Stella huddled against the side of the house, eyes slitted against the blowing snow. The wind whistled in the small cat’s ears, slicing through her gray fur and making her tremble uncontrollably. Her teeth chattered, and her paws were numb. She let out a miserable mewl. “Why, oh why, did I ever leave home?”
Stella hadn’t meant to run away, exactly; she’d only wanted to go outside for a little and bat at this new, entertaining white fluff that drifted out of the sky. But when Stella was done romping around and had meowed at the door, no friendly human had come to let her in. Not even when she’d yowled and raked her claws down the door!
Stella closed her eyes and pictured the door, red paint scarred with five gashes exposing raw wood. She felt like the door now, her “paint” scraped away to reveal the small, scared cat inside.
Knowing she couldn’t go inside, Stella had wandered away, bored and alone. Now night was falling, the world growing darker and colder, and all Stella wanted to do was go home. A warm fire, a comfy bed, my human’s gentle hands stroking my back….
Stella shook her head, trying to clear away the fantasy like it was a film of dust on her fur. I can’t sleep here, she thought. I’ve got to find a better place. Fighting off the anxiety waging war in her mind, Stella got stiffly to her paws and raised her chin, tail high. I am Stella. And no mere storm defeats me!
This one sure would give her a run for her money, though. The snow was up her belly, and Stella couldn’t feel a hair on her pelt after only a few heartbeats of walking. She trekked on, though, clinging to the hope that she’d somehow find a warm, cozy house to sleep in.
What felt like days later, but was probably only a couple minutes, Stella felt like giving up. No more “I can do it” mentality for this cat. But, like a vision before her, Stella saw… an area without snow? She sucked in her breath quickly, regretting it as the cold air stung her throat.
An alley lay before her, shielded from the swirling snow. Stella’s green eyes stretched wide. Her tail whisked with excitement. Suddenly rejuvenated, she streaked forward, practically flying over the snow, powder flinging up behind her like a freezing mist.
In the alley now, Stella’s gaze roved until it rested on a small nook behind a metal trash can, lined with shredded newspaper. Stella loped to it, kneading her paws in the newspaper, pricking it with her claws. I couldn’t have made a better bed myself, she thought with a pleased, exhausted purr.
All of her energy spurt drained, Stella collapsed onto the newspaper, asleep almost before her eyes closed.
* * *
A low, rolling growl sounded through the alley. Stella’s eyes popped open, glowing in the early morning darkness. Fear coursed through her, electrifying the fur on her back; it stood straight up.
A huge, gray animal stood before her. It had short, coarse fur, a bushy, ringed tail, small, round ears, and a black mask around its beady eyes. Its lips were peeled back from sharp, yellowed teeth, and its eyes had a malicious gleam.
Terror made Stella feel faint. This was a creature from nightmares, an animal that haunted even the bravest of cats.
Another deafening growl erupted from the raccoon, and Stella added her own scared shriek to the clamor. The rank scent of raccoon filled her nose, and she realized it came from the newspaper as well as the creature. She must have been too tired last night to recognize the smell. “Oh no!” she wailed aloud. “I stole its home!”
The raccoon advanced on Stella, claws clicking menacingly on the concrete. Stella backed up farther and farther, until her tail lashed into the brick wall of the alley. The raccoon let out a short, sharp bark, knowing it had the cat trapped. The expression in its eyes changed from anger to a cold happiness.
Panic took over Stella’s body. Her whole pelt bushed out; she looked like a ball of gray fuzz with green eyes that flickered with fear. Her mind whirled with survival instinct. Fight or flight.
Stella’s muscles tensed, and before she knew what was happening, she was leaping, soaring right over a stunned raccoon, landing neatly on light paws and sprinting out of that alley as fast as if her tail were on fire. The creature’s eerie screeches still echoed in her ears, vibrating in her.
Stella was like the wind, whooshing over the snow, leaving nothing but swirling flakes in her wake. She was like a bird, riding the snowdrifts and swooping down them in great bounds. She was like an arrow, springing forward and zipping ahead. So fast… faster… faster… faster….
Despite herself, Stella laughed aloud, enjoying the cold air whipping around her face, fondling her ears, flattening her whiskers. She hadn’t felt this free for as long as she could remember. And that thought made her skid to a sudden halt, showering snowflakes in a white cloud.
Now that she knew what it was like to be free, how could she ever go back?
Stella’s mind churned like ocean waves, each idea crashing into the one before until she couldn’t think straight, spraying little particles of thoughts everywhere.
Inside or out? Together or alone? Home or free?
The lure of the wild tugged at Stella. It beckoned her, waving to her with curls of wind and flurries of snow. But home called too. Warmth and comfort, a human who loved her…. Stella’s heart ached, but her decision was made. How could she abandon her human? She needed Stella… and Stella needed her.
As soon as she’d thought that, Stella felt a flash of something familiar. She stiffened. She could smell home!
Heart thumping a tattoo against her ribs, Stella breathed deeply, inhaling the scents of home, of love and welcomeness and hope. With a yowl of triumph, she raced away, tracing the smell. A few blocks away, she slowed to a trot.
There it was. Her house: gray paint, blue shutters, red door bearing her scratches. Stella approached cautiously, almost believing that if she moved too fast it all would disappear, like ripples distorting a reflection in water.
But it didn’t. The door opened, and with mirroring cries of joy, the human and her cat were reunited. The human scooped Stella into her arms, hugging her close. Stella relaxed completely into the human, purrs shaking her body violently. She was home, leaving the pawprints in the snow behind forever.