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It was summer vacation and Kiki spent her afternoons on a beach towel in the backyard. She sprayed lemon juice in her hair and read magazines while sunbathing, a rare combination of activities that pleased both her mother and herself. That’s how Annie found her one day. Kiki named her that later, of course, because of her ginger fur and destitution. She sauntered right up to Kiki, brushing her swollen belly against Kiki’s oiled one, and started yowling like they were old friends who hadn’t gossiped in a while.
“Are you one of the weird kids, too?” Kiki asked, glad for the distraction. She brought out a can of tuna and a dish of milk and Annie never really left after that.
At the party there is glitter confetti, neon balloons afloat with helium, and a photo booth stocked with props. There is a unicorn-shaped birthday cake stuffed with sprinkles, and small, pastel-colored snacks. A stereo pushes out today’s top 40s and gangs of preteens silly dance and chase each other around the backyard. Kiki watches them, dressed in black cut-off jean shorts and an oversized band t-shirt. All of them are classmates, but most of them are not friends. Somehow, over the music, she hears Annie’s bells, and sees her streak of orange fur through the rainbow streamers, sweaty calves, and summer sunshine. It’s almost time.
She walks up to Jessica, a friend, sort of, at the punch bowl. “I’ve got to get out of here.”
Jessica is filling up a plastic cup with pink sparkly punch. She nods and marches to the center of the backyard. Jessica screams: long, loud, and high. Kiki’s mother swoops in. Classmates swarm. Kiki slips away to the barn, like a ghost, or an angel, something unknown and unseen.
At the barn, there is the creak of the door and the slide of the wheels as Kiki pushes it sideways, engaging her calf muscles so they pop out like a jack-in-the-box. There is the sunlight, mingling with dust motes. There is the smell of dirt and horse hair. There is the feeling of being close to old secrets.
Kiki finds Annie up in the loft, nestled on top of a hay bale. Annie’s torso distends and stretches, little peaks and valleys randomly appearing as the inhabitants grow restless. Ripples roll down her side and her body contracts into a C shape. She shifts into a low crouch, and with one more smooth ripple, a small wet sac is released. Annie reaches her mouth down to it and licks, breaking apart the slick layer of protection and revealing tufts of hair, brown, black, and orange in color. Annie chews at the cord that still connects the kitten to her, but does not seem inclined to eat her offspring. Kiki is relieved. The kitten gropes its way to one of Annie’s nipples, bumping its nose against it before connecting with its mouth.
“Is that a stray?” Annie’s mother had asked one day. Having just gotten home from work, she popped her head out into the backyard, keeping the rest of her body behind the sliding glass door as if she was afraid that Kiki’s teenage surliness was contagious. Kiki scratched Annie’s head and pretended not to hear.
“I said, is that a stray?”
Kiki looked up from where she sat cross-legged on the ground. Her mother wore a crisp pantsuit and her lipstick was never faded or smudged. Kiki didn’t match her outfits with her jewelry and she didn’t wear makeup, even though her mother had sent her to the drugstore with a crisp twenty-dollar bill for that very reason. Kiki said she didn’t want to wear it, but really she was scared she’d mess it up, and instead of a Cover Girl model, end up looking like a hooker or a zombie.
“This is Annie,” Kiki said.
Her mother shook her head, started to close the sliding glass door again. “She’s not coming inside the house!”
Before Kiki can think of words to begin to describe what she’s just seen, it happens again. Another lumpy moist ball comes out of Annie and she reaches for it, bumping the first away from her body in the process. The second kitten is a ginger like its mother, and loud and whiny. The third kitten comes out like water from a faucet, but Annie’s body shakes from the effort. The three kittens bumble around, taking a few groping steps before their legs crumple under them. They move like robots. Annie breathes heavily.
Kiki’s mother threw a fit when she started sleeping out in the barn. “Why can’t you like pop music and nail polish?”
“I want to be there when it happens. I need to. There’s a chance Annie might eat them – it’s natural, but I can’t bear to think about it.”
“Neither can I. You read too much.”
Kiki walked past her with a sleeping bag, pillow, an armful of books, and a flashlight. Her mother threw up her hands. “I just don’t know what to do with you!”
