Excerpt from Catalyst
"No kitten is that small," the text from Harrison read.
Zoe texted back, "Smaller than my hand." She crouched next
to the tiny ball of fluff. Shivering, it had wedged itself between
the trash can and the garage door. Zoe had spotted it when she'd
dumped a bag of crumpled wrapping paper and used party plates
into the can.
She cooed at the kitten, "It's okay. Don't be scared. You'll be all
right." Checking around the garage, she searched for a mother cat
or any other kittens, but didn't see anything. She heard the chirp
of crickets, cars on a distant highway, and the hum of her family's
voices through the open window of the brightly lit kitchen. But no
Her phone binged with a one-word text: "Photoshop."
"If Photoshop," Zoe typed, "kitten would be riding a velociraptor."
Bing. "Sweet." Then: "Still Photoshop."
She sent him an eye-roll emoji. He wasn't busy. She knew for a
fact that he was camping in his backyard, next to her own, and that
he was most likely "busy" separating the raisins from the M&M's
in a bag of trail mix. Laying her hand flat, palm up, she waited as
the kitten stuck out its little pink nose and sniffed her fingers. Zoe
whispered, "Let me help you."
The kitten crept forward into the light from the garage, and
Zoe decided to think of it as a she, because the fuzz above her
eyes looked like a cartoon cat's eyelashes. She was trembling, which
made her orange, black, and tan fur quiver all over. Her ears were
flattened, and her tail was tucked between her hind legs. She looked
so miserable and so hopeful at the same time that Zoe felt her heart
melt. Poor little thing, she thought. "I can't keep you," Zoe warned.
"My parents said no more animals in the house, not after the mix-up
with the skunk."
"Mew?" the kitten said.
"Long story," Zoe said. "Tonight you'll be my secret, and tomorrow
I'll help you find someone who can take care of you."
She stayed still while the kitten sniffed her hand some more.
Her nose and whiskers tickled, but Zoe didn't laugh. Gingerly, the
kitten placed one paw on Zoe's palm. "You can trust me," Zoe whispered.
"Everything's going to be okay. Promise."
Cupping her other hand behind the kitten, Zoe scooted her
fully onto her palm. She really is smaller than my hand, Zoe thought.
She stood, cradling the kitten close. The kitten tensed and then
relaxed as Zoe carried her inside.
Zoe heard the clink of glasses being loaded into the dishwasher
in the kitchen as her parents and brother cleaned up from her birthday
party. Her cousins, aunts, and uncles had all swarmed to their
house for the usual hamburger, hot dog, and cake celebration and
had left after Zoe opened her presents. Zoe was supposed to be in
the kitchen, helping to clean. She tiptoed past and up the stairs to
Tucking the kitten against her with one hand, she used her
other hand to drag a cardboard box from her closet, dump out her
old rock collection, and line the box with a sweater. Lowering the
kitten inside, Zoe told her, "Wait right here."
The kitten looked up with such wide eyes that Zoe didn't want
to leave her. She'd never had anything look at her with so much
instant adoration. Certainly the box turtle -- one of her last rescues
prior to her parents saying no more -- hadn't cared. "One minute,"
She hurried downstairs and into the kitchen. "Just thirsty!" she
sang as she fetched the half-finished carton of milk from the refrigerator.
She also plucked a bowl of mostly eaten popcorn off the
counter. "And hungry!"
"Fine, but that's it!" Mom called after her. "You've had enough
snacks for one day."
"Besides, you have to leave room for leftover cake!" Dad added.
Zoe's older brother, Alex, cheered from the sink. "Second cake!"
It was a family tradition: second cake after the relatives had
left. You ate a wedge with all the cousins, and then afterward, once
cleanup was done, you could have whatever part of the leftover cake
you wanted: just the frosting or just the innards or all the icing roses
from on top . . . Zoe was not going to miss that. Those roses are mine,
"Don't you think she's getting a little old for second cake?" Mom
said to Dad.
"I'm not too old for it," Alex protested.
"Remember when we started second cake?" Dad said. "Alex was
four, and it was the only way we could think of to keep him from
scooping all the icing off the cake before the relatives finished singing
I'm never outgrowing second cake, Zoe thought. That was a
horrible thing to suggest. She was just getting taller and older, not
transforming into some weird non–cake-loving person. "I'll be right
back," she promised. "Don't eat all the cake without me."
