I found him laying in an alleyway halfway between home and school, one rainy November afternoon. At first I thought he was an old orange rag; then I thought he was dead--but he was just wet and cold and miserable, so I took him home and gave him a hot bath and wrapped him in a heating pad, and after a little while he showed some interest in the saucer of milk and the little bits of liver sausage I'd put down next to him.
By eight PM he was running around like nothing had ever happened to him. Dad rolled his eyes and Mom was indifferent, but they still gave me forty bucks to go out and buy some pet supplies. And a few days later they paid for the trip to the vet to make sure Scooter was healthy and to get his shots.
He immediately understood what the litter box was for, though I had to show him that the cat toys were meant to be played with. In particular he liked this little red and green sack with a jingle bell on it, and around bedtime when I went looking for him, I found him sacked out by the heat register with his head on the thing. I didn't disturb him, but went to bed.
In the night, I heard a tiny, "Mew!" and then he climbed up the comforter to my bed, found my face, licked it a couple of times, and then flopped down with his back to my cheek, and purred himself to sleep.
And so it went.
A kitten grows a bit in a month's time, but not all that much. The vet had figured him for maybe eight or ten weeks old when I first brought him in.
We had to be firm about the Christmas tree--it was not meant to be climbed, nor played with--but the vet had suggested bitter apple spray for that, and it worked very well.
On Christmas Eve, we got home from church around eleven; my parents put my younger siblings to bed, hauled out the goodies, and retired as well. I stayed up for a little while, in my room, playing with Scooter and listening to Christmas music on my stereo.
But it had been an active day, so I found myself nodding off.
"Thank you," a tiny voice said.
I opened my eyes. Scooter was sitting on my chest.
"Whuh?" I said blearily.
"Thank you for rescuing me," he said.
"Only for a little bit! So you need to listen: ask Becky McTaggert out for New Years."
"Becky McTaggert--how do you...what...but," I stammered.
"Do it! I mean it!"
"But that's impossible," I complained. Do you know what you're asking me to do?"
"Mew," Scooter said.
Of course I tried to get him to talk again, but after a few minutes I realized that I had probably just been dreaming. I brushed my teeth and went to bed, and same as always Scooter flopped next to my head, purring.
* * *
On the 26th I had occasion to run to the store for Mom, to exchange a toy my sister had gotten "from Santa" which turned out not to work. I waited in line at the customer service desk for an approximate eternity, and when it was my turn, to my surprise I was waited on by none other than Becky McTaggert.
"Hi, Sam!" She said, with a bright smile. "Did you have a merry Christmas?"
"I! Uh," I said. "Yeah. You?"
"It was a little lonely."
...in the sober light of adulthood I cringe at how slow that pitch was, right over the plate...and still I managed to miss it.
"Well, that's too bad. Hey, I need to exchange this."
She gave me a look that I didn't understand and switched to business mode; it took only a few minutes to process the exchange, and then the transaction was winding down, and I remembered what had happened in that dream, and thought, Well? You wanna live forever?
"Hey, what are you doing New Year's Eve?" I asked her.
Her eyes widened. "I...well! I don't have plans. Do you?"
"Let's do something."
"Oh! Okay," she said, smiling now. "Give me your number so we can talk about it."
I wrote my number out for her. The smile she gave me when I handed it to her was the only thing I remember from the rest of that encounter. I think I floated out of the store. I mean, I'd only had a crush on her since seventh grade.
* * *
It turned out that the crush was mutual, and had been for a while. From then on, Becky and I were joined at the hip, and by the time a year had passed since Scooter came into my life, and after her family and mine had Thanksgiving together, my parents had told me I had permission to have her sleep over once in a while, if I wanted, which was the most embarassing conversation I ever had in my life, but was also something I had never expected them to say to me.
But we weren't ready for that. I don't know how to explain it. Two seventeen-year-olds, given permission to sleep together...maybe our parents were using reverse psychology on us or something. We were both in the youth group at church, so we were exposed more than a little to the "abstinence is best" theory. We spent a lot of time making out and a few times we almost went all the way, but something always seemed to stop us.
You know, it wasn't "something", it was Scooter. The time that really stands out in my memory was the time Becky and I were actually naked and in bed and Scooter started caterwauling outside my bedroom, and that led Dad to holler through the door, "Let that damned cat in so he shuts the hell up!" and I did, and then Scooter would not stop bothering us, so I put him outside the door--rinse, repeat, until we gave up.
Christmas Eve, then, Becky was asleep on my bed, and I was sitting at my desk trying to put together a model I'd got from my uncle, and Scooter adroitly levitated to my desk.
"Don't mate until after you're married," he said to me.
"Why?" I asked.
"I don't have time to explain why. And, take College Prep physics next term."
Then I looked around. Becky was still sleeping. I was wide awake this time; Scooter had spoken to me, clearly.
I looked at him. "I'll do it," I said, "but I'd sure like to know why you're telling me this stuff."
* * *
College Prep Physics turned out to be fascinating stuff, and fun to boot. Strangely, it got me interested in math, and the studying I was doing to catch up to where I should have been, by now, in math, led me to study other things, and pretty soon I was pulling down straight As.
Next Christmas, Scooter told me, "Apply for the Parkenhurst Endowment." Which turned out to be a full ride scholarship to Iowa State University as long as you took a science or engineering major. The Christmas after that, he said, "Marry Becky."
Every year, he took a few seconds to tell me something which turned out to be the best thing I could possibly do...with the result that by the time a decade had passed, I was working on my doctoral thesis in physics.
That Christmas, Scooter told me, "Gravity is an emergent property of curved space time, such that--" and then rattled off a couple of equations, which I hastily scribbled down on the back of the Christmas card I'd gotten for my wife.
--which scrapped my thesis, because I wrote a new thesis explaining how one can nullify gravity with a handful of electromagnets, some microwave transmitters, and a precisely-tuned resonant cavity. It took a shitton of power to do it, but it worked, and it sure as hell got me my doctorate.
My thesis advisor thought it would probably get me a Nobel in a few years. He was right.
* * *
Scooter was twenty years old that year. That's old for a cat, and privately, I had begun to worry that each successive Christmas would be his last. But the real miracle was yet to come.
"This is the last time we'll speak," he said that Christmas.
"Oh, no," I said, alarmed.
"Not because of that! You think just any cat can talk at midnight on Christmas Eve?" He stood up and stretched, then turned his back to me, flicking his tail up...and then doing it again.
He had two tails.
"Wha," I said.
"My time with you is over now," he said. "I've got to move on. I always expected something like this was going to happen."
"What...what is happening? Why do you have two tails?"
"I'm not a cat," he said. "Not any more. I started out as one, but now I'm what the Japanese call a nekomata. It's a kind of...well...a monster cat, a spirit. I've got to move on from here, so I can learn how to be one."
We did talk a lot that night--it was the only real conversation we ever had--but when I woke up the next morning, I realized that Scooter was gone. We ended up having to have that talk with our kids, and on Christmas Day; but I didn't tell anyone that he wasn't dead. There didn't seem to be a point to it.
Anyway, one of the last things he'd said to me, before I fell asleep, was, "I don't know, but I might be able to come back, someday."
* * *
Forty years had passed.
Christmas Eve, I was in a nursing home to recover from a broken hip. It was pretty hard to sleep in that joint. I'd just drifted off when a paw lightly tapped my forehead.
I opened my eyes and saw Scooter sitting on my chest, now with four tails.
I almost yelled, but he put a paw on my lips. "Shh! Don't wake anyone."
"You're back!" I said, unable to keep the tears out of my eyes.
He nodded. "Yes--and to stay, for as long as you need me."