The Stray Cat, fiction by CL Bledsoe

Joey had been suc­cess­ful­ly dodg­ing Tom­my, who’d had been tweaked out on home­made meth for near­ly a week, until Tom­my decid­ed he’d had enough of the stray cat nos­ing around the house. So he told Joey to leave some tuna out for it and, when the scrawny thing got full, catch it and bring it to him. Joey thought maybe Tom­my was going to drown it or wring its neck.

            He took sev­er­al bites from the tuna, left a lit­tle in the can out by the front door, and hunched down inside the screened-in porch a few feet away, slap­ping at mos­qui­toes, and thought about school start­ing back up in a cou­ple days. He missed the cafe­te­ria. As long as you didn’t attract atten­tion, some of the kids were okay. He had a cou­ple bud­dies.

            He heard a rustling and sat still. A mos­qui­to land­ed on his arm. He could feel the sharp itch as it drew blood. It was dark out­side, but he could see a shape and hear the tuna can scrape against the bro­ken stones that used to be a kind of walk­way up to the house. He lis­tened to the thing eat and jerked to his feet when he real­ized it might not even be the cat—it could be a coon or a pos­sum. He moved to the door and sud­den­ly heard the sound of the thing purring. He was pret­ty sure coons didn’t purr.

            Joey knelt and put his hand through a hole in the screen. His fin­gers smelled like tuna—he was a lit­tle afraid the cat might mis­take his hand for dessert—so he kept them balled into a fist. At first, the cat went qui­et, but in a moment, it brushed ten­ta­tive­ly against his hand.

             Joey could feel the cat’s bones through its thin skin. He brought it into the liv­ing room and sat on the floor with it so Tom­my wouldn’t yell at him about hav­ing it on the tat­tered, bro­ken couch.

            “What’s that?” his sis­ter Chy­na asked. She came down the stairs and stood in front of Joey.

            “Cat,” he said.

            “Bet­ter get it out of here before Tom­my sees it.” She put a hand on its head and smoothed its fur. It purred.

            “Tom­my wants it.”

            “Oh,” she looked wor­ried. “What for?”

            “Don’t know.” He shrugged.

            “Don’t let him have it.”

            “Okay,” he said.

            “I’m seri­ous. Joey.” She stared in his eyes.

            “Okay.” He looked away.

            She put her hand on his arm. “Real­ly. Just let it go. He’ll nev­er know.”

            Joey scoffed. “Sure.”

            Chy­na was qui­et. She pet­ted it some more. Joey set the cat down on its back and rubbed its stom­ach. It purred loud­ly.

            Both broth­er and sis­ter jumped as the bed­room door slammed open. Chy­na stepped in front of the cat and tried to block Tommy’s view of it as he stalked into the liv­ing room.

            “What’s that behind you?” he asked.

             Tom­my took the cat by the scruff of its neck out­side to the shed. He told Joey to go get the gas can from the back of Tommy’s truck. Chy­na came out to watch. Tom­my doused the cat with gas. It shrieked loud and twist­ed to plant a claw in Tommy’s arm. He cursed and held it out. He pulled his lighter out and lit it. Chy­na clapped her hands over her mouth as the cat screamed. Tom­my let it go, and it ran—a fiery dart—back into the house and plant­ed itself under the couch. Tom­my cursed again and ran in after it. Smoke was already pour­ing out the front door. Joey went in to see the couch in flames, the flames spread­ing up the walls.

            “Get that TV out of here,” Tom­my yelled as he ran out with an arm­ful of valu­ables. Joey and Chy­na ran into the open door of the mas­ter bed­room and found their moth­er, still asleep, and dragged her out into the grass.

            “Quit wast­ing time with that old skank,” Tom­my yelled. He ran back in and came out with clothes and his records.

            Joey and Chy­na roused their mom and explained what was hap­pen­ing.

            “You damned idiot,” she said as he ran out with anoth­er load of records. He back­hand­ed her and turned back to the house, which was blaz­ing, now.

            “Tom­my,” Joey said. Tom­my turned on him with his hand raised. Joey point­ed. The eave above the door—already sag­ging for as long as Joey could remem­ber was ablaze and falling.

            “God damned cat,” Tom­my said.

