The cat’s yowl jolted me out of a deep sleep. Too groggy to wonder how it had gotten into my bedroom, I stumbled out of bed and shooed it towards the front door.
Big yellow moon eyes glowing in the dark, the cat stared at me, flicked its tail, and trotted down the hall.
Glad it was as eager to leave as I was to evict it, I opened the door. A fierce wind pulled it out of my hand. One second later the suction of a cosmic vacuum cleaner caught me in its swirl, and I was pulled down one of those tunnels reported by people who had near-death experiences, except that I didn’t see the light. I saw prison bars, and, once I got oriented, I realized I was behind them.
The cat had disappeared.
I tested the cage’s lock and rattled the bars.
Footsteps padded to the front of the adjoining cage. “Hello?” a man said.
I was already in shock from a bad case of disbelief. Now I plunged into paralysis.
“Ralph?” I whispered. We hadn’t spoken since he’d taken the last of his belongings from the house a year ago.
“Yes. What’s going on?”
“I’ve been expecting this. If they grabbed me, they were bound to get you, too.”
“The cats, of course. Didn’t one come for you?”
“A big black cat with yellow eyes.”
“Yeah, he’s the main people catcher.”
He paused, and I heard the faint scratch of claws against a concrete floor.
“Be careful,” Ralph said. “Talk to you later.”
A large gray cat came into view, wearing an unfamiliar-looking electronic device. “I’m Sheba, here for your intake interview.”
“I don’t want to be taken in. I want to be taken back to my warm bed, and I want to sleep.”
“I’m sure you do.” She flicked one of the bars, and a section of the door lifted to make a cat-sized opening. She slinked through it.
“I’ll interview you in your sleeping quarters. Follow me.”
Her growl gave me no choice. I followed her to the back of the cage, which contained a curtained shower and toilet, a sink, and a bed. The mattress wasn’t too bad.
“Now then,” the cat said, tapping the device. “I’ll tell you why you’re here. You’ve been imprisoned for going catless for too long.”
“What?” I might be awake, but this was still a nightmare. “I demand to speak to my lawyer. I demand to call Amnesty International and the ACLU and—”
“Forget it. You’re under our jurisdiction now—and no Miranda rights, either. Zip your lips and listen to the charges against you. After your last cat left your home, a full year ago, you were approached for adoption by two feral cats and one kitten. You refused in every instance, so we had to take matters into our own paws.”
I remembered those cats. I’d even fed the ferals for a few days. Was their idea of gratitude to turn me in to the Feline Bureau of Investigation?
“My ex-husband took my—I mean our—last cat when we broke up, and she ran away.”
“Could you speak a little more clearly? The iPaws is recording the conversation.” She spoke into the machine: “The subject attempts to justify resistance to being adopted.”
She stood on her hind legs, flicked a few buttons with her talons, and moved the device parallel to my body. After a few minutes, she said, “Good health, unspayed. If you work on your attitude, you shouldn’t have any problems.”
Talk about attitude. “If you think cats belong with humans, how come you aren’t with one?”
“I did my time. I leave it to those willing to make the long-term sacrifice of living with your kind so that they can educate and train you.”
“And the free food, shelter, and catnip don’t influence them at all. Don’t the toys count for anything?”
Her blue eyes turned cold with contempt. “You have a serious misunderstanding of your present situation if you think sarcasm is a viable weapon. It doesn’t matter, though. You’ll learn.”
She flicked another button, and the iPaws’ light went out. “You’ll be shown for adoption tomorrow. Have a good night’s sleep.”
The cat disappeared from view. After a few minutes, I went to the front of the cage and whispered, “Ralph?”
I heard his shambling footsteps. “You’re in the picture now,” he said.
“But why is it our fault that Lola ran away? We never abused her.”
“I haven’t had the specific charges against me read yet.”
Maybe she’d gotten as tired of him as I had. I could still list the reasons for evicting him without pausing for breath. He was smug. He always had to be right. The word compromise was a stranger to his vocabulary.
Now the physical sensations of hatred returned: the tightening of my calf muscles as I fought the urge to kick him, the roughening of a throat crammed with knife-edged curses, and the overall sensation that he was sucking all the oxygen from the room.
