Excerpt from The Shelterlings
As the only squirrel at the Shelter for Rejected Familiars, Holly always volunteered for the chores that required an exceptionally fluffy tail, such as sweeping the porch.
She hummed to herself as she brushed her tail back and forth. Just a few more strokes and the porch would be spotless. She wanted everything to look as perfect as possible for their new arrival.
Today's arrival would be their first new shelterling since Charlie had left. He used to be the one who greeted the new residents and helped them adjust to their lives at the shelter -- he'd been so kind, gentle, and patient with Holly herself when she'd arrived -- and Holly wasn't sure she could fill his paws. But she was certainly going to try!
"Gus, can you take the tablecloth off the clothesline before it begins to rain?" she called. "Clover says no one's coming, and it will be sunny all day."
Gus, a barn owl and Holly's best friend, flew out of the upstairs window. He glided on golden-brown wings over the yard. "Whoa, she actually made a useful prediction? She's making progress!"
"I think you were right about the rhyming," Holly said. "It helps her focus." Clover had the power of prophecy, sort of. Her predictions were seldom relevant and always wrong. Holly and Gus had been trying to help her figure out ways to make her prophecies less random.
"Is she getting any better at it?"
"Well, not really, no." The mangled verse that had resulted from their encouraging her to speak in rhyme had made Holly's whiskers twitch, actually. "But she's trying."
Gus landed on the clothesline, and it sagged beneath him. With his beak, he snapped at the clothespins, unhooking them and tossing them onto the lawn. "She was stumped for thirty minutes the other day on a prophecy about an orange."
Holly finished sweeping the porch and shook the dust out of her tail onto the grass. She then scurried around the yard, zigzagging as she gathered up the pins, as well as the few stray leaves and twigs that had fallen since her last cleanup.
"Relax, Holly," Gus said. "It all looks fine. Besides, the new arrival won't care if there's a twig or two out of place. She'll just care that she's coming to a place that is happy to have her. You remember what it was like arriving here after . . . well, after."
Stopping, Holly surveyed the yard. It looked better than fine. Lovely, even. The peonies were in full bloom, with plush pink flowers that were twice as big as her head. The house itself -- a unique mix of sprawling old farmhouse, barn, and warren -- had a fresh coat of white paint with blue trim, and the oversize nest on the porch looked cozy with its pink pillows.
And of course she remembered exactly what it had been like to arrive at a place she'd never wanted to be. But once you were judged by the wizards as unsuitable to be a familiar, this was where you came and this was where you stayed. The only shelterling to ever leave, so far as Holly knew, had been Charlie, and she still harbored hope that one day he'd come back to stay. Shelterlings lived in the shelter. That was the way it was, and the shelter itself was beautiful. "She's going to love it here," Holly declared.
"Yes, she will."
Shaking out her tail again, Holly trotted back toward the house. The grass tickled her furry stomach. "Did you tell Clover how to rhyme ‘orange'?"
"There is no rhyme for ‘orange.' Anyway, it came out as a prediction about a fruit salad. She rhymed it with ‘a mute ballad,' which was brilliant."
Holly hopped up the steps. "She could have used ‘door hinge.'"
"That's not . . . Huh, maybe, if you say it fast enough." He flew underneath the tablecloth, lifted it off the line with his head, and carried it draped over his body with his wings sticking out on either side. As he flew into the house beneath the cloth, she heard him muttering, "Orange, door hinge, orange, door hinge," over and over.
She called after him, "Watch out for--"
"--the wall," she finished.
She swallowed a giggle.
"Of course I wouldn't." She put her tail over her mouth and laughed into the fur as she went inside. She heard a second feathery thump as he bumped into another wall.
"You try flying with your eyes blocked."
"You're doing great," she said encouragingly.
He reached the dining room at last, settled on the edge of a livestock trough, and shook off the tablecloth. Tugging it with her front teeth, Holly helped him position it over the trough. It wasn't the traditional use of a tablecloth, but she liked how it neatened up the room.
Just because this was a place that no one ever wanted to come didn't mean it couldn't be nice -- that was what Charlie used to say, only he'd say "tidy" instead of "nice." Holly had changed it in her head.
She checked the dining room, the front hall, and the living room with its various chairs, couches, and perches for all sizes. Everything felt ready, and her heart thrummed with a little burst of pride. "Do you think the new arrival will like--"
Before she could finish, Zephyr the turtle careened past her. Holly jumped back to keep her paws from being squished. Clinging to Zephyr's shell with all twenty of his sticky toes, Leaf, the gecko who was Zephyr's inseparable best friend, screeched, "Watch out, Holly!"
"Sorry!" Zephyr called.
Holly scooted under a table.
Zephyr skidded as he turned left, bashed into a door frame, and then zoomed on. From the hallway, Leaf squeaked, "Stairs!" And then there was the unmistakable thump-thump-thump of a turtle going down a set of stairs very rapidly, followed by a muffled thud as they reached the sublevel of the shelter, where the shelterlings who preferred to live underground had their rooms.
