Back in Mississippi, Country Mike had talked the boys into letting Buddha’s cat stay with him. The cat didn’t even protest. She slept on Country Mike’s lap and rode with him back to where he was staying. He was being housed at a correctional facility, but not the kind with barbed wire and guards. He was staying in a halfway house. A halfway house is a transitional place that helps convicts return to the world. Cats aren’t normally permitted at a halfway house but Country Mike felt he had the cunning to bend the rules.
Luckily for the boys, cats don’t often do what they are expected to do. When Mike realized that Buddha’s cat had been missing for a few days, he began calling the boys.
Nikki left the halfway house and walked for what felt like a century (for cats take more steps than people) when she ran into and old tom cat who suggested she take a train. Old tom’s motivation for joining her was for a partner to help him corner mice who thought the box car was just a big moving house. Nikki’s motivation was crossing Murder Creek without getting wet. After all, Nikki was a cat and cats hate to swim.
At a trestle bridge that crossed the eastern half of Murder Creek, Nikki felt the pull of the boys and jumped off the train a little ungracefully and rolled into a marshy mud patch that striped her coat and made her a little aggravated. She was forced to take a quick dip in the running creek because she hated to be dirty more than her cat self hated water.
She followed the boys’ strings of life until she found herself in the center of a huge circle, sixty feet across, surrounded by sentinel-like cypress trees. The circle looked far too perfect to be natural. In fact, inside this ring of trees was a well-trodden path in a complete circle that looked mysteriously crafted. She could feel in every fiber of her feline skin that the boys were here, but they were not in sight. She canvassed the entire circle of trees, looking under every fallen leaf and up into every branch. Her fur rose when she saw the bikes.
They were piled on a floating log half in the water and half out. She knew they couldn’t have gone far without their bikes, but also that they couldn’t do anything without getting into trouble.
In exasperation she sat down in the middle of the circle and began grooming her beautiful Siamese coat to distract her from her hunger pains. The sun was setting and it was well past supper. She could not yet stoop to hunting mice. She stopped mid-groom when she heard the music. Turning her ears to catch it better, she heard:
How can you just leave me standing?
Lonely, the world is so cold.
Maybe I’m just too demanding

She was twitching her tail to the music it dawned on her that that was Tex’s ringtone.
Maybe I’m just like my father, too cold.
She ran around frantically to the tune of Prince’s When Doves Cry going from tree to tree until she finally located the rhythm coming from a knot in one of the cypress trees.
Maybe I’m just like my mother,
She’s never satisfied.

She clawed at the tree, scratching and tearing away it’s leather-like strips of bark.
Why do we scream at each other
She scratched and tore at the bark like a cat possessed.
This is what it sounds like
WHACK! A long spindly branch decorated with vibrant evergreen fingers swatted her to the ground and she rolled in a ball after an ungraceful thud that left the taste of blood on her lips.
This is what it sounds like when doves cry
Oh, why did those boys have to transform her into a cat? If she was still Nikki Leger, she could have chopped the tree down. After a few moments, she finally did the only thing she could think of. She called for help.
IZZY! IIIIZZZY! I NEED YOU! IZZY!
Wondering how the boys could get trapped inside a tree, she realized the trunks were too small for all four to be inside. They must each have their own tree. She really needed Izzy now. The ghost was probably playing with babies at the orphanage.
Just as she was deciding she didn’t even like boys, she caught a whiff of something burning. She followed the smell to a black spot in one of the trunks smoldering in the shape of a boy. The whole tree began withering before her eyes. She glanced up for branches wanting to swat at her again and then jumped up on the blackening trunk and began clawing again. Finally her claw broke through the bark and struck something soft, something awakened by the needle-like claws in his leg.
In a panic, the boy came crashing through the cinders of the tree like the Kool-aid man busting through a wall.
Spider gasped for air as if he had been under water for a decade, then frantically patted the smoldering pieces of tree still clinging to him.
Nikki had been so intent on freeing the boys that she hadn’t noticed the swamp transform around them.
Miguel got to his feet just in time for Nikki to leap into his arms.
“How did you get here?” He then looked around at the rapidly changing landscape. “Where is here?”
The swamp had morphed into a travel brochure earthly paradise. The dank, smelly waters had become clear as crystal and teemed with brightly colored fish. The moon, which had risen above the circle, made the green ferns and palm trees of paradise glow with a neon green hue that made the whole place feel like Disney World meets Las Vegas casino.
