Jumping the fences was not allowed. On occasion this rule was broken, for Blossom and Riley, her best feline friend forever, believed life confined to the backyard was perhaps OK for chipmunks, but not for cats. Unfortunately, one morning Mrs. H cornered Blossom in the laundry room. “The time has come, Blossom, for you to be registered and wear a collar with identification,” she chirped while fastening the dreaded collar with tag about Blossom’s neck. “And Riley’s owners have done the same,” she added with a sly smile. Later that day, down where the fences came together, Blossom and Riley sat sulking as Merle, the neighbor bulldog, barked about his family’s upcoming vacation plans.
“Guess where we’re going?” Merle said. “I’ll give you one clue: I’m going to have the best time ever!”
Blossom listened politely even though her fur bristled at the unfairness of Merle getting to go on a fun-filled vacation while all she got was a binding collar. Riley, on the other paw, was displaying very bad manners. “This collar is so embarrassing,” he whined.
Merle did a little hop. “Riley, it’s your duty to wear a collar with proper identification. Now, I know you’re just dying to know where I’m going.” Merle sat back proudly and woofed most boastfully, “We’re going to Brainerd. And we’re staying at a condo on a lake! I’ll get to swim in the lake and build sand castles on the beach and catch fish from a boat! We’re leaving tomorrow morning.”
Catch fish. Merle’s rapidly wagging tail was enough to make fur curl. But Blossom held her good-mannered tongue and meowed, “Where is Brainerd?”
“Up North!” said Merle. “It’s over 100 miles away and takes hours to get there!” He practically galloped back to his house, Blossom and Riley wistfully watching him go.
“I think my collar’s cheap looking, if you know what I mean,” Riley grumbled.
Blossom was about to meow how the new metal tag resting against her chest was very annoying when Dylan, the crow, landed atop the chain link fence.
“That’s a beautiful collar you have on, Balsam,” Dylan cawed. “I saw the tag glimmering from afar.”
Dylan always mispronounced Blossom’s name. But because she wanted to pick his little bird brain for ideas, she decided to ignore this shortcoming. “Dylan, Riley and I want to go Up North. Do you know how to get there?” she meowed.
Dylan flapped his wings. “Take a bus from the senior center parking lot. I see many buses there while I’m eating breakfast off the asphalt. I heard one bus goes to Hinckley. That’s Up North.”
“I know the buses you’re cawing about!” said Blossom. “I’ve seen them on the way to visit Dr. Moss, my vet!”
The next morning Blossom and Riley jumped the fence and trotted to the senior center. People stood in the parking lot, many with hair the color and consistency of cotton balls. Blossom’s whiskers twitched twice as a bus drove into the center’s round-about and stopped. The bus was the color of purple martens and had a lovely lake mural running along its side. Blossom thought she actually spotted Dr. Moss in the crowd but was sidetracked when Riley meowed, “These people don’t look like they’re going on vacation.”
“Yes they do,” Blossom insisted. “Dylan said so. I’m sure he said that.”
“I have to disagree with you, Blossom,” said Riley. “Where are their suitcases?”
Blossom grunted. “We’re going on vacation and we don’t have suitcases.”
The bus driver climbed out of the bus to assist the line of people, giving Blossom and Riley a chance to sneak on and hide under the seats. Once everyone was settled, which took a bit as the people with the cotton ball hair moved like snails, the driver announced, “We’re off to Mystic Lake Casino.”
“Mystic Lake!” Blossom crowed, knowing she was right and Riley was wrong. “Mystic Lake is where Merle’s family was headed. I’m sure he called the lake mystic!”
Riley’s eyes were slits. “Merle said he was going boating on a lake that had castles. Those were his exact barks.”
After a meow-nstrously long ride of bickering and another lengthy unloading of passengers, Blossom and Riley hopped out, taking in the vacation scenery while everyone else filed into the casino. On either side of the main building were very, very tall structures dotted with windows that sparkled diamond-like in the sun. “This is the condo where Merle is staying.” Blossom tipped her head back to see all the way to the top floor. “Merle, we’re down here,” she howled. Yes, a good time was in the cards. She could feel it in her fur.
“But where’s the lake?” Riley sniffed the air. “I can’t even smell it, if you know what I mean.”