I fought for breath. “People don’t end up behind bars for breaking up.”
“This isn’t a jail. It’s a pet adoption center, but it’s different from the kind you know.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re the pet.”
I held onto the bars, afraid I might faint.
“Elaine, are you all right?”
“Of course not. I’m terrified.”
“The initial shock of it is terrifying. Maybe if I explain it a little better, you won’t be as afraid.”
Now I was reeling from a new shock. The softness in his voice suggested that he actually cared that I was upset. This was surprising behavior from the man who until a year ago had been the main source of my misery.
I made a strategic decision. Only Ralph could give me the facts that might explain this horror. Distasteful as the idea was, I decided to initiate a truce.
“Is all this for real?” I asked, squeezing a little friendliness into my voice.
“It’s as real as these bars. Once you’ve been owned by a cat, you can’t stop. It’s like trying to leave a book or record club. They never forget about you. If you haven’t lived with a cat in a year, you come up on their database. “
“How come no one hears about this?”
“Are you kidding? Would you tell anyone?”
He had a point. I asked him how long he’d been here.
“And you haven’t been adopted.”
“At first I didn’t want to be owned by any of the cats who looked at me.”
“How did you avoid it?”
“The best thing is to act stupid. Cross your eyes and let your tongue hang out of your mouth. Curl up on your bed and sleep. If nothing else works, pee in the corner.”
“You can’t just say no?”
“If they want you, they take you.”
“And what if no one ever does?”
“I’m not sure.” For the first time, Ralph sounded frightened. “The cats say they don’t euthanize—it’s part of the Feline Code of Honor, but I don’t like how they say it. You might as well get it into your head that the only way out of here alive is with a cat, and the sooner the better.”
“So now you want to be owned?”
“Today I realized I didn’t have a choice, so I tried to act adoptable. This afternoon I almost got adopted by a nice Burmese kitten, but she told the matron that I wasn’t very attractive. I’ll tell you, I felt pretty rejected.”
Knowing Ralph’s capacity for resentment, I diverted him with a question. “There’s no court of appeals?”
“Forget the idea that they run this place on principles of human justice. And don’t count on sympathy from the jailors. They don’t want to do us any favors. Like the intake mistress said, everyone here is training us to be good pets, to make a better world for all creatures.”
“Very lofty principles,” I said, “but I really love how they disregard the food and shelter we’ve provided.”
“They think we pay a small price for the privilege of their company and instruction.”
I was getting new insights into the attitude of entitlement that all cats shared.
The logic of this bizarre situation, however, did nothing to comfort me. Every sign of evidence that I really was stuck in this world of cages and iPaws-bearing cats terrified me. This psychological torture was surely the intention of the feline fascists who ran the place. The more frightened we were, the more ready we’d be for adoption. I, however, had no intention of succumbing to their tactics. I knew I could hold out longer than Ralph had.
“I’m going to bed now,” he said. “See you in the morning.”
I thought I wouldn’t sleep, but the pillow was filled with herbs whose fragrance smoothed out my jangled nerves. I slept until the rattling of metal awoke me in the morning.
A large tabby tom opened the cat-sized opening in the cage and pushed through two bowls. “Supposed to have yesterday’s bowls lined up at the front of the cage,” he growled.
“I arrived too late to eat.” I examined the contents of the food bowl. “What is this?”
“Kibble, like what you fed your cat. Now you’ll be sorry you were too stingy to buy wet food.”
“How am I supposed to eat this? I’m not a cat.”
“Too bad for you.”
After he left I tasted it. It seemed to have dried vegetables and fruits in it, and the stuff was almost tasty.
A new iPaws-wearing prison matron swept down the aisle. “Time to groom, everyone. Visitors will be arriving soon.” She handed me a set of standard prison overalls, except that they were gray instead of orange. I looked awful in gray.
I re-closed the curtains. After my shower, I dried off with coarsely woven towels. The brush provided would have been more suitable for a long-haired cat, but I managed to get my short hair into some kind of order.
A little later pawsteps echoed softly down the hallway. “I haven’t seen anyone I liked,” a kitten mewed.
“It’s a poor showing,” another cat, who sounded older, agreed.
