Rhino finds out first, of course. Mittens has just settled into a high-quality nap when Rhino comes rolling in, so overwrought that he misjudges his momentum and rolls right into her instead of stopping short.
“Ow,” Mittens says, rubbing at her nose. When she opens her eyes, she sees Rhino rocking back and forth in his activity ball, so excited he can’t stay still. “What’s got you all wound up?”
“I just- the answering machine – but Penny said – and there would be no more – but if Bolt went -”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Mittens reaches out to unscrew the bottom of Rhino’s activity ball. It’s ventilated, but when he gets like this, often the tiny holes can’t compensate for Rhino’s excitement and the plastic fogs up. “Take a breath.”
Rhino takes several deep breaths, starts to speak, and then stops himself. “Saying it out loud would make it true.”
“Are you telling me you woke me up so you could not tell me something?” Mittens stands up and stretches, because the nap is gone by now, impossible to recapture. Sometime in between arching her back and stretching her back leg she sees what should have been obvious from the start: that Rhino’s dialed up past his usual high-strung self. “What’s going on? This is more than your usual tizzy.”
“I’m so conflicted,” Rhino says, placing a lot of emphasis on the last word. “It’s bad news and it’s good news all at once! And one is wrapped up in the other and I can’t really separate it so I don’t know how to feel, I just know that I feel so many feelings and it’s just –“
“Spit it out,” Mittens says. “Or I’ll hide your activity ball someplace it’ll take the people forever to find.”
The threat is like most of Mitten’s threats: empty, but somehow still effective.
“Bolt,” Rhino says, and then pauses dramatically before plopping down in an awkward sprawl, “has been canceled.”
“What do you mean canceled? He’s out in the yard with– oh. You mean the show Bolt. I can’t believe you still watch that.”
“Admittedly, it took a sharp dip in quality after Bolt – our Bolt – left, but the show is still very compelling. You’d know that if you ever watched it with me.”
“I don’t need to watch it, I lived it. Once was enough for me.” Mittens watches Rhino let out a long, sad sigh. “I’m sorry, furball. I know you were a big fan.”
“The biggest fan. Ever.”
“Right. But you’ve got other shows, right? Don’t you like that one with the horse judge -“
“Yay or Neigh, the story of Thurgood, a horse blessed with perfect judgment who helps the people and animals around them resolve the conflict in their lives, yes, I am familiar with it,” Rhino says, in a tone that implies that the show is barely worth his time. “I can’t believe there won’t be any more Bolt on Thursday nights.”
“Aside from the Bolt we both live with, you mean.” Mittens says. “Listen, I’m sure there’s something good around the corner. Maybe they’ll come up with a show about, I don’t know, a gerbil who can see the future or something.”
“That would be ridiculous,” Rhino says in a distracted way, and then jumps up so suddenly that his activity ball wobbles. Mittens leans back a bit; it’s like an electric current has run through Rhino, so sudden and complete is his transformation from dejection to excitement. “You are so right Mittens, good things are just around the corner! Are you ready for the greatest news ever in the history of time?”
Mittens shrugs. “Sure.”
Rhino looks disappointed. “I don’t think you’re ready.”
Mittens rolls her eyes. “I’m absolutely positive that I’m ready. What is the big news?”
Rhino steps out of his activity ball, holding out a paw for dramatic effect as he says, “To celebrate the end of the greatest television series of our time, Bolt, they are going to have a reunion special and they want Bolt and Penny – our Bolt and Penny – to participate. Which means that we are going to Hollywood! And we’re going to meet Bolt and Penny! I mean, New Bolt and New Penny. Fictional Bolt and Penny. I’m still trying to figure out what I’m going to call them. Maybe Bolt-and-Penny-Two? But-”
“Whoa, whoa, slow down,” Mittens says, putting aside the rush of anxiety this news brings. “I know you’re excited, but don’t get ahead of yourself. Penny left all that stuff behind. She probably won’t want to go back for this reunion.”
