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Fiction: In The Morning by Michelle Rene
In The Morning
Words by Michelle Rene
Image by Gretchen Gales
There was nothing to do but resign myself to a night spent outside. My preference was to sleep at the foot of the bed with Papa after his long stay in the hospital, but Mary never liked me inside for long. Her complaints about me always concerned her linens, and it was a constant battle. Blamed was I for every scratch and stray hair she happened upon. To her, I was nothing but a cat. A nuisance.
“Not tonight, Ernest. You need your rest and so do I. If you only knew how long I spend washing the bedding that cat of yours touches.”
Papa and I, the old men that we were, hadn’t had it in us to argue the point. He merely looked down at me, the hair on his face curving into a weary smile. That grin sat on top of an exhausted face he had been carrying for months. Out of everyone in the world, he knew what I was, that I was more. Papa patted me on the head and crooned in a gentle fashion.
“Old friend, we must retreat on this one.”
I didn’t mind terribly. Idaho had a peace about it that Florida and Cuba did not. The frenzied, hot air of the world I knew best was wonderful when you were young. Lazy afternoons could be passed sunning in the odd chair or dosing in the grass, but the heat also brought restlessness. Agitated was the hot energy, encouraging life to skitter here and there. A wonderful feeling if one was young and of the mindset to chase, but in my old age, it just felt tiring. Here, in this place, the world allowed itself to calm, to slow, to sleep.
I passed the evening near the warm glow of the house, all blocks and windows as was the style the Hemingway’s seemed to prefer now. A large tree had been cut to allow for the house to be built where it was, and the stump was a nice place to rest. It smelled of pine when I dug my nails into it, and no pests seem to want to visit. I rested my old bones on the still live, softened wood, and listened to the night air buzz and thrum a lullaby.
I woke with a panic to a morning utterly alien to me. The peace and gentility of the previous night had vanished with my dreams. My ears were alert and tingling. No sound nor movement had set this feeling off. It was the knowing. That old familiar warning I had grown to read so well. Papa was in trouble.
The thing started in the tips of my ears and trickled like a cold stream of water all the way down to the base of my neck. There, it clawed its way across my back to the base of my rump. My tail twitched with it. Everything inside me was on alert, even if the rest of the world hadn’t quite woken yet.
Leaping from the stump, I plowed through the tall grass toward the house as quickly as my old limbs would carry me. I made it to the door and immediately started scratching at it and yowling as loud as I could manage.
The sound that came from me wasn’t the one I was accustomed to hearing. How long had it been since I called out loud? The bold, confident holler I knew had somehow been replaced with the scratchy wheeze of an older creature. I kept at it though, thinking perhaps I might find my old voice again if I just cried enough to clear the cobwebs from my throat.
The racket was a terrible one, even if my old yowl hadn’t returned to me. Mary opened the door in a dressing robe, an angry scowl plastered across her face. When she looked down at me, she shifted her footing, and I tensed thinking she might try to kick. There were no bags under her eyes to indicate I had woken her, so perhaps she would not kick at me or sweep me away with the broom. This meant I had a shot.
“What the hell? You damn fool thing. What do you want?”
I pushed past her into the kitchen and looked around. Papa wasn’t there.
“I suppose you’ll be wanting breakfast. I hadn’t even made the coffee yet, Snow.”
She shut the door behind us and maneuvered her way to the pantry while I checked the two doors that led the other parts of the house. Both were shut.
“I told him I wasn’t going to touch that awful stuff he feeds you. Smells to high heaven, but I’d rather get it over with and have you quiet, I suppose.”
The feeling was all over my body now. Every hair was on alert. It infected my whole being, whispering the truth in my ears.
Something’s wrong. Something’s wrong. Get to him now!
I padded desperately from one door to the other, frantic to find a way passed them. Somewhere behind me, the scent of canned fish wafted from the floor. Normally, I would be excited at the smell, but not this morning, not right now. Ignoring it, I scratched and yowled at the door I knew to lead to the main living area.
“What is the matter with you? I’ve got your food right here.”
It was getting worse; the foreboding inside me swelled.
“Snow, for goodness sake.”
Mary lifted me by my scruff, and I swiped at her out of instinct. To pick a kitten up that way was fine, but an old man like me? That hurt the bones. Between the panic and the pain, instinct took over, and I scratched her arm. She yelped and dropped me to the floor.
