Auntie Liu glanced at the door every few minutes. The food in the baby bowl still sat untouched.
Each morning, she cooked chicken breasts and ground the meat until the crumbs were no bigger than her fingernails. She put a full bowl at the corner of her storefront, then positioned her chair to leave enough distance between herself and the bowl, but still with a clear view of it.
The cat usually came at nine or ten, before the summer air turned sluggish. The first couple of days, he’d push around the pieces with a paw, sniffing before nibbling on them. Now he gulped them down, pink tongue darting and curling with impatient speed. Auntie Liu watched the feeding cat with a familiar satisfaction that had long evaded her. The chicken must be good, for the cat had grown noticeably rounder.
Every day Auntie Liu waited, and every day the cat came.
Except for today. It was past noon already, and the cat still hadn’t shown. Auntie Liu hovered by the door and looked up and down the street. Lao Wang, the neighborhood guard, sauntered through the bicycle-littered alley, with a bamboo fan in one hand and a tea mug in the other.
He spotted Auntie Liu and waved. “Auntie Liu, alright? Has Ling called lately?”
“He’s busy,” Auntie Liu said. “You know, city life.”
“Yeah. The hustle-bustle.”
“Listen.” Auntie Liu switched the topic. “Have you seen an orange cat?”
“What?” Lao Wang squinted his eyes as sweat trickled from his forehead.
“An orange cat. Chubby. Have you seen him?”
“No? I don’t remember you having a cat.”
Lao Wang half frowned, half laughed. “Then why —”
“Can you keep an eye on my shop for a bit?” Auntie Liu interrupted him.
“Sure.” Lao Wang shrugged. “When are you coming back?”
“Soon,” Auntie Liu hurried out.
The sun blazed in the middle of the white sky as Auntie Liu hastened down the street, searching under parked scooters, on top of fences, and behind food stands. She shook every garbage can she could spot, hoping the cat would come scuttering out. Passers-by shot her side glances, but she didn’t care.
Maybe he’d been hit by a car. Her heart squeezed as soon as the thought crossed her mind, and she quickly pushed away the image of an orange lump lying still in the middle of the street as blood crawled like snake from underneath.
Her mind always went to the worst place. Years ago, when Ling threw a tantrum on their way home, she pretended to leave him behind. After charging forward for a couple of minutes, she realized he didn’t keep up. She searched for hours, terrified that he might be kidnapped or hurt or worse, before he turned up at a guard station unscathed. Relief washed over her as she pulled him in her arms, apologizing over and over as if saying “sorry” enough times would flush away the guilt and shame. Ling remembered the anecdote as an adventure, oblivious of the panic that it still inspired.
Auntie Liu looked all afternoon for the cat. Every time she spotted a moving creature, her heart leapt before tumbling again, realizing it was not him.
Dinner time came as mothers called to their children to come home. Auntie Liu wandered down the street, sweat cooled on the back of her shirt.
She should give up. After all, it was just a cat. She let out a soft laugh and suddenly felt all the weariness of the silly chase after a stray cat.
She plodded back to her store. Lao Wang was still waiting for her.
“Where have you been?”
“Sorry,” she said. “I —”
“Never mind! Come, you gotta see this.”
Lao Wang pulled her inside, led her to the inventory room in the back and through the door that stood ajar. Inside, cardboard boxes littered on the floor.
“Look, under that cardboard by the window,” Lao Wang whispered.
Auntie Liu frowned and bent down to peer underneath.
Within, outlined by the last tender light before sunset, lay an orange cat with five kittens suckling on her belly. Auntie Liu stared at the tiny creatures, wearing the thinnest coats of fur, eyes still closed, clinging blindly to their mother.
She’d assumed that the cat was a boy. All small animals appeared to be boys to her, playful, mischievous, in need of constant, devoted care.
“See, no need to worry.” Lao Wang patted on her shoulder.
Auntie Liu smiled. She’d always worry. As the cat licked her babies with that pink tongue, she felt the comfortable burden of motherhood.
Yunya Yang was born and raised in Central China and moved to the US when she was eighteen. Her work has appeared and is forthcoming in trampset, Heavy Feather Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and others. She lives in Chicago with her husband Chris and cat Ichiro. Find her at www.yunyayang.com and on Twitter @YangYunya.