“But she is going back. The was some kind of confirmation about the dates and the hotel and the shooting schedule and – do you think we would all hang out? I can picture it – me, the number one fan, with new Bolt and our Bolt, Penny-Two and our Penny? It would be-“
“Awesome,” Mittens finishes for Rhino, but with none of the excitement he’s mustered.
“Beyond awesome,” Rhino says, in the breathy tone he uses when he’s truly reached the pinnacle of his excitement. The last time Mittens heard it was when Penny upgraded his cage so that he had two habitrails instead of one.
Rhino starts practicing what he’s going to say to the new Bolt out loud, and Mittens knows he’s going to ask her for her opinion, but she can’t quite get herself to pay attention. Too much of herself is taken up by how unsettled this news makes her, unsettled in a way she hasn’t felt in years, maybe since that day in Las Vegas when Bolt turned away from the cardboard box she’d set up for him.
“-and then I’m going to present him with the Bolt model I made out of shavings from my cage. What do you think, Mittens?”
“I think I should have seen this coming,” Mittens says. “I knew this was too good to last.”
“What do you mean?”
Mittens shrugs. “You’ll understand soon enough.”
Mittens comes into the world in an old cardboard box behind an Italian restaurant, one of four kittens and the only one without orange-and-white coloring. Mittens only knows about the alley because her mother tells her about it later, when they’re together in their cage at the shelter. She doesn’t remember much about the kittens that were her siblings, indistinct balls of fur that got removed one by one from the cage. Sometimes one would be placed back in, but most of the time when one of her siblings got picked up, they didn’t come back.
“That’s the trick, getting one of them to pick you up,” Mittens’s mother tells her, as Mittens watches the last of her siblings go out of the room in a grinning young girl’s arms. “Kittenhood is really the sweet spot for cats when it comes to getting snatched up by a person. Grown up cats don’t fare so well.”
“What about you?”
“Me? I’ll be fine,” Mittens’s mother says, after a pause that Mittens will only know the meaning of later. “They’ve got a special program for cats who’ve had kittens. The important thing for you to remember is that this isn’t a place you want to come back to. You find people to take you in, or you find a way to live out there.”
“Why can’t I stay with you?”
“That’s just not the way it goes,” Mittens’s mother tells her, and she won’t go into more detail than that. She goes into detail about other things: how to groom yourself, the importance of keeping a sharp eye, the best places to visit if you end up living on the streets (near a restaurant, away from dogs and well-meaning animal-rescue types).
“But if they want to rescue animals, why should I run away from them?” Mittens asks one day, when her mother had been pressing that particular idea pretty emphatically. She’s the only kitten left with her mother, and so she’s been getting a lot of lectures, but all of the advice seem to center on the same things: stay smart, stay tough, and stay away from the place they’re sitting in right now.
“Their idea of rescue is very different from ours,” Mittens’s mother says, and then turns her head sharply toward the door. Mittens can hear movement on the other side, and knows that soon there will be people in the room, peering into the cages. “Now listen, will you do what I told you?”
Mittens sighs. “I will prance, I will be cute, I will not use the litter box while the people are present.”
“Yes. And you will be well-groomed,” Mittens’s mother says, doing the job for her. Mittens stands still; her mother always gets to the parts of herself Mittens can’t quite reach, like the fur at the back of her neck.
Mittens’s mother pulls away, and Mittens turns in the cage to face her, ready for inspection. She looks up into a face much like her own, only larger; black with white markings, wide green eyes. Mittens’s mother tilts her head, forward, rubs the side of her cheek against Mittens, a rare sign of genuine affection. “You’re a good cat. The only reason you’re still here is because you look like me.”
“What’s wrong with looking like you?”
“Nothing,” Mittens’s mother says. “Some people think black cats are bad luck. It’s not true, of course, but sometimes people are stupid. That’s something you’ll figure out soon enough. “
“If people are stupid, why do you want me to go home with one of them so badly?”
“You’ll understand one day.”
“I hate it when you say that,” Mittens says.
“Kittens always do.”
