| Like thunderstorms, pollen particles and spiders on the ceiling, it's a natural fact of life.
In nearly every neighborhood in America lives a cat that wanders from house to house hoping for a handout. It's a cat that belongs to no one, yet to everyone.
From spring through summer, the nationwide "kitten season," some four million of these lonely little survivors wind up in animal shelters where only a few lucky ones are chosen.
Others live out their short lives as neighborhood strays with house-to-house names like Black Cat, Yellow Cat, Tabby and Here's That Cat Again. The sparrows, mourning doves and cardinals on the bird feeder called this one Here's that Cat Again, Fly Away as they departed for the half-grown neighborhood trees.
Where Aubrey lived in Wisconsin, such a stray was called Porchie. Not much bigger than a loaf of French bread, Porchie was light orange with long fur and a sprinkling of freckles on his tiny pink nose. He also had two white scars on his cheek, possibly from fighting with the creatures of the night.
Aubrey wasn't very big for her age, either, but even though she was the very smallest kid in the fifth grade her heart was as big as any grown-up's. Aubrey loved animals. She loved school. She loved her mom even though her mom wouldn't let her have a cat.
Each day, Aubrey set out fresh water in a stainless steel bowl and food in her own plastic cereal dish always placed two steps up and just to the right of her front door.
Each day, Porchie would show up and help himself until he felt fat and happy, often staying to lie in the sunshine and pester the roly-polys and constant trail of ants.
Sometimes, Porchie would be waiting for Aubrey when the rattling yellow school bus let her off. On these occasions Aubrey would drop her backpack on the sidewalk and sit beside Porchie rubbing his rabbit-soft underfur with her little, gentle fingers until her mother opened the door and reminded her it was time to practice the piano.
The Spinet keys frequently became stuck together with orange cat fluff. Chopin would have enjoyed the musical effect. Nor did Aubrey mind, although her mother did, carefully cleaning the keys with a noisy hand-held vacuum.
"Honestly," Aubrey's mother would say. "How much trouble would it be to wash your hands."
"Sorry, Mom," Aubrey replied beginning once again on Chopin's Prelude in A-flat Major, her favorite. "But it's not Porchie's fault. He's simply a little cat that needs a home."
"Tell him to try next door," Aubrey's mother suggested. "The Samuelsons have nothing else to do."
Life happens in mysterious ways.
Some call it coincidence. Others say it's meant to be.
Whichever explanation applies, one day while Aubrey was away being the smallest fifth-grader at Sunflower Elementary School, Aubrey's mother, attempting to plant potted purple mums in the front garden, fell backwards and struck her head on the sidewalk.
For the longest time, Aubrey's mother could not get up.
That's when Porchie arrived on his daily journey.
Here was something far more interesting than bugs.
Porchie postponed his regular meal and began to lick Aubrey's mother's face, his tiny tongue as rough as the sandy sea rocks at the bottom of Aubrey's saltwater aquarium.
That day when the school bus delivered Aubrey to her house she was surprised to discover that not only was Porchie not there, neither was his food bowl or water container.
"Mom!" she cried as she stepped inside. "Where's Porchie's stuff?"
"In the dishwasher, darling," her mother said. "It was becoming scummy."
"But what will Porchie think?" Aubrey insisted. "He depends on me."
"Everything will work out fine tomorrow," her mother replied with a gentle smile. "Trust me. Besides, winter's coming soon and Porchie won't be able to wander from house-to-house."
After practicing and dinner and TV, Aubrey cried herself to sleep.
What Aubrey didn't know was that her mother had taken Porchie to see a veterinarian - Dr. Foster - who checked him thoroughly for medical problems and gave him several vaccinations. Dr. Foster also neutered Porchie so he would not contribute to the annual kitten season the following year.
To be on the safe side, Dr. Foster suggested that Porchie remain in his clinic overnight where he was well cared for, and, in fact, made many new friends, one of which was a dachshund named Milton.
Every animal deserves a loving home.
In America, cats are the most popular pets outnumbering dogs by as many as fifteen million. They enjoy life indoors. They fit nicely into apartments and smaller houses. They're happy with only fifteen minutes of daily playtime. They are especially happy with a kind-hearted owner, no matter what that owner's age.
When the school bus showed up the next day, Aubrey was unhappy to see that Porchie's plates were still missing from the front porch. Instead, her mother was seated on the front steps to greet her.
"Hi, Mom," she said glumly. "Did you forget to put Porchie's things outside?"
"Not at all," he mother responded giving her daughter a hug. "They're inside, in the kitchen, where they belong."
"But what will Porchie do for food and water?" Aubrey asked as the first cold blast of approaching winter caused her to shiver.
"I suppose he'll have to learn to use a litter box," her mother said.
Aubrey was confused. How would a litter box help the homeless stray?
"Come inside and practice your Chopin," Aubrey's mother instructed.
"Yes, Ma'am," Aubrey replied.
She dropped her backpack by the closet and sat down on the piano bench, fighting back the tears. She didn't feel at all like playing music today.
Suddenly, Aubrey jumped up.
Something had rubbed against her leg.
"Porchie!" she cried. "How did you get inside?"
Aubrey's mother folded her arms and smiled like a Jack-O-Lantern.
"He lives here now," her mother said. "But I'm much too busy to take care of him. Someone else will have to do that. Who shall it be?"
"Me?" answered Aubrey excitedly.
"Good choice," her mother said. "But first you'd better read this."
She handed Aubrey a magazine that Dr. Foster had given her.
Aubrey and Porchie curled up together on the couch while her mother prepared dinner. Aubrey read every word in every article carefully, as if she were preparing for a test in Mrs. Fleming's English class at Sunflower Elementary School.
Porchie dozed in Aubrey's lap.
Home at last.
All of a sudden, Aubrey shouted with excitement, "Mom! Listen to this!"
Dusting flour from her hands, Aubrey's mother entered the living room.
"Cats are social animals so two are better than one," Aubrey read aloud, "and three cats are better than two if you're devoted to their care and ready to receive three times the love."
"Aubrey," her mother replied. "Not so fast, child, okay?
"One day at a time."