Terri-Anne was kind enough to beta read this for me before I inflicted it on the list, and made many helpful suggestions. (Thanks again!) Any further *mistakes* are entirely my own :-)
Any and all feedback is welcome.
Kodora: Japanese for 'small tiger' (at least according to the translation website I visited)
THE CAT AND HIS CONDOR
by Heather Lynne
"He'll be fine with a few stitches. Why don't you take him?"
The question seems to reverberate in the air of the veterinary office. I've barely recovered my wits after sideswiping the cat with my car, and now I'm on the spot for what to do with him once the vet finishes up.
I automatically open my mouth to protest that I don't know how to take care of a pet, that I don't have time, that I'm not a cat person. The words have hardly formed when I am struck by...a memory?
It's tactile, not visual. A heavy, thrumming mass by my side, weighing down the blanket. Thick soft fur that I can bury my hands in. The tickle of whiskers against my nose. And accompanying these sensations is an impression of warmth and safety - of having a protector in the night.
Did I have a cat? I close my eyes, but the memory is gone, quick as it came.
"Mr. Asakura?" The vet's still waiting for an answer, but I don't have one for him. Instead, I say, "Don't you guys find homes for stray animals?" He points to a bulletin board on the wall. "Look at that," he says. "Almost every notice up there represents a pet that needs a home. We do what we can."
The board is covered with announcements, some obviously homemade, some professionally printed, some with pictures. "Kittens free to good home". "Owner moving, seeks country home for friendly shepherd mix". And so on. Most of the notices have rip-off tags at the bottom, where people can take away phone numbers if they are interested. Very few of the tags are gone.
Christ. Talk about pulling your heart strings. Good thing Jinpei's not here.
The longer I take to answer him, the more I sense the vet moving in for the kill. "Cats are very easy to care for," he says. "Just the basics, food, water, kitty litter...or access to the outside," he is quick to add as sees my expression. "And companionship of course, on their own terms." Like a pro, he saves his best shot for last: "This fellow you brought in is a stray. I'm not going to stitch him up just to have him be euthanized at an animal shelter three weeks from now. If you're not going to take him, or can't find someone else, it might be kinder to put him down now".
There is a hint of reproach in the vet's eyes. Well, hell - I feel bad enough that I hit him; I was just trying to do the right thing by bringing him here.
I know without even asking that Jun can't take the cat - even if Jinpei would be thrilled - she's allergic. I can't imagine asking Ken - " I sort of hit this cat, he's OK now, but I need to find a home for him. You interested?" - I'd probably get a lecture on taking responsibility for my actions. And I am strangely unwilling to tell Ryu that I hurt an animal, even accidentally.
"What kind of cat is it?" I'm still stalling for time. The vet laughs. "I think a better question would be 'what kind of cat isn't it'. He's a mongrel tom cat - I couldn't guess how many breeds are mixed in him". He looks at me, appraisingly. "He's big, he has lots of old scars, so he's probably a fighter. And most cats are pretty independent; they're a good fit for people who live alone."
Guilt is a powerful motivator. "Can I pick him up on Wednesday?" I finally say.
Except for a low warning growl when I brake too hard for his liking, the cat is mainly silent on the trip out to my trailer. At home, I heft the carry crate inside and set in on the floor of the kitchen area. This feels like the point of no return. I undo the catch on the crate door and step back to watch what happens.
The first thing to appear is a black nose, followed by a green eye surrounded by dark orange fur. Just a quick glance, then he ducks back inside. There's something stealthy about it - I am reminded of myself, gun raised, scoping around a corner. Apparently the area is secure, for the rest of the cat emerges from the crate. Jesus, he's big. Darker copper markings on his back give the impression of stripes; a huge plumed tail unfurls behind him. He looks at me for long moment, and then, as cats do, leisurely begins to investigate his surroundings.
While he completes his survey, I rummage in the cupboard for a suitable food dish. I've got cat food already - the vet was only too happy to sell me some special, scientifically formulated healthy stuff. It's expensive; I'm going to have to find something cheaper.
Assuming the cat stays, of course. I pull out an empty plastic container that looks like it will do - it's sturdy and clean; never mind that I have no idea what it used to hold.
