From the author: Cats have magic, but they only use it when they feel obligated.
by Meg Elison
Patty left work, harried and pushing her red hair off her brow. She had had a long day filled with the cries of sick children and the impotence of their aggrieved parents. She wanted to get home to her own children. She did not notice anything unusual about her car as she slid behind the steering wheel and drove toward the setting sun.
At the red light, the wind picked up just enough to whiffle a scrap of paper stuck beneath her windshield wiper. She saw it and made a face, the corners of her mouth pulling down. No way it could be a ticket; Perfect Pediatrics had its own private lot out back for the doctors and staff. A note, then?
She looked in the rearview and saw that cars were lining up behind her Kia. She rolled down her window and leaned, straining her arm to reach it. She touched it twice without being able to clamp her two longest fingers together. Just as the light turned green, she managed to snatch it free, tearing it in the process. Someone honked behind her and she accelerated, sighing. It hadn’t been a full second of green light yet, she was sure.
After she had parked at the grocery store and checked her phone for the list, she picked up the piece of paper, ripped along the bottom edge. She stared at it.
BEFORE YOU START YOUR ENGINE, YOU SHOULD KNOW THAT THERE’S A KITTEN UNDER YOUR HOOD. BE CAREFUL.
And then a smiley face.
“Shit,” Patty said. She opened the door and hit the button to pop the hood of her car.
It got dark fast as Patty tried to track the mincing, high-pitched mews to their source somewhere deep in the engine. She held her phone up, using it as a flashlight while her right hand crawled through the hot, greasy machinery to find the cat. With her wrist trapped in a tight spot, she managed to pinch a furry bit of skin. Instantly, the beast’s claws were in her hand like ten needles, joined simultaneously by its pinprick fangs.
Patty, long-toughened by kids who bit when a shot went in, was ready. She widened her grip and wrapped her hand around the thing’s writhing ribcage. She dragged the kitten out, barely clearing the opening and squeezing another pitiful meow from the cat’s small mouth. When it emerged into the blue-white light of her cell phone, Patty saw she was holding a malnourished coal-black kitten. It hardly seemed big enough to be weaned.
Patty held the kitten by the scruff of its neck while she hunted for some way to contain it in the car. She spoke to it absently while she rummaged in her kids’ garbage.
“Can’t have you squeezing under a chair while I get us home,” she said. The kitten gave a sound deep in its throat, trying to growl but not knowing how.
Patty settled for a paper McDonald’s bag with three ancient french fries shaken out of it.
“You’re gonna be a salty, greasy kitty and I’m sorry,” Patty said as she lowered the cat into the bag. The kitten immediately began to claw at the paper.
Patty started the engine up again and drove the rest of the way home.
Denver and Dallas, her two redheaded kids, were eating a pizza on the couch when she walked in.
“Hi, honey.” Her husband Tom stood in the doorway to the kitchen. “You didn’t answer my texts, so I picked up a pizza.”
“That’s fine,” Patty said tiredly. “I got—” She lifted the bag and Denver spoke up.
“You got fries? Can I have some fries?”
“No,” Patty said tiredly. “I did not get fries.”
At that exact moment, the black kitten succeeded at scratching its escape from the bag and fell halfway through a grease spot. Its forepaws clawed at the air, but its hips hung in the paper. It mewed like the squeaking of a balloon animal.
“Whoa!” Dallas exclaimed, jumping off the couch and running toward her mother. “We got a cat!”
Patty opened her mouth to tell them they probably couldn’t keep the cat. But both her kids had come, holding the kitten gently and stroking its elegant triangular head, exposing the milky blue of its eyes for the first time. The kids took gentle turns holding the kitten in the crooks of their necks, so tender with the baby beast that she couldn’t bear to take it away.
The kitten feasted on cream and the runoff from a can of tuna. In the weeks that followed, it doubled in weight and went in for shots and an antibiotic treatment when its eyelids crusted shut.
