Tuesday, September 27, 2022
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Giving Lives

Josefina found the kitten under one of the rose bushes one Sunday morning, cowering from the black Labrador that belonged to their next door neighbor, Mr. Yu. The dog growled and pawed furiously at the roses to get to the kitten, who could only whimper in response.

Josefina grabbed a broom nearby and chased the dog away. “Leave the poor kitten alone, Boomer! Pick on someone your own size!” With one last growl, Boomer ran back to their neighbor’s yard.

She scooped the kitten in her arms. Several cuts marred his black fur, and his paws, which must have once been an immaculate white, were caked in dried blood. Part of his left ear seemed to have been chewed off. There were four scars on his forehead, all just about the same size, and one fresh wound, which exposed raw, red flesh.

She unwrapped the turban around her head and wrapped the kitten in it. Normally she would have been anxious not to let anyone get a glimpse of her baldness, but it all just seemed so petty now. Her concern for the kitten overshadowed everything else.

He was tiny, not much larger than her hand. He didn’t struggle, and even quieted down in her arms as she held him close to her chest, where her left breast used to be.

“What’s that, Lola?” Lydia asked when Josefina came into the living room. “Ooh! Kitty!” She dropped her lunch box and started fawning over the kitten. The kitten blinked up at her and licked her hand.

Josefina’s daughter, Linda, walked into the living room, followed by her husband, Ben. Linda shook her head at the lunchbox on the floor. “Lydia! How many times do I have to tell you not to leave your things lying around in the—what’s that, Ma?” She stopped and stood staring at the kitten.

Josefina grinned. “I found the kitten in the garden, being chased by Boomer. Must have been what she was chasing all over the neighborhood these last few days. The poor thing!”

“Could we keep him?” Lydia asked, clapping her hands. “Please? Please?”

“No,” Linda said just when Josefina said, “Of course.”

“Lydia, you know we haven’t had a pet a long time,” Ben said.

“Yeah, the last one we had was Donatello the turtle,” Linda said. She crossed her arms. “And you know what happened to him—”

“It wasn’t my fault Donatello ran away,” Lydia said. She tried to blink back her tears, but they flowed down her cheeks anyway. “I tried my best to take care of him, I really did—”

“It’s okay, Lydia,” Josefina said. “It wasn’t your fault.” She turned to Linda. “I’m here now. I can help take care of it.”

Linda looked up at her. “I wouldn’t want to trouble you, Ma.” She bit her lip, and the lines across her face deepened. “Especially since you’re—”

“It’s okay,” Josefina said. She waved one hand at her daughter.

“Well, I don’t think it would do any harm,” Ben murmured to Linda. “If it makes Ma happy…” His voice trailed off.

“All right, we can keep him,” Linda said. She was still frowning, but she threw both arms up in the air in mock defeat.

Lydia hugged her mother in delight. “Thank you, Mom! Thank you!”

Linda looked uncomfortable, but she managed a smile for her daughter. Her eyes fell on the little kitten. Her smile widened, almost reluctantly, and she was beaming by the time she looked at her mother again.

“Well, that kitten is kind of cute,” she said.

Lydia named the kitten Pepper. For the next three days Pepper hardly moved from his basket. He refused solid food at first, but by the fourth day he was already gobbling up the pieces of fish Lydia put in his feeding bowl. Almost all of his injuries healed, except for the wound on his forehead. This remained as a scar, like the others.

The entire family soon grew to love him. Josefina even once saw Linda sitting on the porch with the kitten on her lap, looking peaceful for the first time in days since Josefina’s surgery.

But Josefina thought that there was something about Pepper, though. Something not quite…right.

Linda bought a litter box for Pepper later that week, and even gave Lydia lengthy instructions on how to train the kitten to use it. But that night, to their surprise, they found Pepper using the toilet instead. He even knew how to flush.

Linda simply shrugged this off. “Maybe his previous owners just taught him to,” she said.

She had the same explanation when Josefina noted that Pepper never scratched at the walls and furniture unlike other cats they had in the past, and he always seemed to come whenever Lydia called him, even though it had only been less than a week since they had named him.

Josefina still wasn’t convinced, but she said nothing more. Maybe she really was just being silly, after all. And if she continued to argue about it, Linda would just laugh at her, or worse, worry that something was wrong with her, and bring her straight to Dr. Lucas again the next day. She didn’t know which was worse.

