistinct and slurred. Clint didn't even bother trying to listen; he'd only get about half the words anyway.
Then the man turned around to fix Clint with a glare. "… …. … you understand?"
"Sure," Clint said. He'd been through this long enough that he knew it didn't really matter what the man had said; it was probably something like shape up and behave.
"Get out," the man said as he turned around. Clint took a moment to stick his tongue out at the back of the man's head, then started to gather up his stuff. His clothes were in a black garbage bag, while his tattered knapsack held a few comic books and one old crossword puzzle book. After Mom and Dad died, Clint hadn't been allowed to take anything from the old house, which had gone up for auction to pay off Dad's bad debts, so he hadn't been able to go back to get his Hawkeye bear, the one Mom had given him when he was three.
It didn't matter. Clint was ten years old. He wasn't going to cry over some dumb bear.
The car door opened, and the social worker hauled Clint out of the car by his collar. Clint barely kept hold of his bags. "I'm going to tell you again," the social worker said in Clint's good ear. "This is your last chance, okay? After this, it's the orphanage for you." He gave Clint a shake.
Clint wasn't impressed. His Dad had been a master at throwing Clint and Barney around. Did this guy think that one little shake was going to mean anything to Clint? Clint kept his mouth closed and looked down at the ground.
After a minute, the social worker let Clint go. He said something that might have been come on as he walked towards the house. Clint pulled on his knapsack, picked up his garbage bag, and followed.
Up close, the farmhouse was huge, painted yellow with green shutters. Clint felt very short as he climbed up the steps, because the house was so tall. It sort of looked like a normal house, Clint thought as they waited for someone to respond to the social worker's knock. Except there were little woven stick things hanging from the porch ceiling like wind chimes. And there was a cow horn stuck up over the door.
Then the door opened and there was a lady there. She had brown hair and blue eyes and a big frown on her face. "Who's this, then?" she said as she looked at Clint.
Clint glared up at her. None of the other foster families started out frowning at him. Well, if she wasn't going to like him, he wasn't going to like her!
"… … Clint Barton." The social worker took hold of his shoulder to push him forward. Clint took two stumbling steps, then braced himself and didn't move. "Say hello … … Mrs. Pevensie."
"Hello," Clint said to the floor.
"Come inside," the lady said. Funny, how Clint could hear her voice better than the social worker's. She sounded different from his teachers too. She almost sounded like James Bond. "We'll get this … man settled."
Clint stepped into the house. It was all big and open inside, with wood beams everywhere. He'd never been in a house like this before. Back when he lived with Mom and Dad, it was just a small apartment with a bedroom for them and him and Barney sleeping in the living room. At the foster houses, they'd been small and sometimes he had to share a room. But this was a whole big house.
And it smelled good, too.
Behind him, the social worker and Mrs. Pevensie were talking. Clint inched as far into the hall as he dared, craning his neck to look around more. He didn't see any other people, but there was a big orange cat sitting in a patch of sun in one of the big rooms. It lifted its head to squint at Clint, then went back to sleep.
Clint had never lived in a house with a cat before. Maybe it would like him.
A hand descended heavily on Clint's shoulder, and he jumped and tried to pull away. It was his social worker. "Pay attention!" the man said. "I've called … twice!"
Clint twisted away and scowled at the ground.
"Maybe I … show Clint around … … time," said Mrs. Pevensie. When Clint glanced up, it was to see her and the social working looking at each other. "Thank you … … out here on … … …"
The social worker responded, but Clint didn't want to listen, so he didn't. When the man was finished, he fixed Clint with a glare, then left the house, closing the door behind him.
That left Clint and Mrs. Pevensie alone.
"… …. Your clothes?" Mrs. Pevensie asked.
Clint looked at her. What about his clothes?
Mrs. Pevensie waited for what felt like forever, but Clint didn't have anything to say. She tried again. "Laundry?" she said slowly and loudly, just like Clint was a dummy. "Do you want to wash your clothes?"
Clint felt his chest hurt and his face go red. "I'm not dirty!" he burst out, hugging the garbage bag of clothes to his chest.
Something in Mrs. Pevensie's face changed. She went to sit on the steps leading upstairs, so she was on the same level as Clint. "No, you're not dirty," she said, still speaking slow. "But we can wash your clothes before you put them in the dresser so they don't smell like a bin liner."
Clint clutched his bag to his chest tighter. He didn't know what to think about this Mrs. Pevensie lady. She had frowned at him before. But now she was just looking at him without any expression.
