The day after his divorce is finalized, Kevin stretches out of a depressed stupor masquerading as sleep and realizes he has a tail. That he’s, apparently, turned into a cat overnight. If the bathroom mirror can be believed, he’s turned into a ridiculous looking cat, with thick, short black fur and a white mustache.
Kevin mrrows at his reflection, jumps off the sink and goes back to bed.
Joe finds him three days later with his head stuck in a box of Corn Pops.
He says, “Dude, Kev,” in this really sad voice Kevin’s never heard him use before, and then he scritches behind Kevin’s ears. Kevin absently pushes into his palm and listens while he calls Nick.
Nick had turned into a turtle for two weeks after Miley dumped him.
When Joe was five, his best friend moved to Japan and he’d sulked as a scarlet macaw for an entire month.
Joe calls Nick and says, “I’m at Kevin’s,” and “We’re gonna need a litter box.”
Kevin is tired.
Kevin sprawls out on the patio, following the path of the sun, stones almost too hot under his fur. The slight breeze tickles his whiskers. He slits his gaze to watch a line of ants march out of one crack and down into another. He rolls onto his back to warm his belly.
Kevin rouses when the sun dips behind the house. He sits up and starts licking his tail before he can think better of it, and then he tucks it over his paws, cracks a yawn and blinks at the closed sliding glass door.
He’s hungry, he thinks, and wonders how long it’ll take before Joe realizes he’s still outside, and that’s when he spots the big tom staring at him from across the yard. He’s red-brown and rangy, with wide-set, yellow-green eyes.
Kevin stays where he is, but a line of fur bristles down the middle of his back.
The tom stays where he is, but the tip of his tail flicks back and forth, agitated.
The slider makes a soft popping sound as it opens, and Kevin darts inside.
The next day, it pours.
Kevin sits on the kitchen windowsill and stares at the rainwater snaking down the pane of glass. His nose is cold. He settles into a smaller shape, tucks his legs into his chest, and thinks about moving to the afghan on the couch.
He twitches his ears forward. In the distance, lightning flashes.
It’s overcast, and Kevin pads over the patio, dodging puddles, until he finds a spot that’s been dried by the weak morning sun. He licks droplets off his fur, his side, down his chest, the inside of his legs, the underside of his paws – he gnaws in between his claws, just because it feels good.
He only absently takes in the background song of birds until they’re chittering louder and annoyed, and he glances up and sees the tom again. Closer, but still far. He’s in the damp grass. He’s lying down, but all his muscles are tensed, and a robin’s lit on the edge of the birdbath, watching him.
The tom looks over at Kevin, blinks. A sharp whistle pierces the air, and then he’s twisted onto his feet and trotting away.
Nick brings Elvis over and Kevin hides under the bed.
It’s not that he doesn’t like Elvis, but Elvis is big and smelly and slobbery and he doesn’t know what Kevin is, so he just barks in his face and chases him around the room.
Nick sits down with his back up against the bed frame. He says, “It’s been over two weeks, Kev,” and Kevin reaches out and paws at the back of Nick’s hand, resting flat on the rug.
Two weeks are nothing, he wants to say. Two weeks are nothing compared with three years of marriage. Two years of happiness, followed by uncertainty and confusion, heartache and resignation.
Kevin kneads into the carpet, claws flexing, fibers ripping. He kneads until he realizes Nick’s hand is warm on his back and something deep inside of him is purring.
Kevin hears him before he sees him. He’s curled into a circle, toes touching. The air shifts behind him and his ears twitch. There’s soft breathing, and Kevin tenses for an attack.
He gets a nose between his ears.
He gets a heavy paw on his shoulder and a rough tongue.
He gets aggressively groomed, raspy licks over his head and ears, and Kevin relaxes into it and closes his eyes and rolls over and shoves at the tom’s chest when he starts using his teeth.
He’s bigger than Kevin, though, and he flops down nearly on top of him, front leg up against his throat, and opens his mouth up on the back of Kevin’s neck, ears back, giving him a stay still growl.
Kevin doesn’t like it. He twists out of his hold and bats at his head, a fast one-two swipe with no claws.
The tom flinches back and hisses and then takes off for the fence.
Kevin feels a laugh bubble up from inside that comes out as a weird chirrup, and he suddenly wishes his cat-face could smile.
