Wilson was 32 the first time he saw the little hybrid kitten.
That particular August had been mild, and rather than the usual stifling heat, a pleasant warmth hugged the ground as the sun sank behind buildings and trees. He had seen Danny that morning on his way to the grocery store, but he hadn't been able to pull off the road and turn around fast enough to catch up to him. Now, the past day seemed a blur of driving in circles and poking about between buildings, calling Danny's name to no avail. He had ditched his car in front of his apartment building over an hour ago, but he hadn't been able to settle down since then. A quick walk to the park sounded like a good idea.
Wilson noticed the kitten immediately. It sat near the pole of the swing set, front paws wrapped around the metal. Old weathered paint in flecks of green and red had chipped off and caught in the black-grey fur of his front legs and chest. He wasn't striped like a tabby, but salted all over with grey like the hair of a middle aged man. Wilson watched him for a moment, startled. He knew from news reports that a militant animal rights group had released thousands of hybrid animals in a raid on the laboratories near his borough, but it hadn't honestly occurred to him what that meant.
Wilson wasn't the only one who had noticed the little cat sitting there. A boy of perhaps four or five years, too young to be out alone at this time of night in a neighborhood like this, stood talking to the kitten as if it could understand him, the way children talked to everything, sentient or not. The two young things were about the same size, though Wilson knew from the genetics journals that the kitten couldn't be more than six months old. As for intelligence, the reports varied, but there was a general consensus that while the hybrids were intelligent, it was the same sort of intelligence found in parrots and circus animals: Mimicry and tricks. The boy kept talking to it though, oblivious, evidently about something of great importance in his mind. Then he turned around and ran at one of the swings. Wilson watched as he threw himself stomach-first at the swing seat and let the momentum carry him forward, his feet flying off the ground. He reached the apex of his trip upward and swung back down, then up the other way, head dangling over the ground, shrieking with laughter.
The little kitten watched him too, furry head bobbing up and down, back and forth at the swinging boy. It took another repetition of this series of events for Wilson to realize that the boy was trying to teach the kitten how to play on a swing.
The sun sank lower as the boy played and laughed and talked to the kitten, patting its shoulder and occasionally trying to pull it over to try the game for itself. Eventually, he gave up, tagged the kitten "it," and took off running across the wood chips covering the playground. The kitten twisted around to watch him and then bolted after him on all fours, up onto the big play gym. The boy squealed as he ran and jumped about the platforms with the kitten hot on his heels.
Eventually, Wilson looked away and noticed that street lights had replaced the sun's waning glow. The boy must have been out without permission, and it was dangerous this late at night. Surely, his parents were frantic to find him by now. Wilson took out his cell phone, intending to call the police to come take the boy and return him to wherever he belonged, but a pair of harried adults appeared before he finished dialing. The boy ran over to them, pointing at his new friend and telling the story of his adventures with the kind of exhilaration that only children can ever show. The mother interrupted by snatching him up with a series of scolding remarks, crying and remonstrating all at once, and left the playground after tossing a pointed look at her husband.
Wife and son gone, the husband regarded the little kitten sat quietly on the mat beside the corkscrew slide. Wilson watched from his bench as the man bent down to pick up a large, sturdy stick, and it occurred to him that the man meant to bludgeon the little thing right there on the playground, in the same place where his son had just been playing. There were no laws against it. The hybrids were not considered animals due to their DNA consisting 85% of human material, so animal cruelty laws didn't apply. And they weren't human, so there could be no such crime as assaulting or murdering one. It was a sad loophole, and a gaping one, but Wilson could hardly change that.
The kitten just sat there as the man approached, up on its haunches and scenting the air as if in greeting. It didn't realize it was in danger until the first blow caught its ribs on the left side. A sickening flurry of howls and scrabbling followed, and then the kitten streaked away under the playground equipment and disappeared into the dark. The man peered after it, probably to see if it were still lurking somewhere close enough to catch and finish off, but it was gone. He huffed in disappointment, dropped the stick, and left to go home to his family.
Wilson sat on his bench, stunned, and watched the man walk away. Everyone knew that the hybrid cats could be dangerous, especially the ones born in labs that had never been exposed to the wild, but that thing had only been a kitten. Wilson could understand avoiding it – it was a wild animal – but surely killing it was unnecessary. It hadn't hurt that boy; it hadn't even tried. They had been playing.
