Sleight of Paw

Submitted into Contest #87 in response to: Write about a mischievous pixie or trickster god.... view prompt

14 comments

Fiction Latinx

There were a lot of things Mateo Alejo did not like, including but not limited to vegetables, cloudy days, sitting still, and the color blue. Not necessarily in that order.


The List hadn’t changed in a while, since he had enjoyed every minute of second grade since it had started. But today, he decided he would add another entry to the List: spelling quizzes. He hated them. Especially when he didn’t pass. Especially when his dad sounded this disappointed as he tried to teach Mateo how to pass but it wasn’t working.


“Stop staring out the window,” Jaime chided. They were perched at the counter in their kitchen, school papers spread out in front of them. Afternoon sunlight slanted into their house, illuminating the many toys scattered across the floor.


Reluctantly, Mateo directed his attention back to his dad. “Can we go outside?”


“Not now, mijo,” Jaime said affectionately. “We’re fixing this together, okay?” He picked up the quiz that Mateo had taken earlier that day in school, red ink shouting 4/10 you’ll get it next time :) from the corner of the page. “Mrs. Fields is helping you, and I’m helping you, but you need to help yourself too. Now, how do you spell ‘energy?’”


It wasn’t that Mateo wasn’t trying. In fact, he was trying really hard. He scrunched his eyes shut and tried to remember the arrangement of the letters, how the word looked on paper. The lines wavered in his mind like sunlight in a swimming pool. No matter how hard he focused, he couldn’t get them to stay still.


“I don’t know,” he said, slumping in his chair. He felt tears burning in his eyes. “Sorry, Papa.”


Jaime pulled Mateo closer and wrapped him in a hug. “It’s okay,” he promised. “We’ll work on it later.”


The moment was interrupted when Ramona came crashing through the front door, carrying a large gray box. “I’m home!” she proclaimed.


Mateo quickly jumped out of his dad’s arms and dashed over to his sister. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing to the box she was clinging on to.


Ramona ignored him and turned her attention to Jaime instead, who had his arms folded. “Please don’t tell me that is what I think it is,” he said.


“Well…” she started, offering a sheepish smile. Words fell from her mouth like rain. “See, my friend was driving me home from debate club and we saw her on the edge of the road, and she was bleeding a little, so he found a pet carrier in his trunk that he uses for his dogs and we got her into the carrier but the shelter was closed and his parents are allergic so I had to bring her here, you know?”


“What are you talking about?” Mateo cried, desperate to understand something. First the spelling quiz, then trying and failing to figure words out, and now Ramona brought home some unknown thing that Papa clearly did not like. He was going to add today to the List.


“I’ll just show you guys,” Ramona said cheerfully. She set the carrier on the ground and swung open the door.


A slender orange something sauntered out of the box with effortless grace, despite the shallow cut on its shoulder. Its paws touched the floor like it was walking on air, barely making contact, certain and poised. It sniffed languidly around one of Mateo’s stuffed animals, then sat down and began cleaning itself.


And it was a cat.


Mateo immediately knelt down and started stroking her head. At first, a hiss issued from the cat’s mouth, but it quickly morphed into a purr. “What’s her name?” he asked eagerly.


“I was thinking Leo,” Ramona said, scratching the cat’s thick scruff.


“Okay, stop right there.” Jaime scooped up Leo. “We are not adopting her, understand? She can stay for the night, but I’m taking her straight to the shelter after you two leave for school tomorrow.”


"Papaaaa,” Mateo whined. He jumped to reach Leo in his dad’s grip, who meowed as if to say she wanted to be pet again. “Why can’t we keep her?”


“Too much trouble,” Jaime said matter-of-factly. “I’m sorry, kids, but your mom and I don’t have the time to take care of a cat.” He paused to tickle Leo’s chest for a moment. “Although she is very cute,” he conceded.


And even though Ramona and Mateo didn’t usually agree on anything, really, they grinned at each other now - knowing there was a chance.


🐾


“Please. Please. Please please please please.”


Jaime put his head in his hands. “It’s been three hours, Mateo. Three hours.”


“I want to keep Leo,” Mateo said stubbornly. “Me an’ Ramona will help!”


The cat in question, shoulder now cleaned, leapt into Mateo’s lap. He giggled as he felt the soft brush of fur against his skin. Leo’s eyes shone copper in the golden lamp light, almost seeming to sparkle playfully as she moved.


“He and Ramona really do seem to love Leo, Jaime,” Savannah observed, sweeping into the room. She embraced Mateo quickly and pressed a brief kiss to Jaime’s lips, leaving the latter looking slightly dazed, before opening three different cabinets and searching them intently. “Just think about it. Give the cat a chance. Where did I put my charger?”