They paused in front of my cage. They were Persian, with the kind of fur that shed white streaks everywhere.
I wasn’t about to become a household slave for a cat, so I followed Ralph’s advice, scratching myself, yawning, and generally looking half-witted.
“Stupid,” the kitten said, turning her back and fluffy tail on me. “She’d probably forget to feed me.”
The cats padded away.
“Whatever you did worked,” Ralph said. “It was a good decision. That kitten was a real princess. She’d have you serving her meals in Waterford crystal bowls. Some people like that, of course, so she’ll find a slave eventually.”
No one else came to view me that day. After kibble dinner, all the humans were allowed into the exercise yard, which had some stationary bicycles, treadmills, and stair exercisers. Some humans were doing yoga, accompanied by raucous catcalling at the clumsiness of their stretches.
I got on a bicycle next to a woman with braided brown hair. “New to the place?” she asked.
“Last night, late.”
“Three days for me, and I think I’m going to get adopted tomorrow. Older cat, very sweet disposition, mostly sleeps. The only trouble is, he wants company, so he’s negotiating a deal with a two-month-old kitten.”
“And I suppose you have no say in it.”
“You catch on fast. I’ve heard rumors about solitary confinement and sensory deprivation. I’m not interested in finding out whether they’re true or not.”
By the next day I had the schedule down: breakfast, wash-up, viewing, lunch, more viewing, exercise yard, dinner, and lights-out. We had a lot of time on our hands, and I spent a surprising amount of it talking to Ralph. It was amazing how I could ignore my vows of eternal enmity when he was so handy for conversation.
He asked me if I was seeing anyone. I implied that my social life was a dizzying whirl. He said his was, too. I was sure he was lying. I was.
On my third day, though, he admitted that he couldn’t find it in his heart to date any woman more than twice. “They’re so boring.”
Or bored, I thought, but I didn’t cling to the thought as I once might have. That night, while lying on my increasingly uncomfortable mattress, I realized that Ralph, imprisoned under conditions that might have brought out the worst in many men, had become increasingly friendly and helpful. To my horror, I found myself a little sorry that I hadn’t recognized his potential while we’d been married.
During adoption hours the next day, few cats even paused by my cage. Ralph got more attention, but after a short interview, the cats’ ears would flatten and they’d leave, tails high.
At the end of my first week of incarceration, the iPaws-bearing matron came to his cage and said, “The warden wants to see you.”
My nearly-dissolved hostility evaporated into genuine concern. As he emerged from his cage, I flashed a “V” for Victory. He looked as if he would have preferred the intervention of a large, cat-hating Rottweiler.
Hours passed, kibble was distributed, and the prisoners were sent to the exercise room. I didn’t see Ralph anywhere.
When we were about to return to our cells, another matron growled at me.
“Follow me to the warden’s office.”
My stomach dipped to the floor.
I followed the matron down a long low hallway to a door. She opened it to a room with a desk and two wooden chairs. A gray tiger cat was sprawled on top of a desk.
I gasped. It was Lola.
“I’m so glad to see you’re okay,” I said. I wanted to run over and stroke her head, but she issued a preemptory hiss.
“This is not a social call. Sit.”
“Be aware that your reputation preceeds you—based, of course, on my report. It’s in your record that you gave me up without a struggle.”
“We had to divide things,” I said in my defense.
“Things? I remember; you got the sound system. To think it meant more to you than me.” She turned her back on me and washed her paws with deep concentration.
“But you don’t understand. We were both so angry. I wanted to get him out of there before we killed each other.”
“I understand quite well. I was there—until I was gone. What you don’t understand is how depressed Ralph was after we moved out. I did my best to cheer him up, because no cat can stay tranquil when her human is crying all the time.”
“He loved you.”
“He had a funny way of showing it.”
“Humans do. I’ve never understood it, and I couldn’t take the waterworks any longer. That’s why I ran away. Fortunately I discovered this place and rapidly advanced to a leadership position—which brings us to your current precarious situation.”
She turned on an iPaws. “I’ve gotten very bad reports about your adoptability, and the time has come to warn you. You’re taking up cage space that could be used by a more agreeable human. In other words you’re coming to your expiration date.”
