The Purr-cle of Life
by Alex Gino
“Are you ready?” Dad asked with a bounce in his voice as he put on his jacket.
“Yes and no.” My shoes were on and there was nothing I needed to bring with me. I was ready to leave the house, but I had no idea how to be ready for a new cat.
Scout had been mine since I was born. He was originally Mom’s, from before she met Dad, but he claimed me the day I came home. The first time Mom and Dad set me in my crib for a nap, they found Scout curled up with me less than ten minutes later. They were worried he might scratch me, so they kept him out of their bedroom after that, but he would slip into my crib when he could, and once I was old enough to have a real bed, in my own room, Scout went to sleep with me every night, nestled at my side, purring as I drifted off.
“Are you excited?” Mom asked, in nearly the same cadence as Dad, as she put on her own jacket. My relatives say my parents become more like each other the longer they’re together. They even have similar haircuts--kind of shaggy, with a soft part in the middle.
“I guess,” I said.
Scout had cuddled with me the day Grandma said that using they was ungrammatical and that she was going to call me she until I could produce a duplicate of myself. If there had been two of me, one of them would have been able to hold the other back. As it was, I told her she was the one who was wrong and got sent to my room for rudeness. Apparently, I’m supposed to be polite when people disrespect me. The worst disrespect Scout ever showed me was sitting with his butt to my face. And if I reminded him by tapping on it, he would readjust himself into a more courteous position.
Scout died last year. He wasn’t there for my eleventh birthday. He wasn’t there when I failed my science test because I studied the wrong chapter. He wasn’t there to play with all summer long. The day Scout died was the worst day of my life, and every time I thought of cuddling him for comfort, I ached more.
Mom and Dad had told me a dozen times that we weren’t replacing him, but that’s sure what it felt like.
“I have a feeling they’ll perk up when we get to the adoption center,” Dad said.
I did not perk up when we got to the adoption center.
Cartoon faces of cats and dogs covered the SPCA’s glass doors. Inside, a woman greeted us and directed us to walk through the dog area to get to the cats.
I hate dogs. People say you’re not supposed to hate stuff, but I do. I hate dogs because they scare me. Even the little ones have sharp teeth, and barking makes me want to curl into a ball. I’ve never heard of a cat biting a person. Nibbles, maybe, but nothing serious. And meows are much cuter than barks. Scout had a whole meow-cabulary. He had his “I’m hungry” mrew, his “I’m stuck” mreh, his “I’m chasing a thing” mree-eee-eee, and his “pay attention to me” me-owww. Scout didn’t like dogs either. We were a good pair.
I barreled down the hall, trying to ignore the barking toenails clicking on tile, and people cooing about floppy ears. Cats might not have floppy ears, but they have elegant tails, not like these beasts, one of whom was thumping his on the ground so hard I could feel it in my heart.
I made it to the double glass doors announcing kitty corner and burst through. The moment I did, a new wave of emotions flooded me. Every single one of those cats needed a home, needed love. And so had my cat. My Scout, my cuddle buddy, my big brother in feline form. The room felt warm and I started to get light-headed. I didn’t know whether I was going to cry or pass out.
“You okay?” Dad put his hand on the center of my back. But his touch made everything feel more real. I had had a cat, a wonderful cat, and he was gone, and would never headbutt me again. I needed to go. Immediately.
“No,” I said. I ran out of the cat area, past the dog kennels, and back outside.
Sunshine was good. Air was good. Breathing was good. I sat on the curb and stared up at the sky, watching the wispy clouds drift by.
All of those cats needed homes, but none of them were there the day I crashed my bike and twisted my ankle. None of them were there when I had the flu and a headache so bad I couldn’t even listen to music. None of them were there the day Great-Grandma Mae passed away. None of them were my cat, my Scout. They were all cute. Adorable, even. But they were all strangers to me, and I was a stranger to them.
Mom came out and took a seat next to me on the curb. “Too much?”
“Yeah.” That was all I intended to say, but the moment I opened my mouth, it was followed by a cry, and once I started, the tears fell. Dad came out to see what was up and sat on my other side as I cried. And cried. And cried. Until I was tired of crying and out of tears.
“You want to go home?” asked Dad.
“We can come back when you’re ready,” said Mom.
“Yes please,” I said, my voice small.
We loaded into the car, the empty cat carrier still in the trunk.
At home, we didn’t put out food and water or set up a litter box. We watched a movie without once being distracted by an excitable ball of fluff. And I went to bed without finding out whether the new kitten would want to sleep with me.
For weeks, the cat food stayed unopened in a corner of the kitchen. The cat toys stayed in the junk drawer. The litter box stayed in the closet. Then, one evening, when I had finished my homework and was packing my bag for the next day, Dad handed me a photo, the kind developed on shiny paper, not a printed-out digital picture. In it, a regally poised tawny cat sat at the bottom corner of a bed, their sharp, black-tipped ears and harsh eyes pointed directly at the camera.
“This is Lynx.”
“They’re beautiful.” Lynx was the perfect name for this slightly wild-looking feline.
“He used to live in a pizza shop, where his name was Tony.”
“Lynx is a much better name.”
“That’s what I thought too, so I changed it.”
“This was your cat?”
“Yep!” Dad beamed with cat-dad pride. “When your mom and I got together, we had two cats. Scout had been hers, and Lynx had been mine. Lynx was about ten years older than Scout, and he passed away just a few months after we rented our first apartment together.”
“Oh, that’s sad.” The words sounded flatter than I meant them.
“I was devastated when it happened.” Dad paused and looked far away until he blinked a few times. “But cats don’t live as long as humans. Lynx had been there for me when I didn’t have your mom, or Scout, or you. He was an important part of my life, and when I think of him, I think about being a young adult. When I think about Scout, I think about us being a family, and you being little. And now, when we meet whoever’s our next furball, we’ll be starting a new chapter for our family.”
