Stray


Paul had seen the two kittens hiding under the row of cars parked along his side of the street. They had been wrestling in the narrow safety between the still cars and the curb. One was black with a white chest and its sibling was an orange tabby. He saw them and enjoyed seeing them but did not stop as he wanted to and offer them a better place to stay because of Rachel’s allergies. When they would pass them coming home from the store or leaving the apartment, him for school, her for work, he would walk a little slower if he spied the cats and she would roll her eyes and walk ahead. She did not understand the appeal of their triangular heads, their jumpy overreactions.

Rachel told Paul that she would rather have rats than a cat, for at least rats were intelligent creatures. This may have helped to lessen the sting when Rachel later declared that she was moving out, that life with a perpetual doctoral student felt like she was walking slowly backwards.

After a few mornings of waking up surrounded by an army of empty beer cans, Paul decided to take advantage of his freedom from Rachel’s mental tyranny. For three years they had lived together, her adjuncting then deciding to leave academia for a paycheck that would cover their rent until Paul finished his dissertation. He admits, even to himself, that the last extension was unnecessary. He was finished with the writing, with the research, with the edits. His advisors had all heartily approved of his work and were waiting to support him when he went before the committee but by now the enthusiasm was beginning to wane.

Rachel was less polite than his professors and told him that he was afraid of the real world. Paul said that if the real world was where she sold her soul everyday then he wanted nothing to do with it, though he did not say these words aloud. Aloud he said, sorry babe, I know you are working really hard and I am going to make it up to you. That was over four months earlier, before the kittens even existed.

This morning, Paul gathered up his beer cans and took them downstairs, filling up the bright green recycling bin waiting on the sidewalk. It was a little embarrassing to see his nightly sorrow shining in the plastic bin but he reasoned it was a new day, a day in which was his alone, a day he could shit without closing the bathroom door, a day he could eat Oreos for lunch and throw away all of Rachel’s abandoned beans and smoothie mixes.

He had walked up the steps and was looking inside his empty mailbox when he remembered the kittens. Of course, he said, grinning, the kittens. He went back outside and started looking under the cars, clicking his tongue, calling softly to them, but no little black or orange head popped out to mew at him.

He walked further along and was met by his downstairs neighbor, Sara, a middle-aged artist who polluted the building with the smell of sage incense and flyers for art shows held in far-flung garages-cum-galleries/hair salons.

Are you looking for those kittens that were out here? she asked, her frizzy grey hair annoying him as much as her tattered sandals.

Paul nodded.

Oh, I took them in last week. Poor things, they were sure to get crushed out here. Besides, she added as she walked up the steps carrying as Paul noticed, a bag of kitten food, I needed some company. You’re welcome to come visit them anytime. She smiled at Paul but he only noticed the smudge of red lipstick on her teeth.

You horrible witch, he thought though aloud he said, oh, I am just glad they have a good home.

Dejected, Paul walked towards the corner store to buy another case of beer. He stopped at the ATM outside and was about to withdraw some more of his dwindling student loan when he noticed the cat in the tiny alley between the store and the shuttered dry cleaners. He clicked his tongue and it hissed.

Aw, poor thing, he said. He crouched and stretched out his hand so the cat could understand that he was not a threat but a savior. Come here, he said. The cat arched its back. Paul put his wallet back in his pocket and went inside the store.

Can I get an empty box? Paul was shown the pile waiting by the backdoor. Thanks so much, he said, I am going to use it to get that little cat outside your store.

The clerk, who had not bothered to look up from his rifle magazine since Paul had entered the store, said, that nasty grey thing out there? Man, you’re crazy but whatever, it’s your funeral.

Uncompassionate bastard, Paul thought though aloud he said, It’ll be fine, I’m really good with animals. This last bit was an outright lie as Paul had never had a pet in his entire life, not even a fish. His parents were in the military so they moved too much for pets, his father reasoned. And when he went to university, he lived in the dorms until he met Rachel. This cat, Paul thought as he checked the bottom of the box to make sure it was secure, is going to change my life. That was the one thing he was right about.

The cat did not give Paul a chance to convince it that he meant no harm. Paul tapped into a reserve of determination even he did not know he possessed. By the time he had the cat contained in the box, his hands and forearms were crisscrossed with his own blood. The box was a good triple ply which meant the cat was unable to shred it immediately but its claws would get caught for a second, a white curved needle protruding from the brown surface. The box thundered and quaked with the cat’s rage but Paul managed to hold onto it for the few blocks back to the apartment.