 ***

            They went to a motel for the night—Tommy and Joey’s moth­er in the bed, Joey and Chy­na in the back­seat of Tommy’s car. The next morn­ing, when Joey knocked on the door to ask to use the bath­room, he over­heard Tom­my on the phone with Joey’s grand­moth­er, who owned the house.

            “I couldn’t call the damn fire depart­ment because the damn phone was on fire,” he was say­ing. “I don’t know how it start­ed. Prob­a­bly the wiring. That thing was a death-trap for years. If you weren’t so stingy…” He put the phone away from his ear and noticed Joey. He made a fist at the boy. Joey went back out­side and walked out into a field near the motel to pee.

           ***

            Joey’s grand­moth­er showed up lat­er from Parkin. She pulled up to the room and waved Joey and Cyna over to her car, a steel whale paint­ed an insti­tu­tion­al green.

            “Are you chil­dren hun­gry?” she asked.

            “Yes, ma’am,” Chy­na said.

            She waved them into the front seat and took them to McDonald’s. As they were order­ing, Joey asked if they could get some­thing for Tom­my.

            “He can get his own,” Grand­moth­er said.

            Joey start­ed to say that Tom­my would get mad, but Chy­na squeezed his hand to shoosh him.

            Back at the motel, Grand­moth­er left the kids in her car while she went in.

            “What do you think they’re talk­ing about?” Joey asked.

            “She’s tear­ing them a new one.” Chy­na stared at the door with a sullen look.

            After a half-hour or so, their grand­moth­er came back out. The kids’ moth­er stood in the door­way watch­ing as she got back in the car.

            “How would you chil­dren like to come stay with me for a lit­tle while?”

            “Thank you,” they both said.

             She stopped at Wal Mart and bought them new clothes. While she was look­ing for shoes for Joey, she noticed his were duct-taped.

            “What hap­pened to your shoes?”

            He shrugged. “The bot­tom was com­ing off so I fixed them.”

            She got them five out­fits each and shoes. She bought them back­packs, paper, and pen­cils. They put their bags in the car, and Grand­moth­er showed the kids the receipt. “I just spent near­ly two hun­dred dol­lars on you kids,” she said.

            “Thank you,” they both said.

            “’Thank-you’ don’t pay the bills.”

 ***

            When they got to her house, she put them to work mow­ing and rak­ing leaves. They gath­ered up fall­en branch­es and weed­ed her plants in the front of the house. Joey had to climb up on a rick­ety lad­der and clean out the gut­ters. By the time they fin­ished all the chores she’d list­ed for them in her close hand­writ­ing, it was late after­noon. Joey knocked on the door, and Grand­moth­er sent him around back. She made them both undress and rinsed the mud and detri­tus off with the gar­den hose and gave them tow­els. They dried off and stood in their tow­els in the entry­way, shiv­er­ing. She gave them each a set of clothes, and they dressed.

            “Min­i­mum wage is three-twen­ty-five per hour,” she said. “You two worked for four hours. Can either of you tell me how much you earned?”

            Joey raised his hand.

            “Minus room and board expens­es,” she added.

            Joey low­ered his hand.

             They ate ear­ly, and when they fin­ished, the kids cleaned up. “May we watch tele­vi­sion?” Joey asked.

            “I don’t like tele­vi­sion,” Grand­moth­er said.

            She sent them to bed ear­ly.

            “May we read?” Joey asked.

            “All right.”

            They searched through the house. Chy­na found a Read­ers Digest Con­densed book called Dark Desires. Joey found a paper­back Tom Clan­cy nov­el behind a book­case. They sat in their beds on top of the cov­ers, afraid to wrin­kle the sheets. Joey woke from Chy­na shak­ing him.

            “You were cry­ing in your sleep.”

            “Dream­ing about that cat,” he said.

            They sat up read­ing their books for the rest of the night.

 ***

            The next morn­ing, when they came down to break­fast, Grand­moth­er had anoth­er list of chores. They spent the day clean­ing and repair­ing things around the house. For lunch, they had soup from a can that she mixed with two cans’ worth of water and had them share. For sup­per, they ate pas­ta with a thin sauce that hard­ly stained the noo­dles. They were in bed by dark and Grand­moth­er came and knocked on their door. They quick­ly turned their lights out. She opened the door and said, “Hap­py New Year!”