After a very long time, Clint slowly let his bag slide to the floor. "I guess," he said, wiping his nose on his sleeve.
"All right." Mrs. Pevensie stood up. She didn't seem so tall now. Maybe she was at tall as Mom had been. "I'll show you the laundry." She held out her hand.
Clint looked at the hand, then back up at her face. "I'm ten," he said, "Not a baby."
"Ah," said Mrs. Pevensie, but she let her hand drop. "My mistake. Come with me."
Clint followed the lady through the house. The kitchen was nice and big and there was a kettle on the stove and sun shining in through the windows. There was a room with a big desk in it next, with papers everywhere. There was another cat in that room, a sleek black cat sitting on a chair.
"Hey lady, how many cats do you have?" Clint asked before he remembered his manners. And he did have manners, no matter what the social worker and his former foster parents said. He just didn't feel like using them sometimes.
Mrs. Pevensie turned around. "Four cats," she said. "Two brothers and two sisters." A shadow of something passed over her face, and Clint stood very still, just in case it was a wrong question and she got mad at him. Then the shadow went away. "And it would be easier if you called me Susan."
Clint frowned. "I can't do that. You're old."
The corner of her mouth twitched. "What, now, old ladies can't have names?"
"No, you gotta call old ladies Missus," Clint argued. "It's a rule. Everyone says."
"For starters, I'm not a missus," the lady Susan said.
Clint squinted up at her. "You're not?" he asked. "You're not married?" He had thought they only let old married people be foster parents.
"I was married, a long time ago. But now I go by Ms. Pevensie."
"A myriad of reasons."
"What's a mary-aid?"
"A myriad," Susan repeated. "It means a lot."
"Why'd'n't you just say that?"
Susan raised one eyebrow up high. Clint had only ever seen people do that in movies. "An expansive vocabulary is a sign of an educated mind."
"Oh." Clint slumped. He didn't have an educated mind. He didn't hear half the words people said at him, and everyone gave him baby books to read like he was a dummy.
"You'll learn." Susan put out her hand and Clint pulled away without thinking, in case she was going to grab him. But she only touched his upper arm, so gentle that Clint hardly felt it, and they walked on.
The laundry was at the back of the house. Susan took the garbage bag from Clint, and he watched her anxiously as she untied it and removed his clothing. Most of the clothes weren't even his, not really, but hand-me-downs that no one else wanted in the foster homes. But it was all he had other than what he was wearing, those three shirts and one pair of jeans and four socks and pajamas so faded that they were grey.
Susan laid out each item of clothing on top of the washing machine. "Where's the rest?" she asked.
Clint looked away, burning with shame. He'd had other clothes, but he'd grown so much in the last months that he couldn't wear them, and the foster parents he'd just left had given them to the other kids because they didn't fit Clint any more.
Clint stared down at the floor. He didn't want to look up to see what the lady was saying. He knew he was just some dummy foster kid, but when he saw that in people's faces, it made him want to crawl into a hole and hide.
Susan had knelt down and was putting her fingers on the back of his hand. He wanted to go away, but where was he going to go? The social worker had said it, this was it for him. His last chance.
Clint sniffled and lifted his head. He didn't understand the small smile on Susan's face. It was like she was sad and happy at the same time. "Yeah?"
"Later on, I am going to tell you a story about how I went on an adventure when I was just a little bit older than you are, all right?" She waited until Clint nodded. "But I will tell you this – when we started our adventure, I only had on the clothes I was wearing, and one big coat."
Clint sniffled again. "Why didn't you take more clothes with you?" he asked.
"Because the whole thing was entirely not my idea," she said. "Now, how about we wash your clothes, and we can head into Decorah later this week to see about getting you some new underwear and socks?"
Susan stood up and went to the washing machine. After a second, Clint shucked off his knapsack and went to help her. He was ten years old, practically grown up, and he knew how to do laundry.
Susan helped him up on to a step stool so they could put Clint's things in the washer, and she let Clint measure in the soap flakes. She also let him turn the dial. Clint could feel the click-click-click of the knob as it rotated, and it made him smile.
Once the washing machine was on, Clint climbed down to the ground and looked at Susan. She didn't look so scary now. She didn't even look so old.
"Are you hungry?"
Clint nodded. He was always hungry. Sometimes it felt like he'd been hungry his entire life.
"Come with me."
This time, Susan didn't hold out her hand, but he followed her anyway.
They went back to the kitchen. There, two orange cats were gathered in front of the fireplace, which held glowing embers. "Who's that?" Clint asked, pointing at the cats.
