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Catnip and Oatmeal
Words by Jessica A. Swearingen
The scarlet letters scrawled across the top of the poster taped to the bus shelter tugged at the corner of Finn’s eye. He flicked a glance in its direction and then looked back down at the screen of his phone.
Just a cat, he thought. Finn’s last feline experience had not been a pleasant one. His ex-girlfriend, Maggie, had a cat. Leo. And Leo had hated Finn. Passionately. After he and Maggie split up, Finn had decided he would be strictly a canine person from then on.
The fuzzy mane around the neck of the cat in the poster remained in Finn’s peripheral vision. There was something familiar about the way the white and grey fur overlapped into a faint striped pattern. Finn turned again to the poster and found himself face to face with the cold emerald eyes of his furry nemesis.
Below the picture was a short blurb confirming the cat’s name, where he was last seen (in Maggie’s backyard, no doubt terrorizing birds and small mammals, Finn thought), and a phone number that Finn knew by heart—Maggie’s cell.
Just then, the bus hissed to a stop and the door swung open. Finn put his right foot on the bottom step but then paused. “Hold on just a second,” he said to the bus driver. The driver sighed impatiently but didn’t close the door while Finn turned back to the shelter and tore the poster off. He folded it slightly and climbed the steps. The driver opened his mouth as if he had something to say but then closed it and shook his head. The bus was nearly empty and Finn found a seat near the back. Once he was settled he unfolded the poster and read it again. He covered Leo’s face with one hand and traced Maggie’s phone number with his right index finger.
He had resisted the urge to call her since she had told him she needed some space three weeks ago. He hoped that giving her what she wanted would show her that he was serious about making things work between them, but he missed her. He had thought they had a pretty decent relationship. Sure, she sometimes treated him like he was her servant. But she had been busy and stressed out over work. He had been happy to help her out and she always thanked him afterwards. Their only big fight had been over her reluctance to go up north to his family’s cabin for a long weekend. She claimed that she couldn’t possibly leave Leo alone or even with one of her friends. Finn’s suggestion of a pet hotel was not well received. She screamed that he hated Leo and didn’t understand how special he was to her, thus how could Finn possibly love her? He had tried to calm her down and explain, but she had said she needed some space and time to think about things. He was still confused about why they needed a break and wished he could talk to her about it. Despite her demanding nature, he had been happy when they were together.
Finn lifted his left hand and studied the furry face. Even though it was only a picture, the sight of the cat made the faded scars on the back of Finn’s hand ache. He had lost count of the number of times he had been clawed and bitten by Maggie’s furry baby. As often is the case with evil, his true malevolence was cloaked in an appealing veneer. On the surface, Leo was a beautiful cat: bright emerald eyes with perfect creamy rings around them, like soft white eyeliner, long charcoal hued fur streaked with paler grey stripes. Finn knew better; he had the scars to prove it.
But no matter how hard he tried, he had never been able to convince Maggie that Leo was likely the reincarnate of Saddam Hussein. Quite the opposite. Maggie believed Leo was the sweetest and most entertaining cat in the world. Pet owners as a whole tended to feel this way about their animals, just as parents did their children. Biting and scratching? Just playing! Peeing on the rug? The litter box must have been too full and could Finn pick up a new jug of litter on his way over?
Finn checked the poster. Leo had been missing since October 11th, two days ago. A plan began to take shape in his mind.
The bus rumbled to a stop at the end of Finn’s street and he climbed down the steps, the poster still clutched in his hand. He found himself paying more attention than usual to the shadows under the bushes as he walked down the sidewalk. There were so many places a cat could hide outside. It would be impossible to find one. A few minutes later, he let himself in to the third floor apartment he was sharing with his old college roommate.
Finn crossed the threshold into a barrage of sensory overload. The overhead lights in the kitchen, the stove lamp, and the hanging fixture above the table were all blazing. Jacob’s laptop was set up on the table and the sounds of Oasis blared from the tiny speakers. The most astonishing part of all was the smell. A combination of garlic, yeast, and something else savory was emanating from the oven.