Mittens avoids Bolt for an entire day, which isn't too difficult; she naps in high places, in the back of closets, and spends most of her time in her favorite hiding place, the crawlspace above the closet off of the front bedroom. She goes down to eat in the middle of the night when she knows Bolt will be sleeping at the foot of Penny's bed, but when she turns into the kitchen, Bolt is sitting in front of her food bowl.
Mittens tenses to run back upstairs, but it's too late; Bolt has seen her. "What's going on, Mittens?"
"Nothing's going on."
"I haven't seen you all day. Are you sick or something?"
"I'm not sick." Mittens steps around Bolt to get to her food bowl. "Haven't you heard that cats are nocturnal creatures?"
"You're avoiding me," Bolt says. "Did I do something to upset you?"
Mittens looks at Bolt, at his curious, worried face, and feels pretty rotten. None of this is Bolt's fault. "You didn't do anything, Bolt."
"I know about the Hollywood thing, okay? About the reunion show, and how you guys are going back there in a few weeks, and this whole – farmhouse experiment thing is going to be over."
Bolt looks at Mittens like she’s sprouted a second head. “What are you talking about?”
Mittens looks at Bolt. “You know about the reunion thing, right?”
“Yeah, I know about it. Penny told me. But it’s just a reunion special because the show’s going off the air, it’s not like we’re going back there forever. This is home, Mittens.”
“For now,” Mittens says. “Not for much longer.”
Bolt shakes his head. “I think you’re being a little paranoid.”
“And I think you’re being a little naïve. Penny’s a teenager now, and it’s been a few years since she left Hollywood, long enough for her to forget the worst of it. And who knows, maybe it is the right thing for her to do. She could probably make a lot of money.”
Bolt is looking at Mittens like she’s lost her mind. “Penny likes it here. And even if she does like Hollywood better, what’s the big deal? You don’t go outside anyway, would it really matter that much if we ended up in LA?”
Mittens looks at Bolt for a long stretch of time. She envies so many things about dogs – how easily people love them, how readily they love their people right back, how they can genuinely instill fear in people in a way cats rarely can. But what she envies most of all is their simple trust in the best version of the world around them.
“That’s the thing, Bolt. I’m not going to LA. People don’t take cats on trips. They stay behind in the house with food and occasional visitors. Remember that time you went camping and I stayed here?”
“I thought you didn’t mind that.”
“Who wants to sleep outside? I’ll never understand that about you dogs and people, why you won’t be grateful for warm surroundings and leave it at that. And anyway, I knew you wouldn’t be camping forever.”
“And we’re not going to be in LA forever. It’s just-“
“A short reunion, I know,” Mittens says, putting all the sarcastic emphasis she can muster on those last two words. “But there’s a good chance Penny isn’t going to want to leave, and you’re going to stay there. Eventually they’ll remember me sitting back here and they’ll find a place for me. Or try to. It’s okay really, you know as much as I do that I can get by on my own.”
“You don’t have to,” Bolt says. “Your place is with us, Mittens. Wherever we go, you’ll come too.”
“I know you believe that, Bolt.” Mittens looks down at her food bowl and finds she’s lost her appetite, decides to go back to her favorite place in the attic. “But I know too much about people to believe anything different.”
“Penny’s not just any people,” Bolt says, following Mittens up the stairs. “She’s our person. She won’t abandon you.”
“She’s your person, Bolt. I don’t belong to anybody, and that’s fine,” Mittens says, and tries to ignore the hurt she sees on Bolt’s expression as she turns and makes a dash up the stairs to safety.
After the fire in the studio, the network executives make sure Penny and Bolt get sent to the best hospital in the area. When they roll Penny and Bolt out of the ambulance, Rhino follows after, rolling into the leg of Penny's mother, who looks down curiously and picks him up.
