Mittens stayed in the box for three days.
No pet wanted to go outside. But cardboard boxes leaked and didn’t have snacks. It was only a matter of time before some pet got hungry enough to brave the falling water.
Three pets ventured out just before the first time it got dark. Mittens wasn’t one of them. She huddled in her box and watched like everyone else, wondering if she recognized one of them from the store. There was a pet with a white-ringed tail, a fat round one, and a pet who looked, but didn’t smell, like a people kit.
The little one came first dragging the other two out by the leg. They mewed soggily and splashed around the puddle right outside the biggest box. No one else was brave enough to join them, but everyone wanted to see what would happen. It looked cold out there. But nothing bad was happening right away. The trio only got wet as they sloshed around in circles.
The one with the white tail sniffed in one direction after another. She coiled her lovely thin tail up on a lone dry patch of concrete, shading her eyes against the water with a hairless hand. It must have been hard to smell anything through that water. The round one kept covering her eyes, rolling onto her back in fright; every time she did, the small one would nose her and mew her and pull her hands away.
Something passed overhead that sounded like an enormous vacuum cleaner. No one saw any more than a shadow, but the puddles were thrown back as if by some invisible hand. Suddenly, every pet dove to the back of its box. The explorers had drawn the attention of something huge!
But the sound faded as fast as it had come. A couple minutes later, Mittens opened her eyes—because she just had to see what happened. The ring-tailed pet was already back outside, chittering and jumping on all fours. The small pet pulled the round one out again, wiped some mud off of her, and they began exploring again, this time going so far as to overturn a couple plastic bins lying in the water.
Eventually, they must have caught a scent in the nearby trees. The trio ran in that direction and Mittens never saw them again.
She hoped they’d find something to eat. She hoped she would find something to eat. Mittens didn’t want to stay in here. She wanted to be brave too, especially since she was hungry and thirsty.
But there were things outside. Dogs, mostly, who barked at them. Whenever they came by Mittens would plug her ears and make herself as small as possible. And sometimes, there were grey flying rooms. Mittens looked up and saw them picking up litter with hundreds of spindly metal arms. They came less often than the dogs, but made more noise.
One time, she even saw a person. Mittens thought that might be a good sign. The other pets thought so too; not long after she’d settled in to spy on the person, she could hear everyone else holding still. They all watched the person walk around a corner. He moved slowly, with his hands in wrinkly pockets. It didn’t seem like he was coming in their direction.
But a minute into this drama, a pet with smooth blue skin decided this was her chance. She burst out of her box, tearing it in half, and ran straight at the human. He definitely noticed her then. After some leaping and shouting which was obscured by the falling water, they left together. Mittens hoped the pet was going someplace warm and dry. Preferably with food. Most importantly dry.
Between the first and second times that it got dark, other pets arrived.
Mittens thought they were back-of-the-store pets at first. They smelled like they were part human; what was she supposed to think? She wanted to think that not every kind of pet was treated to this enormity. But these pets fell from a flying room much bigger and shinier than any she’d ever seen. Boxes dropped from compartments all over the grimy underbelly. And these pets didn’t cower inside their cardboard. They burst out as if the boxes had shattered when they hit the ground.
She’d never seen pets quite like them. They were part person, just like back-of-the-store pets. But their other halves weren’t soft. They snarled at each other and dragged their fangs on the ground.
One of them wandered towards the box where Mittens hid. When it charged, she was sure it was going to eat her. She could count the tusks growing from its inflamed gums. But at the last second, it turned out it wasn’t running straight at her. It was running at the box right next to her, where Baby was.
Crunching and choking sounds came from that box. Mittens was so close that she could have touched the scaly tail every other time it twitched.
She tried to muffle her crying with both paws, and wished she could understand why this was happening. Did this happen to all pets when they were taken out of the store? Why?
After the crunching sounds, the creature left. Just like that. The red streaks washed away and then it was as if Baby had never been there. Mittens refused to get up for a while.