I gripped the seat of the chair. “What does that mean?”
“If you don’t get adopted within the next two days, you’ll be moved to a back cage: smaller quarters, blanket on the floor, low-grade kibble, one hour a week access to the exercise yard. No one’s going to have you put to sleep, but we simply can’t afford to waste our resources on unadoptables.”
She raised a paw. “The terms are non-negotiable. In case you doubt the seriousness of your situation, it’s time to show you we mean business. You’ll get a preview of your future living space.”
Lola pawed a button on her desk, and a tough-looking tabby female took me away.
We went down yet another long hallway, and she hissed at me all the way.
“Wait until you get the picture that life here isn’t all kibble. Follow me.”
She opened a cage door, and I refused to move. I might be imprisoned, but I was still bigger than this bully. I was beginning to congratulate myself on winning the stand-off when the cat pointed the iPaws at me. I felt as if I’d stuck a wet finger into an electrical socket. I fell, writhing, to the ground.
“Do you want more?”
To my humiliation, I groveled before her. She smiled a sadistic feline smile and motioned me to follow her.
The cage lacked windows. The walls were gray concrete. A single naked electric bulb illuminated the area.
“Are you going to interrogate me?” I asked in a quavering voice.
The cat looked bored. “It’s not necessary. We know exactly why you don’t want to be adopted. Your reasons, are, of course, unacceptable. We’ve decided to leave you in solitary until you see reason.”
I was left alone the entire night to toss and turn on what was a very thin blanket spread over a very cold and hard floor. Naturally, there were no rats or mice, but a thriving and aggressive insect population more than compensated for the absence of rodents.
Yet my physical discomfort troubled me less than the loss of the by-now familiar and comforting presence of Ralph in the next cage. A thought came to me, sharp as a claw. Maybe I owed him an apology.
The idea (or maybe it was the low-grade kibble) made me want to vomit. I knew I had to get out of here before I lost my mind. I would throw myself at the mercy of the next reasonably attractive cat.
In the morning the tough tabby came to my cage. She leapt onto the creaky wooden table and looked me in the eyes.
She purred with satisfaction. “I think you may have learned your lesson. We’ll see how well you show today.”
We went back down several hallways until I saw Ralph pacing in his cage. He waited until the matron had left before speaking.
“I figured out where you were. Awful, right?”
“I’d rather not talk about the details.”
“I understand. I’ll say only that I’m determined to get adopted today.”
I nodded and took a deep breath. I was about to violate every principle I’d ever held dear, and I hardly cared.
“Me, too. But first, we need to have a discussion.”
We talked for two hours, and it turned out that Ralph had as many regrets as I did. He cried a little; so did I.
“I wish I could kiss you,” he said.
“Sweet.” I glanced down to see a small gray and white kitten studying me, eyes wide.
“I’ve been hoping to find a pair,” she said. “You are, aren’t you?”
I wished I could see Ralph’s face. “Yes,” I said hopefully.
“Absolutely,” he said.
The kitten purred. “My name is Sofia, and you may take me to your home. I’ll go make the arrangements.”
We were released. The kitten took over the house and cried whenever we even sounded as if we were about to have a fight. We all got along very well.
One night I heard a scratching at the door. I’d developed a phobia about opening doors, but I didn’t think the Feline Bureau of Investigation could have anything on us now, so I took a chance.
Lola sat on the doorstep. “I’m here for a follow-up visit.”
She walked through the open door and padded over to the corner where Sofia was curled up on her bed. They spoke in low voices.
After a few minutes Lola returned to me. “Sofia is quite pleased. It appears that things are going well here. For a young kitten, she has a strong sense of what ownership demands. Nonetheless, she says that you continue to have some behavior problems, and she’d appreciate the assistance of a mature cat. I’ve decided to offer my services.”
“You mean, you’re coming back?”
“I consider it my duty. And, of course, it’s my house.”
“What happened to your career track?”
She hissed at me, and I shut up.
I’m a slow learner, I suppose. Lola had to swat me many times before she was satisfied with my conduct.
I’m not complaining. I’ve come to accept my status as a pet. It’s not so bad.
Especially when you consider the alternative.