Buddy licked his lips, belched and rolled over, sighing as he felt the afternoon sun’s warmth on his belly.
It was his favorite time of day and he was enjoying fresh air on the balcony, sitting in his favorite chair and surveying the world below like a little king. If he’d had a belt, he’d loosen it after scarfing down every last morsel of turkey and licking his bowl clean.
He waved his tail, thinking of how he’d pass the time later. Perhaps he would have a nap, then demand that Big Buddy take out the laser pointer. With a little luck, he might be given catnip as well, otherwise he’d have to meow relentlessly for it. Failing that, there was a new plastic bottle ring he’d stashed away for later play, and if Big Buddy were to fall asleep while watching baseball, Buddy could entertain himself by repeatedly waking his human via ambush. That was always delightful.
A squeak interrupted his thoughts, too high for humans to pick up but still well within his own hearing range. He sat up and cocked his head forward as his ears swiveled, trying to pinpoint where the noise had come from.
Sudden movement on his peripheral vision snapped his eyes to the target: Down below, among the cars and trees, a tiny animal scurried from beneath the cover of one car to another.
Buddy wasn’t sure what it was, exactly, but he knew he wanted to catch it.
He hopped off his throne and crouched low, poking his head through the balcony railing as he tracked the rodent.
The light box inside pumped out its usual weekday sounds: The crack of a ball against wood, the cheers of tens of thousands of humans, and Big Buddy alternately celebrating or sighing in frustration.
For all their supposed seriousness, humans were strangely invested in watching other humans play with toys.
Buddy caught movement beneath the rear bumper of a squat SUV. Two rodential faces peaked out from cover, chittering in human-inaudible frequencies.
His tail thrashed against the floor as he watched the diminutive trespassers brazenly moving about on the edge of his territory. They were mocking him, he was sure of it! He would have his revenge by ruthlessly hunting each of them down and jumping around joyfully on his hind legs, which he always did after he won at hunting games with Buddy the Larger.
The rodential duo took off, abandoning the cover of the SUV for the lower-hanging body and bumper of an old Nissan Skyline.
Bud’s tail thumped furiously. The twitchy little interlopers were getting ready to run again.
Buddy leapt from the balcony before he was consciously aware of what he was doing, meowing an “Oh poop!” as he dropped the 14 feet to the ground. He hit the ground hard but shared the impact on all four limbs. He’d be sore later, but the thought was gone as fast as it came, replaced by the primal instinct that had caused him to jump in the first place: The hunt.
His targets were now well aware of his presence, chittering furiously at each other between cars. Bud stalked the more plump of the two, crouching low so he could track its movement.
A distant subwoofer thumped the air, sending vibrations through the ground to his paw pads. The pudgy rodent took off, gunning for the fence at the far end of the lot and the safety of the trees beyond.
Driven entirely by instinct, Bud gave chase without realizing a car had turned the corner and was pulling into the lot, fast.
“Mrrrrrrooowww!” Buddy exclaimed, dashing away from the vehicle.
It was still moving, still coming toward him with that awful, furious thump from its speakers. Buddy ran and ran until he could run no more: out of the lot, away from his building, up the street, past strange houses emanating strange smells and into a park, where he hoped the car couldn’t chase him.
He collapsed on the grass and sprawled out, chest heaving. That was too close, he thought.
Now he had another problem, one he’d failed to consider when he jumped from the balcony: How would he get back inside? He couldn’t just walk into the apartment building. You needed a human to open the front door, then get past a second door that only opened via some sort of human sorcery that involved waving a little piece of plastic in front of the handle. He knew that much from his night walks with Big Buddy, when the stimulation was almost too much to bear — the smell-taste of flowers at nose level, the spiral cascade of water from the sprinklers, the far-off hum of the deathway, where thousands of cars rumbled down endless lanes of hard human-made ground.
If by luck he was able to slip inside as a human was entering his building, he’d have to cross the lobby, walk down the hallway and finally reach the door to his realm and domicile. Could he reach the door bell? If he meowed loud enough, would Big Bud hear him?
“What do we have here?” Buddy had been so lost in his thoughts and worries that he hadn’t noticed the human walk right up to him. He suddenly felt very vulnerable and rolled onto his stomach.
It was a human boy. He wore a dark baseball cap and a wide grin that didn’t reach his eyes.
“Easy,” he said, reaching out.
Buddy hissed, arching his back. The boy took another step forward, hand still extended. Buddy retreated a few steps, cautiously keeping his eyes on the boy as the fur on his tail spiked outward.
“Here, kitty kitty,” the boy said mockingly.
Buddy took another step away, then felt a pair of human hands clamp around his belly.
“Gotcha!” said another human boy, who had approached from behind as his friend served as a distraction.
Buddy squirmed, lashing out with his claws.
“Hey!” the second boy said. “The little fucker scratched me!”
“Bad kitty!” the first boy said, slapping Buddy on the top of his head. “Ohohoho! He’s pissed!”
The boys laughed as Buddy struggled.
“Come on,” the first boy said. “There’s a pair of gloves and some beach towels in my mom’s car. We can wrap the little shit up in the towel.”
“Where we going, Spencer?” the second boy said, holding the still-struggling Buddy tight as they walked toward the car.
“We could take him beneath the railroad bridge,” Spencer said as he opened the trunk. “I’ve got half a bottle of lighter fluid. We could have ourselves a little barbecue.”
The boys wrapped Buddy in a towel, muffling their laughter. He heard car doors closing and a crystalline human voice singing through speakers. Vibrations felt through his captor’s hands told him they were moving.
“Careful,” Spencer said after they had parked. “Just hold him, don’t be such a little bitch, dude. He’s not gonna hurt you.”
Buddy didn’t understand what they were planning to do with him, but he instinctively knew his life was in danger. He went slack.
“S’okay,” Spencer’s friend said. “He’s not struggling anymore. I don’t think he has any fight left.”
“Oh, he will,” Spencer said. He pushed back the towel, uncovering Buddy’s face.
“We’re gonna have some fun with you, you little shit,” Spencer said, leaning in close. “We’re gonna…”
Spencer howled as Buddy chomped on his lip with all his might.
Spencer’s shocked friend loosened his grip, and for a second or two Buddy swung from the shrieking teenager’s face, the latter’s panicked breath radiating in hyperventilating blasts. His smirk had evaporated, replaced by flush cheeks and a mask of pain.
Buddy released Spencer’s lip, tasting blood, and ran for his life. As he disappeared into the trees he could hear Spencer sobbing hysterically.
When he was sure the boys weren’t following him, he crossed a human yard in a blur and scurried beneath a short wooden staircase leading to a porch. A lawnmower droned in a yard nearby. In a neighboring basement, someone pounded out the opening kicks and snares of a song about a prince buying flowers.
“And if you want to call me baby…” a male human crooned over the drums and guitar, “just go ahead now!”
As Bud’s breathing slowed and the fear chemicals subsided, a new kind of dread filled the vacuum. Neither his eyes nor his ears nor his nose could tell him where he was.