“You don’t have to do this,” I said for the third time that evening.
The mall would close in about an hour.
“You want to look good, no?” my mother asked.
She told her boss she’d work overtime tomorrow to make up for the few hours she took off to go dress-shopping with me. It was my fault she didn’t have enough time to sew something. I’d kept the reminder slip in my backpack for two weeks before I told her: picture day, where, once again, I’d be singled out.
“This shop here, or this other one?” She pointed. “L-Le Chateau?” She pronounced it Lee-Chat-ee-you. “It says that?”
Before I could respond, she pulled me in the direction of the store.
“Too expensive,” I said when I checked the price of a short burgundy dress.
My mother held the tag up to her face. She swallowed. “Is fine. Too grown-up for you, though.”
I found a rack of discounted sweaters at the back of the store, and looked through them for something less expensive than the dress. “I can wear jeans. No one will see them.”
She waved her hands in frustration. “Choose something nice.”
She moved over to a red satin dress, bright and simple. “I had one like this when I was young.” She touched the fabric, smiling in a way that stretched her laugh lines, adding decades to her face. “You like?”
The dress was beautiful. I nodded, eager to leave. I would wear the dress once and then push it to the back of the closet I shared with my brothers. We headed for the cashier.
“Is on sale or we pay full price?” my mother asked, holding up the dress.
Behind her, I covered my eyes.
“I’m sorry,” the cashier said, laughing awkwardly. “What?”
“Sale,” my mother repeated, trying to dampen her Ukrainian accent.
“Oh, no, full price,” the other woman said. She took the dress.
I felt my mother tense beside me when the cashier scanned the price tag. “$50.83,” she said. My mom turned to me. “Agnes, I’m sorry. I can’t…” It was 83 cents more than she could afford.
My face flushed with embarrassment and guilt. “No, no, I think I have some change,” I said before she could finish. The cashier didn’t need to know our problems. I dug through my pockets and pulled out a handful of dimes and quarters, counting what we needed. As we walked to the exit, my mother squeezed my hand but didn’t look at me. She was embarrassed, too.
It was dark outside, and snowing. I let go of my mother’s hand to grab the thin gloves in my pocket. Our car was parked far away. I followed her down the parking lot, the bag with the dress swinging from my fingers. My mother stared straight ahead, but I knew she was listening carefully. I was not as good a listener as she was, but she promised me that once we’d gotten a little more comfortable in Canada, she’d teach me to hear things as sharply as she could.
Suddenly, my mother sped up, lithe legs swishing inside her long coat. I ran to catch up with her. “What is it?”
“Hush.” She grabbed my hand, pulled me along.
I kept quiet, heart pounding. I heard the chatter of other shoppers in the distance, but we were alone. My mother reached into her pocket and pulled out the keys—the car was just up ahead, dingy and small in the light of the parking lot lamp.
My mother stopped. I let go of her hand, kept walking. “We’re almost there,” I said. “Come on.”
My mother’s face seemed paralyzed: eyebrows furrowed, mouth twisted with disgust and helplessness. She was looking at something past my head.
“Agnes, don’t,” she said.
“What?” I asked, fear growing. I turned back to the car.
A man stepped out from behind it, sliding his hand across the roof. He was dressed in a grey suit.
He headed quickly toward me, arms outstretched. I staggered back. “Mama!”
And then she was there, blocking the man’s path with her body. He stopped, growled low and swiped at her face.
My mother leaned back, but the man had managed to nick her chin with his claws. She pressed two fingers to the wound, wiped away the blood before I could see it.
“Enough,” came a voice from the shadows.
Four people emerged, seemingly from nowhere, barring our car from sight. They had to have been following us. All were impeccably dressed; none wore coats, despite the chill. A man with blonde hair stepped forward beside the man in the grey suit.
“Where’s your Leap?” he asked.
My chest tightened—I knew exactly why he was there. Shame burned inside me. They were so much cleaner than we were—healthier, too. The only way they could withstand the cold was if they were being fed, in more ways than one. I wondered what they sold, or stole, if anything, to have amassed such wealth and power.
“We don’t want trouble,” my mother said. “We leave now.”
Holding me to her body, she stepped toward the car. An angry yowl rang out, and a large black Panther surfaced from the shadows to slink across our path, yellow eyes fixed on my mother’s face. It padded back and forth, leaving wide footprints in the snow.
