Sarah Beth Durst

Excerpt from Catalyst

Chapter One

"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 meows.

Her phone binged with a one-word text: "Photoshop."

"If Photoshop," Zoe typed, "kitten would be riding a velociraptor."

Bing. "Sweet." Then: "Still Photoshop."

"Come see."


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 her bedroom.

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," Zoe promised.

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, she thought.

"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 'Happy Birthday.'"

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 kitten!"

"Yep, she is." She avoided saying "Told you so," because that was obvious.

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 seen, right?"

"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, sweet hiss.

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 they poop."

"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 last straw.

"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 birthday present.

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 roses.

"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 added.

"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 skills?"

"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 ground."

"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 September.

"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 too."

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. Even exciting!"

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."


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