"What's this?" she says, her voice kind and uncertain. Rhino peers past her to Mittens, who has made her way to the curb but can't get herself to go much further, frozen in place by the people around her. It's not just Penny's mother; there's at least one police officer, a few paramedics, and a doctor who stepped outside to greet them. They're all going through a series of expressions Mittens is too familiar with, first a Hey, what's that cat doing here? narrowing of the eyes, then a questioning look to the people beside them that says, Hey, does she belong to you? Mittens knows what comes next; the baffled shrugs, the well-meaning first steps forward with hands outstretched, and finally the long ride to a cage like the one she left her mother in, one like the one Bolt broke her out of, one she can't count on escaping a third time. Twice is more than most cats get.
And so Mittens does the thing she always does in these situations: she runs. What's different this time is that she runs back. Years on the street have made Mittens a resourceful cat, and so she’s able to find a way into Penny’s hospital room not long after night falls, when they dim the hospital lights to help people sleep. The accompanying shadows allow Mittens to make her way down the hospital hallways slowly without being seen.
When Mittens enters the room, Penny and Bolt are very much the way they were when she last saw them, when they were rolled out of the ambulance into the emergency room. Mittens waits an endless second to see the rise-and-fall of Bolt’s breathing, and then looks over toward the chair where Penny’s mother is sleeping, Rhino’s activity ball resting in her lap with Rhino asleep inside it.
Mittens can go now with a clear conscience, sure that Bolt is all right and Rhino will be looked after – the protective curl of Penny’s mother’s hand around the plastic ball tells her that. Mittens can go back to the hallway, to the street outside, to LA where it never gets cold and there’s sure to be plenty of alleys with dumpsters full of quality food.
But Mittens doesn’t leave. She hops up on the windowsill and looks outside, listening to the low hum of the hospital’s air conditioning, and tells herself she’s coming up with a plan for her future when really she’s not thinking of much at all. She stares out the window long enough to lose track of her surroundings and when she looks over at the bed again, Penny is watching her.
Mittens tenses, readies to run, but before she can, Penny holds up an unsteady hand and says, “Don’t run away.”
Bolt’s head snaps up at Penny’s voice, his ears cocked and alert; when his eyes settle on Mittens, he relaxes and Mittens sees the kind of relief in his expression that she felt earlier, when she saw Bolt curled up next to Penny, safe and healthy.
“I saw you run away when we got here,” Penny says, her voice hoarse. “I wondered where you went.”
Mittens stares at Penny, doesn’t make a move. It’s in a cat’s nature to be mysterious, and Mittens is happy to call upon it in this moment, when some part of her has come alive with a restless feeling that resembles hope. Penny’s unsteady hand and voice make Mittens nervous, and so she turns her attention to Bolt, but that’s not an easy place to rest her eyes either; he’s looking at Mittens like he’s asking her for something, but Mittens doesn’t know what.
“What’s your name?”
Mittens lets her tail curl down and stares at Penny for a long moment, and then Bolt. She finds herself bringing one paw to her mouth, licking the side before passing it over her face. She’s due for grooming anyway.
“Boots. Socks,” Penny says, looking at Mittens with sharp eyes, and Mittens pauses in her grooming, holding her paw meaningfully in mid-air. Finally, Penny gets it. “Mittens.”
Mittens puts her paw down, about to turn and look out the window when her mind registers that the sounds in the hallway have changed, that what was once a quiet hum is now the rattle of wheels and squeak of new sneakers, which means-
“Time to get your vitals,” a nurse wearing purple scrubs says, and for the moment Mittens is safe perched by the window, hidden by the dark night outside, the nurse’s attention on the computer she’s rolling in with her.
Penny holds out her arm toward the nurse at an awkward angle, which Mittens doesn’t understand until she sees how it forces the nurse to turn her back on Mittens, giving Mittens an extra few seconds to settle back into the corner of the window, hidden in shadows as much as possible.
“That doesn’t look comfortable,” the nurse says, and then turns away from the bed more quickly than Mittens had been expecting, giving Mittens no time to jump back into the shadows she’d been hiding in. Mittens can’t even lie to herself about being hidden; the nurse’s expression is familiar, a mixture of surprise and distaste Mittens has seen more times than she can count.