"Andarta and Taranus." Susan lit the burner under the kettle.
Clint blinked. He wasn't sure if he had heard the names right. "Um."
Susan sat down at the table and gestured Clint over. He climbed up on one of the chairs, careful not to put his sneakers on the cushion. "Andarta and Taranus," Susan said again, this time writing the names down on a piece of paper. She put that in front of Clint.
"And-art-ah," Clint said. "Tar-ann-us."
"That's right." Susan pointed at one cat, the big squishy one. "That's Andarta. She's the oldest. And Taranus," she pointed at the smaller, sleeker orange cat. "He's the big brother."
"Who're the other ones?" Clint asked. "I never knew anyone with four cats before."
"The tabby you saw in the family room is Sirona," Susan said, writing the name on the paper.
"How about the black one?"
Susan's nose twitched. "That's Lavaratus." She wrote it down.
"Lav-er-uh-tus," Clint sounded out.
"And now," Susan said as the kettle began to hiss. "Lunch."
Clint sat at the table, drawing on the notepad while Susan made sandwiches. When she brought the plate over to the table, he hastily turned the page on his scribbles. The other foster parents made fun of his drawings, and he didn't want Susan to make fun of him.
She didn't say anything about the notepad. "I'm afraid I don't … any milk," she said. "Do you want tea or water?"
"Wadder," Clint said through a full mouth.
Susan's eyebrow went up again, but she returned to the table with a glass of water. She poured herself some tea and sat, watching him as he ate.
Clint didn't mind. As long as she didn't take his food away and wasn't asking him questions he didn't know how to answer, he didn't care.
He had just finished one sandwich (cheese, on brown bread, but it wasn't terrible) when the black cat sauntered into the room. The cat took in the room with a long glance, then sat down and proceeded to lick his own butt.
Clint laughed so hard he nearly choked.
Susan ignored the cat and once Clint stopped coughing, she ignored him too. She was writing on the notepad, so Clint looked around the kitchen as he finished the last bit of sandwich. There weren't any pictures of people on the walls, just old picture of flowers and stuff. The furniture looked like it was old, but nothing looked dingy or tattered, not like she'd picked it up from a yard sale or the thrift store.
"Are you rich?" Clint asked.
"Are you poor?"
"Oh." Clint had thought you had to be one or the other – he'd always been poor, and he figured when he wasn't, he'd be rich. "D'you ever be a foster parent before?"
"How come now?" Clint shoved the last crust into his mouth and wiped his hands on his jeans.
"Prophecy and portents."
Clint didn't know that last word. He kicked at the leg of the chair. "Huh?"
Susan put down her pen. "Do you know what a dictionary is?"
"There's a dictionary in the library," she said. "Across from where you came in, on the coffee table. Go fetch it."
Clint slid off the chair to his feet. He walked through the house back to the front door, then looked around. There was a big room with books all around it, so he went in there. On a low table was a dictionary, so he went and picked that up before looking around some more.
This was a different kind of room than the rest of the house. The stuff in this room didn't feel like it belonged to the house. Clint scratched the tip of his nose as he looked around. This was what a witch's library should look like, Clint decided after a few minutes. Why, there was even a book over there that said Spells and Potions on the cover!
There were also pictures on the far wall. Clint walked over and peered at one of the old black and white photographs. In it were four kids, just a bit older than he was. Clint thought one of the kids might be Susan, with dark hair and dark eyes. But who were the others?
A low rumble pulled Clint back to himself. He looked around, wondering if one of the cats had followed him, but he was alone in the room.
A little uneasy, Clint hurried back into the kitchen. Susan didn't ask him why he took so long, only pushed over the notepad. "That's what I said." She pointed to the word portent. "Look it up."
Clint dug into the dictionary as Susan cleared the table. "P-O-R-T…" Clint said to himself as he flipped the pages. "E-N-T." He read the definition, then read it again. He sat back in his chair, looked down at where the black cat Lavaratus was sitting in the sun, and then at Susan. "Are you a witch?" Clint demanded.
Susan didn't look up from the sink. "No."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes." Susan held out her hand. "Bring over your water glass."
Clint carried over the glass, keeping a wary eye on Susan. "If you're not a witch, how come you said that thing about port-ends?"
"Portents," Susan echoed. She ran the soapy washcloth over the glass. "An extremely long time ago, a centaur told me that when my oldest grandchild was eight years old, I should foster a young lord."
Clint's mouth dropped open. He wasn't sure he entirely understood all that she said, but one thing did stand out. "Wait, do you got a grandkid? Are you a grandma?"