The cat now has his head under the couch and is crunching on something. I really hope it's just a stale pretzel.
"Here...kitty-kitty," I say, pouring kibble into the dish. No. This is ridiculous. The cat doesn't seem to be impressed either judging from the tail flick he gives me, without bothering to pull his head out from under the couch. I try again. "Hey Kodora! Supper time is now! The canteen closes in five minutes."
Now that's more like it. After hesitating for just a moment - as if measuring my sincerity - he hops up on the table. I put the dish down in silence and watch while he tucks in. It doesn't take long. Now he's looking at me again. I frown back at him. He blinks. I stretch out a cautious hand and lightly scratch the ridge over his eyes. He closes his eyes. I scratch some more, behind his ears and under his chin. I am rewarded with a low, rhythmic rumble, emanating deep in the cat's throat. Prrmmm. Prrmmm. Prrmmm. The sound grows, no doubt matching the foolish grin I can feel spreading across my face.
Ah. Well. So far so good. I'm glad I'm not looking in a mirror.
It's early evening when we get back to the trailer. I've arranged with Jun to take Jinpei to some horrible cartoon flick, Pikachu or Pokemon or something, in exchange for amnesty on my tab at the J.
Jinpei's out of the car in a flash, running to the trailer. I take more time, habit makes me give Sweetheart a once-over before leaving her in her parking space.
"Aniki!" Jinpei's voice is urgent, with a thread of anxiety running through it. "Joe! There's a big dead bird on your doorstep!" I've caught up with him by now, and look down at the mess on the step. Not terribly pleasant. But I do have to laugh, which makes Jinpei narrow his eyes at me. His thoughts are plain. Your cover's broken, someone's sent you a warning and you're laughing. Typical.
"Jinpei, it's OK. It's not a Galactor death threat, or any thing like that." Better get this over with. "I think it's just a gift from Kodora. Look," I motion to the stand of trees at the back of the trailer.
Gazing coolly back at us from beneath a tree, is an immense shaggy cat. Jinpei is incredulous. "Is he YOURS? You adopted a cat?? Where did he come from?" He grins. "It's the end of the world as we know it." He crouches down and makes silly chirping noises at Kodora, who looks away.
"Knock it off," I say. "He'll come over to see you in his own good time. And I didn't 'adopt' him - he's just living here right now."
Proving me right, the big cat stalks towards Jinpei the moment he turns his attention back to me. "Be careful where you pet him..." I start to say too late, as Jinpei snatches his hand away, sharp claws barely missing it. "It's just that he's had some stitches, and they are still bothering him."
Jinpei strokes him again, this time with more respect. "Kind of ornery, isn't he?" he says. Kodora swishes his tail, and tilts his chin in the air. Good boy. A little to the left.
"He suits me," I say. "He comes and goes as he pleases. He's quiet company too, and it's not like I have any fancy furniture..." I break off. "What?"
Jinpei is smirking at me. "The great Condor has a kitty cat!" He is laughing now. "Oh man..."
Now I'm starting to get pissed. "Little Swallow," I say, "I'd watch what you say to the great Condor if I were you." Unfortunately, the growl that can send goons running for their lives doesn't have quite the same effect on Jinpei. But he stops laughing at least.
I relent a little. "Listen, I've got to feed him before we head to the show. You want to do it?" Of course he does; his eyes light up immediately. "There's a bag of food on the table, and his dish is on the floor. I'll deal with my gift here."
Jinpei steps gingerly over the mess on the stair, and goes inside. Kodora follows. I'm going to have to put in a cat door or something. It's funny; I have never wanted a pet, but I do like having Kodora around. I guess the bird means he approves of me too. Looks like I've got myself a roommate.
I am just on the verge of sleep when the bed rocks abruptly, jolting me back to full awareness. A fuzzy object pads its way over the covers and thumps down next to my shoulder. A heavy, thrumming mass by my side, weighing down the blanket. Thick soft fur that I can bury my hands in. The tickle of whiskers against my nose*
I drift back to sleep. I don't need a night-time protector anymore, but he'll keep watch just the same.