I rubbed my finger over a rough spot on my seat belt as Wyatt pulled his minivan into the school parking lot Monday morning. We’d come up with a plan to test Echo, but nothing serious would happen until after play practice.
The school parking lot was unofficially cut into sections. All the band nerds parked near the band entrance. All the sports people parked near the locker rooms. The kids who flirted with disaster and stepped off the school grounds to smoke hung out at the very edge, and one corner housed all the really smart people.
Instead of driving by the band room entrance and practically ejecting us from the vehicle, Wyatt swung to the football player section of the parking lot.
“What are you doing?” Whitney asked.
Wyatt threw the van into park and grinned over his shoulder at me.
Which made my heart do a thump-thump thing.
He’s not looking at you, I reminded myself. He’s looking at Echo.
“I want to keep an eye on my favorite cat today.”
Echo raised his head from the seat and stared at Wyatt for a split second before standing and stretching.
Wyatt jerked his head in a nod. “Bros gotta stick together.”
“Whatever,” Whitney said as she tugged the door open and jumped out.
I took my time. Savoring the moment. Wyatt never let us near his football buddies. It felt strange to approach the school from this angle.
Speaking of Wyatt’s buddies, a few of them approached and started chatting. They all glanced over their shoulders at us. Then from me or Whitney down to Echo. As usual my cat trotted beside me, the model service animal.
I often wondered what went on in his head. I imagined a running dialogue of judging us. Mocking us for our lack of grace and wrinkling his nose at how we smelled.
Or maybe he just did that to me.
As I stepped up onto the curb one of Wyatt’s friends spoke to me. A giant redheaded boy who had to be half of the offensive line.
“Hey, cat girl, heard you got into a fight with someone on Saturday.”
Wyatt smacked the guy in the shoulder. “I told you her name is Everly.”
The guy shrugged.” Fine Everly, I heard you got into a fight on Saturday.”
Talking to guys wasn’t that scary. Especially a big doofus like this one. “Some guy attacked me and I kicked him in the groin. Oh and my cat raked his leg.”
More people caught up to us. All eyes, which had turned to me as soon as I start speaking, now swiveled down to Echo. I swear he somehow stood up straighter while at the same time walking more like a predator.
The redheaded boy spoke again. “He’s a service cat?”
I was used to this question. “I’m allergic to corn, and he can smell corn.” Any more explanation than that usually confused people.
Another guy spoke up. This one with long blonde hair. “I heard the guy tried to bite you.”
I stopped, and the entire group followed suit. They blinked at me in expectation. I glanced down at Echo, and noticed he’d flattened his ears against his head. For a moment I didn’t breathe. Was he going to growl at someone?
Everyone had turned their attention back to me, for an answer to the question.
When Echo didn’t growl and his ears perked back up I spoke. “Yeah he grabbed my arm and tried to take a bite out of it. The police told me he was on drugs.”
Most of the people in the group nodded.
Wyatt waved to his cronies. “Come on guys we need to get inside.” Then he looked at me. And smiled. “Try not to get eaten today Everly. I might not to be there to save you.”
I snorted. “Echo was way ahead of you last time, Wyatt.”
He laughed and they all moved on, leaving Whitney and I standing alone.
Whitney stared at me with her mouth hanging open.
“What?” I asked.
Whitney’s lips moved a couple of times before anything actually came out. “Did…Did that just happen?”
Oh boy. Whitney had had crushes on at least three of those guys through the years. I grabbed her by the arm and dragged her toward the school. “Yes that just happened. Don’t get excited.”
We walked in the doors and the sound of hundreds of students filled the air. Someone shouted and someone answered. I had to dodge a girl running back to the parking lot. I let out a sigh of relief at how normal this felt.
That went away when Wyatt’s girlfriend appeared in front of me. I had to stop on a dime to keep from bowling her over. As usual she looked perfect. And, as usual, she sneered at us. She and Wyatt had been dating for three months and four days. In that time she’d never said a sincere thing to either me or Whitney. I had a feeling this interaction wasn’t going to change that statistic.
“Oh my goodness are you okay?” Anne put her hands over her mouth and intoned her voice to sound like she might actually be concerned.
I nodded. “Just a few scratches.” I was hoping to get out of here as fast as possible.
Anne reached out and touched my arm. I wanted to jerk away, but didn’t. It was only then that I noticed Echo had his ears back. He wasn’t growling, but he looked like he wanted to.
Maybe Whitney was right. Maybe he was becoming protective against anyone who was aggressive toward me. That wasn’t good. I shot him a ‘cool it’ look, which went unnoticed
Anne spoke before I could make an excuse to leave. “I’m so glad Wyatt was there to save you.” She spoke as loudly as possible. “He’s so brave.”
