Cats of Fortune
by Ivy Grimes
When I was a little girl, I thought Aunt Dee had everything. She had her own trailer, a video game console and six games, dozens of heavy pink-and-purple necklaces, and a yard full of cats. Ten, to be exact. They were all different colors, like the shoes in a rich woman’s closet, and they drank water from the birdbath and ate kibble from old pie tins. Best of all, Dee had a secret she shared only with me—the cats were lucky.
They were strays, and some were wilder than others. I always had to ask her permission to pet them so she could see if the cat was in the mood that day. They had fleas, but we accepted those. The cats were never in the mood for a bath.
“Why don’t you get rid of those cats?” Grandpa would ask Dee every time they visited each other. He was her brother. Aunt Dee was really my great-aunt, and her name was really Deborah, but Great-Aunt Deborah seemed like a lot to say.
In those days, I lived with my parents and Grandpa across the street from Dee’s trailer in a somewhat larger trailer. My parents got the bedroom while Grandpa and I each got a sofa to sleep on in the living room. Another thing Aunt Dee had was a bedroom all to herself. It was small, sure, but it was big enough for her.
“I like the cats!” Aunt Dee would always tell him, as if that was a good enough reason.
“You think they like living like that, out in the dirt and rain?” Grandpa said. “You should call the shelter. Have them taken off. Then no one would call you a crazy old cat lady.”
She never told him our secret, so she put it so he could understand. “What do you think they’ll do to them? They’re wild cats. They can’t be tamed and put in houses. They’d be dead before you could say Christopher Robin.”
Each cat brought its own special kind of luck—Molly with money, June with friends, Bandit with family, Happy with health, Elvis with love, Nell with joy, Lemon with problem-solving, Lane with success, Possum with wisdom, and Pretty with general good fortune.
“But don’t go asking for help all the time!” she warned me over and over again. “They’ll help you when you really need it, but they can’t handle all of anyone’s troubles, and it can take them a while to act. They’re busy surviving.”
“I know, I know,” I said, annoyed she didn’t trust me to remember.
From the time I could walk across the street by myself, I’d been visiting her at least once a day to play games with her and help feed the cats. When I was small, I thought Aunt Dee had the perfect life, and I think that now. There was a time in the middle when I forgot.
I was a very frugal child, used to saving anything that came my way, so I had a frugal mindset with luck. The first time I decided to ask a favor of one of the cats, it was on my eleventh birthday. Money had been especially tight that year since the steel mill where my dad worked closed down. My parents gave me a toy water gun from the dollar store, which I thanked them for even though it was a present for a younger kid. Grandpa gave me a quarter, which I put in my sock drawer to spend on a soda or candy in some imagined future. Aunt Dee gave me one of her necklaces—my favorite, the one with the purple owl pendant—and a huge t-shirt with a unicorn walking on a rainbow. I knew I’d never wear the t-shirt since I didn’t like to stand out so much, but I appreciated the gesture. As a present to myself, I decided it was time to ask one of the cats for help.
What did I need most? We needed money, sure, but I still doubted that a cat could do anything about that. Besides, Aunt Dee said the cats could only help the person who asked them. She said she didn’t believe in asking for someone else. So if I asked for help for my parents, the cats probably wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. I thought for days about it, made lists of possible wishes. I realized what I really wanted was one ordinary day at school. Rachel with the bright red hair found a new way to call me fat, and half the class snickered and whispered about me when I got all the questions right in math. What would help, I realized, was to have a good friend. Someone who understood me.
After school, I went right to my aunt’s yard without knocking on her door. I didn’t want her to know I felt friendless and needed a wish. It was an hour before the cats’ evening feeding, but I knew they wouldn’t be far.
“June! June-girl! June buggy! Juney!” I used the high-high voice my aunt used during feeding times to trick June into coming.
After a few minutes, June hustled into the yard like a running back. Her white fur was dyed grayish-green on her stomach from sitting in dirt and wet grass. She greeted me that day with a scowl, but approached me all the same.
I reached out to pet her, assuming that was part of the process, but she jerked away. She circled me a few times, sniffing the air, and I sat on the grass to coax her closer.
“Listen, June, I have a problem. You know I’ve never asked for your help before.”
She started running faster around me like we were playing a game and she was winning. I decided that was probably part of the magic.