“Over there.” Jaime pointed to where it lay coiled on the table. Savannah made a noise of gratitude and picked it up, then left for her office.


“Please please please-” Mateo began again.


“How about this?” Jaime said finally. “If you get an A on your spelling quiz tomorrow, we keep the cat.”


“Bye, Leo,” deadpanned Ramona from her room. “It was nice meeting you.”


“I can do it!” Mateo shot back eagerly. He tried to imagine that 100% scrawled across the top of the paper, all the letters and words in their proper positions. It made his head hurt a little, but he was determined to achieve it. “I’ll study right now,” he declared.


“Okay,” Jaime said, squeezing Mateo’s hand. “Let’s do this thing.”


Savannah peeked back into the kitchen, looking bemused. Her gaze found her charger, sitting out on the table again. “Didn’t I just bring that into my office?” she asked.


“Huh.” Jaime squinted at the wire. “I guess you didn’t.”


🐾


When Mateo fell asleep, he dreamed about a library, even though libraries were on the List. They were too quiet and the shelves were too tall.


His dreams were usually whimsical and bright, tinted with rainbows and filled with mythical creatures. In contrast, this library was dusty and clearly for old people. The only way Mateo recognized that he was asleep was the same haziness at the edges of his brain that accompanied all of his other nighttime fantasies. If he thought too hard, the whole scene would evaporate.


Mateo had studied the vocabulary words for what felt like hours earlier that night (or what his dad said had been forty minutes). He’d stared at the paper until he saw the words when he closed his eyes, listened to his father recite the spellings over and over and over. Two minutes later, he’d forget again. It was like trying to catch a butterfly: the colors so close, but they just kept slipping between his fingers.


So he was in no mood for libraries tonight.


“Hey!” he shrieked to the walls of books and the abandoned beanbags. “I wanna dream about something else!”


A woman strolled out of the mythology section.


“Stranger danger!” Mateo yelped, darting behind a chair.


The adult spread her arms. Her build was lithe and feline, her face animated with a youthful energy. A flowing orange scarf twisted around her neck. “This is all in your head, kid,” she said. “I can’t hurt you.”


“Oh,” Mateo said. He almost stepped further away, but there was something about her that felt strangely familiar. Welcoming, even. “What’s your name?”


“Not sure,” the woman mused. “I have a lot of them.” Seeing Mateo’s confused look, he added, “You can call me Liona. That’s one of my favorites.”


Mateo racked his brain for where he’d seen this Liona before until a mental lightbulb lit up inside him. “You’re Leo!” he shouted enthusiastically. “My cat!” If he’d taken a step back and thought about what he was saying, it would have been questionable - but in a young child’s dreams, or reality, anything goes.


“That is indeed one of my many magnificent forms,” Liona affirmed. “Humans love cats so much it’s unreal. It's just so easy, you know? They let me into their houses and I mess with them for days, and they forgive me anyway.”


“Like making computer chargers disappear?” Mateo narrowed his eyes at Liona, though he didn’t look very intimidating.


“Look, I actually made it reappear that time, so you’re welcome.” Liona crossed her arms, suddenly looking far younger. “I used to play pranks a lot, but I’m reforming now, okay? Decided they were too condescending for a being of my stature. Just a few tiny tricks, here and there…” Her eyes misted over.


“You sound like my abuela talking about when she lived in Chile.”


“Are you kidding me? I’m only a few thousand years old!” Liona scoffed. “Honestly. Humans these days.”


Mateo gaped. “My abuela’s eighty.”


“Well, good for her,” said Liona kindly.


“Don’t do anything mean to my family, please,” Mateo implored. “My papa and mama will give you to the shelter if they don’t like you. Can you just be a normal cat?”


Liona blew out a breath. “You do know I’m the goddess of all felines, right?” she said after a long pensive moment. “That scratch on Leo's shoulder was just a ploy to get your sister to take me into your home. I'm capable of entering dreams, though I’ll admit I didn’t come into this one on purpose because you basically pulled me in-” she gestured to Mateo- “and jumping twenty feet in the air and shapeshifting. I don't usually stay with one household for more than a month."


"You should stay with us!" Mateo pleaded. "We'll take care of you and I'll give you pats."


“Yes, your pats are surprisingly good.” Liona looked deep in thought. “I do enjoy the praise you humans lavish upon my cat form. When I’m not at home sleeping, I can go anywhere. And the food, just served to me, without having to actively hunt it down? Ugh. Gourmet. At least when I’m Leo.” She wrinkled her nose. “Otherwise it just smells.”


