by Susan Chase-Foster
1996 words

Chef de Cuisine Ruffin Remy pedaled up to the back door of the Student Commons kitchen just as dawn began to seep through the fir canopy. He hopped off his BMC Roadmachine, his tangerine frizz orbiting out around his helmet as though he were the solar orb itself, or Bozo the Clown, depending on your perspective or age. Nearly everyone called him Ruff, which sounded like “roof,” a French reference to his flaming mane and wildly freckled face. McPherson called him “Rough.” He preferred Chef, a fitting title considering his mastery of plant and pastry prep in Berkeley with the one and only Alice Waters. On the other hand, a cheffing gig in the student commons of an academy of uncertain integrity was, well, his first opportunity post Chez Panisse to recoup some savings. It was one more rung on his ladder to Michelin fame.

Chef unlocked the door. He wheeled his bike into the storage room among crates of organic quinoa and brown rice, baskets of garlic, onions, aubergine, and tomatoes. He removed his toque blanche from its shelf, yanked it down over his squiggly red forest without so much as a side-glance in the mirror. His helmet nicely hung on its hook, his leather knife roll removed from its pannier on his bike, his silver Patagonia parka folded in quarters and set on perhaps the world’s largest sack of sweet potatoes, Chef de Cuisine Ruffin donned his cloud-white jacket, and gave himself a pat on the back. He unfurled his knives on the multi-purpose, big leaf maple prep station, a.k.a. the butcher’s block, and though there was a damp chill in the air outside, he backtracked to the door and propped it open with a brick in case the enormous cat who wandered the Academy’s grounds and whose name he had never learned might drop by. In the meantime, Ruff called her anything that began with “Chat” or cat in the language of his Madagascan mother and French father. CHATeau, CHATterley, or CHATterbox, and so on, were used interchangeably. He wondered, do cats even give a damn what they’re called? Does this big girl even realize she’s a cat?

* * *

In general, Marie was not well received by students or staff around Westminster Academy’s campus. Sure, her size, somewhere between a bobcat and a lynx, was intimidating, and all that fluff and fur made her look wider and wilder than she actually was. Her long legs and stealthy huntress saunter didn’t help either. But what really terrified folks were her eyes, an unexpected glowing yellow-gold, upturned like an over-carved pumpkin, with a fixed gaze that seemed to humans and other critters as if she were about to attack.

But Ruff Remy, who fancied himself a cat whisperer, having been brought up in a house with eleven felines, accepted Marie on her own terms. To him, she was a gentle giant, a smart and friendly creature with a passion for observing the world around her, including photos of other cats, her own image reflected in glass, and the pages of open books and newspapers. But what Chef Remy especially appreciated was Marie’s surprising love for the healthy food he prepared for her in the Student Commons’ kitchen and put into a special bowl marked “CHAT.” Or, if she didn’t show up for a while, he would bring the bowl outdoors to wherever she was hiding.

Marie tried her best to please Ruff, as she had heard others call him, by extended sniffing, purring in fake ecstasy, taking a few bites of his mushy offerings and then crawling up into his lap or into her lair, feigning sleep. And it worked, mostly. He thought she adored his food, but really she only loved him.

The truth was, she was a cat, and a Maine coon at that. Nothing appealed to her more than fresh caught meat—once she tired of chasing and playing with it—still warm and twitching during that first bloody bite. Several times, Marie had tried to introduce her fondness for meat to Ruff by laying gift morsels in front of his kitchen door so he would find them when he arrived in the morning. A few tree frogs, a black-capped chickadee, a couple of Townsend’s voles, one Eastern gray squirrel, and a large, half-eaten Norway rat that Ruff hurled back at her screaming, “Mauvais chat!” Apparently, Ruff really did not like meat.

One morning, after a long night attempting unsuccessfully to claw her way up the Douglas fir to where a family of newborn raccoons nested, Marie had to settle for tearing two Pacific sideband snails apart. Although their shells were fun to crunch, their meat was minimal, sticky, and far too astringent. Under-sated, Marie returned to her lair, coiled her long tail around her head and fell into a luscious dream of richer fare involving young possums and a garter snake.

“CHATelaine, my love. My best cat ever. I have something for you.”

Marie immediately sat up. It was Ruff with the bowl. She stared at him, and then at the bowl of something that smelled both earthy and possibly even pungent, but sadly not of meat. She yawned.

“Pour toi, mon bon chat, un bon RAT(atouille),” Ruff whispered the last bit, pushing the bowl toward her. Marie wished she knew how to faint. She backed away slightly. Then she got the joke.

If cats can laugh, Marie did then, and it sounded as if she were trying to cough up a hairball while jiggling her head like a wooden bobble-chat on a shelf. She slunk into her lair and brought out the rear-end-with-tail of the same Norwegian rat Ruff had thrown back at her. She dropped it on top of the muck in the bowl, meowing, “For you, my good human, your RAT(a-tat-tat).”

