“Ow, shit – fuck – no, Beo!”
Beowoof howls in protest as Iris roughly shoves him out of the kitchen with the back of her boot.
A loud, strangled hiss screeches out from under the oven.
Behind Beowoof, three other dogs scramble to get in. Jane Pawsten, in particular, looks riled up and ready to fight. She was a bait dog once and Iris knows that she can likely take a few hits. But whatever is making those hissing noises probably won’t be interested in a fair fight.
“Out, everyone out!”
Iris has to ease the door closed. Jane doesn’t have much of a snout to speak of, but what she does have gets jammed into the doorway and Iris has to push her out with her fingers.
The windows are dark. The sun has long since set and Iris had just about finished dishing out the dogs’ meals and had begun mentally tallying the ingredients she had for a human meal. Usually she made a smoothie or something equally simple and mindless, but tonight she’d been in the mood for some actual food after a long day of work.
Then she’d heard Beowoof yelp and squeal after sticking his nose under the oven.
The sudden, rattling hiss from beneath the appliance had sent adrenaline right down to Iris’s bone marrow. She didn’t see if Beo got bitten. She’d just reacted; putting as much distance between the dogs and the source of the hissing as possible.
Finally, the dogs are out of the kitchen. Iris leans her forehead against the door and takes a long breath, before turning to face the kitchen.
The oven is raised about four inches off the ground. Plenty of room for a snake, or something equally nasty. With her phone in one hand and a broom in the other, Iris creeps cautiously forwards. She swipes open the camera app and prepares to duck down and quickly take a picture of whatever is under there. If she’s lucky, it’s a harmless carpet snake, and she’ll be able to get away with a bandaid over Beo’s nose and some observation overnight. If it’s something else, well…
She lowers her phone to the floor. About a foot away from the oven. She snaps a picture and draws it back to see.
It’s dark. Grumbling, she lowers the phone again and takes another with the flash on.
Her heart is starting to slow its adrenaline-filled rhythm. She raises her phone to her eyes to confirm: no, that’s definitely not a snake. The image is blurry, but she can clearly see the unmistakable grey face and large blue eyes of a cat.
The tension floods out of Iris’s body and she half-laughs as she lowers herself to her knees.
“Good news, Beo!” she calls. “You don’t have to go to the vet tonight!”
Beowoof had not stopped barking since he’d been sent out, so he probably doesn’t hear her.
Iris ducks her head down and looks under the oven. Crouched there, in the tiny space between the floor and the bottom of the machine, is a kitten. It looks so very small that Iris thinks it might fit in the palm of her hand. She reaches for it. It hisses and swipes at her with its claws, and Iris feels the sharp sting of a scratch from the base of her thumb all the way along the digit. She gets her hand on the cat’s head, ignoring the way it immediately turns and sinks its teeth into her palm, and wriggles her fingers until she can pinch the back of its neck.
“Gotcha,” she mutters. Her back aches from being down there even for a few moments. As she carefully drags the kitten out from under the oven she notes – with a detached sort of annoyance – that she’s bleeding all over the floor. “You put up a fight, don’t you? Good for you.”
The kitten doesn’t stop its strangled growling even though it is completely immobilised by the magic pinch. Once Iris has it out from under the oven, she notes that the fur isn’t grey; it’s filthy. The kitten is streaked with grease and dust from being stuck under a kitchen appliance.
Its back legs are dangling in a way that makes Iris’s heart seize up. Limp and bent at an odd angle.
“Oh, honey, what happened to you?”
It doesn’t stop growling long enough to reply.
How did it even get in here? Did it sneak in when I took Elizabark out?
Iris quickly swaddles the kitten up in a kitchen towel before releasing the pinch on its neck. It instantly starts fighting, but Iris is damn good at immobilising animals in various textiles, so the fight is in vain. Iris winces at the pain that the kitten must be feeling in its back legs as it kicks uselessly at its prison. Fortunately, the only blood on the towel seems to be hers.
She swipes through her phone’s contacts, selects one, and turns her phone on loudspeaker. She sticks it into her bra so that she can use her hands and clutches the kitten to her chest as she opens the door.