Her eyes fell on Pepper, who looked up at her and meowed softly. Josefina could have sworn she saw sympathy in the kitten’s green eyes.

A month after they found the kitten, when she got out of Dr. Lucas’ clinic for her routine checkup, she found Ben waiting in the car with a bewildered expression on his face.

She climbed into the car and found Pepper was curled up in the backseat. She thought the kitten’s meow this time sounded plaintive somehow, pleading; but she shook her head at herself.

“Lydia wanted to bring him along when I dropped her off to piano class,” Ben said. “I was only able to convince her that Mrs. Rodriguez wouldn’t want a kitten in her house. She begged and begged, though. She said Pepper seemed…worried.”

“Worried?”

“Kids, you know, Ma,” Ben said casually. A corner of his lip curled up, but did not turn into a real smile. “Overactive imaginations. But…”

Josefina patted Pepper, who stood up on her lap, ears pricked up, as if listening for something in the distance.

“I was just going to pick you up, you see,” Ben went on. “But while I was already on the street, I heard a really loud meow from somewhere inside the car. I was so startled I think I literally jumped out of my seat—so I pulled over to check on the sound.  And there! I saw Pepper underneath the passenger seat. I have no idea how he got there, because I’m sure he wasn’t in the car when I drove from the house.”

Josefina was silent for a few minutes before she finally said, as off-handedly as she could, “Maybe we should go and check on Lydia.”

Ben nodded, looking relieved at that. “I guess it wouldn’t hurt.”

Josefina looked down at the kitten. Pepper’s eyes glittered in the soft afternoon light as he looked at her, and she could have sworn that he nodded at her.

They turned right into C. Reyes Street, which was where Lydia’s piano teacher lived. They pulled to a stop just as Lydia was stepping out of the front door of one of the houses.

“Dad! Dad!” she called out. She waved to them. “Mrs. Rodriguez had a cold, and I was just going to walk home instead of waiting for you to come pick me up.”

“It’s dangerous out there alone!” Ben said. He frowned at his daughter. “It’s a good thing we decided to check in on you.” He looked meaningfully at Josefina.

Josefina glanced at Pepper. To her surprise, he had stood up, hissing, fur bristling, claws out. What was going on with him? Did he just not want Lydia to go home alone? Was that what he warned them about? But they were here now.

Unless—

“Come on, Lydia, hop in!” Ben said.

“Just a minute!” Lydia bent down to tie her shoelaces.

Josefina saw the car before it headed toward Lydia.

The blue sedan’s tires screeched as it rounded the curve, and it did not—could not—stop in time. The driver was screaming, and Lydia only had enough time to look up before the car swerved off the street and barreled toward the sidewalk. Toward her.

Josefina was out of the car before she even knew what was happening. There was a sudden stab of pain on her back, and she fell to the ground, hitting her head. Her world became nothing but dirt and rubble and fire and black, black fur—

        Fur?

She blinked once, and heard the cry of the cat right beside her. For a split second she saw, clear as daylight, Pepper’s green eyes still gazing at her, an apology somehow reflected in them—

The world turned to gray, and she knew nothing more.

What woke her was the smell: the smell of disinfectant and drugs mixed with the smell of despair and death. She woke up screaming, first for herself, for a moment thinking again that she had woken up in the operating room, with her insides still exposed and falling out of her. But later she kept screaming, even long after she remembered what had happened.

“Lydia! Lydia!” she demanded of the nurse that immediately rushed to her bedside. “What happened to her? My baby, my dearest—”

“I’m here, Lola,” a small voice piped up from a corner of the room. Josefina turned to her, and tears filled her eyes. Her granddaughter stood right in front of her, one side of her cheek filled with scratches and one hand bundled in a sling, but she was alive, oh God, she was alive.

“Hey, hey, Ma,” Linda said. She rushed to Josefina’s side as well. “It’s okay, Lydia’s okay. Sit back down and rest, please?”

Josefina started crying in her relief. “W-what happened?”

“The driver of that car said there was something wrong with the brakes. I’d say there was something wrong with his brain,” Linda spat. “Ben said you went to help Lydia, but fell and hit your head.” Her eyebrows furrowed as she looked at her mother.

“But what happened to you, Lydia?” Josefina asked her granddaughter. “I thought—I thought you were—”

“The car stopped just before it hit her,” Linda said.