            “Thank you,” they both said.

            When she closed the door, Chy­na spoke: “I miss mom,” she said.

            “I don’t,” Joey said.

            “We could run away.”

            “Where would we go?”

            “Back to Crowley’s Ridge.”

            “Hell, why both­er?” They were both qui­et.

 ***

            The next day, they went into town to watch a parade. She gave them the rest of the after­noon off, and they searched the house again for more books. The fol­low­ing day, they begged a ride to the library.

            “I’m going to have to deduct the gas mon­ey from your chores,” Grand­moth­er said.

            They start­ed school the next day. Grand­moth­er drove them into Crowley’s Ridge and dropped them off. Joey col­lect­ed his first black eye, and Chy­na got into a shov­ing match with anoth­er girl. At lunch time, they were called to the office. Their mom was stand­ing by the principal’s office. Chy­na gave her a silent hug. Their moth­er stepped back and looked at them.

            “You guys look good. What hap­pened to your hands?” She fin­gered the blis­ters on Chyna’s palms.

            “Grand­moth­er made us do chores.”

            “Nothing’s free with your grand­moth­er.”

            “Where’s Tom­my?” Joey asked.

            “At the house,” his mom said.

            They drove out to the house at Hunter’s Rest, a one-time resort com­mu­ni­ty that sat, now, on a stag­nant pond. Drunk­en fish­er­men threw lines in the green water and pulled out a gar now and then. They passed the gate and turned in to the dirt track that led to the remains of the house, which sat, sur­pris­ing­ly to Joey, just like it had before—sagging and weath­er­worn, except now, it had a black­ened hole burnt in the roof. She pulled up to the house, got out, and went to the work­shop off to the side and slid the alu­minum door up. Tom­my was inside, sleep­ing on a mat­tress on the cement floor. As soon as they slid the door up, he start­ed curs­ing.

            “The old bat give you any mon­ey?” He asked.

            “She’s mak­ing us pay off our debt for room and board,” Chy­na said.

            “And she bought—“ Joey began, but Chy­na nudged him silent.

            “What’d she buy?” Tom­my said.

            “Gas. She made us pay back the gas mon­ey she spent tak­ing us to school,” Chy­na said quick­ly.

            Tom­my laughed. “Find any­thing valu­able in her house?”

            “No sir,” Joey said. “She doesn’t even have a TV.’

            Tom­my laughed again. “Stingy old bat.”

            Tom­my had a TV hooked up to rab­bit ears on a chair. The kids sat on the hard con­crete and watched it while he and their moth­er talked out­side. When they came back in, the kids’ mom asked if they were hun­gry. They went and got in the car and she took them back to school.

            After they’d cleaned her entire house and fixed every­thing that need­ed fix­ing, and by their reck­on­ing paid her back with inter­est, Grand­moth­er lost patience with the chil­dren. She snapped at them con­stant­ly, for their looks, for their smells, for every rea­son she could think of, and when­ev­er she ran out of rea­sons, she would sim­ply pinch them when­ev­er they strayed too close.

            “My freezer’s emp­ty,” she com­plained. It was true, the day before, she’d thawed a cake she’d frozen three years pri­or, accord­ing to the date. She refused to let them leave the table until they each fin­ished a slice and then com­plained about their glut­tony.

            They decid­ed to sneak away dur­ing school and return to their own home. When Grand­moth­er dropped them off, they went inside, wait­ed a few min­utes, and left. They walked over to Wal-Mart, just cat­ty-cor­ner from the junior high school, and then made their way through neigh­bor­hoods and back streets east, gen­er­al­ly fol­low­ing high­way 64, until they made it the few miles out to Hunter’s Rest. The gate was open, and they found the house as it had been. Their mom’s car wasn’t there, though, and when they knocked on the shed door, no one answered. It was chained closed, so they couldn’t inves­ti­gate. They went inside the burnt house and wait­ed, mak­ing them­selves as com­fort­able as they could.

