It’s been ten days since Millie went missing. For the tenth day in a row, I wake up breathing easy.
There's no suffocating weight pressing down on my chest. Only ease, and silence, and solitude. I lay there for a few moments, breathing deeply, waiting for the alarm to sound... only to realize, after a glance at the clock, that I’ve slept through it. I throw the covers off; of their own volition, my hands make as if to shoo away a stubborn creature. My feet land gingerly on the floor, as if to avoid stepping on a stray tail. I make my way to the bathroom and almost close the door behind me – before I decide to leave it open. What point is there anymore?
The litter tray sits in a corner, neglected.
The espresso machine growls and gurgles, spitting out coffee into my cup. Breadbox, butter, toast, fruit – my eyes rove over them, unseeing. Bread – two slices, put them in the toaster. Cereal, cereal – where is it? – get the milk from the fridge. I move, as if on autopilot. Open the overhead cupboard. Grab the cardboard box.
The toaster’s sound snaps me out of my reverie. I look at the box in my hand – Dry Cat Food, Tuna Delight.
The coffee is cold and bitter. I still drink it, and place the cup in the sink. The toast is ignored. I pick my bag up and make my way to the door. As I close it carefully, I hear no sound of paws padding across the carpet, nor the soft jingling of a bell on a collar.
Outside my quiet haven, the world explodes into noise. Quick, deliberate footsteps, voices, young and old, shrill and deep, all meld together, till I can’t differentiate them any longer. Taxis screech to a stop; cars zoom past. A woman walks past me talking on her phone; as she does, I catch the tail end of her conversation – no, of course I don’t know where it is! – her voice fades away, unintelligible. Someone slams a door loudly. A bus thunders past. A motorcycle revs nearby. Someone bumps into me. I barely hear the garbled apology, drowned out by loud honks from the road.
And all the while, there’s the dull roar of traffic; the rumbling and growling and sputtering of engines. Another bus comes down the road, looming like some great lumbering beast. A small dog yelps and leap out of its way, barely avoiding being crushed by its wheels.
In my mind, its canine form morphs into something decidedly more feline. The patchy grey coat lightens; the wolfish snout shortens; its piteous yelps sound more and more like mews. I imagine it looking up at the oncoming bus, dazed by the cacophony of the road – trying to scramble away – almost escaping – but for a second’s delay – pupils expanding as it stares up at the beast bearing down on it –
I imagine its fur stained red with blood, and shudder.
Instead of taking the bus, I decide to walk.
I reach the animal shelter later than usual. The regular volunteers are already bustling about, cleaning and setting out food. One of them spots me and comes over. “How’s it going?” she asks, as if she hasn’t seen me come in every day for the past week.
She takes a brief look around; mostly for my own benefit, I understand. I know what a pathetic figure I cut. “No new cats have been brought in since yesterday.” “Oh,” I say, as if I had expected any different.
“I’ll let you know if anything changes.” As if I won’t be here tomorrow. And the day after. “It hasn’t been that long, you know... there’s a good chance she’ll be back before you – ” The look of pity in her eyes is too much for me to cope with. I flee.
Whatever hope remains in me is dwindling fast.
I’m standing on the street corner, clutching flyers. One hand is outstretched, and I’m begging anyone who will listen.
Excuse me – sorry, have you – have you seen this cat? Excuse me, I’ve lost my cat, could you – please, could you take a look? I’ve lost a cat, yes, I was wondering if you’ve seen her? No, she’s ginger – here’s a picture of her – my number’s on there, please call me if you see her. Thank you, I appreciate it. Hello – sir? Could you take a second – excuse me, please, have you seen this cat?
The air stinks of cigarette smoke, with a faint tang of urine underneath. There’s a pile of blankets behind me. A woman – who I’m fairly sure is a prostitute – looks me up and down, judging silently. Footsteps shuffle past, ignoring us.
The pile of blankets coughs and moves.
Footsteps, footsteps, quicker now. Everyone’s in a hurry to get home. The woman lights a cigarette; the glowing end pulses in a hypnotic way. I watch as thin tendrils of smoke rise and undulate. More coughing comes from the direction of the blankets. Footsteps – slowing down. I begin my desperate plea – excuse me, could you – but the man shoulders past me. He and the woman start speaking in low tones. They leave moments later.
The flyers are claggy, crumpled in my fist. It’s getting darker.
I look around – and spot a flash of ginger fur rounding the corner, towards the flat.
I can scarcely believe my eyes.
Seconds after it disappears from view, I give chase; my heart is thudding against my ribcage; the cat picks up speed; ducks into a small alleyway. I fall to my knees, my arms going around it. I could cry in relief. Finally, I think, panting. The cat yowls and tries to squirm out of my grasp.
