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There are hundreds of age-old sayings that advise children how to live their lives. My mother preaches every single one. She tells me to throw salt over my shoulder, that the grains will hit the devil right in the eye. She says that I should avoid my intended until I meet him at the altar. That I should knock on wood when I wish for success or victory. When I question my achievements, she tells me that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Mija, recuerda de las desgracias nunca vienen solas. She warns me that misfortunes are never alone.
It’s spring, a time of new beginnings, a time full of fresh flowers and baby animals. A lady brought in six stray kittens she found in her backyard. Each as cute as a button. But every square-inch of the shelter is already accounted for.
The vet sniffles through her examination, complaining that her allergies are killing her today. But the tears in my eyes are for a different reason. Each kitten is sick, their eyes and nose crusted over. It’s just a cold, it shouldn’t mean death. They’re still hopping around, chewing on each other’s tails. Batting each other’s ears.
“Karina, do you wanna name them?” The vet asks, plopping the last back in their basket.
“Make sure you pick coordinating names,” Dr. Jendall says, wiping her nose. “People are more likely to adopt if they think they’re collecting a set. Like Lilo and Stich.”
“I’ll name them after Harry Potter.”
She smiles, “I like that.”
Six kittens, six names. I call the orange one Ron, he’s the most playful of the group, always chewing on his brother’s ears. That one I call Harry, he’s black and white. There’s two calicos in the litter, one named Hermione, the other is Ginny. One looks almost Siamese, pure white fur, dirt brown ears. I name her Luna. That leaves the last kitten, one of the shyer ones, and the sickest. My mother would shudder at the sight of him, whisper about brujería and mala suerte. He’s a tiny black beastie, the runt of the litter. I give him Neville’s name. The underdog, but the bravest character in the series. The one that killed the snake.
A week passes, I give them their eyedrops every afternoon before I leave. The morning volunteer gives them a dose with every breakfast. They should all have gotten better by now. But Ron and Neville are still both sick. Luna and Ginny have both been adopted. Harry too, but he was still sick when he left. They all got the rest of their prescription from Dr. Jendall, they’ll be fine.
The pound says Ron and Neville have three more days. Hermione is healthy, she gets a week. The next day all of them are adopted, except Neville.
He’s got two days left. He’s sick, shy, and black. Even the people who know that black cats aren’t bad luck don’t want him. Because he’s sick and shy. So was Harry, but at least Harry was a tuxedo. At least he looked proper and polished. Not like a witch’s familiar.
Then suddenly Neville’s only got one day left. The vet says he only needs another week on the medicine. But the pound doesn’t have the space, they don’t have a week to give him. He has to go home today.
Parents and children, old couples, and college students. They all filter through the doors. Neville’s a sweet cat, content to curl up in my lap, huddle in the corner. Avoid the shrieking laughs of little kids, their grabby little hands. I introduce him to an old lady, because when I look in her wizened eyes, I see a crackling fire and a rocking chair. A calm home is just what Neville needs. But she cringes away, muttering about bad luck. She adopts a sweet senior cat, and despite Neville, I’m glad. Most senior cats don’t make it very long. They can’t keep up with kids either, and their vet bills for a month can be higher than their adoption fees.
But the clock ticks past three, and Neville’s only got till five a clock. I call my mother, tell her there’s a sick kitten, that he’s got less than two hours. That we’d only need to foster for a week, just till he’s off the medicine. I don’t explain to her why he’s the only one of his litter left. Just mention the dedication I’m showing, that this is the sort of good Samaritan act colleges like to see.
“Si mija, you can bring your kitty cat home. As long as it stays in your room, I don’t want fur all over my sofa.” The phone speaker is so tinny that at first I was sure I heard her wrong. That she’d really told me there would be no animals living in her house. Their smell and mess was unacceptable in a nice home like ours.
Dr. Jendall is relieved, she pretends it doesn’t get to her anymore. That the pink liquid that flows from the syringe through the tube to the butterfly needle then into their veins, is just a fact of life. There’s no way around it. But today I found one for Neville. For at least a week.
She gives me all the necessities: his eye drops, his carrier and crate, his litter, his food, and finally him. I secure his carrier as best I can in the passenger seat, draping the seatbelt over it. I’m not sure if that extra bit of security is for him or for me. He tries to poke his head out through the bars, but they’re too close together. When the car first starts up he lets out the saddest little mewl, but quiets down after he gets used to the rhythm of the road.
I carry him in, trying to be inconspicuous, praying that my mother won’t ask to see him. But she’s too focused on the TV and her crocheting to notice my arrival. My father is tinkering with the heater, she’s been complaining that it’s getting too warm to have the thing on full blast. I slip past them into my room, sighing as I drop to the ground, cradling the carrier. The crate is easy enough to assemble, and smells of lemony soap. With each new cat it has to be re-cleaned, lest illnesses like the one Neville has, spread. After repurposing some bins and containers, his enclosure is finally set up, complete with food and litter. It took me a while to find an acceptable blanket, one that my mother wouldn’t be upset to have ruined, and an old stuffy from my childhood, so he could have a friend.
When I open Neville’s cage, he immediately snuggles his head into my hand, purring. Whether out of fear or bliss I’m not sure, but I let him burrow into my arms anyway. I have homework, but he’s so cute and sad that I just can’t put him down. So he lays on my chest while I try to find the vertex of a parabola. He sniffles and tries to scamper onto my head, but after many failed attempts he settles for chewing on my hair.
