The first time the cat brought in a baby toy we laughed. So typical for us to acquire the weirdest cat at the shelter. The first offering was a small, pink cat toy dumped on the kitchen floor. You pretended to think deeply about it: “Perhaps he’s lonely, or he’s trying to tell us he wants us to get a new kitten.” Still, it gave me an excuse to trawl around a few neighbours’ houses and get to know some more people. I can see myself now, telling them about you, how we were just married and excited to have our first house together in this pretty seaside town. I see my face brimming with happiness. The cat was practice, we told each other, to see if we were capable of looking after a living thing. We did well. He had all his injections, a sparkly collar and a microchip. He repaid us by purring around our legs as soon as we got in, sprawling across our laps in the evening and generally luxuriating in being adored. The presents of baby toys continued. Plus blankets and random pieces of clothing. The strangest thing was that no one in the street had a child that young. There were periods when we thought it had stopped altogether, then there would be another—some misshapen piece of cotton and fluff looking amazed to find itself on our kitchen floor. After two years, the house was quieter and it grew harder to remember the excitement and chaos of moving in and decorating. Neither of us wanted to admit that nothing was happening. I grew sadder. He ran out of things to say, stayed at work later and went fishing on the weekends. One day I came home and saw him in the garden with the cat’s latest offering: a small cream blanket with little yellow ducks along its edges. I waited for him to move, but he just stood there. I could have gone out then and put my arms around him. I could have held him for as long as he needed then we could have walked back into the house together.
Reflex Fiction Posts
Yesterday I’d woken up minus the usual head-fug I get when I’ve taken a tablet to help me sleep the night before. I hadn’t felt energetic but I didn’t feel sluggish; as though I could turn over and spend another hour—sometimes three more—in bed.
I didn’t shower either; looked in the mirror and decided I’d pile my hair up; just get on with it and spent the first two hours of my morning under the bed pulling out ten years of detritus. Three bags: bin, charity, wash. Half-eaten rodents the cat discarded went into the first.
The gold-sequinned, impossibly delicately-embroidered shoes I wore on our wedding day went in the second. As did the vanilla-coloured suspender belt and deep-lace bordered stockings; forced to the end of the bag as if they’d been stolen. I might have sworn.
Gifts we’d opened and never used; picture frames with the his ‘n’ hers embellished rings we’d mocked; ornaments of entwined couples left in their boxes; a programme for My Fair Lady; the receipt from our honeymoon.
Once it was all out and sorted, I hoovered blind; stuck the nozzle right under the bed and let it suck up whatever it came into contact with; wouldn’t have cared if it’d been fivers; tenners; fifties. Dispose of it; delete it. Leave no trace.
Once upon a time, I’d have felt productively exhausted; I’d have kept bending down and staring from one side of the bed to the other with the satisfaction of nothing obscuring the view. Instead, I’d stripped and showered. Got clean. Erased the dirt; the sights I’d seen, the things I’d touched.
These days he doesn’t call me baby. He uses my real name. I can’t get used to it. We share the same rooms but move fractionally further from each other’s personal space than other couples might. We don’t meet each other’s eyes. Yesterday he didn’t say I smelled shower-fresh; didn’t comment on the tasks I’d undertaken; didn’t even enquire after my day.
Today I feel different. Less able. More delicate; quick to tears and closer to pain.
Perhaps yesterday was as good a day as they’ll be for now.
The autumn breeze carried with it the last remnants of the most boring summer of my life.
Classes were a day away. Routine and compliancy would rule my life once more. It wasn’t something I was looking forward to, nor was it something I wanted to run from. It was just life, as I knew it, and I had to accept it.
These were some of the thoughts I had when I met up with my childhood friends in front of our school.
We talked about the same things we usually did: video games, girls and the most recent music concerts we would attend. We all had one thing in common; the irrevocable urge to move to the city. The countryside sure was calm and peaceful but that wasn’t something we valued. We needed to discover new things, experience the rush of life. The city called to us. It promised everything we could possibly desire. We were fifteen and full of dreams.
Everything was always the same here. Even the new seating arrangement and homeroom teacher felt the same. It felt like the adults would create an artificial new environment for us, year after year. I knew for a fact that this would have continued until graduation.
The classes hadn’t even started yet and I could feel myself sinking into my chair. My elbows on the desk, my hands holding up my head. Would I live up to my reputation and fall asleep in class this year?
A strange excitement vibrated amongst all the students, even the teacher seemed more awake than usual.
I caught a few words, here and there.
Moved from the city.
Her name was Emily.
With a Y.
I could feel it; the autumn breeze carrying away with it the last remnants of my boring life.
Ray could tell they’d been discovered. The artificial odor gave it away: a woman, perfumed and/or deodorized, had penetrated their hideout.
“We’ll have to leave here,” he told his daughter, Laurel. “They’re onto us.”
“Daddy, slow down.” Twelve years old and enjoying the novelty of the feminine scent, Laurel patted her father on the shoulder, crouching beside him next to the coolers. “Remember when you said that last spring? And the summer before that? No one ever came.”
“Look at this.” He pointed to a perfect shoeprint in the cool dirt. “Tracks. Clear as day. Those other times—you’re right—I overreacted. But this evidence you can’t refute. The cops will be here soon; I guarantee it.” Removing a backpack from beneath a tarp, he assumed a military tone. “Get your clothes. Leave everything else. Don’t bother with the food.”
