CW: Substance abuse & brief (non-graphic) animal violence.
I keep seeing the black cat.
She’s been appearing outside my apartment every morning, sitting on the stone wall next to my now vacant parking spot, seemingly waiting for me. The first day I barely noticed her; I was pretty hungover, despite it being a Wednesday. The night before I had read through all my old text messages with Jared, and somehow polished off an entire bottle of wine while I scrolled and ugly-cried into a family-sized bag of M&Ms. Safe to say the cat wasn’t really on my radar the next morning as I passed the spot where I used to park my Civic en route to the bus stop down the road, my only accessories a pounding head and puffy eyes.
The next day, I noticed it because it was in the same spot, and I was less hungover. Just a light aching in my brain, not a full wallop. It looked down at me with big yellow eyes, and I thought, Of course I’m in line for more bad luck. My life is already in the shitter, what’s a little more shit?
By last Friday, I had seen the cat three times and was convinced that it was the same cat. I could recognize the yellow eyes and the white tip on her tail. When I got home from work on Friday, I was in high spirits (or as high as they could be) at the prospect of tumbling down the neck of another bottle, of several bottles of varying shades of red and brown, and so when I saw the cat again, this time seated at the steps leading up to the apartment building, I gave her a little wave and said “Hi, kitty.” She blinked, and then arched her back and walked away. Figures, I thought as I unlocked the door to my apartment and walked into the chilly dark. Even bad omens run from me.
I spent the weekend drinking myself to sleep in front of black and white movies on mute, then waking long enough to have a good cry and scroll through my messages, none of which were new, and none of which were good, which in turn, led me back to drinking. I couldn’t stop looking at the aftermath of what I had done. I sent several very drunk and very sad messages, which all went unanswered. I was drinking to forget, but spent my waking time forcing myself to remember. You deserve this, I thought. You don’t deserve to forget. You have to live with this now.
By Monday morning, I took one look at myself and decided to call in sick. My lips and tongue and teeth were stained red from all the wine, and the circles under my eyes were so dark they looked like bruises. I was also still a little drunk, and I knew that once the buzz wore off I’d be in for a full day of vomiting, so I called the office to tell them I wasn’t going to make it into work that day. Connie at the front desk seemed bored and annoyed with me, probably because it was the fourth time that month that I had called in sick and she’d be the one to have to deliver the news to our hotheaded boss.
“You know Susan, if you have an ongoing medical need that will keep preventing you from coming in, maybe you should disclose that to Mark.” This was Connie’s sly way of figuring out what was up with me. I weakly agreed that yes, that was a good idea, and that I would hopefully be well enough to come in tomorrow. I hung up and walked to the corner store five minutes down the road for Gatorade and cigarettes. As I trudged back to my depressing little studio, smoking my cigarette even though I had quit years ago, I saw the cat again. She had almost been wiped from my memory after my weekend holed up, pickling my brain in alcohol. I was just the tiniest bit glad to see her. She was sitting by the wall again, so I approached her with my non-cigarette hand outstretched. She meowed lightly, staring at me unblinkingly. She let me get pretty close, but before I could pet her little head, she stood and swished her tail, then started walking away. She sauntered to the end of the wall by the parking spaces, then looked back at me as if to say, Well, are you coming? I followed.
I followed the cat for a few minutes, heading down side roads and narrow alleys between buildings, until I turned a corner to discover that she had disappeared. The alley stretched out before me, and I couldn't see any hiding spots that would conceal a large black cat. I figured she had gotten tired of the game and sprinted away when she was out of my sight. I sighed, and turned to head back to my place.
Now it’s Wednesday again (or is it Thursday?), I have followed the cat for the last two days, and I no longer have a job. I called in sick again on Tuesday and they told me not to bother coming in anymore. I was kind of relieved. I went outside to smoke my cigarettes and saw the cat again. I decided to name her Sweetie, and I started bringing her little bowls of canned tuna, which she seems to like. When she’s had her fill, she starts to trot off again, but she always looks to see if I’m following behind. I always do. We go the same route every day, and I can follow her farther and farther as the week goes on, like I’m gaining her trust. Yesterday I walked behind her, ducking behind buildings and cutting across abandoned lots, for about two hours before she disappeared.
