Content Warning: Death, alcoholism, depression, thoughts of self-harm
Daniel preferred the "airline" bottles. They were easier to steal from the liquor store and easier to hide from the scum out there who would steal them from him. His fingers were almost too numb to twist the tiny cap, but the promise of a shot of - he glanced at the label - pineapple rum gave him superhuman determination. The meager dose of syrupy fire barely warmed his belly as it washed not enough of the rising bile of memory back down his throat.
The six bottles could never be close to enough, but they had to last. He vowed to husband them carefully this time. He pulled a second glove over the fingerless one. Those exposed fingers would have been black with frostbite by morning if he forgot again.
The narrow space between a brick wall and a dumpster made a crude shelter that would keep a few degrees of precious body heat from radiating away through the cloudless sky into the cold of space. Every bit counted on a night like this. He leaned his head against the wall and let the faint warmth of rum spread through him.
One of his songs came on, and Daniel reached down with a glance to turn the radio up. With a smile of anticipation at her reaction, he looked to the back seat in the rear view mirror, but Charlie wasn't looking his way. Eyes back on the road, he saw it didn't look like it was supposed to. His lane wasn't supposed to have a double yellow line down the middle, and it wasn't supposed to have grille of a semi staring him in the face. It wasn't his lane.
A helpless, desperate scream stuck in his throat and brought him awake. He'd learned the hard way to muffle those screams, even in his sleep. They attracted attention, and that never ended well.
Morning announced itself by the shudder of a truck slamming into a pothole yards from Daniel's makeshift home. Jolted to sudden awareness, Daniel extricated himself from the one wedge of space in the whole world he could rightfully claim as his.
Cat eyed him warily from a crouch beneath the dumpster, one of its industrial sized casters between them as a modicum of protection for the scared, underfed animal. The other scared, underfed animal.
Sunlight pierced the gaps between buildings enough to announce it's miserly return without giving up any of its warmth. Daniel doubted it would get warm enough all day so that his breath wasn't visible, but he hoped. All six empties lay scattered around where he'd slept. He cursed himself for being so terrible at husbanding.
He needed a drink.
At one end of the alley, the barest hint of traffic was building on the street. At the other, two box trucks sat with their asses planted against bright, warm rectangles in the wall.
He weighed the choices, but he didn't really have any. He would stumble through this day as he had all the others, finding, begging, or stealing just enough to make it, or not. That was how life worked now. Or didn't work. His fate wasn't in his hands. It never would be again. Whatever happened to him wouldn't be his fault.
"It wasn't my fault, Charlie." he mumbled, trying to push the thought away. He'd learned that crying produced the opposite of sympathy.
"You're hoping I'll die", he told Cat. "So you can eat me while I'm still warm. Drink from my eyeballs." Cat just stared, neither confirming nor denying Daniel's speculation.
"So what do you think?" he asked, gesturing to one end of the alley and the other. Any choice was all risk and marginal gain at best. Which way felt lucky today?
He had an uneasy understanding with these drivers and dock workers. Depending on the mood of the day, he might find empathy, half a sandwich or a cup of coffee if he was really lucky. Other days, he might pay for his daily bread by fishing it out of a puddle while the drivers' taunts and mockery drove away their own insecurities.
Worse than the cruelty was when they refused to acknowledge him at all.
The draw of light and warmth from the docks won out over the cold street and colder faces in the other direction. He headed that way, then stopped and glanced back.
"You coming?" Daniel asked. Cat twitched its whiskers, then crept tentatively out of hiding. Daniel turned back and started walking, knowing Cat would be ten steps behind him.
Newspapers made good insulation stuffed into cracks and gaps. Today, they screamed of the record cold bearing down on the city. He was one of the few people for whom newspapers actually helped solve the problems they announced.
He'd scored enough on the streets to get a burger from McDonalds and a flask sized bottle of cheap rum, enough to warm his gut and keep the memories to a dull ache while increasing the chance he would freeze to death. Such decisions would be a delicate balance if he cared enough to think about it.
A wooden pallet had been left propped against the wall after the drivers had left, and on top of it he found, of all things, a can of tuna. Whether anonymous sympathy or a cruel joke - it didn't matter which - he and Cat were the obvious targets. He added the pallet to the buttress of inadequate insulation protecting his space. After withdrawing into his cocoon, he pulled the tuna can and a badly rusted Phillips screwdriver with half a handle out of his coat pocket.