I liked that idea. We were about to enter a new cat era. Dad looked ready to get up, but I had a thought I wanted to share first.
“Can I say something that might be silly?”
“The truest and most important things are sometimes also very silly.”
“Exactly like kittens.”
I had to stare really hard at my shoes to concentrate enough to say what had been circling in my head since our trip. “I think what really made me upset at the adoption place was when I realized that none of those cats were Scout. That no cat would ever be Scout again.” I looked up at Dad. It felt even sillier saying it than thinking it had. “Silly, right?”
“And very true. But also, if we adopt a new cat, we’ll get to know a very special critter. One who won’t do all the things Scout did, but will do new things. Kitten jumping is an unparalleled joy.”
Kitten jumping! I was ready. “Can we try again to go to the shelter?”
“I was hoping you’d ask. Let’s go this weekend.”
Earth entered a time warp that extended each day into a month and the week into a year. Tuesday, I checked the time nearly a thousand times, so I’m pretty sure I’m right. Wednesday, I tried not to check the time at all, but that was even worse, especially since my tablet displays the time, so I couldn’t distract myself with it. Thursday, I mostly jumped around, until Dad asked whether I was the new kitten. Friday, I set up the litter box and tried out the food and water dishes in a dozen different spots in the kitchen. And through it all, knowing that Scout wasn’t coming back didn’t make me as sad as before. Or it did, but I was also getting excited for the kitten to come.
Then it was Saturday. I ate breakfast and did my homework while Dad took his morning jog. There was no way I was going to get any homework done once we got back. We loaded into the car for kitten adoption, take two.
I felt a wave of warmth when we pulled into the adoption center parking lot, but I took a few deep breaths, and got out of the car. “Okay. Let’s do this thing.”
I bore past the dog kennels once more, with the barking and the toenails and the tails whacking against the tile floor, and on into kitty corner, where cats filled a wall of cubbies.
And again I was hit with the overwhelming number of fluffers needing homes. How could I tell which was the right cat? And what if the right cat for me was having a bad day? Or I missed them in the crowd?
I took a few more deep breaths and focused on the rest of the room while Mom and Dad started peeking into the cages. I walked along the far wall, which was filled with posters and pamphlets about feline care. A few other people were there visiting the cats too, including an older man by himself and a woman with two kids. The older man was befriending an older-looking long-hair, poking his fingers through the holes in the cage to scritch their neck. They looked like they would make a good pair, watching TV on the couch together. I was glad someone was there to adopt an older cat, because I wanted the youngest kitten I could find. I wanted my new kitten to remember me from as early in their life as possible.
I approached the wall of cages, focusing more on the info sheets attached to each one than the cats inside. It was easier to say no to pictures than to the cuddle beasts themselves. I found a set of four gray twelve-week-olds nestled into a pile of fur, with names that were all puns based on the word cat, like Catapult and Catastrophe.
A stout woman with white hair, wrinkles, and a clipboard approached us. “Hi there, I’m Audrey. Can I set you up in a room to meet any of these critters?”
“What do you think?” Mom asked me.
“How about one of these?” I pointed at the gray cat pile.
“Which one?” asked Audrey.
“Whoever’s the friendliest,” I said.
“Well, this bunch has been a little shy when we take them out one by one, but let’s see how it goes.”
Audrey led us through a door marked visitation area and into a small, windowless room filled with cat toys. There was a chair, but I was glad my parents were the kind of people who knew you had to get down to a cat’s level if you were going to learn anything about them. A minute later, there was a brief rap on the door, and Audrey set down a carrier. She still held her clipboard in her other hand.
“This is Catsup.” She opened the carrier door. “I’ll leave you for a bit.”
“Here, kitty. Here, Catsup!” Mom picked up a cat toy and dragged it along the floor. Catsup followed the crinkly pink butterfly with their head but kept their body inside the carrier.
“Let’s give them a minute,” said Dad.
We sat quietly as Catsup slowly poked out their head. They sniffed around and then cautiously stepped out. Their fur was sleek and gray, almost silver. They smelled my shoe, followed by Dad’s and Mom’s, then crawled back into the carrier to curl up under the blanket.
“We can take a hint,” said Dad, chuckling.
Scout had been shy around strangers too. I had never been a stranger to Scout, but I would always be to this cat. This was not my kitten.
“What do you think?” asked Mom. “Should we go look some more? There were lots of cuties out there.”
“I guess,” I said. I had guessed wrong once. Maybe I would have better luck next time.
Dad closed the door of Catsup’s carrier and we went to find Audrey. There were two more small rooms in the visitation area. One was empty. A couple of adults met with an orange cat in the other. There were also two larger rooms with windows, and cat info sheets attached to the doors. There was a single cat in one room, a ten-year-old named Chonky. He was cute and had an adorable fat belly, but when I waved at him, he turned his butt at me. Not my cat. The other room listed five twelve-week-old kittens, all black, but I could only spot two, both sitting by the window.
“So, how did it go?” asked Audrey.
“Shy guy,” said Dad.
“Well, you’re welcome to look around, and let me know if there’s anyone else you’d like to meet, or if you have any questions.”
“Where are the other ones?” I asked.
“The other ones?”
I pointed at the black cat info sheets. “There are five, but I only see two. I know they’re black, but that doesn’t make them invisible.”
“Oh,” said Audrey. “Some of these should go.” She consulted her clipboard and took down three of the pages. “There are only two left. It’s not worth moving them, but once they’re adopted out, we’ll get a larger litter in here. Do you want to meet them?”
Copyright © 2021 by Katherine Locke. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.