by Jay Palmer


    Katie squealed and dropped the brightly wrapped box-top as the white tissue paper inside her present moved. A faint meow issued from inside the box, and Katie's eyes widened and she laughed and pulled the tiny white kitten out of the box, hugging her special birthday present tightly against her.

    Katie named the kitten Snowball, because it was all white; her parent's groaned loudly, yet they knew it wouldn't hurt them, and that Katie could name it anything she wanted. Still, over the next few days they tried to get her to change her mind, but Katie insisted that it was a good name, because the white kitten would curl up like a little ball when it slept. Her parent's thought that Katie was showing unusual intelligence for a four year old, and that satisfied them enough to let the name stand.

    Snowball was amazed to find she had so much room to play in, and spent as much time as possible playing in it, especially at night. Snowball loved the night: the darkness made everything look magical, and the lamp that turned on and off when she rubbed against it delighted her. She was only sorry that Katie had to sleep during the exciting night, while she wouldn't sleep unless she was so tired she couldn't play any longer. Then she would seek out Katie, curl up on top of her, and snuggle until dawn.

    Katie loved Snowball, and played with her every day. They learned new games, like chase the fingers and catch the string. The house echoed with Katie's laughter, and Snowball seemed to enjoy every minute of it.

    Then, one night, a strange noise came out of the living room. Katie slept right through it, but Snowball was instantly awake, and she pounced off the bed to see what it was.

    The living room window, which was solid as a wall but which you could look through, was opening, and a strange man stuck his head in. Snowball was amazed, because no one had ever gone in or out through the window before. Yet this man entered quickly and silently, and Snowball realized that she had finally found a friend to play with at night.

    Snowball jumped up onto the table with the magic lamp, and absently flicked her tail against it. The light snapped on, illuminating the strange man standing right beside her. He jumped, knocking the lamp over, and it fell top over bottom, hitting the thick carpet with a sparking flash.

    The strange man jumped out the window and vanished into the night. Snowball was sad, because she had wanted to play, but then something else caught her attention. A dim glow was coming from the carpet where the lamp had fallen, but it was not a light like the lamp had ever shown before.

    Snowball investigated, fascinated. The glowing thing moved and flickered like nothing she had ever seen before, but, getting too close, Snowball scorched one of her whiskers, and decided that the glowing thing wasn't any fun to play with.

    Thick, black smoke gathered about it, and slowly it filled the room. Snowball could hear Katie and her parents coughing softly in their sleep, but she didn't know why.

    Suddenly the flickering light exploded into sheets of fire. Snowball hissed loudly, running about madly, but the flames grew quickly, and soon she had no where to go. Then she remembered the open window, and ran to it.

    On the ledge she hesitated, sniffing the strange, cold wind that was blowing outside. It had many odd smells, none of which Snowball could identify, but the heat was baking her, singing her hair, and Snowball leapt from the sill onto the green stuff and ran off into the night.

    It was the strangest night of Snowball's life. Dozens of bizarre people were awake and milling around Katie's house, and they brought screaming cars with red and blue lights and long red trucks with ladders. Snowball watched it all from a safe distance, confused, because this had never happened to her before. She shivered, wondering why it was so cold, but there were too many people around her house for her to go home where it was always warm. She was afraid of the strangers and their screaming cars, so Snowball decided she wouldn't go back until they were all gone.

    As the sun rose the next day, the last of the long red trucks left. There were still a few people standing around, but they eventually wandered off. Then Snowball went home.

    Yet Snowball's home was gone. Katie and her parents were gone. In the place where everything that she liked had been now stood a terrible ruin, all black, and it stank of the smoke that had come from the flickering, glowing thing. Everything was hot ashes, or soaking wet from the long red truck's water-strings.

    The hot ashes quickly cooled, and Katie did not return. Snowball waited patiently, snooping out the strangely familiar ruin that now stood where her comfortable house used to be. Every now and then more strangers would come and poke around in the ashes, but Snowball hid from them. There was only one person she wanted to find, and that was Katie.

    Snowball soon felt very hungry. She looked where Katie used to keep her food dish, but the flickering thing had stolen it along with everything else, leaving behind only a clump of ashes in its place. Snowball wanted very desperately to eat, but she knew she needed Katie or her parents to feed her, and she would have to wait until they returned.

    The night was very cold, since all the windows were open now, and there were no soft pillows or blankets for her to snuggle on. The wind whipped through the building with a chilling moistness, and Snowball decided to discover why. Leaping to the window ledge, Snowball found water was pouring from the black sky. She didn't like getting wet, but she stayed on the ledge, hoping to see Katie, and crying aloud for her to come home.

    Katie never came home. The days turned into a week, and then two. The pain in Snowball's stomach grew very great, but then it seemed to slacken as she became too weak to resist it any longer. The rain had given her water to drink, but it was mixed with the ruin's black ashes, and it made her sick to drink it. The nights were extremely cold, and Snowball no longer had the strength to call for Katie anymore. She had hidden herself under Katie's bed when the strange children came to play in the ruin, but she did not cry out to them, because she was feeling very ill, and the effort of crawling out from under the bed seemed like more than she could manage.

    One night it grew especially cold, and Snowball began to tingle all over, and her stuffed, aching feelings seemed to be smothered by weariness. A chill fell on her, and her constant sneezing took all her breath away. Then warm, gentle hands reached down and picked her up, cradling her in their arms. Katie had found her, and they were reunited at last.

    Snowball purred and rubbed against Katie's warmth, all her pains and hunger inexplicably vanished. Yet as they rejoiced and cuddled, Snowball became aware of others standing around her. There was Katie's mother, surrounded by other cats, and as she looked at them Snowball instantly knew their names. The black one upon her shoulders was Tabitha, Katie's mother's college companion and cohort, who had fallen out of a high dorm window. The old orange cat, who didn't limp despite the car tire that had crushed it, sat cleaning itself at her feet. The grey Persian, who had died of old age, was named Betty, and it was cuddled in Katie's mother's arms, for it had been her first cat, as Snowball was to Katie. And above them all, a huge cloud of small, brightly colored goldfish swam in an eternal circle like a living halo about her head.

    Beside Katie's mother stood a quiet young boy. His name was Nathanial, and he was Katie's brother, although he had been raised by Katie's great-grandparents, for he was stillborn. Behind him, surrounded by an army of dogs, was Katie's father, and there were many others, but Snowball turned away from them, for she was interested only in Katie, who would never leave her again.

    Katie's mother looked down at her only daughter and smiled, for she was very glad. Katie may have to grow up in the afterlife, but now, at least she wouldn't have to grow up alone.

                              THE END.