Buddy's Story Hour
by Mary Ann Smyth

'Hey, Bud. What's happenin'?'

'Yo, Pops. It's story hour.'

'Story hour?'

Jim shook his head as he gazed at the swarm of cats gathered around Buddy on his back patio. Gwennie, the gray, shaggy canine who lived down the road, was the only other dog. He recognized his own cat Chessie as well as the Manx cat Freddy from one road over. He thought he might have seen the marmalade cat somewhere in the neighborhood, but wasn't sure.

'Yup. That's what I said. Story hour.' Buddy shifted slightly on the seat of the high wooden kitchen stool.

'But it's eleven o'clock, Bud. Time for bed.'

'Maybe for you humans. But for us animals it's time to do our own thing. And right now that's story hour, Dadeo.'

As Buddy spoke, the gathering of cats looked his way. When Jim replied, their heads turned as one in his direction - as though they watched a fast-paced tennis game. One old Tabby's raggedy ear seemed to have been chewed on more than once, and skin showed through his rough coat of fur in several bare spots.

'Why this late at night? Shouldn't these animals be at home?'

The cats all gazed into Jim's face, slight smiles on their mouths. Then, as one, they acknowledged Buddy's words with barely perceptible nods, heads slanting upward as Buddy's leaned down toward them.

'These are all guard cats. They patrol their homes and the neighborhood at night. If anything looks suspicious, they call Max here and he takes care of it.'

The scruffy Tabby lifted his chin in salute, then glanced fondly at the other cats. Jim noticed that one eye was slightly misshapen. This was one tough cookie.

'The cats are guards?' Jim asked, a touch of mirth in his voice.

'Laugh, Pops. Go ahead. Laugh. But who do you think keeps all the homes free of mice and other intruders?'

Feline eyes turned to Jim as they bobbed their heads in agreement with Buddy's words. Chessie meowed at him and the marmalade cat raised a high five with Max.

'Buddy, how did you get out? All the doors were locked.'

'Boy, Pops, are you nave.' He waved a paw in the air, dismissing Jim's question. 'We'll talk about that another time. I'm busy here. Okay now, where were we? Oh, you're right, Chessie. The Cat in the Hat.'

'Okay. Okay. Just keep it quiet out here. I'm going to bed. I'm locking up, Buddy. You and Chessie can get back in the same way you got out.'

'Aww, Pops. Can't you just leave one door unlocked? It's hard climbing out the basement window. And it's dusty, too. Not good for my public image to arrive at story hour all scruffy.'

'So that's how you get out. Well, I'll leave a door unlatched for you. But I'm locking that basement window.'

'As if that would make a difference,' Buddy muttered to Chessie.

'What? What did you say?'

'Nothing. Just finding my place in the story.'

As Buddy read on, Jim listened with astonishment. He had no idea Buddy could read. What a revelation! He quietly opened the door to his family room and went inside, shaking his head and leaving the animals on their own. He could see by the light of the moon that the cats and Gwennie were listening intently. Even Bear, Buddy's ever present stuffed companion, seemed enthralled.

Later that night, Jim heard Buddy and Chessie come to bed, with deep sighs as they settled, as if they had had a very tiring time. In the morning, Jim found the door he had left unlocked for the pair was locked! How the devil did they do that, he wondered. Jim walked his dog and then sat in his recliner as Buddy stretched out on the floor. He fell asleep almost at once. Jim nudged him with his foot.

'Buddy. Wake up. We need to talk.'

'Mfph,' Buddy yawned and then said, 'Not right now, Dad. I'm pooped. These late hours are starting to tell on me.'

'That's what I want to talk about. WAKE UP, Buddy. Wake up.' Buddy raised his head, forehead wrinkled in displeasure. He groaned and sat up, leaning against Jim's chair.

'Is this really necessary?'

'Yes, Buddy, it's necessary. I didn't know you could read.'

'I can't. I just look at the pictures and make up the words. I can make out some words, but the money I'm making is going to go into reading lessons. Gwennie says she'll teach me.'

