I was walking around my subdivision of condos, shaking a bag of cat treats. A little head popped up from behind a bush. I thought the movement was Frosting, my cat. But it was only a child, and she was walking up the hill towards me.
“Can I have some of those?” She pointed at the treat bag.
“These are for cats, not people.”
“I know,” she said and wiped hair out her face, using her entire hand, all of her palm and all five fingers, the way little girls do. “I’m looking for a cat.”
“Me too,” I said. “What’s your cat look like?”
“It’s not my cat, it’s my neighbor’s cat. She’s black.”
“Mine’s orange. His name is Frosting.”
The child laughed in a way I found condescending.
“What’s your cat’s name?” I said, challenging her to do better.
“Nightmare Moon.” Her shrug reminded me of bread popping up from a toaster. “It’s from a show. That’s what I call her, anyway. I don’t know her real name.”
“Hm. I came up with Frosting myself.” I looked around the courtyard we were in and shook the treats.
The little girl called, “Frosting! Nightmare Moooon!” She alternated the names over and over. She wasn’t prioritizing her lost cat over mine.
“I like Nightmare Moon,” I conceded and emptied treats into her palm.
She was missing two front teeth. I recalled my first grade school picture, my tongue sticking out between my smile. I had no sense of children’s ages. I should change my voice to a higher register with her, I thought, the way I talked to Frosting. I’d been speaking with this child like a peer.
There was a lady watching us from the bottom of the hill. She had dyed black hair with a thick strip of white at her scalp. The girl turned and waved. I suddenly worried that I shouldn’t be talking to a little girl I didn’t know. That this woman would think I was a pervert. But the lady walked into the house. She was not worried because I was a woman, and most women aren’t perverts. Or they’re not the kind of perverts who inflict harm on others. Women are the kind of perverts who inflict harm on themselves. And most guardians, it seemed, didn’t worry about exposing their children to self-hatred.
The girl showed me her scraped knee, which was caked with dirt. A dried blade of grass dangled from the wound. If I were her grandmother, I would have made her wash that knee. I would have given her a peroxide-soaked cotton ball to sizzle it clean.
I walked down to the subdivision’s main road, and the girl followed. I knew she was there because she kept calling our cats’ names. I stepped on a walnut and slipped a little. “Ah, shit.” I grabbed my low back, the spot that was already strained.
“Are you okay?” She walked around to face me and looked up with squinty eyes.
“I’m fine.” I kept walking, hunched and holding my back. “I just hurt my back trying to move my couch.”
“I can help you move stuff. I’m strong.” She grinned, toothlessly.
I scowled at her. Then my mother’s voice was coming out of my mouth, “Look at those little chicken wings! You can’t be that strong.”
We were at the farthest reaches of the complex: the courtyard where a line of trees separated homes from the interstate. The constant stream of cars sounded like the ocean. She crouched down and squealed as a black cat ran to her. She stood and the cat’s bottom half hung from her folded arms. It looked uncomfortable, but the cat didn’t seem to mind.
“Wow, she ran right to you,” I said.
“That’s ‘cause she loves me!”
I scanned the perimeter of the courtyard. Still no Frosting. I called his name a few more times. My eyes got wet. I faced the wind to dry them.
“Doesn’t Frosting miss you, you think?” she said, still holding her cat.
“Goddammit, cats don’t miss humans. That cat didn’t miss you!” The tears came streaming.
The girl dropped her cat and ran away. I wiped my face with my jacket. I walked the remaining half of the subdivision loop, shaking the bag of treats and calling my cat’s name.
At home, I put a dish of wet food on the front porch. I lay down on the couch with my head by the window so I could watch the food dish for signs of life. Eventually, I fell asleep.
When I woke up, I looked out the window. No Frosting. I opened the door to get a closer look, to see if any food was missing. When I did, a streak of orange fur scurried past me and into the house.
On my way home from work, I drove past the bush where the little girl first appeared. I noticed a pink jump rope on a porch nearby. When I got inside, I picked up Frosting. I walked through the grass to the neighboring courtyard. I stepped past the jump rope, Frosting tight within my grasp, and knocked on the door. I saw the curtain waver. The door opened with a couple yanks, and the little girl peeked around the knob.
“I found Frosting. I thought you’d like to meet him.” I lifted one paw, like he was waving at her.
“Nana says I can’t play with you anymore.” She closed the door.
I gave Frosting his dinner. I made myself a rum and rootbeer. When Frosting was finished eating, I put his new harness on him and took him onto the balcony, so we could safely enjoy the outdoors. I tied Frosting’s leash to the railing, and he rubbed against it. Then he spotted something. His tail got fluffy and his back arched to make himself bigger. A black cat scurried through the trees.
“It’s okay,” I stroked him. “She’s not gonna hurt you.”
Shannon McLeod is the author of the essay chapbook PATHETIC (Etchings Press). Her novella, WHIMSY, won the 2018 Wild Onion Novella Contest and is looking for a home for publication. Her writing has appeared in Tin House Online, Necessary Fiction, Hobart, Joyland, Cheap Pop, and Wigleaf, among other publications. She teaches high school English in Virginia. You can find Shannon on twitter @OcqueocSAM or on her website at www.shannon-mcleod.com.
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