Tock and Chee started as a daily drawing during the month of October; Inktober is a very popular exercise for artists to spur creativity. I did Iggy and Bo a couple of years ago, but didn’t have the time to do a whole story last year. This year Tock emerged as a character that I wanted to explore. The story is very free-form; I don’t have it plotted out at all, and each day I ask myself what Tock is up to, what’s happening in her life, what is she dealing with?
So if you’d like to read from the beginning, start here and scroll down.
That night, she had the dream again. The trees were calling to her, whispering, sort of, and she could feel them talking to each other. She wandered down between them, small and loose-limbed. She tried hard to understand, but it felt like water slipping through her fingers.
The next day at school, she drew a picture of her dream. She could smell the grass and the sun, and the trees whispered to her again. Her teacher smiled, and asked her if it was Africa. She looked at it in surprise and suddenly saw all of her scribbled lines, and how it didn’t really look like how she saw it in her head. The trees were quiet, and so was she. Her teacher said maybe her grandpa would like to see her drawing, and she smiled a little and nodded.
When she slept that night, she walked through tall grasses. The sun was warm, and she felt an old voice that filled the ground and sky. She turned in a circle, and when she saw the tree, she knew it was the voice. It filled her with warmth, bigger and deeper than even a long hug from her grandpa. She laughed and walked towards it. She heard small voices talking and giggling near the tree. though she didn’t know what they were saying. She stood, listening, and while she was still, a cheetah appeared in front of her. It wasn’t sudden; maybe the cat had been there all along. Her eyes found the cat’s tall body slowly, finding more of it to see the longer she looked. It stared at her, alert but not afraid. She wasn’t sure what to do, but began slowly walking towards the tree, and the cat turned and walked with her, but not too near. She felt the warmth and the voices and the deep sound of the tree all through her.
Walking home from school, she went the secret way through the park, the mean kids saw her and chased her, shouting and running. She ran without thinking, and climbed like a squirrel up the biggest tree in the park until she was high on a big branch far above the ground. The kids stared up at her, mouths open. The biggest one tried to climb the trunk but gave up, and threw rocks instead. The others threw some too, but she was safe high in the tree and the rocks fell short. They shouted and yelled, but soon got bored and went home. She sat in the tree and listened to it for a long time. When she was sure it was late enough that her grandpa would be home from work, she thanked the tree for saving her and climbed down and ran home.
When she got home, her grandpa was waiting, worried. They ate a late dinner and talked about more than everything. She told him about the mean kids and how the tree saved her, about her teacher at school. She showed him the pictures she was drawing of her dreams. When she told him about the talking of the trees, he was very quiet and she saw his eyes were wet. He told her about where he had lived when he was a boy, and the heat and grasses and once when he met a cheetah. He told her many of the big trees were dying now, even though they were the trees of life. He asked her to listen to what they said, for him and all the others who couldn’t speak their language. She shook her head and reminded him that she couldn’t really understand them yet, and he simply smiled at her. It was a good night.
The dream she had that night was with one of the biggest, oldest trees. She could see liquid colors moving through the trunk and branches, though the pulse was slow, and she could feel that it was thirsty. She felt dizzy; light and dark passed by in the sky, faster than her own breaths. Stars spun across the sky in an arc and she felt herself laying on a moving, living thing so big it made her squeeze the grass under her hands to hold on tight.
When she dreamed again, she walked through long grass and discovered the cheetah, who lay stretched under one of the big trees. The cheetah blinked at her and then yawned lazily as she sat carefully next to the big cat. “I’m called Tock, and I’m going to call you Chee. I know most cats don’t care about human names, but I want to remember you.” The cheetah ignored her and began washing herself, then reached out and licked Tock’s arm, her tongue warm and raspy and oddly comforting.
Tock started studying cheetahs for a school science project, and she soon found that cheetahs were an endangered species. She read that the cats were all the same, more closely related to each other than even identical twins. They were all like clones, and this made it very hard for them to have healthy cubs at all. Hunters and less space to live in made it even harder for the cats to survive. Tock wondered, angry and helpless, if her dream cheetah would soon be the only cheetah left.
Tock stood up in front of the class to talk about her project, and her voice shook at first. Her teacher smiled and nodded, and she told them about cheetahs and baobab trees. She said some of the trees were thousands of years old, but many of them were suddenly dying in the last few years and nobody was sure why, but they guessed it might be climate change. Her breath caught in her throat when she said the trees were dying, and she had to stop and breathe and she was afraid she would cry. The whole class got very quiet and still. She felt Chee there with her then, and that gave her the strength to finish and go sit down. To her surprise, the class clapped for her, along with her teacher.
