The kindness of a stranger is not something you quickly forget, in a way the first time compassion is shown to you, you value anyone else’s to it. I remember the day Thomas found me. He was a tall man, with soft hands and a neatly groomed coat that he covered with a brown hat. I wasn’t the last kitten in the box, I still had other siblings, occasionally a child would come by and pet us, or if a parent were willing they’d take one of us home. They were white with orange and brown stripes, blue, black or even brown eyes. I had to be the cutest one for my solid grey fur and if I wasn’t why would he have picked me.
I can’t remember much about the walk back to his flat except for the rhythmic walking that lulled me to sleep in his front pocket. The boy he gave me too held me like a toy. He would clutch me tight at night and play with me during the day. His life was carefree, he wasn’t much taller than Thomas’s waist, and had his eyes, but not his father’s hair. It was much darker and made his eyes paler in comparison. He looked nothing like this woman, she had blonde hair, a dark blonde, almost black at the roots, brown eyes, and fair skin with a rounded nose. I soon learned the woman he called Miss, wasn’t his mother, and he would later tell me she had gone. When she would be returning could not have been soon enough, for I had been brought into a storm, and right into the eye of it.
We lived in the country, away from the city, in a two bedroom house, on farmland. Every morning Walter and Thomas would begin their trek in, for school and his trade, and I’d be free to roam as far as I pleased. Walter would return high in the sky on his father’s shoulders most evenings, and others he’d tug his hand and pull him up the hill. Thomas moved us from his home in the country to a flat in the city, something of which I have heard called the slum. One weekend I awoke to the sound of luggage being dragged across the wooden floors, whatever they couldn’t take with them they sold, and what they couldn’t sell they left behind. The carriage ride into the city was a change, the air soured and the sky darkened under the grey clouds.
The dirt changed to stone, and the trees turned to brick, it was as if we were being caged. It wasn’t until we arrived at our new home did I recognize the scent on Thomas, he had been returning home smelling of soot. Occasionally I’d see him behind the barn washing the black from his hands and face. We were reduced to two rooms, one for sleeping, and one for everything else. Miss Elizabeth, as she was referred, was calm at first, considered this temporary until the night Thomas returned home, without his coat.
I never noticed that clothing told of your social status until then, he had traded it for money, and with the money, he brought home food. Everything appeared to be fine, except I noticed he had missed a spot behind his ear, “I can’t live like this!” Thomas had given up his side of the bed for his son, where I had been sleeping, quite peacefully until his shouting startled me. While he pulled me close, I had to go see what was going on. “I’m going to take Walter to my brothers!”
“You can’t take my son away! You can leave, there’s the door!” He was a practical man, I couldn't help note “If you can shape up, and make the best of it while I look for work, you can come to bed,” he opened the door, and I felt Walter shudder. Thomas walked over to his side and stroked his hair, he could see I was still awake and leaned closer, “Don’t fret Grayson, this is, after all, only temporary.”
He kissed Walter on the head, straightened up and walked out of the room. I learned quickly that Elizabeth was a woman of her word if Walter hadn’t hidden me in his bag when he did I don’t think I'd ever be able to find him again. The trip was long, almost like the day we left the countryside, nearly a year ago, I assumed as much, considering we left right at the beginning or spring to avoid traveling in the heat of summer.
The apartment was just as bare, just as cold as the slums. Once I had been the family pet, and now Walter had nothing but a sack of hay to sleep on. If the hay hadn’t poked through and caused our skin to itch, then maybe it would have been tolerable. She had set something up, a ransom I would assume, because at the end of every week she’d receive a letter with money in it. It wasn’t outlandish of me to think such things, or accuse her of such, but I back traced to our home, to his flat. Where found him sitting in the chair, the only piece of furniture she left him, reading such a note. It was almost thirty miles I had to travel, took almost a full day and I wasn’t just sore but exhausted. He was grateful to have me there. Over the next few weeks, I developed a schedule, while Walter was in school, I would spend a few days at home.
Thomas was changing, I don’t know what his job was before, but he had grown leaner, and dirtier each time I saw him. He smelled of smoke and was often covered in soot, and over time he had collected enough furniture to see him by. He’d talk to me, sing sometimes, I was surprised at how soothing his songs were, and while he claimed they were to calm me, I knew they were for him. Walter would hum them sometimes, he spent more and more time at home, something about not having the energy to go. Elizabeth didn’t care, she wasn’t ever home, nor was the brother she claimed to have lived in the apartment. I learned over this year that despite our outward physical appearances, and language barrier we were very similar.
I needed the same things he needed, but being of the superior animals, I need not work, or pay. My purpose in this life was evident, to take care of Walter, to watch after him, and in reward, I was fed, and loved. I couldn’t really ask for more. Living with Elizabeth was dreadful. The nights when she would come home, she never cooked, and she always had some roasted bird she’d pick apart. Her lips would smack, I'd hear her teeth grind, there was nowhere I could go to escape the agony. Catching scraps would make due, she was terribly sloppy and wasn’t the woman everyone thought she was. She’d leave this house fully dressed, she had to have on at least three layers of clothes. My fur was enough, and sometimes it even got hot, I don’t know how she did it.
Walter was beginning to suffer at her hands, the plumper her rump the skinnier he grew. He was never a chubby child, but he had never known want. He’d never been loud, or outspoken, he’d laugh and chat with me when no one was around to hear him, but after being struck across the face for complaining about his hunger he grew quieter. He’d wait in the bedroom for her to finish, pretend to be asleep, and sneak out to pick off what he could of the grizzly skeleton. Bless him, for even in the slivers he managed to get he would offer to me, but I was surviving just fine off of the poor few rodents who scurried through. I didn’t kill them all, some I needed just scared and riled up enough to hide in Elizabeth’s bag.