* * *

Ruff tied on his apron and flipped the switch on the water boiler, enough for a full French press of coffee. He hated McPherson’s pretentious piss-exuding German espresso. When his brigade de cuisine arrived, the two sassy Prendergast twins, George and Ginger, loaded and fired up the German monster, relieving Ruff of that horror, while he toasted coconut, chopped walnuts, washed blueberries, and simmered a vat of steel-cut oats in cinnamon flavored almond milk.

Curiously, a few handfuls of ravenous students endured Ruff’s “Chef’s Breakfast” day after day, while most drowned themselves in espressos, lattes, cappuccinos and mochas, as did the twins.

“How can you drink that French press crap, Chef? It tastes like brown chalk!” they asked in unison.

Chef shook his head. The last thing he wanted to do was piss off this crew of two work-study students, his only help in the kitchen, thanks to McPherson’s voracious and costly personal appetites. But dang! “What the hell do you newbies know about coffee, huh? I’m friggin’ French, okay. Give me a break.”

“Sorry Chef,” they cooed in unison, looking askance at each other.

A noise near the doors, a cross between a whine and a howl alerted them.

“Hey, Ginger, check the doors, please. I think CHATeaubriand may have arrived. But why isn’t she coming in?”

“Sure thing Chef. I’m on it Chef.”

“George, you carry the oatmeal and accoutrements out to the counter.”

“The what?”

“The stuff that goes on top.”

“Copy that Chef.”

Ginger headed for the door. She removed the brick and opened the door all the way.

Marie had something in her mouth. She stepped inside and dropped whatever it was in front of her. She picked it up and dropped it again.

“What have you got there, cat? What is it girl?” Ginger asked bending down. “Your CATastrophe’s got something, Chef. You better come take a look.”

Ruff walked over to where Marie was standing. “Let me see what you brought, CHAToyance, and it better not be a rat or you’re in deep merde.”

Marie bent forward. She dropped a small tube on the floor. Ruff picked it up. “What is this Ginger? It looks like lipstick.” He handed the tube to Ginger.

“Nah, it’s lip gloss, the stuff a lot of us girls, and some of the boys, use around here to make themselves look more, well, kissable. Cherry, I think. Yep, it says Cherry, right here on the side. That’s George’s fave. Mine’s banana.”

Ginger returned the tube to Ruff and headed back toward the prep station. “I’ll go help George and then hang out in the dining room if that’s okay, Chef. Maybe have a latte while I wait for the crowd to storm in.”

Ruff nodded. “Where’d you find this, sweet girl?” he asked Marie. And with that, the cat ran off with Ruff jogging behind in his cloud-white jacket, holding onto his toque blanche with both hands.

* * *

Justine, puffy-eyed and possibly delirious from a lack of sleep, food, and a sledgehammer of guilt pounding her conscience, couldn’t stand it any longer. Because of her stupidity, a girl, a fifteen-year-old freshman for whom she was supposed to be a mentor and role model for a few minutes, had disappeared.

Oh, jeez, what if she’s been murdered? Or worse? I have to find Annabelle or leave Westminster Academy in disgrace. How would that affect my future?

“O.M.G. I’m such a jerk!” Justine wanted to scream, but at least she had the sense to whisper instead since her parents and brother were asleep down the hall. Their lives were so much simpler than hers.

Justine braided her honey-colored hair, watching herself in the mirror. She looked horrible…just what she deserved. Good thing she knew what she had to do. She zipped a camouflage-patterned parka over her pink flannel poodle pajamas and pulled an army green cap over her head. She packed her fencing bag with her best mask, gloves and jacket, scanned her collection of weapons and decided on a sabre because of its speed and cutting ability.

I’ll need a flashlight. Duh. She found one, tucked it into her parka pocket and tiptoed out the back door into pre-dawn darkness. After slipping on her hiking boots, Justine pushed her scooter down the road until she could start the engine undetected.

Arriving on campus, Justine parked her baby blue scooter at the far end of the parking lot. She hooked on her Bose sport open earbuds and found Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad’s, Proud: My Fight for An Unlikely American Dream, on her iPhone. Listening to Ibtihaj’s memoir always made Justine feel like she wasn’t alone in the world. She turned toward the school’s majestic mascot, the Douglas fir, though at the moment it only looked like a towering black silhouette against the slightly lighter sky.

“Wish me luck, Doug!” she shouted heading toward where she imagined the trail to the beach began. Justine had rarely ambled along any of the trails on campus, and had certainly never been down to the beach. She’d heard that the trek required walking through a dense forest connected to the tidier arboretum, then a zigzag of sometimes washed-out switchbacks down the bluff trail, and at the bottom a climb over outcroppings of rocks, driftwood and other debris before reaching the sand. Maybe Annabelle had tripped on a root, or slid off the trail, or fallen from the bluff onto the rocks below. Or, she might even have been washed out into the cold and churning Salish Sea.

“Oh shit! Stop freaking yourself out, scaredy-cat!” she screamed.

Justine reached down to turn up the volume on Proud. Soon she found an opening at the back of the arboretum that led into the forest. Thank goodness it was now light enough to see the trail stretched out before her. But after a while, she heard a sound like wind, or maybe a wolf- or human-size animal brushing the bush behind her. She turned around, and what she saw made her heart nearly explode out of her chest. “Wh…what are you doing here?”