A muffled meow startled me awake at nine o’clock. I fumbled through the darkness of my new bedroom and cracked open my door to let in the hallway light. I heard another muffled meow.

The garage was below me. Maybe that’s how a cat had gotten in. Or was I dreaming? I had wanted a cuddly cat to call my own forever, but my parents had yet to relent, claiming pets were a lot of work.

I called over the bannister. “Mom? Did you hear that?”

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I heard another meow, this time as clear as day. I turned around. A black-and-white cat sat in the hallway, his tail swishing and green eyes gleaming.

“Mom!” I yelled, not even considering I might wake my younger sisters. “There’s a cat in the house!”

My mom bolted up the stairs. “It’s okay! He must have escaped from my room,” she whispered. She scooped up the chubby cat, who curled up against her. “He’s a Christmas present for you and your sisters. Someone is going to watch him until Christmas Eve, but I can’t bring him over there until tomorrow. Can you keep a secret?”

Thrilled beyond belief at finally having a cat, I nodded.

Although I had agreed, I couldn’t contain my excitement. The next night, while getting ready for bed with my sister Katie, I said, “Don’t tell Mom I said anything, but we’re getting a cat for Christmas. Act surprised, okay?”

Christmas morning flew by. As the oldest kid, I was in charge of handing out gifts. My youngest sister Maggie always opened hers first, followed by Katie, and then me. One by one, we unwrapped our presents, but all I could think about was that cat: a real, live cat. My parents didn’t seem to notice my anticipation, though, wrapped up in their robes, sleepily drinking their coffee at the crack of dawn.

After we opened the last wrapped gift, my mom said, “I think we may have one more present,” and headed down the hallway.

Katie and I exchanged looks. My dad took out the video recorder and hit Record as my mom walked back into the living room. She carried a long white box with three holes along each side. The box shook slightly as she set it down. “This is for all three of you,” she said.

My sisters approached the box. I stood behind them, figuring that since I was the only one who was supposed to know, I should let them open it.

As they popped open the box top, the black-and-white cat leaped into the air, his long tail arcing behind him. We all screamed… even me. He scurried down the hallway, his claws trying to gain traction on the wood floor.

“A cat!” Maggie squealed. We ran after him, sliding down the hallway in our Christmas socks. Our dad followed, the camera bobbing.

Not knowing the house, the cat turned left, past the bathroom and into a dead end: the laundry room. We took a quick glance around; he was nowhere in sight. But in such a small space, there were only so many options. Sure enough, his green eyes twinkled from behind the washing machine, giving away his location.

“Come here, kitty,” I called.

Nothing. Not a peep. Not a squeak. Not a meow. We waited for a while, hoping that, if we were quiet enough, he would come out and greet us properly. But the minutes ticked by, and he didn’t budge. Disappointment at not being able to hold him started to bother me, but I forced away the feeling.

It turned out my mom had adopted the cat from a shelter, and his old owner had been an elderly lady who was not as loud as three young girls. The poor cat had to have been so scared.

When he finally emerged hours later, he slunk out from the laundry room. He took tentative steps down the hallway. We acted like statues in the open dining- and living-room area, watching him, worried any sudden movements would send him right back into hiding.

He stopped to watch us, his tail swishing. He took a few more steps, rubbed his chubby body against my leg, and purred. We giggled, but he didn’t take off running… until the doorbell rang, signaling the arrival of my mom’s family. At the sound of the chime, he took off, tearing down the hallway and returning to his spot behind the washing machine.

While he hid, the family gathered: six of my mom’s siblings along with their significant others and a whole lot of kids. Mostly, we stayed in the back of the house, where the adults gathered to eat and drink and the kids could shake their presents. The volume of our talking and laughter became increasingly louder. I checked on the cat every once in awhile, but he was clearly most comfortable in the quiet confines of his dark hiding spot.

When we sat down to dinner, we quieted down. The adults gathered around the long dining-room table. Some of my cousins went downstairs to eat. A few cousins, along with myself, stayed in the back room to eat near the tree. As we were busy devouring our turkey and sweet potatoes, the cat must have assumed it was safe to come out. Once again, he ventured down the hallway, a little more confident than earlier. But he froze when he reached the dining and living area; even his tail stopped swishing.

“What an adorable cat!” an aunt declared.

Milliseconds later, the cat zipped to the closest hiding spot he could find: the Christmas tree. He bounded over the gifts and climbed as high as possible on the nine-foot tree, shaking the colorful lights as he went. I tried coaxing him down, but he clearly wasn’t coming down with so many people around. So there he stayed while we finished dinner and unwrapped presents, surveying all of us from his perch.

When everyone left a couple hours later, and the only sounds came from the TV, the cat scrambled his way down the branches, sending a few ornaments crashing in the process. We didn’t move from the couch. When he reached the floor, he stared at us again. I wanted to reach out to him and tell him how much I loved him already, but I didn’t want to scare him.

In the dimly lit room, he jumped onto the couch, strolled across our laps, and curled up in my lap. As I petted him, he started purring again. “We should name him Purcy,” I said. His purr was so loud that my family quickly agreed.

He spent the rest of the night in my lap. His arrival — and hiding — weren’t what I expected when a cat finally joined our family, but that was okay. He was, by far, the very best Christmas present ever.

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