Read A Picture-Purrfect Christmas (A Klepto Cat Mystery Book 13) Online
Authors: Patricia Fry
“I’d like to give the boys a job,” Shelly announced.
“A job?” Savannah questioned.
“I don’t think photography’s their thing. But what I did see from Chuckie and Brad today is their ability to design. Did you notice them creating backgrounds and backdrops for the pictures?”
“Yes, they were busy rearranging my house, weren’t they?” she said cringing a little. “What do you have in mind?”
“I’d like to help them produce a book of the students’ photos for each child to take home at the end of the sessions. I may be able to get some funding from Roy Shively, the camera shop owner.”
“Sounds good to me.” Just then Savannah’s phone tweeted. “A text,” she said. “I’d better check; it’s from Michael.” She read aloud, “Rags has been carrying on something fierce since you left. Do you know what’s wrong with him?”
Shelly tilted her head. “Well, that’s odd. Does he usually have separation anxiety?”
“No,” she said. “And I’ve never seen him take such a quick liking to someone as he did Marissa today. I wonder if he’s pining for her. We have another little girl who comes over to play with him sometimes; he loves Charlotte. But I’ve never seen him react to any child like he did Marissa. I wonder what’s up with that.”
“He didn’t like Esse, though, did he?” Shelly said, chuckling. Before Savannah could respond, she added, “I think Esse was a real plus in our class today. His critique of the kids’ photos was spot on and they seemed to like him. Would you mind if we meet at your house Wednesday? I’d like to invite him again.”
Savannah shrugged. “Sure. It’s okay with me, I guess.”
“You have reservations,” Shelly noticed. “What are they?”
She kept her thoughts to herself, finally saying, “It’s nothing…nothing concrete, anyway.” When Savannah noticed Shelly staring at her as if waiting for an explanation, she said, “It’s just hard to trust someone Rags doesn’t like. We’ve had too many…situations…with him.” She shook her head. “But I’m probably overreacting. Sure, let’s see if he wants to come to the next session.”
“If you’re certain,” Shelly said. She continued, “I want to do some still-life work with the students—you know—let them photograph some of your great decorations and unique furniture pieces. That’s a specialty of Esse’s—along with landscapes. He can teach them a lot about lighting.”
“Sounds fun. Want me to have some fruit and vases and other doo-dads for the kids to arrange…maybe dried beans in different colors…?”
“Hey, I have some neat holiday decorations I can bring out—Santa figures, angels, elves...that might be fun for the kids.”
“Yes. I’m loving it. So next Wednesday at two; your place.”
“I’ve been thinking, Michael,” Savannah said that evening over dinner.
“Uh-oh, about what?”
“About taking Marissa for a horseback ride.” She leaned toward Michael. “You should have seen her today. She was in heaven with these animals. She and Rags hit it off really well.”
He frowned. “Well, what’s this I heard about him attacking that man who was here?”
Savannah shook her head. “I don’t know what happened, Michael. For some reason, Rags doesn’t seem to like him.”
He took a deep breath. “Well, I’ll have to say I didn’t find him particularly charming myself, but when I met him he was probably planning to launch a lawsuit against us and your cat.”
“So the child you mentioned—why do you want to take her riding?” he asked.
“She’s such a sweet little girl and it seems she doesn’t have many opportunities for activities outside of school. As I said, she really liked being around our animals and was fascinated by the horse. She’s never even been close to a horse before, but she’s read every children’s storybook about horses ever written. She named some I haven’t heard of.” She paused before saying, “Michael, I know that horse-craving.”
“Yes, as a child, I could practically taste what it would be like to ride a horse and I wanted it so badly. I’d love to offer that opportunity to Marissa.” She picked up her phone. “I checked the weather for the weekend and it looks like it will actually be sunny—or at least partly sunny.”
“Have you asked her yet?”
“No. I need to check with Shelly about how to reach her. I’ll do that after dinner. I’m excited.” She looked over at Rags, who was sharing Buffy’s canopy bed with her. “Rags will be, too.” She frowned. “Only…”
“Only what?” he asked.
“Only, I’m not exactly sure what Marissa’s home situation is—what kind of privileges she has.”
“Surely, her parents want their children to go out and have fun, don’t they?” Michael suggested. “And Shelly will vouch for you, being a stranger to the family and all…”
“Sure,” Savannah said. “But, Michael, I don’t think we’re dealing with people who care much about their children. It’s just a sense I get about them.”
