I saw the sign on my morning walk. It was taped to a lamppost at the end of the block. It read: “Missing Cat. Her name is Princess. Please call. Big reward.” The sign listed a phone number below a picture of the cat. Princess was ginger with tufts of white fur, and she flashed green, impish eyes. The sign was scribbled in a child’s faltering scrawl.
I live twenty miles from the city in a bucolic community located just off the freeway. It’s an oasis of concrete and stucco and well-manicured lawns amidst a sea of rolling hills and thick, sienna brush. Before my first attack, I never paid much attention to my neighborhood; it was simply the place I stayed when I wasn’t working. But the doctors insisted that I get more exercise. Now, I know every sidewalk, winding street, and cul-de-sac. I take my daily walk at first light, before it gets too hot.
I saw Princess the day she disappeared. It was scarcely past dawn, the moon still visible at the horizon. She lounged on my front porch, licking a paw. When she spotted me, she casually sauntered away. I didn’t think much of it at the time.
The cat belongs to my neighbors on the corner. They’re a pleasant, young couple with a girl, perhaps eight or nine. The girl often played with Princess in their yard. She had blonde pigtails and an innocent, baby face, the kind children enjoy before life hardens their features. When I saw the sign, I felt a strange compulsion to find Princess. Perhaps it was for the girl. Perhaps it was for me.
I had my first chance the following morning. Princess was perched again on my porch. “Here, Kitty.” I called out to her gently. “Here, Princess.” I approached with an outstretched hand, but she grew skittish and darted away.
I had a second chance a couple days later. Princess sat on a path near my home, glaring at me with an intensity only felines possess. I felt haunted, almost like I was her prey, but it wasn’t quite that kind of look. I was an intruder. I got close enough to touch her, but she slipped out of my grasp.
My third chance came on the weekend. Princess stood brazenly in the center of the road right in front of me. I called to her, but she ran. This time, I gave chase. It was a foolish thing to do. She was much faster than I was. I could barely keep her in sight as I barreled across my neighbors’ lawns and crashed through their hedges. I lost her at the wrought-iron fence that borders the community.
I sat down on a nearby curb and began to sob. I cried for lost cats. I cried for little girls. Most of all, I cried for myself. When I finished, I felt something brush up against me. I opened my eyes. There was Princess, next to me, rubbing her flanks against my leg. We sat together in silence. I made no movement to capture her, and eventually, she climbed onto my lap. I rose to my feet, cradling her in my arms. I carried her slowly and deliberately to my neighbors’ house, as if we were partaking in a sacred ritual. She rested her head on my chest, eyes closed.
At my neighbors’ front door, I could hear voices through the kitchen window.
“We can’t tell her.”
“But she’s getting her hopes up. Someone called yesterday and said he saw Princess over on Grey Rock. She spent all afternoon wandering up and down the street, calling out Princess’s name.”
“She’ll be terrified.”
“We can’t keep lying to our own daughter.”
“You didn’t see it happen. I still can’t believe it myself. I opened the back door to let her out, just like I do every morning. She was only three feet away from me. The coyote came out of nowhere. It snatched her up. It shook her. I could hear her neck snap. Then, the coyote hopped the fence and vanished right before my eyes. One moment, Princess was there. The next, she was gone. How am I supposed to explain that to a little girl?”
I backed slowly away from my neighbor’s porch. I could feel Princess’s weight in my arms. We walked the winding streets. When we reached the edge of the community, she stirred. I set her down. She squeezed through the fence posts and stood serenely before the tawny bluffs. The hills stretched before us, their silhouette glowing radiantly in the morning light. Princess glanced back at me, tail flickering behind her. I climbed the fence, and we set off into the wilderness together.
Joseph S. Klapach is an attorney who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three children. His short stories have appeared in miniskirt magazine and Every Day Fiction. His poetry has been published in Vita Brevis Press’s anthology, Brought to Sight and Swept Away, and Epiphany magazine. He is hearing impaired.