'And does Gwennie read?'

'Claims she can. And with that uppercrust English accent, I'd believe anything she says. She's a real fox.'

'And the cats understand you when you speak English?'

'Yeah, of course they can. What do you think they are? Dumb animals? They may not be able to talk, but they can understand anything they choose to.'

'Anything they choose to?'

'Drat! Welllll. That's a slip of the tongue. Don't tell anyone about that, will you, Pops? Those cats would be at my throat if their people knew they could understand everything. Their lives would change drastically. As long as no one knows, they only have to do what pleases them.'

'Let's get back to something. What do you mean by the money you earn? You're making these cats pay for you to read them stories? Stories that you're making up as you go along. Something's wrong here. And where are they getting the money?'

'Same place I was getting mine until you caught on. Behind cushions in chairs, on the laundry room floor, the bottom of the hamper, the floor of closets. A penny here. A nickel there. It adds up and I can use it all.'

'And what is Gwennie going to charge to teach you to read?'

'Sort of on a sliding scale. Depends on how well I catch on. And I'm hoping I can dazzle her so that she forgets I'm to pay her. I think she has an eye for me.'

'Romance in the air?'

'Nah, Pops. Not really. I just think she's all right, but I don't want any encumbrances. I like our life here just as it is. Don't you?'

'Yes. Yes, I do. To a certain extent. If only you didn't come up with all these schemes. I'm never sure I want to come home after work. Not sure what I'll find.'

'Aw, don't get paranoid, Dad of Mine. Everything's cool.'

For several nights, the same scene was reenacted. Lying in bed, Jim could hear the slight drone of Buddy's voice as he read to his adoring group of animals. As he fell asleep, Jim pondered how his two pets could lock the door. One night, he heard the two close the back door. Jim tiptoed into the family room and watched as Chessie, on Buddy's back, stood upright and swung from the lock handle. Buddy encouraged her in whispers.

'That's the old girl. Pull hard.'

Jim watched in amazement as the lock fell from the right to the left. Chessie leapt gracefully to the floor and started to groom her already immaculate fur. Buddy carried a handkerchief in his mouth - Jim could see that it was one of his own with his initials on it - the four corners in his mouth and the linen hanging heavily toward the floor. Buddy had to hold his head high to step around the sagging bundle.

Jim watched as Buddy elbowed the door to the powder room and emptied a fall of coins into a wastebasket tucked into a corner. So that's where the money went. Was what he had told him the real reason for the money? The scheme for Gwennie to teach him how to read? That was the kicker.

Time passed, as did the season. Summer turned to fall and the level of coins in the bottom of the wastebasket grew. One bright, sunny October Saturday, as Jim raked leaves, a neighbor stopped to talk.

'Do you have any idea what's wrong with the cats around here?' Larry asked.

An alarm bell went off in the inner recesses in Jim's mind. 'No. Don't know anything. What's the problem?'

'Well, they're acting like they're scared out of their wits. I usually have trouble keeping Max inside. Now he won't go out.' This was the Max that Jim knew wasn't afraid of anything. His scruffy and scarred body attested to that.

Another neighbor joined the two men. 'Talking about the cats?' Bill asked.

'Well, yeah,' Larry answered. 'Do you have a clue? Is there some cat predator we don't know about?'

'I haven't the faintest idea. All I know is that my Persian won't go outside and spends most of the day under the couch. Shaking and meowing so pitifully I can't stand it. Driving me nuts,' Bill finished.

'Yeah, Max too. The blasted cat practically begs not to have to go outside.' At the look on the other men's faces, he continued. 'I'm not kidding. Old-nothing-fazes-him Max has turned into a whining sissy. We were invaded last night by mice! Wonder if there's something in the water. Have you seen those stray dogs wandering around? Max usually takes care of that problem.'

'How's your Chessie, Jim? She okay? Or has she gone bonkers too?' Rather than answer, Jim muttered unintelligible words as he rushed into his house.