“So I’ll get to meet your new friend today, huh?” Michael asked.
“Yes. Shelly arranged for me to pick Marissa up. Her foster mother doesn’t want her home until after supper; so it will be a day-long playdate.”
He frowned. “Are you okay with that?”
“Yeah. I am, actually. I really like this little girl.” Savannah started to leave, but turned back briefly. “So did Adam, by the way.”
Michael nodded. “Oh, she’s the girl he was talking about after the photo class. Yeah, he seemed to have made a fast friend, there.”
“Yes, he did.” Savannah headed for the front door, calling out, “We’ll be back in half an hour or so.”
I’ve never been in this area before,
she thought as she drove slowly down a narrow street.
Gads, cars parked on lawns, unkempt yards, broken toys here and there, people lounging on their porches as if they have nothing better to do. Well, maybe they worked all week in the factories and fields and they deserve their rest. Oh, here it is—975 Sutter Street. The house looks par for the course in this neighborhood,
It’s small—was probably cute at one time, with that quaint porch, wood siding, and shutters…well, a couple of shutters. One’s gone and one’s being held by just a few nails.
She chuckled to herself.
The Cottons aren’t much for curb appeal.
It seemed like quite a while before Savannah’s knock was answered. When the door opened, she faced a hefty woman in her late forties with dyed red hair stringing down alongside an unsmiling face. She peered at Savannah suspiciously and barked, “What do ya want?”
“I’m Savannah Ivey. I’ve come to pick up Marissa.”
“Hi, Ms. Savannah,” came the melodic voice from behind the woman. “I’m all ready.”
The woman stepped back as the child limped slowly toward Savannah, wearing a faded, worn jacket that appeared to be two sizes too big and carrying a small tote bag.
“Hi hon,” Savannah said, smiling. “Want to bring your chair? You might need it.”
The child looked down for a second and muttered, “I don’t have it anymore.” Then smiling, she added, “I’ll be fine. Honest I will.” She took Savannah’s hand as support while managing the broken porch steps, calling out cheerfully, “Bye, Mavis. I hope your back feels better.”
The woman simply shouted, “Don’t bring her back ‘til you feed her supper, ya hear?”
“Sure,” Savannah said, disbelieving what she was witnessing. Once she had helped Marissa get buckled into the car, she glanced at the house and said, “Didn’t you say you had a bunch of sisters and brothers? Where are they? I didn’t see any toys or kids.”
“Oh, we stay in our rooms mostly, when we’re not outside playing. I’m lucky, though. I share Errie’s room. It’s tiny, so there’s only room for us two. The other room has four kids in it and they can be messy.” She smiled. “Errie is neat like me.”
Savannah tilted her head. “That house has three bedrooms?”
Marissa thought for a moment. “Yeah, actually it does, since they split one bedroom into two for us kids. Errie and I have about a quarter of the original room to ourselves.”
“How do you get two beds in a room that small?” Savannah asked.
Marissa laughed. “We actually don’t. Errie and I sleep in one little bed. Usually, we sleep head to toe.” She lowered her head. “…unless…”
Savannah glanced at her. “Unless what?”
“Unless it’s a bad night and one of us needs to snuggle.” She grinned sheepishly. “It’s usually me who needs to snuggle.”
“What do you mean by a bad night?” Savannah asked, concern in her voice.
Marissa took a deep breath. “Oh, you know, if Mavis is mad and yells for no reason…or something worse…it ruins everyone’s night.” She opened her eyes wide. “She can be kinda scary. So can her nephews.”
“Nephews?” Savannah repeated. “Do they live there, too?”
“Yeah, sometimes—out in a shed behind the garage.”
“How old are they?” Savannah asked.
Marissa thought for a minute. “I don’t actually know. They’re grown-ups.” She shook her head. “I hate it when they come in the house. They’re loud and they have no manners whatsoever. Mavis lets them do anything they want, even bother us kids. She laughs when they make the younger ones cry.” Marissa looked thoughtfully at Savannah for a moment. “You know, sometimes I think Mavis scares us on purpose—she likes seeing me and some of the younger kids scared. I tell the little ones that Mavis probably had a rough childhood and it made her kinda mean-spirited. I tell them to try to ignore her and be strong in their own hearts.” She frowned. “But it’s hard.”
