Mrs. Sheffey’s apartment is a mess. As I stand numbly on a patch of clear floor, she picks her way over stools, boxes, stacks of books, and cat toys to the refrigerator in the corner. There’s a certain manic energy to her movements I wish I had the wherewithal to match. Instead I only watch her, hands hanging awkward at my sides, and keep one eye out for the cat.
“The food’s down here,” she says. “Half a can in the morning, and half in the afternoon. And in the afternoon you can check her water bowl to see if she needs more.”
“Mmm,” I say.
“Every other day you should clean out the litter box. It’s over here -” she starts across the room again, over the piles of junk in her way, toward the litter box I can see clearly marked in the corner. “Do you see it? Do you have all this?”
“Mmm.” It’s all I can muster.
This is the first job I’ve taken since I had to leave school. Dad said it would be good for me to get out of the house, to interact with people again, but this doesn’t really seem like the job for that; Mrs. Sheffey will be away for two weeks, and the only one I’ll be interacting with is her cat. The only reason I agreed to it is because I need money. I’ve been blowing my life savings on movies and streaming services just to fill all these empty days.
And, you know, if all I’m doing until September is binging every TV show and movie series I can find, I may as well do it in someone else’s house every once in a while.
“It’s too bad she won’t come out,” says Mrs. Sheffey as she darts back over to the refrigerator. “I’d like to see what she thinks of you. She can be a bit prickly around new people, but she warms up soon if you’re gentle with her.”
Being gentle isn’t exactly my strong suit. I don’t say this aloud; Dad didn’t tell Mrs. Sheffey my personal history, and I’m wearing long sleeves to cover my wrists. I smile and nod instead.
“And the freezer is full of fudge popsicles,” she says brightly. She yanks open the door and pulls one out. “Take as many as you like. Here, take one now before you go home.”
A little interest finally enters my brain. I take a step forward and hold my hand out for the popsicle. It looks delicious; my mouth waters.
“So you’ll start the day after tomorrow,” she says. “Anything else you need?”
“No.” I’m already unwrapping the popsicle, barely paying attention to her. “Thanks, Mrs. Sheffey. I really appreciate it.”
It’s as I’m making my way to the door that I see her, peeking out from the shadows behind an armchair. Her face is white, her front paws gray, her eyes locked on me like I might be a threat or I might be prey. A face that’s as ready to bolt as it is to attack. I suppress a shiver and hurry out the door.
All I have to do is fill the bowl twice a day and clean the litter box. Easy money. But I already know this cat and I are not going to be friends.
I open the door gingerly. She doesn’t dart out from any hidden corner when I step inside. The door squeaks when I ease it closed - sounds like a mouse, I can’t help but think - but there’s no burst of movement. I’m oh-so-careful as I creep over the jumbled mess toward her food bowl.
Part of me knows I’m being silly and paranoid. It’s just a cat. It’s not like she’s going to be lying in wait to attack me. Yet my pulse has quickened and my skin feels hot and my lungs feel like there’s not quite enough oxygen in here. The journey to the fridge, to pluck out a can of cat food and open it, feels like it takes forever.
Silence on all sides. I don’t know where she is. My movements are quick and jerky as I snatch up a spoon, scoop up half the contents of the can, and dump it into the bowl. I stick the can back in the refrigerator and then whip back around, my eyes snapping back and forth for signs of her.
She doesn’t appear. I glance down at the food, then up again.
“You coming, kitty?” I whisper.
When there’s still no response, I move slowly, quietly back toward the door. Nothing attacks me. I realize halfway there that I didn’t take a popsicle from the freezer, but I don’t have the courage to go back over there and get one. I’ll do without.
It’s when my hand touches the doorknob that I hear, from somewhere I can’t entirely discern, a soft, warning hiss.
I react so fast I hardly know what I’ve done until it’s over. I yank open the door, throw myself out into the hall, and slam it behind me with all the force I have. I lean against the closed door, breathing heavily as I wait for my heart rate to go down.
“Idiot,” I mutter to myself. “It’s just a cat.”
But I’m in a hurry again as I descend the stairs back out to the street. I want to get home again, want to get back in my pajamas.
