The steak was the first thing to go missing. I’d left it to defrost in the fridge overnight, but by morning, only the plate it had been sitting on remained. I asked my husband, Connor, about it, but he said he hadn’t touched it, and our seven year old son, Jamie, was so thoroughly grossed out by raw meat that I didn’t bother questioning him. It was a mystery I wasn’t sure would ever be solved; the kind that would no doubt be a funny story you tell at family get-togethers in the future.
And then the sausages vanished a few days later, followed by a couple of chicken quarters some time after that, and then a whole spiral cut ham I’d been planning to cook for Connor’s birthday dinner.
“I swear, babe, I don’t know what’s going on,” Connor said while we gazed down at the empty space that the ham had been in.
We decided it could only be one of two things: either we had a very single-minded thief breaking in every couple of nights or Jamie had suddenly gotten over his aversion to raw meat.
“But what would he even be doing with it?” I asked.
I couldn’t imagine why a seven year old would start hoarding food out of the blue. He was well fed at every meal, had access to snacks when he asked for them, and had never once gone to bed hungry. It baffled both of us.
Connor shook his head, “Only one way to find out.”
When Jamie came home from school that afternoon, we all sat at the kitchen table, our usual spot for the more serious Family Discussions. Jamie kept his gaze on his lap, where his little hands were twisting nervously around one another.
“I think you know what we’re going to ask you,” Connor said.
“James,” Connor tapped the tabletop with his index finger, “look at us.”
Our son glanced out if the corner of his eyes at us, guilt stamped across his features.
“You wanna tell us what’s been going on with the meat?” I asked, matching Connor’s stern, but still gentle tone. When Jamie didn’t answer, I added, “We know you took it.”
“Sorry,” Jamie mumbled.
“We just want to know why, little man,” Connor said. “This isn’t like you. You hate even looking at raw meat!”
“It’s not for me,” Jamie replied.
“It was for all of us,” I said.
“But we had a lot and he didn’t have any and he didn’t like when I tried to give him leftovers!”
“Who?” Connor and I frowned towards one another.
“Smidge; he lives under the house and likes meat and he’s good and doesn’t bother anybody!”
Connor and I exchanged another glance, this one tinged with relief. A stray animal hiding under the house was far preferable to some of the other things that had popped into my head.
We tried to ask Jamie if Smidge was a dog or a cat, maybe even a raccoon, but he was unable, or maybe unwilling, to give us an answer.
“He stays in the back, in the shadows. It’s hard to see him, but he makes happy noises when I visit and he likes when I talk to him.”
After assuring him we weren’t mad at him or Smidge, Jamie opened up a bit. He had seen something crawling under a gap in the lattice work on the porch when he was playing outside one evening a couple weeks before, just a brief glimpse, and with all the infinite wisdom of a child, he’d decided to follow it. He claimed it had dug a deep hole in the far corner where it was darkest and mostly stayed in it when he visited.
“He growled at first, but I kept talking to him and then I fed him and now he likes me!”
“When do you go visit him, kiddo?” I asked.
“After you and Daddy are in bed. It was so I could feed him! He was very hungry.”
Connor and I made Jamie agree to stop bringing food to Smidge and put an end to their nighttime visits until we could determine exactly what the critter was. Jamie pouted and kicked his feet, but promised he’d keep his distance from his newfound friend. To keep him honest, we even went through the fridge and made note of what was there, just in case anything went missing.
“What do we do, call animal control?” I asked while Connor and I got ready for bed.
“Not yet. I’ll get under there in the morning, see what it is. If it’s a dog or something, maybe we can consider keeping it.”
“I dunno,” I replied doubtfully. I didn’t want to get stuck taking on all the responsibilities of a pet that should have been Jamie’s.
“He’s already done a pretty good job keeping it fed,” Connor pointed out with a cheeky grin.
I rolled my eyes and told him to turn off the light.
The next morning, while I took Jamie to school, Connor crawled under the house to see if he could locate the mysterious Smidge.
A tiny kitten, black and fluffy and purring wildly, was waiting for me in the bathroom when I got home.
“This is Smidge?” I laughed as it rubbed against my ankles. “Jamie thought this little guy needed a whole ham?”
“I guess,” Connor said. “Cute, isn’t he?”
“Jamie must have been cleaning up after him because there’s no bones or anything left under the house. Thank God; I can only imagine what that would have smelled like.”
“And the hole?”
“It’s just where he said it was. Looked pretty deep, probably been used by other critters before Smidge. I’ll fill it when I’ve got more time, but I really have to get going to work.”
We traded a quick kiss before he hurried off to change and leave.
Smidge turned out to be a clingy, affectionate kitten who yowled every time I left the bathroom. I made some calls and found a vet who could see us in short order. Smidge was less than thrilled when I zipped him up in an old handbag and drove him over.
He was given a few shots, a thorough exam, and finally declared completely healthy. I was surprised to find how happy that made me; I’d only had him for a short time, but I was already falling in love. It was hard not to when he looked up at me with those big amber eyes, his whole body rumbling with never-ending purrs. I had a feeling it was going to be an easy choice when it came to deciding if we were going to keep him.