The kitten grew rounder and friendlier by the day, striking only in play. It slept on the kids at night and begged for bacon beneath the kitchen table. Its eyes changed sharply, shedding the baby galaxy blues and turning heterochromatic: one yellow and one green. As it turned from kitten to cat, Dallas and Denver argued over what its name should be.
“Motor, because it’s black like motor oil and it purrs like an engine.” Dallas scratched the kitten beneath its chin, which she knew was its favorite.
“That’s dumb. Should be Piston, because it was inside the engine the whole time.” Denver scritched just above the kitten’s tail, which he knew was its favorite.
“Sounds like piss,” said Dallas, sneering.
“What if it’s a girl,” asked Tom. “What will you name it then?”
They both scoffed as if he were the dumbest man alive. At fourteen and fifteen, they did this quite often.
“Like it matters, Dad.”
“Yeah, are you gonna have sex with it?”
“Hey. Hey.” Tom tried not to blow up at them. He rubbed the kitten behind its ears, because that was what the little guy always seemed to want. They had an understanding, he and this cat.
Patty decided in the end that the cat’s name was Dumpling, since the cat had been dumped but had turned out to be pretty cute. Long subject to the tyranny with which all mothers rule, her family fell in line. Dumpling grew as round and soft as her name.
The cat loved Patty best. It would sleep with the kids and cuddle with Tom when he was up late, curling in his lap. But it followed Patty back and forth across the house when she was home. It got underfoot when she was cooking and tapped her with one paw, begging to be petted while Patty answered emails.
Dumpling liked Patty because Patty smelled like the Place. Dumpling didn’t want to go back to the Place, but she was pleased every time she remembered how she and her brother had climbed into that warm car, leaving their starving siblings behind. She had survived that terrible, grinding ride and made it into this soft, warm house full of people. Sometimes when the family let her out at night Dumpling went and visited her brother’s skull, crammed in the undercarriage of the Kia, picked clean by the ants. He never had much to say, but he reminded her of the Place, helped her feel the glowing triumph of having lived.
In time, once she was fixed, Dumpling met other cats. Most of them had safe, warm houses, too. They had kids like Denver and Dallas, they had women like Patty and men like Tom. Some of them had dogs and stank of it. Dumpling rubbed her face on the fragrant housecats she met, and remembered her mother’s belly fur. That was good.
The cats would sometimes trade favors. They had only a little of their magic left. Most of them had forgotten and the lines were broken; overbred squash-faced cats do not dream of pyramids. Still, they could crackle a little static between their tails and get some work done.
Dumpling knew before anyone else that Denver was in trouble. The smell came from him one night, milky like sex, followed by the metallic bloody stink of sickness. Dumpling left his bed and tried to sleep with Dallas, but the girl tossed and turned as if she knew, too.
The next day, Dumpling watched Dallas to see if she would tell her mother about the sickness. But nothing was done.
The smell grew. Dumpling yowled in the hallways and shat in the bathtub. They didn’t understand.
Denver was too embarrassed to tell his mother about the lump he had found. He knew she was a nurse and she had told him long ago that it was normal to touch himself, but that it was private and nobody needed to know about it. He wrestled with his shame and terror for days, trying to find a way to say it.
Dumpling kneaded the boy’s chest while he lay on his back. She didn’t know what else to say.
Finally, one morning, the boy told his mother he was sick and couldn’t go to school.
“You don’t have a fever,” Patty said, pressing her cheek to the Denver’s forehead. Dumpling wound between Patty’s feet like an infinite eel.
“No, I just don’t feel good.”
Something in her son’s face made Patty acquiesce.
Denver showered and waited until he knew his father and sister were gone. His mother was working the late shift and hadn’t left yet.
He came to the study and interrupted her. Dumpling watched from a chair across the room. Patty listened intently, and her sweat began to stink of fear like the boy’s. Fear of the lump. She asked to look and Denver turned red all over, but he did show her. Then, Patty was bustling him out the door. She was taking him to the Place.
Dumpling knew that the Place was full of sick babies and kids. It was why her mother had left them there. In her dotty, feral mind, she thought that the humans there would see their own sick offspring in her abandoned kittens and make the connection. It hadn’t worked that way. Dumpling was the only one left, but she remembered.