Kevin has never been over the fence before. He has trouble with heights, but he eyes the top of the wooden slats and bunches his muscles together and jumps. He totters on the top, balanced precariously, and then he hops down on the other side before he can fall.
On the other side is a house. And a backyard that’s bigger than Kevin’s, with long, unkempt grass, and Kevin slinks low across the lawn. He has no idea what he’s doing there.
He has no idea until he reaches the raised porch behind the house, and yellow-green eyes glow out at him from the dim-dark underneath.
At high noon, Kevin is back-to-back with the tom on the deck. The red wood smells old and dry.
There’s a guy with long legs sprawled in a folding chair, one flip-flop on, the other dangling from his toes. He’s got a beer and sunglasses and a grin. He calls the tom, “Mike,” and he says, “So this’s why,” in a lazy, amused voice.
Kevin shifts a paw over his eyes.
Kevin likes Mike’s house.
They play music and let him inside and give him tuna and milk, even when Mike-the-cat isn’t there.
There’s another Mike. And a Michael Guy and a Bill, and Kevin likes when Michael Guy picks him up and drapes him over his shoulder, and he likes when Mike-the-guy scratches under his chin and lets him curl up on his lap. He has short, messy hair and big hands. He calls Kevin’s purr his motor and he pets him rougher than anyone else, but in ways that don’t hurt at all.
Kevin bares his tummy.
Mike laughs and says, “Come on, mister,” and cradles him under his arm like a football as he gets to his feet. He sets Kevin down outside and closes the door. Kevin stares up at the nickel-plated knob, stunned.
Kevin sits there for a full minute, upset, strangely bereft, before the door opens again and Mike-the-cat slips out. He nudges Kevin with his head, rubs his whole body along his side, then saunters toward the steps that lead down into the yard.
Joe dangles a piece of string and Kevin tracks it with his eyes.
It’s been over a month. Kevin likes being a cat. He likes how he doesn’t have to worry about anything except when his next nap should be, and if it’s raining outside.
Kevin lashes out and catches Joe’s fingers along with the string. Joe yelps, lets go, and Kevin feels smug, string tangled up in his paws.
Mike-the-cat is being standoffish. He’s sitting on the coffee table, and Kevin’s perched on the recliner and Michael Guy is playing the guitar.
Kevin is torn between watching Michael Guy and watching Mike, fur rankled, yellow-green eyes narrowed, tail twitching over the wooden edge.
Mike’s ears flick back, flat against his skull.
Michael Guy sings a soft song, slumped low in a corner of the sofa, head tilted back onto the arm. He hums the words he doesn’t know.
Kevin misses his guitar. He misses his fingers, he misses his voice. He doesn’t know if that’s enough.
The linens in the spare bedroom don’t smell like Dani anymore. He burrows down into the pillows, but there’s only Joe and Downy and pine from the dresser drawers.
He stays there all afternoon. He stays curled up, as small as he can, until he hears Nick calling for him from the kitchen.
“Your friend’s here,” Nick says, and Kevin sees Mike with his legs stretched along the sliding glass door, one paw poised, up, pupils huge as his head jerks, following a moth.
Moths and crickets and fireflies.
Kevin cries at the door until Nick lets him out.
“You like being a cat, don’t you?” Mike says. He’s on a lounger on the deck, sunglasses pushed up on top of his head. His nose is sunburned.
Kevin walks up his chest and butts at his chin, because that’s a stupid question.
Mike frowns at him, but runs a palm the wrong way down his spine, ruffling fur, then slowly smoothes it out again.
A squirrel chases Kevin up the old oak tree. He doesn’t know how he got up there, he’d moved so fast, and he definitely doesn’t know how he’s going to get down. He hunches into the elbow of a thick branch and tries not to think about how high up he is, and how much falling would suck. His claws bite into the bark so hard all the muscles in his forelegs throb. His heart is jackhammering, his tail thick with bristled fur.
Distantly, he hears Mike meowing and he hears Joe’s voice. Joe calls Mike, “Red,” and asks him where Kevin is.
Kevin’s afraid to make a sound, like that’ll knock him off-balance.
Mike howls, and Joe says, “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me,” and Kevin isn’t sure how much time passes before he feels hands encircling his body.
Joe tugs, because Kevin has trouble letting go.
He gives Joe a few dozen scratches before they finally make it down to the ground, and he refuses to retract his nails from Joe’s shirt until he’s safely inside.
Mike watches him balefully through the glass door. When Kevin can breathe again, he sits there watching him back.