Back at home, I put Smidge in the bathroom again and set out to kitten-proof our house as best I could before running to the store for some supplies. I snapped a picture of Smidge in his new bed once I got back and texted it to Connor. He replied almost immediately.
Soooo I guess we have a cat now lol
I sent him another picture of Smidge flopped over in my lap as confirmation.
Jamie was going to be thrilled!
I could barely contain my excitement when I went to pick Jamie up from school. I almost blurted out that we’d found Smidge and he could stay, but decided that it would be more fun to let it be a surprise.
Smidge’s cries for attention from the bathroom greeted us as soon as we walked in the front door.
“What’s that?” Jamie asked, looking to me.
With less enthusiasm than I had expected, Jamie went to the bathroom and opened it up. Smidge came darting out immediately.
“We found him!” I said, scooping the kitten up and offering him to Jamie. “We’re going to keep him.”
“Who?” Jamie looked from me to the kitten and back.
“Smidge?” I replied with some uncertainty.
“That’s not Smidge. He’s bigger than that.”
“But he was under the house, near where you said…”
Jamie dropped his gaze and his hands started to wring in front of him, his tell that he was trying to hide something.
“What is it?”
“Nothing,” he said, but it was hardly believable.
“Jamie,” I pressed in my Mom Voice.
“I found the kitten last night,” he admitted slowly. “It was in the front yard.”
“You were outside again?”
“Sorry! But I knew Smidge would be hungry and-”
“We talked about this!”
“But I didn’t give him any of our food!”
“Then what were doing out there?”
Jamie hung his head and shuffled his feet and I had to keep probing and prodding until he finally broke down and answered me.
“I was checking on Smidge and telling him I was sorry that I didn’t have food and then I found the kitten and I…put it under the house. For Smidge.”
I couldn’t stop my mouth from hanging open.
My son, my little man, had tried to feed a live kitten to whatever was under the house?
“He must’ve still been full from the ham, though.” Jamie mumbled.
Not knowing what else to do, I told him to go do his homework while I started dinner. I couldn’t wait for Connor to get home so we could talk this over together. Kitten Smidge wound around my feet, meowing and purring and kneading at my pant legs. I stared blankly down at him, wondering what had been going through Jamie’s head.
Connor barely managed to get through the door before I grabbed his arm and dragged him to our room to tell him what our son had told me.
“He wanted Smidge up eat the kitten?” Connor had paused in the middle of removing his tie.
“Yeah, that’s what he said.”
“I…don’t know how to feel about that. I mean, it’s not like he was torturing it or anything.”
“I know, but it’s weird, isn’t it? For a little boy to try and make one animal eat another?”
“It’s nature, I guess? I don’t know, Audrey. It definitely feels weird. Look, let’s have dinner, think a bit, and regroup after. We can talk to him once we’ve figured things out better on our end.”
It was a quiet meal. Jamie seemed to sense the tension and kept his head down while Connor and I were each lost in our own thoughts.
I wondered if I was overreacting, if it wasn’t the big deal I was making it out to be in my head, but then I’d look down at Kitten Smidge, threading himself through chair legs and swatting playfully at our toes, and I’d wonder how Jamie could have looked at that same creature and wanted to feed it to another? I knew that animals eating animals was, as Connor said, nature, but that didn’t make me feel any better about it.
When we were done, Jamie asked if he could go out to play with some of the other neighborhood kids.
“Yeah, just don’t go under the house, ok? Not until your dad and I can check out the real Smidge.”
He nodded and darted outside.
Connor and I remained quiet while we washed dishes. I absently watched Jamie running around the house with Maya and A.J. from next door. He looked so carefree, so innocent, in the orange glow of dusk.
He didn’t really understand what he was doing, I thought. He was just trying to take care of Smidge, whatever Smidge was, and that wasn’t a bad thing, really.
A dog, probably. Hopefully.
Connor had come to a similar conclusion by the time we’d taken a seat in the living room to discuss it.
“Kids are impulsive, they don’t think things through. It wasn’t about hurting the kitten, it was about helping Smidge,” Connor said.
“I think so, too. We just need to talk about what he should have done differently.”
It was going to be an odd, possibly uncomfortable, conversation, but we both knew we had to have it. We sat back with matching sighs, glad that we could navigate through this often strange land of Parenthood together.
We were feeling better, more relaxed, like we had a handle on things.
And then the screaming started.
We almost tripped over each other running out the door.
By the time we rounded the corner towards where it had been coming from, it had stopped.
Jamie was just finishing pulling himself out from under the house and I grabbed him by his shoulders, looking him over for any sign of injury.
“What is it? What happened?” Connor and I asked.
“I wanted to show them Smidge,” he said with an eerie calm.
“Who? Maya and AJ?” Connor started to look around. “Where are they? James?”
Jamie looked towards the gap in the lattice work.
“Oh God,” Connor breathed, “are they under ther-”
His question was cut off by the sound of something tearing wetly and then long, slow crunching.
Connor staggered back a step and I had to put a hand over my mouth to keep from being sick.
Jamie looked solemnly up at us; still so carefree, so innocent.
“Guess Smidge wasn’t full anymore.”