The dogs are on her in an instant. Sniffing and yelping, standing up on their hind legs to see what she has in her hands. Beowoof’s snout doesn’t look like it’s bleeding. Iris sighs.
“Hello, Far North Coast Veterinary Clinic, this is Abby speaking,” says a tinny, distorted voice from the phone in her cleavage.
“Hi Abby, are you guys still open?” Iris asks as she shuffles past the dogs and heads into the bathroom at the back of the café.
Stacked in the corner of the room is a selection of travel crates. She takes the smallest one and puts the kitten in, quickly unravelling the swaddle and drawing the towel back out before slamming the latch shut.
“We’re about to close for the night,” Abby replies, her tone edging on annoyed. “Is it an emergency?”
“Yeah, I’ve got a kitten here with a nasty injury to its back legs,” Iris says. She glances down at her hand and sighs. “It’ll also need to get checked for diseases because it scratched me to buggery.”
There’s a long, deep scratch down the length of her thumb, with two slightly-shallower scratches on either side. Her palm is also riddled with little punctures from the cat’s teeth and blood blossoms from each one. She wraps the towel that she’d used to carry the kitten around her hand, tying it firmly.
She hears Abby breathe out through her nose before answering. “Ok, can you bring it in?”
“Yeah, I can be there in 20?”
“What’s your name?”
Iris gives her details to the girl and hangs up. The dogs are milling around her – all of them, even Queen Elizabark, who usually doesn’t deign to leave her booth after dinner, unless it’s to trundle upstairs to bed. They’re wagging their tails and trying to sniff at the crate. Indiana Bones is the only one big enough to actually reach. When he presses his nose to the crate, the kitten hisses and he quickly pulls back with a heavy grunt of concern.
“Ok, everyone, go to bed!”
They stare at her.
Iris clicks her fingers twice and points at the door that leads out of the bathroom and back into the café. “Go to bed.”
Reluctantly, they turn and make their way out into the café and then upstairs to the loft. Iris leaves the kitten on the café counter and follows them, swooping down to pick up Queen Elizabark and carry her up.
In the loft, the dogs wait obediently in their crates. There are eight in total and nine dogs, but Beowoof and Bilbo Waggins share everything. Iris goes along and gives each of them a treat, scoots Queen Elizabark into her own crate with the donut-shaped pillow covered in lace, closes and locks them all before heading back downstairs. She grabs the crate with the growling kitten, and the keys to her bike, and heads out the door.
“So… now you have a cat?” Nick asks, scooping up a forkful of egg and watching Iris with his eyebrows drawn together.
Morning sunlight streams through the café windows as Iris rubs her eyes with one hand and wrestles a kitten with the other. “I mean – unless you want her?”
“I really don’t,” he replies. His beard is looking a little long and Iris is tempted to offer him a shave with one of the dog razors. It wouldn’t be the first time.
The kitten is not grey. After a bath at the vet clinic, her fur turned bright white with spots of brown and black no bigger than five-cent pieces. She looks scraggly and unkempt, but Iris thinks a few good meals and will make her coat grow thick and shiny, the way it is obviously supposed to. Even while she fights Iris’s grip, her bright blue irises are always sleepy and slow. She gazes from one spot to another, taking in everything in an unhurried way.
It had been three days since Iris had found the creature; she’d picked her up from the vet the night before with medications and a full folder of instructions for her care. Now, she’s swaddled up in Iris’s lap desperately trying to avoid the syringe full of meds in Iris’s other hand.
Most of the dogs had gotten over their curiosity and are busy enjoying their own breakfasts, though Beo and Bilbo kept looking up from their bowls to sniff in the kitten’s direction.
“Are you going to take it to the shelter?”
“Not if I can help it,” Iris replies.
“There’s a no-kill shelter out in Byron, right?” Nick asks. He’s as curious about the cat as the dogs are, but he’s able to ask questions and eat at the same time.
“Yeah, but… I mean with her legs and everything…”
Iris turns her gaze to the swaddle – specifically, to the bottom where she knows a pair of useless back legs are tangled up in the fabric. The vet had taken one look at the kitten and asked if Iris was attached to her.