'What's up, Pops? Did you realize you're yelling? Probably not. Because you never yell at me. You're the kindest, most considerate Dad, a guy ever had. I'll bet you couldn't find a better ...'

'Oh, cut it out, Buddy. Quit trying to butter me up. Don't say a word until I tell you to. Understood? I want some answers.'

The Springer made a gesture of zipping his lips and sat down at Jim's feet, an expectant look in his eyes - the perfect picture of the obedient dog. Jim looked at his pet and wondered what was happening. The angelic mien on Buddy's face didn't fool him. The Bud was up to something.

'What's your problem, Dad of Mine? Scale gone funny again and weighed you too heavy. You know, maybe it's because you've been indulging a little too often. Don't take it out on me. I can't help you with your weight problem.'

'BUDDY, BE QUIET. DON'T TALK. And, no, I haven't gained any weight.' Jim was rather proud of his recent weight loss. 'Stop trying to distract me. I want answers.'

'Sure, Pops. What do you want to know? I could crank up the old Apple and surf the net for you. Anything at all. I'm sure we could ...'

'Buddy, I'm losing what little patience I had.' Jim's voice had dropped so low, Buddy had to tilt his head to catch Jim's words. He knew he was in trouble now. Not a good sign.

Buddy lay back down on the floor and placed his head between his outstretched paws. His big eyes watched Jim intently. He searched his brain for transgressions . Nah, couldn't be the scam he had going with the paperboy. Or his plan to buy a bicycle with the money he was earning at story hour. He had decided he really didn't need to read. And anyway he wasn't too sure Gwennie knew how. So how could she teach him?

'I want to know why all the cats in the neighborhood are scared to death.'

A look of profound relief washed across Buddy's face. He sat up and leaned his head against Jim's leg. Looking into Jim's eyes, he flashed a twinkle and said, 'Is that the big problem? Good grief, Dad. That's no problem. Just a little fun.'

'A little fun? To scare creatures to where they don't want to go out? No mice have been caught all week and stray dogs have been roaming the neighborhood and Max hasn't been seen outside for days. He usually chased them away.'

'Ah, those cats are all wusses. Say Boo and they jump a mile. You should see them, Pops. Why don't you come to tonight's reading session? Should be good for a laugh.'

'Just what are you reading to them? Or making up? I gather you can't read yet.'

'Well, now that you mention it, I've gone through all the books that I knew the story to. And, no, I can't read yet - although I can make out some words now. Gwennie says I'm going to be a good student. Speaking of Gwennie, have you seen that kickin' new collar she has? Sparks up her bee-you-ti-ful eyes. She's really a looke ...!'

Buddy's last word strangled in his throat. His eyes caught Jim's and he shrank in his skin. His mouth snapped shut with a click of teeth and he looked as penitent as is possible for a Springer Spaniel.

'Sorry. Sorry. I get sidetracked when I think of Gwennie. Pops, why don't you come to story hour tonight? You'll see that I'm just having a little innocent fun.'

Jim shuddered. Buddy's idea of innocent fun wasn't his own. But he agreed and waited patiently for nightfall. Buddy climbed on his high stool and Gwennie and Chessie arranged themselves on the slate patio floor as soon as dark fell.  The neighborhood cats arrived one by one. Max slunk furtively to Buddy's stool and sat with his back against the rungs like a Western gunslinger watchful for sudden attack. His damaged ear twitched and his mismatched eyes roamed ceaselessly around him.

Freddy and the marmalade cat greeted him in whispers, but Max ignored them, obviously preferring to keep attuned to his surroundings. Buddy rustled a newspaper and began to pretend to read it. 'Last night, the cat snatcher struck again. No one has seen this creature, but rumors have been resounding through this community. It's tall and has long black fur. Long fangs and red eyes adorn its stubbled face and its nails on long, long toes are sharp and curved.'

Buddy paused theatrically to allow his words to sink in. The cats surrounding his stool whimpered and seemed to draw into themselves and become half their size. Max visibly shook. Buddy continued, 'Three cats disappeared overnight. Their owners each said their pets went out at bedtime and never returned. They all reported hearing wild shrieks and then silence. Talking to this reporter, the neighbors had tears in their grieving eyes.'

