Strays (Baker’s Dozen verse)
For OQ Prompt Party Day 7: 118. Roland finds two kittens, they love Regina the most.
They’ve been trying to wear her down for weeks – months, even. Ever since Lydia turned two, Henry and Roland have been lobbying for a pet.
She’d forbidden a puppy point-blank. She doesn’t have the time, or the energy, to deal with an apartment full of chewed shoes and puddles of pee. Lydia is enough of a destroyer as it is, she doesn’t need an accomplice.
And kittens, well… She’s never really been a fan. They just seem too… prissy, too aloof. Self-sufficient, yes, that’s great, but… She’s just not a pet person.
In the end, though, the decision is made for her, on a muggy night in late August. They’ve left the baby to the capable hands of Belle and August, opting to take the boys to a dinner that doesn’t involve high chairs or Cheerios. Something more grown up as a final send-off to summer before school starts.
It was Henry’s turn to choose, and there hadn’t been a moment of hesitation: he wanted “Chinatown dumplings” – what he calls the pork soup dumplings that he and Emma often go stuff themselves with on their regular playdates. She always takes him to the same place—a little cash-only hole-in-the-wall down below Canal Street—and it’s apparently serious business.
They sit around a communal table, and Henry instructs them very carefully in the right way to eat their dumplings without spilling the soup or burning their tongues (Roland does both, but he doesn’t seem to mind), and by the time they leave, they’re all happy and packed to the gills with dumplings, and rice, and beef with string beans, and orange shrimp, and chicken lo mein.
They stroll down darkened streets together, Robin’s arm slung over her shoulder, the boys several paces ahead chattering away – close enough that it doesn’t feel unsafe but far enough that they feel like they have their freedom.
It’s been a good night. A wonderful night.
So when the boys stop near a small mountain of trash piled up by the curb, she doesn’t think much of it. She notices, sure, and grimaces, and says a prayer of thanks that she’d thrown a fresh bottle of hand sanitizer in her purse just yesterday. But she doesn’t call out to them until they’re bending down and reaching toward the pile.
Even then, it’s only a stern (but mild), “Stay out of the trash!”
Henry glances up and waves a hand fervently at them, beckoning them forward, but Roland’s attention is rapt.
When she and Robin catch up, it becomes immediately clear why.
One of the garbage bags has a hole in it, little bits of fish and sour liquid spilled out on the sidewalk, and there, making a meal of it, is a pair of calico kittens.
“Daddy, look!” Roland exclaims, reaching out and scooping up one of the mangy little things before Regina can stop him. It meows loudly, twisting in his grasp, and all Regina can think about is fleas. Fleas, and maybe rabies.
“I see, my boy,” Robin says, crouching down near the piles and saying, “But we should probably put him back where we found him, so his mummy and daddy can find him.”
“He doesn’t have a mummy and daddy,” Roland insists. “They’re all alone, and they’re hungry!” Regina is entirely unsurprised that he turns those big, dark eyes on her and pleads, “Can we take them home, Regina?”
She’s loath to break his tender heart, but still, “Absolutely not.”
She says it kindly, but she says it all the same.
“Mom, please.” It’s Henry this time. It’s not-so-little boy’s pleading eyes, and he’s scooping up the other kitten as she winces, cupping his scrawny body carefully, and saying, “Look how skinny they are! They’re starving, they’re eating garbage.”
“They’re covered in fleas,” Regina reasons gently. “And we don’t have anything for them – no food, no litter box, no—”
“We can get them!” Roland argues, cradling his yowling little dirtball against his shirt, and now he’s got fleas, too, hasn’t he?
“Yeah, Mom, it’s not that late,” Henry encourages. “We could get all that stuff. And we could give them a bath to get rid of any bugs. I don’t think they even have any!”
Regina narrows her eyes, bending close to get a good look at the little critters. They’re grubby, their white patches grayed with dirt; she can’t tell if the little black flecks she sees are more dirt or the dreaded fleas.
She glances toward Robin, and points out, “You’ve been suspiciously quiet over there.”
