SET THEORY • by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

They’re like cats, I’d said. But who listens to kids?

This was Phase Two — where hardship perks gave worker bee families like us houses we couldn’t have dreamed of back home. Ours was on a gloriously uncleared lot — wild and tangly and mysterious and perfect.

The research station had been here for thirty years; they’d done all kinds of field guides to the flora and fauna and which berries would kill you and which were great for pies. “For God’s sake,” mom said, “don’t come home looking like the horror from Mars because you fell into some poison ivy or something.” Use your common sense, she’d said, and wash your hands when you get back in.

They teach us how different we are from those ancient explorers of yore, how much we’ve advanced. How respectful we are, how careful, how we’ve thought it all out. How we only colonize unpopulated ecosystems.

Of course, their definition of a sentient being is something that can look you in the eye and shoot you.

They get pissed if you ignore their elegant scientific names and call things birds or field mice, though anyone with a brain can see that’s what they are. It’s not what something looks like but what it does.

So as far as I was concerned, those things were cats.

Our school was on one of those meaningful research station tours, and I was trailing along when I noticed it, in a cage, off in a corner. If it’d been some official experiment they’d have pointed it out proudly. But of course we don’t do those sorts of  experiments anymore, they’re not humane, or even necessary with the marvelous advances we’ve made.

It was making little clicking sounds, like something else might be whimpering, tiny little hopeless sounds. It had pressed itself as far back in the cage as it could get, and you could tell from its eyes that it had gone as far back into the inside of its own mind as it could, to get out of that cage.

Who’d give a damn? You’d think differently about something soft and cuddly — not that that’d worked out too well for mice or rabbits or guinea pigs. I mean in the olden days when we were barbaric, right?

But I did see it; I knew right off what kind of thing it was, that it was miserable and someone was breaking a really important rule.

“Interesting, isn’t it?” A staffer, scooping up strays. “Not classified yet.”

“It’s a cat,” I said. He burst out laughing.

“Isn’t it against the rules,” I asked, “to take prisoners?”

He wanted to put a nice fatherly hand on my shoulder but that’s really against the rules. He settled for the tolerant-and-amused look meant to reduce you to an abashed five-year-old. The hand he couldn’t touch me with was scratched and there was a dressing on his wrist. The skin around it was starting to puff up.

The creature in the cage went absolutely still when it heard our voices. Just the tiniest little flash of its eyes staring at mine, then looking back into itself again.

Sometimes you know exactly what to do even if you don’t know why. Thing about cats — you’d swear they can practically read your mind. I thought as hard as I could, so hard it made my eyeballs hurt, how much I disliked this person, actually how I hated him at this moment. I knew that cat thing would recognize the emotion.

Then I thought how I felt when I’d hurt myself, or was really, really scared, and my mom held me. How she made a universe of safety and love to wrap me in, that nothing could batter its way through. Powerful stuff, that. You forget all kinds of things from your childhood but you’ll probably remember that.

I pictured that feeling in my mind, drawing it and coloring it in, and I thought my brains would crack, thinking that hard. It’s not imagining — it’s making it real, real as a hologram, anyway, that you can focus your eyes on and see.

And I felt the stillness in that cat thing changing just a little bit.

The ID strip on the guy’s uniform read “Dr. Winsome.” What a name! Like if my mother had called me “Docility.”

I turned and walked out. He had to follow, he was part of the tour, it’d be awhile before he could get back and prove he could do anything he wanted in his own space, rules or no rules and snotty little brats be damned.

A guy like that, with a bunch of little kids to impress and a handful of teenage girls trying out their hormones on him, he forgets little annoyances pretty quickly. It wasn’t hard to dawdle behind again.

I’d have only one chance. If terror made it panic and fight, we’d both be screwed.

I called out very softly, so it’d know I was coming. Made my voice low and warm, as tender as I could, as motherly, and thought about those woods behind our house, thick and inviting, full of secret places. I zipped the bottom of my jacket, to make a little pouch, opened the cage, and thought so hard really I expected my brain to explode.

It crept to the cage door and jumped gracefully up into my arms. I closed my jacket around it and fled.

The empty cage didn’t worry me. If he had balls enough to complain a kid stole something he shouldn’t have had in the first place —

I ran straight to our woods and crouched down and unzipped my jacket and let it jump out.  It shook itself, looked at me, and then it ran.

Inside, I took a hot, hot shower, tons of soap, scrubbing hard as I could. Sharp little claws it had, just like cats, only different. I cleaned out those scratches just in time.

Him, now — you know he hadn’t been the scrupulous type.

Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds.

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