TOSHIRO KAWASAKI ILLUSTRATION
When the cherry trees bloom, my mind is full of lady cats. I have an urge to fight every male I see. Pinky, Shredder and Natsume are different, though — they're my bros. Besides, Pinky's neutered, Nat has no claws, and Shredder is clearly not well. There is a bad odor coming off him, and one of his legs is infected. This seems impossibly depressing on such a glorious warm day. I'd rather be on the prowl, to be honest, but with Shredder so sick, Nat's predicament is urgent.
Several times this past winter, we searched for and found the kind old man who hands out slices of ham in the park.
"Form a bond with him," I coached Nat. "Shredder can't look after you forever."
Nat has been trying his best. The man doesn't chase him off, exactly, and offers Nat treats, but then he stares off into the distance, rubbing a ring on his finger. Nat can't get his attention.
"It's not going to happen," Shredder says today, lying down, his mouth half-opened in a grotesque grimace. "Life is not that easy."
"Don't say that!" Pinky says, but his heart isn't in his words. "Miracles do happen."
When we four spot the old man approaching again, I feel the familiar tightness of hope that Natsume, old as he is, will find a caretaker in this stranger.
Today, though, the old man sits on a bench and puts his head in his hands. Suddenly, Shredder leaps up and starts shouting like a lunatic. Pinky, Natsume and I stare. "Stop it, Shredder," I shriek, afraid that the old man, who has looked up now, will be frightened off.
Shredder ignores me and hobbles unsteadily to the edge of the park, where cars whizz by. Without warning, he darts out into traffic. The air leaves my lungs and the world moves in slow motion. A car hits Shredder's wracked frame full on, flipping it off to the side of the road. The driver never stops. The sound of Shredder's cry on impact echos in my ears. "Nat!"
Natsume runs toward where Shredder has fallen. Blindly sniffing him out, Nat prods at Shredder with both paws. Pinky and I don't move. We know there is nothing we can do. But Nat doesn't stop, licking and nudging Shredder's lifeless body, calling out his name.
What happens next shouldn't surprise me, but it does. The old man walks over to Natsume. He has tears in his eyes. He bends slowly, puts his cane on one arm, and picks up Natsume, holding him gently on his shoulder, stroking him.
I dart a look at Pinky, and without a word, we vanish. From under a park shrub, we watch the old man, and I sense that he will not simply put Natsume back down in the street. When they finally disappear together, we pay our last respects to Shredder, lying on fallen cherry blossoms.
I cannot say if Natsume's woes are over, or if Shredder knew exactly what he was doing. Some things cannot be known, even if one lives nine lives. (The end)