“Oh for the love of – there’s a cat here too?”
“Yes, there’s a cat here too,” Penny says. “Her name is Mittens, and she’s mine. Come here, Mittens.”
Mittens stares down at Penny. The nurse writes down the last of Penny’s vitals and rolls her eyes before leaving the room without shutting the door entirely. Mittens could leave easily; could make it down the hallway to the window propped open for ventilation that she crawled through a little while ago. She should go, because cats don’t come when they’re called even if it is their people calling them. And Penny isn’t her person.
“Come on, Mittens.” Penny pats the bed beside her, and Mittens hears another sound, one that makes her turn her head away from the door and back to the bed.
The sound came from Bolt, who is looking at her with an expression dangerously close to the one she taught him when they went begging for food back in the RV park. Mittens knows that back then it wouldn’t have worked on her, but now, in this moment, after all they’ve been through and the lonely city outside, she feels something inside herself shift.
And so she hops down from the window, pads across the hospital linoleum and jumps up on the bed. But she doesn’t curl up where Penny’s hand had been, against the empty space beside her. Instead, Mittens picks her way across the bed to the small corner near the end that isn’t taken up by Penny’s feet or Bolt’s curled-up body and settles in there, close enough that she can hear his breathing beside her, the way she had so many nights on the road.
Mittens feels something unfamiliar and wonderful, fingers scratching at the back of her neck, right where she can never quite get herself.
“I’m glad you came back.”
The departure day for the trip to Hollywood approaches and all of the signs prove Mittens right – there’s a dog crate by the door, Bolt’s food sectioned off into plastic containers, a long conversation on the phone about how to board a dog on the plane – but every time she looks to Bolt to give him an I Told You So look, expecting to see some kind of chagrin on his face, all she gets is a steadfast look back.
“Not going to admit I was right?” Mittens says the night before the trip, when Penny and her mother spend the whole day packing and repacking and making phone calls to the people in California to figure out their schedule.
“Of course not, because you’re not right,” Bolt says.
“You’re all packed up to go, so is Penny. Even Rhino is going-“
“The only reason he’s going and not you is because he got so sick when we went on that camping trip. Penny and her mother are convinced that he made himself sick out of loneliness for them, and if they’d figured out that what he really missed was his TV, he’d be here with you for the week with his cage by the TV. That’s all the time we’ll be gone, Mittens. A week.”
Mittens gives a one-shouldered shrug and picks up her front paw to do some grooming. “Why are you so worried about all this, Bolt? I’m fine. I’ve accepted how things are going to go, and I’m going to be okay.”
“You believe that after tomorrow you’re never going to see me – or Penny or Rhino or any of us – and you’re fine with it?” Bolt asks, his voice reaching ridiculous octaves by the end.
“I’ll be okay,” Mittens says, with confidence she doesn’t really feel. “I’m a tough cat. You know that.”
“Will you let me groom in peace?”
Bolt stares at Mittens for a long moment and then walks away, his strides slow and awkward. He looks over his shoulder at Mittens once, and Mittens pretends not to notice, but she does.
She thinks of that look later, when she’s curled up in the crawlspace above the front bedroom closet. Usually Mittens sleeps curled up on the carpet outside of Penny’s bedroom, where she can hear Penny’s voice on late-night calls to her friends and Bolt’s half-snores, where the sound of Rhino’s hamster wheel a floor below carries clearly up the stairs and the low hum of Penny’s mother’s TV floats in the background.
Mittens doesn’t expect to sleep, but she does, and so the night passes quickly. One minute Mittens is watching the clouds pass by the moon outside; the next she’s listening to a trunk slam far below. Mittens glances out the window and sees Penny’s mother walking back toward the house, checking her watch. Mittens perks her ears up; now she can hear the rest of the house, most particularly Penny’s voice, which is calling her name.