Susan looked down at him. "That's your take-away?" She rinsed the glass and put it into the sink. "Yes, I have grandchildren."
"Wow," Clint said in awe. "I knew you were old, but not that old."
Susan's eyebrow went up as she wiped her hands on a dishcloth. "Do you want to see a picture of them?"
"Come on." Susan walked towards the office. Andarta jumped up from the hearth and followed her. Clint brought up the rear.
In the office, Susan sat at the desk and motioned for Clint to come around to her side. Once he was there, she pointed at one of the framed photos by the lamp. "These are my children," she said. "They're all grown-up now."
Clint stared at the three people in the photograph. They looked like they were teenagers and they were dressed in real funny clothes. "What are their names?"
"Sandra, Derek and Vincent."
"What about that?" Clint asked, pointing at another photo.
Susan picked it up. "That's my daughter Sandra with my granddaughter, Laura, when Laura was two. She's eight now."
Clint looked at the little baby in the photo. She looked like all babies, all squishy and pink and chubby. "Do they live here?"
"No, they live in Maine. But they will visit later in the summer. The other grandchildren are in London with Derek. I see them occasionally."
Clint wiped his nose on his sleeve. "Oh." Then he thought some more. "So a centaur told you to be a foster parent?"
"Yes." Susan set the photo back in place on the desk.
"That sounds made-up. Centaurs aren't real."
"I assure you, I do not make things up." Susan stood. "Time to change the laundry. Come along."
Only a little reluctantly, Clint tagged along. This Susan lady was weird. She seemed like a witch, even if she said she wasn't one. She had all those weird books, and talked about centaurs, and had the little stick bundles out on the porch.
But even if she was weird, she wasn't bad. She hadn't hit him, or yelled at him, or treated him like a dummy. She'd made him lunch and talked about her cats.
Maybe this foster home wouldn't be so terrible.
Late that night, Clint lay in the soft bed, the sheets and his pajamas smelling like unfamiliar laundry soap, and stared out the window at the darkness.
It was so quiet here. He was used to crowded homes with lots of people, of sharing rooms with other foster kids. Here, it was so quiet that he felt like he was in a warm silent cocoon.
It was so quiet he couldn't sleep.
He looked at the clock. Eleven forty-seven. He had been in bed since eight-thirty, after dinner and a bath and Susan told him to get into his pajamas so she could take the clothes he was wearing down to the laundry. He'd read his comic books over twice before it was nine, then Susan told him to turn off the light and get some sleep.
And he had been lying here ever since.
The faint warmth that had been sitting in his stomach since before dinner had started to fade away. Now, it was just him in a dark room.
He missed Barney.
He missed Mom.
He missed Hawkeye Bear.
Clint rolled onto his back. Tears pricked at the corners of his eyes, but he wasn't going to cry. He was a big boy and he wasn't some kind of crybaby.
Frustrated with himself, Clint sat up. He didn't think he could turn on a light to read, because Susan would see. But he felt so wide awake he knew he wasn't going to be able to fall asleep.
Moving as quietly as he could, Clint slid off the bed and tiptoed to the window. The crescent moon hung heavy over the slope of the hill outside, and Clint could see the trees reaching out down the valley, fog curling around the black branches.
Something was moving outside.
Clint narrowed his eyes as he tried to make out the shape in the darkness, winding around the trees. It looked like a cat, but bigger.
Clint kept watching. The big cat wound its way around the base of the old oak tree and then crouched in the shadows. Clint couldn't see its face, but he knew it was looking up at him.
Pressing his nose to the window pane, Clint strained to see.
Suddenly, something huge burst up out of the night and flew right at his window!
Clint screamed and fell back, hands covering his face. He hit the floor hard, the breath knocked out of him. He scrambled back until his shoulder hit the wall, his heart pounding.
What was that?
The door to his bedroom opened and the light went on. "Clint?"
Clint pulled his legs up to his chest, suddenly panicking. He hadn't meant to make any noise, hadn't meant to wake anyone up, hadn't meant to be out of bed!
But Susan didn't look angry. "Clint, what happened?" she asked, kneeling down beside him. "Did you have a bad dream?"
Gulping in air, Clint shook his head.
"Okay," Susan said. "It's okay. Can you stand up?"
"Let's try, then." She held out her hand. Clint took it and stood up, feeling shaky. His heart was still beating fast.
Susan got to her feet, tightening the belt of her big fuzzy robe. "Do you want to go back to bed?"
Clint shook his head vehemently.