Annie slept on Kiki’s chest that night, flattening her out like book pages on flower petals. We are like death and life, Kiki thought as she fell asleep. Mother and daughter, so close together, so rotten and sweet. Can’t have one without the other.
The fourth kitten is pitch black and smaller than the others. It seems content to remain where it landed. Annie reaches her head towards it, but is too occupied with the other three to do more. The kitten’s body moves only in echoes, like a Jello platter someone bumped into. Kiki crouches down and leans closer. She sees the rib cage moving, struggling to do what it is made to do, but a rich muffling noise is the only result.
At the pet supply shop in town, a few days ago, Kiki bought a stack of canned wet food, and a collar with bells on it. She slipped it on Annie’s neck, while she ate the salmon flavored meal. “It’s so I can hear you. You can let me know. You’ll let me be there when it happens right?” Annie stopped eating long enough to nuzzle her head into Kiki’s palm. Kiki thought about her carnival goldfish that she had when she was five. Her father had won it for her. She had fed it too much and it went belly-up. Kiki cried, loud and wet, but her mother just picked up the bowl and took it to the bathroom, clucking her tongue.
Kiki swoops a hand down and scoops up the fourth. It fits in the palm of her hand. Annie, defensive, hisses and swipes a paw, striking Kiki’s right forearm with a weight that draws blood. The fourth’s body is warm and immobile in Kiki’s palm, like a coal removed from a burning fire. She sets the kitten on top of her thighs and wraps the inside of her t-shirt around the wet burning body, rubbing her hands back and forth. Now she sees the kitten’s face, where a thick cord of mucus still clings, and she wipes roughly at it. The dark blob expands and contracts. The kitten lets out a sore crackling cry, proving that air is circulating its lungs. Kiki holds it up against her chest for a few moments, feeling its heart beat with hers, then places it beside Annie and the rest of the litter.
The night before, Kiki’s mother surprised her by bringing dinner out to her in the barn. “Your birthday party is tomorrow. Don’t forget.”
Kiki shoved the food in her mouth all at once: lasagna, salad, garlic bread. Suburban resentment made her hungry. “No one will show up.” Kiki was the weird kid, but soon she would be the weird kid with kittens, and that would somehow make it more bearable.
“All of your classmates from last year are showing up. All their mothers have RSVP’d.”
“I won’t have any fun.”
Her mother shrugged. “Suit yourself. Your classmates will.”
Kiki watches the cats, a complete and potent family now. Annie is a mother; her kittens are sons and daughters. Kiki looks at the mucus and uterine tissue on her t-shirt, bits and particles of glory and magic, wondering if Annie will ever force her kittens to be something they’re not. Doubtful. Kiki can see her backyard from a window in the barn loft. A song she likes plays on the stereo. Her mother holds the knife, about to cut the unicorn cake into slices and give it away to everyone, one small portion at a time.
Some afternoons, Kiki’s mother would join her out in the backyard, bringing a glass of wine and a Danielle Steel paperback. She’d perch on a lawn chair. “The party is happening, whether you like it or not,” her mother said to her one day, turning pages but not really reading. Kiki had already been sleeping out in the barn for about a week. Annie’s belly was close to bursting. She resembled a pinata toy, and Kiki knew her mother would secretly like to take a swing at her belly. Kiki knew if things had turned out the way her mother had hoped, she wouldn’t be an only child, carrying all of her mother’s hopes and desires on her bony shoulders.
“It could be any day now,” Kiki told her mother. “I can’t promise I’ll be available for a celebration.”
Her mother shook her head. “You’re turning thirteen. Of course you’ll be available for a celebration. Just tell me what you’d rather have as a theme: unicorns or mermaids?”
Kiki picked unicorns, because sometimes she felt like one: something ridiculous that no one really believed in.
Erin Schallmoser recently moved from Florida to Washington State in a van with her husband. She studied writing at University of Tampa and taught middle school English for seven years. When she’s not reading or writing, she’s probably listening to a podcast or delighting in some combination of moss, slugs, stones, wildflowers, and small birds.