Chessie gazed around at the quivering mass of fur surrounding Buddy and smiled. 'She's enjoying their fear,' Jim thought. He'd never have believed it of the old girl.

'Every owner of a missing cat concurred that they had seen a large black shape in their yards, but when they investigated, they found nothing.' Buddy again hesitated before continuing, looking benevolently at each of his audience ... as though he wanted to imprint their faces on his memory before they too disappeared.

Shaking his head gently, despairingly, he went back to the newspaper and began again. 'No new sightings have been reported, but that doesn't mean that the Cat Snatcher has moved on. Cats have been disappearing every night. The police are at an impasse. It's like trying to catch a wisp of fog, the police chief is quoted. It's impossible to catch fog. We don't know what else to do but ask everyone to keep their cats in and hope that the Cat Snatcher moves on. That's all for tonight, ladies and gentlemen. Time to say goodbye. See you all tomorrow night for a new update. Keep together now. There's safety in numbers.'

The cats began moving off the patio, looking for all the world like a huge lump of many legged fur, so close to each other were they. 'Isn't that a hoot, Pops? Look at them. They're scared to death. Max is almost catatonic. Hey! I made a funny! CATatonic. Get it, Daddeo?' Buddy said as he and Jim watched the cats edge en masse off the patio.

'Yes, Buddy. I get it. Oh, yeah! I GET IT!'

At the harsh tone of Jim's last words, Buddy lowered his head and winked at both Chessie and Gwennie. 'Watch this, Dad. Just watch this.' Buddy raised his head and his voice and bellowed, 'Oh my God! What's that? I see something in that garden over there. Dark and big.'

The retreating cats cowered for a moment before screeching and breaking apart like a dark ice floe in warm water as they streaked for their homes. Jim heard pitiful cries and nails scratching on wood. One by one, doors opened and the cats all disappeared into lighted rooms where no shadows loomed.


'Wha ... Why ... I didn't do anything. Why am I grounded?'

'Look what you did to those poor cats.'

'Aw! I just brought some zing into their dull little lives. They're eating it up. Putting a little fun in their drab existences. Nothing to do but walk around and catch mice. Imagine the boredom. Blah. No color.'

'I repeat. You're grounded. And you're to return all the money you collected. What a fraud you are. Pretending to read and then making up the newspaper articles. There is no cat snatcher. And there never was.'

'All that lovely money? You're heartless. Do you know that? You're heartless. I'll be destitute. Not a farthing to my name. How can I hold up my head in this ritzy neighborhood?'

'I'm sure you'll manage, Buddy. I'm sure you'll manage.'

'For another thing, how do you know there never was a cat snatcher? Are you sure? Tell me that, hunh? Can you?'

Jim's head dropped to his chest and it swung back and forth as he contemplated his dog. He thought he had raised him right. Where had he gone wrong? 'Buddy, story hour is over. No more. You may have one more night to give back the money and explain that you made all that nonsense up. And then it's over. Do you hear me?'

Buddy's head snapped up and he looked adoringly into Jim's eyes. 'You're the boss man. Whatever you say goes. I'll take care of everything. Okay? Trust me.'

'Trust, my dear Buddy, is up for debate.'

As Jim held the door to the family room open for Buddy and Chessie to go inside, Buddy continued his assurances. 'I'll explain everything to them. Don't worry. They'll be mad at me for awhile. But I have big shoulders. I can handle it. Don't you worry about me. I'll be fine. Yessiree, I'll be fine.'

Buddy raised a paw and, making sure Jim saw him, swiped that paw across his eyes and noisily smothered a sob. Jim's face softened as he gazed at Buddy. Maybe, he thought, I've been too hard on him. Fortunately he missed the look Buddy gave to Chessie. He didn't see her return a slow, almost imperceptible shake of her head. Nor did he hear Buddy say, 'Time for Plan B.'

Note; The author retains all rights to this story.