“I know you’re the cat with the friend luck. And I know you’re busy and just trying to survive. But listen… I hate school. I just need one friend who’s kind of like me. Who isn’t mean, and who I have something in common with. Just one!”
I knew I had to be patient, and I kept it as secret as a wish made while blowing out the candles on my birthday cake. That year, Mom had made me a birthday cake: chocolate, my least favorite. I knew that sort of thing shouldn’t matter. My parents had plenty of distracting troubles, after all. But I wanted my friend at school to remember what kind of cake I liked, and I whispered the request to June later that week when I was helping my aunt pass out the cat food.
Three weeks later, there was a miracle. After that, I could never doubt what Dee said. A new girl named Rebecca came to school. She wore a plaid skirt and knee socks that everyone but me made fun of, and her mom was a college professor, and she was smart, and she was from up north in Kentucky. All the kids thought she was weird, and I knew right away that June had sent her. I saved a fish stick from lunch to give June as a treat that night. She deserved it.
Rebecca and I grew closer every day, doing our homework together after school and gossiping on the playground. She would trade half of the fruit her mom packed in her lunch for half of my cafeteria brownie. She loved my purple owl necklace. We thought of funny comebacks for the other kids, ways to call them jerks so that they didn’t even notice we were making fun of them.
The only difference between me and Rebecca was that she had money and I didn’t. After turning down outings a few times, she told me her mom was willing to pay for me to see a movie with her sometimes, and I reluctantly accepted. Still, when her family went to amusement parks or out to eat or shopping, I had to stay behind. I think her parents were a little embarrassed to be seen with me, and I could understand why. My dad had only been able to find part-time work since the mill closed, and my clothes were all worn out, and my pant hems all came up to my ankles. I had even started wearing the unicorn shirt (to my worst bully Rachel’s delight) because it was my only shirt without a hole in it. I tried to be grateful for what I had, but I got sadder about it. After about six months of being friends with Rebecca, I decided to try asking another cat for another favor.
It was November when I asked, almost Thanksgiving, and the trees were mostly bare and the nights chilly. One night after feeding time, when I knew Aunt Dee would be engrossed in her favorite television show, I put on my puffy coat and tried not to step on any loud leaves as I walked around her yard looking for Molly. I found her crouched inside an old roll of carpet Dee had left back there for the cats, and I begged her to come out.
Molly’s orange fur shone in the moonlight. I heard Dee through the window, laughing at something on TV. I tried to ask Molly quietly. She liked people more than most of the cats, and she rubbed her face against my palm as I asked for the favor. I took that as a good sign.
I tried to walk quietly home, but Dee must have heard me. She opened her window and shouted for me to come inside and see her.
Her trailer smelled like canned chili and the neighbors’ woodsmoke. She wore a long nightgown, bright blue dotted with yellow starfish.
“You been wishing on my cats?” she asked.
“I’m glad you’re finding some use for them. As long as you aren’t troubling them overly much.”
I looked at my feet and shook my head. I was still ashamed she had caught me. I didn’t want anyone to know I needed anything.
“Take off your coat! You ain’t a criminal.”
I obeyed, and she made me a dish of vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup.
“What’s the trouble? If you want to tell the cats and not me, I understand. I’ve told those cats things I haven’t told anyone else. But I’m a good aunt, right?”
“Sure,” I said, feeling a little impatient. “Why are you even asking that?”
Her forehead wrinkled, which let me know she was raising her eyebrows. She drew her eyebrows on when she went outside, but now I couldn’t see them. I could sort of tell she was upset the way that Molly could probably sort of tell that I had been upset, but I couldn’t figure out why.
“I don’t know. Something your grandpa said the other day. I guess you all didn’t know that the neighbors gave me that old game system and those old games? They gave it for free since I liked playing the games with them, but I couldn’t afford my own on my fixed income. They got a new one, and they gave me their old one. And I get the cat food free from the shelter. They know I feed the cats. They want me to! See, they care about cats like I do down there, and they fixed the cats for free.”
I nodded. I didn’t see what any of this had to do with me, and I had plenty of my own things to worry about. I wanted to go to my room and lie on my stomach and listen to the radio and daydream about what I’d do with the money if Molly got it for me.
“I’m just saying. Your grandpa asked me how I can live as high on the hog as I do and not share with y’all. But now, I do share with you, don’t I?”
I thought about it. “Sure. You gave me this necklace.” I held up my purple owl.