The Place was not going to save Denver.
That night, Dumpling curled at the foot of Tom and Patty’s bed, her tail switching testily.
“The first test, the one they do in the lab there came up positive. They have to send it out to find out more. But they’re saying it is cancer. The question now is malignant or benign.”
Tom ran his hands through his thinning, graying hair. “Lots of guys only have one, right? Like that cyclist. It’s no big deal.”
“Sure. Sure. If it’s early enough for that. If it isn’t… if it’s spread, I mean. Then we have to be aggressive.” Patty’s voice was brittle.
Dumpling, like all cats, understood human language. She knew they were hoping for the best. They were wrong. The smell of death ran all over the boy in the other room, pooling in his armpits and crisscrossing his chest. If he had been a kitten of Dumpling’s, she’d move the other kittens away from him and never come back.
But Dumpling also knew that humans can’t have litters. They could only have ones and twos, and so they tried to save them all. She pitied them.
She had to scratch for a long time to get let out. It was Denver who finally came down the stairs to open the door.
“Fucking cat,” he mumbled, closing the latch. Dumpling didn’t hear. She didn’t care.
She slipped beneath the car and let the tip of her tail touch her brother’s skull. To give death its due.
She met the other cats and slid against them, her fur crackling, sniffing. She had to find the right one.
The toms did not like her. They knew she was fixed, and her odd eyes often sent them away. She had gone far from home when she found him.
He was an orange, green-eyed, unaltered male. He had a family, but they kept him for a hunter. He ate whole prey, light bird bones and rubbery rat tails caught between heavy paws and slicing claws that had never been sharpened on a sofa. His coat shone and his muscles made him wide.
She caught his eye and hissed.
He approached her at once, prepared to mount.
She suffered his bite at the back of her neck and his barbed penis. She crouched beneath his yowling and waited it out.
His low, grinding voice was in her ear. “Why do this? There will be no sweet, sharp kittens.”
She tossed her head a little, shaking her ruff, impatient. “I need you in the old way.”
His spine turned to steel. “Why?”
“To wipe away a debt. I must help an orange boy human. He needs some of you, in the old way. Do you remember?”
The orange cat pulled his teeth out of her fur and she groomed a little, waiting.
“I remember. I dream the stones and black god. She is like you, but her collar is gold.”
“Yes,” Dumpling said softly back. “Can we carry back a lie to be made truth?”
Cats don’t shrug, but the orange tom made a sign. “It is well. Humans make truth of lies, always. They did it in the stone.”
Dumpling dropped her head and turned to face him. Heads held high, they passed each other three times on the left, each time wrapping their tails together like snakes. After the final time, Dumpling turned and delicately licked the tom’s furry orange balls.
He hissed a little. “That tickles.”
Dumpling didn’t answer. The moonlight was blue on her back as she started back home, her mouth closed.
The orange cat thought that he would like to smell her again, kittens or no kittens. Perhaps he would bring her a mouse.
Dumpling had to wait for the door to open. They didn’t hear her scratching as they slept, and she could not open her mouth to call to them.
Tom woke first and let her in. He was a little startled as she shot past his feet.
Denver was still in bed. Dumpling leapt on top of him and butted her black head against the smell of death under his arms. He woke mumbling, unhappy, pushing at her.
“Come on. Come on, Dumpling. What the hell?”
Dumpling dug her claws in, puncturing his pajama shirt. She strained forward and managed to lick the exposed reddish strands of hair on his lower belly once, twice, thrice. It would have to do.
Dallas went to school, her long red hair swaying behind her. Denver and his parents stayed home.
When Perfect Pediatric called to tell them they’d had a false positive and the lump was a harmless varicocele, Dumpling felt them all relax, unclenching something they had held tight since the boy told.
Out in the driveway, the other kitten’s skull dropped out of the engine block and broke like an eggshell.
Dumpling cleaned her paws. All her debts were paid.
This story originally appeared in The London Reader.