He just shrugs, stuffs his hands into the pockets of his jeans, and says, “I’m hearing out their arguments.”
“We can’t leave them,” Roland insists, petting the top of one little head. “What if they die out here? They wouldn’t die at our house, please, Regina? We need to save them. They’re only babies!”
He’s starting to get worked up, holding that squirming ball of fluff closer as his eyes start to well up with tears.
She’s going to regret it, she’s certain of it, but she knows that Roland is right. The kittens seem to be abandoned, they’re all skin and bones and dingy fur, and they’ll certainly suffer out here on their own. Suffer, and maybe die.
So she sighs, deeply, and relents, “Okay, we can bring them home,” earning a twin chorus of Yes! from the boys, and a dimpled grin from her husband.
And just like that, their family is two kittens larger.
They just barely make it to the pet store before closing, and make quick work of stocking up on “the essentials.” Which apparently include not only a bed (she insists on just one, it’s large enough for both kittens), a flea dip, a litter box, some kitten food, but also a pair of itty bitty collars with jingling bells, two packets of felt mice, a handful of catnip treats, a dangling feather…
They leave laden, the boys cradling the most precious cargo, Robin and Regina hefting all the rest, and as they make their way home, she asks, “So what will we name them?”
“I suppose we need to find out if they’re boy kittens or girl kittens first,” Robin reasons, but the boys heartily disagree.
“We can give them names that work for both!” Henry insists, and it’s decided that he and Roland get to name a kitten each.
Henry decides to give his kitten the apt moniker of Dumpling, in honor of when and where they were found.
“I’m gonna name mine after our dinner, too!” Roland insists, and Regina wonders if they’re going to end up with Shrimpy, or Orange. But in the end, kitten number two is christened Noodles.
“Not Noodle?” Regina asks, but Roland is adamant.
And so they are, Dumpling and Noodles.
Their first bath reveals that, yes, they most definitely have fleas, and a strong aversion to water. But they manage to get them cleaned up, and flea-dipped, and get their little bellies full of soggy kibble.
And Regina has to admit that they’re actually pretty cute. Those white patches are properly white, and their scrubbed fur is soft and surprisingly fluffy when it dries. They sleep curled up in that little bed together, purring happily, and Roland watches them adoringly, telling Regina again and again how happy they look, how they saved them, isn’t she glad they saved them.
And yes, she has to admit, she is.
She’s not thrilled at the prospect of their furniture (or their toddler) getting scratched all to hell, but she thinks that she’d have had a hard time not thinking about those little, purring bundles wandering the streets eating trash.
Lydia, as it turns out, loves the kittens. Loves them. Adores them – in an Elmira from Tiny Toons sort of way. Robin and Regina are constantly reminding her Gentle, gentle… We pet, we don’t squeeze…
They’re also constantly reminding the kittens (they’re a boy and a girl, it turns out) to scratch on their new post and not the kitchen chairs. To gnaw on, well, anything but Henry’s fingers or Regina’s hair. To not frolic all over Regina’s legs as she naps on the couch after dinner. They’re lively – damn near manic – when they descend upon their catnip toys.
But Regina has to admit, it’s nice to have company in the wee hours of the morning when she drags herself out of bed to shower and dress. She finds their insistent little mews as she fills their food bowls a cheerful welcome to the world of the waking, enjoys the soft brush of their furry bodies around her ankles as she readies herself for the day post-shower.
And okay, yes, they do make lovely, warm space heaters when they curl themselves into the bend of her knee at night, or crawl up and settle down on her chest, their steady rumbling echoing against her heart.
She catches Robin smiling at her one night, while she scratches Noodles behind his ears, Dumpling’s fluffy form stretched over her thigh.
“What?” she asks him, and Robin’s grin just widens.
“Not a pet person,” he mutters, a hint of mocking in his voice, and she realizes she’s somehow become a veritable cat lady, despite her hesitance to take in these silly little ruffians.
Regina just rolls her eyes, gives Noodles’ ears a little tug, and tells Robin through her grin, “Shut up.”