"… … hot cocoa?"
"What's that?" Clint asked
"It's like hot chocolate."
Clint frowned up at her, distracted at last from the scary things he'd seen outside. "But it's late." He looked at the clock. "It's tomorrow."
"Sometimes when you're up past midnight, a hot drink is in order."
"Okay," Clint said. He rubbed his eyes.
"Let's go." Susan picked up a blanket from the floor, one of the pretty hand-knit ones, and wrapped it around Clint's shoulders before they walked down the stairs. The house was quiet, with all four cats sleeping in a pile on the couch in the main room. Susan turned on the light and went to the stove while Clint climbed up in a chair, pulling the blanket up around his shoulders.
"Do you want to tell me what happened?" Susan asked.
Clint shrugged. "I couldn't sleep," he said, watching Susan carefully to see if he was in trouble.
"That happens sometimes," she said. "Especially when one has the weight of the world on one's shoulders."
Clint wrinkled his nose at her. "Huh?"
Susan went over to the cupboard and pulled out a tin. "It's hard to sleep when you're worried," she said once she had turned around again to face Clint.
Susan measured something out the tin and put it in a saucepan. "Do you want to … … … thinking?"
Clint stuck his fingers through the holes in the blanket. "I dunno."
Clint watched Susan as she stirred and stirred at the pot. She didn't seem mad at him, but maybe if he said he was out of bed, she might get mad? He didn't know what to do. He was tired and still a little scared.
Maybe, if he told her, she wouldn't be mad at him?
Susan poured the stuff in the saucepan into two mugs, and brought those over to the table. She put one in front of Clint before sitting down across from him.
"Thank you," Clint said.
"You're welcome." Susan stared at Clint. "Can you tell me what happened?"
Clint pulled the mug closer and sniffed at it. Chocolatey. He sipped carefully because he could feel how hot it was. It was so good. None of his foster parents ever made him hot cocoa before when he woke them up. Mostly, they just yelled.
Clint sipped again. "I was at the window and something flew right at me and I got scared," he said to the tabletop.
"It was probably an owl," Susan said. "They're often about at night. Although not usually so close to the house."
"Maybe it got scared by the cat," Clint suggested before slurping more cocoa.
"Yeah, there was a big cat out under the oak tree," Clint said. "Bigger than Andarta. Really big."
He didn't understand why Susan sat back, or why she got so pale. "A big cat," she repeated. "Was it— Under the oak?"
"Yeah," Clint said in a small voice. The expression on Susan's face made him feel scared all of a sudden.
"I…" Her voice trailed off, then she stood up. "Clint, stay in the house."
Since Clint had no plans to leave the house, he just stared at her.
"Stay in the house until I get back," she said. Moving quickly, she unbelted her fuzzy robe and let it slide off her shoulders. She was wearing thick flannel pajamas underneath, and for a fleeting moment Clint wished he had warm pajamas like that. "I'll be back," Susan said again before stalking out of the kitchen.
Clint slid off his chair and ran after her. He found Susan by the front door, jamming her feet into rubber boots. "Why are you going out?" he asked.
"I have to see—" She stopped. "I have to make sure the horse is safe in the barn."
Clint hunched into his blanket.
Susan went over to a closet door in the wall and opened it. She reached in and pulled out a long thin bag on a leather strap, which she slung over her shoulder. Then she brought out a weird looking flat piece of wood and a long string. As Clint watched, Susan threaded one end of the string over one end of the wood, then bent the wood back to loop the strong onto the other end.
"That's bows and arrows!" Clint blurted out. Susan looked at him. "Like Robin Hood!"
"Something like that," Susan said. With the bow in her right hand, she pulled an arrow out of the bag and held it loose in her left. "Clint, stay inside. Stay safe. And close the door behind me."
Susan unlocked the big bolts and then opened the door. She was standing different than she had before, her body tense, her shoulders straight. As soon as she was outside, she put the arrow up to the bow and was off into the darkness.
Clint closed the door behind her, then ran to the living room to peer out the window. He couldn't see anything in the dark. Was she going to be okay? What if the big cat was still around? What if it came out to eat her all up?
A soft mrow as Sirona jumped up beside Clint. She rubbed her head on his cheek, then jumped down. Clint followed her back to the couch and sat beside the cats to wait.
"Susan went outside," Clint whispered to the small cat, who blinked up at him lazily. "She took a bow and arrow."
Sirona yawned, kneading her paws against his leg.
"Okay." Clint scratched the top of her head. She curled up on his lap and went to sleep, a warm little purring bundle.
