We found the kittens in a dumpster behind the outlet mall. We liked to look through them in case anything good was thrown out. Sometimes we found clothes we could wear so it was always worth a look. But that night there were kittens.
We weren't sure what to do with them, Randy couldn't have pets since his dad hated animals (he hated pretty much everything) and Wallace was allergic. So it ended up being me, even though my mom hated cats. But we just knew they couldn't stay there in that dumpster; we weren't even sure how they got there to be honest. They had to be weaned, eyes open and bright, mewling and crawling actively. Some jerk must have put them there. We all felt really sorry for them.
So I took them home, Randy and Wallace in toe, but I had to keep them secret from my mom. I hid them in my backpack and carried them to the shed out back. Mom never really went out there so it was the best place to keep them. We agreed since there were three kittens that we would share them and that we would each name one. There was a black one, Wallace wanted that one and he named it Batman, and there a black and white "tuxedo" that Randy claimed, he named it Caesar. That left me with the brown tabby. She was the only girl, so I felt obligated to give her a good name. Not that I could have done worse than Batman.
But I wasn't sure. I told the guys I'd need to think about it so we just called her Kitten for that first night. The kittens seemed to like the shed, they played with the bits of leaves that had collected in the corners from the times I'd forgotten to close the door and they tried to get up on to shelves to investigate the empty jars caked in dust. Wallace asked what we would do about where they'd piss, Randy mentioned sand, I told him he was a moron and we'd get cat litter and everything tomorrow.
And what about food? Well we'd get that tomorrow, too. Randy asked where we'd get the money for all this, since I was such a smartass. My mom gave me $10 for lunch every week, so we'd use what I had left over from that. Wallace had $5 that was the start of a savings for a new action figure, but the kitten was cooler, he said. Randy said he'd have some money tomorrow after school. We played with the kittens for a couple hours before it started to get dark and Randy started to get antsy like he always did when he had to go home. Mom hollered out the back door for me and we knew this evening's fun was over.
We hustled out of the shed and Randy and Wallace said their goodbyes as they went to their bikes. I hurried inside and to my room to dispose of the shirt covered in cat fur before I went to the dinner table. Mom made chicken that night and after we ate and she got to drinking her nightly glass of wine I took some of the leftovers to the shed for the kittens with a bowl of water. They seemed to like mom's chicken. Mom was too busy reading her romance novel on the couch to notice my short absence. That night I had trouble sleeping since all I could think about was that little brown tabby and how she still didn't have a name.
School was a mess that next day, we were all too excited to get out and get the stuff for the kittens. After school we rode full speed to the dirty little pet shop in the strip mall by the empty field all the kids sometimes played ball in. We got the litter box, the litter, and some cat food made just for kittens. We had enough money left over to get some toys and a cat bed. With the items hidden in our backpacks we booked it back to my house. My mom was still at work so we didn't have to sneak too much. While Randy set up the litter box Wallace and I cleaned up the leaves and swept the floor. Randy snagged the kittens and kept them out of the way while we straightened up and gave them food on the table by the window. Once the shed was all cleaned up we set up the cat bed and the litter box and everything. The kittens seemed to like the arrangement, even knew what to do with the litter. We played with them all afternoon.
I told the guys I think I'd name the tabby Layla, after that song by Eric Clampton. They gave me funny looks so I guess because they didn't really know those sorts of songs, but it didn't matter. It seemed like a good name. Every morning I'd go to the shed, mom was either asleep or at work, and I'd feed the kittens and tell them about what I'd do that day. At night the guys would come home with me and we'd all play with them (and take turns cleaning the litter box), sometimes we'd do our homework in the shed there with them laying on our books and papers. It was really nice, relaxing and quiet.
After a few weeks Caesar got a runny nose and had a hard time breathing which made Randy got really worried. We remembered that cats needed to go to the doctor, just like us, and Wallace said it was probably a good idea to ask about fixing them when we went to Dr. Drei. Dr. Drei was an older, grey haired, slightly overweight man who ran Oldtown Animal Clinic. I had a hamster once that ate a cotton ball and that's when I met him. The hamster didn't make it but Dr. Drei was pretty nice about it.
So we skipped last period on Friday to go visit him, since the clinic was kinda far from where we all lived. When we got there the nurse at the desk asked us why we weren't in school and I told her it was a half day and we needed to talk to Dr. Drei and that it was very important. She gave me a suspicious look before getting up to talk to the doctor. When he came out he recognized me and smiled, he asked what he could do for us. I told him about the kittens and how Caesar was sick, also how much would getting them fixed be and checkups and everything.
He looked troubled by all this and asked why in the world we were the ones inquiring about the proper cat care and not our parents. We all sort of wilted under the question before I finally managed to tell him the cats were a secret, since none of us were allowed to have them. Before Dr. Drei could say anything Randy sputtered about how we would take great care of them, how we already got them food and a litter box and please, please, please don't tell our parents because then they'd just give them to the pound and they'd die.