“You’re not leaving until we get this sorted out,” the blonde man said.
“Please,” my mother said.
The man waved his hand. “It’ll only take a minute. Do you have a tribute?”
“We don’t want to join Leap.”
The man smirked. “That’s too bad. Every Panther in Toronto has a Leap.”
“We don’t have tribute to pay,” my mother said. “Perhaps you can bend rule? Your Leap clearly has money already.”
“You pay now, or you leave.” He slid his hands into his pockets as the Panther came to sit beside him. “Unless we can work out another sort of arrangement.”
My mother closed her eyes. Her shoulders slumped. “Whatever you want.”
The man frowned. My mother presented no challenge. He stepped closer. “What’s your name?”
“Hall?” the man asked, and I felt my mother stiffen. “As in Gauvin’s Hall?”
“We are not his.”
“And how do you think Gauvin will react when I tell him his doctor’s wife’s run off?”
The fact that this man spied on other Leaps was amazing and maddening.
My mother narrowed her eyes. “If he’d wanted us back, he’d have taken us before we set foot in airport.”
“And here you are, unscathed.”
“He owed us.”
The man’s eyebrows rose. “Owed you?”
My father, a Panther and a doctor, had travelled to Tallinn over thirty years ago, ready to pay his tribute to one of the most established Leaps in the region, until Gauvin got to him first. The head of a ruthless Leap just outside the city, one either paid Gauvin Dare or died. So my father joined. My mother was one of Gauvin’s prostitutes, trafficked over the border from Ukraine in childhood, a prize to my father for his great work. My mother fell in love with my father for his undying hope, even in the face of Gauvin’s murderous methods.
“What happened, if I may ask?” the blonde man said.
“Our son was murdered,” my mother replied. “And my husband, he did nothing.”
“Was he not offered retribution?”
“Yes, but Gauvin does not fight fair. We wanted to leave. For better life.”
“So my Leap has nothing to fear, then?” the man said.
Even the Canadians’ Leaps were afraid of Gauvin. “No,” my mother said.
“Excellent.” He turned to the rest of his members, arms open. “They check out,” he said. Some of them snickered. The Panther swished its tail across the asphalt, kicking up snow. I looked around—the parking lot was still empty.
“We leave now?” my mother asked. Fatigue coloured her voice.
“Not so fast,” the man said. “The fact still remains: you are Panthers with no Leap.”
“Panthers with no Leap do not exist.”
“First for everything.”
“Not for this.” The man crossed his arms. “You can’t have been here too long. How are you going to survive with no protection? You’re too new.”
My mother straightened her body. “I think we will make it.”
He frowned. “I will ensure that you do not.”
“I thought Canadians were nice.”
“You earn niceness.”
My mother touched my cheek. “We have dealt with threats before. How we know you’re not Canadian Gauvin?”
“Gauvin would have taken you and your children the moment he saw you. As you can see, I have respected your personal space.”
My mother said nothing for a moment. “You offering us refuge?”
The man’s voice softened. “Mrs. Hall, I am offering you a real life.”
She weighed her options. “I must speak with my husband about this. But, for my children, I am willing.”
“Good decision,” the man said.
“What I need to do?”
I heard that Gauvin made his pledges kill.
“Change,” the man said.
My mother looked unsure. “Is…is that all?”
The man chuckled. “Your strength may be all you can offer us.” He gestured vaguely at my mother. “Clearly you have nothing else.”
My mother removed her scarf. It was too thin and bright for this weather. “Why?” She pushed me away a little, and unbuttoned her jacket.
“I want to know how strong you are, how experienced you are in your cat form.” He pulled out a stopwatch. “You’ll need to do it in under two minutes.”
My mother stared at the Panthers in the lot. She was not worried about her nakedness, or the cold. She knew that, no matter what, there were things she didn’t have a say in. I knew this lack of control made her angry—but I also knew that she had her priorities in order.
When she had finished the change, in under twenty seconds, the difference between us and them was even starker. My mother’s fur, like mine, was matted and rough. There were a few long scars along her back from when she’d gotten in fights over food, and several small but deep ones from those who were rough in sex She was gaunt and frail. These Canadian Cats were stronger, with shiny coats and lean muscles. They were beautiful. My mother looked at them, saw the differences herself, but did not seem embarrassed this time, even though we were poor trespassers in their territory.
