The bottle, scratched and worn by the recent rains, lay on the sand in front of my nose. Early morning sunlight glinted off the facets of cut glass, marred only by a crack that spread down its length. Wherever the bottle had come from, it had not escaped undamaged. A black plastic cap, melted and rotted with age, clung to its mouth like a dried leech and smelled just as tasty.
I wrinkled my nose and poked at the cap.
Part of it crumbled away.
Intrigued, I used a claw to peel off a strip of pitted plastic until I could peer into the mouth of the bottle.
Something glimmered inside of it, a quick flash of color that vanished as soon as I faced it squarely. I used one paw to rub at the gritty sand that had dried between the facets, and saw the flash of color again. Was there something inside the bottle? I rubbed it again, using my claws to pick at the stubborn chunks of rock. The bottle's rough edges scraped across the pads of my feet, but I was too curious now to stop.
The flash of light did not return.
Disappointed, I turned away to finish my walk before Carla, one of my humans, noticed I was gone. A cat's patience could only withstand so much.
"Oh," someone said behind me. It was a human voice, a young voice.
A red-haired boy sat on the sand near the bottle, his knees drawn up against his chest. His eyes were wide and green, almost glowing in the sunlight. He wore patched leather pants and a peasant shirt that hung on his thin frame like a shroud. His feet were bare and rested on top of the water without disturbing it at all.
I hissed, despite myself.
The boy jumped. His eyes focused on me for the first time.
I saw true fear in his gaze.
"Who... who are you?" His voice cracked. "Where..." He looked around the forest again, desperate for something familiar. "Where am I?"
I cocked my head. "How did you get here so fast? You weren't here a minute ago..." I didn't expect him to be able to understand me; most humans can't.
But he scuttled backwards like a crab and floated an inch above the pool I liked to fish in. Floated.
I tried not to imagine how many fish I could catch if I knew a trick like that. And then... I remembered the bottle. "Oh, no."
The boy blinked at me. "You must tell me where I am. Please."
"Well, for starters, you're on planet Earth," I said and tried to find a dry spot to sit down. This was much more interesting than my morning constitutional.
The boy closed his eyes.
I thought I saw a flash of annoyance cross his face.
"Earth," he said flatly. "Yes. I gathered that."
"The United States? Ohio? Beth-Hill?" I hazarded. Cats aren't stupid by a long shot, but most felines keep a certain distance from their humans' way of life. I'm proud to say that I know Carla's address and phone number. Most cats... well, let's just say that most cats are only worried about their next meal.
He picked up on Beth-Hill. "Then not so far away, after all. The year and the date?"
Cats work by one calendar and one calendar alone: feeding time. "It's spring," I hazarded. I didn't offer to fetch him a newspaper.
The boy raised his arm and let the sunlight wash over his skin. "Yes. Spring. I can taste snow in the air."
I couldn't taste anything but breakfast, myself.
When he tried to stand, he saw the bottle sparkling in the sunlight. His face turned gray. He reached out to touch the rough glass, and vanished from my sight.
I sprang back, forgetting I sat on a sandbar surrounded by water. My back legs sank into quicksand and I barely escaped with my fur intact. I hissed and batted the bottle into the water.
The boy reappeared. His face crumpled a bit when he saw the bottle submerged in the creek, but he did not try to touch it again. He took a deep breath. "I see."
"You see what?" I asked. "And will you stop doing that?"
He focused his gaze on me. "Doing what?"
"Vanishing." I stalked towards him, fighting the urge to flee.
His mouth twitched. "I'm sorry." He seemed more solid now, but his feet made no marks in the sand. "Would you mind... Would you mind retrieving my bottle?"
I stared at him. "What do you think I am, a dog?"
He frowned. "No. You're a cat. I'm not that far gone. But I would prefer..." He took another deep breath. "I would prefer to be imprisoned on dry land."
Imprisoned? Oh boy. "I've seen this movie, and you're no genie," I said. "I'll just be going now." I leaped up on the bank.
"Wait?" The boy's voice was very soft. "Please..."
I turned to face him. "No offense, but this isn't normal."
Confusion. "Of course it's not normal. It's magic."
Just what I was afraid of. "Look. If I had pockets, I'd be a card-carrying member of the Anti-Magic League," I snapped. "I don't need this. I'm just a cat."
He smiled. "No one is just a cat."
I stood my ground. "I. Am. Just. A. Cat. Nothing more. And I can't help you." I pushed past the stand of briars at the edge of the creek's bank.
"But you awoke me." His voice followed me up the hill. "You awoke me, and I must... I must grant you..."
"No!" I yelled. My ears flattened against my skull. My tail--my poor tail--puffed out to twice its size.
My ears perked. "Don't you know?" Despite myself, I turned around.
The boy rubbed his eyes.
I thought I saw tears on his cheeks, but he wiped them away before I could be certain.
"I believe... three wishes are customary."