Walking home that day, Tock heard lots of yelling in the park. She saw a group of kids underneath the tree she had climbed before, and the mean kids were there. She almost turned and ran, but she heard a tiny sound from up in the tree. Up on a high branch was a tiny striped cat. She joined the kids, looking up. A girl recognized her and said she had to climb the tree like she had before.
Tock went to the tree, then dumped her backpack out on the ground and put it back on. The biggest mean kid came over to her and she was afraid, but he bent over and held his hands together to give her a boost. She put a foot into his hands and then pushed hard to scramble up the rough bark of the tree. Once she made it to the branch she carefully moved towards the little cat. It mewed at her, watching her with wide eyes. She took off her backpack and squatted on the branch with a hand on the trunk. With her other hand she slowly reached over and the cat let her pet its head. She knew it was scared. She made sure she had a good foothold on the branch, and firmly grabbed the the cat by the back of the neck and lifted it towards her and her pack. The cat stiffened at first, afraid, but then gave in and let her lift it. She held it to her chest at first, making soft noises and petting it a bit without easing her tight grip. With her other hand she opened the pack and eased the cat into it. There was a moment when she felt like she might fall, but it flashed in her mind that the tree had helped her before, and she steadied herself. The cat settled into the warm dark inside of her pack, and she zipped it up tightly and eased each arm through the straps and onto her back. She climbed back down more carefully, and when she was close to the ground the kids all started cheering. After peeking into her pack and petting the cat, they all decided together that she should keep it. She was eager to get home and take care of the kitty, and nervous about what her grandpa would say.
Tock was ready and waiting for her grandpa when he got home from work. She had fed the kitten and cleaned it up gently. She quickly cleaned up the house a bit, and spent several hours playing with the kitten instead of doing her homework. When her grandpa walked in the door, he was greeted with a bright green-eyed stare, a plaintive little mew and his granddaughter’s most begging face. She didn’t say anything, just let him sit down and then gently put the kitten in his lap. It turned to look at him, mewed and started working its little paws on his leg, then began a very loud and rumbling purr, settling into a comfortable ball in his lap. His granddaughter settled in beside him, and they sat there petting the kitten and not saying a word.
After a long evening of trying to get the kitten taken care of and settled, Tock met Chee in her dream that night. She wandered through the grasses towards the big tree, and found the cheetah in the shade with a cub! Chee looked at Tock with what looked like both relief and disgust. As Tock came closer the cub pounced on her feet and bounced in a circle around her legs. Chee gave a big yawn and rolled away from both of them and fell asleep. So Tock spent her dreamtime babysitting the new cub for the tired new mother. The cub finally settled down and lay next to her, licking her face. she woke to find the kitten curled up by her neck, raspy tongue cleaning her cheek.
After school the next day, the big boy who had given her a boost up the tree to rescue the kitten was waiting for her. She hesitated, because he had been one of the mean kids who made her run away before the kitten had happened. He bowed to her, held out a hand and asked how the kitten was doing. She stopped and said it was happy. He paused and asked if they could walk together, and then said he was sorry. For before, he said. ‘Cause he was a jerk, he said. She looked at him for awhile until he began sort of shifting his weight from side to side in the uncomfortable silence.Then he said sorry, again. She nodded and began walking and he rushed to join her.
They walked through the park and he began talking, telling her about some of the mean kids he knew and one or two that she should never ever get near. He’d help her if they ever bothered her again. He asked if he could ever visit the kitten, and she told him she’d have to ask her grandpa, and he nodded. He said his dad would never let him have a cat, and it wouldn’t be a good place for a cat anyway. She glanced at him and wondered why, but didn’t ask out loud. He asked why she liked cheetahs, and she found herself telling him about her dreams.
Doing homework that night was hard, but Tock couldn’t remember the last time she had laughed so much; the kitten was so playful and sweet and funny, yet wanted constant attention. Then it would suddenly fall completely, limply asleep, like a rag doll.
She wondered what had happened to its mother and if there were other kittens like this one still lost out there. They had looked for others on the walk home, but there had been no sign of any other lost cats. Her grandpa had said she must make flyers and put them up in case the kitty belonged to someone, and she had agreed, though she didn’t want to do it. The kitten was a lot of work, but she couldn’t imagine giving it up to anyone else. She admitted to herself that the kitty really loved her grandpa, maybe even more than it liked her. She was a little jealous of that and felt ashamed of the feeling, but she also felt proud of the kitten for seeing how great her grandpa really was.