She makes her way to the edge of the crawlspace and listens, hears Penny’s voice getting closer, and feels something annoyingly like hope spring up. Maybe she’s coming to pack her up. Maybe she’s coming with her. Maybe-
“There you are.” Penny’s face appears. Her hair is back in a ponytail and she looks relieved, and reaches out to pet Mittens, running a hand over her head and down her back. “I knew you’d be up here in your secret hiding space. You know something weird’s going on, huh?”
Mittens turns her head so that Penny will scratch the side of it, and Penny does. Penny is good about things like that. She lets Mittens slink away when she doesn’t want to be petted and gives Mittens extra treats after her mother has put the box away; she’ll watch Mittens eat her dinner and write down on a note by the fridge which types of canned foods Mittens likes and which she doesn’t.
Penny’s mother’s voice carries up, distant but distinct. “Penny, it’s time to go. Did you find Mittens?”
“She’s up here,” Penny says. “She’s fine.”
Penny stares at Mittens for a long moment, and Mittens stares right back. She knows people don’t really understand animals the way animals understand people, but sometimes in moments like this one the gap seems like it might be bridged. Maybe Penny can see what Mittens won’t admit to herself – that she doesn’t want to stay here by herself. That Penny is her person. That she’s not really as tough as she should be.
Maybe Penny does. She looks a little sad, and a little sorry, and so Mittens knows what’s coming before she says it, but she still feels disappointed. “I’ve got to go. I’ll be back soon, okay?”
Penny pats Mittens on the head twice more, and as Mittens turns to walk away, she scratches at the fur at the back of her neck, another of those things Penny’s good at. If Mittens gets another person, it might not be the type of person who would know to do that.
Mittens goes to the edge of the crawlspace, and she can hear Bolt barking, hear the click of his paws on the hardwood floors, the awkward slide when he takes a corner too sharply, and then suddenly he’s there, right below her, looking up.
“Bolt, what are you-“
“You’re coming with us,” Bolt says, a little out of breath. “Whoa. I need to start exercising more, those stairs were tougher than they should have been.”
“I’m not coming with you. Penny already came and said good-bye, it’s all set. Now don’t worry about it, I’ll be fine.”
“I know you’ll be fine, Mittens. You’re a smart cat, you’re a tough cat, et cetera et cetera,” Bolt says, and behind his voice Mittens can hear the confused voices of Penny and her mother trying to find him. “But what I’ve been thinking is, even though I’m absolutely certain that I’m right about Penny and we’ll be back right away, what if something goes differently? What if I end up out in LA, in this new city with all these new people, how am I going to figure out how things work out there?”
“You’ll be fine,” Mittens says. “You hitchhiked across the country when you delusionally thought you were a superdog.”
“I handled that because I was with you.” Bolt’s ears perk up and he turns back toward the hallway. “I hear them coming. I’ll have to bark for a bit, but eventually they’ll figure it out. They’ll have to, because I’m not leaving without you.”
Bolt starts barking, and within seconds Penny and her mother are standing in the doorway, Penny’s mother looking puzzled, Penny looking strangely relieved. “I think Bolt wants Mittens to come along.”
Penny’s mother twists her hands together. “Honey, you can’t take cats on plane rides. Mittens will be just fine here.”
“But Bolt will miss her. I’ll miss her,” Penny says, reaching up. Mittens lets herself be picked up and cuddled close to Penny’s body. “I think she should come along.”
“Well, all right, but we’d better hurry,” Penny’s mother says, and within minutes Mittens finds herself in the backseat beside Bolt, listening to Penny and her mother argue over the radio station loud enough to drown them out.
“You’re going to have to accept it eventually, Mittens,” Bolt says.
“That you’re stuck with us,” Rhino says, from his cage on the floor.
“It’s the truth,” Bolt says. “For better or for worse.”
“It’s mostly been the better with you, Bolt,” Mittens says, after a long stretch of watching the scenery pass by outside, when she’s pretty sure Bolt’s fallen asleep. She puts her head down on her paws and closes her eyes, lets the sounds of those around her - Penny and her mother's conversation, Rhino running on his wheel, Bolt's even breathing beside her - lull her to sleep.