“If you want more gur-may food, you have to help me pass my spelling quiz tomorrow,” Mateo said brightly. “And also, you can't be mean to us. You can disappear useless things if you want, but nothing else.”


"Well, then," she challenged, "what's in it for me?"


Mateo's smile stretched from ear to ear. "You have to leave me and my parents alone, but you can prank my sister all you want."


Liona looked lost in thought for a second, then nodded. “I can’t promise that I’ll be able to rein it in on April Fools’ Day - oh, kid, that’s the day cats were made for - but I’ll try. I made them, by the way. It was me. In case you weren’t sure.”


“So help me study now,” Mateo said, then remembered the magic word. “Please?”


Liona’s eyes twinkled copper. “Sit down. You’re in for a real treat.”


🐾


“How do you spell ‘cycle’?”


“S,” Mateo said. “No, C. And then…” His fists clenched as he thought desperately. “I?”


Liona almost seemed sympathetic. She had pulled out a pair of glasses to perch on her nose (“for the aesthetic”) and with a flick of her hand, changed into a vibrant goldfish-orange tuxedo to match her scarf (“I understand that this is what human teachers wear to school,” she’d said gleefully, and Mateo had tried to muffle his laugh).


Now, though, the goddess tented her hands on the table seriously, where she’d made Mateo’s school papers appear. “Maybe this will help,” she said, and a cloud appeared six feet above them.


“Whoa,” slipped out of Mateo’s mouth as ghostly raindrops began to fall. He held out his own hands and tried to catch them, but they passed through his skin. Slightly disappointed, he watched the drops pool and collect on the ground, miniature waves rolling in the blue like a tiny lake. It didn’t last for long until the particles coalesced and drifted back upward toward the cloud, even as the rain kept falling.


A large teal ‘C’ danced into view, followed by ‘Y-C-L-E.’ The letters paraded up and down in a circle around the entire watery vision. Then the whole thing faded and Mateo was left feeling like he’d seen a story come to life.


“That was so cool!” he squealed.


Liona looked very pleased with herself. “My mother always told me that visuals are the best way to learn something,” she said. “Granted, she was the ruler of all life in the universe who was trying to teach me how to transfer my essence into three objects at once, and you are- this, but the advice still stands. Now, how do you spell ‘cycle?’”


For the first time, the letters swam easily into Mateo’s mind, accompanied by the picture Liona had conjured. There was simply something nicer about seeing the word come to life, instead of having to focus on little ant-y arrangements of black on white, over and over. “C-Y-C-L-E,” he said hesitantly.


“Perfect,” Liona said, applauding. Mateo kicked his feet underneath the table happily. “Let’s do it again.”


A small brown bird appeared in the air, chirping and fluttering away without a care in the world. Mateo frowned. “Can you make it pink?”


The bird went rosy red, then ten more appeared, then too many to count, until there was a bright swarm of wings flickering above their heads. They flapped in circles and squiggles and complex formations until they formed the world ‘FLOCK,’ then shot out the window to somewhere Mateo couldn’t see.


“F-L-O-C-K,” he recited, seeing the birds again, even if just in his head. Liona beamed triumphantly.


They did it again for ‘energy,’ when Liona made a lightning bolt lance across the ceiling to spell out spiky gold letters. For ‘treasure,’ as ethereal gold coins carved with the word appeared in heaps on the ground. For ‘helpful,’ when the goddess simply pointed to herself and intoned the letters with a smirk-y look on her face.


They got through the list of twenty words swiftly, soon reaching the last one. “‘Vanish,’” Liona read from her paper. Almost immediately, the environment around them began to fade in wisps and tendrils, the color leaching out.


Mateo looked around. “This isn’t as cool as the other things you made.”


“Because I didn’t make this,” Liona said. “You’re waking up.”


A strange sort of disappointment swept through him. “I’m gonna take libraries off the List,” he said, wishing this fun could last forever.


Liona blinked in vague confusion, then seemed to let it go. She reached out to ruffle Mateo’s dark hair, but he couldn’t quite feel the contact. “Good luck on the quiz, okay, kid? You probably won’t need it, though.” She tossed her scarf over her shoulder, her outline growing hazy and her voice very far away. “I’m a very good teacher.”


The library bled away, leaving nothing but black. Mateo opened his eyes and found himself in his bed, morning sunlight streaming into the room, Leo sitting on the rocket-patterned blankets. She purred.


🐾


When Mateo had burst from his room earlier that day before school had begun, shouting about their cat being an immortal goddess who just really liked attention as a feline, Jaime had simply chosen not to believe it. Mateo had always had an overactive imagination, starting three years ago when he’d made a big fuss about having the real live Easter Bunny under his bed (in reality, a rather large stuffed animal Ramona had left in there). At their best, Mateo’s creative tendencies were entertaining. At their worst, they were downright annoying.


