“He’s alive and well. I can feel it.”
Honoria was an icicle when she said it, cool and still and utterly self-composed, perched like a Sphinx on the cat-worn, claw-tattered blue sofa in the living room. Not the slightest hint of histrionics, not the merest pinch of petulance. She knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Maynard would return, although she couldn’t have explained how she came to possess this knowledge. Something deep inside her belly sensed it.
As she was one week from eighteen and eager to prove herself grown up and exorcised of adolescent angst, Honoria spoke to her mother with a remarkable air of maturity. “I will see him again. I know it,” she serenely stated in mystical tones, like a psychic in a trance.
“He’s gone, hon, and you just need ta’ accept it,” Em slurred as she slurped her Merlot, reaching an arm to pat the head of her daughter, who dodged the caress with the deftness of a defensive linebacker. No alcoholic beverages touched Em’s lips in the morning or afternoon, but, this being well past seven in the evening, she was at least half sloshed on her usual moderately priced red wine from the corner Walgreen’s.
“Em!” she barked, shooting a look rife with rage, resentment, disgust, all traces of her newfound calm demeanor a distant memory. Honoria had started calling her “Em” years ago after she read A Clockwork Orange, in which Alex refers to his parents as “Em” and “Pee.” Honoria had never known her Pee; all she had was Em.
She left Em muttering at the Real Housewives of Someplace or Other as she creaked across the floorboards and out of the house to search for Maynard again, announcing her departure with a gentle yet distinctly audible slam of the front screen door.
For roughly the hundredth time since his disappearance two weeks ago, she called, “Maaaaaaay-naaaaaard!” Her voice rang shrill and lonesome in the vast periwinkle breadth of twilight. Flip-flops softly slapping the pavement, Honoria shuffled across the driveway and down to the lamppost at the cul-de-sac corner. The relentless July sun had bleached the photo slightly, but the flyer she had posted was otherwise intact. “MISSING” she had typed in boldface above a snapshot of a plump black shorthair cat, its right ear slightly bent, a look of warm contentment in its sleepy chartreuse eyes and permanently smiling mouth. She couldn’t bring herself to place the word “CAT” underneath, so had instead typed “MAYNARD,” followed by her phone number.
He could not accurately be described as a cat. Do we describe a person we love as a “human”? Maynard transcended common animal classifications. Maynard was Maynard, her best friend since she was eight. Ten years. A decade of scratching, scurrying, purring, pouncing, caterwauling, of eating grass and then puking green goo all over her fuzzy leopard-print slippers. Although his was straight and hers tumbled from her head in a frenzy of curls, Maynard and Honoria had matching hair, both shining ebony in solid monochromatic harmony. She took this as proof that they were related, were actual flesh-and-blood family. Certainly they were cosmically connected on some spiritual plane. They had a bond that transcended words, like E.T. and Elliott.
One of Maynard’s ears was permanently folded forward at the top, giving him the appearance of a rakish scoundrel, a feline Ernest Hemingway sporting a black beret jauntily tilted sideways. It happened after tangling with a neighbor’s dog when he was about five. He wasn’t badly hurt, just—if you’ll pardon the expression—dog-eared, like the page of a book. Honoria felt this not only enriched his appearance but made him easy to distinguish from other black cats in the neighborhood.
She would know him in an instant. She would know him anywhere. And a gut feeling told her he was out there somewhere, safe and sound and waiting to come home. But where?
Heaving a dispirited but determined sigh, Honoria retraced her steps to the rosemary hedge near the sidewalk, where Maynard liked to hide. Empty. Once again, she peered into the rain gutter that hung low over one side of the roof, where he sometimes hunted mice. Vacant. She balanced herself on the front bumper of Em’s old green Volvo and scanned the carport cover for any signs of life. But it, too, was Maynard-free.
As the last remnants of sunlight faded and the crescent moon appeared, Honoria perfunctorily performed one final multi-point inspection for the night, her eyes blurred by the brimmings of tears. Flip-flopping through the next-door neighbor’s carport and around to her own backyard, she checked every shadow, investigated every rustling noise. No trace.
“WHERE ARE YOU??!!” she roared in desperation, like a mama wolf howling for a lost pup. The suburban evening responded with the distant barking of a dog and the nearby chirping of crickets.
“What’re you yellin’ for?” Em whined, the back door groaning open as she stumbled onto the patio, wine sloshing from her glass. “Come on in, honey, and take a cool bath or somethin’.”
In the dark of midnight, without Maynard’s warm, fat, furriness cradled in the crook of her neck, Honoria couldn’t sleep. He usually started out snuggled near her face, then scooched onto the edge of her pillowcase, then, once she fell into the depths of REM, he completed the stealthy process of hijacking her pillow by spreading his weight across the whole thing, leaving her head crunched against the headboard at an uncomfortable angle. This used to annoy her. Now she missed it.