Ugh. She sounded like a character in a terrible play, making sure everyone in the back of the auditorium could hear her. Echo glared at Anne, so I said, “He is.” Then I bolted.
Whitney hurried to catch up to me. “What was that about?”
Anne yelled after us. “I hope you get better soon.”
I gritted my teeth and glanced down at Echo. His ears had perked back up. I noticed his eyes roamed back and forth more than usual. Whitney followed my gaze and frowned. “He didn’t growl at her.”
“No, but he wasn’t happy to see her.”
“Is anyone happy to see that girl?” Whitney asked.
Whitney wasn’t wrong, but this was different. I reached down and scratched Echo once in the head. “You okay boy?”
Echo glanced up at me. Normally I get a flat stare or what I equated to his eye roll as he slow blinked at me. This time however he met my gaze for a moment, and I thought I saw concern in his eyes.
Then he flicked his tail, looked away, and gave me the cold shoulder.
“He’s fine,” Whitney said.
Most of the school day followed that same pattern. It seemed everyone had heard about a guy trying to eat me alive. Some of the rumors ranged from he’d ripped off my arm off to he’d bitten me in the jugular. Most people were just curious and when they found out the guy was on drugs they shrugged and walked away.
I wasn’t used to this much attention. Band geeks normally did their best to blend into the crowd. Whitney however was enjoying every minute of it. Once we got to play practice after school Jason, the lead actor, intercepted us on our way into the auditorium.
“Hey,” he said.
Whitney swished her hair over one shoulder, and gave him a coy smile. “Hey, are you feeling better?”
Jason nodded as he pulled a candy bar out of his pocket. He waved it in front of himself. “As long as I’m eating something I’m fine. If I stop eating I feel nauseated. It’s the weirdest stomach flu I’ve ever had.”
I took a step back. I hated the stomach flu. That’s the last thing I wanted to get.
Of course Whitney stepped forward. “That sounds terrible.” She gently put her fingers on his arm. He didn’t seem to mind. Last I’d heard he was dating someone, but maybe that was over. Or maybe he just like girls flirting with him.
I felt the tug from Echo’s leash. It was too easy to forget about him. He was always there, and I took it for granted. I glanced down and found him straining toward Jason. A low growl came from his throat. I tugged back gently. He ignored me.
Jason wasn’t even talking to me. Why would Echo think he was a threat? I quietly hissed through my teeth, which Echo knew meant to back off. I expected him to glare at me, but instead he became unnaturally still. The only thing moving was the very end of his tail. He sometimes did this when we played and he was about to pounce. I reached down and scratched his head again. All I got in return was a bigger tail flick.
“What’s with your cat?” Jason asked as he opened his candy bar and took a bite.
I thought fast. “He probably smells the corn syrup in that candy bar.”
“I thought he did that gagging thing.”
“He’s branching out. I’d better go.”
Whitney gave me a tight smile as I went around her. My heart wouldn’t stop pounding. Echo seemed fine now, but my eyes drifted to him with every other step.
The same stuffy oppressive feeling I’d had on Saturday came over me as I walked into the pit and maneuvered my way through chairs, people, music stands, and instrument cases to my seat.
Mr. Stark pointed at me. “Matthew isn’t here today. Play loud.”
On one side of the coin that was a bonus, because without a stand partner I had more space. On the other side of the coin, it meant I couldn’t judge Echo’s reaction to him. If he’d done the same thing he’d just done to Jason, we would have another data point to work from.
The saxophone player behind me asked about the man at the diner, and then told me that Matthew was out with stomach flu.
Two growls from Echo on Saturday at two different people who now claimed to have the stomach flu. I wondered if he was just noticing the virus or something. Could he do that?
Echo jumped on the seat next to me and curled up to go to sleep. Normally I would make him get off, but today I want to keep a better eye on him. Just as I finished putting my clarinet together my phone chirped. It was a text from Wyatt. First he practically walks us into school and now he’s texting me. I firmly reminded myself that it was all for Echo, and opened the text.
Hey, I have everything we need to test Echo this afternoon. I’ll pick you guys up after practice.
We’d discussed him trying to get things together before we got out of play practice, but I never imagined he’d take care of it all himself. I took a moment to think about what I should say in return. Thank you? TY? A gift and emoji? My phone provided my answer. One of the predictive texts provided a thumbs up. So I sent that, put my phone away, and got ready to play the music to Guys and Dolls.
Check out Chapter 6 HERE!
If you missed the beginning, click HERE to go to Chapter 1