by Kirby Hobley
Get straggled along after the other little cats jumbling down the path.
“Don’t stray!” the line leader reminded. “It’s dangerous,” she threatened.
But the evening wind was whipping at his fur in fits and starts. It bothered his whiskers and tousled his thoughts. He itched to let it blow him up into the treetops.
Get was afraid of nothing and the forest believed him. It wiggled, promising mischief, so, without a moment of consideration, he disappeared into its tangles.
The forest was pleased to have a willing subject and slathered its affection on him. It worked its sappy fingertips into his fur and tickled his heart with prickling heights and creeping shadows.
Get brushed and snorted on every leaf. He combed through branches with his teeth. He dripped from boughs and laid at the forest’s dirty feet like a fog.
Then Get saw the lights beyond the forest for the first time and his eyes grew. His dusty fur buzzed in rippling twitches.
The lights sat fixed. Small ones slid along straights and scurried between a weave of shadows. The lights glittered in pinks and yellows, a spray of stars set into the earth.
He bent down the little white butterfly in his neck and straightened his spine to stand on hind legs. He stretched his legs longer and longer until he was tall enough to see over the brush, through the trees, and out into the night.
He stood still to let his eyes soak up all they could reach, then he flew off after the lights.
They were set in glass and stone, metal and brick. Windows and archways and roads and streets and walls. They bobbed on the trains and cars trickling through the night. The passengers and pedestrians shimmered with the collective illumination of their belonging, against which Get cast a heavy shadow. He crept in between, enthralled by the finely shaped forms that carried shimmering faces past.
Get clung along the shadowy trunks of trees half-buried under pavement. He wandered away from the lights into the calming dark of a narrow, tile-paved alley. It fed into a quiet courtyard warmed by the close breath of broad-leaved trees.
Get stopped when he noticed the figures. He caught a gleam of dark eyes and sharp, smiling teeth.
A boy with a short, murky mess of curls leaned against a brick wall behind a small group. They were lazily kicking a ball between themselves. The others seemed to ignore the boy but they oriented themselves around him as though they laid leashes, flopping limply at his feet and waited for him to pick them up as he pleased. Get’s fur shivered into its ends.
Get silently leaped onto the top of the wall, eyes focused on the boy. He crouched and crept closer. He saw something shining in the boy’s eyes and twitching like insects beneath the boy’s calculated languor and he couldn’t look away.
Before he knew what he was doing, Get’s excitement pulled him down off the wall with a howl shrieking out of his throat. He tackled and grabbed ahold of the boy’s leg with his teeth, lamely scratching at him with back claws he no longer had.
The boy missed half a beat to shock then smashed his fists furiously into Get’s head. The pain smacked him with an awareness of himself and let got of his prey, unsure. The others were fleeing but the boy had no such inclination. He sized up his attacker, panting and sure of himself.
Get studied the boy’s hands and eagerly stretched his clawed pads into fingered fists. The boy lunged, slamming Get to the ground and pinning his arms. Robbed of his new fists, Get craned his neck over and grabbed the boy’s forearm with his teeth. The boy yelled and relented. Get let go and wriggled out from under as the boy inspected his injured arm.
The boy, still on straddled knees, seemed more tired than angry now. He looked at Get and gave a little exhale.
“What are you?” the boy demanded.
Get tried to answer but could only make a yowling garble. He quieted immediately, ashamed he couldn’t speak with such delicacy. The boy rose to his feet and smiled. Het let him approach until he saw the glint of intention under the smile, a moment too late. As get turned to escape, the boy’s hands grabbed the cat’s tail with a yank. In a burst of caterwauling desperation, Get jerked forward, his tail ripping off in the boy’s grip, and bolted into the night.
Get skittered across roofs, outrunning his shame and pain and desperation. When he felt he had gained a good distance on them, he huffed and slowed. He slid down into the outstretched shadows of a treetop.
Heady pollen twinkled on the breeze to tease his nose. Below him, a sprawling garden framed a canal littered with people out amongst evening. His tail slipped from his mind as he watched them, eyes glittering from form to face until they were pulled to a tall girl standing beside a bridge.
Her skin was so dull, light seemed completely indifferent toward her. Was she from somewhere else too? Though, her shadow wasn’t as thick and heavy as his.
Her bearing seemed to press up against something. She wasn’t alone. Her face was set in measured appraisal as she stood listening to a boy rendered forgettable in contrast. The girl held her gaze with the same brightness as everyone else Get had seen in the city. Little cracks of honest worry undermined the controlled affect of his face. The boy gave a slight bow and gently touched her arm before walking away.
Get slinked over to a closer tree and wished to be the wind as her pale hair fluttered in the breeze. She began to walk and he followed her, stalking through the tree branches. She turned to cross the bridge, stopped, and looked down into her hand. Slowly, as though she were just beginning to remember something, she looked up at where Get crouched.
