Standing outside the kitten room at the animal shelter, Jane fiddled with the three twenty dollar bills in her jacket pocket. The kittens hadn’t been her first stop. When she’d arrived, she went straight to the older cats. Her plan was to adopt a cat nobody else wanted, who was blind, maybe, or had three legs but a heart of gold. But the adult cats were sluggish, not even glancing at her as she tapped the glass with her fingers. She wasn’t proud of how quickly she gave up on them, but her regret dissolved the second she saw the kittens. Each desperate to be chosen, dozens of kittens with the same hopeful eyes pawed at the glass with the same tiny paws. She stood there for an hour and a half, shaking her head politely whenever an employee asked her if she needed help.
In the end, Jane picked the kitten who had thrown its jet black body most fiercely at the glass. She paid the person behind the front desk forty-five dollars, and they handed her a large grey crate containing a small black kitten. As she walked out of the shelter, Jane muttered an apology to the animals she was leaving behind. When Jane remembered an article she’d read about people buying black cats on Halloween just to torture them, she felt a little better. Maybe she was doing the right thing to do after all.
On the car ride home, she named the kitten Inky. Every couple of seconds, she glanced down into the crate to make sure he was still there.
The day before, Jane had bought all the necessary supplies from the pet store. She consulted lists: ten things every cat owner needs, twelve products to avoid when adopting a cat, fifteen cool gadgets that cats love. She ended up spending five hundred dollars. The cat tree that now towered in the corner of her living room became her largest and most expensive item of furniture.
Back at her apartment, Jane double-checked her supplies before carefully unlatching the door. For one sickening moment, she saw no movement from the form in the back of the crate. Then, tentatively, the kitten walked towards her and pressed his head against her hand. His fur was impossibly soft against her skin. His small wet nose bumped against her wrist. Jane burst into tears.
Her sobs surprised herself almost as much as the cat, who darted under the couch and wouldn’t come out until the next morning.
The following week, on the phone with her mother, Jane couldn’t decide whether to tell her about Inky.
“Mom, I have some news,” she said, immediately wishing she didn’t sound so formal. “What? What happened?”
“Nothing bad, mom, don’t panic. I got a cat.”
Jane heard a long sigh from the other line.
“Jane, honey, are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“Yeah? I mean, yeah. I’m sure.” Anxiety flickered in her voice.
“Okay, that’s fine. I just want to make sure you’re prioritizing building a social network.” Jane felt hot tears sting her eyes. “Yeah, mom. Got it.” Her mother’s tone, syrupy with concern, reminded her of being the child picked last for every playground sport.
Perhaps out of spite for her mother, or perhaps to prove her point, Jane and Inky became inseparable. Jane fell asleep every night with him curled against the crook of her arm, and she woke up every morning to his meow for breakfast. She arranged to work from home full-time, adoring the way Inky always tried to lay on her keyboard. Jane’s phone became full of pictures and videos of Inky lounging in the sun, Inky twitching in his sleep, Inky ignoring his cat tree in favor of a cardboard box. Jane held a birthday party for him every year. She read him poetry. She told him more of her secrets than she had ever told another person, which was a low bar to surpass.
The only time Jane left Inky alone was when she went to the grocery store every Thursday morning, so the only time he could have left the apartment was the same time she did. But she hadn’t seen him slip out. How could she not have seen him? Jane’s knuckles went white against the handle of the shopping cart. She let go of it suddenly, hearing the thump as it hit the trunk of her car.
Inky was an inside cat. She had done the research when she got him, years ago now, and the verdict was that outside cats have catastrophic effects on local bird populations, not to mention the risk to themselves of being attacked by coyotes, or getting hit by a car. Oh god, getting hit by a car. Jane wracked her memories of leaving her apartment this morning. She couldn’t imagine how he could have slipped past her, how he could have gotten through the lobby, but there he was across the street from the Safeway parking lot, so how it happened didn’t really matter, did it? She ran towards him, ignoring the crosswalk.
Oh god, he doesn’t even have a collar, she realized. She had never thought to get him a collar. Her heart twisted with guilt. What if something had happened to him? She dismissed that thought and reached into her jacket pocket. Breathing a sigh of relief, she withdrew a handful of half-stale cat treats. She knelt, only feet away from Inky now, and held out her hand. Inky blinked his yellow eyes at the cars passing by. Jane uttered a silent prayer.
A few stomach-churning moments later, Inky sauntered over and ate the treats out of Jane’s hand. She picked him up gently, her hands shaking, and walked down the block to the crosswalk. She felt her heartbeat in her fingers as she touched his velvety ears, his dainty paws, the crook in his tail. The sound of his steady purr reverberated through her like an echo through an empty cave.
Jane unloaded her groceries sloppily and sped home. She hugged Inky to her chest as she climbed the stairs to her apartment. When she shut the front door behind him, she slumped against the wall and sat there until her heartbeat slowed. Then she went back to her car and brought up her bags.
Later that afternoon, as she was preparing herself a cup of tea, she saw Inky sitting at the top of the cat tree. She grinned.
“It’s been three years and now you start liking the cat tree?” she said, reaching up to scratch under his chin. He purred in response.
“Honestly, you are a cat who contains multitudes,” she continued, still smiling. “I’d like you to use your words to tell me exactly how you got out. No, actually, tell me why! Do you not love me any—”
Something was touching her leg. Something soft was touching her leg. She closed her eyes, counted to ten, and then looked down.
Inky looked up at her from the floor, and another Inky looked down at her from the cat tree. The floor Inky flicked his ears and hopped onto a fleecy limb of the tree. Jane watched, horrified, as the identical cats greeted each other.
Oh, she thought.
She sat down heavily.
It should have been simple. One of the cats was hers and one of them was somebody else’s. It should have been simple, and she knew that, and she muttered it to herself over and over. Inky was the creature she knew best in the world, and yet here she was calling in sick from work to spend her day trying to recognize him. Every time she thought she had identified the stranger, a wave of anxiety crashed over her. One cat seemed to answer to Inky’s name, but Inky didn’t usually listen to her when she called him, so what did that mean? Above all, the fear that she would cast out the wrong cat was crippling. She couldn’t bear the thought of betraying Inky more than she already had.
That night, Jane put one serving of cat food into a soup bowl and one into a metal bowl labeled ‘Inky.’ She watched them scarf down their food in tandem. She glared at the cat eating from Inky’s bowl. Or maybe glared at Inky. The coppery taste of blood hit her tongue, and she realized she was biting her lip.
That night, Jane shut both cats out of her room. She fell asleep easily, exhausted from worry. In her dream, she was sitting on top of the cat tree. The door to her apartment was wide open, and one after another, a line of identical black cats marched out of it. She called out to them, but they didn’t turn their heads. Every time she tried to step off the cat tree, it grew farther and farther away from the ground.
The next morning, Jane awoke to a duet of cries for breakfast. It sounded, for a second, like the two cats harmonized, and Jane smiled. Suddenly, the solution seemed obvious. She let out a sigh of relief as she stood up.
The cats wove around her feet as she left her room. She ignored them, putting on a jacket and flip flops and walking out the door.
On the way back from the pet store, a second set of food and water bowls in hand, she spotted someone stapling a sign to a telephone pole. She didn’t take a closer look. The next time her mother called, Jane told her she made a new friend.