Jacob was leaning over and peering through the clear panel of the oven door. Finn could see something golden and lumpy peeking over an aluminum pan inside.
“Is that bread?”
Jacob turned and smiled. “Sure is!”
“Since when do you bake things?”
Jacob was a pretty decent cook, but in the decade that they had been friends Finn had never once seen him bake anything. Stovetop, yes. But not the oven.
“Just felt like trying something new.”
Finn held the poster up. “Look what I found.”
Jacob wrinkled his nose. “A picture of a cat?”
“Not just any cat, Maggie’s cat. And he’s missing.”
“Wait, the one you said was the devil? That’s him? He’s cute! Sure doesn’t look evil.” Jacob came closer and studied the picture.
“Oh he’s a deceptive little bastard. Lures you in with the fake cute look and as soon as you get close…” Finn held up his scarred left hand.
Jacob laughed. “Did you kidnap him or something? Why do you have that poster?”
“I don’t know. I saw it while I was waiting for the bus and I had been thinking about her and I just grabbed it. It seemed like a sign or something”
Jacob’s face darkened under the bright kitchen lights. He opened his mouth but closed it before saying anything.
Jacob sighed. “I wasn’t going to tell you about it because I didn’t want to upset you, but I saw her last Saturday.”
“Saw who, Maggie?”
“Yeah. She was at Tulsi with some guy. They looked pretty cozy. Table for two, candles, and all that. You hadn’t mentioned her for a few days so I thought you had started to get over her. I didn’t want to make you think about her again if you were.”
Finn’s hand tightened on the paper, creasing it again. “Who was it? Anyone we know?”
“No one I’d seen before, looked like a jerk though,” Jacob replied, the end of his statement lilting upwards.
Finn sat down at the table and spread the poster out again. He tapped the photo of Leo. “This. This is what I need to do.”
“Kidnap the cat? He’s already missing.”
“No, not kidnap him, find him. Maggie loves that stupid cat more than anything. She’s gotta be going crazy without him.”
“Whoa, girl dumped you and hasn’t talked to you in weeks and you’re worried about her mental state?”
“She didn’t dump me exact...”
“I know, I know, you had a fight and agreed that you needed some time apart.”
“Exactly. Time apart, we agreed. No one actually dumped anyone.”
“And wasn’t she a little on the demanding side?”
“She has a tough job. I didn’t mind chipping in, helping her out. She always thanked me.”
Jacob raised his eyebrows and squeezed his lips together. Finn looked over at the counter. “How soon can we eat that? I’m starving.”
The next morning, Finn woke up early and planned his approach. If he did find Leo, he would need something to transport him in, something that provided no access to bare skin. He found a pen in the junk drawer and pulled an old menu from Pizza Planet off the fridge and flipped it over. On the back he wrote: Cat Carrier. He would also need a way to entice Leo in to the carrier. The strange creature had loved oatmeal, further proof of Finn’s human reincarnation theory. Instant Oatmeal, added to the list. He had also liked chasing after those miniature cage shaped plastic balls with the bells inside. Bell Balls. Just in case he had gone off oatmeal, Finn decided to get a more traditional cat temptation. Catnip. He finished the list just as the toaster popped.
Outside, the darkness was just beginning to break apart. The air held the first frosty hints of autumn’s complete dismissal of summer. Finn’s footsteps sounded like thuds in the empty streets. He tried to step more softly in practice for the stealthy maneuvers he would need to make when he approached Leo. Despite the seemingly futile nature of his quest, Finn had no doubt that he would find him.
Even though he hadn’t spoken of Maggie to Jacob lately, she had still been on his mind constantly. He was surprised every time he stretched his arm out in the night and instead of her warm softness, found only a cold empty space. Each time the little blue message light flashed on his phone, his heart picked up speed, only to sputter in disappointment when he saw that it wasn’t from her. It didn’t matter if this new guy was an heir to an oil fortune. The thing Maggie cared most about was Leo, and Finn was going to get him back for her.