“It was my favorite necklace! And those necklaces… I get them at the thrift store!”
“And you play with me. You share your games. We feed the cats together.”
“And you get snacks all the time over here.”
“Oh, yeah. And we make frozen orange juice together.”
“And cookies! Don’t forget the cookies,” she said.
I remembered, and I felt a little better.
She threw her arms in the air, and they jiggled, and I laughed a little at how dramatic she was being. “All I’m saying is I do love you, and I do share with you. I’ve been on disability my whole life, and your grandpa thinks that means I’m rich. Isn’t that funny?”
I laughed a little louder. It was funny. I had never thought about how Aunt Dee had gotten the money to buy the things she needed, but I knew she wasn’t holding much back, if anything. She had even told me the secret of her cats.
She seemed to feel better when I left that night, and I felt better too. June had helped me before, and maybe Molly would help me now. What scared me most was losing my one friend. What if Rebecca got tired of how I couldn’t do anything fun with her and left me for someone who had newer clothes and more spending money?
It took a whole month this time, but Molly came through. One day close to Christmas there was mail for me, a crisp envelope that held a card with a shimmering Christmas tree. It was from Grandma to me, and inside was a fifty-dollar bill. She had left Grandpa before I was born, and I hadn’t heard from her since I was a little kid, but the card said she hadn’t forgotten me, and that she was going to send me a little extra spending money every month now that I was almost grown. She said to spend it on something fun just for me. Grandpa complained that we needed the money for groceries, that he was tired of hamburger this and macaroni that, but my parents said the money was clearly for me, and they couldn’t steal it from me.
Still, I tried to be generous. I bought myself a pair of cheap jeans that fit, and I used some money for a matinee with Rebecca, but I had enough left over to give my mom to buy us some steaks one night.
The next month, I bought a flowy blue dress and new shoes to wear to the winter dance, and it took all the money I had. Rebecca and I spent the whole night on the bleachers laughing about which boys might ask us to dance. None of them did, but we had a good time anyway.
Month after month, there was more to buy. Sometimes I would give a little to Mom to buy us all a treat, but mostly I had plans for it. I wasn’t trying to be fancy or beautiful. I just wanted the other kids to treat me like I was normal.
For my thirteenth birthday, I was able to buy gifts for myself. My parents and Grandpa pooled their money to buy me a little bracelet that was too small for my wrist, though I didn’t tell them because I didn’t want them to feel bad about it. Aunt Dee gave me another one of her necklaces—one with pink plastic beads strung on a purple ribbon. I was over her necklaces by then, though. I put it beside the purple owl in my sock drawer, and I smiled to see them together. I liked having a sweet old aunt, and sometimes I told stories about her at school, and Rebecca thought they were funny. But I didn’t tell anyone about the magic cats.
Keith was the new kid when we started our eighth-grade year, and after I met him, I forgot about everything else for a while. Right away, I stopped feeding the cats with Aunt Dee. What if for some reason he drove by and saw me? He was a head taller than the other boys, with dark brown hair and doe-soft eyes, and he played football, and he seemed like a grown-up. I decided that if he fell in love with me the way that boys fell in love with girls on TV, I would never feel bad about anything again.
After months of staring at Keith during roll call, staring at him during gym, staring at him during science, and whispering about him with Rebecca, he still didn’t notice me.
“What’s your name?” he asked when we were (to my thrill) put in the same group for a small science project. Then he asked if I was new, and I laughed like it was the funniest joke I’d ever heard.
“I’ve been here my whole life! You’re the one who’s new,” I said. I felt sweat pricking my underarms, and I hoped he wouldn’t notice how nervous I was.
He smiled, and it was a precious gem I turned over and over in my mind the rest of that day and night. In spite of my distractedness, I was able to do most of the work on our project. I hoped he would be impressed when he saw how good our grade was. He was not. When the teacher told us that we made an A on the project, he shrugged and put his head on his desk.
I cried as I fell asleep that night, the memory of his smile trumped by that day’s indifference. I couldn’t sleep at all. As I stared at the sliver of moon through the small window, I thought of the ways my life had improved since I had found Rebecca, since I had started getting money from Grandma, and I remembered the source. I had powerful friends, I remembered, and I could return to them.