"Joke's on you, asshole." he said, imagining the absent driver's mocking face. "Didn't expect me to have a can opener, did you?" The crossed blades weren't ideal for the job, but after 20 minutes, he had pried the metal apart enough to scoop out a few flakes of fish.
Cat's eyes glowed from under the corner of the dumpster in the all but pitch black alley. He glared at the creature. "Every man for himself." he said, drawing the precious can against his body and his oily fingers to his lips.
His feast was laborious to say the least, but he got a quarter of the can into him before he decided to give it a rest. Save some for later, along with what was left of the flask, this time. His belly full enough to pretend that gnawing hunger was merely a ravenous appetite, he leaned his head back against the cold brick.
He kissed Charlie good night, tucking her into her warm bed in their warm house where he would be a good father and keep her safe and cozy and never hungry and...
A scream escaped his lips when he looked into her eyes. Yellow eyes, with slitted pupils. The scream brought him back to wakefulness and scared Cat off his lap. His fingers and lips must smell of tuna, and Cat could hardly be blamed for trying to sneak a taste while Daniel slumbered.
Daniel tediously withdrew a few flakes of tuna from the can and held it out to Cat, but Cat was wary. He put the hand with the can back under his coat, and held the few flakes of tuna against his chest, realizing that they'd both be warmer together and knowing the temptation would make the tiny animal reckless.
Cat didn't take the bait until Daniel prompted him. "I guess you deserve it." he said. Cat understood, and sprung smoothly into his lap to take the proffered fingertipful of tuna.
Cat was not satisfied with the singular gesture. Stood on back paws with front paws on Daniel's chest, Cat's eyes darted between Daniel's and the flap of his coat where he'd hidden the can. Daniel took out another heaping fingertipful and made Cat watch as he brought it to his own lips. But Cat's look was too much, and he relented, offering a smaller dollop, then one for himself, until the can was half empty. Cat stayed on his lap, watching him as his eyes lost focus.
The doctors weren't sure how much Ellie was aware of, how much she understood, but as he stood over her bed she stared into him, her eyes saying everything her expressionless face and forever muted voice couldn't. She knew.
He woke himself with his choked scream, staring into those eyes that hated him almost as much as he hated himself. "It wasn't my fault." he yelled into those yellow eyes. "It wasn't my fault." he whimpered to Cat. Eyes watched as he reached for his flask, as he took another swig, following every movement, watching, accusing. "You're hoping I'll die." he accused. Cat just watched him drink.
The new Mercedes had a lot of different ways to control the radio. He could have just told it to turn up the volume, but the need to emphatically crank the fat knob like in the old days was too much to resist.
He had to take his eyes off the road to find the knob. It was a tiny little thing, not meant to be used normally. His grand gesture blunted, he nonetheless looked to the mirror for a reaction from Charlie. To share the moment, to connect her to what the song and the gesture had meant to him in his day, to break through teenage aloofness and disdain of anything parents thought was 'cool'.
Her face pressed against the side window, watching the scenery go by. He turned to look at her directly, at her strong shoulders and long silky hair. She was becoming a young lady with a bright future. Great grades, and emerging looks that already had the boys' notice. He smiled at the sheer joy of being her father, simultaneously vowing to protect her from those boys until she was an old lady and imagining the happiness of walking her down the aisle one day.
She turned, noticing something, her look at first curious, then darker, then terrified. He watched it change in slow motion, trying to drag his head around to face the road.
"It wasn't my fault." he screamed at those yellow eyes boring into his. At the face and the voice that still lived in his head, if nowhere else.
The eyes seemed to scream back, "Yes it was, Daddy!"
He flailed for the flask, and brought it to his lips. Cat swatted a paw, sending the bottle to the cement. He watched the clear liquid and his whole life pour across shattered glass to disappear into a crack in the broken pavement.
Cat was still staring into his eyes, accusing.
"It was an accident."
"I just reacted. I tried to save us all."
"They might have made it."
"I didn't think." Daniel sobbed.
"Are you sure?"
He'd desperately cranked the wheel left, to escape across the lane of oncoming traffic he'd drifted into. Instinct, turn away from danger. But the move turned the car broadside to the truck. The back half of the car was sheared off just behind the passenger seat where his wife slept, slamming into the same window Charlie had just had her face innocently pressed against.
"They died because of you."
"Ellie's not dead." he blurted out.
"She wishes she was."
It was instantaneous, the doctors had assured him as if offering comfort, as if he hadn't seen her terror of knowing.
It wasn't instantaneous for Ellie, it was still happening, every day and every night.