She ran back up to her room, dumped the extra popcorn in the
trash, and poured milk into the bowl. Kneeling, she nestled the
bowl in the corner of the box. She hoped the kitten didn't try to
swim in it.
On wobbly legs, the kitten was prowling around the confines of
the box. Reaching out a finger, Zoe stroked between her ears. "You
don't seem as scared as you were. That's good. You don't need to be
scared with me."
The kitten leaned against her finger as if she were so happy that
Zoe was petting her. Most of the cats Zoe had met were standoffish,
but not this kitten. She likes me! Zoe thought.
"I like you too," Zoe whispered to her.
Climbing onto a mound of sweater, the kitten teetered, then
toppled onto her side. Zoe laughed and helped her stand. Gazing up
at Zoe, the kitten rubbed her cheek against Zoe's fingers. She then
got her paws underneath her and continued with her exploration.
Chin in her hands, Zoe watched the kitchen reach the milk.
She sniffed it and then looked back at Zoe. "Go on. You'll love it,"
Zoe told her. Extending her paw, the kitten batted at the milk. The
surface rippled, and the little cat skipped backward. She inched
forward and then swatted at the milk again, clearly fascinated.
Zoe heard a soft knock at her window. "Visitor," she told the kitten.
She climbed across her bed, unlocked the window, and lifted it.
Harrison, her best friend, stuck his head in. "Happy birthday.
Or birthday-party day." Her actual birthday was in two days, on
Monday. Harrison liked to be precise about facts.
"Thanks. You know, you could have used the door. My parents
would have been happy to see you." She helped him climb in. As
skinny as a skeleton, Harrison didn't need much space to squeeze
himself through -- he was mostly elbows and knees. He was also
not very graceful. He tumbled onto her pillow, much like the kitten
falling onto the towel.
"Gotta keep in practice for Everest." He'd been talking about his
dream to climb Mount Everest ever since kindergarten. There was
zero chance his parents would ever let him do it, or that he'd be able
to survive the required video game withdrawal. Untangling himself,
he stared off the edge of the bed into the box. "Whoa. That's a small
"Yep, she is." She avoided saying "Told you so," because that was
He adjusted his glasses, as if that would make the kitten's size
change. "Like seriously newborn-baby-kitten small. Do you think
she was just born? Are you sure she's a she?"
"Not sure. And not sure. It's not as if she or he could tell me, so
I'm going with 'recently born' and 'she.' " She liked the awe in Harrison's
voice. That was how she felt every time she looked at the
kitten. So much cuter than a stray turtle. "Cutest thing you've ever
"Beyond cute. There needs to be a new word for how stupendously
cute she is. Cute-ificent. Cuterageous. Cutextraordinary." He
reached in to pet her, and she fluffed up her fur and gave him a tiny,
He withdrew, and she returned to the milk. She circled twice
around the bowl. Wrinkling her tiny nose, she sniffed at it. Zoe
wanted to cheer. "Go on. Drink the milk. You can do it!"
"I thought cats drinking milk was a myth," Harrison said.
"Makes them sick."
"Kittens drink milk. Grown cats don't."
"Are you sure?" He pulled his phone out of his pocket and began
typing. "Yep, once they're grown, they lose the enzyme to digest
lactose, and it makes them vomit. Kittens are fine, though -- you're
right. But you're supposed to feed motherless newborn kittens milk
with an eyedropper. They can't feed themselves."
As they watched, the kitten began to lap at the milk.
"Or maybe they can." Harrison frowned at his phone. "When
kittens are first born, their eyes are closed and their ears are flattened
back. They can't see, hear, keep themselves warm, or eliminate
waste on their own. You're supposed to rub their butts until
"What? You're making that up." She craned to see his screen.
He showed it to her. "See?"
"Huh." Her kitten was much perkier than that. Her ears were
upright triangles, and her blue eyes were fully open. Zoe pointed
to another photo of a several-week-old kitten. "She's more like that.
She must not be a newborn."
"She's too small to be that many weeks old."
"Maybe she was born premature," Zoe said. "You were small
when you were born." They'd known each other since they were
both in diapers, and she'd heard all the stories, how Harrison had
been in the NICU for weeks, so tiny he couldn't breathe on his own
at first. Mrs. Acharya, Harrison's grandmother, had always told the
story by comparing her grandson to a honey cake taken out of the
oven too soon. He had to bake longer before his parents were able
to bring him home. That's why he's so delicious, she'd always concluded,
pretending to gobble his shoulder.
