As soon as I stepped across the border into this new town, I knew something was up. Much to my displeasure, my parents worked for the government and got transferred here out West. I was perfectly happy living where we were, in the big city. Now, I’d have to graduate high school in some strange small town.
Dad slowed the car down right as we crossed the invisible line formed by the Welcome to Normal sign.
I shivered. The name did not inspire confidence that normal would be a part of my future. “Dad, Mom, did you feel that?”
“I felt it,” Mom said. “Something’s different.”
“Yeah. Life will be slower here.” Dad scoffed.
I opened the little door to the large cat travel case and stroked the feathery black fur of Epic Kitty. He purred in appreciation.
I deposited my schoolbooks in my locker and slammed the metal door shut.
A skinny boy wearing brown corduroy pants and a white button-up shirt approached me and stuck out his hand. “Welcome to our school. I’m Adam.”
I shook his hand. “Nice to meet you. I’m Sharisse.”
From that point, Adam and I became fast friends, hanging out after school at the mall, the park, or just bumming around the neighborhood. I met his friends, and we laughed a lot together at stupid jokes.
Huh, maybe small-town life wouldn’t be so bad…
I brought Adam home for the first time to work on homework and have dinner with my family. He helped me with calculus, and I practiced his Spanish with him, markedly improving his knowledge for such a short practice time.
Just as we were laughing over the latest antics of a silly teacher, Epic Kitty strolled into the room and meowed.
Adam jumped up from my work desk gasping. “You…” he gulped. “You’re a cat person?” He gathered up his books.
I felt the frown on my face and heard the dubiousness in my voice. “Yeah, so?”
“I have to go.”
He dashed away, leaving me gaping.
At school, he avoided me. As did his friends. I was stunned.
One day, a short girl with blond braids approached me at my locker. “Hi, I’m Mel. Sharisse, is it?”
“I noticed Adam and his ilk stopped talking to you.”
My shoulders fell. “Yeah.”
“That means you might be my kind of person.”
And so we talked and became friends.
Going to her house for the first time, I was delighted to meet her beautiful Persian cat, Ms. Wonderful. I discovered over time that Mel and I had a lot in common. For example, we were both the intuitive type. One day we both sensed danger when approaching a certain street. We walked a different way and later learned that someone had been mugged on the street we avoided around the time we had been near.
Mel and I decided to befriend the new girl at school, Lane. Sometimes it was hard to keep up with Lane and her perky energy. The first time Mel and I went to Lane’s house together, we were surprised to see her parents wearing work-out clothes. Lane explained that fitness was their life.
“Do you…have a hamster?” Mel asked, taking a step back on a large blue throw rug in their living room.
Lane frowned, and her brown eyes darkened. “Yes.”
“And I suppose it runs all night, for miles on end. Must have strong lungs,” Mel said, with suspicion and disapproval.
“Yeah?” Lane put a hand on her hip. “Couldn’t you tell? Look how fit my family is. We share the healthy-lifestyle value.”
“Come on.” Mel took me by the arm and dragged me out of there.
She urged me to avoid Lane at all costs, making it sound like if I didn’t, something dire would happen. With a sad sigh, I pretended to go along with this. But really, why should I? Lane was nice.
Then things got weirder.
Mel and I went through a series of new friends. We kept some of them and “lost” some of them. (Well, I secretly kept all of the friends she dumped, but those friends, if I thought about it, never had been to my house yet.)
Sitting in front of my bedroom window, I pondered the situation. A soft rain evened out my brain waves as I put the pieces of Weirdtown together.
Brian was the most loyal guy to his friends, and he seemed to need a lot of attention from them. He always wanted to go outside for a walk. Mel and I had been to his house. He had a dog. The next day, he was like a bad memory to my best friend Mel.
Belinda had a beautiful singing voice. We climbed the stairs to her third-story apartment, met her friendly, musical parents, and then Bam! The pretty twittering sounds of Belinda’s pet bird made their way to our ears from a back room. I thought Mel was going to kill us both with how fast she pulled me down those flights of stairs and away from Belinda.
When a new young man arrived at school, Mel went on and on about how hot he was, but as soon as she discovered this observant, slow-moving guy had a pet lizard, she never brought him up again.
I hung out with all of the above students because I liked them and thought they were cool. And all of them had arrived from out of town. Huh, maybe that’s why none of them batted an eye to discover later that I had a cat, a different animal at home than any of them had.
Another thing occurred to me. The natives of this town had the stereo-typical qualities that their pets had.
All was fine until Mel chanced upon me hanging out with all my “different-type-of-pet” friends when she popped in to see me at home unexpected.
Her pretty face drained as if she had come across a murder scene. “Traitor!” She spun around and ran out of my home.
I tried to no avail to get through to her at school. But no—she was now my ex-best friend.
One day after school, I dropped my backpack onto my work desk in my bedroom and called out to Epic Kitty. He always came when I called. But not today.
A search around the house had me cold with worry. Where was he?
At dinner, my parents asked me where our fur baby was. We put up signs in our neighborhood, but no one responded. In bed at night, tears rolled down my cheeks.
Where are you, Epic Kitty?
Two weeks later, during an assembly at school, I dashed off the bleachers and to the middle of the polished floor, trembling. I looked around at the shocked faces of my schoolmates and took the microphone from a teacher.
“Sorry. I have to do this.”
Mr. Jackson nodded and stepped aside.
I cleared my throat and gazed at the students again, all four-hundred of them. “Will someone tell me what’s going on? Why can’t we be friends with people who have different types of pets?”
Mr. Jackson gestured. “Follow me. Let’s talk.”
I followed him to a small office.
Long story short: The people of this town took their pet choice as serious at partisans of politics take theirs. It wasn’t the “I voted for so-and-so, but you voted for the other guy, and that’s okay.” No, it was like, “I voted for so-and-so, but you voted for the other guy, and you’re a complete idiot, a fool, a jerk, and a bad person!” No tolerance whatsoever for a different opinion.
It was the most ridiculous thing I had ever encountered, but these people meant business. I upped my game, asking around for the return of my cat, because my great intuition told me he had been cat-napped.
I approached Mel in front of her locker. She took a step to leave.
I gently touched her shoulder. “Mel, you know how much Epic Kitty means to me. You know I happen to be a cat person. Please, if you know anything, tell me. Think of all you and I have in common. Think of all we’ve been through together. Is it really worth it to dump me because I have it in my heart to see the good in other people who think differently than me?”
She sighed; then a quivery smile came to her lips. “We did have a lot of happy times together and have even been through some difficult times, helping each other.”
I pulled her into a hug.
She leaned away, holding onto my arms, and glanced around. “You’re right. Okay, I’ll try it your way.”
The next day, as I walked down the hall past the science lab with my dog, hamster, bird, lizard, snake, and hedgehog friends, Mel strolled by my side. Some students actually hissed at us. Long story short: We infected the school with tolerance, but it was a difficult process, and there were a fever and aches and pains to get through first.
On graduation day, I got a dozen presents for Epic Kitty who was back at home, and from dog people and bird people etc.! City council even passed a new law that urged different-pet tolerance.
At a small-town picnic that summer in the park, the bird family walked their new dog and enjoyed it. The lizard family practiced singing exercises under a large maple tree, and dozens and dozens of people discovered new talents and fun activities due to their world suddenly being opened up by tolerance for different opinions.