“I’m confused…” said the man with jet black hair and frown lines around his mouth.
“What’s there to be confused about?” asked the cat with fire for eyes and stars for teeth.
“Am I dead? Is this…heaven? Or am I somewhere…else?”
“Where do you think you are?” mused the cat, licking its paw. With each stroke of its tongue, the fur underneath changed colors, shimmering between shades of black and blue and purple and pink and all other colors the man had seen.
“What happened to me?” He was getting frustrated - the frown lines around his mouth deepened and his brow furrowed to match.
“You tell me. I was here. Then, you came.”
“I was driving. I had to get to work. I was running late. I was trying to change the radio station from that awful, rock music that my son always played when he took the car. The car ahead of me kept swerving in and out of the lines, so I was trying to be quick but the dial was jammed.”
“Such a silly thing, isn’t it? To worry about music?” The cat’s voice changed. It sounded like the man’s son.
“Did I hit someone? Is that why I’m here? Am I in a coma? Is this one of those dreams people have when they’re on the operating table during surgery?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was here. Then, you came.”
“Where am I? Why do you sound like Theo?” The man’s voice was getting desperate, almost pleading.
“Who’s Theo?” asked the cat, grinning, exposing a mouth full of night sky.
“My son! My son’s name is Theodore. My wife’s name is Scarlett. My name is… My name is…” He ran his fingers through his hair as he tried to think of his name, pulling the strands as his hands moved slowly.
“Your name is?” The cat was laughing. With each chuckle, the flames in its eyes bounced.
“I can’t remember… Why can’t I remember my name? What’s going on?” The desperation was turning into fear. He started pacing.
“I remember your name. I remember everything about you.” The cat sounded like Scarlett, and it stepped towards the man, weaving between his legs.
“Stop that! Stop doing that!” He jumped away from the cat, swatting it with his foot.
“Stop doing what?” The cat smirked at the man, leaning back on its hind legs, exposing a belly made of flowers.
“What are you? Where am I? What’s happening to me?” The man sank, burying his face in his hands to catch the tears that were beginning to fall.
“Oh now,” chastised the cat as it cocked its head at the sobbing man, “You shouldn’t cry. This isn’t really the place.”
“What place is this then?” the words from the man echoed, stirring the flowers on the cat’s belly.
“I suppose you could say… this place is here. You were there. And now you’re here.” The cat’s tail swished, pointing off into the distance then back to the man.
“You’re not making any sense! Stop talking in riddles!”
“You’re the one asking questions. If you don’t like the answers, perhaps you should stop.” The cat stretched upward, and, as it did, it grew.
“Just tell me what happened!” shouted the man as he stood, pointing his finger menacingly at the cat.
“You were driving to work. You were trying to change the radio station, but the dial was jammed. The car in front of you was swerving,” yawned the cat, who now stood eye-level with the man.
“Then what? Did I die? Am I dead?” The man was frantic now. His tear-soaked cheeks shined as he spoke.
“What else do you remember?” The cat’s fur was changing again, a rainbow of colors gently shifting.
“I remember the car was swerving. I was trying to pay attention. Then…”
“Then the dial unjammed… The station changed. Turned to static…”
“And then?” goaded the cat.
“Then I looked down - just long enough to read the numbers. Not even a second. And when I looked back up, the car was standing still. The light was red. I slammed my brakes… I don’t think I stopped in time. I remember a sound… something crunching.”
“Then, I was here.”
The cat’s face broke into another skylit smile. The flames rolled back, replaced by Scarlett’s hazel-brown irises.
“Yes,” Theo’s voice said, “Then you were here.”
“I’m dead…” The man’s face dropped as the realization sank into his jaw.
“I wouldn’t worry too much,” comforted Scarlett’s voice, “It’s over now.” The cat’s eyes rolled again, this time turning jet black.
“If I’m dead… does that make you… I thought you would be different….”
“Were you expecting a bearded-man? Or perhaps something hairless with wings?” The cat sounded like the man’s father.
“I don’t know… I don’t know what I was expecting.”
“Yes, you didn’t spend much time thinking about this moment, did you?”
“Are you God?” All the anger and desperation and fear had left the man’s voice.
“I don’t know what I am.” The cat put its paws to its face and pulled. As the fur and skin stretched, the features became more human - not quite male or female, but not quite animal, either.
“What happens now? Are you taking me… somewhere?” The words were slow, reverent.
“We can go anywhere you’d like.” The cat was still changing, morphing and twisting. Paws turning into hands. Ears shrinking into its head.