Tock brought her new friend home after school the next day, and her grandpa was home, as he’d promised. She introduced Jack to her grandpa, who took a good long look into his young face and made a sudden clicking word in his native language under his breath. Tock recognized it as something he tended to say when he felt trouble was coming. She took a deep breath, and reached out and gently took her grandpa’s hand. He gave a small jerk, and then smiled up at Jack.
Tock went into the kitchen to make some tea while her grandpa and Jack shared an awkward moment. She knew her grandpa liked to use silence as a way to get other people to talk, but this time was harder. The kitten bounced into the room, ran over to her grandpa and rubbed against his leg, then realized a new person was in the room, and went to Jack, looked up and began mewing loudly. Jack couldn’t help but pick the kitten up and pet it and the loud purring filled the room. Everyone relaxed.
Her teacher asked them to expand their science reports into the real world for the next part of their projects. Tock knew her report about the baobab trees dying and the cheetahs being endangered were environmental issues, but she felt frustrated and helpless to know what she could do about it. Her teacher suggested more research into possible solutions for global warming, since scientists had said it might be a cause of her trees dying. Tock started looking in the library and online, but there were no easy answers.
She went to bed that night feeling hopeless, angry and overwhelmed. Her dreams found her in the desert, with no water, no people, and no animals. Chee and her cub were nowhere to be found. Everything living that was left seemed to be dying. Tock wandered lost and alone, more and more frightened. She struggled awake. The kitten was on her pillow, started purring and licked wet tears from her cheek.
Tock started researching about how to save the trees and global warming. Some of the scientists were saying to plant lots and lots of trees as a way to help fight global warming. Some said it wouldn’t be enough, and it was all too much, too big, too far, too late. It was horrible and she felt the fear and hopelessness closing in. But the kitten came up, yawned and laid right on her keyboard. The screen flashed through several pages and stopped on something about Types of Trees to Plant. She stared at it. Plant trees to save trees, she thought. I’m just one small person, but maybe I can plant trees. The kitten just purred.
Jack and Tock walked through some of the wilder parts of the park, talking about places where they might be able to plant trees. Tock had talked about her idea to her teacher, who was excited about it and told her things to consider, like getting permission before planting, permits, grown-up stuff. It still seemed hopeful and Tock was happy when Jack wanted to help too.
They walked along, scuffing through the dry leaves, when they heard a noise ahead. They looked up and saw a boy crouching and holding something in a pile of sticks and leaves. Jack froze for a moment; it was one of the mean kids he had warned Tock to stay away from. The other boy looked up, then jumped up and ran into the woods. They saw flames suddenly shoot up in the pile the boy had been messing with.
Jack jumped forward towards the fire and yelled to Tock to run get help. He started trying to stamp and smother the flames as Tock ran back the way they had come, hoping to find another person walking on the main path who had a cell phone. She quickly found a lady who called 911 for her, and they waited anxiously there for someone to come so that Tock could guide them to where the fire and Jack were. They could smell smoke and Tock wanted to run back, afraid for Jack.
The firemen came, and the police. Smoke filled the sky and it was plain where the fire was coming from. Tock was frantic with worry for Jack and the trees and she started to run ahead to show them the way, but a quick fireman caught her, lifted her easily and carried her back to two police officers. She was shaking and crying to them about Jack. Both a water truck and a paramedic truck drove past them towards the fire.
The police questioned her briefly, made very clear that she was to stay in the back of the police car, and got her grandpa’s number from her. A few long minutes later the paramedic truck came driving back out and drove right by them without stopping. One of the officers opened the front door of the car and told her that they had found Jack, that he would be ok, but they were taking him to the hospital for smoke inhalation. He told her that it looked like Jack might have kept the fire from spreading in the direction of the big trees and where there were more people, but it had burned out of control very quickly with all the dry underbrush. Another bigger fire truck zoomed past them with more men.
The lady who had called 911 and waited with her was questioned and told to go home, that they might need to talk to her later. She waved to Tock nervously. The police came back, got in and started driving to the station. They told her that her grandpa would meet them there. Still shaking, she began to feel afraid in a whole different way, though she knew she hadn’t done anything wrong. She shivered and curled as tight as she could while sitting in that caged back seat.