“No, Mom,” Lydia said. “Pepper saved me.”

“Lydia, we talked about this—”

“Pepper?” Josefina said. She remembered the last thing she had seen before she blacked out. “How did he save you?”

“He stood in front of me,” Lydia said. She collapsed on the floor and began to sob. “He saved me, I know he did!”

Josefina felt her heart sink. “And what happened to him?”

“He’s dead, Lola. Pepper’s dead.”

Lydia was inconsolable for the next few days, and Josefina knew that even though Linda tried to hide it, she was affected by the kitten’s passing more than she let on. Ben told Josefina that they buried the kitten in the garden, among the rose bushes she had first found him in.

Josefina wanted to get home as soon as possible, but Dr. Lucas seemed reluctant to let her go.

“I feel better than ever, doctor,” she told Dr. Lucas when he came by her room. “The Cranial CT scan was clear, right?”

Dr. Lucas, a pale, wiry man who never looked as if he got enough sleep, shook his head at her. “You said your back hurt before you fell?”

Josefina frowned at him. “I did kind of jump out of the car. I know you’re going to be mad at me, but Lydia was—”

“There are some tests I’d like to still you to undergo,” he said. “A bone scan, for one. You can have that done while you’re still in the hospital.”

A bone scan? Josefina refused to believe what he meant by that. “No,” she said. “You mean I might—”

“It might not mean anything, Josefina. We only have to be sure.”

“But what was the surgery for, then?” Her hands flew to the space where her left breast used to be. “What about all those treatments? You said they would make sure that I wouldn’t—”

“They would only decrease the possibility of a recurrence or a metastasis,” Dr. Lucas said. “But as I said, nothing is certain yet.”

“I want to go home first,” Josefina said.  “Talk to my daughter about it.”

Dr. Lucas nodded. He gave her a piece of paper, which contained a request for a bone scan. “I understand. Just see me right away, when you have the results.”

Ben and Linda picked her up from the hospital a few hours later. They drove back to the house in heavy silence, for Josefina did not know how to break to Linda and Ben what Dr. Lucas said to her.

They were about to go to the house when Josefina stopped in her tracks. She turned to the garden, listening.

“Ma? What’s wrong?” Linda asked.

Josefina walked over to the rose bushes.

Something darted out of them. She almost stumbled to the ground, but Ben caught her before she fell. They all looked at the black kitten at Josefina’s feet, meowing happily.

Lydia was ecstatic to see the kitten. She insisted that it really was Pepper, back from the dead, even though Linda told her that this was impossible.

“Cats have nine lives, don’t they?” Lydia said.

Josefina was inclined to agree with her. The kitten was a lot like Pepper. He was as affectionate as Pepper had been. He still acted as if he could understand every word they said. He looked exactly like Pepper, too: the same black fur, the same white paws. The only difference was that there was now a fresh wound on his forehead, which also healed into a scar in time.

Josefina put away Dr. Lucas’ request for the bone scan in her desk drawer. There it lay for a month. Her back continued to shoot sharp spasms of pain every now and then, but she ignored it.

She caught the new Pepper staring at her once in a while. She always looked away, unable to stand the reproach in his eyes.

Another month passed by in peace.

“Oof,” Josefina said when she lifted Pepper up from the living room floor one Tuesday evening. “You’re getting harder and harder to carry these days, you big kitty, you.”

“He’s not really a kitten anymore, is he,” Linda said, coming to the living room. She checked her reflection in the mirror in the hall and adjusted her dress for the umpteenth time that evening.

At the sound of her voice, Pepper leapt out of Josefina’s arms and ran toward Linda. He mewled up at her.

“What’s wrong with Pepper Two, Ma?” Linda said. She called him Pepper Two, persisting in her belief that this was a different cat. “I haven’t seen him like this before.”

Josefina stopped and looked at the kitten. She had seen Pepper—the first Pepper—like this before. He was acting just like this on the day of Lydia’s accident.

Ben walked into the room, and Pepper launched herself at his foot, claws digging at his trousers. “Hey, Pepper, something the matter?”

“We’ll be late, Ben,” Linda said through the cat’s whines. “My boss will kill me if I don’t get to that dinner on time. Let’s go.”

Ben hesitated. He looked down at the cat, then at Josefina. “Maybe we should just—”

“Come on,” Linda said. She sauntered out the door.