My door swings open, surprising me and scaring Neville.
“Mama, por favor,” I say, throwing in the Spanish to please her. To distract. “Please knock.”
“Lo siento, Dios mios!” Her voice sours at the sight of Neville. “What is that? What have you brought into our home?”
“It’s a kitten,” I say, desperately trying to act like I don’t know why she’s upset. “I told you about him, remember?”
“You didn’t say he was the minion of a witch,” she snaps, her voice wakes Neville up. He burrows deeper into my hair, hiding from the noise. “Get away from him, mija. What have you done?”
“I’m just caring for him for a week, then he goes back.”
“A week?” She practically screeches. “Oh no. No, no, no. He goes back tomorrow. If it wasn’t so late I’d have your father take him back this minute.”
“Mañana?” I ask, nearly crying. “No, Mama, por favor.”
“I should just have you dump him outside. He goes back tomorrow, your father will take him first thing in the morning,” she says, nodding her head as if she’s forming a plan to save us all. But when she looks up to me her expression changes from fear and disgust to anger. “And don’t think you’re not in trouble, Karina.”
“What?” I exclaim. “Please no, please don’t do this. He’ll die.”
“Better than if you do.” She slams the door behind her. Neville flinches, claws digging into my back. He’ll die, discarded like a piece of trash.
I fall asleep crying, tears flowing quietly. My sobs are hushed, silent, like me. Fading in and out of others’ notice, fitting whatever version of Karina they need. Neville nestles into the extra space on my pillow, not minding the tears leaking onto his fur. I should probably put him in his crate, keep him safe from any wires or choking hazards he can get his paws on. But misery overrides my better judgement.
My dreams are disturbed and drowsy, and I even wake up once or twice, head pounding and mind muddled. Somewhere far away I hear frightened mewling, feel claws and teeth pierce my face, my arm. But I’m separated floating into a different universe, lifting a veil, the stars are especially bright tonight. A scream wakes me up. Eyes drifting open, head pounding, I see Neville yowling and panting. Convulsing and screaming.
I try to call out to him, but my voice doesn’t work. My head feels as if it’s splitting open, I want to vomit my insides onto the floor. To retch until everything in me has disappeared. I reach for Neville cuddling him to my chest, something is wrong. A fire or a gas leak. Maybe my mother was right, the devil has come for us after all. I stumble toward the door, trying to yell. Bumping from one hallway to the next, I find the door to my parents room. Screaming as loud as I can, but my voice doesn’t seem to work. The only sound I can hear is the desperate screaming of Neville.
My mother is the first one that wakes, her gaze slack and unfocused. She seems to realize the gravity of the situation, and shakes my father into alertness. His eyes half-open but all of his attempts to rise are futile. She slings his arm over her shoulders, trying to get him off the bed. It takes me a second to realize I should do the same. The two of us, tiny and shaking, drag him out of the bedroom. Neville hangs onto my shirt and arm, almost like a little monkey. He shudders against me, eyes dilated and ears flat. My mother and I stumble through the front door, and out onto the grass, gulping in the fresh air. I puke onto the grass, my headache unbearable.
In the background I hear a lady speak, her automated voice asking if we have an emergency. My mom’s voice cracks as she attempts to explain. Sirens blare getting louder as time goes on. Until the noise is so loud that I can’t hear myself think.
Someone lifts me onto a stretcher. I can barely see them, just the glimpse of some uniform. A mask is fitted onto my face, and I breathe in fresh air. Air so clean I’m not sure it can be real. Someone tries to take Neville from me and I thrash, breath caught in my throat once again.
“It’s ok, it’s ok, you’re both safe,” a voice says.
“Leave the cat, don’t distress her,” another says. “A few more minutes and there’d have been no one left to save.”
“What about the cat? It needs oxygen too.”
“Let me do it, their breathing rates are different. There should be an oxygen mask for a cat in here, we use them all the time for animals stuck in housefires. It’ll work the same for carbon monoxide poisoning.”
As I fade out of consciousness the voices leave me, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying anyway. When I wake, I’m in a bed, staring at the white walls of a hospital room. My mother is sitting next to me, holding an oxygen mask to her face, a sleeping Neville in her lap.
“Shhh it’s ok mija,” she says, her voice registering despite my headache. It’s paled from a splitting migraine to a dull throbbing. “Your father is in the next room, the doctors said he had it the worst, because he was messing with that damn heater. But don’t fret he’ll be fine.”
“We’re all—we’re all ok?” I ask, my voice raw and weak.
“Yes, even your cat,” she pauses, considering. “I thought it over, we won’t be keeping the cat, look what’s happened after just one night. But the firefighters said the only one who could sense the carbon monoxide was him. As a thank you I suppose we can keep him until he gets better. As a, how do you say? A foster.”
“Thank you, mama.” I say, heart expanding in my chest. I try not to cry. Neville will escape the statistic, Neville will make it.
As much as my mother hates to admit it, Neville was not our foster. She never let us take him back to the shelter. She is his forever home.
In the end the underdog was the bravest. Neville killed the snake, the deadly creature that hides in the bushes, that strikes without warning. He saved us all.