The glow-in-the-dark stars twinkled at Una from the plastered-white ceiling.
Una winked back.
“Duo.” She yawned. “What time is it?”
The words came out of her throat sounding like a tree-trunk being sawed in half.
A pair of mismatched eyes, one blue, one yellow, blinked at her.
“I’m still not healthy! Why, it’s been seven days. And today, I swear, it’s even worse than yesterday,” Una complained. “There is a huge green ball of goo sitting in my chest, rolling through my windpipes… trying to come o—”
Una bent forward, her body shaking, her eyes closed, her hand pressed into her mouth.
Duo did the same, his tail swishing, his back arched.
Their foreheads touched.
Una won the imaginary who’ll-stop-coughing-first race.
She sat on the edge of the bed, staring at the shivering tomcat.
“It’s them wicked hairballs again, innit?”
As soon as Una uttered that sentence, a giant rose petal coated in fur and spittle flew out of the kitten’s mouth straight into her palm.
“Ew,” she said.
“That’s not very nice,” Duo said.
Una yelped in wide-eyed surprise. She threw away the gross rose petal plastered to her palm and huddled back in the corner, staring at Duo.
The animal eyed her as if the talking was the most natural thing for any cat to do.
“What goes in, must come out. Sometimes, in most disagreeable ways, true. Vomit is proof of it. Ingest something and it will always return to haunt you.”
“You… you can talk!” she whimpered, pointing at Duo.
“Ah, that. Slight inconvenience. It’s the petal, I’m afraid.” Duo burped. “It has made me chatty.”
A noise came from the living room.
“10-year-old Paz Morales was last seen seven days ago. She left the school premises on foot by herself. Morales has shoulder-length black hair and blue eyes. She was wearing white jeans, a purple sweater, white trainers, and a pink school bag. Morales’ mother declared her daughter wouldn’t just disappear. She, Paz’s father and her twin Una Morales, are praying for their child and sister’s safe return. Anyone with information should contact the Police Department at 859-624-4776 or…”
Una’s fingers dug deep into her ear canals.
“It’s no use, you know? You can try to block the sound, but the temporary silence is a false absence of the sound. It doesn’t mean that the sound isn’t there.”
Una lowered her hands.
Words like centipedes, scrabbling on their little isolated feet, reached Una from the kitchen.
“It’s their birthday today…” She heard Dad say.
“I can’t bring myself…” She heard Mom say.
“We always celebrate our birthday together.” Una sniffed.
“There is still time. You can find Paz and bring her home.”
“Me? What can I do?” said Una.
“Technically, you are older than Paz by five minutes.”
“It counts. Sometimes, it’s the only thing that counts. One can do a lot in five minutes. Sing a pretty song. Eat a plate of taters with sausages. Or a juicy fish, slick and sweet. Those kinds of things.” Duo’s paw scratched his nape.
He was holding the petal in his mouth, offering it to her, Una realized.
“It’s just a petal.” She frowned.
“It’s not just any old petal. It’s the petal that made me talk. A sign, perhaps? Why don’t you read it?”
“Read? The flower?” she scoffed.
“It has writing on it, doesn’t it?”
Her pale fingers cradled the paper-thin flower husk, tracing the peculiar engraved letters.
A boring building
Carries the youth of the world
Into the learning
“What is this?” said Una.
“What that is is not the right question. Nothing is what it is, because it is what it isn’t, you see?”
“It’s a puzzle.” Una’s forehead creased.
“Aren’t we all?” Duo smirked.
“Building. It’s a place! It must be a place!” Una exclaimed.
“Where you study and learn.”
“School. The school was where they saw Paz last. Maybe there is a clue there!” Una slapped her forehead.
“What are we waiting for, then?” Duo meowed. “The flower wants us to go there, and it must have a reason to do so.” He one-eye cat-winked. “Maybe it has something to do with Paz?”
“But, Duo, Mom and Dad will be furious if they realize I left without them knowing,” Una shook her head.
“Your parents will welcome you like a hero when you come back with Paz.”
“And they won’t be sad anymore.” She rummaged through the drawers for her socks.
When she got her overalls and sneakers on, Una’s glance fell on the light-blue backpack. It belonged to Paz.
“It was a joke, you see? She took my schoolbag on that day! I took hers. We switched. Maybe it was my fault.” Una’s voice trailed away.
“Take your time. Wallow in guilt. It’s not like life is made out of time.”
Una fisted away her tears. “You’re right. No time to mope around. If I received this petal, I must be the one to solve the puzzle.”
She tiptoed towards the window and pried it open. She grabbed a brown sweater, white jeans and a green jacket from the clothesline, tying them together.
Duo whistled with approval. “That’s some sailor’s knot! Arrr!”
“You coming, or what?” Impatience was obvious in Una’s voice.
He leaped upon her shoulders and swooosh down they went.
“Do you think anyone heard us?”
“Nah, if you don’t count the creepy new mysterious neighbor who keeps staring at us.”
“Oh, that lady! The neighbor’s not going to say anything. She always seems so cold, wrapped in so many scarves and shawls. Sometimes I think she is just a heap of clothes, not a human being at all!” Una muttered.
