AJ Collins Short Stories and Articles

AJ Collins Short Stories and Articles

The Ungiver

Back kitten sleeping

Six-year-old Katie questions the authenticity of religious dogma and the harshness of adults who qualify the importance of kindness to suit their own limitations.

Originally published by Lizard Skin Press in 2012. Awarded First Prize in the 2010 Monash Short Story Writing Competition.

It seemed a miracle had happened. All the time Katie had spent painfully balancing on the thinly padded kneelers in school mass had paid off. At six years old, she wasn’t sure what she was supposed to be praying for, so she had prayed for her Dad, who was away working. She’d prayed for her mum, who recently went to live in heaven. She figured God must be a bit deaf though, being so very, very old and all. How he was supposed to hear her whispered pleas from down here, she didn’t know. Maybe that’s why she and her school mates were always being told to keep quiet in mass. Maybe it helped God hear everyone’s prayers.

She prayed for her older brother, Paulie, to stop thumping her and for her younger sister to stop breaking her coloured pencils. She prayed for her uncle to stop clapping her over the ear, each time she and her siblings played a little too exuberantly. She prayed for her aunt to make raspberry pudding more often. Mmm raspberry pudding. Everyone loved Aunty’s raspberry pudding, which was a problem because there was never any left over the next day. And for herself, she prayed that God, in his kindness, would let her have a pet of her own.

And now here it was! God had finally answered her prayers. She knelt on the nature strip, all smiles, ready to pick up the little black kitten and cuddle it to her chest. But something made her pause – the poor baby was lying on its side, mewling plaintively.

She looked up at Paulie. “What’s wrong with it?”

He shrugged his school bag off his shoulder and knelt beside her. “Dunno, maybe it’s sick.” He poked its belly.

Katie pushed his hand away. “Don’t do that. You might hurt it.”

“I think it’s been hurt already.”

“How do you know?”

“Look at it. It can only move its head, for a start. And what’s that?” He pointed to a strange, greyish sack that seemed attached to it.

“I don’t know. I’ve never seen that before.” Katie bit down on her lip, sniffing back tears. “We have to help it.”

“I’m not picking it up. It might have fleas.”

Katie glared at her brother. He was three years older than her. He was supposed to know what to do in situations like this. He told her all the time how grown up he was and how she couldn’t play with him and his mates because she was just a kid.

“We’ll have to take it to Aunty,” she said finally. “She’ll know what to do.”

Paulie looked relieved and unzipped his school bag, searching for something to carry the kitten in. He pulled out a scrunched up paper bag and flattened it out. “I really, really don’t want to touch that thing,” he said, grimacing.

“Well, I’ll do it then. You’re too rough anyway.” Katie gently lifted the kitten onto the bag. “It’s okay, little one. We’re going to make you all better,” she soothed, then cringed when the kitten mewled again. She couldn’t stand the thought that they might be hurting it.

Paulie hoisted his school bag back onto his shoulder, and they started off. Luckily Aunty’s house was only half a block away. They walked slowly so as not to jostle the kitten, and all the while, Katie spoke to it in a sing-song voice.

“I’m going to call you Liquorice, ‘cos you’re just like a little black jelly bean.”

When they drew near, Paulie ran ahead to open the wrought iron gate. Lately it had begun to stick against the bricks, but Paulie had a knack of pressing his knee against it as he turned the latch. It swung open with a short grating noise. He turned and waited for Katie to pass through then slammed the gate behind her.

“What are we going to say?” Paulie asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, we can’t just say we found it. It might belong to someone. She’ll make us give it back.”

Katie stood on the porch, dumbfounded. It hadn’t even occurred to her the kitten might already have an owner. She couldn’t lie could she? If God had given her the kitten and she then lied to her aunt about it, that would be a sin and he might take it back.

She didn’t have time to think. The big front door opened and her aunt stood there behind the screen door, hands on hips. Without hesitating, Katie thrust the kitten forward.

“Look what we found!” she said, trying to sound bright and happy, for this was an amazing miracle.

Aunty pushed the screen door open.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a kitten. We found it by the side of the road. I prayed and prayed for God to give me a pet and he has. Her name is Liquorice. But I think she’s sick. Can you fix her?”

Aunty recoiled, stepping back into the house and pulling the screen door closed.

“Take it back! Take it back where you got it.”

Katie reeled backwards as if she’d been slapped.

Paulie came to her rescue. “But it’s hurt.”

“I don’t care,” Aunty yelled.

Katie tears burst. The kitten mewled in mutual pain. “We can’t,’ she cried. “God gave her to me and she needs our help.”

Aunty wavered, then opened the screen door again. She peered at the kitten. “It looks like it’s been run over. There’s nothing we can do.” She pointed to the little grey sack that lay beside the kitten then snatched her hand away. “That’s probably its stomach. It’s been pushed through its bowel. It’s not going to live.”