"Are you all right?" Holly called after them.
Zephyr whooped. "That was awesome!"
"That was not awesome," Leaf said. "Look at me! Do I look like a gecko who just experienced awesomeness? This is not the face of a happy gecko!"
"But, counterpoint: we only hit half the stairs."
Leaving them to debate the awesomeness or non-awesomeness of their crash, Holly emerged from beneath the table. She examined the doorway where the turtle had hit it. Just a bit of a scuff mark. I can fix that, she thought, rubbing it with her tail.
"Holly--" Gus said behind her.
"I know it doesn't have to be perfect," she said. "I just want it to be nice."
"It's hard enough to summon up the courage to leave your home, only to suffer a huge disappointment," she said. All shelterlings had once dreamed of becoming familiars, bonded to a wizard and dedicated to a life of making the world a better place. Each of them had left their home, trekked to the very top of Cloud Mountain, and drunk from the Moon Mirror -- a pool as perfectly round as the moon, which bestowed a magic power on all who drank its waters -- and each had then been told by the wizards that the magic the water had given them was small and useless. She scrubbed the doorway harder, as if she could scrub out the memory of that terrible day. "The place you end up should at least be pleasant."
"She's almost here."
"Eeks!" Excited, Holly ran in a circle. "Oh my, oh my." She scurried out the door and down the front walk while Gus glided over her head. He perched on top of the trellis while she peered at the arrival circle, a ring of stones covered in markings known as spell glyphs.
The circle had been created by the original residents of the shelter -- the very first shelterlings -- with the help of some wizards' familiars. It magically connected the Wizards Tower and the shelter. Like all the shelterlings, Holly had used it when she'd been sent here.
A few of the other shelterlings came outside too, hopping, slithering, and flying to join her and Gus. They all gathered around the arrival circle.
Holly watched as purple sparkles twinkled in the center of the circle. She bounced from paw to paw. It was happening! A new shelterling! Maybe she'd be from a place that Holly had never seen -- an ocean or a desert or a snow-capped mountain . . . Holly used to dream about traveling to new places with her very own wizard, just like Calla, the famous familiar who, in one legend, journeyed with her wizard to a mountain where they saved countless animals from an avalanche with a spell that turned the snow into soap bubbles. In another legend, they trekked deep into a desert to cast a water-summoning spell that created a new oasis.
"I hope she'll be a flamingo," Pepper, a pink flamingo, said. The shelter boasted several birds, but only one flamingo. "Or a pelican. Or a duck. Or a goose. Or a woodpecker. Or--"
One of the resident snakes slithered around the circle of stones. "I hope she'll be a snake. The shelter could use more slithering."
"My heart is set on another mammal," Bluebell said. A lanky, long-eared rabbit, he was wearing his beloved hat, which currently looked like a fedora with holes for his ears. He was the only shelterling who ever wore an accessory -- and the only one whose magic worked solely on hats. "Herbivore preferred, please."
The fox next to him bristled. "Carnivores are nice too!"
Within the arrival circle, the sparkles swirled clockwise into purple cloud. The glyphs on the stones were glowing with a white light that blazed so brightly Holly had to shield her eyes with her tail.
Flying down to land beside her, Gus said to Holly, "Remember my arrival day?"
"I'll never forget it," Holly said. That was the day they'd met. And the day Gus had accidentally crashed through the porch roof while demonstrating his special power. She'd helped him repair it over the next week, and that was how they'd become friends. Well, that and the incident with the acorns.
Her first winter at the shelter, she'd been so very worried all the time -- unsettled to be in a new and unexpected place, unsure of her magic, unable to imagine herself in a role other than that of the familiar she'd dreamed of being -- and had filled the hall closet with acorns, after she'd finished stuffing her own. No matter how many times Charlie had told her that no rejected familiars were ever sent away from the shelter, she still worried she'd fail here, too. Gus had discovered her extra cache one day while he was exploring; the acorns had tumbled out all over the floor, and Zephyr, practicing his superfast speed, had skidded over them into the dining room, where he'd hit the trough and knocked it over. Unfortunately, it had been full of soup.
Parsnip soup, everywhere.
Gus was the one who had understood. He'd offered up his nest for Holly to store her extra acorns in, no questions asked, until she felt secure enough in her life at the shelter that she didn't need to save quite so many. She'd never forget that kindness. The act of giving up acorn space was the act of a forever friend.
"You're thinking about the parsnip soup, aren't you?" Gus said.
"It went everywhere. Even the ceiling."
"I made the first mess, though, with the porch roof. Of the two disasters, I'd say mine was the more disastrous."
