I'd never seen a three-headed kitten before, but then again I'm not much of a cat person.
I heard his trio of plaintive cries as I passed the alley, and even before I saw him I was hooked. The little guy was cowering from the rain beneath a decaying cardboard box, hardly shelter at all but better than nothing, I suppose. At first I thought there was three of them, huddled together, but of course I was mistaken. He looked at me with his six big, round eyes and I knew right then I'd be taking him home. What can I say? I'm a softy.
It took me a while to get him to trust me -- when I approached the box two of the heads hissed at me, while the third watched me warily. I crouched down nearby and opened my coat, offering shelter. He stayed put, but after a while started to get used to my presence and began casting longing glances at the warm haven inside my coat. Meanwhile I was getting soaked. Sometimes you have to sacrifice for your fellow creatures.
He was a clumsy guy, back then. One of his heads got hit by a big, cold drop of dirty water, and that head at least decided the coat was a good idea. Unfortunately that head forgot to tell the others and when he took a step he toppled right over. I chuckled despite myself, and all six eyes regarded me coldly.
"Sorry, little buddy," I said. "C'mon. It's warm and dry up here."
He hesitated a moment longer. The heads exchanged glances and then he gracefully leapt up to my thigh and then into the snug comfort beneath my coat. I wrapped around him and heard the purring of three throats as he buried himself in my sweater. I stood and continued my walk home, talking idly to the little guy, thinking that the sound of my voice would be soothing.
"The lease says no pets," I said. "So if anyone asks, you're not a pet, all right? Tell 'em you're my roommate." I chuckled at my own wit. "Better no one knows about you, though. Saves a lot of explaining." I opened my coat to look at my new friend. Two of the heads were curled up asleep -- adorable even to a grump like me -- while the third looked back at me with wide eyes. Damn, but he was cute back in those days. Not that he isn't a majestic specimen now, but, well, you know, there's something about kittens.
I got Little Buddy up to my rooms without anyone seeing. I figured he was probably hungry as well as cold, so I tucked him under my sweater until I had a can of tuna open. Little Buddy damn near tore through my sweater when he caught a whiff of dinner, and when I put him on the tabletop with the dish in front of him his heads all worked together to get that whole can down to his stomach. Poor guy must have been starving. He finished, staggered back over to me with distended belly, and worked his way back under my sweater. He fell asleep that way, purring gently.
From the very start Little Buddy wanted to pull his own weight. Maybe that's why I'm so fond of him. After a couple of weeks he had put on a few pounds, and the lad proved to be an able hunter. So it was not a surprise when he dropped a rat at my feet, and looked up at me, expectantly.
It made me a little queasy, but I didn't want to hurt Little Buddy's feelings, so I picked up the rat. "Man, what a great rat," I said, and made a show of smelling it. "Sweet. But you know, people like me are kind of funny. I don't expect you to understand; it's probably crazy to a cat like you, but eating whole animals raw -- we just don't do that anymore." I had an idea. "Let's cook this sucker up." Little Buddy looked at me, uncomprehending.
I'm not much of a cook, but I keep my knives sharp and I know how to gut a fish. The same principles applied well enough. I cooked up what little was left with lime and cilantro and Little Buddy savored it. I gave him my portion.
"Us human people, we distance ourselves from the animals we eat," I said.
One of the three heads looked up at me, confused.
"Yeah, I know." A chilling thought hit me. "But there is one thing we -- people -- will never allow. No one is allowed to hunt us. Ever. You're a good hunter, but if you touch anyone, even the juiciest unattended baby, you'll have six billion people on your ass. It's not worth it."
Little Buddy nodded his heads as he licked the last of the sauteed rat off his chops. I reached out and started to rub his ears. He's helpless in the face of a good ear rub. We're not so different that way. He began to purr in polyphony.
"The ladies must love you," I said, admiring the power of his frame. "Even if you're still just a kitten, you've got it, I can tell."
His purr hitched, and he looked at me questioningly.
"Maybe you're still too young," I said, "but there comes a time you appreciate company." All six of his eyes drilled through me.
Probably I should have seen it coming. It was all because Little Buddy still thought he owed me something for rescuing him. Nothing could be farther from the truth, but try telling him that. I came home one summer afternoon, worked my key in the lock, and stepped into my apartment to find someone else there with Little Buddy.
"Please, just let me go," she said, only just this side of panic as she pushed herself back deeper into the corner. Little Buddy sat, two heads looking at me with proud expressions while the third watched her. I had seen her her the day before, admiring her shapely legs as she walked past the little caf? where I sat. It seems that Little Buddy had been watching me as I watched her.
"Oh, dear," I sighed. I'd known he could work the lock and let himself out to go hunting, but always in the past he had been more discrete. "Don't worry, miss. He won't hurt you."
She wasn't reassured. "What is that thing?"
"He's a cat," I said. Sure, I knew he looked a little unusual for a cat, but it still seemed like an odd question.
"A cat? It's got three heads!"
"It must weigh five hundred pounds!"
"Closer to three..."
"It spits balls of fire."
She watched me in silence for a moment. "And you still think this is a cat?"
"Of course. I should know; I raised him from a kitten." For some reason Little Buddy was making her nervous, so I tried another tack. Maybe she would be more reasonable if he wasn't in the room. "Hey, Little Buddy, could you do me a favor and go make us some coffee?" Little Buddy rose and rubbed one of his heads against me as he passed. "Thanks, pal," I said, "I'll take it from here."
She was eyeing the door. "I'll be leaving now," she said, then waited to see how I reacted.
"You sure you don't want to stay for coffee? It'll only be a minute, and Little Buddy makes a great pot of joe. He's a much better cook than I am."
"You're insane, aren't you?"
"No, I'm insane. I must be. This can't be happening."
"You seem pretty normal to me."
She glared at me and moved toward the door. I stood aside to let per pass, but just then Little Buddy came out of the kitchen holding a tray with two cups and a bowl, along with milk and sugar. He's pretty quick when he wants to be, and he cut her off and offered her the coffee. "Please," she whimpered, frozen in place. "Don't let him hurt me."
"Don't worry," I said. "He's really very gentle. But won't you try the coffee? You'll hurt his feelings if you don't."
"Will he let me go afterward?"
With a trembling hand she reached out and took one of the mugs. I took the other, and Little Buddy put the tray on the floor and added milk to the coffee in the bowl. She took a tentative sip. "This is good," she said despite herself. Little Buddy beamed with pride. I rubbed his ears. He began to purr, a deep and resonant rumble that caused the whole apartment to vibrate. It seemed to have a soothing effect on our guest. She began to reach out a tentative hand but stopped.
"Go ahead," I said.
Little Buddy's purring got louder. "He's soft."
"Look, Miss ... uh ... "
"Meredith. It's a pleasure to meet you. Why don't we sit while you finish your coffee? Little Buddy made cookies yesterday; I think there's still some left." Little Buddy nodded.
She looked from the cat to me, then back to the cat. "All right," she said.