The seven cats at our house do not get along with each other. They are all former strays, which means – well, they have issues. Those of us who live here are used to the occasional hissing, screeching battles as a couple of cats fight over territory. Guests to the house are sometimes startled at the savage noises they might hear coming from another room. I grew up with cats like this so it never occurs to me that anyone else might find the spitting, hissing creatures at all frightening.
I remember the time Shaggy Hair Boy had his friend Quiet Kid stay over night for the first time. They were both about eight years old. Quiet Kid kept asking me all kinds of questions about the cats, which I answered kind of nonchalantly.
"Where do they sleep at night?"
"Oh, anywhere they want."
"They don't have claws, do they?"
"Sure, they do. I think it's cruel to declaw a cat."
His interest did not seem that unusual, since many kids love animals, although I did find it strange that he didn't want to pet any of the cats. I usually watch when kids new to the household are petting our cats for the first time, and I give them some warnings: "Remember, these cats are former strays. They sometimes scratch. Go ahead and pet them, but keep your face out of scratching distance." When I said this to Quiet Boy, he gave a startled look and moved about ten feet away from the nearest cat.
That night, Quiet Boy joined my boys in the bedroom, two of them on beds, and everyone else on the floor. Quiet Boy seemed nervous about sleeping over, which did not make sense to me. I went to school with both his parents, have known both of them since kindergarten, and so it's not like we were strangers. He'd always been fine coming over to play for the afternoon.
In the middle of the night, my husband woke me up. "You know, Quiet Boy is still awake."
I went down the hall to check. The boys' room looked peaceful to me. Two cats were scuffling in the corner, and one cat lazily leaped from bed to floor. In the dim light, the silhouettes of the cats looked kind of cool, like the jungle scene of an animated movie. Another cat was curled atop the legs of Shaggy Hair Boy as he slept.
Then I saw Quiet Boy standing against the wall, his whole body rigid. Even in the dark, I could see the look of terror on his face.
"What's the matter?" I asked. “Did you have a nightmare?”
He shook his head. Finally, he summoned a single sentence. "I'm afraid of cats."