We found Atún with her back to the bushes, peeking out the front of a law firm for car accidents so common in late December. I crouched to her level, my hand outstretched, while my friend shook his head at her open mouth, claiming, “She doesn’t like you.” She raised her paw, and I drew closer, fingertips tapping on her chocolate head as her whiskers curled like dancing anemones. I had nothing but a box and a blue felt blanket to rival the securities of the bushes out front. Sam, who wasn’t too enthused about cats, volunteered to pick up some albacore tuna while I coaxed her into my home.
I already had a large Tupperware and magazine clippings littered with headlines reminding us of human irresponsibility. Atún didn’t need to be carried inside. She followed as I walked to my apartment across the law firm, her modest yelps rising in frequency as I opened the door for her to dash down the hall. She jerked away as I kneeled to pick her up, but continued to follow in linear resolution as I opened the door, spread the magazine clippings, and watched her dive into the Tupperware, the sting of ammonia accentuating the ridiculousness of global diplomacy.
Atún offered a paw to me, and I cocked my head, bewildered by her dainty assertiveness. Chunks of hair missing at the tail and abdomen, I knew she lived as a yard cat, caught in rocks with paws caked in rain’s hot mud. Sam sent me a text, asking me if I needed anything besides tuna and beef giblets drenched in gravy. I told him “No,” clicked Record on my phone, and sat on my couch as my new friend stared at each closet door, suspicious, yet somehow mocking of what hung within. I sensed she would smirk at my neon hoodies, while reaching for a scarf the same dark green as her ever-dilating eyes.
She looked like my cousin, Joni. The one who died when I was eight as she walked home from school, face obscured by a fish mask she made four hours earlier while her class celebrated Halloween. Joni was playful, though tiresome, earning her mother’s ire for eating sugar by the spoon and peeling the leather off old sofas. I didn’t know her, didn’t dislike her, but thought of those green eyes, blinded by white construction paper as she died on impact.
The day Joni left, she wore a raincoat. Sticky and tan like the insides of tuna sandwiches she refused to eat, the cheap plastic stung, tugging her fine arm hairs. My aunt told my mother that she didn’t know what to do, that she’d seen the little girl rip the raincoat off, draping it across her shoulders as she played with the kids at the bus stop.
“I buy her these nice clothes, things the other children don’t have. And she throws it back in my face. It’s like I know nothing. I’ve done nothing, you know?” I recognized my aunt by her splotched skin, banana peel bruised from the lightest pinch.
“She’s just a little girl. And how can you blame her? It’s been hot too long, and as much as she sweats with that raincoat on, she’s practically a Zika magnet.” My mother rolled her eyes, knowing she was likely the only saved contact on her sister’s phone.
Calls from my aunt were a daily occurrence, complaints about Joni met with my mother’s weak murmuring. Joni refused to do simple things. Instead of writing her name in class, she scratched at her paper the way cats depart their litter boxes. She abandoned her shoes on the muddied doormat, and cinnamon footprints sprinkled the bathtub each time she wriggled from the grasp of itchy socks. Joni pointed to lizards scurrying across the bathroom floor when faced with her tracks, her mother’s doormat a stage for parents to complain about their children’s stolen art projects.
Joni’s drawings wilted like her penmanship. Creations in the classroom claimed no place at home, and pretty things stayed pretty, even if drawn by other people’s crayons.
The mask Joni wore the day she left drooped at the sides, edges uneven. Nests of green and blue paraded across the paper, a sharply curved “J” suggesting the mask was rightfully worn. Joni’s work was done, though her mother’s reprimands lingered.
The day Joni left, she forgot to make her bed. Again. That’s what witnesses heard. And under that bed were tuna sandwiches made the week before, sagging and turning several shades darker in oversized Ziploc bags.
I pressed Zoom as Atún stepped forward, nose wriggling, chipped teeth shining, and the pink of her tongue flickered across dark kohl lips. It was humid, and my feet lacked socks. Her mouth opened wider, Jacobsen’s organ in action as she inched closer. Her widening eyes reached the corners of the phone screen. I then lost track of her altogether, claws digging into new microfiber, the wetness of her nose tickling the balls of my callused feet.
I perspired all over, though one paw reached out over the other, clasping my right foot as Atún scraped my strained toes. Her purr was almost a growl, and I craned my neck towards the window, wondering when Sam would come back. Atún was hungry and I was perturbed, avoiding her dilated pupils as I closed my own eyes, imagining that I was sitting in one of those parlors that, while banned in the United States, provided much relief for friends who studied abroad, the ones who sent me photos of the tiniest creatures nibbling their feet hours before a night at the clubs. “Poor little fish,” my friend Aubrey typed. They lit the pool of water like dragonflies hovering in a double helix. She sent me a shot of the finished product, smooth bottomed feet that she’d soon regret, as she was a dancer and often shunned shoes.
With a sharpened claw, husk ready to fall, Atún parted my big toe from the rest, burying her nose into the sweatiest crevice. I noticed her darkness, lit by translucent strands of auburn down her legs. According to some superstition, cats of dark shades are omens of gold. I remembered this as I glanced at the pile of medical bills still unpaid, expenses unexpected as I never anticipated food poisoning the month before, nor a ten-minute ride in an ambulance that cost a good one thousand dollars or more. I leaned back into the couch as Atún continued to lick, tail shifting side to side like fish in the pond I photographed on morning walks.
“Joni,” I whispered weakly. The life of Atún’s hungry eyes reminded me of life lost too soon. Legs still outstretched, I leaned forward to examine Atún’s paws. She recoiled, hiding her claws well beneath her mane. I wanted to guess how old she was by the thickness of her nails, the splits in her curved husks. I was told outdoor cats typically live to be ten, sometimes twelve. We lost Joni fifteen years ago.
Sam sent me another text. “Traffic’s a mess. Give me twenty minutes.” I said this was okay, realizing that the sweat on my skin filled the cat well, at least for another hour. A sticky film covered the toes on my right foot, waterproofing them from the rain outside. Mud tracks adorned the concrete floor, in semi-circles, smudges, and broad diagonals. Atún made her intentions clear. This is my home, you are my host, and if you give me away through a Craigslist ad, you’ll be sure to regret it.
Her teeth grated against my big toe, shaving the yellow off poorly moisturized skin. For twenty dollars—box, blanket, Tupperware, and food on the way—I related to my friends adventuring abroad. But my pedicurist was to stay, for as long as life allowed.
Again, I thought of superstition, and whatever little things I knew about reincarnation. If Atún was really Joni, was Joni once a tiny fish, nibbling away in a maritime salon? Did the fish return as Joni, or the other way around? Atún growled, keeping my right foot still.
When not writing web content for small businesses, Kristine Brown makes the most of old magazines through mixed media art. She prefers her pancakes without syrup and takes photos of neighborhood cats featured on her blog, Crumpled Paper Cranes (https://crumpledpapercranes.com). Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Hobart, Vending Machine Press, Eunoia Review, Burningword Literary Journal, among others. Scraped Knees, her first collection of poetry and flash prose, was released in early 2017 through Ugly Sapling.