I’m following her again now. The long walks have been giving me time to clear my head, chain smoke endless cigarettes, and keep me from spiraling into a dark hole of intrusive thoughts that ends in a pool of wine, red like blood. I’ve considered trying to keep Sweetie, lure her back into my apartment with tuna and keep her as a companion, a fellow scurge of a society that has shunned us.
We’ve been walking for a long time. The sun is starting to set in the distance, and I’m cold and out of cigarettes. I can feel the dark thoughts creeping back into my conscious mind, oozing out from the cracks they’ve been forced into temporarily, stronger than ever. Sweetie walks down a familiar alley, probably familiar because we’ve walked her strange path through town many times over, and she stops. I catch up to her and stop too, looking down into those yellow eyes. She has stopped in front of a door, one I never noticed before. It’s flush with the brick wall, with a large black handle, no window. I’m considering taking this moment to try picking Sweetie up for the first time when she speaks to me.
“Susan,” says Sweetie. I gasp and take a startled step back. “Do not be afraid, Susan,” Sweetie speaks again. The cat has a deep and melodic voice, like a soulful old man. I’m not sure what shocks me more, the fact that the cat can speak or that Sweetie is actually a male. I am too surprised to speak, my fingers and toes numb. I must be losing my mind…
“You aren’t going crazy, Susan. You are tapping into the larger truth. I have been watching you for a long time. I know how unhappy you are. I know what you have done.”
“No,” I whisper. It was impossible. Sweetie the Talking Cat couldn’t possibly know what I had done.
“Yes,” whispered Sweetie. It looked to me like he was smiling in the now-dark alley, the only light fading fast behind the tall buildings reflected in those eyes. “I can see it all over you. I know exactly how much you had to drink at your sister’s engagement party. I see exactly how jealous it made you, how you took it out on poor Jared. I see all the ways you poisoned that party and caused a scene. I watched you leave, alone, and I saw what you did.”
“No,” I whispered again. I was on my knees now, face level with Sweetie. How could he know my biggest shame? Had he been there on that terrible night, the night I had struck Jared in front of all our friends after asking him when he was finally going to commit already, the night I had thrown my eighth glass of wine at the wall next to my sister’s head, laughed at her shocked face, and stumbled out the door to my car? Had he followed me down her driveway, swerving in my old Civic, vision blurry from wine and angry tears? Had he seen me focus on my sister’s Pomeranian that suddenly ran out from the side yard, yapping at the wheels? Had he seen me swerve again, on purpose this time, full of rage at my perfect sister and her perfect fiance and their perfect little life together, and destroy little barking Miso like the monster I am?
I had told my family it was an accident, that I wasn’t paying attention and Miso had run out in front of the car. Even if that was the truth, I don’t think they would have forgiven me. Jared broke up with me, my sister pressed charges, and I lost my license and everyone who ever held a tenuous, warm candle of love for me.
Now I’m alone. Well, except for Sweetie.
“That’s right,” Sweetie hissed. “You have me. I am here to show you how to make it all better.”
Suddenly the door in front of us was illuminated. Glowing light escaped through the cracks of the perimeter, and warmth, too, like on the other side of that door was a sunny day in June.
“The one they call Miso has been terrorizing our clan for years. When you ended him, you liberated us and we won long-fought-for territory. For this, we thank you. We now award you with a life.”
“A life?” My voice is barely audible, and I’m shaking from head to toe on the damp ground in front of that glowing door.
“Yes,” said Sweetie, almost seductively. “We cats have nine of them, you know. When we want to, we can gift them.” He turned to look toward the door. “We have walked the nine circles around the portal. It is open now. It is ready for you.” He fixed his yellow gaze back on my face, his furry visage fixed in a wide grin, an expression I have never before seen on a cat.
“You must now make a choice. You can walk through this door into a new life, one completely different from the life you lead now, and leave all of this behind. Or, you can walk away, back to your world as it is now, and pretend that this was all a dream.”
“How will I know my next life will be any better?”
Sweetie says nothing, but continues to grin at me, pointed teeth gleaming. His tail flicks in the light seeping through the crack between the door and the wall. I can feel the warmth, and it feels so much better than the cold, hard floor of the alley. Could it be any worse than the hell I’m living now?
I stand up. Sweetie purrs softly. I reach out one numb, pale hand, and I open the door.