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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Book of Dares for Lost Friends

Jane Kelley

Square Fish

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One



A sleek, black cat walked along the sidewalk. She held her tail high. A shopkeeper shouted at her. Three little children called, "Oooh, kitty." She didn't even look in their direction. She paused briefly to let a yelping dog lunge at her. She always knew the exact limit of their leashes-and that she would never ever have to wear one. Then she flicked her tail and continued on.

Her name was Mau. She belonged to no one. No cats ever really do. They accept our offerings of food and devotion. They allow us to admire their beauty and copy their images for our amusement. We can only pretend to comprehend what goes on inside their minds. But we do know this. They are always thinking something intense and complex and extraordinary.

Mau moved purposefully, looking neither right nor left. She knew exactly where she was going. She didn't hurry; she had no need. Unlike the people and the cars rushing past her, she was supremely confident that the world would wait for her.

After crossing a narrow street and then a much busier and wider avenue, she stood on the sidewalk next to a dark gray stone wall. It was nearly ten times her height. She crouched down, twitched her tail several times, and then leapt to the top of the wall. She stood there for a moment. Was she admiring her own prowess? Or was she staring into what lay beyond?

And what was there? Trees, grass, playgrounds, baseball fields, hot dog vendors, benches, ponds, statues-in other words, all the ingredients of a park.

Central Park was beloved by New Yorkers for providing a respite of green from the dense concrete canyons. Much of the park had been sculpted to amuse the citizens. But there were still places that had not been touched. Tangled forests where wild animals lived. Murky ponds. And gigantic rocks that could have been the tops of mountains if they weren't buried in the ground.

Mau leapt off the wall and entered the dark, untamed heart of the city.

Was she hunting mice? Sparrows? Squirrels? Pigeons? She had feasted on them all. She preferred to find her own food, unless someone made an offering of a can of tuna. Putting the best parts of a great fish inside a small tin was mankind's greatest accomplishment. Or so it seemed to Mau.

She passed underneath several thickets of bushes and emerged in the shadow of great gray boulders flecked with shiny bits of quartz.

Two girls sprawled on top of the larger of the two rocks, surrounded by what was left of their lunches, their backpacks, and a bright yellow bag.

"Mau!" they cried.

Mau did them the honor of ignoring them. She sat at the base of the rock and licked her paw. When she first encountered the girls several years ago, she had avoided them completely. They didn't have any food she liked to eat. The things they called "goldfish" were actually small orange crackers. The other items were purposeless sweets; Mau didn't understand why humans enjoyed them so much.

"Hello, Mau. We hoped we'd see you." The girl called Val jumped down from the rock. She never sat still. She was always climbing or kicking a black-and-white ball that was too large to interest Mau.

But the other girl, the one called Lanora, was different. Mau spent a lot of time secretly observing her. Lanora wasn't a cat. She had no tail under her brightly colored skirt. And yet there was something about Lanora that Mau found to be familiar. Perhaps it was the intensity with which Lanora did absolutely nothing.

Mau walked through some bushes and reappeared on top of the rock, next to Lanora.

"Tomorrow is a very important day. There are very few times in our lives when we have the chance to begin again," Lanora said.

Val kicked the ball. It bounced off the base of the rock and returned so she could kick it again. "Whatever you wear will be fine."

"You don't have to think about it. You'll just wear a soccer shirt."

Mau sat on the rock about two feet from the edge of Lanora's skirt.

"And you are always comfortable in your own skin." Lanora smiled at Mau and held out her hand.

Mau sniffed the fingers. She considered whether or not she wanted to be petted at that moment. She bowed her head and accepted a small scratch behind her ears. Then, because Lanora seemed agitated, Mau allowed her to slide her hand along Mau's sleek, black fur. Once, twice, three times-but no more. As it was, a great deal of bathing would be required to set things right.

"You fit your own skin, too," Val said.

Lanora shook her head. "I might be more like a snake. Or a hermit crab."

"Or a butterfly?" Val said.

Lanora opened the yellow bag. She held up a ring attached to a small, lilac-colored butterfly. Its antennae were threads. Its wings were plush fabric. Mau batted at it with her paw.

Val climbed up on the rock and took an orange butterfly out of the bag. She grabbed her backpack and examined the objects that dangled from a ring at its side. "We got puppies in third grade because we were sure we would get real ones that year."

"Instead my parents got divorced!" Lanora said with forced enthusiasm.

"Trolls in fourth grade," Val said.

"Because our teacher looked like one."

"Flashlights in fifth grade because we could finally walk all by ourselves to each other's apartment buildings."

"Except after dark."

"And butterflies this year because ... how did you explain it?" Val said.

"It's time to stop crawling around on a leaf and fly."

Val clipped her orange butterfly to the ring with all the other dangles.

Lanora stared at hers as it lay limply on the palm of her hand. "Except these won't ever fly."