Clint waited for Susan to come back in, trying desperately to fight off his exhaustion. The hands on the big clock in the corner went around and around, and the little hand was almost on the one before the front door opened.
Jerking all the way awake, Clint stared in terror at the door. What if it was the big cat? What if it knew how to open doors?
But it was only Susan. Moving slowly, she closed the door, locked all the locks, then unhooked the string off the bow and put it on the bench by the door. She came into the main room, lifting the bag of arrows off her shoulder as she walked.
"Did you find it?" Clint asked.
Susan shook her head. She sat on the edge of the coffee table, her elbows on her knees, as she stared down at the arrow bag for a long time. Then she lifted her head and looked at Clint. "Have you ever held a bow?"
Clint shook his head. Susan drew one arrow out of the bag. It had a long brown shaft, with creamy feathers on one end and a sharp pointy silver tip on the other.
"I was just a little bit older than you when I got my first bow," Susan said. She rolled the arrow in her fingers, the tip catching the light. "From Father Christmas."
Clint looked from the arrow to Susan. "Is he like Santa Claus?"
If anything, the question made Susan look even more tired. "Something like that." She put the arrow on the table beside her, then reached out to take Clint's hands. "Clint, I need to you listen to me, all right?"
"If you ever see that big cat again, don't follow it. It's dangerous."
"Do you know what it is?" Clint asked.
Susan pushed her lips together for a moment. "I might, and I hope to god that I'm wrong," she said. "And if I'm wrong, then any large cat would be dangerous for you out there. Can you promise me that you won't follow it?"
Clint squirmed under her gaze. "Okay," he said, pulling his hands away. "How come?"
"How come it's dangerous?"
Susan rubbed her eyes. "If you follow it, it might turn on you and hurt you. I don't want you hurt."
"Oh." Clint put his hand on Sirona's back. He could feel her purr vibrate up his arm. "Okay." He yawned.
"It's late," Susan said. "Back to bed with you."
"I don't want to go back up there," Clint protested sleepily. "It's too quiet."
Susan stood. "Do you want to stay down here with the cats?"
Gently, Susan lifted Sirona off Clint's lap and set her down with her siblings. "Curl up, then," Susan told Clint. Clint slumped over, letting Susan wrap the blanket over his feet. "Get some sleep."
Clint closed his eyes, suddenly exhausted. It wasn't quiet down here, not really – he could distantly make out the rumble of the fridge and the purring of the cats, and the rhythmic tick-tick of the clock.
He fell asleep, and dreamed about big cats walking in the dark among the trees.
In the morning, Clint work up alone. He dragged himself into the kitchen, to find the cats had relocated themselves in front of the fire. Susan was at the kitchen table, staring into a cup of coffee.
"Good morning," she said.
"Morning," Clint mumbled. He sat in the chair across from her, and let his head fall to the table.
"… … porridge?"
"Okay," Clint said without lifting his head.
A bowl appeared in his line of sight. "Eat up."
Clint sat up reluctantly. He was used to oatmeal in his foster homes. Making a face, he started eating.
He hated oatmeal.
Susan returned to the table, carrying a small jar and a bottle. "That hungry?"
Clint eyed her with a mouthful of oatmeal.
"I thought you might like some cream and sugar." She set down the jar and bottle, and returned to her seat.
Clint eyed the jar warily. She was going to let him have sugar? Carefully he pulled over the sugar, and put one scoop of it into his bowl. He glanced up, but Susan didn't say anything.
He added a second scoop. Then a third.
Susan was watching him with amusement. "Why don't you try tasting it before you add any more?" she suggested.
"Okay." Clint put the sugar scoop back into the jar, then stirred his porridge around and took a bite.
Regular oatmeal might taste like dirty sneakers, but oatmeal with sugar was good.
"Add some cream," Susan said as Clint tackled his bowl. "It'll get you through the morning."
Clint poured cream into his bowl, not spilling a single drop even though it was the first time he'd seem cream in a bottle before. Then he dove back into eating. After his long night, he was starving.
Susan sat and drank her coffee. When Clint's bowl was empty, she got him seconds without him even having to ask.
When he was done, he scraped his spoon over the bottom of the bowl to get the last of the sugar up. He felt full, and he'd had sugar, and it was great.
Clint looked up, licking his spoon.
"How would you feel about heading into town today? We can pick up some clothes and get you a library card."
Clint froze mid-lick. "A library card?" he said, dropping the spoon into his bowl. "I never had a library card before!"