Now, though, as Mateo waved his spelling quiz emblazoned with 9/10 in Jaime’s face, he found himself appreciating his son’s brain much more.


“It’s all because of Liona,” Mateo bragged after Jaime’s seventh ‘I’m so proud of you!’.


“The… person from your dream?”


“Yes! But also a cat. This cat!” Mateo scratched heartily behind Leo’s ears, who had been lying placidly by the window. “And now we get to keep her! Because I passed!”


“I suppose Leo was the one who put googly eyes on everything in the fridge this morning,” Jaime said dryly.


“She does love pranks,” Mateo said. “She’s basically the goddess of them.”


"Mateo!" Ramona yowled distantly, her voice muffled by the walls. "Why is my keyboard arranged in alphabetical order? I know it was you, you little sh-"


"Language," Savannah shouted back from her office. Mateo scurried in the direction of his sister's voice, probably to demand she let him into her room.


Jaime watched him go, pride swelling in his chest. “If you’re really a goddess, you’d better help Mateo pass his other tests too,” he said to the cat jokingly.


Leo stared back at him, copper eyes catching the sun. For a second, they were magnetic in the light, undiscovered gemstones, wiser than any human.


Then she yawned and curled up in the afternoon warmth, ordinary again.


April 02, 2021 21:19

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14 comments

Michael Boquet
16:57 Apr 07, 2021

Your first two paragraphs made me chuckle and I laughed out loud at stranger danger! Great use of metaphor and simile throughout. I really love Mateo and making your trickster a cat was a nice touch. Fun story!

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Ellie Yu
22:22 Apr 07, 2021

Thank you so much! Mateo likes you too. :)

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Ellie Yu
21:25 Apr 02, 2021

I’ve always wanted a cat, but this idea jumped into my head in particular after my mom told me about her childhood pet. He was a real troublemaker. I struggled a lot with this piece, both for finding time and writing in such a young child's voice. Also, humor bad. I'm not expecting to win anything - I just wanted to have a bit of fun with this one. If anybody has tags for this story, please let me know! It doesn't really fit into the "funny" tag, and I'm not sure if it reads as a "kids" piece either. I left it as "fiction" for now, but any...

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Michael Boquet
16:59 Apr 07, 2021

You might choose the 'latinx' tag

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Ellie Yu
22:23 Apr 07, 2021

Ooh good idea, thank you!

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Amanda Fox
17:47 Apr 06, 2021

This was such a fun read! Thank you for sharing.

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Ellie Yu
18:37 Apr 06, 2021

I’m so happy you enjoyed it! Thanks for the kind words!

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Emma Louise
20:23 Apr 05, 2021

Hey! I just found your profile. Fellow high schooler here, with lots of ideas she sometimes struggles to put into words :P. I loved Mateo's character, and the list. I can 110% picture Ramona coming into the room talking at 10 million miles an hour while Jaime tries and fails not to fall in love with the cat. I found this very entertaining, and love the idea of a cat as a trickster goddess. The structure/oder of your story was also incredible. My only critique would be when Romona is talking, "we found him on the edge of the road and he was b...

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Ellie Yu
21:21 Apr 05, 2021

Hi there! Us high schoolers need to stick together in these trying times :) Thanks for pointing that out! I had Liona using he/him pronouns originally, but then I decided to switch it up because I really wanted to see a powerful woman who didn't give a hoot about... anything, really. Clearly I didn't catch all of them though, haha. I really appreciate your attention and your kind words - I'm off to check out your stories now!

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Claire Lindsey
15:06 Apr 03, 2021

I’m with you on struggling with writing humor. I had the hardest time with these prompts. (Also I hope your exams/quizzes went well!) I thought this was really cute. I loved Liona’s prideful remarks about her teaching ability and the general mischievous tone. I also loved the recurring motif of the List, it felt very childlike and added a lot to Mateo’s character. Overall the story felt like the beginning of a kid’s chapter book and it absolutely made me smile. My only critique (which I’m not even sure is helpful haha) would be that I kind...

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Ellie Yu
16:09 Apr 03, 2021

(Thanks for the good wishes! Still waiting for the grades to come back, but I think I did decently :D) No, that critique is actually a really great idea! Just gonna steal that, if you don’t mind. Thank you again for the help!

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Claire Lindsey
16:44 Apr 03, 2021

Steal away! And yay!

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Iris Orona
19:35 May 14, 2021

GREAT CHILDREN'S STORY BUT MADE FOR ADULTS ALSO.

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Ellie Yu
14:57 May 15, 2021

Thank you!

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