"That all depends on how you feel about parsnip soup," Holly said. She rather liked it. In the forest where she'd grown up, no squirrel ever ate soup. But here, at a place filled with creatures from all over with a variety of different tastes, she'd been able to try soups and breads and cheeses. "We should have made soup for the new arrival."
"We don't even know what kind of animal she is, much less what she'd like to eat. Maybe she doesn't like soup."
"She doesn't like soup?" Bluebell the rabbit said, outraged.
"We don't know," Gus said. "That's my point. We don't know anything about her. We have to wait and see."
They'd been contacted by of one the familiars of Wizards Tower, specifically a badger, who'd said they had a failed applicant. He'd said her name was Periwinkle, but he hadn't mentioned what kind of animal she was, where she was from, or what she was like. Holly thought it was a nice name. She hoped it meant that Periwinkle would be nice herself. Soon they'd find out!
"Deep breath, Holly." Gus demonstrated, inhaling, and his feathers ruffled as he puffed out his chest.
Her tail was, in fact, shaking with excitement. She caught it in her forepaws and held it still as the purple sparkles swirled faster and faster. She held her breath.
And then she exhaled, because it was too long to keep holding her breath. She squeezed her tail tighter with both paws. This is so exciting! she thought. Whoever this Periwinkle was, she was one of them now: a shelterling.
At last Holly spotted a shape within the purple cloud.
"There she is!" the flamingo cried.
The shape shrieked, and the shelter animals scattered. The rabbit darted behind the hedge, the flamingo flew into the air, the snake slithered into the deeper grass, and the fox jumped away, her ears swept back and her muscles tense.
"I think we're scaring her," Holly said.
"We're scaring her?" Bluebell said from his hiding place.
Gus flapped his broad wings at the others. "Everyone into the house! Give her some space. Holly will welcome her, and you can all greet her once she's settled in. Shoo, shoo!"
The fox, flamingo, and snake retreated.
"What about you?" Bluebell asked as he hopped toward the porch. His long ears were flattened against his hat.
"Me? I'm just a harmless statue," Gus said, and he held his breath and turned to stone. That was his special power -- transforming himself into stone. Granite, to be specific. He looked like and was identical to a lawn ornament, except that he could turn back into flesh-and-blood-and-feathers whenever he liked.
As soon as the others were inside, Holly released her tail and inched closer to the circle of stones. "It's okay," she said gently. "It's just me. My name's Holly."
The purple cloud began to clear, and she saw two huge-as-teacups yellow eyes staring at her. What are you? Holly wondered. She'd never seen eyes like that. She saw herself, the Gus statue, the yard, and the house reflected in them. "Your name is Periwinkle, isn't it?"
On all four paws, Periwinkle darted out of the purple sparkles. "You'll never catch meeeeee!" she cried, spurting past Holly. She ducked behind one of the peony bushes.
As she ran by, Holly got a much better look at her: a tiny monkey with enormous eyes, framed in triangular black patches, and a black-and-white-ringed tail that was at least two feet long. A lemur! She'd never met a lemur before.
Lemurs lived in the southeast, very far away, in tropical rainforests that were unlike the meadows, pastures, and oak and pine forests around the shelter. Everything from the temperature to the plants was different. Ooh, she's going to have so much to tell and so many stories to share, once she settles in, Holly thought. Rejected familiars didn't travel to faraway places like familiars did, but hearing about new places was nearly as good as seeing them. She hoped Periwinkle would turn out to be chatty. Holly had dozens of questions.
The last of the sparkles vanished with a pop-pop-pop. At the sound, the lemur shrieked and bolted to hide behind the Gus statue.
Gus transformed from a stone statue back into a living owl. "Welcome to the Shelter for Rejected Familiars! So happy to meet you!"
The little lemur shouted, "You can't prove anything! Ha!" and ran under the porch.
"Um, what?" Gus said.
This, Holly thought, may take a while.
Soothingly, she said, "That's Asparagus, but we all call him Gus. He's friendly. We're all friendly. Don't worry. Everything is going to be fine."
She heard hoofsteps come around the side of the house and glanced over to see that Clover the cow had wandered into the front yard. She nibbled on the grass and then said, while chewing her cud, "You are absolutely right, Holly. I have foreseen it. Absolutely nothing new will happen. There will be no danger or excitement of any sort. Now that Periwinkle has joined us, everything will be fine. I have so divined."
"Hey, that rhymes!" Gus said. "Fine and divine! Nice job!"
Clover looked delighted. "You're right! I did it!" She repeated her prediction: "Everything will be fine; I have so divined!"
Holly felt her fur stand on end. "That's wonderful, Clover."
Pleased with herself, the cow sauntered off, still chewing.
"You heard Clover," Holly said brightly to the lemur under the porch. "She's gifted with the power of prophecy, and she said everything will be fine."
Behind her, Gus said, "But Holly--"
Don't say it, she thought. Please, Gus, don't say it.
"--you know Clover is always wrong."
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