I was up in an instant, and I snuck out in my pajamas since it was way too late for anyone to see what I was doing. I knew Grandpa was a deep sleeper, so I wouldn’t wake him. Across the street, Aunt Dee’s trailer was dark, but I couldn’t risk using a flashlight. Fortunately, the moon guided me to the sleek shapes of cats sleeping here and there, some huddled together and some alone.
I needed Elvis, the cat of love, a brown tabby with black stripes and a perfect M on his forehead.
I circled the yard, squinting at the shapes until I noticed him sleeping alone at the base of the birdfeeder. I crouched beside him and petted his head. He was startled, but he didn’t meow. Once he saw it was me disturbing his sleep, he didn’t seem surprised, even though I hadn’t been over to feed the cats in some time.
“Elvis, I need your help. There’s a boy named Keith, and I need him to fall in love with me. You got that?”
Elvis peered up at me, his eyes flashing. He gave a soft meow before setting his head back down. He dismissed me, but I knew he had heard me. When I went back to bed, I fell asleep instantly, certain my cause was in good hands.
I knew from previous experience it could take time to see results. Maybe it would take a month again, or maybe two. I asked Elvis in October, but the semester ended without incident. When I said hello to Keith in the halls, sometimes he would grin, but sometimes he wouldn’t even hear me.
On January 27th, Rebecca gave me horrible news. Keith had asked her to the winter dance. She said she was so so so sorry. She would say no if I really wanted her to, but she really wanted to go. And she said she wanted me to come, too, and we could still have fun the way we had the year before.
That Saturday, I waited until Aunt Dee was gone for her weekly grocery trip, and I went into the lawn and found Elvis where I’d found him before, asleep beneath the birdbath.
“I hate you!” I told him. “Why do you hate me so much? Is it because I stopped feeding you?” I found an empty pie plate from the morning feeding and tossed it at him, trying to scare him. He popped up and dodged it, darted into the woods.
I hated myself, though. Who was I kidding thinking some magic cats could solve all my problems?
I did go to the dance. I don’t know why I went. I spent most of the night sitting alone, watching Rebecca and Keith dance. She stopped a few times to talk to me, and we laughed about how bad the music was, but it wasn’t the same. Only one boy named Joshua asked me to dance, and he had a weird haircut and smelled like Vick’s VapoRub. I told him I couldn’t because I was waiting for my friend.
To prove my point, I walked over to where she was sitting with Keith, and they didn’t see me. I snuck up on them to see what they were talking about. They looked like they were fighting, which excited me. Maybe they were fighting about how he really liked me and not her.
He said to her, “So what if I think she’s weird? She stares at me like some crazy animal. And does her trailer even have a shower? I don’t get why you like her, and I don’t get why I have to.”
I’m good at sneaking away. I left the dance without them noticing. My parents weren’t supposed to pick me up for another half hour, but I waited in the cold until they came.
That night, as I cried quietly so I wouldn’t wake Grandpa, I wondered about a million things. I wondered if this was Elvis’s revenge. I wondered if I’d been childish to believe in magic cats. I wondered why Keith thought I didn’t shower. Rebecca was the one who didn’t! She bragged about eating cookies in bed and being too lazy to shower before school. I showered every day and shampooed my hair twice. Keith didn’t notice because he knew I was poor. To him, I just smelled poor.
I thought about going to Elvis to ask his forgiveness, but I had given up hope. I let him lie, asleep alone in the moonlight of his frayed yard. I let myself lie. For weeks, I ignored Rebecca and everyone else. I felt sleepier every day, and I couldn’t seem to care about anything.
About a month after the dance, Rebecca told me she’d broken up with Keith, and I shrugged the way Keith had shrugged at me about our A in science. It didn’t matter anymore. Everything was broken, and I couldn’t trust the world, and I didn’t have any magic to help me. We were still friends who did homework together and saw movies sometimes, but it wasn’t the same. I became very quiet, and I stopped looking at people. I didn’t want anyone to be able to say I stared like an animal.
When I got home from one of my blurry schooldays one bright April day, I found our place empty and a note on the counter saying Aunt Dee had had a stroke, that my family was all at the hospital. They would take me to see her later.
Would there be a later? What would it look like? How would my life work at all without Aunt Dee? For some time, I panicked and buried my head in a pillow, let myself imagine the worst. I heard a distant meow as the sun was hanging low, and I realized it was past feeding time.
