“Not like that!” whined Mavis. “Not like that, she doesn’t like it like that! Lewis stop! Stop Lewis!”
There were steps out in the hallway, a floorboard creaked and the children stopped for a moment. Mavis crossed her arms and pantomimed her disapproval with a big frown. But for Lewis her annoyance was a part of the pleasure of stroking the cat; there was a curious sort of dialogue between its abiding, wakeful stillness, head half-raised from its pillow on the floor, and Mavis’ unmet demands, that potential for violence arriving, being willed and reckoned by him, sought, delayed by minuscule adjustments according to formulas his own. From the hall it seemed to Diane that he was absent, like this play of feelings was secret to himself—with automatic hand he stroked, perhaps too close to the cat’s flank, but over and over, gently, not necessarily to spite Mavis, and perhaps not even with her in mind, simply knowing that wrong was being done, but with none of the naturally attendant inhibitions about wrongdoing. Diane stepped out from the hall and stood in the doorway.
“Dessert!” she said, and Lewis, repeating the word like a call to action, scrambled to his feet and charged out past her. Dessert, dessert, dessert. Mavis shuffled on her knees closer to the cat, dragging her dress on the floorboards.
“There there,” she said, stroking the cat in the proper way, “there there it’s okay now,” she said. The cat rested its head on its paws and began to purr. Diane sat down cross-legged beside Mavis and watched.
“You have to pet it like this,” said Mavis. “It likes to be petted on the head, like this, and then down.” She repeated the formula with her little hand, slowly, her fingers firmly together, straight, thumb out, beginning from between the ears, down, past her collar, ending between the shoulder blades, no further. Diane tried it. The cat started, raised its head, alert, eyes dilated. It listened for a moment to something, ears periscoping here, then there, then it slinked low and quietly out the door.
“What did I do?”
Mavis looked at her with wide eyes of her own.
“It got scared.”
“Typical,” said Diane.