On the day the kitten came, which was the day before trash day, Miss Mae’s two grandboys arrived at her house early, long before the school bus was scheduled to drop them off. Miss Mae startled when she heard the footsteps, and at first thought she had fallen asleep. Confused and lethargic, she wondered if there was an intruder in the house. She grabbed her mini baseball bat and gripped it tightly with both crooked hands, but then settled back into her yellow kitchen chair. She recognized the footsteps. She squinted at the oven clock, which told the time. The boys were early. She could tell by the slow, solid way their footsteps fell in the hallway that they carried something either heavy or large. There was lots of shuffling and scuffing, which made Miss Mae’s throat feel tight. She wondered if the police would come again, looking for hubcaps or a stereo missing from a neighbor’s house. She began thinking of excuses and found the list was getting small.
As the boys’ footsteps grew nearer, Miss Mae hoisted herself out of her chair, and before her hips gave way, used the kitchen counter to steady herself. Her legs were still shaking when the door swung open and hit the side of the counter.
“Gram! Gram!” yelled Jason, the youngest, as he rushed in at her. Behind him, Brandon struggled forward on his own, holding a very large cardboard box with a photo of a microwave on the side. Miss Mae swallowed hard.
“Where did you get the microwave?” she said, glancing out the window. Her voice wavered, even though she tried to keep it steady.
“Gram, look what we found. We have to keep it! Please? Can we keep it?” said Jason. He took Miss Mae’s gnarled hand and tried to rush her as she walked forward. Inside the box, where an expensive stainless steel microwave should have been, was a very tiny black kitten. It was puffy like a cotton ball, except for where patches of dirt matted the fur together. The kitten limped awkwardly along the side of the box, and its mew was piercing. Its eyes were huge, reflective and dark. Brandon quivered as he carefully placed the box on the table.
“Oh,” said Miss Mae, her voice steadier now. “Where did you find him?”
“We can clean him and he can catch mice and we will feed him because he’s too skinny and he’ll be fatter, we promise!” Jason was nearly jumping up and down.
“His leg is hurt, see?” said Brandon. He stroked the kitten’s soiled fur, which made the poor thing flinch and mew harder. Brandon’s eyes glistened as he looked at Miss Mae. He blinked.
“We have to help him,” he said, “or it’s cruel.”
“You’re always saying how much you hate mice, and this kitten will catch them so they won’t get into the cereal anymore!” said Jason.
Miss Mae struggled to organize her thoughts. “Jason, quiet. Go in the other room before I slap you.”
Jason slouched into the living room. The kitten’s cries seemed to reverberate through the now quiet room. Miss Mae knew the boys’ mother wouldn’t take the kitten. It was up to her to keep it: another thing seeking refuge in her home.
“See its leg?” said Brandon, poking at the kitten. It tipped to the left, unsteady and thin. “Do you have a splint?” he asked.
Miss Mae shook her head. She was thinking about groceries—the cost of whole wheat bread, milk, and now cat food—as if she had already made up her mind. She slid her hand under the scrawny kitten and lifted it up, cupping it to her sagging breasts. It was one pound at most. Her chest ached for the poor thing. It was too young to be so lost and hurt.
“Get some milk in a bowl,” she said.
Brandon rushed to the cupboard and threw it open. The doors banged against each other. Miss Mae ran her free hand over the kitten’s fur, feeling tiny bones press against the animal’s loose skin. One back leg hung limp between her fingers. The animal struggled, but soon gave up and sat very still, shaking severely and looking at the room with wide round eyes. A tiny smear of blood had run from its nose and dried under its right nostril. As she stroked the fur, Miss Mae could feel some of the bones moving strangely over a small, pliable lump in its side.
“Oh. Where did you find him?” she asked again.
Brandon placed the milk on the table, sloshing it over the sides of the bowl. “In the box and get a rag,” said Miss Mae.
She lowered the kitten down, where it wrapped its tail around its body and hunched in the corner of the box. The kitchen light revealed clumps of gunk that collected near its eyes like dark, crusty tears.
Brandon was staring. “We’ll see,” Miss Mae said. Brandon smiled, kissed her, and went into the other room to join his brother. Miss Mae made her way back to the yellow chair and sat down. In the quiet, the kitten started to cry again. Miss Mae looked out the window and felt small.
Seven years ago, Miss Mae started watching Brandon and Justin after school and while Cindy was away. Even then, Miss Mae was old. Her skin had lines and her teeth were woody and yellow. Her hair was thinning. She forgot sometimes. But she knew the boys’ mother had important things to do, so she agreed to watch them. Which meant overnights and weekends, too.
Brandon was the first to bring things home: a box of cereal and a half-eaten bag of potato chips. He told Miss Mae they were from the school.