“Oi! What do you think you’re doing?” I look up to see an unfamiliar man, wearing an expression of deep disapproval.
“That’s my... cat...” I trail off as the cat successfully escapes my grasp and trots over to the man standing over me. He scoops him up easily, and that’s when I realize that’s not my Millie; there’s a patch of dark fur below his chin. “I don’t think so,” the man snaps, and the unkindness in his tone is the last straw. My shoulders slump. I look at the gravel and try to hold back tears. The hand still holding the flyers shakes.
The man, now awkward, shifts. “Is everything alright?” he asks, as if he hasn’t just seen a woman kneeling in a dirty alley, strangling a cat that doesn’t belong to her. “I’ve lost my cat,” I say, and raise my hand feebly. He carefully extricates a rumpled flyer. “How long -- ” “Ten days,” I say, and stop. I can’t bring myself to continue.
“Oh.” His voice is full of sympathy. In the ensuing quiet, I hear the faraway din of cars. Somewhere, there’s a clanging. The man shifts again, clearly uncomfortable.
“I’ll keep an eye out,” he says, finally, and sounds like he actually means it. Then he turns and walks away. His footsteps recede into silence, leaving me still kneeling there, in the dirt and grime.
I push myself to my feet. Somehow, I make my way home. One moment I’m closing the door behind me – the next, I’m standing over my unmade bed.
Failure weighs heavily on my shoulders; my feet feel like lead. I tip forward and fall onto the mattress. The exhaustion of the day slowly envelops me. Before I know it, I’m asleep.
I wake up to the pattering of rain on my window. It’s absolutely pouring. A peal of thunder sounds, I think, before I realize it is my stomach growling loudly. The rational part of me knows that I need to eat, that it’s time for dinner, that lying motionless on my bed won’t help anything – but another part of me, the exhausted, hopeless part, the one that’s been growing stronger each day, doesn’t let me up. I try to rise, but give up and roll over, pressing my face into the pillow.
The rain beats on, loud and ceaseless. My pillow grows damp, but not with rain. She’s not coming back, I think, and the tears flow faster.
I can almost hear plaintive mewing in the distance. I have no idea how long I stay that way – motionless, silently weeping, laying prone with one arm hanging limply over the edge of the bed.
Softness brushes across my fingers. I feel a tickle, then a rasp, of whiskers against my palm.
“Millie?” I ask softly, unsure of whether this is a dream. But no dream could feel this real, I think, as I peer through sleep-encrusted eyes into bright green ones. The next moment, a ball of fur is curled up next to me, nuzzling my chin. He purrs. I feel it vibrate in my chest; it feels like relief, and joy, and contentment. It feels like home. I close my eyes, and lulled into tranquility, drift off.
It’s been six hours since Millie came back. For the first time in ten days, I wake up breathless. It takes me a moment to realize the oppressive weight on my chest is ten pounds of hungry, loudly mewing fur. I move the covers, and shoo him off. She mews reproachfully, before leaving the room.
I leave the door to the bathroom open. Behind me, Millie sneaks in. I rear back, startled – my foot slips on the wet floor. Only a desperate grasp for the shower curtain keeps me from braining myself against the wall.
I dry myself off, and as I carefully close the door behind me, I find myself thinking about habit.
How naturally we rearrange our lives, the patterns of our behaviour, to coexist. The way I take care to close doors, how I maintain the litter box as carefully as I tend to my own hygiene, even the care with which I tread in my own house. It is a sign of love and regard, I think. To accept, and adjust. It’s solidarity.
But how easy too, to fall into old patterns. How easy to get used to an easy awakening. To open doors, and a quiet house.
The guard who waves at me when I get on the bus. The lady living above me who offers me a tray of cookies every Sunday. The neighbour's son who offers me a rose from his mother’s rosebushes every time he sees me – although I’ve never taken him up on the offer. It’s jarring to think that I exist, outside of myself, in the world. That I, or a version of me, occupies a place in their eyes, their minds, their hearts. And when I’m gone, a part of them – no matter how small, how unimportant – will be gone forever as well. The guard will no longer peer along the road to see the bus approaching. The lady upstairs will no longer knock on my door with a tray of freshly baked cookies. The neighbour’s son will no longer snip roses off the bush.
Or they will replace me with someone else, as the object of their patterns.
How ephemeral we are, I muse over my coffee. How easy to forget. It doesn’t matter if I disappear one day. Life goes on, and the habits that I created, will slowly be undone. Things will go back to the way they were. Like a pendulum slowing to a stop.
It will be as if I had never existed.
It’s a fatalistic notion; but I find it comforting in its own way.
I’ve forgotten to fill her bowl.