“What has gotten into you?”
I landed alright, but it jarred my legs a little. No time to worry about that now. Papa needed me. There was no denying that. I continued my frenzy at the door, hoping Mary would open it to get me to shut up. My only plan was to frustrate her enough to acquiesce. He was so close I could smell him in the air that wafted from underneath the door. That evil scent was there with him too, the one I guarded against. Such a man as Ernest, the wizard with words, and yet he plagued himself with terrible thoughts. I had to get to him. I was the only one who could stop this.
“That’s it. I’ve had enough of you.”
Mary grabbed a towel from the rack and threw it around my body. In one swift motion, she gathered me up in it, claws and all. The floor was suddenly gone, and I was being carried helplessly through the air. The scent of him left me. I heard the creak of the back door open, and before I realized what was happening, grass was underneath my many toes. The still morning air of Idaho surrounded me once again, singing me songs of false peace.
“Now out with you. When you calm down, you can come back in and have breakfast.”
I raced to get back into the kitchen, but she shut the door too quickly, and my body slammed into the door before I could slow. Fear crept inside my belly. It wriggled and writhed there as I paced about the door, trying to find a way in. Somewhere, the birds were beginning to add their music to the buzz of the morning insects. All seemed out of place to me in a world with this much dread.
The windows hadn’t occurred to me until that moment. Papa’s favorite living room had giant windows that overlooked the land. He could see for miles from those windows. We often sat in his chair together, surveying the land in the afternoons when it was too hot to enjoy the outdoors. If I could just get around the house to where those were, maybe I could stop him. Maybe the sight of me would stop it all from happening. I had to try.
Snaking through a mass of tall grass, I dashed around to the side of the house. The young sunlight was just beginning to reflect sheets of amber on the windows in question, and I was almost to them. So close. The fear, the terror of it, made my stomach want to lurch, but I kept running. The windows were in sight, and I could already make out a ghostly figure inside them. I would make it. I had to make it. I was almost there.
The gunshot ripped through the very fabric of the world.
I stopped. The universe stopped.
Everything knows the clap of a gunshot. Even beetles, who should know little other than dirt and leaves, know this sound. One minute the forest sung with birdsong and buzzed with tiny life, and the next, all was silent. It was an unnatural noise, and everything stopped to take notice. For when a gun is fired, something that was once alive was no longer, and every creature halted in a moment of silence for its passing.
My feet gripped the earth, and I listened hard in the stillness that passed. A terrible nothing. The longer I stood, the more dread I felt. I focused on the ghostly silhouette hidden behind the reflected slab of light, but it didn’t move. Something told me to go forward, to investigate, but my legs wouldn’t move either. My joints creaked under the tension of it all.
When I heard the scream, I knew. It was a woman’s scream, Mary’s scream.
That inkling that told me things about Papa turned into an awful knowing. I didn’t want to know this. I didn’t want it to be true.
Eventually, I sat and shut my eyes to join the world in its sudden silence. Just because you never wanted the sun to set, didn’t mean that it would listen. Ernest was gone. All the years we spent together, more than any creatures should feasibly been granted, and it was all over. Now, my friend was gone because I couldn’t get to him in time. This was all my fault.
What would I do now? What could I do?
The first thought was to try to live with Mary alone, but that idea came and went with a flutter. There was no place for me here with only the ghost of my friend to warm me. We had been together for so long. A piece of me in him, and a piece of him in me. How could I stay and live with only the specter him, missing a part of my soul like that?
No. I would leave this place. It was the only correct thing to do.
Turning slowly, for my bones creaked at all the frenzy of the morning, I padded away from the house and into the wilderness. There was enough to sustain an old thing like me out here, but really, did it matter? Now that my friend was gone, how long could I possibly have left in this world? I had long since figured he was the thing that kept me alive.
When I reached the tree stump, I halted. Suddenly, I felt ancient, older than I had ever before. Something told me to stop, to rest, to sleep. I climbed onto the stump with an effort and settled down there in the scent of live pine and morning dew. Everything weighed more, and I breathed slowly under a now laboring chest. The weight of the air pressed down on my brittle ribs. My eyelids were heavy, and for the first time, I tuned into the inside of myself and heard absolutely nothing at all.
By the time the paramedics came, they barely gave me a second glance. Nothing important really. All they found of me was a very old cat curled up on a tree stump, waiting patiently for the sun to set.
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