The casino’s entrance door was about to close so they scrambled in. Blossom’s visions of clambakes and fish fries were put on paws as they made their way through the dark casino with dim lighting, flashing neon signs and unpredictable sounds. Ding! Ding! Ding! Blossom and Riley wound in and out of people strolling the floors or planted at game machines, fingers flickering over the brightly lit screens. Beep! The minute one machine went quiet another started up. Beep! Coins clinked out of the payout slots, bouncing about as if they were alive. The air was hazy with smoke. “It stinks in here!” sniffled Blossom. “How can Merle stand this? He has such a sensitive nose!” Beep!
One machine had lime colored fish blinking across its screen. Blossom’s paw itched to reach up and touch the wiggly images. She actually lifted a foot to just touch . . . Ding! Ding! Ding! She swiftly put it back down as her thoughts scattered like bird seed. A deep voice came booming out of nowhere. Merle Johnson, you’ve just won a car. You have 45 seconds to come to the front desk and claim your prize!
“Merle!” Blossom and Riley wide-eyed each other.
“I didn’t know Merle’s last name was Johnson, did you?” said Riley.
“Who cares?” meowed Blossom. “He can give us a ride to the lake. Where is the front desk?”
After locating the front desk, they did some serious skulking but Merle did not appear. However, a gentleman came huffing and puffing to the counter. “I’m Merle Johnson!” he cried. One casino worker handed him a set of keys. Another took his photo as he grinned ear to ear. The booming voice blasted from the walls again. Merle Johnson has just claimed his car!
Blossom placed a paw on the gentleman’s pant leg. “Excuse me, but you’re not Merle, you liar. That car belongs to our friend but he can’t claim it right now because he’s out catching fish on Mystic Lake.” The Merle imposter stepped on her tail. As Blossom let out a lion-sized hiss, a shaft of bright light flooded the casino floor and, for just a whisker, she thought perhaps it was God coming to make the car thief/tail stomper give back the car. But it was only a customer opening the entrance door, preparing to leave. Blossom and Riley took this opportunity to exit themselves.
Sitting on the curb, tails swishing, Riley meowed, “This is the stupidest vacation ever. We haven’t found the boat or lake or castles. And someone took Merle’s car!”
“I’m never going to Brainerd again,” whimpered Blossom. She stared at the five buses lined at the curb, all purple, all with lake scenery splashed across their sides. “Holy cat chow! Now we’re hundreds of miles from home and we don’t even know which bus to get back on.”
“You’re not hundreds of miles from home, Balsam.” Blossom looked up to see Dylan, the crow, perched on a stop sign.
“Dylan, did you take the bus too?” said Blossom. “You couldn’t have flown. You’re hours from home.”
“I’m only 15 minutes from home, as the crow flies,” cawed Dylan.
“No,” said Riley. “Merle said Brainerd was hours away.”
“But you’re not in Brainerd,” cawed Dylan. “You’re in Prior Lake.”
“No, Dylan, you are mistaken,” huffed Blossom. “We’re at Mystic Lake.”
“No, you’re at a casino,” Dylan cawed knowingly. “There is no lake. Mystic Lake is just the name of the casino.” He puffed up proudly, looking like he’d just polished off prized carrion.
Blossom and Riley blinked at each other as Dylan flapped his wings and flew off. A man’s shoes clipped loudly across the drive, then stopped before the third bus in line. The man got in, causing Blossom to do a somersault. She’d know that man anywhere, even without his white coat. “My vet just got on that bus! Come on, Riley!” Blossom dashed toward the bus, calling, “Dr. Moss, it’s me, Blossom, your favorite patient!”
Dr. Moss did recognize Blossom and commended her for wearing an ID tag. “However,” he said, “Since I know where you belong, I’ll just call Mrs. Hatcher and let her know I found you two at the casino.” Blossom decided a not so good time was in the cards. Mrs. H was pretty handy at dealing time-outs in the basement.
As the bus loaded and cruised out of the parking lot, Riley’s mug scrunched to a pout. “Blossom, my collar’s not only dorky-looking, my tags didn’t work like they were supposed to. I thought Dr. Moss would just drop us off in our backyards and nobody would know we’d been gone.”
That scenario was what Blossom had hoped for as well, but, chin high, she replied, “Riley, look how much smarter we are for having jumped the fence. Now that we’ve visited Mystic Lake, we know we wouldn’t come back here again if we had nineteen lives!”
“We are really smart,” Riley agreed. “I can’t wait to tell Merle he won a car but somebody stole it.”