Daniel had come out relatively unscathed. Broken arm, leg, and ribs, and a severe concussion. Unscathed, he thought, sitting behind his dumpster in a cold, dark alley.
"You have to take responsibility." Cat's eyes told him.
He had to have a drink.
He grasped at a shard of glass that looked like it still held a minuscule pool of rum, but only managed to cut his tongue on it. He burst out of his cocoon, shoving and kicking his carefully constructed shelter to pieces, and stormed off.
He stopped, remembering the tuna. Cat stood pawing at the can on the ground, trying to get a tongue into the jagged gash. He stalked back and grabbed the can, pulling it to his chest. Cat stared at him.
"It should have been me."
Cat just stared, neither confirming nor denying his speculation.
"Why am I here?" Daniel screamed, not caring if he drew attention. He threw off his glove and jammed his fingers into the gap, violently tearing the aluminum wide open. He threw the can to the ground and ran blindly out of the alley.
It was all his fault.
Cat stayed behind, scraping the last flakes of oily tuna out of the can.
He'd gone to the cemetery three times as the pieces of his life flew centrifugally apart once the center no longer held. He found Charlie's grave and dropped cross-legged to the ground facing the marble stone, his journey finally over. His rage three months ago had done one thing for him, it had given him purpose.
He read her name for the last time. "Charlize Parker Anderson, 2005-2019."
The last name rang a bell. It took Daniel a moment to realize that it was his, that he had a last name. No matter, after today nobody would remember that he had a name at all.
He pulled the shard of broken rum flask out of his pocket and turned it over in his hands. His left hand was missing two fingers, the pinkie and the ring finger. Frostbite from that night. The finger that had once held the long ago pawned ring that bound him forever to Ellie, and both of them to Charlie, was no longer there. Good riddance, he had no right to a ring any more, nor a finger capable of bearing one.
This will probably hurt, he thought as he raised the glass to his neck. He felt detached from the reality of it. What's one more hurt on top of all this? At least this one wouldn't last.
But he saw Cat sitting to one side, staring as if it had been waiting for him. It couldn't be the same Cat. He tried to remember Cat's color, the patterns in its fur, but he couldn't. It hardly mattered. It wasn't like they were friends, It wasn't like he had friends, or could have friends.
He looked into those implacable yellow eyes. "You'll get your wish today." he told Cat.
"It's always about you, isn't it?"
"Shut up." He didn't need his imagination taunting him now. It was a done deal. Too late to change his mind.
"You're going to desecrate her grave with your blood? Yours, of all people?"
"It's all my fault."
"The people who come here, the people who cared about her, will have to deal with knowing what you did in this sacred spot. Some poor schmuck will have to clean up your mess, again. All so you can feel better."
"I cared about her!" he pleaded into Cat's unperturbed eyes.
"Sure, you did. Then you killed her."
"I'm so sorry, Charlie." He wailed.
"I know you didn't mean it, Daddy." Tears poured from Daniel's eyes. Voice in his head or not, it was her voice, the same voice that told him she loved him when he tucked her in at night, even as she was getting too old to have Daddy tucking her into bed. "I don't want you to."
"I have to. I can't..."
"We don't want you to." Ellie's voice. Cat's yellow eyes bored into him with her eyes. What was she accusing him of now?
"It was an accident." he stammered.
"Of course it was, you little shit. But everything after was no accident. You chose it."
"It's not my..." But it was. "It doesn't matter any more." he told his broken, helpless wife.
"It's all about you, we get it."
"I love you, Daddy." Charlie's voice, still alive, still in his head. Tears poured down his cheeks. He listened for agreement from the other voice, surprised at how much he needed to hear it. When it came, it wasn't what he had hoped to hear.
"Not like this." Ellie said.
"Not like this." his own voice said in his head. Cat dragged paws across its face, then peered back at Daniel.
"Like what, then?"
"That's up to you." all three voices said.
Daniel stood, fidgeting with the glass. He looked at it, at Cat, at the soft mound of earth that covered all that remained of his daughter.
Almost all, he realized. She lived only in his head now. His shoulders slumped and a tension that he didn't know he was holding drained from him. He had been about to kill her again, to erase the last piece of her.
He started to toss the glass to the side, but stopped himself. A small group of cut flowers sat at the base of the headstone, drying in the bright sunshine. He knelt and gently placed the glass on the ground among them. He kissed his fingers and used them to trace the rough letters of her name.
He had a choice to make.
He had a choice.
He took a few steps, then stopped and turned. "You coming?"
Cat popped onto its paws and stretched, then followed Daniel out of the graveyard.