Miguel spied something he recognized. He sat the cat down and ran to his bike. Maggy had half slipped into the water. He cursed himself as he pulled the bike onto dry land and spun the sprocket to make sure Maggy was still functional. The sprocket spun freely and he gave a relieved sigh.
Swimming up beside the log piled with the three other bikes came swans. Not real swans, these were gondolas with black swan heads at the front. The people riding inside were not the rural, overalls wearing locals. These people were dressed to the nines. Every man wore a suit, but the suits looked like they were from different eras. There were men with pencil-thin moustaches and pomade-slicked dapper-dan hairdos, zoot-suited rumble fish, and tuxedos. The women also looked like the belle of the ball in their separate eras. The most magnificent was a wearing a Victorian gown with a whalebone corset that made her waist look like Spider could have closed his fingers around it. The skirt blossomed out into a multicolored plume like an upside down rose in full bloom. She was attended by a young girl with a neon pink, thigh length, chiffon prom dress, lace gloves, and permed hair teased in the front as if she’d just listened to Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. But to Spider, the most exotic beauties were the roaring twenties flapper girls, some with short, sexy, slick haircuts, some with outlandish hats, all with milky white skin, tight, reveling dresses, and a devil-may-care attitude.
The gondolas reached the shore and a handsome escort rushed to claim each girl as they stepped from the boats. One especially haughty twenties dame was stepping down from the boat to join the other couples who were already dancing to music that came from nowhere. She took the hand of a tuxedo-clad gentleman that Spider suddenly recognized.
It was George.
Spider dropped his bike and went running to him.
“Hey, what is going on?” Spider grabbed George’s arm.
“I’m trying to dance. Why are you dressed that way?” George wrinkled his nose at Spider.
Spider looked down to see the oversized overalls.
“George! Are you ok? What’s wrong with you?”
George’s eyes were glazed over. His face was plastered with a plastic smile. Spider felt sick in the pit of his stomach.
“Nothing’s wrong. I’ve never felt better in my life! Why don’t you go change? The dance is starting.”
“Look man, something is messed up. We gotta get outta here.”
The King of the Ice Cream Gangsters laughed. “Get outta here? You’re crazy. This place is perfect! Why would I ever want to leave? I’m not going anywhere.”
Spider had no idea what was going on, but he knew this was bad. He looked around for the other boys, and saw Buddha dancing with the eighties Cyndi Lauper chick. He gave Spider the same response when asked to leave. When he tried to pry Tex from the grip of a multi-layered hat wearing flapper he said, “Bet it, Bub, before I have to get the bouncers. You’re stinking up the joint.”
Finally, he saw a face he recognized, Uncle Ty. This Uncle Ty had eyes, though. They were fiery light brown that looked red in the moonlight. The crowd of dancers parted as he stormed to Miguel. Spider was flabbergasted about the difference between the blind, overall wearing Uncle Ty and the fedora topped double-breasted suit wearing Uncle Ty who could clearly see. The lack of his milky white eyes and the addition of his festive attire voided all previous images of him in Spider’s mind.
“I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m going to get to the bottom of it. PAN!” the man screamed, flustered and aggravated.
Within a second, Pan appeared from the crowd.
“Why does he look like that?” Ty asked Pan.
“It didn’t take. The cleansing didn’t take!” Pan growled in frustration.
“What do you mean it didn’t take? It has to take!”
Spider started to speak but Ty rounded on him and boomed, “GET BACK!”
Spider took four steps backwards until he was outside of the dust line of the trodden circle. The old man turned to Pan and asked, “Now why isn’t he cleansed?”
“That’s what I was trying to find out. As soon as I saw him, I went to the oracle.” Pan had on a light brown coat with wire frame glasses and a red bow tie. On his head was a cream colored derby. “She said he is one of those exiles. That’s why he has the tattoo. He’s not a human.”
Uncle Ty turned his red eyes on Spider and boomed, “SHOW YOURSELF!”
Spider felt the magic excite the air around him, but nothing changed.
“IMPOSSIBLE!” snarled the man. “Do you see wings on him?”
“Maybe he’s an oathbreaker.”
“Pan, do you use your head for anything except holding up that ridiculous hat?” The old man shook his head and then said to Spider, “Let us see your back.”
The man didn’t wait for Spider to respond, but waved a hand and spun Spider around magically. In his overalls, most of his back was exposed. “Do you see any scars?”
“No.”
“An oathbreaker cannot be a child. They never were children. They came into existence grown.”
Spider turned back around to see their nearly matching frowns.