Susan stood. "Run upstairs and change and we'll leave after we feed the horse."
"Okay!" Clint shouted, and ran out of the kitchen. He bolted up the stairs and down the hall to his bedroom. On the bed lay the clothes he'd worn the day before, all clean and dry.
Moving fast, in case Susan changed her mind, Clint pulled off his worn grey pajamas and yanked on his underwear and socks, then shimmied into his jeans and the black t-shirt with only one little hole under the arm and the threads coming loose at the collar. If he wore his jacket, no one would see the threads.
Leaving his knapsack on the floor by the bed, Clint pelted downstairs.
Susan was in the front hall, putting on her boots. "Come along," she said. "No time to waste."
Clint jammed his feet into his sneakers and ran after Susan. Outside, the sun was just starting to rise over the trees in the valley. "What's that?" Clint asked, pointing.
"Apple orchard," Susan said. "… far as you can see."
"Are you an apple farmer?"
Clint hopped along. "What are you?"
"What do you do?" Clint waited while Susan pulled open a small door in the barn. "Are you a teacher?"
"No. Go get that pail over there, the white one."
Clint ran over to the side of the barn. He picked up the white pail and lugged it over to where Susan was lifting down a big bundle of hay. "I got it!"
He watched Susan spread the hay out in a long trough before she opened the horse's door. The horse was big and tall, a lot taller than Susan, and he was grey with white spots like snowflakes all over.
"What's his name?" Clint asked as the horse lowered his head to bite at the hay.
"Destrier." Susan pried the lid off the white pail. "It means noble horse."
Clint eyed Destrier. He didn't look very noble to Clint.
"Go over there and turn on the tap," Susan said. Clint ran over and turned the tap as hard as he could. Water gushed out and a little got on his shoes, but most went into the water tub.
Clint beamed. He was helping!
As Destrier ate hay, Susan put the pail back against the wall, then she came over to turn off the water before the tub overflowed. "All right, let's go."
"Bye Destrier!" Clint called. The horse ignored him. "Does he stay here all day?"
"Yes," Susan said. She opened the big door at the far end of the barn and went outside. Clint ran after her. Susan ducked through a hole in the wooden fence outside, and Clint followed. "Into the truck, I'll be right back."
Clint ran over to the old truck. It took him two tries to open the heavy door, but he managed it. The seat was mended in a few spots, and one of the springs stuck up uncomfortably, but that was okay. Clint sat and looked out through the windshield. He could see Susan going into the house, leaving the door open behind her.
Clint looked around some more, his eyes finally coming to a stop on the old oak tree. He bit his lower lip. Susan had told him to get in the truck. But, he reasoned, she didn't say he had to stay in the truck.
Quickly, he got out and ran over to where he had seen the big cat the night before.
Most of the ground under the oak was hard. But around the side of the tree, on the path up into the wooded hill above, was one large cat print.
Clint stared at the print. It must have been a huge cat, to have made such a big mark behind. Clint squatted down to put both his hands down into the middle of the print, and there was still lots of room to spare.
Suddenly uneasy, Clint stood up. He wasn't sure that he wanted to be out here, in case the big cat came back.
"Clint?" he heard Susan yell. With a yelp, Clint dashed back over to the truck and climbed inside. Susan closed the big door behind him before heading around to the driver's side. She climbed in and closed her door, but she didn't turn the key in the ignition. "What were you doing?"
"Looking around," Clint said. He wiped his dusty hands on his clean jeans. "Is Destrier going to be okay if we leave him here?"
"What about if that big cat comes back?"
"It won't." The finality in Susan's voice made Clint sit back. "Now, the truck is very loud. Is that all right?"
Susan turned the key, and the engine roared to life. Clint made a face at the noise as the truck bounced down the driveway. They drove a different way than when the social worker brought Clint to Susan's house, and he looked around with interest. There were some trees, and lots of wide-open fields. The sky was blue and huge overhead.
Clint squinted out at the horizon. There, a few large birds circled in an updraft. Clint liked birds. He'd done a project in school on eagles, and he knew all about them.
Maybe when they were at the library, Clint could get a book on birds to read.
The drive wasn't long. Soon, they were passing a big water tower, and then houses. They drove over a bridge and then there were red brick buildings and lots of cars. Susan pulled the truck up to the curb, parked, and finally turned off the engine.
Clint's ears rang in the stillness.
"Okay?" Susan asked from what sounded like a long way away.
Clint waggled his jaw. It didn't help his ears. "Okay," he said anyway, because he was used to his ears ringing.