The stairs were a challenge but since the elevator was still out, he had little choice. A quick tabby paw shot out of the crack where the flaps overlapped but he could withstand a few cuts on his neck. Inside the place, he set the box down in the middle of the living room and stood back, expecting it to burst out immediately. When that did not happen, he became concerned by the stillness and went to inspect. He lifted one flap and the cat flew out at him, attaching itself to his back somehow. He spun around trying to get it off but it only clung tighter, its claws sinking deep into his skin. The pain caused him to fall back into a bookcase which dislodged the cat.

He apologized to the cat as he quickly scanned the room to figure out where it was. He could not see it but heard a low snarl coming from his bedroom. Looking through the doorway, he saw the cat was standing on his bed, back arched, tail completely flayed like a bottle brush. It stood next to a dark circle on his sheet and he saw that his pillow had been graced with three brown lumps. He took a step forward, thinking he would grab the cat and toss it into the bathroom until he could get all the stuff that cats required.

As he took another step the snarling grew louder and now included hissing for good measure. He was just about to cross the threshold when he saw that the cat was preparing to spring at him. He was able to grab the door knob and pull the door closed just as it took flight. He heard it hit the back of the door and then there was a slight pause that was followed by fevered scratching along the door jam. The door knob rattled with the cat’s attempts to open it so Paul grabbed a dining room chair and wedged the top underneath the brass knob. Then he went to the fridge, got his last beer that he had hid from himself in the crisper, and sunk down to the floor right there in the kitchen. The rattling stopped.

With the beer recharging his courage, he went back to the door and removed the chair. Okay, cat, he said, let’s try again. He went to turn the knob but found that it resisted him. He tried again with increasing force. Nothing. That was when he realized that the cat had managed to turn the lock. And unfortunately, there was no way for him to jimmy it open as the knob was completely flat on his side. It was a safety lock that Rachel had installed because she did not feel comfortable by herself in the apartment. He examined the door but he could not even take it off the hinges for this side. The cat was as stuck in the bedroom as he was stuck outside of it.

After a few hours, no noises came from the other side of the door. Paul found he could function quite well without the bedroom, though it meant his access to the bathroom was also cut off. He found that for most needs the kitchen sink was quite sufficient and everything else could be tended to on campus.

Days passed into weeks. Paul occasionally put a glass against the door and still heard the creature snarling on the other side so he knew it was not yet dead. Feeling guilty about the trapped cat, he spent more and more time on campus and found at the month’s end that he was finished with his dissertation.

He was on his third celebratory beer when he texted Rachel to tell her that he had done the impossible and discovered that she was not only proud of him but in the neighborhood and on her way up the stairs. He tried to tell her that he was not decent but before he could press send she was letting herself into the apartment.

He glanced at the bedroom but since there was no need of it anymore, felt that telling Rachel about the cat was unnecessary. Judging by her overly friendly manner and pink cheeks, Rachel too had already been drinking before climbing up the five flights of stairs to her former address. She too had news to share: she was quitting her job and working on a collection of poetry. She already had a publisher and a deadline. This meant more beer needed to be drunk and they took that task seriously. After about thirty minutes of catching up and dissolving the awkwardness can by can, they found themselves undressing each other. Paul was content to continue on the sofa but Rachel insisted they change locations. She led the way and as soon as she touched the doorknob, Paul recalled the cat.

No, he shouted, don’t go in there. Why? Rachel asked, is there someone in there, her eyebrows raised in suspicion.

Not someone, said Paul. Something. There is a starving cat on the other side of that door.

What? Why is it starving?

Because it locked itself in and I can’t get in.

Oh, dummy, this handle has a little trick, you just have to lift and turn it a bit counterclockwise.

And before Paul could stop her, Rachel opened the door. He rushed up behind her, thinking to protect her naked body for the vicious claws but she mistook his quick action for eagerness and pulled him down on top of her on the bed.

Afterward, he remembered the dark circle and the brown lumps, which he could not find at first but discovered they had rolled behind the pillow. He flicked them off the mattress and made himself comfortable, Rachel already sleeping on her side, her bare bottom pressed against him. He could not believe his luck but just then heard the low growl coming from under the bed. Paul knew he should do something but the beer and vigorous activity overwhelmed him- soon he too was fast asleep.

When they woke up the next day, they searched the entire apartment but the cat was nowhere to be found. No windows had been left open, no vent left unguarded. They showered and washed the sheets and went about their life. And when they did hear a growl, they blamed the floorboards.