“Good,” the man said. He slowly circled my mother, arms at his sides as he examined her. My mother grew agitated, pressing her legs to her body, her tail wrapped around her like a boa. After a moment, the man nodded once, and she was allowed to become human again.
She put on her clothing, grabbed my hand. “Let’s go,” she whispered.
“No,” the man said. “Her turn.”
My mother pulled me to her body. “She’s a child!”
“A Cat as well.”
“You can’t demand that!”
The man looked at her, smiled like he was forcing himself to. “I’m not demanding. I’m requesting.” When my mother did not calm, he said, “She joins the Leap, too. I assume you will not abandon your girl.”
It took some time before I realized what was going on. By the time I did, I’d found my voice had left me. The man bent down, held his hand out.
“Come closer, little cub,” he said. “I want to look at you.”
I looked up at my mother, and her tense, lined face gave a short smile. She let me go, and I took a few steps forward.
“That’s right,” the man said. “Just a little closer.”
My body shook; the bag crinkled as I clutched it to my chest.
“What’s that you got there?” the man asked. He knelt so we were eye-level. “Hold it out. Let me see.”
I turned to my mother again. “Do as he says, Agnes,” she said.
I opened the bag and pulled out the red dress, holding it flat against my body.
“That’s beautiful,” the man said. “I’m sure it will look great on you. Do you think so, too?”
“Now, can you change like your mother?” the man asked.
I nodded again.
“How well can you change? Have your parents taught you?”
My lips felt dry as I parted them. “Yes,” I said. “But I don’t do it all the time.”
“Because I don’t want to get into fights.”
“I’d like you to change now, darling,” the man said. “No one here will fight a child.”
His voice was calm and confident. I looked back at my mother again, received the same response. A part of me understood why she was following orders like that, but another part of me wanted her to be more defiant. I was her child, and these were strangers.
I took off my jacket. No one said anything as I peeled off layers. The cold bit my skin, and I wanted to cry, but I kept going. My shoes were the last to be discarded.
“Go on,” I heard my mother whisper.
I dropped to my hands and knees. In the corner of my eye, I could see the man press a button on the stopwatch. I willed the change to start.
Nothing happened at first, then, there was a tingling in my lower back, which quickly turned to shooting pain as my body reshaped. I had heard that some Cats could change in seconds, those who were trained for battle or stealthy escapes. A cry ripped from my throat as the change continued, and I feared I would be silenced, kicked. But I passed through the other side, throbbing, face against the cold ground.
The man pressed another button on the stopwatch. “Just in time.”
I stared up at him, this stranger who had us at his mercy. I sat like my mother had, feet close together, tail wrapped around my body. He walked around me, inspecting. I looked at the ground so I wouldn’t have to meet his eyes.
“There,” my mother said from behind me. “Is that what you want? Are we done here?”
“I’ll decide that,” the man said.
He knelt in front of me, reached toward my face.
“No! Don’t hurt her!” my mom screamed. She ran forward, but the large Panther leapt out and pinned her to the ground. Her struggles were laced with cries of pain, and I smelled her blood.
My heart beat quickly. I stood, started to back away, but I was quickly hauled off the ground by someone behind me: the man in the grey suit.
“Don’t struggle,” the blonde man said. “I want to know how much she loves you.”
I bared my teeth, hissed. He was a liar.
The blonde man ran his fingers through the fur on my head, on my nose. He held my face in his hands. He pressed his forehead to mine. “I have a daughter, too,” he whispered, “the same age as you. I think you two would be great friends.”
He saw the fear in my eyes, felt my quivering body.
“I will not hurt your family,” he said. “I promise you.” He held my paws. “I was once lost like you, and someone took a chance on me.” His eyes were warm. “You may join us. You are safe in Canada.”
Later, in our car, my mother pressed her head against the steering wheel and cried.
Terese Mason Pierre holds a degree in Bioethics from the University of Toronto and aspires to be a physician in a teaching hospital while cultivating a healthy writing career. She has been previously published in Young Voices Magazine, The Claremont Review, The Young Adult Review Network, and various student publications at UofT and Ryerson University, among others. Her interests also include music and volunteering. Pierre lives in Toronto with her family and her cat, Benjamin.