It had been two months, and the apartment complex still smelled of smoke. A gas line had blown two floors above my apartment, only damaging a few of the apartments on the opposite side of the building from me. I’d had to stay in a Motel 6 for a few days while they inspected the building, but now I was back in my apartment with my new friends—the intermittent sound of construction and the constant scent of smoke.
My mother had called in a panic after hearing about the explosion on the news. I had kept the phone call short. No, my apartment wasn’t damaged. No, I didn’t need a place to stay. No, I wasn’t moving somewhere new. Especially not back home.
The voicemail I got a month later didn’t help either.
Hey, sweetie, just wanted to check in on you. We’ve been thinking about you. It’s Tobias’s graduation next month—you know he’s finishing his degree early. I thought it’d be nice if his big sister were to come. Maybe we could all go out to dinner afterward. Let me know, and I’ll save you a ticket. It’s the fourteenth. Anyways, I just thought I’d ask. We miss you. Love you.
Ah, my little brother’s college graduation. I could hear the comments now.
You could have done that . . . I wish you had stuck it out at college . . . If you hadn’t been caught up with that boy . . . You ever regret wasting all that time?
Tobias with his cap and gown and diploma and thousands of dollars of student loan debt would be the crown jewel in the family crest. That would be the inspiration for the other comments during the long, boring ceremony.
Look how far Tobias has gone . . . I guess he’ll be taking care of us in our old age . . . Maybe he can help you out with a car loan . . .
I was angry she had even asked. It wasn’t out of any family fellowship; she just wanted to dangle Tobias’s achievements in front of my face and see if I would jump. I would be staying firmly out of my family’s lives in my tiny, one-bedroom apartment, waiting for a gas line to blow in my own apartment or for the minimum wage to be raised.
Even if the apartment was cheap, the least my landlord could do was keep the pets out. It was in the contract every tenant signed—no pets. But that didn’t stop people, and I had given up fighting it: if the landlord couldn’t maintain the gas lines, he wouldn’t be booting out old Mrs. Thompson’s noisy chihuahua or what’s-his-name-down-the-hall’s screeching parrot any time soon.
But at least Thompson and what’s-his-name-down-the-hall kept their creatures inside their apartments. Some people were not so considerate. The scrawny black cat had been stalking up and down my hall for the past three weeks. It liked to sit in front of Thompson’s door and bathe itself while the chihuahua tried to break the sound barrier after catching a whiff of its scent under the crack of the door. It had also taken to sleeping on my doormat, and I had tripped over the pest several times when stumbling out for my 6 a.m. shift.
I suspected the thing was a stray that had somehow gotten itself locked inside the building. It was skinny. I hated cats, but my mom had a few when I was little. They had been as fat and fluffy as couch cushions. But this cat was so thin I could see its hip bones sticking out when it sprawled on my doormat and tried to claw my shoelaces in the morning. It was clearly comfortable around humans, so it wasn’t completely feral. Some idiot had probably moved out and just abandoned the thing in the building. Calling pest control would be merciful at this point, but I hadn’t gotten around to it in my schedule of work, eat, sleep, repeat.
Its eyes were glinting in the light of my phone flashlight when I got in from my twelve-hour shift. It had been a long day. The espresso machine gave out in the middle of lunch rush, a new worker had scalded her hand making a cappuccino, and a large group of customers had come in fifteen minutes before closing. I had never been so happy to take the bus back to my apartment. My feet hurt, I was hungry, and that stupid cat was sitting across from my apartment door staring at me.
I ignored the cat’s stare and fumbled with my key at my door. The minute I cracked my door, something soft brushed against my ankles, and the door seemed to open on its own. I walked in and flicked on the light. The cat was sniffing at the corner of my consignment-store couch, tail still flicking.
“Oh, absolutely not. Get out, shoo!” I threw my keys on the kitchenette counter and walked toward the cat. It flinched, looking over its shoulder at me and meowing loudly.
“Get out, no! You’re not staying here.” I moved to pick the cat up. It scurried under my couch.
“Oh, come on, you’ve got to be kidding me.” I got down on my hands and knees to look under the couch. The cat turned around to stare at me. It meowed again when it saw me.
“No, get out, shoo!” I stretched out my hand to reach under the couch before a distinct memory of one of my mom’s cats ripping three deep lines in the back of my hand when I was seven popped into my head. The scratches had gotten infected and wept pus. My mom had to wash them in hydrogen peroxide several times before all the pus came out. I could still faintly see the scars.