Get hunched down into his shoulders and froze. The girl flicked a hand toward him and he was thrown from the tree by a salvo of pain across his chest. He gasped on the ground, stunned. The next thing he was aware of was her standing above him.
“Who sent you?” Her voice was hoarse. As soon as he came back he was angry, the fur singed off in a slap of blistered skin across his chest. Then just as quickly, her face distracted him from his anger. Her skin seemed to suck light into it and he didn’t want to look away.
He tried to speak as he smoothed out his tongue enough for her to understand his garbled sounds, “Are you made of…chalk?”
She smiled at that. “Don’t you know who you’ve been following?”
He stared blankly. Her presence had an inescapable gravity, it seemed like a solid object. He hadn’t imagined there would be room for a personality inside too, so he wasn’t ready to respond to its revelation.
“Did someone accidentally track you into the city on their shoes?”
“Maybe. I’m not sure.”
Her laughter pulled him to his feet. She inspected the burn on his chest. “I’m sorry, but you shouldn’t have snuck up on me. I want to give you something to cover that.”
As she said it, he was wearing a red shirt with broad stripes across the sleeves. It numbed him to the breeze and rubbed against his fur but he liked that she had given it to him. It soothed his burn and made him look more like the other people in the city.
He was content just to inspect his shirt and feel the thick, smooth fabric between his new fingers until she interrupted his reverie, “If you’re going to follow me while I walk, you should just as well walk with me.” She smiled. His face warmed with sudden embarrassment but he joined her as she walked away.
They sat on a stone wall above the canal watching the lazy stars. Sitting next to her, a moist, chalky smell filled his head. He stared and reached up to pull his finger down her forehead in a dry screech as she laughed, “That sounds awful.”
“What are you?” he asked as he began sniffing into a moment of quickly building tension broken by spraying a sneeze across the side of her face.
She laughed harder but otherwise ignored the splatter. “I’m Yorba. What are you?”
But Get found nothing to say.
“What are you called?”
Get, unadorned except for the shirt she’d given him, dragging around his conspicuous shadow, didn’t belong here.
“It’s like ‘Get’.”
“Get-your shadow is something-must be just out of the sticks. Things like that don’t last very long here.”
He didn’t know what that could possibly mean nor how to ask about it.
“Who knows what could lurk inside such a deep, dark shadow?” She smiled suggestively and this hint of mischievousness brought him back out a little.
He returned her smile.
“Those teeth…!” She gasped in appreciation.
“I want to show you something,” she balanced herself to stand, “but it will be much easier if we get there without getting caught.”
She directed them through and between, across the city to the remains of a complex of stone structures guarded by a wall that contained it against the rest of the still-living city.
Get climbed up trees and walls and roofs to reach the top of the wall, pulling Yorba up with him over the most challenging gaps and verticals.
He held her arms, lifting and pulling her up over the slant of a sharp eave her joints didn’t allow her to negotiate on her own. As he held her, the wheels of a street-train sparked against their rails in the street below; a plume of brilliant red wiggled at him in the darkness. While it burned in his eyes, the image held him and he forgot himself.
Cool ceramic sliding under his fingers pulled him back but before he could find claws to dig into her, she slipped out of his grasp. She fluttered off the roof and smashed against the ground.
A sharp, pealing crash shrank into its cracking echoes and her arms were shards at her sides. Fear and regret hollowed out Get’s heart with a shrieking howl. His eyes gasped wide and before she could look up at him, his fear flew him away.
Yorba was flat against the ground, her ears ringing with the sound of a deep crack, wondering if her back was shattered. She didn’t feel pain, instead, she was engulfed by curiosity. Something split and a heat spilled onto the ground out of her shoulders.
It was a deep, dreamily familiar in this moment and it hissed to her sparks of possibility. Limbs caught and pressed against the ground to lift her crackling body upright on solidified will. She examined the arms she had made, buzzing for the significance of what had just happened.
“It’s me…” she murmured, sliding hands across her arms, wide-eyed bracing against the flood of sensation from naked fingertips.
She looked up to read Get’s reaction but she was alone.
He flew home over the forest in a breath.
Then he panicked.
His legs were so long now, he couldn’t fold them back up and walk on four again.
His eyes were too big and saw too many things now.
His fingers were too long and their prying curiosity unwanted besides.
Everyone hissed and ran away from him. He stammered trying to speak the way he used to. His tongue couldn’t scratch up his words and theirs did anymore and they wouldn’t have understood the things he had to tell them if they tried.
He was shivering and alone as looked back at the forest. It wasn’t paying attention to him now. He knew it didn’t recognize him either but he pulled it around his shoulders like a blanket until he lost himself in its folds.