Maria knew she wasn’t supposed to wander the neighborhood, but one bright and sunny spring day, while she was playing in the playhouse in her backyard, she heard a tiny “meow” mewl from the back alleyway. She thrust her head through the open playhouse window to look.
On the other side of the chain link fence, a small, furry kitten wandered with drunken strides, meowing first toward one yard and then the other. “Hello, kitty,” Maria said, and she set down the plastic teapot she had been pretending to fill. She walked out and up the yard and spoke to the cat through the fense.
“Here, kitty-kitty. Hi, kitty. You are such a pretty kitty.”
The kitten, disturbed, stopped and looked at Maria. It arched its back and rattled its tail and meowed at her.
“Do you want to play, kitty?”
Now, Maria’s mother knew that the lock on the back gate was broken, but she did not know that Maria also knew. Maria’s mother trusted that everything would be fine while she stepped inside to fold laundry.
Maria looked once more at the kitten as it began to toddle away, and then she glanced over her shoulder.
Her mother never heard the screech of the back gate as Maria sneaked into the alleyway.
The kitten ran away, darting a drunken zig-zag between fence and bush. It hopped over puddles and around twigs. Maria chased it, half bent at the knees.
“Come here, kitty. Wait for me.”
The kitten pounced to the end of the alleyway and scampered across the cross street. Maria looked both ways and then ran after it.
What she did not see, when she darted out into the quiet street, was the dark figure that slipped out of her neighbor’s hedge and down through the gate she had left open.
The kitten continued from tree to fence post to budding spring flower, and every time Maria drew close, the kitten danced and darted away.
“Wait a minute. Wait a minute.” Maria hunched down and held out her hand. The kitten paused and meowed with curiosity. She approached with a quivering nose, and when the kitten got close enough, Maria scooped her up. “Hello, kitty.”
“Meow,” cried the kitten.
“My mama would like you. You are very soft. Are you lost?”
“Meow.” But the kitten settled down in Maria’s arm and her vibrato purr trembled against Maria’s skin.
“You look like you need some milk, little kitty.” Maria turned back toward home. She looked both ways at the cross street and continued her kitten-chatter as she walked down the valley created by the privacy fences and hedgerows.
Just as Maria neared the chain link fence that opened to her backyard, three dulled cracks rang out from inside the house. Maria stopped at the top of her yard and huddled the kitten against her surging heart. Beneath the cool shadow of the patio roof, Maria spotted the open door and, inside, the white tile floor of the entryway trailed into the shadow of a vacant room. Maria stood still, waiting; although she wasn’t sure why. There was just something that didn’t fit.
The moment suspended itself around her. She could hear the cat purr, the birds chirp from her neighbor’s hedge, the muffled buzz of traffic downtown. The silence was broken as Maria’s mother stumbled barefoot across the tiles and out the open door to the patio.
“Maria!” her mother screamed, and her eyes darted blind and frantic around the backyard. In her right hand, she clutched a small black pistol.
Maria lingered at the open gate, looking down at her.
“Oh, my gosh! Maria!” her mother put the gun down on the patio table and rushed up the yard.
Maria’s trance snapped then, and she race down to her mom. The two swept together, kitten caught between, and Maria’s mother bore them down to the grass on weak knees.
“I thought he did something to you.”
Maria did not hear her, and she did not understand what was going on. “I’m sorry, Mama! I left the yard. I know I shouldn’t, but I saw this kitty—” Maria struggles to bring up the kitten from between them. “And I think it’s lost–“
“A kitty—” Maria’s mother’s eyes are full of tears. She looked down at the cat and reached for it; her hands were shaking. “A kitty— Oh, you’re a sweet kitty.”
Maria’s mom placed a kiss right between the kitten’s ears. “Thank God for you, you crazy little thing!” She gave Maria a kiss as well. “I need to call the police.”
Maria drew back. “Am I in trouble?”
“No. Honey, no. There’s just something that needs fixing, that’s all.”
They sat together on the grass— Mom, daughter, and kitten— while Maria’s mother called the police. They watched the open door and the gun on the table with some suspicion until they heard sirens racing up the hill.
© 2022 Katie Baker