But on the third day, her hunger was strong enough to beat every other feeling. One paw at a time, she crept outside her box to look for food. She was used to the area right around the pile now, so it wasn’t overwhelming if she stayed close. But it was still wet.
A lot of things were in the pile besides pets. Like were big blue barrels that had filled up with water. The color reminded Mittens of a water dish. Then she realized she could use it as a water dish. She climbed up the side of one, but it fell over and doused her even more. The second time she figured out how to drink without tipping it.
Now for a snack. There were food smells in the pile, but nothing very attractive. None of it was anything like the pellets she knew and loved. So she had to try new things. Mittens didn’t like that. Some of the things she ate got into fights with her stomach. Almost none of it tasted any good.
But she had to eat. Eventually she settled on a rule of thumb that brown bits were bad, and that was enough to get by. But the pile ran out of food she could use in just a couple naptimes. So she had no choice but to hop a little farther from her box. And the next day, a little farther.
Outside was a complicated world. Food could be in all kinds of places. For instance, Mittens learned there were secret treasure troves inside the big, shiny boxes that boomed when she stepped on them. Normally they were locked up tight. But once, just once, the huge grey flying rooms that cleaned the boxes left a hatch open. Mittens found all kinds of things inside. Smelly things, like banana peels and greasy ripped-up paper. But also good things—like a whole tub of cold white cream. She ate it all and fell asleep right afterwards.
And when she woke up, she learned that the boxes could be dangerous. She managed to get out before the flying room clamped its hose over the only hatch.
Mittens learned that food sealed in plastic was usually safe. She learned not to tire herself out by exploring too far, and she learned how to hide from dogs. They were really very stupid once you got to know them. She learned how to tell when it would be dark, so that she could get somewhere safe to sleep. And after a while she learned about lots of dry hiding holes that were better than her cardboard box.
The water stopped falling. She felt hungry a lot, and sick sometimes, and all in all would have much rather been back at the pet shop. But at the same time, Mittens was proud of herself. She’d learned more since coming out of the box than she had in her whole life.
And one day, more people appeared. Four of them this time.
These people weren’t like the kind who came into pet stores. They had a different smell, a different way of moving. Their clothes were covered in flashing lights. At first, Mittens couldn’t even be sure that they weren’t pets. But the way they walked around gave it away. They weren’t scared. They didn’t pay attention to anything. In fact, they shoved each other every so often as they swaggered down the middle of the road.
Mittens thought of the blue pet who had gone away with a person. She would be the brave on this time. Four people meant four chances to find someone who’d take care of her. Maybe they would even know that she was supposed to be in the pet shop! Tossing aside her box of cracked eggs, she bounded into view.
They laughed and pointed when they saw her. Mittens figured it meant they were happy; she leapt up and down, ecstatic that this whole bad dream was about to end.
They formed a circle around her. Someone wearing green pants gave her a bite of salty-tasting food. Mittens hopped up against one waist after another, lapping up the attention. What were they muttering? It would have been fascinating to know how people talked.
Then the tallest one—a person in golden rings and clean-smelling black hair—started grabbing her. He started squeezing her. Someone muttered about this, but he laughed, a loud, scraping sound. He laughed louder and louder until the others started grabbing Mittens too. She didn’t know why. She wanted to think there was a reason. And she smiled—surely they understood she just wanted to make friends. It could easily be an accident that their hands were kind of hurting her. She’d put up with it if they took her home.
She only started to worry when someone knotted a scratchy green rope around her neck. The first tug made her choke; after that, she stumbled quickly wherever they pulled.
They pulled quite a bit. Before long, Mittens’ little map of the world was gone, and once again she shrank from the infinite towers. And for all the smells she had learned, her nose was still bewildered. The scent of the scribbles in alleyways meant nothing to her—only stung with sinister sweetness.
The towers grew gloomier and gloomier. Mittens started to think that maybe these were the wrong sort of people.