Katie howled at the horror of Aunty’s words. “Can’t we just cut it off?” she cried. “It’ll be alright. She doesn’t need it. She’s still alive.”

“It’s not our responsibility,” Aunty said, scowling. “Its owners are probably looking for it. You have to take it back.” She gave Katie a stern look then went back into the house. “And make sure you wash your hands thoroughly when you come back. Both of you.” She closed the screen door, then shut the big door as well.

Any idea of sneaking the kitten inside was thwarted. They wouldn’t be able to get back in without their aunt opening the big door for them. It was over.

Paulie put his arm around Katie. She cried even harder. Her big brother rarely showed affection to anyone, let alone to her.

“It’s okay. I’ll come with you,” he said.

With every step, Katie felt her heart shrinking to a painful knot. She sobbed as she knelt on the grass and laid her little treasure down, then stroked its head. Its breathing was feeble now, its life draining away.

“Come on,” Paulie said gently. “Its owners will be coming home from work any minute now. They’ll find it and take it home.”

Katie dawdled behind him, stopping now and then to look over her shoulder. She hoped Liquorice could feel the love she was sending with her eyes.

That evening, Katie refused to speak to anyone. Especially Uncle and Aunty who discussed the matter over dinner. They both agreed that her aunt had done the right thing.

But how would they know? They didn’t have any pets. Would they do the same thing to her if she was sick? She hated adults. They were so mean. She would never do such a thing when she grew up. Never!

That night, she had the worst nightmare. She dreamt she had fallen off her bicycle and had broken her leg. She was lying in the middle of the road, cars buzzing past, no-one stopping to help. She woke suddenly and sat up, eyes wide, her heart pounding. Was that what Liquorice felt like? Was she still lying out there in the cold? Mewling into the darkness with no-one to help? Katie lay down again and cried herself to sleep.

The next morning, her movements were slow. Everything seemed such an effort. Her thoughts were still on poor Liquorice. She would have to walk past her kitten on the way to school. What if she was still there? Lying on the paper bag and crying out to her? What was she going to do? She wondered if she could take her to school and let the nuns care for her. She would have to be careful who she gave her to. Certainly not their new temporary teacher, Sister Mary. She would throw her in the bin as soon as look at her.

Just last week, in art class, Sister Mary had smacked her with her heavy wooden ruler. It wasn’t her fault; she’d misunderstood Sister’s instructions. Sister Mary spoke with such a funny accent, most of the children had trouble understanding her. Katie and her friend Margaret had thought they were doing so well with their colourful, folded paper artwork. Then whack! whack! The ruler had come down full force on their knuckles.

“Did ah tell theur ta cut along t’lines yet? Did ah?”

Katie had been too shocked to answer.

“Naw theur av ruined it. Both o’ theur. Pur ‘em int’ tha bin, reet naw.”

Katie and Margaret looked at each other, puzzled.

“Tha bin, tha bin, pur ‘em int’ tha bin,” yelled Sister Mary.

They obediently picked up their artwork, walked to the front of the class and dropped their beautiful creations in the waste paper basket.

“Good thing she doesn’t teach English class,” Margaret whispered as they walked back to their seats. Katie couldn’t help it. She giggled. Whack! Whack! The ruler came down on each of their behinds.

“Naw sit daahn ‘n dooant speyt ‘n dooant touch owt.”

Now, dressed in her school uniform, Katie opened her bedroom door and headed towards the kitchen for breakfast, still deep in thought. No, sister Mary would not do. It would have to be sister Rosalea. She was always full of smiles and kindness. Katie was sure Sister Rosalea would love kittens as much as she did. As she passed the lounge room, Paulie was sitting in his pyjamas watching cartoons with their younger sister.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

Paulie looked up at her and laughed.

“What are you doing? It’s Saturday you nong!”

“It is not,” she countered, frantically trying to figure out what day it actually was.

Face burning, she ran back to her bedroom and hastily changed her clothes. She emerged a little while later, in jeans, two jumpers and a jacket. She had a new plan. She would give Liquorice one of her jumpers to keep her warm, and some food to tide her over until Monday. She would hide her in the neighbours’ potting shed – they were away on holiday at the moment, so they wouldn’t even know.

Through the kitchen window, she could see her aunt and uncle in the backyard, working in the vegetable patch. She grabbed some leftover chicken breast from the fridge to wrap in foil,  poured some milk into an empty drink bottle, then slipped out the front door.

She must have been holding her breath for as she reached the end of the street, her chest was bursting. She stopped and sucked in a huge breath. She couldn’t believe it. Where was the kitten? She walked back a few paces to where Liquorice should have been and looked up and down the nature strip. Her kitten was gone. God had taken her back.

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