Only a few times did I miscalculate, and she discovered them before she left, after a while, I grew to learn her schedule. For a while she was making sure Walter was doing as he was supposed to, which was going to school, completing tasks, but now she had something else on her mind. At first, she had people over, she spent a lot of the money getting the place to look more like a home than the places around it. I was responsible for many of them not making it to the door or even returning, it’s amazing what I can do. I’m not even a quarter of their size and a little hissing with my back arched and teeth bare, they run off, faster than they arrived. I dreaded leaving him to make the trip back to the coast, his father needed me just as much, and I had the hope of one day bringing them back together.
I’d claw the door, mew a few times and usually, he’d answer. When he wasn’t home, it wasn’t difficult to track his scent, something I learned from the inferior, and find him. It was usually in a pub, but lately, I could find him in the back of a stone castle, with multicolored glass windows. The people in the glass had beady eyes and weird circles around their heads, I stuck close by and waited for him to get up off his knees before I accompanied him. He wouldn’t notice me, or so I thought, he took odd ways home, occasionally glancing over his shoulder smiling, before turning swiftly around a corner and vanishing momentarily out of sight. I didn’t think to look up and was surprised when a pair of hands lifted me into the air.
“You’re more of a dog than a cat,” he tucked me under his arm and stroked my head, the first time I had made this journey my paws bled, I hadn’t ever traveled that far, and now they were thicker and tougher. It was nice to be carried back to the house, he even had stew cooking over the fire and bowls set out. It was nice to eat something hot, he scooped out the potatoes and left the soft carrots and bits of meat that tasted like beef. It wasn’t until he put a basket beside the fire did I notice he had fewer furniture than my last visit, he kept the bed, but oddly enough had no table and the one chair. It was cozy to sleep beside the fire. I slept deeply, and if I couldn’t get myself up early come Sunday, I would be late returning home.
I didn’t have to worry about that today. Thomas walked us to the docks, I watched him eat some bread with his stew, and he scattered the crumbs for the gulls. I didn’t like being this close to the water, just the breeze coming off of it was enough to let me know it was as cold as it looked. The waters were churning, where they rushed under the wood below us the water frothed. “Don’t come back next week,” I looked up, it took me a minute to realize he was speaking to me, “Stay with Walter, take care of him,” he knelt down and patted me gently before stroking behind my ears. I returned the favor by brushing up against his legs, “You’re the strangest animal I’ve ever owned in my life.”
It was my custom to wait around for him to return from work, he didn’t come back nearly as dirty. He had papers with him today, and when we got back to the house, he served me some more stew and pulled a suitcase out from under the bed. He didn’t have much but emptied his dresser and left it to sit at the end of his bed, “Don’t pay no mind,” he pointed back at my food bowl before going and filling his own. Sitting in front of the fire I found focused on the dancing flames, the kindle was wet and popped more than it crackled. My ears have a mind of their own, each new sound they focus in on it, I can control it for the most part, except for when I’m startled. I knew he had it in his mouth, but the hollow sound will always surprise me.
I turned to him, he had pulled the chair closer to the fire and had the instrument in one hand to his mouth, and the other was holding the piano machine. He had played a song I’d heard him sing before, it was something a departing cup, his voice was good, best I’d heard but yet he was shy about it. It was enough to lull me to sleep. He played a few times for Walter, but I think Elizabeth said something to him that caused him to stop. She should be grateful I don’t have the tongue to speak or the thumbs to write, or I would make her life miserable. It was the few trips I had between these two towns that inspired me to act the way I did, Walter sometimes would catch me, but knew to keep it to himself.
Elizabeth had a perfume that seemed to solidify and hold her hair in place, it was nasty, when she would have a strong drink and pass out, and sprawled over the bed I would crawl up and chew on it. I didn’t want it to be too noticeable, but my saliva plus some fur, made for an excellent addition to the mess on her head. As a cat, it is an unfortunate thing to cough up a hairball, the thing that makes up for it is getting one in her shoes, two if I’m lucky. I had to do most of my shenanigans while she was awake as so she couldn’t blame Walter. I hadn’t ever seen her struck him, it might have been one of the men she brought over, but I almost ate a hole in her bag when I returned from a visit to see the shiner on his left eye.
She had one frequent man, I could never catch his name, but he wore the worst suits, from what I had seen Thomas in, and some of the others he had formerly kept company with this man was not of high class. They almost suited each other, both spent money frivolously, bathed irregularly, and overall were horrible. I understood why she kept Walter a prisoner, but I didn’t know why he didn’t run away, maybe if he were younger, he would stay, but he was almost a decade old. I tugged at his clothes once while she was out, with no luck, he remained where he sat, drawing in the dust on the floor. It was the day he was putting his things into his suitcase did I think I finally won, we were finally going to get out of here.
That was until I saw that the misses had her bags packed as well, they were stacked by the front door. I sat watching and realized Walter wasn’t packing, he was moving things around and removing things, stashing them under the mattress. She didn’t come home that night, but early the next morning I was unpleasantly awoken. The man, I had yet to catch his name, and he wasn’t consistent enough for a nickname, had yanked me from Walter’s arms. I was almost too stunned to fight back, and I made the mistake of sinking my teeth into his hand. He had a good arm, I’d give him that, he sent me flying, almost all the way across the street and slammed the door behind him.
A carriage pulled up to the house, and he quickly worked to throw everything on the back and before he could stop me I ran back inside the house. It was small, I don’t know how I could have missed him, but he wasn’t there, the door slammed behind me. The floor was slick enough to stop me from swinging around as quickly as I’d like, but I made it back to the window in time to see Walter climbing into the carriage, tears streaming down his face. I pawed at the window, my claws weren’t sharp enough to get through, they had started off down the road, and I was trapped.