"Wait -- Look." He scrolled through his phone and showed her
another photo. "She could be twelve days old. At twelve days, their
eyes are open and their ears are up, but they're still super tiny. Plus,
if she's been on her own without much food, that would explain
why she's on the small side. Now that you're feeding her, she'll grow."
Harrison, she knew, liked it when he could understand the how
and why of a thing. He was happiest when everything was neatly
labeled in its own box. His idea of a fun Saturday was reorganizing
his bookshelves. Currently his books were sorted alphabetically by
topic, which meant revenge stories came after pirates but before
superheroes. She had no idea what he did with revenge books about
pirate superheroes. It was better not to ask. Now that he'd labeled
the kitten as an underfed, twelve-day-old female, he was content,
even if Zoe had no idea whether he was right. She decided it didn't
matter. All that mattered was the kitten was here, and Zoe was
going to take care of her -- at least for tonight.
"So what are you going to do about your parents?" Harrison asked.
He knew about her history with animals. Up until six months ago,
she'd brought home nearly every animal she found, convinced it
needed her help. Her mom had put a stop to that after Zoe had
smuggled a baby skunk into the house, thinking it was a cat. Prior
to that, her Mom had said no to a baby squirrel, an injured bird, and
a garden snake -- as well as the box turtle -- but the skunk was the
"They were pretty serious after the skunk," Zoe admitted.
"You can't get rid of her! She's cutextraordinary!"
Zoe sighed. She wished she could keep the kitten. She hadn't
known it was possible to get attached to anything so quickly, especially
something that was basically a walking cotton ball, but all she
wanted to do was gaze at the kitten's adorableness.
"Mom will just insist we give her away, like every other animal
I've ever tried to bring home," Zoe said. "I think she still has the
animal rescue center number memorized."
The kitten lifted her tiny head out of the bowl. Beads of milk
clung to her whiskers, weighing them down so they drooped, making
her look like she had a mustache. Zoe snapped a photo of her
with her phone.
"You could try to change your parents' minds," Harrison suggested.
"You're not a little kid anymore." He mimed craning his neck
to look up at her, as if he were so much shorter. "Literally."
She glared at him. She'd spurted up in the last year and was
now a good four inches taller than Harrison, a fact she didn't like
being reminded of. Mom had tossed out all her favorite jeans just
because they were "a little short," and at her party, her uncle kept
making basketball jokes.
"I'm serious!" Harrison said. "You should at least try!"
"Maybe." Zoe reached into the box again, and the kitten leaned
against her finger as Zoe rubbed her tiny, milk-soaked cheek. The
kitten seemed to be vibrating. "She's purring!" It was so sweet that
Zoe couldn't stop smiling.
"See! You have to make it permanent," Harrison said. "She
hissed at me, but she adores you. She's meant to be with you."
Maybe he's right. But . . .
From downstairs, Zoe's brother called, "Zoe! Second cake!"
Zoe withdrew her hand from the box as Harrison clambered
over her bed to the window. "You know you could come downstairs
and have second cake and leave through a door like a normal person."
"Told you: it's practice. Plus I'm going to make s'mores -- after I
light a fire using only two sticks." He mimed rubbing sticks together,
then added, "And a match."
"Didn't your parents ever tell you not to play with fire?"
"Yeah, but my grandmother overruled them." His voice was wistful.
The older Mrs. Acharya had died last fall, and Zoe knew how
much he missed her.
"Your grandma was the best," Zoe said, "but she still would have
told you not to burn down the neighborhood."
He shot her a grin, as if to say he'd never done anything reckless
in his entire twelve years of life, which she knew for a fact was
not true, and then he climbed out the window and lowered himself
onto her porch roof. Before hurrying downstairs, Zoe checked the
kitten one more time. She was settling in, kneading the sweater
with her little claws.
Zoe felt like bursting with the news. A kitten was in her room!
I may have saved her life! Even if she hadn't really saved her from
anything but a summer night outside, Zoe still felt like something
wonderful and special had happened. As if she'd found an extra
A secret birthday present.
