Blackie scurried up a tree with impressive speed while Clyde took off like a cat possessed.
That left Buddy, who didn’t know the area, and didn’t know the gaps in fences or under-porch hideaways that would grant him temporary safety from the mountain of a dog barreling toward him.
He ran in the same direction Clyde had gone, hoping to follow the ginger tabby to safety, but he was already out of sight.
Peggy gained on Buddy, huffing like a bellows.
Buddy weaved around a rusting bike and ran for a stand of trees and brush that could afford cover. Maybe. He could feel Peggy’s breath on his back now. His little legs pumped as fast as they could, but a shadow overtook him followed by its owner.
Peggy landed on top of Buddy with surprising nimbleness, pinning him with her huge belly. Buddy’s heart threatened to beat out of his chest. Peggy opened her massive maw. Vicious-looking canines framed a row of smaller teeth like a serrated knife. Buddy closed his eyes, bracing…
…and felt a big wet tongue leave a saliva trail from the back of his neck to his forehead.
Peggy panted as she licked him, her drool shaping his fur until he looked like someone had styled him with an entire bottle of industrial strength hair gel. She barked happily, grinning from ear to ear, then began licking his left paw.
Buddy squirmed under the big pit and meowed at her indignantly.
“Untongue me this instant!” he demanded, but Peggy just kept licking.
Blackie snickered from a branch. A pair of wrens chirped, then took off from a branch above the pantherine cat.
Peggy gave Buddy’s forehead another lick, lathering on so much saliva that he had to close his eyes as it ran down his face.
“Peggy, baby!” a human voice boomed from behind the trees in a playful tone.
The huge dog raised her head, gave Buddy a final gooey swipe of her tongue and hopped off, cheerfully skipping her way home.
Neither Clyde nor Blackie said anything, mercifully. They both looked at him in horror, recoiling at the layer of saliva that almost entirely encased him, but they didn’t laugh or make jokes at his expense. They pity me, Buddy thought.
Blackie led them around a shed, through a hole in a wooden fence just big enough to wiggle through, then into a well-kept backyard shaded by oak trees. Up ahead was a wooden porch. One side of it was built around a huge rectangular depression filled with motionless clear blue water.
“Crazy humans,” Blackie meowed, looking at the pool with distrust.
Nice Lady herself was sitting on the opposite end of the porch beneath a canvas green-and-white awning, her face buried in a book. The human woman didn’t see them approaching and only looked up when Clyde put a paw on the first step and meowed.
“Orange Boy!” Nice Lady said, placing the book on the table next to her. “And Panther!”
Buddy watched as the two hardscrabble strays transformed themselves into harmless little kitty cats. Clyde made a big show of uncertainty, then hopped up on the deck and approached Nice Lady, rubbing himself against her legs. Blackie followed, dropping down and showing his belly.
“Where have you little rascals been?” Nice Lady cooed. “I was worried about…Oh my, you have a friend!”
Buddy crouched a few feet away from the stairs leading up to the deck, watching her silently.
Nice Lady made kissy sounds, then stood up. “You three must be very hungry! Wait here, my little darlings,” she said, stepping through a sliding glass door.
“Ya see, kid?” Clyde meowed, hopping up and helping himself to Nice Lady’s chair.
Cicadas buzzed. A breeze shifted leaf shadows on the deck.
“I hope it’s eggs today,” Blackie said, “otherwise we’re gonna have to visit the red house after this.”
Clyde stretched and yawned. Buddy carefully climbed the porch steps, realizing with horror that his paws were leaving prints of nearly-gelatinous saliva on the wood. He reached the top and crouched, his tail flicking uncomfortably.
Clyde saw the look in his eyes and realized what he was about to do.
“No!” he meowed. “You’re crazy!”
Buddy didn’t care. He shook himself like a dog, sending disgusting little saliva missiles at both his friends — the least he could do as payback for abandoning him to Peggy’s tongue assault — then took off running and leaped into the pool.
He shivered, but his body quickly adapted to the temperature of the water. To his surprise, the water was a comfort, and most importantly he was no longer mummified in a thick layer of gooey pitbull spit.
Nice Lady returned after a few minutes, carrying a stack of paper plates and a steaming bowl covered with a paper towel.
“Okay, boys,” she said, placing the paper plates in a row. “Eat up!”
Blackie meowed with excitement as Nice Lady removed the paper towel and scooped heaps of scrambled eggs from the bowl.
“Careful now, they’re still hot,” she said.
Blackie and Clyde dug in immediately. Nice Lady looked around for Bud and, realizing he was actually in her pool, retrieved one of those black rectangles humans love so much and held it up.
“Cheese!” she said, confusing Buddy. “A cat who likes water! Who knew?”
She retreated a few steps to her chair and resumed her reading, sipping from a wine glass.
Buddy’s stomach rumbled. He paddled to the steps leading out of the pool, then padded cautiously to his plate.
“Oh! Oh! Of all the good eatin’!” Blackie said. “You’ve gotta try this, kid!”
Buddy lapped at the eggs. They were delicious! There was cheese and little chunks of meat that Blackie called “ham.”
The three of them ate in silence except for Blackie’s enthusiastic grunts of approval. Buddy was so grateful to get food in his tummy that he didn’t even realize Nice Lady had approached them. He froze, ready to sprint, but she just crouched down and ladled more eggs onto each plate.
“So good,” Blackie mewed. “Incredible! Fantastique! Superlatives fail me!”
All three cats cleaned their plates, then sprawled out on the deck, grooming themselves with the satisfaction of full bellies.
Nice Lady had gone inside again, and when she returned she brought bowls of water, bags that crinkled and a towel for Buddy.
“I hope you boys saved room for dessert,” she said cheerily.
Buddy licked his lips.
“Why did you slap my paw away when I went for the Temps?” Buddy asked later.
“Because,” Clyde said, “that stuff is the kitty crack.”
“Do you have any idea what that stuff has done to our people?” Clyde said.
“Here he goes again,” Blackie meowed, shaking his head.
The trio padded across the short grass of the backyard as the light began to fade, heading for the little shed they’d passed on the way into the backyard, where Nice Lady had installed a kitty door.
“You can’t handle the truth!” Clyde trilled to his friend.
“What truth?” Buddy asked. Blackie groaned.
“The Temps were specifically engineered by humans to get us hooked,” Clyde said, taking on a conspiratorial tone. “See, the humans don’t like how we’re independent free spirits, unlike dogs. No self-respecting cat would run panting to his human the way those eager-to-please idiots do.”
Buddy considered the orange tabby’s point.
“But what does that have to do with controlling us?”
Clyde waved a paw at a house cat watching them from a neighbor’s bay window, her body language broadcasting a mix of curiosity and annoyance.
“You think kittypet over there would ever run off if it meant no more Temps?” he meowed. “They’re all cracked out on the Temps! Those spoiled, soft-living, fat, lazy kittypets are an embarrassment to the feline kingdom.”
He looked at Buddy. “Present company mostly excluded, of course.”
They filed into the shed, eyes adjusting to the gloom. There was a litter box, two wide bowls of fresh water, a plastic contained filled with dry kibble and, arranged on a small area carpet, a cozy sleeping spot ringed with pillows and blankets.
“Not bad,” Buddy said, feeling like a civilized cat again for the first time in days.
“Not bad?” Blackie asked. “Kid, this is the Waldorf of Westchester! It doesn’t get any better than this.”
After some mild haggling over the best sleeping spots, the three cats settled down. Sleeping on a full stomach for the first time since he’d left home, Buddy’s eyelids grew heavy as he mentally assembled a plan to find his way home.