by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Daily Science Fiction, April 2020
Apricot dozed in her cat-carrier, enjoying the warmth of the sunlight pouring through the car window and down through the grated metal top of her carrier. She had an old, rough towel to sleep on, and she was extremely comfortable. The occasional bump in the road roused her out of her semi-sleep, and she heard her humans in the front seat of the car talking. She’d only had a little practice learning to understand human language, since she was still a young cat. But she liked listening to their voices, one higher and one lower, taking turns, making companionable sounds. She was fond of her humans. They’d treated her well ever since rescuing her from the building with walls of tiny jail cells several weeks ago.
After the car stopped, Apricot felt her carrier lifted, and she was carried out of the warm car, through a breezy summer day, and into the chill air of an air-conditioned building. She could smell all kinds of fur in here — cat, dog, rodent. So many kinds of rodents! Rats with wriggly tails and gerbils like fuzzy little snack balls. Apricot even smelled the delightful dusky scent of feathers. But under it all, she smelled fear. So much fear.
The smell soured in her nose and curdled in her stomach, transforming into a fear of her own. Her fur prickled, raising in a line down her back, all along her spine, and fluffing out at her tail. She felt electric sparks in her fluffed-out fur. Bristly static electricity.
Apricot’s humans set her carrier down, and one of them sat down beside her.
A large dog nose snuffled up to the grating on the top of her carrier, sniffing at her, but her human shoved the dog’s face away. Nonetheless, Apricot bristled and spat. She was on edge.
The dog backed further away, affronted by the feline rudeness, and woofed, “Oh, woah! I don’t want to be here!”
The humans couldn’t understand the dog’s words. They just heard barking and shushed the big dog. But Apricot understood.
Humans don’t have to learn how to hear other animals’ languages. All other animals know that they need to learn how to understand humans. It’s necessary for their safety.
Apricot splayed her triangular ears to the side, realizing she needed to focus and figure out where she was. Why had her humans brought her here? What was the purpose of this place? And why was everyone scared?
Apricot’s human with the lower voice was still sitting beside her, but she could hear her human with the higher voice across the room, talking to another person.
“How long will it take her to recover from being declawed?” her human asked.
The other person answered: “Apricot will be ready for you to pick her up this afternoon by four. She’ll be groggy and sore for a few days, but she should be able to walk by tomorrow night. And she’ll be back to her old self by the end of the week if you take care of her.”
Apricot didn’t understand all of that, but she didn’t like the sound of any of it. She unsheathed her claws and watched the sharp tips curl out from the fuzzy orange fur of her paw. Her claws were part of her. She wasn’t giving them up. No one would take them away from her. The electric feeling in her fluffed-out fur prickled and sizzled. She felt hot with anger.
The strange human carried her cat-carrier into another room, a strange floaty sensation. Apricot knew she was safe inside her box with her old towel, but she could also feel the world swinging freely past her outside. And when they arrived in the new room, her humans peered through the grating on the top of her carrier and cooed lovey-dovey words at her. Her heart twisted about inside her, doing backflips and somersaults. Her humans’ faces looked so kind and harmless. Loving. How could they bring her here? How could they ask someone to take her claws away?
How can hate look so much like love?
Apricot’s anger and frustration burned brightly inside her, and she’d never felt more keenly aware of her claws. She could feel them. She could feel them like firebrands, burning with her lifeforce. Wisps of flame, crescents of fire. They were her power, and she would protect them at all costs.
Apricot’s humans left, and the strange human opened the top of her cat-carrier. The metal grate flipped up, and Apricot saw the strange human’s hand hovering above her with a long needle. Like hell that silver needle would touch Apricot’s skin!
Apricot rolled onto her back in a fluid motion, flipping her paws upward, claws extended. She snarled, and she slashed. Her orange paw moved like fire, and the heat of her anger burst out of her. Her fluffed-out fur flowed into the wispy, ethereal dance of true flame. Literal fire. Her claws burned blue hot, like the center of a candle’s flame.
The heat of Apricot’s fire caught the edge of the strange human’s sleeve; their white coat burned, and they pulled their arm back, screaming. The affronting needle clattered across the room’s vinyl floor.
Apricot rose out of her cat carrier like fire on the wind, a heat wave. She felt she’d grown lighter, and she leapt down from the table her carrier had been placed on. She spared one glance back to see her rough old towel. It was burning. She’d liked her towel. It would be gone soon. Oh well, some prices are small to pay for the sake of freedom.
The human had moved to a sink in the corner of the room and was running water over their arm. They ineffectually tried to splash some of the water on Apricot, but her fire was too hot, too bright to be dimmed by a few cool splashes that evaporated instantly into scalding steam. She was a living fireball.
Faced with Apricot’s burning heat, the human ran from the room, leaving the door ajar behind them. Apricot followed. She stormed out of the exam room, through a hallway, and back to the entrance lobby. She padded softly on feet of flame, ignoring the humans in their white coats rushing frantically around her.
The big dog who’d greeted Apricot before was gone from the lobby, but there were other cats and dogs with their humans. To them, Apricot looked like a cat-shaped ball of fire. The air sizzled and popped around her.
Apricot meowed, “Get out of here; take your humans if you value them.”
The dogs and cats on their leashes and in their carriers couldn’t do much, but the humans reeked of terror and rushed out of the building, dragging their dogs and carrying their cats with them.
Apricot lifted a paw and daintily touched the plush fabric on the seat of a chair, letting her fiery claws snag and the flame lick its way into the fabric. She let her tail brush past a pile of magazines on an end table, and the paper went up in flames instantly. Apricot took fire with her wherever she stepped, and by the time she followed the others out of the building, the veterinary office was a raging inferno.
The heat didn’t bother Apricot. She liked the warmth. It made her feel cozy and powerful. She stalked down the street, planning a new life for herself. One without humans who wanted to hurt her. In the distance, she heard sirens.
Firefighters might come and put out the fire she’d made.
But no one would ever cut the fire out of her claws.