Val shook her backpack. The objects rattled but didn't fall. "Now I'm ready to start middle school."

Lanora said nothing.

Mau kept her eyes on Lanora's hand as she clenched the lilac butterfly in her fist.

Val picked up the trash from their lunch and stuffed everything in her backpack. "I'd better go home. Mom says if we want cookies, I have to help her. Don't worry, she won't let me mess them up too badly."

"I'm not worried," Lanora said.

"Are you coming, too?" Val said.

"I think I'll stay a little longer," Lanora said.

"Okay. See you tomorrow," Val said.

The two friends hugged. "'Bye, Mau." Val ran off through the park, kicking the ball as she went.

And so only Mau saw what Lanora did with the lilac butterfly.

* * *

New York City was on a grid. Lanora could remember the exact moment she figured this out. The boxes were rectangles instead of squares, but the numbered streets proceeded in order north and south. This was incredibly comforting, especially after her father moved out three years ago. She still knew where she was at all times. And even more importantly she knew where she was going.

After she left the park, she walked three blocks to what would be her new school. Middle School 10. The doors were locked. The brick walls refused to reveal secrets. That was okay. Lanora had already spent a lot of time studying a map of the new school. She wouldn't wander the halls with a lost look on her face. She would stride confidently from room to room, and sit in the seat she had chosen for herself-close to the windows in the third row. From there she could watch the other kids interact. There would be new kids, because M.S. 10 accepted students from several elementary schools. And so Lanora could pick totally new friends.

She continued on toward the apartment building where she lived with her mother. She didn't pass Val's building. If she wanted to walk to school with Val, Lanora would have to go four blocks out of her way. Val hadn't seemed to notice this important fact.

Lanora entered the lobby of her building. She took great care to step on the blue tiles of the floor and never the brown, even though she was a firm believer in making her own luck. There was an elevator, but it was so slow that Lanora always chose the stairs. As she climbed to the third floor, she considered her clothing options. Something fun and frivolous? Something dark and meaningful? Something eye-catching? Something aloof? Who did she want to be? She was troubled by her indecision.

In the past, she had always known what to wear. This was her particular kind of talent. She knew with the certainty of solving math problems what went with what. But she had never been in middle school before. The stakes were higher now.

"Lanora? Is that you?"

Her mother, Emma, was in the kitchen. Lanora came in and gave her a hug.

"Dinner is almost ready. I'm making fish. It's supposed to be brain food. Although why that would be, I have no idea."

"I like fish." Lanora smiled.

"I don't. It's so hard to get rid of the odor. For days after it's gone, you can still smell it."

The phone's sharp jangle pierced the room. Lanora let her mom answer.

"Hello?... Oh. It's you."

It was Lanora's father.

"Before you talk to her, I want to ask you.... I know you only have a few minutes, but this is important, too.... Then why don't you call when you do have time to talk?... I can't believe that you never have more than five minutes.... Yes, I have timed your conversations.... Because I wanted to be able to prove to you that you don't spend nearly enough time on your daughter..."

Lanora left the kitchen and went into her bedroom. She shut the door. She opened her window and swung her legs out over the sill so that her feet touched the metal slats of the fire escape. It was a law that each building in New York City must provide an alternative exit, should disaster strike. There had never been a fire, thank goodness, and yet practically every day Lanora needed to escape.

The space between the apartment buildings was a deep pit. Lanora tried not to think about what was at its bottom. She wasn't afraid of heights; however, she was extremely afraid of falling. And so she clung to the metal bars even as she sat cross-legged on the platform and looked up toward the sky.

Two years ago, a thirty-story building had sprung up in the vacant lot behind them. It cast a permanent shadow across their apartment. Her mom had complained bitterly that the whole world was against her. But Lanora chose to imagine the future when she would be living in its penthouse. One night, while entertaining vivacious people, she would take one of the guests out to her balcony and point down down down.

"That's where I grew up," she would say.

"You sure have come a long way," the guest would say.

"Yes, I have."

But she wasn't there yet. A slight breeze reminded her that where she sat was more space than actual bars. She tightened her grip. Flecks of rust stuck to her sweaty hands. That wasn't reassuring. The air was eating away at the metal. Just like the doubts gnawing at Lanora's mind. She needed to decide what to wear.

Maybe she shouldn't have buried the butterfly dangle after Val left. What if that brought bad luck? But she couldn't just throw it away. And she certainly couldn't walk through the halls of her new middle school with a bunch of junk dangling from the bottom of her backpack. She couldn't even wear a backpack. She wanted to carry something sleek and black. Something that would command respect from everyone who saw it.

Lanora pulled herself up so that she stood on the platform. Her father was always telling her to make the hard choices. He said the difficult things were the only ones worth doing. She couldn't care less if some people didn't understand. She spoke out loud, so that the skyscraper could be her witness. "I have to do what I have to do."



Copyright © 2015 by Jane Kelley