Savannah grimaced, then asked, “Why does she want you to stay away until after supper tonight? Are they going out somewhere?”
“Oh no. It’s her way of saving money…and work,” Marissa said, matter-of-factly. She lowered her brow. “You don’t mind do you? Do you have plans?”
Savannah patted the girl’s leg. “Absolutely not, hon. The more time I get to spend with you, the better.”
Marissa tilted her head and blinked at Savannah. “That was a nice thing to say.”
“Well, I mean it. There’s a lot I want to show you and share with you.”
Marissa’s eyes lit up. “I can’t wait. I love outings with friends.” She frowned a little. “…only I haven’t had very many of those.”
After a few quiet moments, Savannah asked, “Are you enjoying the photography classes?”
“Yes. I’m learning a lot. Only…”
“Well, I don’t want to complain, but, Ms. Savannah, I don’t like that man teacher.”
“Man teacher?” Savannah asked. “Oh, you mean Esse?”
“I don’t know.” The child thought for a moment. “I think I’ve seen him before or he reminds me of someone.” She laughed. “He could have been in one of my dreams. Sometimes I dream about real people I don’t actually know or I dream stories that actually happen. It’s a weird quirk of mine, I guess.” She lowered her voice. “I don’t talk about it to Mavis. It makes her kinda mad.” She added, “But Errie likes hearing about my dreams.” She was quiet, then said, “I dream about my father sometimes.” She shivered. “Those dreams scare me.”
“Do you remember your father?” Savannah asked.
“Yes. He came to the house where I lived last time. I didn’t know who he was, but I found out. He and the father of the house had a fight. They pushed each other and yelled real loud. I hid in the back of the house, but he found me and took me to live with him. I was six, I think. He was gruff and kinda mean. He doesn’t have a house, so we slept in some weird places—park benches, empty buildings, Dumpsters…” She faced Savannah. “…inside a Dumpster, can you imagine? And in old cars. Once, I was asleep alone in a car and someone started to drive it away. I was able to jump out, but I wasn’t fast enough to get my blanket and my doll. My…father made me sleep without a blanket for the next week as punishment. One time the police came to get him and I hid from them. A woman I didn’t know saw me. She took me to her tent and let me sleep there until my father came back. Then he took me to where I am now. He came for me one other time. I was with him only for a couple of days.” She looked at Savannah. “I think Mavis and Clark traded him something for me—I heard them talking about giving him something he could pawn. They must be getting money to keep me and some of the others, cause what else would the reason be? I know they don’t like having us around.”
“Do you have a social worker?” Savannah asked. “Does someone come by and check the home?”
Marissa shook her head. “No, and Errie says that’s weird. I remember an old lady visiting the other place where I lived. She would ask us kids questions and write things down in her book. I haven’t seen any—what did you call them—social workers since I’ve been in this place.”
“Seems odd, doesn’t it? I wonder where they’re getting the money to care for all of you.”
Marissa was quiet for several minutes then said, “I’m afraid my father’s back.”
“Back?” Savannah said.
“Well, back from jail, maybe. I think he wants me again. Ms. Savannah, I don’t want to go with him. Life with Mavis and Clark isn’t all that beautiful, but it’s better than living with my father.” She looked down at her hands. “He doesn’t care about me, except for what I can do for him. He uses me for money. When he wants money for food…or other things…” she looked up at Savannah, “…like liquor…he has me go sit on the street and ask for it. I always have to wear a dress or shorts—even when it’s cold. I figured out that’s so people will feel sorry for me and give us more money.” She turned toward Savannah. “In my heart it just seems wrong, but I don’t have any…”
“Power?” Savannah suggested.
She sat up straighter, her eyes wide. “That’s it—
. I have no power to say yes or no or to even help him change.” She shook her head slowly. “I just hope it was a dream—that it wasn’t really him I saw talking to Clark last week.” She turned sullen. “But sometimes my dreams come true.” She chuckled half-heartedly. “Or, should I say, my nightmares?”
Savannah choked back tears as Marissa talked about her life. She was glad when they arrived home, where the subject and the mood would surely change. And it happened even more dramatically than Savannah expected. When she opened the front door, she let Marissa walk in ahead of her. The child took a couple of awkward steps, then suddenly stopped and stared, her eyes as big as dinner plates. Breathlessly, she said, “Ms. Savannah, a Christmas tree! It’s…it’s…amazing!”