It won't do any harm to keep the kitten just this one night, she
told herself. She'd do the responsible thing tomorrow and bring her
to the animal shelter, but tonight she could be the kitten's hero.
Rounding the corner, Zoe skidded into the kitchen with a giant
smile on her face. Mom, Dad, and Alex were already at the table
with their plates of cake: a center square for Dad, only frosting and
filling for Mom, and a wad of cake that looked like he'd clawed it
out with his bare hands for Alex. They'd left the cake itself on the
counter. It was vanilla with raspberry filling, decorated with clusters
of pink and purple roses, and it looked as if it had been gnawed
on by a beaver. Fetching a plate, Zoe scraped off several clumps of
"You look happy," Dad noted. "Did you have a good birthday?"
"Very good." She carried her plate to the table.
"Get everything you wanted?" Mom asked.
"No one gave me a pony," Zoe said. She thought again of the
kitten hidden in her room. It would have been a great birthday
present. If there were any chance they'd say yes . . . But there isn't.
They'd been very clear about no more rescues. "Or a jetpack," she
"Or a teleporter," Alex said cheerfully.
"Or a dinosaur," Zoe said.
"Not a single mystical object."
"Not one enchanted sword. Or a lightsaber."
"I want a lightsaber," Alex agreed.
"You'd cut your arm off," Mom told him, then asked Zoe, "Do
you like the necklace Aunt Evelyn gave you?" Her eyes were twinkling,
and Dad snorted a half-disguised laugh.
"It's amazing," Zoe said honestly. The necklace in question was
made of rhinestone letters that spelled out the word FUN. She was
certain if you tried to find a necklace that tacky and absurd, you'd
fail. "I'm going to wear it ironically to every funeral, final exam, and
dentist appointment for the rest of my life."
Dad beamed at her. "I love that we raised a daughter who uses
the word ironically correctly." Leaning over toward Mom, he held
out his hand for a high-five. She slapped it.
Alex raised his eyebrows. "Did they just high-five their parenting
"I think they did," Zoe said.
Alex regarded their parents with mock pity and said to Zoe, "Do
you want to break the news about how badly they did, or should I?"
Zoe heaved a sigh. "Earlier today, during the party . . ." She
paused for dramatic effect. "Alex ate a potato chip that fell on the
"But surely . . ." Dad said, his voice trembling, "he only let it sit
for five seconds."
Zoe covered her face as if in shame. "It was ten seconds!"
Dad wailed. "The horror!"
They all burst out laughing.
"If that's the worst either of you do," Mom said, "I'd say we've
done our job well." Dad held out his hand for another high-five, but
Mom ignored him in favor of passing out napkins to go with the
cake. She herself had eaten so neatly there wasn't a crumb left.
This is how it's supposed to be, Zoe thought. The four of us,
together. Her laugh faded as she thought about what would happen
at the end of the summer. I wish it could last.
"Hey, no sad face!" Alex said. "I think it's illegal to be sad while
having second cake."
"What if you aren't here for my next birthday party?" Zoe
stared at the kitchen floor as she asked. Her eyes felt hot, and she
thought that if she looked at Alex, she might start crying, which
she did not want to do on a day that had been so nice. Thanks
to the distraction of the kitten, she had almost managed to forget
that Alex, the best brother in the world, was leaving for Europe in
"Aw, Zoomaroo, I'll always come back for your birthday! Exams
are May. I'll be home every June. And of course I'll visit before then
He was supposed to go to college at one of the hundreds of
schools within driving distance, close enough to visit whenever he
wanted. Somewhere in Boston. Or New Hampshire. Maine would
have been fine. Even New Jersey. But no, he had to win a scholarship
to study in France. He wouldn't be back for months, and
even though Zoe was proud of him, it was difficult to pretend to be
happy about having to say goodbye. His choice affected her life too,
and no one seemed to care about that. She wasn't asking for a pity
parade, but it would be nice if someone acknowledged that this was
a big deal for her. "It won't be the same."
Dad's voice was quiet. "Zoe, things never stay the same. That's
just the way life is. It doesn't mean it's all bad. Change can be good.
Not for me, she thought. Everything's fine the way it is!
But Zoe plastered a smile on her face and squished her feelings
down. She was not going to be upset on her birthday, especially on a
day she'd saved a kitten. And especially during second cake. "You're
right, Dad. Everything will be fine."
Coming June 2020 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / Clarion Books.
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