Ben took one last look at the cat, before following after Linda. Pepper still tried to go after them, but Linda shut the door firmly before he could do so.

“They’ll be all right,” Josefina said to the cat. “Won’t they?”

Pepper only turned away with a mournful meow.

Later that evening, Lydia ran from her bedroom, frantic. She was about to head out the front door, but Josefina grabbed her arm to stop her.

“Pepper!” Lydia called out as she wrested her hand away from Josefina. “Pepper!”

“Lydia, calm down!” Josefina said and did not let her granddaughter go. “What happened?”

“He jumped out of the window,” Lydia said. “Maybe he broke his bones when he landed, or he’s—”

“I’ll go look outside,” Josefina said. “Stay here.”

Josefina went out into the front yard and the garden, but there was no sign of the cat. She peered underneath the rose bushes again, to be sure, but Pepper was not there. She went back inside the house and called Mr. Yu to ask if he had seen the cat, but still nothing. She told Lydia that she didn’t have to worry; Pepper will be back before they knew it.

The phone rang an hour later.

Josefina hurried to the kitchen, but she had moved too fast, and the pain in her back shot up again. She was gasping in pain when she answered the phone.

“Mrs. Silva? Good evening, this is Mrs. Rivera, a nurse from the West Avenue Medical Center. We would just like to inform you there was a fire this evening at Sonya’s, and for some minutes your daughter Linda and her husband Ben Gonzales were trapped inside—”

“What?” Josefina gripped the phone tightly. “No! Are they—”

“Ma’am, rescuers got to them in time,” the nurse said. “We managed to stabilize them—”

Josefina heard nothing more, for she had collapsed on one of the chairs, sobbing.

‘I’m fine, Ma,” Linda said, looking embarrassed, because Josefina had just burst into her hospital room, sobbing. She was wrapped in bandages, but otherwise looked in better shape than Josefina had feared. “Really. Would you please tell the doctors that too?”

“They’re still observing you,” Josefina said. “And I don’t care if they observe you for a week. I just want them to be sure you’re really okay. I’m so glad, Linda. I thought I was going to lose you and Ben—”

“It’s a miracle we’re alive. And I do mean a miracle.” Linda laughed. “You’re going to think I’m going crazy, Ma.”

Josefina shook her head. “I’m the one who’s old and crazy, remember?”

“Well.” Linda closed her eyes, as if afraid to see her mother’s reaction. “The cat saved us.”

“Oh?” Josefina said, although hearing this did not surprise her, not at all.

“Yeah. Pepper.” Linda broke into nervous laughter again. “Ridiculous, right? But I could swear it happened. When the fire broke out, one of the building’s columns collapsed right onto our table, and Ben and I were trapped in one corner of the room. There was no way out, and Ben was knocked out cold, and I didn’t know what to do—

“Then there was this meow. I almost couldn’t see the cat in the rubble, but then he was there in front of me, tugging at my dress. So I followed him, and he showed me a crawl space where we could slip through. He guided me to the door as I supported Ben—I have no idea why, but there was suddenly just a path there that wasn’t on fire—and we were out of there. I looked back and thought I got one last glimpse of the cat’s eyes—they were so green, Ma, so, so green—and then I lost consciousness. I woke up here.”

They were both silent for a few moments.

“I believe you,” Josefina said. “God, I do. We never saw Pepper again after last night.”

“I’m going to miss that cat,” Linda said, and for a moment she looked a little more like Lydia, so young, so lonely.

“He’ll be back,” Josefina said. She hugged her daughter close, for the first time in a long, long time, she realized. “I think he’s just waiting for us.”

Josefina was right. She found the black cat underneath the rose bushes again the day Ben and Linda came home. There were now two fresh wounds on his forehead, which eventually healed to two new scars.

For one whole week after he was found, he followed Josefina around the house, with those green eyes always seeming to pierce deep into her soul.

“Fine, I’ll do it,” she said to him one morning.

She waited for Linda and Ben to come home that day, and showed them Dr. Lucas’ request.
Dr. Lucas was smiling at her when she had first come in, but now his smile had faded to almost nothing.

“Mrs. Silva,” he said. “I am so sorry.”

He looked pained, as if he had said this many times before, but each repetition did not get easier. “The cancer has spread to your lumbosacral spine, which explains the lower back pain you’ve been having lately,” he said. He smiled again, or tried to. “But don’t lose hope, Josefina. Even metastatic cancer can be treated.”