Maggie lived in a diminutive 1920s bungalow on a street lined with other identical brick houses. The yards were filled with thick-trunked maples and elms. Dense bushes pushed up against the red brick sides of the houses. The leaves on both had changed into their fall clothes, but had not yet taken the final dive to the ground. Finn stood at the end of the street, squinting in the dim morning light. Silence. Not even a rustle of leaves or tinkle of wind chimes. He could see her silver Honda in her driveway about a block further down the street. There was no second car.
His plan was to walk up and down the street until it was completely light. Finn knew Maggie had probably already searched everywhere on her block, and all the surrounding streets. Fifty times. However, he thought the quiet might coax Leo out of any hiding spot he may have found.
Finn whistled softly as he walked, his green hood pulled forward so that it shielded his face. It wouldn’t help his cause if she believed he was stalking her. After three slow trips up and down the street, the smell of brewing coffee began to seep into the air. Several sets of curtains had been opened and porch lights had been turned off.
Instead of turning around and repeating the loop, Finn continued walking north. Thirty minutes later he had stopped to collect the needed supplies at the twenty-four hour market and was at Starbucks. The barista’s eyes widened when she saw the cat carrier in Finn’s right hand and she opened her mouth in protest. Finn lifted the carrier so that she could see inside. “Don’t worry, it’s empty.” He pulled the crumpled poster out of his pocket. “You don’t happened to have seen this cat wandering around your trash cans out back, have you?”
The barista, Shelly according to her name tag, looked at Finn as though he had lost his mind. “Uh no, no cats. Did you want to order something?”
“Grande Caramel Latte. Oh and a tall cup of hot water, the kind you use for tea, please.” Finn paid for his coffee and carried both cups to an open table by the windows. After he was settled in one of the chairs, he pulled out the small canister of instant oatmeal. He dumped a scoop of the oats into the cup of hot water, stirred them until they began to thicken, and clicked the plastic lid into place. As he set the cup aside, he saw Shelly’s narrowed brown eyes watching him.
Finn gave her a small smile and a wave. Shelly’s cheeks reddened and she pretended to be busy wiping the bar behind the counter. Finn pulled out his phone and Googled “Madison Animal Shelters.” There were five of them in walking distance. Two were not open until noon, but Furry Hearts would be opening in less than an hour. He sat and sipped his coffee a little longer before gathering his supplies and heading to the shelter.
Furry Hearts was housed in a rambling turn of the century Victorian just a few blocks from the Starbucks. The powder blue walls and cream colored shutters looked freshly painted, and the front lawn was neatly raked. A tall wooden privacy fence blocked the backyard, where Finn could see towering maples still clinging to their golden leaves. He could hear the steady din of yapping punctuated by the occasional loud bark from behind the house. He climbed the creaking steps and pulled open the heavy door.
Inside, Finn’s senses were assaulted from all angles. The cacophony of meows and yips surrounded him. The unmistakable scents of cat, kibble, and Lysol flooded his nose. The walls of the open entryway were painted a bright egg yolk yellow. Photographs of smiling people cuddling their new friends were plastered all over the walls. Directly in front of Finn was a desk. A plump grandmotherly looking woman was perched on a stool behind the desk, dropping bits of blueberry muffin into the mouth of the German Shepard at her feet.
“Good morning! How can I help you?” She beamed at Finn as he approached the desk.
“Good morning. I’m looking for a cat for…a friend. Her cat ran away and I’m trying to help her track him down.” Finn pulled out the poster. It was so wrinkled the ink had begun to fade and one corner was torn. “This cat, actually. Do you know if he might have been brought here?”
The woman lifted the wire rimmed spectacles from where they hung on a cord around her neck and settled them onto her nose.
She peered at the photograph and chuckled softly. “Honey, we’ve got about ten cats that look like that one here, and more arriving every day. You’re welcome to go have a peek back in the cat rooms.” She pointed down the hallway behind her. “Just follow that hall, first door on the left is the first one. Take the stairs on the right and you’ll hear the other one, door right at the top.” She smiled. “Careful not to let anyone out when you open the doors.”
