Six years old is not old, or so they told her all the time. When the nurse came out it was the first thing she asked.
“How old are you, my dear?” she said, bending down over her.
“I’m eight, and my name isn’t dear. It’s Alice,” six-year-old Alice lied up into the woman’s unsmiling face. The woman wrote something on her clipboard, and then sniffed.
“Where are your parents?” she asked in a demanding manner, her large black eyebrows coming together above her nose.
“You’ve got my Dad inside there,” Alice pointed at the green double doors the nurse had come into the waiting room through. “My Mom’s coming from work.”
“Yes, I know about your Dad, but who’s taking care of you?” the nurse inquired, with one of her dark eyebrows arching up above the other.
“You are, until Mom get’s here. My babysitter just dropped me off,” Alice lied again, with a fake smile plastered across her little face. Alice knew that it was unlikely that the nurse would know she lived only half a mile away and had walked herself. The police officer who’d left the message on their home machine said that her Dad was in the emergency room at the hospital. He didn’t know that Alice was home alone. Her parents had schooled her well about how all outsider’s would feel if someone only six years old was left alone, even if was because they didn’t have enough money for daycare. They called it being a latchkey kid. Alice liked being a latchkey kid. And she loved her parents. And Winston.
“You can’t have a cat in here,” the nurse said, spotting Winston under one of the cloth-covered chairs.
“Not my cat,” Alice said, ignoring the small beast, which had stuck its furry head out to peer up at the severe looking nurse.
“Fine,” the nurse said, “then I’m calling animal control and having him removed.” The nurse walked back through the doors. Alice had not lied about that. Winston was her father’s cat, not hers. Winston adored only one human on the planet, and that was her Dad. He had raised such a ruckus at home when she was about to leave for the hospital that she had had to let him out. Then he’d followed her. Like he knew. Alice didn’t tell anyone that she talked to the cat. And she believed that he talked back. The words he missed, Alice filled in.
“She doesn’t mean it. She was just trying to get me to admit that I’m a latchkey kid and that you’re mine,” Alice said quietly, toward the bottom of the chair.
Winston meowed once, then slunk back as some people walked by.
“Oh bother. You don’t mean that. We don’t even know her,” Alice said to him, trying to stick one hand under the chair to pet him. He scratched her, lightly. She yelped softly, pulling her hand back, as if in terror. She knew from long experience that Winston loved to terrify people.
“What are you doing here, anyway?” Alice asked the cat. But Winston said nothing. People walked in and out of the waiting room. Nobody stayed for long.
Alice listened to their conversations, while making believe she was watching the television. Words scrolled across the bottom of the flat screen, but Alice couldn’t read yet.
“Intense thing,” she heard, distinctly. “They took him to that intense unit. He’s in pretty bad shape, but he’ll recover. They do a pretty good job here with the intense thing.”
Alice stared at the television while she thought. She didn’t know what the intense thing was, but it must be pretty good for someone in trouble.
More people came and went. Every once and awhile Winston would stick his head back out to view them, and then quickly retreat. Several people tried to pet him but Alice warned them off.
“Winston scratches. He’s here for rabies,” she told them, her face held to its most serious pose.
The petter’s pulled back and retreated without further comment. Some stared at Alice as if she was the one who had the disease. Alice didn’t know what Rabies was but her Dad had warned her about it many times when she wanted to pet a stray dog or a wild cat herself.
Three whole television shows later the strict looking nurse came back out. She didn’t have her clipboard with her this time.
“I’m sorry dear, but you’re father has been hurt in a traffic accident. You’re Mom called us and will be here shortly. Do you want anything to drink?” She said, her sweet tone faked, her smile unpleasant.
Alice looked up at the nurse, like she was from another planet. “My name is Alice, not dear, and why would I want something to drink? Will that help my Dad? Can I see him? Is he back there somewhere?” Alice pointed to the green doors.
Winston reached one paw out and slashed the nurse’s ankle with a single claw. Alice saw the move out of the corner of her eye and tried to head it off, but was too late. The nurse screamed, leaned down and grabbed her ankle with one hand.
“That animal just attacked me,” she yelled, her face screwed up in pain.
A man appeared instantly, seemingly from nowhere. He loomed over both Alice and the nurse.
“I’d have that looked at right away if I was you,” the man said in a flat voice.
“I heard that cat is in here to get some kind of rabies shot,” he finished, then walked away.
“Rabies?” the nurse said, her eyes growing wide, “Rabies? What’s this about Rabies? That cat has Rabies?”
“Ah, I don’t know him,” Alice said, smiling sickly, as Winston stuck his tail out and wrapped it around her small right leg.
The nurse turned and limped back through the double doors, slumped over and trying to nurture her ankle with one hand while she moved as quickly as she could.
“That was just plain dumb,” Alice hissed down at the cat, who’d retreated once more to the wall at the back of the chair.
Winston meowed three times in quick succession, and then purred loud enough for Alice to hear.
“I don’t care whether or not she’s mean, and I don’t care if she doesn’t like us. You can’t go around scratching people just because they deserve it.”
Winston continued to purr loudly from his retreat.
The double doors opened again. A tall woman wearing white coat came through. She held a clipboard like the nurse’s. She stopped to look around, until she spotted Alice.
“You’re John Martin’s little girl?” she asked with a bright smile.
“No, my name is Alice,” Alice responded, instantly.
Winston’s purring silenced.
The door at the other end of the waiting room slammed open with a bang. A young woman crashed through, limping, carrying a high heel in one hand, trying to run, but not doing it well. She dragged a large purse along as she limped.
“Mom,” Alice breathed, rolling her eyes. Alice’s mother was always histrionic, even for the most mundane of things. Alice sat down in the chair above Winston, as the doctor turned to the arriving woman.
In a heartbeat Winston moved from under the chair into Alice’s lap. Alice sat frozen. In all her years the cat had only ever sat in the lap of one person, and that person was her Dad. The cat wasn’t purring. Winston looked up at the doctor. Alice followed his eyes with her own, feeling a sense of bottomless fear.
“I’m afraid I have some bad news Mrs. Martin,” the doctor began.
Alice’s heart sank. She felt tears beginning to form from somewhere deep down inside her. She felt that Winston knew something terrible and that everything good in life was somehow going to change terribly.
“You’re husband has been badly hurt,” the doctor began, “and he’s in intensive care….”
That was all Alice heard before burying her face deep into Winston’s fur. The cat did not move, but he began to purr again.
“The intense thing,” Alice whispered to Winston, her mouth right next to the cat’s ear, “Dad’s going to be alright. They do real good intense here.”