Two cloth bags of just-purchased groceries slumped by the tent’s flapping door, poor sentries.
“It’s late, Dad.” Laurel lay back on her sleeping bag. “All because some woman out running found our tent doesn’t mean we have to leave.”
The scalp beneath Ray’s thinning black hair reddened. “Babe. We’ve talked about this before. They’ll take you away from me—put you in a foster home with a bunch of crazies and won’t let us see each other.” He spoke quickly, his breaths shortening. “I couldn’t bear it.”
Laurel yawned. “I’m so tired. Can we talk about it in the morning, please? I need to sleep.” Laurel closed her eyes and pretended the smell was her mother’s, a woman she barely remembered. A woman who’d been taken away.
“All right. We’ll leave at first light.”
He goes, “I want her left so no-one so much as glances at her again.” I flip the photo. “Jasmine’s the one in the middle,” he taps her face. “Five, yes?”
“Uh-uh. Five up front, five after.”
He lets on to think. Smug fuck. “Okay,” he blows out, finally.
We fix on Thursday. She’ll be getting ready for a night out. He’ll be home—so it couldn’t’ve been him knocking at the door. His idea.
There’s car-batteries dumped the back of the wrecking-yard. Lead-acid, thirty-five percent sulphuric. That’d do some damage. But you only get one shot, you want to be sure. Not hard to up the concentration once you know what you’re about. Safest is carry it in a jar.
All Thursday, I keep looking at that photo. Like I say, you don’t want any fuck-ups. A sister answers the door, see what I’m saying? She’s between a couple of brassers, some club or other. Picture you’ve seen a thousand times. Eyes like a cat, very tasty. Lady, if you knew what was coming . . .
Swanky gaff of course. My thumb’s over the doorbell. Only I don’t press it right away. I could still walk, that’s the point. Rich bastard’s not going to come after me for five grand. Then the door swings open. I don’t even have time to pull up the Jaysus scarf.
Her bare shoulder, pushing a mobile up to her ear. Lynx eyes sparkling at some big joke down the phone. She holds up five fingers, mouths “five”, winks. Thinks I’m her Uber.
My hand circles the jar. It’s decision time. I could just walk . . . Only, you can’t have it said you bottled a job.
Then it seems my words have decided for me. “I’ve something for your husband. Home, is he?”
As a whirl of starched uniforms dance before her, the only still thing that Elise sees is her hand resting upon the arm of her wheelchair. It is an old hand. This is a place for old things. The sun shines an ineffectual yellow light onto the patio where there is a smattering of elderly debris soaking up the thin warmth as part of their afternoon respite.
Elise watches as the other residents talk nonsense to their dismayed relatives. Bent forward in earnest, worried wives and daughters cling to the fragile ghosts of meaning that haunt their conversations.
An unbidden memory of a child holding her finger climbs its way into her thoughts. She has forgotten much and names elude her but she knows this memory. It clamps her heart.
“Has anyone seen my son?” she asks nobody in particular, and nobody answers.
They drift away, the relatives, their faces creased with sad relief. And one by one the nurses help the residents back to their rooms.
She sighs quietly and watches the diminished sun defer to the inevitable night.
“Come on, mum, it’s time to get you back inside.” An alien voice emerges from the murk.
She feels someone take hold of her finger and hold it tight. An elusive fragment of what once was flickers and then dies.
“Has anyone seen my son?” she asks the shadow behind her.
She is answered by a quiet sob as someone once known wheels her back into the darkness.
I kneel, and study the poet’s left eye. Anywhere less liquescent on his magnificent head—that silvered temple, or between those Schnauzer eyebrows—and inevitably the entry wound would have been described as ‘neat’ by busy pathologist or unimaginative crime writer.
Here, it’s a mess.
There is no corresponding exit, no pavement-porridge of bone and brain: a small calibre weapon was used. I imagine its tiny projectile zipping around the fine interior of the poet’s cranium, nonchalantly carving its way through haiku and quatrain, mincing half-remembered juvenilia and rendering rhymes to soup, before halting in the hatchery of the yet-to-be-written stanzas of his twenty-page (to date) free-verse whopper dissecting most of Europe’s post-Renaissance politico-philosophical history and speculating brilliantly (I’ve read some) about the continent’s and, by extension, the planet’s shaky future.
Tragic, irrevocable loss! This was a man whose envious peers found themselves, at unexpected moments—at a bus stop, say, or on the lav—contemplating the mysteries of the organ now irredeemably compromised: its weight, volume, circuitry and surface topography all, surely, more complex and mysterious than their own dull-grey matter. It seemed the poet understood everything; certainly I never knew him to be lost for original perception or impassioned opinion, though his originality was always underpinned by learning, and his passion tempered with wit and keen irony.
After tonight’s reading—packed, as usual—the poet had bought drinks for his admirers: his generosity was as authentic as his genius. And at closing time, en plein air, he entertained the crowd with pastiches of certain rivals’ efforts, spontaneously rendered into hilarious cod-Chaucerian couplets. His killer simply strolled up behind him and tapped his shoulder. Miffed at interruption the poet turned to remonstrate, then smiled in recognition just before the assassin aimed and fired.
The gun was a second-hand Beretta: nondescript, lightweight, and surprisingly cheap.