“But we will only be prolonging the inevitable, won’t we?” Josefina said.

Dr. Lucas did not answer that.

Josefina got out of the clinic in a daze, and did not talk to Ben all throughout the drive back home.

She went straight to her bedroom when they arrived home. She collapsed on her bed, feeling numb, as if there was a cloud covering her senses.

There was a sharp meow at her feet. Pepper—the third Pepper, but he was still the same Pepper, always have been—nudged her cheek with his nose, then lay back and curled up beside her.

She put her arms around the cat and began to cry.

The following months passed by in a blur. At first she spent the days in her room, and refused to see anyone. But Pepper always managed to find a way inside her room, even if she locked her door, and placed the bolt on to boot. He kept tugging at her pajamas and her sheets and did not stop even if she ignored him. Finally one day, exasperated, she tried to shoo him away, but he did not budge and only stared up at her, unblinking. When she tried to lie back down, he returned to tugging at her sleeve.

Josefina began to laugh. “There’s really just no winning against, you, is there?” she said to him. She got up and walked out of her bedroom.

What followed then were days of more therapy, more tests, more visits to Dr. Lucas. But there were also trips to see places she had always wanted to see her whole life. There were days when she finally was able to do things she had never had the chance to before: go swimming in a beach in the cold of December with Linda and Ben, fly a kite with Lydia, fall asleep while watching the stars out in the veranda with Pepper, who always kept watch while she slept.

They kept hoping for the impossible.

Until one day, Linda and Ben woke to the sound of Pepper meowing again, repeatedly, urgently. Linda tried to calm him down, but Ben rushed right to Josefina’s bedroom.

“Ma,” he said. He shook her. “Ma!”

He kept calling for her, but still she did not stir.

Something tugged at her sleeve again. She blearily opened her eyes.

“How did you get in?” she said to Pepper, then wondered how she could do so. They must have put a tube through her throat when they brought her to the hospital, to help her breathe, and she should not have been able to speak. “Why did you come here?” she asked.

The cat only held out a paw, and Josefina reached for it.

There were flashes of images. A little boy falling down a cliff. Three teenagers in a van swerving from the highway and hitting a tree. Mr. Yu clutching his chest. Lydia staring up at the car hurtling towards her. Ben and Lydia trapped in the fire.

Josefina said, in realization, “You gave them your lives.” Her eyes filled with tears. “But you’ve sacrificed so much. For Lydia and Ben and Linda. For me. What did we do to deserve—”

Another set of visions. The little boy shooing him away. The kids laughing and throwing cans at him. Mr. Yu setting his dog to run after him.

        Stay away, you mangy cat!

And then, Lydia and Ben giving him a bath. Linda sitting with him on the porch. Josefina putting her arms around him, that last time in the bedroom.

The cat put down her paw, and the visions ended. No one has loved him, Josefina thought, as much as we have.

He mewled again, a determined expression in his eyes. Josefina’s heart sank. She looked at his forehead and put her hand on his scars, which stood out from the rest of him, seeming to glow with their own light.

Eight scars. Eight lives given.

And he was going to give her his last.

“No!”

Somewhere in the distance, she began to hear a monitor beeping, coming to life in a slow, steady rhythm.

“No, please,” she said. “Don’t do this!” She struggled to move. She took the cat’s paw again.

The cat looked at her, as if to say, it’s all right.

“No,” Josefina said. “You’ve given your other lives for other people. You protected the ones I loved. Live this last life for yourself. Please. You deserve it.”

The cat whimpered.

“Please,” Josefina said. “It’s okay. You saved me already! These last few months—they were the happiest I’ve ever known. I was so afraid to die, but now—” She choked back down her tears. “Now it’s okay. And it’s all because of you. Thank you.”

The cat bowed his head, and curled up near her arm.

The last thing she saw was his eyes. So green, Ma, so, so green, Linda had said. They comforted her until the very end.

They only noticed that Pepper was curled up beside Josefina, hours later. No one knew how he got there.

“Come, Pepper,” Lydia said. Her eyes were red, rimmed with tears. “Say goodbye to Lola.”

The black cat seemed to nod at her. He licked Josefina’s hand and meowed at her one last time, as if in thanks, before he leapt to Lydia’s waiting arms.

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