“It’s going to cost a lot to save her,” the vet had told her, his kind eyes calm and knowing as he’d stroked the kitten’s fur. While he was stroking the kitten, Iris had noted the way that she had leaned into the touch. The way she’d stopped yowling in the crate once she’d realised that Iris didn’t plan to hurt her. The way that she had gazed curiously around the room, her filthy fur standing up in all directions despite getting smoothed over repeatedly with pets. “If she’s just a stray and you’re not willing to foot the bill, tell me now and I can put her out of her misery.”
Needless to say, Iris had given the man her credit card and told him to do what he had to do.
The kitten had a back injury. Likely a car, or something similar, had given her a bad knock. She must have crawled into Iris’s warm café at some point, perhaps following the smell of food, and then hidden once she realised that there were dogs all over the place.
The vet had tried surgery, but in the end he’d only confirmed his initial instincts: that the kitten’s legs were dead. She’d likely never regain the use of them.
“No-kill shelters have a hard time matching animals with special needs,” Iris tells Nick as she finally manages to get the syringe into the cat’s mouth and empty it. The kitten gags and mewls pitifully. Across the room, several dogs wag their tails. “She’d need to be fostered first, probably for months, and then she’d need constant care once she’s ready for adoption.”
Iris turns her gaze to the dogs. She’d gotten all of them from kill-shelters, and she knows for a fact that no-kill shelters often comb the kill-shelters as well in search of animals that can be rehabbed and rehomed.
Every full cage or fostered beast in a no-kill shelter means more animals that can’t be saved.
“So you’re taking all that inconvenience on yourself?”
“It’s hardly an inconvenience,” Iris says, wincing as the kitten manages to pull one of her paws out of the swaddle and swipe at the syringe. “It’s just easier to keep her here. At least that way I know she’s getting good care.”
“Until Indiana eats her.”
“Indy would never.”
The St Bernard in question looks up when he hears his name, decides that he’s not being called to do anything, and returns to his meal. Beowoof and Bilbo Waggins are both finished. They trot over to Iris and Nick in their booth next to the café doors and wage their tails, sitting with their backs straight, watching Nick carefully. As long as there is a human in the vicinity with food to potentially share, they’ll ignore even the most interesting new kittens.
Nick gives them both a bite of his eggs because he’s too weak-hearted to say no.“I reckon I could rig up one of those cat wheelchairs?” he says, jerking his head towards the kitten. “I saw it on TikTok.”
“That would be cool,” Iris replies. She doesn’t mention that she’d already thought of that, and googled ‘kitten wheelchairs’ the moment she’d learned that the cat would never walk on her back legs again. “If you want, I can give you my card and you can buy the materials from Bunnings or something.”
Nick grunts. He doesn’t answer. He never answers when money comes up.
She puts the kitten into the crate that has been its home since it arrived and releases the swaddle. It wanders into the back of the crate and nestles down into the fuzzy blanket Iris had stuffed inside. Her limp legs drag behind her in a way that breaks Iris’s heart.
“This place isn’t going to become a cat café, is it?” Nick asks.
Iris wrinkles her nose. “That sounds hellish,” she replies. “Besides, I’ve already done all the branding for the dogs. Can’t change it now.”
“Terrible inconvenience,” Nick agrees, stuffing another mouthful of food into his gob.
Iris glances at the clock. They’ve still got about an hour before opening and Iris needs to start filling the cake shelves.
“A single resident cat wouldn’t be too bad,” she says as she hoists herself up out of the booth, padding over to the café counter and the kitchen beyond.
“You’ll have to name her something good,” Nick calls back to her. “Hold on, I’ll google some cat puns.” He takes his phone out of his pocket and does just that.
Iris snorts as she passes the counter and the cash register, where a small notebook lays open to a list of cat-pun names that she’d already brainstormed two days ago.
PS – this holiday season, consider helping out your local animal shelters! They get a lot of traffic at this time of year, and thanks to Corona a lot of places are already chockablock full with animals who need rehoming.