Tock was so relieved when her grandpa came into the police station she started to cry and they just hugged tight for a long time. They sat in plastic chairs next to a desk where one of the police officers had stacks of papers piled high. He asked them both questions, and with her grandpa there, Tock felt much calmer and able to think more clearly.
Grandpa had brought his fat folder of ‘Proof Papers’ with him, and he put them right on the desk. The policeman looked through them, glancing up occasionally at them both with a thoughtful expression. He closed the folder, pushed it back across the desk, and asked Tock bluntly if she and her friend Jack had set the fire. Her grandpa stared at the policeman with a carefully neutral face and became very still. Tock told the man about her plan to plant trees and how they’d been walking home through the wild part of the park and saw the boy messing around and then flames shot up and he saw them and ran and Jack just ran to stop the fire and she wasn’t sure but she thought the boy might have been one of the mean kids Jack had warned her about and how was Jack, was he all right– The policeman held up his hand for her to stop and laughed a little. Her grandpa relaxed slightly and she suddenly realized how tense he had been.
The policeman asked her more detailed questions about time and place and a description of the kid and about Jack and his background and if she thought Jack knew the kid, could he tell them who he was? She thought back and said maybe, Jack had seemed to know him and was maybe afraid of him. They talked more and then the officer sent Tock to go get a soda from the machine while the officer and her grandpa talked.
When she got back her grandpa told her they could go home. The policeman shook their hands, and told her to call him when she was ready to start planting trees. He smiled at her and she impulsively reached out and gave him a quick hug. He was quite surprised, but patted her on the back in a friendly way. Tock and her grandpa walked out of the station holding hands like they always had when she was little.
Tock and her grandpa went to visit Jack in the hospital. He was being kept for a few more days because they were concerned that the smoke damage in his lungs was keeping him from getting enough oxygen in his bloodstream. He seemed tired but he was obviously bored. Tock talked to him about the police station and how scared she had been and school and all of her ideas for trees and the kitten and Chee and her cub. Since he had an oxygen mask on, he couldn’t very well interrupt or change the subject. She enjoyed herself quite a bit.
Grandpa talked to the nurses while they visited, and discovered that the police had come to ask questions, but since Jack couldn’t really talk much, they had gotten a brief description and they were going to come back later. The nurses asked Grandpa if he knew Jack’s parents; he’d had no visits and nobody answered the number Jack had written down. They were worried that if his parents didn’t show up soon they would have to involve the police even further, as well as child protective services.
Grandpa went back to the kids, worried and concerned. He asked Tock to pull out a pen and paper and handed them to Jack. He pulled up a chair and looked Jack in the eyes for a few long minutes. He told him to write his home address, his phone number, his full name, and his parents’ names, or the adults he stayed with. Jack did the first few and got slower and then just stopped. He put the paper down and turned away and closed his eyes, and refused to respond to anything more. Tock and her grandpa looked at each other and wondered what to do.
Tock and her grandpa decided to go out to the address that Jack had written down, after Grandpa got off from work. Tock looked it up; it wasn’t too far, but it was out where there were fewer houses, mostly old small places.
Walking home after school, she realized why Jack always cut through the park. She followed her feet, and they led her out to the road that Jack lived on. It can’t hurt to look, she thought. It was hard to see numbers on many of the houses, and some of them looked like nobody had lived in them for a long time. She narrowed down Jack’s house to one of two places; one looked empty and the other had an old pick-up truck out front, and the grass was weedy but not as overgrown as many of the other houses. There were curtains in the windows.
She hesitated, shifting from one foot to the other. Her grandpa had said that he needed to go and be the one to knock and talk to them, for safety. She thought she saw a curtain twitch, like someone was inside. She felt nervous, but told herself rather firmly that the place seemed more sad than scary. She thought of Jack being taken away by Child Protective Services, and that frightened her more than the old house. She went into the yard, climbed the step and knocked timidly on the screen door. She could feel that someone was there.
She knocked again quickly before she lost her nerve, and another waiting silence followed it. Then there was a faint scraping noise, like something being dragged across the floor. She jackrabbited off the step and was out on the street before she could even think. She glanced back for a moment and thought she saw the door opening. That made her feet run faster, and she just let herself run as hard as she could all the way home. Once she was inside with the door closed, she felt the quiet calm of their little place wash through her, and the kitten came sleepily out and mewed at her feet.
Tock told her grandpa about going to see what might have been Jack’s house. He was very stern with her; she had been pretty frightened herself. They talked about things and decided to go see Jack in the hospital.