I think all of us were a little surprised to see tears gleaming in his eyes and to hear his voice crack and his chest heave as he tried to hold back the intensity of his feelings. The nurse went over to him and tried to pat him on the shoulder but he shied away from her with a glare then gave the doctor an unwavering look. I don't think Dr. Drei could have refused after that without feeling pretty low so he took us to the back and we talked about what we could do. He said he would help us, but we had to keep it hush-hush and we had to come in on the weekends and help him with the clinic. We could say it was a part-time job if our parents asked; he said they'd like seeing us take some responsibility. We had to take his word for it.
The next day we biked back with the kittens in our backpacks. They got their shots and the doc fixed them. He said they were about 3 months old and it was good that we brought them in when we did since we didn't know what their previous owner had done with them. They got a clean bill of health and the doc gave us some medicine to get rid of Caesar's cold. The kittens slept off the anesthesia while we worked; we basically just cleaned up everything and helped the nurse feed the animals that were already there and organize things. It wasn't so bad and now we didn't have to worry about the kittens getting something major.
It was smooth sailing from then on out, at least until my mom stumbled upon our secret. She was doing yard work for some insane reason. Usually she makes me do it or she paid one of those cheap lawn companies. But not this day! No she thought it would just be a great idea to head on in the shed and get the rake and rake up a few leaves. She called me at Dr. Drei's in a tizzy. She'd been so proud of my initiative in getting this job and working so hard, but I guess she sort of figured out that our involvement with the good doc had ulterior motives. She was screaming at me to come home, about how there were awful cats in the shed and I needed to get rid of them. I told her OK, but when I got home I explained to her why the cats were there.
She didn't seem moved, at least not at first, but my mother is a practical woman; a good explanation for your actions was a pretty good way to get out of trouble. She listened with that dark scowl and knit jaw, then once I was done sighed and rubbed her eyes. She said she was angry we'd kept the cats a secret for almost two months at this point, but she also appreciated the fact that we were all working so hard to keep them well cared for. She asked how we were paying for their food and litter, since Dr. Drei wasn't paying us. I told her about the lunch money and she laughed, which at the time sort of scared me. But then I realized she thought it was cute I'd give up my own ability to eat in order to keep the cats. Wallace and Randy helped, I added, we took turns cleaning after them and pooled money for food and supplies. The deal we cut with the doctor was even better. She shook her head and bit her lip and called me a clever kid. She seemed more proud of me now than she had been when I told about the job with Dr. Drei.
Well with that scare passed mom let the cats stay, as long as they never came in the house, which I was fine with. The guys were relieved to hear the news 'cause now we didn't have to sneak so much to spend time with them. Things were a lot better after that, mom didn't constantly ask why we were in the shed and I guess she thought a pet was actually good for me. She gave us some old blankets for the cats to lie on and the old heater from her bathroom for the winter. Her excuse was she needed a new one anyway, but I think she felt sorry for the cats in some way. It's really hard to hate those little faces.
It was a few years before anything went wrong again, but boy did it go wrong. We were on our last year of middle school, getting ready for high school and the cats were about 4 years old. It started on a Friday. Caesar wasn't eating and seemed lethargic. It was worrisome since Dr. Drei was still good on our deal even all these years later and vaccinated the cats every year, which meant it was something else. These days we had the good fortune of having mom drive us, the cat well restrained, to the vet's office rather than stressing out the poor thing in our backpacks on a bike. She complained the whole time about the cat fur getting on her upholstery and about the cat smell, but I think she was just making that up to be difficult. When we got there she let us fret at the side of the cold metal table while she sat in the chair in the corner of the exam room. Dr. Drei gave Caesar a thorough looking over and even took some blood for good measure. He said Caesar probably just ate something that made him feel sick and it would pass soon enough, but he'd test the blood and give us a call back.
So we drove back home and despite the doc's reassurances Randy was really worried. He kept petting and whispering to Caesar the whole way back. I could tell Wallace was worried because of that and so was I. Randy liked to come over and be with the cats more than Wallace (though I think that had a lot to do with Wallace being allergic) and he and I would play with them until it got so late mom came out yelling at us to get our asses inside. Randy made a lot of excuses not to go home and tried to stay over on school nights even though he knew my mom would say no. He did stuff like that before, ever since we were real little, but after we found the cats it seemed to get more intense so we just figured they was the reason; he wanted to be around them and his best friends. But I always got this feeling when I watched him playing with Caesar, or just sitting with the cat in his lap and petting him, this really sad feeling like under everything I saw was something else he wasn't telling us.