Halfway home, Wilson stopped dead on the pavement, his fingers going lax in his pockets. It had only just occurred to him what he'd done – that he had sat quietly on a park bench, fully aware of the man's intentions, and done nothing. He had spent his walk home ruminating on the lax morals of the man with the stick, but not once had it occurred to him to try to stop him. If the little kitten hadn't managed to slip away, Wilson would have just sat there and watched the man kill it. Bludgeon it to death. On a playground. He had never felt so ashamed of himself.
About a month later, Wilson happened past the same playground. It was near midnight this time, and he couldn't sleep. He heard the creak of the swing set before he saw it, and without really thinking, he wandered around the path and into a soft pool of light near the edge of the play area. It was dark enough that he didn't see the little black-grey bundle of spindly legs and fur until it threw itself at the swing seat and arced up into the halo of light cast by one of the flood lights.
Wilson stared, feeling the muscles of his face grow lax with some mixture of emotions that defied definition. It was obviously the same little cat, grown a bit longer but a lot thinner, swinging back and forth like the little boy had taught him, legs held straight and stiff as pokers, and claws extended as if this were an ordeal rather than a bit of fun. The kitten swung back and forth until the swing ran out of momentum, then pinwheeled its legs, tail swishing in something like glee, before slipping off, trotting to a calculated distance, and doing it all over again.
Wilson had stepped closer, into the light, before it really occurred to him what he meant to do. A heavy, hot sensation had taken root in his sinuses, but he ignored it in favor of watching the little kitten play on the swing like a human boy all by himself in the middle of the night. It was so obviously starved that Wilson could see the sharp jut of bones beneath its skin, and yet it wasn't out looking for food. It was here, playing like any human child might have done. Wilson sat down on the wood chips, legs crossed, and reached into his pocket for one of the granola bars he carried around with him out of a doctor's habit of long shifts filled with snacks on the go. The little cat didn't notice him until it slithered off of the swing seat and turned around to find its starting spot again.
All of its little limbs went rigid, but it didn't run. It should have; any sane animal would have learned that from the man with the stick. This little thing, though – male, Wilson noticed – simply stood there quivering, nose in the air in search of Wilson's scent. Something about Wilson enticed it forward, something more than the food he held out, because the kitten wouldn't touch it. He crept up to Wilson and sniffed at his face instead, eyes unfocused and narrowed to slits. It nearly brought tears to Wilson's eyes, how innocent this little thing was, how trusting. He reached out but the kitten flinched back and gave a piteous hiss, fur standing up all over the visible knobs of his spine. He breathed hard enough to shift the thin layer of skin stretched all but translucent over the ridged lines of his ribs.
Wilson cooed at the little cat and kept offering the granola bar, but it backed up further before it let out a mournful, accusing wail and shot off into the dark. Maybe the little cat remembered him – maybe he remembered how Wilson had sat on a bench to watch a man try to beat him to death. Wilson let his arm drop, the granola with it, and swiped a hand over his face, surprised when it came away wet. He hadn't realized he had been crying.
For two weeks, Wilson haunted the playground after dark, hoping the little cat would come back, but it never did. And then Wilson came home one day and noticed a furry little face peeking out at him from the alley next to his apartment building. He had been stalking Wilson, then, and something must have tipped the scales in Wilson's favor. He held the door open and the cat darted inside, clearly petrified, and yet there he was, tail bristled out like a bottle brush. He followed Wilson up the stairs on silent paws, and only ventured into the apartment after Wilson wandered away from the open door. Though he wouldn't consent to being touched, he slunk around in Wilson's wake the whole evening, peeking around doorways and out from behind furniture, steeling bits of crusted chicken and broccoli from Wilson's plate while refusing to go near the bowl of identical fare that Wilson had set out in a bowl for him. He hid under the bed while Wilson sat up reading, and sometime late in the night, Wilson woke at the slight jostling that signaled the little cat's foray up onto the spare pillow beside Wilson's head.
By the next morning, the little cat had wrapped itself around Wilson's arm and head, and Wilson discovered that hybrid cats got fleas the same as regular cats. So did people, apparently. It was worth it for the way the little guy purred and slept right on through Wilson's petting him.
The next time Wilson renewed his lease, he put a check next to the line for pets, and another next to the one for additional tenants, then wrote Gregory House Cat on both. House narrowed his eyes at the chuckling as if he knew that Wilson had just made fun of him somehow. Wilson merely smiled back.