Finn folded the poster and stuffed it back in his pocket. “Thank you,” he said and started down the hall, still clutching the warm cup of oatmeal.
The closer he got to the door, the louder the meowing became. The original hardwood door had been altered so that the bottom was oak and the top half was a plexi-glass window. Through the window, Finn could see a soft mint green wall. Against the wall, lined up like soldiers, were cat trees of varying shapes and sizes. And there were cats. Long haired and short haired, striped, spotted, and plain. Kittens and old ones and everything in between. There wasn’t a single bare surface on any of the trees, and some platforms had two or three cats crowded onto them. Finn’s arms tingled. He had never been fond of cats before Leo and now…
“Maggie,” he whispered.
Fortified by her name he took a deep breath and pushed open the door. He slid into the room and quickly shut the door behind him. He felt something slither along his leg and looked down. A sleek ebony cat peered up at him with bright golden eyes. The cat opened its mouth in what Finn assumed was a meow, but it was impossible to distinguish from the cacophony in the room.
“Hi there,” Finn said to the cat. He crouched slowly and set the carrier on the floor next to him. He reached out his hand to the cat tentatively and closed his eyes. A few seconds later he felt not the bite or scratch he had been expecting, but a soft nudge of whisker and fur. He cracked open one eye and saw the black cat lean forward again to rub its face against Finn’s palm. A white cat with tan blotches across its back had jumped on top of the carrier and was sniffing Finn’s knee.
Finn felt his body relax. He stroked the black cat’s head and then stood slowly, scanning the room for the familiar feathery fan of a tail. He spotted one, right shape, right color, draped over the ledge of a towering green cat tree. His heart pounded and he clutched the cup of oatmeal. He weaved around the cats on the floor, popped the lid off of the cup, and made a soft clicking sound with his tongue. The cat flicked its tail, turned its head, and stared at him.
Finn almost dropped the cup. It was him. Or at least he thought it was. The eyes were a little darker than he remembered, and the nose a little flatter, but maybe features just got a little fuzzy with memory. “Leo,” he called softly. The cat flicked its tail again and the left ear flicked. Finn took a step forward and held out the cup with a trembling hand. This was the true test. If this cat was Leo, it would devour the oatmeal instantly.
The cat rose and stretched its paws in front, lifting the back half of its body high in the air. Before it even turned to sniff the cup, Finn could feel his heart slow. It wasn’t Leo. That cat was serious about food. If food was involved, he forgot all of the usual cat decorum and became doglike in his enthusiasm. The cat on the tree sniffed the cup in Finn’s hand, gave him a disappointed look, and leapt to the floor.
Finn sighed. Of course it wasn’t going to be that easy. What did he expect? He turned slowly, scanning up and down the forest of cat trees with his eyes. There were plenty of long-haired cats, but only the imposter Leo had the right coloring and markings. He walked around the room and looked at each tree more closely, but still nothing. He turned back to the center to collect the carrier and move on to the next room.
Just as he set his foot down, he heard a squeal louder than the rest of the noise in the room. He looked down and immediately lifted his foot from the tail of the black cat. His sudden movement threw his balance off and he toppled down to the floor. The image of his prone body being attacked and eaten by vengeful felines flashed through his mind. He opened his eyes and moved his hands to push himself up from the floor.
From this vantage point he was able to see into a space between the bases of two of the trees. It had been hidden by the platforms and tunnels from above, but from the floor he could see it quite clearly. There was a cat in that space. A long haired gray cat. A long-haired gray cat with a striped feathery tail.
The cat was curled up in a tight ball with its tail wrapped close to its body. Its head was pressed into its legs. Clearly it was frightened by the sheer volume of feline and noise.
“Leo,” Finn whispered. Nothing. He tried again, louder this time. “Leo.”
The cat lifted its head slowly and looked at Finn. There was no question this time. Even in the dim space, Finn knew him. He fumbled to his side for the cup and held it out to the cat. “Here boy, come on.” Finn scooted closer. “Oatmeal, Leo?”