Across the street, the cats seemed agitated, waving their tails in the air, meowing furiously at me. Were they worried about their friend, or were they hungry? Either way, I knew Dee would want me to feed them, so I lugged the giant container of kibble from her kitchen to the backyard and scooped the right portions into the pie tins. The cats ate, but they weren’t satisfied. They ate angrily, and when they were done, they kept talking at me. They seemed to want answers. I wanted answers, too, but my house was empty, and everyone had left me there while they saw about the sick version of my happy Aunt Dee.
I thought about the wishes I’d put off, the way I’d saved my requests. Aunt Dee was frugal, too. Maybe she had put off too many favors from the cats. Maybe she had wanted to save the luck for me.
I was done with saving up. I gathered each cat I could into my lap, and for once they let me, forgetting their wildness. I asked each one for help to save Aunt Dee. I asked Happy to help her get better, and Nell to make her joyful even at the hospital, and Bandit to make my family strong, and Lemon to solve the stroke problem, and Lane to make her the most successful stroke patient in the world, and Possum to make me and Aunt Dee’s doctors and my whole family wise. Finally, I gathered Pretty in my lap, the black cat who I sensed was the luckiest, and I begged that we’d all be lucky forever. She licked my fingertips as if they were fish sticks. I took it as a good sign. I was hungry for good signs.
I stayed with the cats until the sun was gone, and I finally heard my parents pull into the driveway. Aunt Dee was okay, they said. That was the only word they’d use—“okay.” She was awake, and they had spoken to her, but she couldn’t speak back yet. I was relieved, though I could tell they weren’t telling me everything.
I saw her the next day, and I was afraid of her drooping face, but I kissed her on the cheek anyway and told her how I was feeding the cats. I told her that they missed her, that they were looking for her.
“The cats missed you,” she said, the only sentence she was able to speak to me that day.
After her hospital stay, I thought she’d be coming back home, but instead my parents took her to a nursing home. They said she needed to be taken care of for now, and it was the better of the two nursing homes in town. I felt betrayed again, wondered why the cats had let me down. My parents promised she would be happy at the nursing home. She would make friends and take painting classes and listen to volunteers play music.
“A better home than I’ll ever get,” Grandpa muttered. “On her government wealth.”
I kept feeding the cats, kept asking them for anything I could think of. But soon, my parents got a real estate agent to help Dee sell the trailer to pay for her care. The agent said the cats would have to go. Mom told the rest of the family to keep it a secret from Aunt Dee and me. One day when I was at school, she took them two-at-a-time in Dee’s cat crates and left them in a neighborhood a town over. She did it while I was at school. She said they would be happier there. I doubted that, but at least she couldn’t bring herself to have them put down.
Aunt Dee was never wrong, and she had always told me the truth about the cats. Their luck kept coming back to her and me. I made a new friend, Joshua, the boy who had asked me to dance and smelled like medicine. He turned out to be the nicest person I had ever known. And though it took a while, I could walk by myself to the nursing home, and I visited Aunt Dee there several times a week. I wished on the cats from far away now. I wished they could help her like her new home, and she said she did like it.
On her next birthday, I brought her a cupcake, and as she blew out the candle, I saw the cats through the window. I counted to be sure, and all ten were there. They sat in a little circle, visible in the moonlight in the garden of the nursing home. I helped Aunt Dee stand up so she could see them.
“I spent so long treating them like they were going to run out of luck,” she said.
I confessed I had, too.
“Luck isn’t like money, though. Luck is wilder than an animal,” she said. “You can’t tame it, but if you feed it you can keep it around.”
I never saw the cats again, but she told me they visited her from time to time. Sometimes I wonder if the luck came from her or from them. Either way, when I find myself wishing for something, sometimes I feel luck’s electricity. I learned from Aunt Dee how to find good fortune in my own backyard, and I taught myself that I don’t have to save up my wishes. Just like Aunt Dee, life is always giving me gifts. And just like her, I’m happy to share them.
About the Author
About the Narrator
As KB Sluss, Karissa’s short stories have appeared in Cast of Wonders, Daily Science Fiction, Luna Station Quarterly, and Stupefying Stories. She is also an assistant editor at Cast of Wonders and served as Co-Editor for Cast of Wonders-Artemis Rising 5. As Karissa Laurel, she is the author of several adult and YA novels. Her latest YA series, The Stormbourne Chronicles, is a YA fantasy about the daughter of the god of thunder. You can follow her online and on Twitter.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.