When they got to his room, there was a man sitting by Jack’s bedside. Jack was asleep. Tock took one look at the man’s face and started to back out of the room, but her grandpa held her shoulders and marched them right on into the room. He quietly introduced them as friends of Jack’s, and said right up front that Tock and Jack had discovered the fire being set and they were worried about him. They’d been wondering where his folks were. He fell silent and waited. The man had watched them while Grandpa talked, looking them up and down. Tock wanted badly to leave. The man turned away and didn’t say anything, just looked at Jack. When he wasn’t looking right at them, Tock could look more closely at him and she noticed that he looked kind of like an older version of Jack. She knew then that this must be his dad; Jack had mentioned him a few times but it was almost always about something his dad wouldn’t like or let him do. Tock understood that better now, seeing the stern angry lines on this man’s face.
He finally spoke. “I didn’t know. He goes off sometimes, don’t know where.” Grandpa asked in a neutral, quiet voice if the police had talked to him, and got a nod. So the police had kept trying to find his dad, Tock thought. She timidly asked if Jack was doing better, and got another nod. “Tomorrow, they said.” Grandpa asked if there was anything they could do, and got a quick frown and shake of the head. ‘We do fine on our own.” Tock didn’t think so. It must have shown on her face, because he lifted an eyebrow. “Maybe you can come be here when he gets out. He might like that.” Tock smiled and nodded, and so did her grandpa.
The next day Tock and her grandpa waited at the hospital until Jack was released. They went back to their little home, with Jack and his dad following them in a beat up pick up truck. Tock recognized it from the house where she had knocked, but she didn’t say anything.
Once inside, Jack’s dad looked around and carefully sat in one of the kitchen chairs with his back to a wall while Grandpa made some coffee. Jack picked up the kitten and snuggled with it. He showed his dad, who petted its head and watched his son as he cuddled the cat.
The kids went into the other room to get on the computer and play with the kitten while Grandpa was left alone in the kitchen with Jack’s dad. He said his name was Mark, and slowly said “Thanks for looking out for my boy.” It was hard for him to say those words, but he also clearly meant them. Grandpa nodded, paused and then asked if things were going all right for them. There was a long silence, and Mark finally shook his head. He paused again, then took a deep breath. He said he’d been having some problems and he needed to spend some time in the VA hospital now and then and it was hard on Jack. Maybe they could check on Jack sometimes when that happened; Jack liked and trusted them. He stared deep into his coffee mug and didn’t look up at Grandpa.
There was another long silence, and Grandpa slowly said he thought they could do better than that; maybe Jack could stay with them when needed and get fed and get homework done and all. Mark looked up at him quickly and ducked his head back down, and nodded. They both sat drinking their coffee and listened to the kids laughing at the kitten’s antics.
Tock was glad to dream that night of the tall grasses and the big trees. She walked towards the biggest baobab tree, and Chee and her cub were waiting there in the shade. Tock was so happy and relieved to see them that she ran up and fell next to the cub, leaning up against Chee’s flank with the cub. Chee turned her head to lick her face and then began washing her ear. She got to Tock’s hair, tried to wash it like fur and was confused by the texture, but kept trying anyway. She shifted back to Tock’s face as Tock petted the cub.
Tock listened for the deep voice of the tree, and felt something kind of like running water, but deeper and slower. She just listened carefully and tried to just breathe it in for awhile to see if she could understand. It didn’t form words, but there was a big presence, a force there, that she thought was special to this tree, this place. She felt comfort and like she belonged here more than she felt anywhere else, except maybe when she was snuggled next to her grandpa. Chee and her cub seemed to be purring.
Tock’s teacher asked them to work further on finding activities that related to their science projects. After everyone presented their ideas for real-life applications, they would all vote to pick one of the projects to do as a class. Tock was very surprised (though nobody else was) when they all picked her project.
She had made a plan for planting trees locally to help a bit to fight global warming. She called it ‘Plant Trees to Save Trees’. With her teacher’s help she had found a nursery that was willing to donate baby trees suitable for their area, and she had suggested that they plant new trees in the wild areas of the park where the brush fire had happened. She knew they would have to get approval from their city, but her teacher had promised to help. The kids started chanting her slogan and started drawing posters to put up around town to get more volunteers to help.
Tock went home after school feeling like she was floating. She walked near the fenced-off burned area of the park and it made her happy to think of new trees growing there. She knew it might not be enough, but it was something. She couldn’t wait to tell Jack and her grandpa about it.