“Never mind that now. How do we get to school?” wondered the cat.
“We ride, of course.” Una climbed her canary-yellow bike. “You can sit in the basket. Sorry, but there’s no safety helmet for you.”
“Hmm, how hazardous.” Duo purred. “I like it.”
The school had never seemed so not-school to Una.
It was grayer and square-er than she remembered. Instead of its original name, there was a signboard saying:
Una spelled the syllables, squinting.
She dismounted the bike and ran towards the entrance.
When she turned around in search for Duo, she saw him washing his face.
“The wind.” He growled. “My fur is disheveled. And I still haven’t performed my morning toiletry.”
“Come on! The school has changed, too. It must be a sign.”
“It’s because you are holding a petal.” Duo slurred through his busy hairy tongue.
Una placed the petal on the pavement.
Sure enough, the school building turned back into its boring white.
She picked the petal back up.
The building became the Skul once more.
Una rubbed her eyes. “I’m seeing things!”
“Good. This means you are not blind to this world.” Duo rolled his multicolored irises.
“What is that?” Una whispered, disregarding Duo’s comment.
The most bizarre creature she had ever seen stood at the school entrance, blocking it.
It resembled a giant floating mouth, wearing crimson lipstick, with an elongated pepper-shaped nose right above it.
“Oh my. That’s the Screecher.” Duo meowed.
“The Screecher? What is the Screecher?”
“What does it sound like? A screeching teacher! It’s guarding the Skul entrance.” Duo slid into Una’s unzipped backpack she held in her hand.
“Coward.” Una sneered.
“The Screechers are sensitive about animals in Skuls. Next thing you know, she will call me vermin and insist I am thrown outside.”
“So, what do I do?”
“You need what the Screecher guards. Do you see it?”
When Una strained her gaze, she glimpsed a huge diploma glued onto the school door.
Instead of a red wax seal in its bottom, there was a petal.
A shrill voice yelled at Una as soon as she approached.
“Stand up straight! Stop gawking! You are not a fish! Do close your mouth.”
Una obeyed, staring at the apparition.
“Come closer, girl. Mind your manners. My, my, you are a nasty piece of work, aren’t you?” It fired words at Una as if from a flamethrower, and they burned her. “Let me see your nails. Dirt under them! And those mismatched socks! Don’t even get me started on that shameful, ginger, unruly hair! You are infested with lice, aren’t you, you horrible child?”
Una didn’t respond.
“Why don’t you reply? Are you a trifle deaf?” The spittle from the Screecher’s mouth sprinkled her face.
The Screecher then came so close that her wart touched Una’s cheek.
Her backpack was swaying left and right in a rapid, trembling movement.
Una searched for right words, but they were hiding. “Please, Miss Screecher. I am looking for my sister. She is missing, you see. At first, I was in shock and couldn’t believe it. I… Didn’t want to accept it. I thought she would come home on her own. But now I know she won’t. I must find her.”
“This is a Skul! Skul! You will behave! And play by the rules!” The Screecher’s mouth spat out a gigantic red ruler. “Take my exam. If you fail, it means you are not worthy to find your sister.”
The ruler pointed at the pavement, and three figures sprouted from it.
They advanced towards Una.
The figures wore green uniforms and hats in shapes of the letters “A,” “N” and “V.”
“You will never get to your precious diploma! I am a teacher. You are a student. I am old, and you are young. I am strong, and you are a weakling.”
Una just stood there, petrified.
Duo peeked out from the backpack. “Una. Be smart. Be courageous. Be cunning. Observe. Learn. React.”
“You dimwitted little snail! You thick-skulled excuse for a child! You doltish dunce!” The Screecher bellowed in laughter.
The figures took another step.
“You are the thought thinker. You are the saying sayer. You are the action acter. Remember that,” Duo said.
“Fine. You’ve come to terms with your shock and denial, little brat! So what? Mine won’t be the only petal you seek. There are many more that lie ahead, guarded. You will fail this exam. And the next. And then you will go home. They will ignore you. Paz will be all your mother and father will talk about. They always did care for her more, didn’t they? You will be unheard and unseen. Why, you might just as well be a ghost. They will revere the shadow of the one that is long gone instead of their flesh and blood standing before them, demanding their attention. Are you sure you want to find The One Who Is Missing?” The Screecher challenged her.
Una clenched her fists. “Why you… Blabbermouth! I am nobody’s dunce or little snail! I want to find my sister! With Paz, I was much more. Now I am much less. Halfgirl, if you will. I will do what it takes. I will pass your stupid exam!”
“Una… Don’t mean to sound alarmed but… Do something!” Duo warned her.
Una ripped the backpack open and brought out a jump rope.
She began lassoing the soldiers together.
“Adjectives go with Nouns and after that come Verbs!” She yelled.
The Screecher visage shimmered in the light, turning into a frail old lady.
Her rouge-tinged lips touched the certificate.
The maquillage-kissed diploma floated in the air.
As it descended amongst Una’s palms, a carmine-red petal shone before her eyes with an inscription:
A comfy theater rolls
And smells of popcorn