“Kitty?” I whisper, in the sweetest voice I can muster. “Nice kitty?”
Not a sound. I take a deep breath and head for the refrigerator. Another half-can of food. But this time I have to clean out the litter box, too; I only hope if she comes out she’ll be too distracted by the food to come after me here.
The litter box isn’t hard. All I have to do is scoop out the cat business and flush it down the toilet. I flinch at the loud sound the toilet makes when it flushes, but I’m done before I know it, ready to leave again.
Once more she only appears when I think I’m out of the woods. When the last scoop of litter has disappeared down the drain, and I look up, she’s there at the bathroom door staring at me.
I’m paralyzed for several seconds. My heart thunders in my ears - she’s between me and the door - but I can’t move a muscle. I stare back at her.
This is stupid, I know. I know there’s something wrong with me, know she’s just a cat and she can’t hurt me, know she’s not sitting over some evil plot to take me down when I let my guard drop. Yet I can’t help my body’s senseless reaction.
When my phone buzzes from my back pocket, I nearly jump out of my skin.
“Damn it,” I whisper, pulling it out with badly shaking hands. “Who’s this?”
She hasn’t moved. The phone screen says MOM.
I hold the phone to my ear. “Yeah?”
“Lauren?” Mom’s voice has an edge to it. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine.” I blink. “I’m at Mrs. Sheffey’s house. Why?”
She exhales, long and slow, like the release of hours of pent-up tension. “You’ve been gone a long time. I was starting to worry you’d - you’d gone somewhere.”
I almost forgot about the long walk I went on before coming here. I just needed to force my body into motion for a while, to stir the sluggish, bleak pace of my thoughts. My stomach sinks at the realization that I’ve scared her.
“I’m sorry,” I say. I ought to know by now I don’t have the luxury of disappearing for hours on end. Not after what happened at school. My lungs suddenly feel tight for an entirely different reason. “I didn’t - I’m fine. I’ll be home in fifteen minutes.”
“I’m not angry,” Mom says quickly. “As long as you aren’t hurt, I’m fine.”
I resist the urge to rub at my free wrist. “I’m not hurt.”
There’s a long silence before she hangs up.
For a moment I’m numb again. I can’t feel anything at all except this consuming sinking in my stomach, like the ground is stretching out around me and about to swallow me, like the light is going dim and the air is thinning. Then, slowly, I become aware that I’m shaking badly. And a second later I realize the cat is only a few feet away.
I glare down at her. My voice is choked. “What do you want?”
She only gazes. Suddenly, madly, I want to believe she feels sorry for me. I want to believe there’s something like compassion in her yellow eyes. Her head is tilted to the side, a little like a dog’s.
Then she hisses again and the fear prickles back over my skin. I swipe tears away from my eyes as I hasten out the door.
“I have no reason to be scared of you,” I tell her accusingly as I scoop another of the endless half-cans of food into her bowl. She comes out to watch me do it these days, mostly. “I could throw something at you from across the room and kill you. I wouldn’t even have to get close.”
She hisses again. I hate how my heart rate still jumps at the sound.
“I could kick you,” I say furiously, “and give you some kind of cat concussion. It would be easy.”
That comment she doesn’t dignify with a response. I toss the empty can into Mrs. Sheffey’s recycling bin. She doesn’t move closer, doesn’t try to attack as I open the freezer to take out a popsicle. At least the frozen chocolate makes me feel something besides numbness and fear.
“I have no reason to be scared of cats,” I repeat. “It’s stupid. It’s irrational. I’m meaner to myself than any cat’s ever been to me.”
She pads forward a little. I blink. Her eyes are wide again, almost expressive - not prickly at all, I think for a moment. The fur around her ears is soft-looking.
I sigh. “I know you’re just a cat. Really, it’s not fair I’m taking this all out on you.”
She meows quietly. It’s a sweet sound. For a minute something else besides numbness and fear rises warm in my throat. She takes another step forward and another, and I find my heart’s still beating steady.
“Nice kitty,” I say. “I’m bad with strangers, too, you know.”
But when I take a step, when my foot hits a floorboard and it creaks, she bolts.