“School doesn’t give you cereal in full size boxes,” said Miss Mae, placing her hands on her hips and giving him a look. Back then Brandon was quite young, and these things still worked. He confessed to taking them from the store next door and cried. Jason, seeing Brandon, started crying too. But Miss Mae didn’t care about tears. She marched to the store, Brandon in tow by his ear, and made the boy confess.
When it was done, Miss Mae said, “Why did you take those things? I have them at home.”
“Because I could,” he said, still sniffling.
“You’re making me cranky and old,” Miss Mae said. She smiled. But inside, she was thinking of jail cells and delinquents, and she felt chilly and cold. “I’ll have to tell your mother, you know.”
“I’m not making you old. Cigarettes make you old,” said Brandon. He hugged Miss Mae’s arm.
“I smoke to relieve stress. Stress from you,” said Miss Mae. She blew smoke out the side of her mouth and then tapped the ash off her Parliament Menthol, where it fell onto the sidewalk by her apartment. There was an old condom wrapper on the steps; Miss Mae flicked it off with her toe.
“Cigarettes kill you. We learned it in school.”
“Hmmph,” said Miss Mae, who took another drag and began walking up the stairs.
“You’ll die one day. Get cancer in your mouth and die,” said Brandon.
“You mean lung cancer.”
“We’d get off the bus at your apartment, but you’d be gone,” said Brandon.
“Hmmph,” said Miss Mae again, because she was trying to figure out where the boys would get off the bus if not at her place. She didn’t know.
That evening when the boys were gone, Miss Mae sat on her sagging balcony and chain-smoked the rest of her cigarettes. Cigarettes cost money, and it was a waste to throw them out. While she smoked she watched teenagers with sagging pants wander around the streets. When she smoked the last cigarette she would ever have, she flung the butt over the edge of the railing and watched the ember burn all the way down.
The butt landed in the neighbor’s marijuana plant, where it sat glowing for a moment before flickering out entirely.
Miss Mae woke up with a start. The TV was still playing in the other room, which meant Jason and Brandon were still here and she hadn’t been sleeping for too long. She wiped the drool off her chin and tried adjusting in her chair. Her bones ached and burned. She reached for her walker.
The kitten was silent when she peered into the box. It was balled in the corner, a tiny mound of dark fur and dirt. The one hurt leg stuck out to the side. Miss Mae squinted until she could see a slight, ragged rise and fall that showed it lived. It was sleeping. That was good.
Miss Mae made her way over to the boys’ backpacks, which they had thrown down beside the warped paneling near the hall. If she were younger, if she had more energy, and if she wasn’t afraid of waking up a kitten, Miss Mae would have shouted to the boys and made them take care of their things. But it was easier this way. Lots of things were easier. Not using a comb, for example. Not getting dressed. Or not wearing dentures.
She hummed as she picked up Jason’s backpack and began rummaging. There were three new rocks (one was actually washed), a broken pencil. Several pieces of crumpled paper. Thirteen dollars. One failed assignment that she would try to address with Cindy. Miss Mae quickly tossed the rocks out the window, where they landed with dull thuds on the balcony. Jason had taken to storing rocks in the bottom drawer of her dresser, and it was about to give way. She could do with fewer rocks.
Brandon’s backpack contained more failed assignments and forty dollars. It also contained a crude drawing of a tiny penis, labeled “Troy’s Tootsie-Dick” in bubble letters. Miss Mae threw the drawing into the trash.
Cindy showed up for the boys later than usual. She was talking to someone on her cell phone, and stood in the doorway for a few minutes before she smiled in Miss Mae’s general direction. Miss Mae waited patiently for her to end the call.
“The boys are failing quite a few assignments,” said Miss Mae when Cindy hung up. In the other room the TV clicked off. She had a few minutes before they came out.
“They’re lazy,” said Cindy.
Miss Mae looked toward the living room. Brandon and Jason were standing behind her. She smiled at them, but her heart was pounding.
“All right, lazy boys. Get your stuff, let’s go,” said Cindy. They did.
“Will you watch him?” Brandon said to Miss Mae as he went past.
“Of course,” she said as they filed out the door. They didn’t hear her, but Cindy did.
“C’mon Mom,” Cindy said, “There are worse things.” And then they were gone.
For the first time in a long time, Miss Mae craved a cigarette. The pang of longing was sweet and sharp, the kind of pain when your tooth just begins to ache.
A few years ago Miss Mae was scrubbing the toilet when she heard Brandon scream from the living room. She dropped the toilet scrubber on the floor and was up off her knees faster than she thought possible. Brandon was reaching at his back. One of Miss Mae’s silver forks was sticking out of it at an odd angle. He howled. Jason cowered in the corner chewing on his nails.
