THE MYSTERY BOX
Hours went by as the animals slept, and night came.
"You're snoring! Snoring!" Gabby poked Ernest with her beak.
"Sorry," Ernest said, half asleep. She went back to sleep, but he was now wide awake, worrying.
"Ernest! You're squishing me!" Milly cried.
How could such a small cat take over the whole bed? Ernest apologized again, and the night wore on. Above the old black stove, the clock ticked away.
Grampa's rooster, Rory - the loudest rooster in the county - began crowing as dawn approached. Ernest clung to the hope that someday Rory would be made into chicken soup. He had chased Ernest repeatedly when he was a piglet, new to the Bed and Biscuit.
Now Ernest stuck his head under a blanket and lay still. Finally Grampa's white pickup truck roared by the kitchen window. Ernest, Milly, and Gabby lined up at the low window to watch.
Grampa hurried into the barn and came out with a dark wooden box - about the size of a breadbox. He entered the kitchen with a tired,
" 'Morning, troops," and went on by, heading for the stairs to his bedroom.
They listened as he slowly mounted the steps.
"Well, wouldn't that frost your beak!" Gabby said from her perch on the back of a chair.
"Oh, hush," Ernest said.
Gabby stuck her beak in the air. "Ah, Lord Ernest Piglet is at it again." She turned her back and talked to the wall. "I'll never know why Grampa had to add a bossy pig to this family."
"You won't figure it out, either, birdbrain!"
Gabby whirled around. "Blabby little fat-belly!"
"Sorry excuse for a parrot!"
Ernest was running out of insults. What was Grampa doing anyway?
Milly gave a pitiful mew.
Eager to change the subject, Ernest said, "You win. So what do we think Grampa got out of the barn? I never saw that box before."
"He had something in his arms, too, when he got out of the truck," Milly said. "It's a bundle. I saw it."
"Really?" said Ernest. "Did he have it when he came through here?"
Milly's ears flattened and she shook out her fur. "I don't know, but I'm going up there to see for myself. It's my bedroom, too!"
"Well, wouldn't that frost your beak!" Gabby said.
Time passed. Ernest fidgeted.
Gabby flew from the rocking chair to the end of the kitchen counter and began to clean her shimmering purple-green tailfeathers.
"Do you think the bundle came from McBroom's farm?" Ernest asked her.
"Who knows? Grampa was gone all night. He could have been all over the county."
"Well, how about that box? Do you know what it's for?"
"Honestly! Can't you see I'm busy?"
"But this is important!"
Gabby stopped preening. "How do you know?"
"I just do."
At that point Milly marched into the kitchen. She sat on Ernest's bed where the white tip of her striped tail tapped up and down. Tap . . . tap . . . tap.
Ernest said, "Well? What is Grampa doing? Tell us about the box."
"It's hot," she said. "I felt it with my whiskers when I tried to look inside."
"Is it a toaster?" Ernest asked. "Is Grampa cooking in his room?"
"No, but it plugs into the wall like a toaster."
Suddenly Gabby cried, "The bundle! Tell us about the bundle!"
Milly's green eyes narrowed. "The bundle is in the box. I tried to get a look at it, and Grampa pushed me away." Her tail tapped faster.
"You poor thing," Gabby said with unusual sympathy.
"Now, Milly, Grampa's just tired," said Ernest. "He thinks you're the best cat in the world."
Milly drooped. "Right now, all he cares about is what's in that box."
Ernest went on. "Maybe whatever is in the box could hurt you, Milly."
"Right. Most likely a pit bull," Gabby said.
Unamused, Ernest and Milly stared at her.
"Just trying to lighten things up!" Gabby said, waggling her beak.
"Seriously," Milly went on, "how could it hurt me? It's tiny!"
"You're sure the bundle is inside the box? And it isn't food?"
"I'm sure. He's talking to it." Milly glared at Gabby and Ernest. "Have you ever seen Grampa talk to his lunch?"
"No, but he talks to the newspaper and the TV . . . and of course, he always talks to us." Ernest stopped short.
"There," said Milly.
Ernest bent down and nuzzled her satiny head. "You think what's in the box is alive, don't you?"
"Yes. And it stinks."
"Stinks?" Ernest and Gabby said together.
"Like the barbecue grill. Outside, where we have picnics."
"Hmm." Ernest was thoughtful. "So it smells like smoke."
"Yes," Milly said. "It smells burned, too. But Grampa must think it's wonderful. He hardly even noticed I was in the room. So I left."
Ernest saw how upset she was. She had slept with Grampa ever since he had found her hiding, tiny and terrified, in his barn. She was so sickly that he had fed her with an eyedropper and carried her around in his jacket pocket. He called her his Milly-Baby, and from the beginning, his bed had been her bed.
"I'm not going back up there," Milly announced. "I'll just sleep with you, Ernest - like I did last night - if that's all right?"
"Oh . . . fine . . . sure," Ernest lied gallantly.
"I'm on the curtain rod, Milly, in case you need me," said Gabby.
But who, or what, was upstairs with Grampa? Ernest wondered.
WELCOME TO THE BED AND BISCUIT by Joan Carris. Text copyright © 2006 by Joan Carris. Published by Candlewick Press, Inc., Cambridge, MA.
Excerpted from Welcome to the Bed and Biscuit by Joan Carris. Copyright © 2009 by Joan Carris. Excerpted by permission of Candlewick, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.