I wasn’t picking the cat up.
I groaned. “Aw, come on, cat, please get out.” The cat just stared at me and meowed. I stood up and pulled the couch away from the wall. The cat screeched and scurried out. It jumped onto the seat of the couch and meowed again.
“Go on, out! Shoo!” I took off my jacket and waved it at the cat like a bullfighter swishing his cape. The cat crouched down, clinging to my couch. “Go on, get out! Go!”
The cat leaped at my fuzzy jacket, batting at the sleeves and collars. I shrieked, dropping the jacket. The cat jumped onto the back of the couch, poised to spring. It seemed to be just as frustrated with me as I was with it because it hissed at me, and its ears were flat against its head. I grabbed my jacket and shook it at the cat again.
“Shoo! Shoo, shoo, shoo!”
It hissed again and swiped, narrowly missing my fingers. I could swear it was glaring at me. I wasn’t about to let the thing stay in my house, but I didn’t want to get mauled either.
“Fine.” I pulled out my phone and began looking up the number for animal control. The first few places I found were closed. I dug through a few more websites before I found a recommendation to call the police if it was an emergency. I really didn’t want to call the cops on a cat. It wasn’t like the thing was rabid . . . and couldn’t I get in trouble for calling 911 on a non-emergency? What would I even say? Hi, my name’s Claire Johnson, and there’s a cat in my apartment . . . No, it’s not my cat . . . I can’t get it out of my apartment . . . No, I can’t pick it up because I was traumatized as a child, and I’m afraid to touch it.
I glared at the cat. It seemed almost smug. It had settled down on the back of my couch, though it didn’t take its eyes off me.
“Fine,” I said again. I’d let it calm down, maybe see if I could find some gloves, and then I’d try to pick it up. Maybe if I let it feel at home, I could sneak up on it and grab it fast.
My stomach growled at me, reminding me that I was still hungry. I decided to make a sandwich while I waited for the cat to chill out.
I was pulling out an almost empty package of bologna and a jar of mayonnaise with an expiration date I ignored when something soft began rubbing at my ankles. The little black monster had followed me in the kitchen and was dancing around my feet like we were best of friends.
“Excuse you, no!” I kicked lightly at the cat. It meowed and leaped up on the counter.
“Get off my kitchen counter!” I put down the sandwich stuff and grabbed a roll of paper towels to try to shoo the cat off my counter. But the miserable cretin was sniffing at my sandwich meat and paid me no mind.
“I am not giving you food!” My mom had always said that if you fed a stray cat, they would never leave. The cat meowed back at me and began licking the brightly colored Hillshire Farm label.
“Ew, ew, ew, no, stop!” I jerked the sandwich meat packet off the counter, dancing out of reach of the cat’s claws.
“Fine. Fine, you want this?” I pulled out a piece of meat. The cat meowed, pacing back and forth on my counter excitedly. I waved the meat at it and walked backward toward my door. The cat followed me like a dog, still meowing. I opened the door and flung the piece of meat out of it. The cat darted out after the food, and I slammed my door shut and locked it.
“Ugh. Stupid thing.” I was definitely calling animal control in the morning.
The next morning, I overslept. I skipped a shower in order to make breakfast. I wrapped two scrambled eggs in a tortilla and took a bite as I shoved my feet into shoes and grabbed my keys and phone. I was putting on my jacket, the breakfast burrito half in my mouth, when I opened the door, and a small black blur shot past me.
I made inarticulate noises through my burrito, dropping my keys and chasing the cat. It dove under my couch again. I pulled the burrito out of my mouth.
“I don’t have time for this. I’m already late!” A bit of scrambled egg fell on the floor. The cat scurried out and began eating it.
“You cannot eat all my food!” I nudged the cat with my foot, but it only darted away.
“I am not feeding you, get out!”
I didn’t have time to look for gloves, and I didn’t want to go into work bleeding from a stray cat. They’d probably send me home for health code violations or something. I unwrapped my burrito and pulled out a piece of egg. I put it on the palm of my hand and held it out to the cat. It stood on its hind legs, meowing and sniffing at my hand.
“Come on! You can have it if you get out. Come on!” The cat followed me out the door, and I threw it the piece of egg. I shoved the rest of my burrito in my mouth, glared at the pleased little cat sharing my breakfast, and went to work.
