The mother did something she abhorred in others. She lost her composure in public. She chased after her defiant daughter, spurred by a rage sprung in her own childhood and buried deeper each time it threatened to emerge. And now, of all days, it uncoiled. It was not that she didn't once enjoy running, the former captain of the first girl's high school basketball team in the state, nor was it the heels, which she had been wearing so many years now, she could get around better with them than without. No, it was the simple fact that her daughter was faster that goaded her. She lengthened her stride and was nearly within reach of the odious fur ball tucked under her daughter's arm, when the girl pulled ahead, rounding a corner. Where had she been that she missed her daughter learning to run? In France with Proust or Argentina with Borges? Is it possible that she used to sit and dream about how wonderful motherhood would be? And now she wanted nothing more than to grab that girl and shake her till she broke. No wonder she preferred books. In fiction she encountered her most honorable self. But here on Main Street, she belched out ugly words. Kicking her legs higher than they'd been in a very long while, she launched, snatching at what, she didn't exactly know.
Sheila heard a ripping and felt a coolish tickling on her back end. The girl jolted and fell face first to the sidewalk. She sat up, her mouth, a universe, strung with spittle, her nose smeared with blood. It wasn't until she saw the tail her mother was holding, that the girl screamed. Sheila remained stoic. What more could one expect from the world? Who had not suffered now and again, the vacuuming up of a nose, the loss of an eye, the removal of a tail? Things could be worse. Sheila thought of Miss Abigail. At least she did not have the funk.
The girl's mother wanted to cry too. But cry she would not. There were too many things to get done that day and now they had to return home to clean up before proceeding to the bookshop. "See what you've done?" she said, grabbing her daughter's arm and marching them back home. She scolded, threatened, begged the entire way. But the girl had never been so sure of anything in her life. She would not let her mother steal her happiness.
As soon as they got home, the mother insisted, if the girl had to be so stubborn, the least she could do was give the cat a bath. Sheila, like real cats who purr and leap and meow, was not meant for baths and emerged clean, but looking disorganized and even more bewildered than before.
The girl’s mother tried one last time, demanding that her daughter leave that thing at home. But the girl just glared, gripping Sheila even tighter. "If that's the way you want to be, we will not go to the bookshop," the mother threatened, certain this tactic would work since going to the bookshop was what her daughter loved most. "Good!" her daughter yelled. "I hate going to the bookshop!" The woman felt a small piece of her die. In the end, she had no choice but to allow the child to embarrass her. She hoped no one noticed. First impressions are so vital to a person's reputation, and they had only just moved to town.
The bookshop owner was not nearly as friendly as he had been the previous week, and the woman was glad about that, thinking that if he were ill or distraught he would pay no heed to the child. The elegant woman browsed. The girl played with her new found friend, rubbing her scabbed nose against the smug where Sheila's nose used to be. Sheila couldn't have been a happier nose-less, tail-less, one-eyed, waterlogged, stuffed cat. Sheila mustered all her remaining courage, to expose her joy to the girl, when a real cat crept around the book shelf. The little girl dropped Sheila on the floor and ran after the cat.
The girl's mother took advantage of her daughter’s distraction to sweep Sheila up. Making sure her daughter did not see, the woman shoved the fur ball on the top shelf in the poetry section where she was sure no one would find her any time soon.
It wasn’t until they were half-way home that the little girl realized she had forgotten her cat. The mother kept walking, suggesting that it had run away. The little girl screamed, “She couldn't have run away because she is not a real cat!” The mother turned and stared at her daughter in wonder. She had no idea that her daughter could distinguish the real from the imagined.
Back at the shop, Mr. Elliot despaired. He concluded that because of his obvious character flaws – his hopeless romanticism, his endless array of ticks and quirks, his weakness for knick-knacks – Miss Abigail was indifferent towards him and thus had decided never to return. He took the little book of poetry he had selected for her and returned it to the shelf. It was there that he saw the little cat, her single eye shining. His heart skipped a beat sensing that Miss Abigail herself had shrunk and sprouted fur and lost a nose and an eye and grown two ears on the top of her head. He reached and picked up the little cat, wondering how she had gotten there. “What’s your name?” he asked. And if the cat wouldn’t have been choked by his kindness and respect, she would have told him, Sheila.