Now that Caesar was sick that feeling started to come out more. He laid on the floor of the shed on a blanket and held the tuxedo cat on his chest, stroking him and glaring at the ceiling. Wallace and I busied ourselves with Layla and Batman and let Randy be. It was hard to see him like that, almost 13 and so messed up over this cat that he couldn't hardly speak without getting that weird emotional strain to his voice. I thought it was a little weird until I thought about what I'd feel like if Laya got sick. I can't say I would've been much better.
Mom let Randy stay over that night. She could probably feel that weird sadness coming off him just like Wallace and I did. In the middle of the night I heard him get up and go out. My window faced the backyard and I could see the shed windows light up as Randy went in. I'm not much for praying but I did a little that night; Caesar seemed to be one of the real things that made Randy happy and I didn't want him to lose that. Didn't do much good since the next day when Dr. Drei called all he had was bad news. The blood work showed that Caesar had cancer and the doc said if it was affecting him enough to make him stop eating it was probably pretty far along.
We all knew right off the bat none of us had enough money to pay for treatments. Even having an ultrasound to figure out where the tumor was would cost more than mom could pay. Randy was there for the call and the second it was established what was making Caesar sick and that he probably wouldn't make it Randy wailed so loud mom and I thought he'd hurt himself. He kicked a chair and hid his face as he hurried from the room and to the backyard. Scared the hell out of both me and mom and the doc apparently heard everything over the phone and was asking if we were alright. I wasn't alright. I just saw my best friend freak out worse than anything I'd ever seen. I knew he was upset about Caesar but there was definitely something else going on, no one should react that badly to a pet dying.
Randy wouldn't talk about it, even after I went to the shed and found him sobbing with Caesar in his arms. Wallace came by later and we all went over to the Doctor's. Randy had stopped crying at that point, at least until we got there and the Doctor said he couldn't take a rain-check on payments for this sort of treatment. It wasn't the same as vaccinations. At this point with Caesar eating so little and with the cancer, far as the doctor could tell, pretty pervasive it would just be kinder to put him to sleep since we couldn't pay for anything else. Randy broken down again, he couldn't argue with the Doctor because he knew best but that didn't change how much it hurt. Wallace and I were pretty tore up about it too, Caesar was a sweet cat but Randy was taking this to a whole new level. My mom seemed like she wanted to comfort him but I stopped her, remembering those years before when the nurse tried to do the same when we first came to Dr. Drei. Instead we left the room and let Randy be alone with Caesar when the doctor put him down.
After that Randy didn't spend as much time with us. He was always distant at school and I guess he didn't see much use in coming over to be with the cats since they'd just remind him of Caesar. I couldn't blame him for the first few months, but after a certain amount of time I started to get annoyed by it. I wondered if he just didn't consider us friends anymore. The day I decided to talk to him about it he looked like he'd gotten into a fight, black eye and busted lip. He wouldn't tell me what had happened.
With Randy widening the gap between us Wallace wasn't around as much either. He started playing football once we got into high school and while he still came around he was making other friends and we just started drifting apart. I tried to keep in touch with Randy as best I could; he seemed to need me more than Wallace. But both of them were starting to find other things to interest them, it seemed. My responsibility for Layla and Batman got heavier and heavier, but I didn't mind. Losing Caesar made me realize just how much I cared about Layla, Batman too. I felt bad for him and the fact Wallace wasn't around for him.
That summer after freshman year was when Randy's parents got a divorce. His dad beat up his mom so bad that he couldn't cover it up anymore. He tried to run her over with a car and he got sent to jail for attempted manslaughter. Randy (and his mom when she was out of the hospital) came to stay with us after that, our moms were friends so of course my mom couldn't leave her friend without support. Randy finally seemed ready to tell me about how his old man wasn't just ornery, he was a monster. He beat him and his mom up all the time, even when he was little. That day when I tried to confront him about never hanging out with me after Caesar died and he had a busted face it turns out his dad gave him that. That's all his father ever gave him, bruises.
He explained how Caesar was the only thing he'd ever gotten that seemed safe from his dad, the only thing he couldn't take away and break. So when he lost that it hurt him so deep he just couldn't stand to be reminded of it. That's why he stopped coming around, he just sat in the woods now mostly, went to school in a haze, just wanting to disappear so he wouldn't hurt anymore. I told him even though he'd drifted away from me he'd always been my best friend, he could always trust me and talk to me. I made him cry and I was just trying to be a good friend.
Wallace came by eventually, said he was sorry for being gone so much, hoped Randy was okay. Randy said he was okay enough. Pretty soon Randy and his mom would move away to the east coast to be with her family, even with the way we three had drifted apart we all seemed choked up about it. There was something finalizing about being physically apart, at least before we were in the same town but now...