After that, every day became a battle to keep the cat out of my apartment. Even the creepiest guys I had ever dated were not as persistent as the cat. I kept saying I would call animal control but would wake up so tired or stumble in so late that I kept procrastinating. I tried rushing in and out, but it was too fast, and short of punting the thing across the hall like a football, I couldn’t keep it from getting close to my door. I didn’t want to hurt the cat, but I was not letting it live in my apartment.
I started preemptively throwing food out the door in the mornings before I walked out. The beast ate anything. Scrambled eggs, bits of my toast, chunks of banana, even apple slices. In the evenings, I would either save a bit of sandwich meat from my lunch to throw it, or just resign myself to having to lure it out with food every evening. I could see why black cats were bad luck.
This went on for two weeks before I had a rare day off and slept in. I took a long shower and made brunch before flopping on my couch to watch Netflix and eat. I didn’t think anything of the cat until I was taking out the garbage an hour later and opened my door.
The cat was not there.
I shrugged. I walked to the stairs, passing Mrs. Thompson’s door. She was fussing at her yapping chihuahua. Suddenly, her door opened, and a black blur ran past me.
“Oh, hello, Claire! How are you?”
I turned around to look at the old woman, noting her open door, the leashed chihuahua, and the cat at the end of the hall, licking its chops.
“Do you feed that thing?”
The old woman looked taken aback. “What, dear?”
“That cat. Do you feed it?”
“Oh!” Mrs. Thompson laughed. “Well, I have to! It’s been barging in my apartment every time I go out. It won’t leave until I give it something to eat. Drives poor Roxie insane. I’m afraid to pick it up because I don’t want it to scratch me. It’s a feisty little thing.”
“How often do you feed it?”
“Oh, twice a day sometimes. Usually at lunch and dinner, when I walk Roxie.” She sighed. “I kind of feel sorry for the thing. It’s so thin I wonder if I’m the only person giving it food. It has to be pretty desperate to barge into my house like that with Roxie here.”
I stared at the furry blackmailer in disbelief. It was still thin.
“Who does it belong to?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe it just got left here. I’ve thought about asking around but haven’t gotten around to it. I guess it’s not yours?”
“No, but it pulls the same stunt with me,” I growled.
Mrs. Thompson gasped. “Really?” She laughed. “Oh, that’s hilarious. A con-artist cat!”
“More like mob enforcer.” I shook my head. “I’ll ask around today. Maybe I’ll find its owner.”
“Oh, that would be wonderful, dear, thank you. Please do, before it eats us both out of house and home!”
I snorted before bidding the old woman goodbye. The cat just stared at me as I passed.
But I was on to its little scheme now. I was going to find that cat’s home or call animal control on it that very day.
I started knocking at every door in the five-story building. A few didn’t answer. No one on the first floor had even seen the cat, let alone knew who owned it.
The second floor was different. A few people had seen the cat but said it never stayed for long. But two people knew exactly the cat I was talking about and reported the same food-extorting techniques. They laughingly said they had started making extra food for it in the mornings. Another apartment owner said she knew about the cat but had kicked it so violently when it tried to run in that it stayed away from her now. I glared at her as I walked away.
The third floor—my floor—was worse. Besides Mrs. Thompson and me, three other people were feeding the cat at least a few times a week. A lady on the fourth floor even left out a bowl of water for it beside her door. Another man said he had bought a few catnip-filled toys to help lure the cat out at night. One woman said her kids wanted to take it in permanently, but her husband wouldn’t let them.
I was beyond exasperated. This cat should have been plump as a pigeon but instead somehow remained sleek and skinny, enough so that anyone with half a heart or half a fear of its claws would toss out bits of food for it. It had a line of personal chefs at its beck and meow. I didn’t know whether to be angry or impressed.
On the fifth floor, the story abruptly changed. No one knew about a cat. No one had seen a cat. No one had fed a cat. Here, no cats existed.
I knocked at the last apartment door. After a few moments, it swung open, and the smell of smoke and fresh paint hit me in the face. I realized this was the apartment that had exploded a few months ago.
“I’m Claire Johnson. I live on third floor,” I began.
“Hey, I’m Anna. What can I do for you?” the woman at the door asked.
“Do you own a black cat?”
The woman sighed. “We did. Have you found one?”
“There’s one that’s been hanging around my floor for a few weeks now. I’m looking for its owner. It’s been running into my apartment and won’t leave until I feed it.”
Anna laughed. “Yeah, that sounds like Mia. That cat could eat all day long and not gain a pound.”
“This is probably her.”
“Yeah . . . she’s kind of mad at us,” Anna said sheepishly.