“I was a good man. I should go to the good place,” asserted the still-nameless man, straightening his back and staring down the creature transforming in front of him.
“How do you know you aren’t already here?” This voice was new, unfamiliar to the man but comforting in a way he couldn’t understand.
“Because this isn’t right… This isn’t what it’s supposed to look like.” The man gestured to the expanse around them - black, void, motionless.
“What is it supposed to look like?”
“It’s supposed to be… It’s supposed to be beautiful. I’m supposed to know people here…”
“You don’t know me?” The creature standing before the man turned its head, which now resembled his own, though the rest of its body was still phasing.
“I don’t know what you are, but I’ve never seen anything like you.”
“You don’t even know who you are. How do you know I’m not just someone you’ve forgotten?”
“My name is… Joseph,” the words were uncertain, so he repeated himself, “My name is Joseph. My son is Theodore. My wife is Scarlett.”
“And I am?” Standing before Joseph, a slightly distorted mirror-image of himself stood - sprouting hair in all the same places and speaking in an echo of his own voice.
“You are… You’re something else. You’re not a someone.”
“Why, that’s an awfully rude thing to say!” asserted the man who looked and sounded sort-of like Joseph.
“Where am I? Is this Hell?” Joseph started stepping backwards, the fear returning.
“I’ve already told you,” the man said, starting to sound bored.
“You said I’m here. But where is here?”
“It’s where you are,” laughed the man.
“What happens now?”
“What do you want to happen? What’s supposed to happen?” The tone of the words was mocking.
“I’m supposed to go to the good place.” Joseph had stopped retreating, placing as much distance as possible between him and the shadow of himself.
“And, again, how do you know you aren’t already here?” The man turned his back to Joseph, spreading his arms. The black started to melt away. Joseph looked around and found he was standing in his house. The walls held the same photographs. He could hear Scarlett and Theo in the living room, discussing something playing on the television. He touched the table beside him, the one standing in the entryway containing a dish of keys and a notepad with a “to-do” list scribbled on it. It was solid under his fingers.
“Is this what you were expecting?” asked the man as he turned to face Joseph again.
“I don’t understand…”
Joseph walked in the direction of the voices in the living room and found his wife and son sitting side-by-side on the couch, smiling at each other. He tried to call out to them, but they couldn’t hear him.
“This isn’t right!” he shouted, waving his arms and trying to get their attention.
“Oh, it’s not?” purred the man. He was starting to change again.
“I was a good man!” yelled Joseph as the walls started to shift around him.
“So you’ve said.” The man’s arms shortened. His fingers curled into paws. His face began to draw inwards.
Joseph reached out to his wife and son, but his fingers slipped through. They weren’t real. Along the edges of the floor, fire started to erupt. It engulfed the room, swallowing everything. He tried to run, but he was surrounded. The heat from the flames burned against his face. Smoke choked him and clouded his eyes. As the fire drew nearer and nearer to his feet, he could see the silhouette of the cat standing across from him, unphased.
“Is this right?” taunted the cat. The flames clung to its fur like beads of water.
“Get me out of here!” wailed Joseph, coughing and sputtering. The ceiling started to fall, and the burning pieces crashed.
“As you wish….”
Suddenly, the fire was gone. Joseph was standing in the black expanse again, and the cat was licking its paws.
“Now,” started the cat with a serious tone, “Where would you like to go?”
“I just want to go back,” Joseph moaned, sitting down in exhaustion.
“Back? The house burnt down. I don’t see why you would want to go back there.”
“I want to go back. Back to the car. Back to my wife. Back to my son.” He was starting to cry again, and the cat jumped into his lap, nuzzling against his chest.
“You can’t go back. You’re here now,” it said, rolling over and motioning for Joseph to pet the flowers on its belly.
“I did the right things. I was a good person. A good man. A good husband. A good father.” He knotted his fingers in the stems of the flowers, stroking upwards and massaging the petals of the blooms, staring off into the distance.
“Who are you trying to convince?” purred the cat, who sounded like Scarlett again.
“I don’t know.” Joseph continued to explore the flowers on the cat’s belly. As he rubbed, more started to grow between his fingers.
“Do you believe you are owed something in death?” The cat touched its paws to Joseph’s arm, flexing its claws against his skin.
“I thought it mattered. I thought being a good person mattered.”
“What makes you think it didn’t?”
“Because it was supposed to be more than this!” exclaimed Joseph, tightening his grip around the flower stems, uprooting them.
The cat yowled in pain, digging its claws into Joseph’s arm. He flung it away and stood, marching towards the animal.