Mike leaps for the deck railing and misses. He scrambles for a grip with his front claws and slides backwards, fumbling mid-air, knocking over a potted tomato plant before landing on all four feet, fur sticking straight up, ears back, tail frozen in a weird, kinky curve, eyes dark and wide. And then he blinks and sits primly and licks at his paws and acts like nothing happened while Bill laughs so hard he chokes and starts coughing.
Kevin is watching from the top step. He doesn’t think they see him. Mike gets up and weaves figure eights around Bill’s legs. Bill, still laughing, reaches down to scratch his back, and Mike arches his spine, pushing up into his hand.
It suddenly hits Kevin that he’s ridiculously content. There’s a warmth in his chest that he hasn’t felt for a very long time. He thinks, All right, I’m done now.
Kevin doesn’t want to nap in the sun. Mike slits lazy eyes at him, tail flicking up once, then down again. Kevin stands over him and licks at his ears, then licks in earnest when Mike starts purring, down over the slope of his nose, the softer patch of fur under his chin.
Kevin wants hands. He wants fingers, he wants opposable thumbs, and he wants to talk and walk upright and eat cereal with a spoon.
Mike rolls over and pushes at Kevin with his hind legs and bats at the side of his head, and Kevin hops a little to avoid his claws.
Mike says go away I’m sleeping with his boneless sprawl and his front paws still poised for attack.
Kevin doesn’t want to sleep anymore.
Kevin can’t settle. He curls into a ball on Mike-the-guy’s lap, then gets up and gives a half-turn and sits again, only to start all over a minute later.
Mike cups a hand over his skull, fingers heavy, but he doesn’t say anything. He’s got a magazine in one hand and his toes are tapping a fast-fast-slow rhythm, like Kevin’s restlessness is feeding his own.
Finally, Mike pushes him onto the floor.
Kevin blinks, disgruntled. There’s a growl at the bottom of his throat.
Mike is unimpressed. He just looks down at him, expression stony, and says, “If you want to do something, little man, go do it.”
Approximately two and a half months after Kevin’s divorce is finalized, he wakes up in the linen closet without a tail. He flexes his fingers and his back feels weird and his balance is wobbly at first when he stands up. He skin is tight around his mouth and eyes.
He brushes his teeth and gets dressed and goes downstairs for breakfast and Joe almost drops a plate, gives a fist-pump and a joyful shout. He rings one arm around Kevin’s neck and grins into his cheek.
“Welcome back,” he says.
Kevin has to swallow a few times before he can say, “Thanks.”
Nick has to practically push him up the steps.
The house looks smaller. The deck creaks ominously under his feet. He walks slowly toward the door, rubs damp palms on his jeans.
He looks back at Nick, who just makes a face at him and crosses his arms. No running away.
Kevin clears his throat and knocks.
Mike is taller than him by a good two inches, and looks scarier than he did when Kevin was only a foot off the ground.
His frown is a scowl when Kevin says, “Hi,” and, “I’m Kevin,” and offers him a hand. And then he stares down at their palms pressed together, like he’s not sure how that happened - he stares until his scowl smoothes into a frown and he cocks his head curiously and invites him inside.
Bill says, “You look familiar,” and taps a long finger on his bottom lip.
Michael Guy smiles at him.
Mike squeezes his hand before letting him go.
The ball of nerves in the pit of Kevin’s stomach dissolves in a spread of warmth. Kevin’s sure he’s blushing, but he’s sure he doesn’t care.
Kevin goes back to work and Nick and Joe go home and Kevin dances when he makes dinner and eats an entire bowl of mac and cheese in front of the TV.
He hates wearing shoes. He climbs the old oak tree and sits in the elbow of a fat branch and thinks about how it’s not so high up, not really.
He sees Mike standing on the deck next door and waves.
Mike waves back.
Michael Guy is playing his guitar and the sun is high and Kevin is half asleep before he realizes it, sprawled out on his stomach on a beach towel, the deck hard underneath him. He stirs when someone nudges his shoulder and he curls onto his side, bringing one hand up to cover his eyes, the sun turning the insides of his lids red.
There’s a hand on his waist, under the hem of his shirt. Calloused fingers, thumb rubbing over the base of his spine – Kevin moves into the touch with a sigh.
“Like a cat, man,” Bill says, and Mike laughs, breath ghosting Kevin’s ear.