The cat’s whiskers quivered and his ears turned forward. He opened his mouth in a silent meow. Finn inched closer, holding the cup in front of him. “C’mon, boy, come out of there.”
Leo began to slink forward, ears and whiskers alert, eyes focused on the cup. His belly was flat on the ground and his progress was slow, but finally he emerged from the hole. In the bright light of the room, Finn could see him more clearly. His fur was mussed and matted in some places. He had a small scratch across his nose and a bare spot by his left ear. “Hey boy,” Finn murmured. “What happened to you?”
Leo was nearly to Finn but now his eyes were not on the oatmeal, they were locked with Finn’s. Leo meowed again, and this time he was close enough for Finn to hear him. Finn set the cup on the floor next to his shoulder and reached out his hand. To his surprise, Leo rubbed the side of his face against it. Finn let his hand trail along Leo’s side and felt the rapid beat of his heart. Instead of detouring to the oatmeal, Leo pushed his face up against Finn’s. Finn could feel the rumble of a purr from Leo’s throat. He pushed himself into a sitting position and Leo climbed into his lap and looked up at him. Finn stuck his index finger into the oatmeal and held it out to Leo. The cat’s tongue tickled Finn’s finger as he cleaned off every speck.
Still wary of Leo’s potential to turn in an instant, Finn slowly slid an arm under the cat’s belly. He pulled him to his chest and gradually stood. Nothing happened. Leo continued to purr, relaxing in Finn’s arms. Finn crouched down and opened the door to the cat carrier. Leo leapt down and went right into the carrier. “Seriously?” Finn said to him.
One time Maggie had asked him to take Leo to the vet and it had taken nearly an hour to get Leo into his carrier. During the process he had managed to tear a hole in Finn’s favorite Badgers T-shirt, bite his bicep (breaking skin—Finn still had the scar), and scratch his hands and cheek. Finn looked like he had been jumped in the parking lot. When Maggie came home she had said he must have tried to squeeze Leo too tightly because otherwise he would have never acted that way.
And here he was, sitting in his carrier like a sphinx, his face the epitome of serenity, and Finn was scratch and bite free. He closed the carrier door and lifted it. He looked around the room. All of the other cats had realized that he was not there for them and had gone back to their usual human ignoring positions around the room. Finn brought Leo and the carrier back up to the desk where the same woman still sat, although the German Shepard had disappeared.
The woman peered into the carrier at the now sleeping Leo. “Nice looking cat. I’ll need the number from his collar so that I can give you the paperwork.”
“Well the only way an animal leaves us is through adoption. You’ll have to sign the papers and pay the fee if you want to take him home.”
“But he’s my girlfriend’s cat!”
The woman raised her eyebrows. “Not now. He’s here, he’s ours.”
Finn took a deep breath and opened the door of the cage. He turned the blue plastic medallion on Leo’s collar so that he could see the number. He felt the rumble of Leo’s purring against his hand. “0781,” he read.
The woman hefted a thick binder up to the counter and thumbed through it. She pulled out a sheet of paper and handed it to Finn. “Fill this out, and sign the bottom. The fee is one hundred twenty-five.”
Finn picked up a pen from the counter and began to fill out the form. He paused when he got to the section asking for the address where the animal was being taken. “Should I put my address here or his home?”
The woman looked over the rims of her glasses and narrowed her eyes. “Animals can only be adopted by the person who is going to house them and care for them. If you’re not that person then you can’t adopt him.”
“I…well we…there are two homes. We um spend time at both. Never mind, I’ve got it.”
Finn signed his name at the bottom of the form and handed it to her with his credit card.
“ID?” she demanded.
Finn dug his license out of his wallet and handed it to her. She took it and turned to run his credit card through the machine. Finn bent to peer in the carrier. Leo was curled into a ball, sleeping and purring.
The woman returned his card and ID with a receipt. “We have a seven day return policy. If you and the animal don’t bond, you can bring him back with no questions asked.”
“I don’t think that will be any problems, but thank you. Have a nice day.” Finn lifted Leo’s carrier and headed back to his apartment.