“It was supposed to be more than this! More than a cat, or whatever you are, talking to me in riddles and showing me things! More than a black room! I wasn’t supposed to be alone!” With each threatening thud of his feet, the cat cowered and hissed. As it opened its mouth, a growl roared from its throat.
“It is a foolish thing to believe one’s good deeds are nothing more than currency exchanged for comforts and luxuries in death,” hissed a voice from the void as the cat continued to growl and bare its fangs.
Joseph stopped and looked around, trying to find the source of the sound, and the cat lunged for his chest. As its claws met skin, they grew, digging deeper and deeper. Joseph wrapped his hands around its neck, trying to pry the cat off of him, but the harder he pulled, the stronger it held on.
“You are here, and you can’t even appreciate it. What makes you believe you would appreciate something else? If you were given a mansion made of gold and fine silks and riches, would you feel satisfied? Or would you still want more? Perhaps someone to share it with? Had you died and landed naked in a field of friends and relatives, would you cry out for a blanket? If you found yourself in a den of demons, branding you with hot iron and pouring fire in your mouth, would you dream of an afterlife made of black? Void of screams and pain?” asked the voice as Joseph struggled with the cat on his chest.
“I… just… thought… it… mattered…” he stammered over the howling cat, yelling into the black.
“And you believe were granted the authority to say it didn’t because your expectations, your childish imaginings of the afterlife, were wrong?” The sound bellowed, surrounding Joseph and reverberating in his ears.
He fell under the weight of the cat, which had grown three sizes, oozing over him like tar.
“You, like all the others, lived your life under the assumption that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ were simply units of measurement, and as long as you accumulated more of one than the other, you would be praised in death, like a war hero or a saint. You never once stopped to consider the quality of your ‘good’ deeds - they were all the same to you.”
The cat chewed into Joseph’s neck, spitting out bits of skin and muscle as its teeth moved. He squirmed and writhed underneath the monster, his face twisting and contorting in agony. Blood filled his mouth as he tried to scream.
“You may have been a ‘good’ man, Joseph, but you did nothing to deserve the eternity you imagined. You were selfish. Blind to the suffering of others. Indifferent to the struggles of those beneath you. You were given all the tools to lead a successful life, but you wasted them. You settled. You chose to live an average life. You were a good man, but you never tried to be a great man. And now, you stand here, dissatisfied with what you see because you think you deserved more, but you don’t even know what ‘more’ looks like. No one gets slighted in death - they simply overestimated the value of their life.” The words echoed, clapping like thunder.
The cat slackened against Joseph. The claws buried in his chest retracted. The fangs in his neck loosened. He pushed the dead weight of the cat off of him and sat up to examine the damage, but there was none. He was whole.
The cat sprung back to life, smiling as it faced Joseph.
“Tell me,” his father’s voice insisted, “What do you consider to be the best thing you’ve ever done?”
Stunned, Joseph stared into the cat’s eyes, into the flames, and said, “I don’t know.”
“Then, I suppose you should do away with your notions of what you believe you deserve.” The cat was gentle again, rolling on its back playfully as its fur shimmered.
“Do they miss me?” he asked, dropping his head between his knees.
“That’s the first question you’ve asked that doesn’t revolve around you,” Theodore’s voice answered.
“Are they hurting?” He was defeated.
“They will miss you, until they don’t. And they will hurt, until they don’t.”
“Will I see them?”
“Do you think it’s wise for the mourning to see the object of their grief?”
“Is this… it? Is this….all there is? Is this what forever will look like?”
“This is where you are.”
“Will I ever go anywhere else?”
“You are here. The cat walked to face Joseph as it spoke, “And if you were supposed to be somewhere else, you would be there.”
“I’m dead… And I’m here. With you.”
“There are worse things.”
“I want to go back.”
“I want to change everything. I want to do better.”
“Dead men usually do.”
“I want to sleep.” He was tired, and he had nothing else to ask.
“Then, I think you should go to sleep,” said the cat softly, surveying the drained man with pity.
So, the cat with flames for eyes and stars for teeth and a night sky in its mouth and flowers on its belly, who changed colors and spoke in familiar and unfamiliar voices and showed Joseph beautiful and terrifying things, laid down and closed its eyes, merging into the black as it sighed in relief.
Joseph, the good man with jet black hair and frown lines around his mouth, who missed his wife and son and thought he deserved more in death than he ever aspired to have, having finally made peace with what he had been given, also laid down and closed his eyes, sighing in exasperation and acceptance, and reaching out to graze the cat’s warm fur just before being swallowed as well.