“Stand still! I need to see,” said Miss Mae. Brandon did not. Miss Mae finally forced him down on the floor to sit on his back because he would not stop thrashing. With a yank the fork was out of his back and on the floor; four small puncture wounds began to bleed and soak Brandon’s shirt. She lifted up the fabric and felt dizzy.
“Jason stop. Get a towel,” said Miss Mae.
Jason arrived with a white towel, which Miss Mae pushed over the wound. Blood seeped into the cotton fibers, staining the towel a vibrant red tie-dye.
“Did you do this?” she said to Jason. He nodded. Miss Mae stood.
“Brandon said I was a faggot!” said Jason, and he started to cry.
“You are,” said Brandon with a voice muffled by the floor.
“The cheering team doesn’t make me a faggot!” screamed Jason.
“Quiet! Quiet!” yelled Miss Mae. “Brandon, shut up and clean my silver. All of it. Jason. You know better—get out and sit on my bed.”
Brandon had propped his head up on his fisted hands and was staring at the wall with a tiny smile. His eyes were red but dry.
“You deserved it,” said Miss Mae quietly. “So wipe that smug look off your face.”
Brandon shrugged and picked at the carpet with his fingers.
“But what’s it to you what Jason likes?”
“He’s not harming a thing.”
“Dad doesn’t see it like that.”
“There is nothing wrong with Jason wanting to cheer at school,” said Miss Mae, pointing her finger. But even as she said it, her gut tightened.
“Gram. How do you think his face got all torn up last week? You think he’d tell you if Dad did it?” Brandon put his forehead on the floor. “You tell Dad it doesn’t matter. But maybe he’ll hide it better now.”
Miss Mae went to the kitchen where she sat in her chair and looked out the window. She was tired.
When Miss Mae woke up, she wasn’t sure if the kitten was a dream or not. She shuffled into the kitchen with her walker and looked into the box even before she made the coffee or went to the bathroom.
The kitten was there. It had uncurled from its tight little circle and was sprawled out, chest rising and falling in quick motions. The milk had formed a light skin on top and a thick ring circled the bowl. Miss Mae took the bowl and gave fresh milk, but the ring was still there. When the coffee was perking, she peered into the box again. The kitten hadn’t moved. Miss Mae ran her fingers over its back. It stirred and produced a gurgled mew. There was a lump in the kitten’s side—was it that large yesterday? Miss Mae’s stomach turned cold and heavy. She started to sweat and wondered how much milk she would give to the kitten, that it would not drink, that would go to waste. It needed a vet.
She would give it some time.
Miss Mae made her way into the living room and then turned on the TV. She forgot to drink the coffee she had just made which was usual. She cranked up the sound to cover the kitten’s cries. Once settled, she picked up her knitting and waited for the morning news and the weather.
God didn’t seem to answer her prayers, so Miss Mae believed in the weather man instead. She had prayed for God to have the landlord return her phone calls and fix the rotten window, which had been in its present state for about a year. When her landlord ignored her, Miss Mae had duct-taped a plastic garbage bag over the open part to keep the elements out. It worked well enough but it was cold in the winter. She also prayed for the boys, and for their father to drop dead, even though she didn’t think God would grant that.
But she thought God might allow the smaller things. Like good weather with not as much rain, not too much heat. Sometimes it seemed to work. Sitting in her rocker, Miss Mae wondered if she would die before God answered her prayers. Before the window was fixed.
Today was to be sunny and warm. She silently thanked the weather man and God, then began knitting more rapidly. She was making lavender baby clothes. Last week she made yellow ones, and the week before that green. A rainbow of unused baby clothes lumped in the corners of her rooms, but she ignored them and knit more.
Warm weather meant there would be flies coming through the broken window because it was trash day. She thought about flies buzzing around the trash, flies hitting against her windows, flies in her apartment buzzing and landing on the counters. Her knitting slowed.
When Miss Mae woke there was a suffocating silence and the smell of garbage. She could never forget it was trash day because of the smell, which wafted through the broken window.
She gagged and went to check on the kitten.
The milk was as before. The kitten began to sneeze, peppering the box with fresh blood from its nose. Its stomach was distended, round like a softball and larger than its head. The thought of the kitten popping, and the smell of garbage, made Miss Mae’s stomach turn. The clock told her there was two hours before the boys came. Time for a vet.
Miss Mae didn’t have a car. She couldn’t walk two blocks carrying the kitten to the vet. A taxi was in order. This was an urgent situation, and she had forty dollars tucked away, which would cover a taxi and perhaps cat food and milk, although the cost of cat food was a mystery and she wasn’t too sure. And maybe a vet bill could be worked out; maybe there would be someone there who knew her and could put in a good word. She called Cal’s Cabs and was told ten minutes.
