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Fantasy

Mark remembered two things about that night, one being the fog creeping up the slope from the distant riverbank, slinking like a gray cat among the trees, slithering down the narrow streets, creeping around houses with their curtain eyelids drawn in slumber. The other was his cell phone, guzzling electrons on the faux Jacobean nightstand while warbling the quiet tune that meant Stacey was calling. The music woke him, but oddly he remembered the silence of the fog preceding it.

He reached, grabbed, and answered, eyes clamped stubbornly shut. “Where are you?” His other hand finger-walked across the bed and grabbed a fistful of linen where Stacey ought to have been. “What time is it?” He blinked himself to awareness, stood, stumbled to the window, yanked open the curtains. The fog rolled lazily by.

“Goldenrod is here,” Stacey’s static-streaked voice told him.

“Who?”

“Goldenrod. Our cat.”

The fog tried to worm its way through the window frame. Cold damp licked Mark’s fingers. He jerked his hand back and drew the curtains in haste. “We don’t have a cat. Where are you?” Sitting on the bed, he tried to think. What time was it?

The phone ought to know, but its face was coal-black, and the crackling voice had fallen still. He set the device on the nightstand and settled back into bed. “Where are you?” he repeated.

“I’m here, Mark. I’m here.” Stacy set a light hand on his shoulder and jostled him. “Wake up. You’ll be late for work.”

Work. Right. Mark sat, blinked at the sunlight filtering through the curtains, blinked at his phone. He switched to past tense. “Where were you?”

“When?” She rolled out of the sheets and sat beside him, warm, comfortable, her arm about his waist. She’d always been that. Warm. Comfortable. She’d been more, too, once upon a time, but as their relationship mellowed, the magic slipped away. That wasn’t bad. It just was.

“Last night,” he said. “When you called.”

“Bathroom, I suppose. You probably heard the water running.”

 He scooped up the phone and checked it. The call log showed her number, at three-oh-three. Mark shoved it under her nose. “So what’s this?”

Stacy cocked her head. “They spoofed my number? Weird. Funny time for a robocall, too.”

What was easier to believe? That he was going nuts, or that she was lying? “I’m calling in sick,” he decided, and she watched, bemused, while he did.


Stacey dressed extra nice—best blue dress, best white heels, best string of artificial pearls—but not for Mark. “District manager’s coming today,” she said over toast and coffee. “He probably won’t even set foot in our area, but we all have to be ready. Just in case.”

Wisps of thought drifted aimlessly through Mark’s brain like fog, like cats yowling in the night. Thoughts about fog and cats and his wife’s presence and absence and presence while phones sounded in the dark. Already the facts, if facts they were, were burning off in the morning sun, leaving a clear view of a land he had known for twenty-three years. A sound marriage. Two daughters now in college, a good home in a good suburb, a neatly trimmed lawn bordered with mostly weed-free flowerbeds. Good jobs, acceptable bank accounts and retirement plans, a faithful old dog buried last year, and absolutely no cats. They had fallen in love young, had dreamed of a magic life, had slipped into okayness. They had grown old enough to find a measure of wisdom but remained young enough that old age seemed a thousand years off. Neither bored with nor tired of each other, Mark and Stacey eased down time’s forest road, hand in hand because it was right and natural, and anyway neither could think of anything better to do. Magic no, but they were content in the sameness of every daybreak and nightfall.

That’s how it had been. That’s how it remained. Ergo, he must have dreamed strange dreams, because mysteries just didn’t happen in this house. Where would Stacey be in the middle of the night but sleeping at his side or, as she’d said, in the bathroom?

She left for work. He read the online news until his eyes glazed over. Ten thirty came and went, and with it the mail carrier, a young black woman with a quick step, a wireless gadget in her ear, and a running conversation with a friend spilling from her lips all over the otherwise quiet neighborhood. Mark watched her pass down the street before retrieving the day’s credit card offers from the curbside mailbox. Leafing through them on the way back, he nearly stepped on an orange cat that had materialized from the ether and curled up on his doormat. It blinked at him with sleepy eyes and yawned a fierce-toothed tiger yawn.

A bit of that early morning fog drifted through Mark’s head.

The cat didn’t budge, nor was it wearing a collar.

“Scat,” Mark commanded. “Git. Shoo.”

The cat gazed across the yard to a robin poking in the grass but showed no inclination to hunt.

“Go on.” Mark waved vigorously, to no avail. “Fine. Stay there. I’m not feeding you.” He turned the knob, stepped quickly over the animal, and definitively closed the door.

Before he could take another step, something purred and rubbed against his leg. The orange cat, looking hopeful.

“No!” Mark yanked the door open and nudged the cat out with his shoe. Alone again, he retreated to the kitchen for a caffeine boost, but there before the dishwasher was the cat, sitting with perfect cat posture, tail wrapped elegantly about its feet, its glare now decidedly accusing.

The rest of the morning was a blur, chasing the cat, carting the cat, exteriorizing the cat time after time after time only to have it show up again in the damnedest places, from the top of the bookcase in the study to behind the potted gardenia in the living room, from the bathroom sink to snuggled beneath the guest bed comforter.

Finally, about noon and a half, Mark gave up, flopped on the sofa, and hid his face in his arm. “I’m going to sleep,” he told nobody, “and when I wake this nightmare will be over!”

Naturally, he didn’t sleep. But the cat did. It leaped onto the far arm of the sofa, slunk step by silent step along the back, and oozed onto his chest, where it curled into a warm, purring mass of golden fur.

“I should strangle you,” he told it. “Nine times. Ten, for good measure. Maybe eleven, just to be sure you can’t come back.”