As she lay awake, nightmare scenarios shuffled through her mind: he was run over by a car and his remains were promptly disposed of; he was mistaken for someone else’s cat and taken into their home, where he was mauled by the family mastiff; he was snatched and carted off to some candlelit cellar where Satanists perform gruesome rituals on black cats; he was—No! Not Maynard. Honoria knew better. He was a spoiled and lazy homebody who rarely ventured beyond the next-door neighbor’s carport.
The next-door neighbor’s carport. Honoria sat bolt upright in bed.
Something prickled at the back of her consciousness: some clue she had missed, a mislaid puzzle piece that might provide a key to Maynard’s whereabouts. Like a cat, she sprang lightly from her bed. Without even pausing to accessorize her polka-dotted pajama ensemble with a robe and slippers, she slinked silently out the front door and into the neighbors’ yard.
They had moved in a few months ago and she had never gotten to know them. A quiet couple who kept to themselves, she rarely saw them, and didn’t even know their names. Their modest brick home stood as lifeless as a tomb. No lights shone from the windows, no human noises emanated from within. There was not even a car parked in the drive.
Taking slow and deliberate steps, Honoria paced the length of the driveway and the carport. Why did it seem so oddly empty? A few withered wisteria sprigs rolled leisurely down the sloping concrete in the midnight breeze, and she caught a whiff of their sweet scent. In a flash, she remembered. The boat!
A small motorboat covered by a tarp usually sat right where Honoria stood. Last month she had spotted Maynard emerging from beneath the tarp when she called him for dinner, wisteria petals scattering as he bounded to the pavement and trotted home. What if he had fallen asleep in the boat and was unwittingly towed along on a summer trip? Now that she thought about it, Honoria hadn’t seen the boat or the neighbors since Maynard vanished.
A flame seemed to ignite in her intestines, sending blood rushing through her thumping heart. She knew she was on the right track.
She sprinted, barefoot but adrenaline-fueled, to the neighbors’ mailbox. Committing a mild yet forgivable case of breaking and entering, she pried open the hinge and checked the name on a culinary catalog: Mrs. Grace Alonzo.
“Is this Grace Alonzo?” Honoria asked the speaker phone at eight the next morning, mug of mocha in hand, eyes puffed and pink from scanning the white pages all night then waiting for sunrise so she could call. Wrapped in a palm-tree-festooned bathrobe and shaking her head skeptically, Em hovered in the kitchen.
“Speaking,” a sleepy-voiced thirtysomething woman replied. “Who is this?”
“You don’t know me, Mrs. Alonzo, but I’m your neighbor.”
Shifting her eyes heavenward and walking away from Em, who was trying to direct the phone conversation by mouthing words Honoria couldn’t interpret, she set her coffee mug down and grabbed the bronze Buddha figurine from the mantle, clutching it for luck.
“I just wondered if . . . maybe . . .” It seemed such an absurd question to ask, all of a sudden, that she started to falter. Quickly regaining her momentum she blurted, “You didn’t find a cat in your boat or anything, did you?”
“Oh!” the woman said after a pregnant pause, seeming to connect some dots in her mind. “I wondered what that old black cat was doing hanging around. I thought it was a stray. Is it yours?”
“Does it have a bent right ear?”
When she replied that it did, Honoria managed to squeal “Yes!” through the stream of relieved laughter that flowed from her mouth of its own accord. “It’s mine!”
The Alonzos had taken their boat to Pinewood Lake and rented a cabin, Honoria discovered, never realizing that Maynard was snoozing inside. When they arrived he must have escaped surreptitiously and expressed his bewilderment in a litany of meows. They fed him scraps of seafood and hotdogs and planned to deposit him at a shelter on their way back into town.
“Just think,” Honoria said to Em as they stood on the front porch awaiting Maynard’s return two days later, “if I hadn’t figured out what happened. Just think—what if I hadn’t called?”
“Oh hon,” said Em, her freshly poured, six-o’clock-sharp glass of drugstore Merlot firmly in one hand, “I knew Maynard would be back again.” Taking the first sip of the evening, emboldened with the false confidence a full goblet of wine provides, Em had the unmitigated nerve to smile when she told Honoria, “I just had a gut feeling.”
Honoria opened her mouth to exclaim, but quickly closed it. Taking a deep breath and gazing at the clear azure sky, she calmly—even maternally—purred, “Right.”
Before long, the Alonzos’ blue Honda hybrid rounded the curve of the cul-de-sac. Bringing up the rear was the boat, and poking his cock-eared head from the passenger side window was none other than Maynard himself, his black whiskers blowing in the wind like streamers aside his face. No doubt drowsy and post-adventure, he looked more pleased than Honoria had ever seen him.
She knew she would sleep well that night.