“What the -”
She’s gone again. Suddenly hidden. My breath hitches again, and my lungs are tight, and I need to go, go, go - I drop the popsicle on the counter and plow through a stack of books, sending them flying, in my haste to the door once more. I don’t stop running even when I’m out in the hallway. I don’t stop running even when I’m out of the building, back along the sidewalk, my shoes slapping on the pavement as I tear off back toward my house.
What’s wrong with me? Why am I like this? Why am I so afraid?
I pour more water into her bowl. She’s nowhere in sight; I’ve learned to stop expecting her again. It’s been days since I’ve caught a glimpse of her in the corners, though at least one eye has always been on the lookout. I only have today and tomorrow left of feeding her before Mrs. Sheffey comes home.
I’m lost in the routine, numb once again, when my phone rings. I’m listless, rather than frightened, when I answer it. “Yeah?”
“Maddy from school called,” Mom says. “She said she wanted to come to me first. She asked me if you were doing all right and if you’d like her to call you.”
I shut my eyes. That sinking feeling again, and this senseless fear. Someone wants to talk to me again. Someone from school wants to know what I’ve been doing since I had to come home. “What did you say?”
“I said I’d ask you.”
Maddy wants to talk to me. She cares about me. That should make me happy, but instead it sends me down another mindless spiral - I scared them all, I hurt them, I’m making them worry, I’m a terrible friend, I don’t deserve their support. And I hate that I can’t accept her kindness, but I can’t talk to another human right now.
“Tell her I’m not ready,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
Mom doesn’t ask for further explanation. She hangs up again, just like that. But the second the line goes dead I sag down into a fraying armchair and put my face in my hands.
Tears, strangely enough, have been scarce in the weeks since it happened. I’ve felt so wrung-out and worn, I haven’t had the energy to cry. But my dry eyes burn now. My throat aches with some memory of every time I’ve cried before. I’d scream, I think, if my windpipe didn’t feel swollen shut.
“I’m trying,” I whimper instead. “I’m trying.”
Her approach is silent. I barely hear the tiny meow she makes at my feet; she’s gentle when she rubs against my leg, not insistent. I peek through my fingers to see her staring up at me with those same enormous eyes.
I think there’s a question in them.
“Just don’t claw at me,” I say, and I hate how much I sound like I’m pleading. “Don’t hurt me, all right?”
She springs up onto the arm of the chair, then steps, ginger as I’ve ever stepped through her apartment, into my lap. Her claws are sheathed. She settles against my thighs without complaint.
“Nice kitty,” I try again.
And she starts to purr.
I don’t know how long I sit there, still but not paralyzed, with her weighing down my lap. I don’t know how long it is before I start carefully petting her. She doesn’t move; now that she’s found a place to sit, evidently, she’s happy never to move again. Her purring only grows louder as the minutes pass. I can feel my own breaths coming slower along with it. I can feel my chest getting lighter, incrementally, the longer we’re here together.
She doesn’t hiss when I have to shoo her off. She watches me go, but my nerves don’t jangle at the sight of her eyes on me. When I shut the door, I lean against it for only a moment; for a moment, I smile.
“Still not coming out?” says Mrs. Sheffey. “Don’t tell me she’s been hiding the whole time.”
I chuckle. It comes a little easier than it did two weeks ago; talking is a little easier. “Not the entire time. She took a nap in my lap yesterday.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful!” Mrs. Sheffey’s eyes shine. “She really is the sweetest thing. Most cat-sitters can’t get her to show her good side.”
“Well, I think we bonded a little.”
“I’m so glad to hear it.” Her smile is warm, genuine, as she hands me the envelope with my payment. “Next time I’m out of town, you can expect to hear from me again.”
I’m surprised how happy the promise makes me. I’m surprised how simple it is to look enthused, to thank her, as I move toward the door for the last time. She pressed a final popsicle and a bag of sour candy onto me, and I laugh and smile and for a second the world feels bright again. Incredible thing.
The cat’s eyes are visible in the shadows, the same corner I saw her in the first day I came. It’s still just the tiniest bit unsettling when my gaze falls on them and I realize what they are. But a moment later I lift a hand, waving a little good-bye. I hear her meow one back.
When I’m out on the street again, I dial up Maddy. I think I’m ready now.