They got out of the truck, and Clint managed to close his own door this time. It was heavy.
Susan put her hand on Clint's back, but gently, not like the social worker or his former foster father, and guided them both towards a store with clothes hanging in the window. Clint made another face. He was used to this, having to go into shops with his foster moms and then not say anything or touch anything for hours.
It was so boring.
Inside, the shop was full of clothes racks. Everyone looked around when Susan and Clint came in, and Clint felt himself shrink back under the scrutiny.
Maybe he could ask Susan if he could wait in the truck.
But Susan just hauled him on forward until they were at the counter. A large and short old lady (really old, not just Susan-old) adjusted her glasses as she peered down at Clint. "Can I help you?" the lady said.
"I hope so," Susan said, her accent suddenly crisp and chill, in a way that drilled into Clint's bones even though she spoke quietly. "My nephew has come to stay with me and there's been a dreadful incident with the airlines. They lost all his luggage, and all I had for him were some hand-me-downs. Could you help us?"
The old woman's expression changed from judgement to sympathy in an instant. "Of course, my dear," she said, bustling around the counter. When she wasn't facing him, Clint couldn't understand what she was saying, but he didn't need to as she guided him and Susan towards a section with kids' clothes. Susan was all business, holding up shirts and pants to measure them against Clint, then herding him towards a change room at the back.
When the old woman had finally gone, Susan crouched down. "You can try on what you want," she said, back to her normal voice. It was a lot warmer. "What about shorts for summer?"
"Okay," Clint said, confused. "Um." He looked over all the shirts. He liked most of them, but if he had to pick one, he wanted one that would last a long time. "That one." He pointed at something that he knew would be too big for him, so he could grow into it.
Susan looked at the shirt, then at him. Something in her face shifted. "Anything else?"
Clint shook his head.
Susan sat on the chair in the dressing room. "Clint, you know, I think you're going to be with me for a while," she said. Clint stared at her. "Is that okay with you?"
Clint nodded hard. He had only been with Susan for a day, and already she was the best foster parent he'd ever had.
"And if that's so, you're going to need at least enough clothes for the summer. Shirts, shorts. Maybe a pair of trousers."
Clint scratched his cheek. "I don't have any money."
"I do." Susan's voice was mild.
"But you said you weren't rich."
She opened her mouth, closed it, then nodded. "I did say that, didn't I?" She rubbed her hand over her face. "Clint, one of these days I am going to tell you a long story about something that happened to me when I was closer to your age, when I had to go live in the country. But right now, I am going to say that we're buying you enough clothing so I only have to do laundry once a week."
Clint looked around at the pile of clothing on the chair beside Susan. "But what if I can't wear it anymore?" he whispered. "What if I grow up?"
Susan reached out and brushed the hair back from Clint's forehead. Her touch was soft, just like Mom's had been. There was a lump in Clint's throat.
"Growing up is part of living," Susan said quietly. "Never be ashamed of growing up, Clint. It's how we know we're alive." She cleared her throat. "Now, if we get through all this mess, we can go and have lunch. Do you like hamburgers?"
Clint looked at Susan. "I love hamburgers," he whispered, and was delighted when Susan smiled at him.
"All right, then we have a battle strategy. Let's begin."
Trying on clothing was almost as boring as being made to sit and touch nothing, but Clint persevered, bolstered by the promise of a hamburger. Susan got him three t-shirts and two nice shirts with buttons, two pairs of jeans, a pair of black pants that were stiff and itched, and three pairs of shorts.
At the register, Susan added a plastic pack of underpants to the clothing pile. "Clint, go get some socks," she instructed, so Clint trudged over to the wall that held socks. He plucked down a bag of white sports socks that were in his size, then kept looking. There was a pair of really cool purple and black socks, but the price tag said they were a whole five dollars. If Clint had five dollars, he certainly wasn't going to spend it on socks.
A hint of movement caught his eye and he turned. There was a girl standing there, watching him without moving.
"Hi," Clint said. The girl didn't move. She was shorter than he was, and probably about the same age. He was certain that he had never met her before, but she looked familiar in a way he couldn't place.
Clint looked around at Susan's call. She was beckoning him over to the register. Clint turned to say goodbye to the girl, but she had vanished.
Clint carried his sports socks over to Susan, who plopped them down next to the underwear. He watched as the old woman folded everything up small, then put it into really nice bags, a lot nicer than the K-Mart bags he was used to. Susan rested her hand on his shoulder while she chatted with the old woman, but it wasn't a heavy hand at all.