As he walked home, Finn imagined the conversation he would have with Maggie. He could hear his voice, excitedly telling her he had found Leo. But no matter how many times he started the conversation in his head, her response never matched his excitement.
“You stole him on purpose just so I’d talk to you!”
She wouldn’t say that, would she? She wouldn’t believe he’d stolen him.
“Oh, great. Thanks. Can you bring him back between 1:00 and 1:03 and stop to get him some food on the way?”
That seemed a little too realistic. Finn concentrated on the bright leaves still clinging to the trees above.
When he reached the front door of their building, he set the carrier down on the steps so he could open the door. Once they were inside, Finn wondered if pets were even allowed in the building. He and Jacob had never thought to ask since they didn’t have any. Oh well, he thought. It’s only for a few hours anyway.
Jacob wasn’t home. Finn set the carrier on the table and opened the door. Leo opened his eyes and meowed softly. He stretched his paws and crept tentatively out onto the table. He looked around the room, taking in his new surroundings like a mountain climber just reaching a summit. His nose twitched and, when he didn’t detect the scent of competition feline, he rubbed his head against Finn’s arm.
“We should clean you up before I call her, shouldn’t we?”
Finn walked toward the bathroom and Leo jumped down and followed him. Finn found an old hairbrush under the sink and sat on the floor. Leo came over and stood next to him and Finn heard the motor of his purr. “I think you’ve purred more today than all the other times I’ve been around you combined. Why so happy?”
Leo just blinked up at him. Finn began to gently pull the brush along Leo’s back. He combed out all but the most stubborn of knots which he snipped with a pair of nail scissors. When he was finished, Leo climbed into his lap and settled down, kneading his paws into Finn’s knee.
Finn leaned his head back against the cabinets and closed his eyes. He stroked Leo’s head and listened to him purr. No wonder Maggie loved this silly cat so much. If he had been like this all of the time, Finn would have loved him too. It was so nice and relaxing to just sit with him, feel the comfortable warmth of him in his lap, listen to the steady rumble.
Finn jumped awake and Leo sprang from his lap. Finn’s head was cloudy and his tailbone ached from sitting on the hard tile floor. He rubbed his eyes and used the sink to pull himself up. “You must be hungry,” he said. “I’ll find something for you to eat and then we’ll call her.”
Leo followed him into the kitchen. Finn took a bowl from the dishwasher and dribbled in some milk. He set it in front of Leo who immediately began to lap at the bowl. He looked up at Finn with beads of milk clinging to his chin and then went back to drinking.
Finn pulled his phone out of his pocket and stared at it. It had been three weeks since he heard her voice anywhere other than in the echoes of his mind. He scrolled through his contacts to the “M’s.” He studied her picture until the screen dimmed. Then he took a deep breath and tapped the little green phone icon next to her name.
The voice that answered was deep. Masculine. Not Maggie.
Finn opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came out.
Finn’s hands were sweating and he almost dropped his phone.
“Hello?” Annoyed now. “Is anyone there?” And then a voice in the background. Feminine. Maggie. “Who is it?”
The man replied, “I don’t know. The number isn’t one of your contacts. Here, do you recognize it?”
A sound and then Maggie’s voice again, “Nope, no idea who that is. Probably a wrong number.”
No, wait. Maggie? It’s me, Finn!” But there was nothing, just a soft click and the call was over.
Finn pulled the phone away from his ear and tapped the screen. He was just about to tap the little green icon again when Leo leapt up on the table. He rubbed his head against Finn’s arm and fell over onto his side. He rolled onto his back so that he was looking at Finn upside down. Finn reached over and rubbed his belly. Leo purred and closed his eyes. Finn looked back at the phone. The screen dimmed and then went black. He set the phone on the table and pushed his chair back. He went over to the counter and cut two slices of bread. He opened the refrigerator and pulled out some cheese and turkey slices. As he made himself a sandwich, he began to hum. For the first time in weeks, he felt relaxed. Pets could have that effect on a person. Wasn’t that what Maggie had told him? And Jacob had said Leo was cute.
Finn was sure Jacob wouldn’t mind having another roommate.