            Oth­er than the liv­ing room, which was soot-stained with a hole in the ceil­ing, the house was much the same. They dragged the charred fur­ni­ture out and went upstairs to their old room. Their things were still there, though they reeked of smoke.

            They wait­ed out the rest of the day and that night. It got chilly inside because of the hole in the roof, but they hud­dled under blan­kets and toughed it out; nei­ther of them could sleep any­way because of the dreams about the cat and Tom­my. When no one came the next day, they hiked back into town and spent all the mon­ey they scav­enged from their com­bined sav­ings on food. The kids car­ried their bags back out to the house, jok­ing and laugh­ing for the first time since they could remem­ber.

            After they ate, Chy­na went next door to a neighbor’s to bor­row the phone. She called Grand­moth­er and told her they were stay­ing with their mom again and that she’d kicked Tom­my out. They broke into the shed and found an exten­sion cord and ran it to the house to pow­er the TV.

            They lived like that for six months. Joey got a job in town at Piz­za House and Chy­na got a job deliv­er­ing papers. They spread a tarp over the roof and fixed as much as they could. When they plugged the phone back in, they dis­cov­ered that it worked, but it only ever rang when the school called about them being absent, so they unplugged it again.

            Then, one day, they heard noise out­side. Tom­my and their moth­er pulled up in an 18-wheel­er. They’d been dri­ving cross coun­try all this time.

            “Piss-poor job on the roof,” was all Tom­my said. He and the kids’ mom reclaimed their old bed­room.

            “Maybe we should go back to Grandmother’s,” Joey said.

            “Let me think about it,” Chy­na said. Joey sat beside her, qui­et, while she stared straight ahead.

             The next day, Chy­na and Joey rode their bikes into town to the near­est pay­phone.

            “School’s good,” Chy­na said in answer to her grandmother’s first ques­tion. “Mom’s see­ing Tom­my again. He moved back into the house.” She spent the rest of the call talk­ing about her job and how she hoped to move up to shift man­ag­er by sum­mer. They stayed in town for a while and rode back out to the house in time to see the end of the bat­tle. Grand­moth­er stood by the door­way while Tom­my loaded his car. The kids’ moth­er sat by the shed, smok­ing a cig­a­rette. Chy­na went up to her.

            “Mom, if you ever cared about being a good moth­er to us, don’t go with him right now. Go and meet him lat­er when Grandmother’s gone. Do it for us.”

            Her moth­er sat, stunned, as Chy­na turned and walked away.

   ***

            Grand­moth­er watched Tom­my leave. She went to the kids’ moth­er and lec­tured her at length while the kids watched. Final­ly, her daugh­ter in tears, Grand­moth­er left. The kids went over to their moth­er. She looked up at them and smiled through her tears.

            “You can go, now,” Chy­na said.

            Their mother’s face dropped, and the kids went inside the remains of the house.

CL Bled­soe is the author of the young adult nov­el Sun­light; three poet­ry col­lec­tions, _____(Want/Need), Anthem, and Leap Year; and a short sto­ry col­lec­tion called Nam­ing the Ani­mals. A poet­ry chap­book, Good­bye to Noise, is avail­able online at www​.righthand​point​ing​.com/​b​l​e​d​soe. Anoth­er, The Man Who Killed Him­self in My Bath­room, is avail­able at http://​ten​page​spress​.word​press​.com/​2​0​1​1​/​0​8​/​0​1​/​t​h​e​-​m​a​n​-​w​h​o​-​k​i​l​l​e​d​-​h​i​m​s​e​l​f​-​i​n​-​m​y​-​b​a​t​h​r​o​o​m​-​b​y​-​c​l​-​b​l​e​d​s​oe/. His sto­ry, "Leav­ing the Gar­den," was select­ed as a Notable Sto­ry of 2008 for Sto­ry South's Mil­lion Writer's Award. He’s been nom­i­nat­ed for the Push­cart Prize 5 times. He blogs at Mur­der Your Dar­lings, http://​clbled​soe​.blogspot​.com Bled­soe has writ­ten reviews for The Hollins Crit­ic, The Arkansas Review, Amer­i­can Book Review, Prick of the Spin­dle, The Pedestal Mag­a­zine, and else­where. Bled­soe lives with his wife and daugh­ter in Mary­land.

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