After she hung up the phone, Miss Mae reached into the cookie jar for her forty dollars, but her fingers touched only cold ceramic. She felt all the way around the outside edge, just in case. She even checked the next jar and felt between the tea bags. There was no money. She frowned, trying to remember if she had spent it. No, she was sure she hadn’t.
Miss Mae stood in her kitchen, staring down at the kitten. Its eyes were entirely crusted over and did not open. It was making a noise that was not unlike a screaming newborn baby. Miss Mae thought of the forty dollars she found in Brandon’s backpack and closed her eyes.
She needed that money for the taxi. She needed that money for bread and probably some Tums. Foolish tears began to prick at her eyes, and she wiped them away because tears solved nothing. There would be no taxi today, so she called Cal’s Cabs and told them not to come.
“Shhhh. Shhh,” said Miss Mae to the kitten, all the while leaking useless tears onto the animal’s fur. The kitten was shaking. Dried dirt fell from its fur and lightly dusted the bottom of the cardboard box. Miss Mae covered her ears with slow, shaking hands and tried to block its cries. She watched the kitten’s tremors and blood pounded in her ears like an ocean. She was rocking back and forth, thinking of slow and painful deaths. She was horrified.
When her hands stopped shaking, her head began to think. She didn’t have any money, but her decision was made. Suffering was inhumane, and she would not allow it. Resolute, she scooped the kitten in both hands and stood, legs and hips cracking painfully. The animal’s head bobbed as it tried to open its eyes. Miss Mae gripped it solidly so that she would not drop it, and began to walk. It felt like such a long way.
“It’s okay,” she said, “I know.” Miss Mae went over the landing and limped her way downstairs.
“Just a little longer. I know baby, I know.” she cooed the mantra until she made it to the backyard. It was empty as usual. Miss Mae walked by the trash bags and past the chain-link fence that separated the backyard from the parking lot. The dried, yellow grass crunched under her worn pink slippers. Where there was no grass, the faded, lifeless dirt puffed into the air and clogged her nose.
She arrived at the back corner of the yard, where the wire fence connected to a tree, and placed the kitten on a flat part of the ground with no grass. Miss Mae knew where to find the landlord’s rusted hammer. He left the tool shed unlocked, and she always used his hammer on the gate latch because the latch stuck and her hands weren’t quite strong enough to push it up without help.
But Miss Mae wasn’t leaving this time. She took the hammer to the kitten, held it tight with both gnarled hands, and swung down twice. Each time the hammer hit, it produced a sound something like a potato chip breaking in half. The kitten stopped. It was done.
She carried the kitten to the trash bags and placed its limp body far down inside a bag that was a little open. She placed the hammer back in the toolshed and buried the blood in the empty dust with the toe of her quilted pink slipper. She saw small splatters on the hem of her nightgown. She was tired and empty. She leaned against the tree and closed her eyes.
The sound of a car made Miss Mae raise her head. A police officer was parked near the tree, fiddling with the tricky gate.
“Are you Mae Greggory?” the man called. Miss Mae hesitated; she didn’t know this one, he must be new. He was handsome, with tan skin and sun-bleached hair. He picked at the pocket on his shirt.
“What did the boys do now?” said Miss Mae.
“Not sure yet Ma’am,” the officer said. “I need to ask you a few questions.”
Miss Mae closed her eyes again.
“Is that blood on your dress? Ma’am, are you okay?” said the man. Miss Mae said nothing.
“Are you hurt?” the man’s voice sounded so strong now. He was trained for emergencies.
“What’s your name?” said Miss Mae.
“Cosgrove. Officer Dillan Cosgrove. Are you okay?”
“Dillan. No. It’s not my blood.”
“It’s from a cat. Poor thing.”
“Where is it?” said Dillan. Miss Mae didn’t answer, but when she looked up at the officer, he was scanning the yard.
“I think I’ve made a mistake,” said Miss Mae, leaning back. She thought of the trash baking in the sun, sizzling on the blacktop like large plastic sausages, full of moldy food containers, kitten, and everything else no one wanted anymore.
Darcy Casey is currently working on her first novel and MFA in creative writing, fiction, at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast. Her most recent fiction publication was in the 34thParallel. Darcy is a member of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and the International Association of Professional Writers and Editors.
Samantha Reichl is a student at Carthage College in Wisconsin.
She grew up in a small town in Northern Wisconsin and is used to the small town lifestyle, but dreams of bigger and better things. In high school, she performed in the theater department, volunteered for National Honor Society, and spent her free time writing and drawing. Although college life with a double major in English and Philosophy and an emphasis in Creative Writing is a lot busier than the small town life of high school, she still finds time to brainstorm new ideas and photograph new places.