The cat might have had nine hundred lives, for all the threat concerned it.


His cell phone was playing Stacey’s tune again, muffled deep within his pocket. So much for sleep. He dug it out without opening his eyes. “What’s up?” he asked.

“Goldenrod is here,” she said.

“Who?”

“Goldenrod. Our cat.”

“We don’t have a cat.” Or at least they hadn’t. Had they? Something niggled at him. No, not a something, a nothing, an absence, a something missing. He sat and ran a hand through his hair. “What time is it?” He swung his legs off the sofa and stood. Nothing purred at his feet or rubbed against his legs. Nothing had been sleeping on his chest. He felt a bit cold, a bit hollow, and more than a little hungry.

“I must’ve missed lunch,” he told Stacey. She wasn’t there anymore. He looked at his phone and found its face coal-black, so he shoved it back into his pocket and flopped on the sofa again. A few deep breaths later, she spoke, but not from the phone, not with respect to missing a meal.

“Who’s this?” she asked.

Something purred on Mark’s chest.

He opened his eyes and found Stacey scratching the cat behind the ears.

“This?” He thought for a moment. “This is Goldenrod.”


They had to buy stuff they’d never bought before: cat food and dishes, litter boxes and litter. One litter box per cat plus one, Mark discovered online. Who’d have thought it wouldn’t be just one? They put word around that an orange cat had been found. They took Goldenrod to the vet and learned the animal was a she in perfect health, minus microchip and kitten-making equipment. Somebody must have owned her very recently, but nobody came forward to claim her, and she displayed no inclination to leave. Stacey readily fell in love with the critter.

Yet all was not bliss. The comfortable sameness of life had been disrupted by fog, phones, and cats. Mark couldn’t fathom any of it, especially not Goldenrod’s feats of teleportation. He could just about put the phone’s misbehavior down to dreams, except Goldenrod had been in them. Conversely, Goldenrod’s defiance of physics occurred while Mark was wide awake. It seemed exactly backwards.

So he turned to the tools of science, or as much science as he knew. He observed, noted, and charted Goldenrod’s movements in an attempt to pull back the veil. He spied upon his cell phone as he fell asleep each night, waiting for it to ring, waiting for Stacey to call and announce Goldenrod’s whereabouts. He watched her, too, although he felt like a spy as he secretly logged her comings and goings. He spontaneously woke in the middle of most nights, dreading her absence. She was always there.

But was he all there? That was an open question. These mysteries drove him to the brink of sleep-deprived madness made madder by their sudden absence. No calls. No teleporting cats. No missing wives. Just the same predictable life as always, save his mania.

Stacey couldn’t help but notice he wasn’t quite right. “Maybe we should take some time off,” she gently suggested one evening. “Go somewhere. You’ve always wanted to see Yosemite.”

He had, but he couldn’t, not with experiments in progress. They were at the dinner table finishing their store-bought apple pie with an excuse fortuitously purring in his lap. “We have nobody to watch Goldenrod,” he objected.

“We can board her at the vet’s, Mark. Come on, let’s do this.”

Goldenrod stopped purring and looked up. Mark knew what she was saying: Don’t you dare leave me at the vet’s!

But his wife wouldn’t be dissuaded, so eventually they put in for vacation, reserved a kitty cage, got their tickets, and by the time they reached the hotel, Mark had forgotten all about his amateur science project.


A bank of cloud floated over the tops of the mountains and crept down the slopes, enveloping pines and fields, wildlife and visitors, parking lots and hotels. Wrapped in its cool embrace, the land shivered and awaited the morning sun. But it was only a little after three, and Mark’s phone was playing Stacey’s tune. He answered automatically without opening his eyes. “Where are you?” He felt for her in the night, but she wasn’t by his side. He sat in alarm. “What time is it?”

“Goldenrod is here,” she told him.

Beyond the window in the long dark before the dawn, fog tapped at the pane in greeting, then moved on. “Impossible. We boarded him at the vet’s.”

He looked at the phone’s coal-black face as a faded memory played hide and seek in his brain. Déjà vu. He’d done this—whatever this was—before, but he’d never held onto it. The universe was toying with him, poking its head around corners long enough to stick out its tongue before scampering off to some new hiding place.

What was happening to him? He needed an answer, and he knew how to get it. Don’t sleep. Stay awake until dawn, eyes and ears alert, a cat watching its prey, gauging the right moment to pounce, to kill, to feast. Whatever this was, it wouldn’t escape this time.

There was movement in the sheets, then a feather-light hand fluttered over his shoulder. “What’s wrong?” Stacey asked.

He flicked on the bedside light and dropped the phone on the bed. She was there. She was right there! And something else was there too, a lump beneath the sheets, moving slowly toward the pillows.

A pair of yellow ears surfaced from the covers, then a dark nose, then a whole furry yellow head.

Goldenrod meowed sharply, scolding them for leaving her in that awful place.

“Oh Mark!” Stacey cried. “You didn’t pack her?”

He couldn’t help it. He laughed. He laughed harder than he had in an age. The more he laughed, the more he couldn’t stop. He gathered both females into his arms and laughed until Stacy stared as though he’d gone full-tilt mad, and then he laughed until her resistance broke and she melted into laughter, too, and then they laughed together until all three of them flopped backwards in a lunatic tangle, barely able to breath, delirious, dying from absurdity while the cat squirmed between them but didn’t seek escape.

She didn’t want to leave. This was her doing. Mark finally got it. The fog, the dreams that weren’t quite dreams, the reality that wasn’t quite reality. He got it all.

Goldenrod was here.

She’d brought their magic back.

February 27, 2020 18:30

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