After a moment Wallace said Randy should take Batman with him. He wasn't coming around as much and it wasn't fair to me to take care of two cats. He admitted he may still love the cat but he just couldn't manage the time, not with being allergic on top of it. But he wanted Randy to have something to remember us by and something to keep him happy. I added this was also something else his dad couldn't take away now that he was in jail, Batman wasn't Caesar, but he was still a good cat. Randy suddenly grabbed us both by the shoulder and hugged us, he rested his head on where our other shoulders met and croaked out best he could without crying how we were the best friends he ever had. Whenever we three were together it made him hurt less. He'd never forget us. We all hugged for a minute or two before composing ourselves again with a clearing of throats and agreeing to keep this between us.
Randy and his mom left after a couple weeks and Batman went with them. Wallace was there to say goodbye. After all the bags were packed and stuffed in the car before driving to the airport we all managed one last hug before we started on our separate paths.
That was almost three years ago. Wallace moved to another town about 30 minutes away during sophomore year when his dad got a promotion so I haven't seen him since then. I'm a senior now, ready to graduate and already accepted to my college of choice. Well, second choice, but good enough, right?
As I sit here on the dirt floor of the shed, cupping Layla's head in both my hands and rubbing her forehead with my thumbs, I wonder how she'll feel once I have to go away. Mom promised to take care of her, I've somehow moved her heart towards an acceptance of this feline even though she claims to still dislike them. But these days, now that it's just Layla, I catch her going to the shed and playing with her when she thinks I'm studying.
I keep thinking about how much my life changed because of this cat. It sounds corny, I know, but part of having this responsibility, a life that depends on me, really gave me more guidance than I realized. I knew for a fact mom wouldn't do any of the work of caring for Layla and she was well within her right there. I snuck these cats in when I knew she didn't approve, Layla was all mine for, good or ill. I couldn't go around forgetting about her, partying too hard or staying out all night, wasting my money on smoking when I needed to spend it on her. Some people might think that's dumb, how could a cat be more fun than being a teenager?
I'll add some more corniness to all this. Layla became my best friend after Randy and Wallace moved. Oh I still write to Randy, but being penpals isn't quite the same. He likes the east coast, he has a good life now, part-time job, a girlfriend, and his mom loves Batman to the point of making him overweight. I'm happy for him, I am, but I'll always miss being kids and biking around or playing with our cats together. Haven't heard from Wallace, though I see him in the newspaper sometimes, he's the quarterback at his high school. I bet he'll get a scholarship for college and everything, lucky dog. I'm happy for him too.
But people are nostalgic things, aren't they? Layla reminds me of a time before we all grew up, times when it felt we didn't have worries; at least I didn't have many. But when we all went our own ways, when we all left one by one starting with Caesar, Layla stayed. I made new friends, of course, but Layla was like a rock I could always come back and feel safe with. It didn't matter she was "just a cat," there was something about her. Nonjudgmental, and even if she didn't understand what I was saying she listened. Sometimes it just feels good to talk, no need for conversation, just to get it out. And there was Layla, always happy to see me, always ready to listen, green eyes gleaming behind that half-lidded expression of contentment at the sound of my voice.
How would she feel now with me leaving? The college I was going to was 2 hours away and freshmen had to live on campus. I wouldn't see her until a break allowed me a weekend to drive back. Would she feel hurt or sad? Would she think I'd left for good since I've been the only one caring for her for so long? I felt rotten. I wanted to go to school, get a degree so I could get a good job and help out mom, pay her back for the good job she did raising me. But it still cut me to think that I could hurt this damn cat's feelings. I was sure she had them too- no one could convince me otherwise, not after 8 years of living with her.
She was Layla.
I folded one of her ears between my thumb and forefinger, kneading gently before she pulled away and shook her head from the tickle it caused. I laughed and she looked at me with those bright eyes and meowed, pawing my leg. Damn if it didn't seem like she knew what I was thinking, trying to tell me it was okay. Probably not, but it was nice to think.
"Don't go changing while I'm away. I'll be back before you know it," I said, rubbing her cheek as she purred loud as a motor and pushed her face into my hand.
I had to go drive to orientation that day; the car was already packed so I was just saying my last goodbyes before I headed off. I grabbed her head in both hands and planted a loud kiss between her ears before pushing her away playfully. She bounced back and tackled my arm, gnawing on it gently before I wrestled her on her side and buried my face in her fur. "I'm gonna miss you. Y'dumb cat," I muttered, failing to suppress a tear.
The whole drive all I could feel was guilt. As mom rode with me she told me how proud my dad would've been since both of them barely finished high school. Dad died when I was 3, it was hard to feel a connection outside of the photos mom still had up, but I told her I was glad to hear it all the same. I knew this was all for the best, no matter how my heart hurt. Next year I'd get an apartment or rent a house with some people. Next year I'd bring Layla with me. Just wait one year, kitten. A year is nothing between good friends.