“She was in the apartment when it exploded. She wasn’t hurt or anything. The explosion was just in the kitchen. I don’t even think it did much damage to your floor?” I shook my head. “She ran off when the fire department got here. We found her a few days later, but she won’t let us get close to her. I think she’s just scared because of the fire, and now she doesn’t trust us. We’ve tried to catch her several times, but she won’t let us get anywhere near her.”
I was beginning to think this cat was a diva.
“Have you tried to find a new home for her?”
“Well . . . my husband’s really hoping she’ll come home. He loves that cat so much. I don’t want to give her away. I just hope no one calls animal control on her.”
I hid a wince. “Could you at least come try to get her? She’s terrorizing the building.”
“Sure, I’m sorry. I’ll give it a try, and if we can’t get her, we’ll try to find her a new home.”
Anna followed me downstairs. The cat was lying on my doormat.
“Mia! Hey, kitten!” Anna crooned, rubbing two fingers together to call the cat.
But the little black cat leaped up, hissed, and ran away.
“Mia! Wait, Mia, come back!” Anna hurried after the cat. I followed, but the cat disappeared somewhere on the second floor.
Anna sighed. “I’m sorry. That’s what always happens. It’s like she’s terrified of us.” I looked up to see her eyes glistening. “We’ve had her since she was a kitten. I don’t know what else to do . . .”
I shuffled awkwardly. “Well, thanks for giving it a try. She’s getting fed, if that’s any comfort.”
Anna laughed a little. “It is. Thanks.”
I bid her goodbye at my apartment and watched her climb the stairs. I had no sooner cracked the door open to my apartment when a little black furball swished past my feet.
“You.” I put my hands on my hips, staring down at the cat. She meowed back at me, winking.
“Why don’t you go home, hmm?”
The cat meowed again.
“You’ve got a family that is waiting on you. You ought to go home and stop blackmailing people for food, you little hustler.” I crouched down in front of her, rubbing my fingers together like Anna had done. The cat sniffed my fingers before rubbing her head against my hand. I scratched behind her ears, careful not to breathe too loudly and disturb the delicate peace.
“Mia,” I called softly. The cat looked up, tail swishing. “You should go home, kitten.” Mia just meowed and kept rubbing the top of her head against my palm.
The next day, Tobias called. I hadn’t heard from him in over a year. I listened to the voicemail on the bus.
Hey, Claire. I know it’s been a while. I hope you’re doing well. I just wanted to say my graduation is coming up next week. I think Mom called you about it. I know you’re probably busy, but it would really mean a lot if you would come. I’d like to have the whole family there. I’m going to propose to my girlfriend, and I’d like you to meet her. I think you two would get along great. Anyways, just thought I’d call and ask. I miss you. Love you, sis.
I cried the entire bus ride home. I ignored Mia through my tears as I opened the front door. She meowed at me as I walked in. I threw down my keys and went straight to the couch. I lay face down on it and sobbed. The cat jumped on my back and meowed at me.
“Go away!” I shouted. She meowed louder.
“Get off!” I sat up, shaking her off. She hissed and clawed her hind legs into my spine as she jumped to the floor and scurried under the couch. I cried out in pain and felt something wet trickle down my back. She had drawn blood.
“Ugh!” I kicked at the edge of the couch. “Why don’t you just go home?”
Mia didn’t meow back. I flopped back down on the couch and cried until I fell asleep.
I woke up to Mia rubbing her head against my face. I rolled my eyes and scratched her head.
“Still being a pest?”
I sat petting her for a while before she stood on my lap and raised her head to sniff my face. Carefully, slowly, trying not to startle her, I slipped my arms underneath her and picked her up. She kept purring. I cradled her against my chest and walked out of the apartment in my day-old clothes.
I carried her all the way up to the fifth floor and knocked on Anna’s door. She opened it a few minutes later and gasped.
“Mia . . .”
I didn’t speak as she reached out slowly toward the cat. Mia sniffed her fingers before letting her rub her head.
“How did you . . .”
“To be honest, I don’t know.”
Anna kept stroking the cat’s head. Slowly, gingerly, she took Mia from my arms. The cat rubbed her head against her chin, and Anna’s eyes filled with tears.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“Yeah. No problem.” I walked away without another word.
On the bus to work that day, I called my mom.
Hey, Mom. I was just calling to see if you still had a ticket to Tobias’s graduation . . . yeah, I think I can make it . . . yeah, I’m doing good. Nothing much new with me. Although I’m thinking about getting a kitten . . .