It’s hard to get any meaningful sleep anymore. Even if I keep my thoughts at bay long enough to drift off, the mousetraps wake me up. The clacks ring like gunshots. Pop my eyes open, make my heart rattle against my ribs. The clack is almost always followed by claws scratching the drop ceiling tiles, tiny death throes that fade into silence. Then the ghost of Isaac’s voice surfaces in my brain.
“Mom!” he yelled up the stairs. “I’m taking hot lunch today. And I’m going to Jordan’s house after school.”
“What time will you be home?” I said, but he didn’t answer. He slung his red backpack over his shoulder and disappeared onto the bus.
It’s hard to remember how I got here. Thinking back over the past year, time doesn’t feel fluid. Moments return in segments, like vacation snapshots in a life I only vaguely recall.
In this photo I’m standing alone in the universe of my living room.
This one’s me signing papers with the realtor who sold the house.
This one’s me packing boxes.
This one’s me signing the lease to the basement apartment in St. Paul. If you look closely, you can see how dead I am in the eyes. What you can’t see is that I hadn’t showered in over a week.
The neon Closed sign in the butcher shop shines through my apartment window, makes the ceiling tiles glow red. Shoelaces dangle from the ceiling. After losing a few mousetraps, I’ve learned to tie laces around them and weave the laces down between the tiles. Before this technique, the apartment smelled of rotting mice from lost traps.
Most of the traps go off at night, so I’ve taken to catnaps.
At sunup, I empty the traps. I lift the ceiling panels and pull the laces. Like catching a fish, you can tell right away if you’ve got one. If there’s a little heft, I stand back so the dead mouse doesn’t hit me when the trap swings down. The string also makes it easier if a trap wasn’t detonated. My fingernails are black from reaching blindly into the ceiling. Then clack. But more often, I find a dead mouse with a bar snapped down on its neck or back. Occasionally it gets them in the hindquarters. When this happens, it’s fifty-fifty that they’re still alive. After I drop them into the garbage, I smear peanut butter and cock the bar back. Then I slip the traps back into the ceiling panels and leave the shoelaces dangling into the room.
Most mornings, Miriam and I sit on the front steps. Always, she’s out there by nine when the butcher opens his shop. He sweeps the sidewalk every morning regardless of whether it’s dirty. Miriam watches him until his lanky figure drags the broom back into the store.
Miriam and I drink coffee, hers mixed with cat hair and, I’m pretty sure, whiskey, mine with lots of cream. She wears a baby sling over her chest and fills it with a sack of fur she calls Midnight. The cat’s so heavy that it causes her to lean forward and sit with her hands down by the ground. Sometimes she rubs her chin into Midnight’s head and tells me that a cat is her spirit animal. She says that cats are carnivorous hunters. That you can take a tenth-generation domesticated housecat and put it outside and it will survive at the expense of songbirds and bunnies. If you do the same thing with dogs, they’ll wait for someone to save them until they starve from their own ineptitude. Miriam turns to me with her scar that runs from her right cheek over her glass eye and up to her forehead. With her scar disappearing into her gray hair, she says, “You should get a cat. Or whatever your spirit animal is.”
Miriam says a lot of weird stuff. But she doesn’t follow the news and stays close to home. She’s created a small world that’s safe and predictable. I’m still building mine.
On Wednesdays, I walk three blocks to the farmer’s market and buy my produce for the week. In the early fall Sua has potatoes, beets and turnips, lots of root vegetables. Digging for ones in her apron, she tells me that next week she’ll have spaghetti squash. I close my eyes and picture butter and brown sugar and spinning the sweet strands onto the tines of a fork. I remember making butternut squash for Thanksgiving dinner, just Isaac and me and a tofurkey log with cornbread stuffing and pumpkin pie with whipped cream. I tell Sua to keep the change and she nods thank you.
Afternoons are for naps. I lie on the futon on the blanket I knit for Isaac, and I try to read, but my eyes blur after tracing the words into the second paragraph. I’ve been reading The Metamorphosis for six months, and I’m still on page one. I always get stuck on the sentence, ‘What’s happened to me’ he thought. It was no dream. Then my mind slips gears, falls away, and I sleep.
I’m startled awake by knocking. I pull the blanket over my head, but it persists. Finally, I ask, “Who is it?”
“It’s Teri,” my sister sighs. “Open the door.”
Teri walks past me into the apartment. “Jesus, I’ve been standing out there for like five minutes. You don’t exactly live in the safest neighborhood. I thought someone was going to come by and rob me and shoot…sorry. Wow, this place is…something. Are those shoelaces hanging from your ceiling?”
“What’d you want?”
“Jesus. I wanted to check on you. See how you’re doing. You don’t call. The service is disconnected on your phone. I tried to reach out on Facebook. Have you even looked at Facebook lately?”
“Probably for the best. Some crazy assholes out there. Some good people too, offering their sympathy and all, but there’s some really shitty things people are saying.” Teri pours herself a glass of water and opens the fridge. “Still vegetarian, huh? Don’t know how you do it.”
“Do you want to stay for supper?” I relent.
“Can’t. Jared’s got a soccer game tonight. Why don’t you come out to the game? You can have supper with us out in the suburbs like old times. I’ll even make something you can eat, no meat.”
“Look Jenny, it’s been almost a year. It’s not healthy living like this. You need to get out of this apartment. It’s killing you.”
“I’m fine. I mean, I’m getting by.”
“No, you’re not. You’ve got shoelaces hanging from your ceiling, for crying out loud. You’re not who you were.”
“Of course I’m not. How could I possibly be? How am I supposed to live the same life…” I start crying.
Teri puts her arm around me. “Relax. It’s okay. You do it by coming out to the suburbs with me. By getting back to your family. Look, you can stay with me and Chris and the kids until you get back on your feet.”
“No,” I say. “You go to Jared’s soccer game. This is where I belong.”
“Jenny, I’m trying to help. Here,” she sighs. “Take this phone. It’s under our plan. I’m the only one with the number, so you don’t have to worry about getting calls from anyone but me. I already programmed my number in.” Teri holds out a beat-up phone. Probably Jared’s old one. There’s a note taped to it. “This is your phone number.”
“Thank you.” I put the phone in my pocket. “I’m sorr…”
Teri’s phone starts ringing. She looks down and says, “I’ve got to get this.” She touches my arm and says, “Use the phone. Call me.” She closes the door behind her.
Just outside my door she answers her phone. “Hey…I’m just leaving now. She looks like hell. Her hair’s all gray. Her teeth are yellow. She’s got whiskers growing on her chin.”
I feel my chin. It’s covered in wiry hairs.
“Yeah, I gave her the phone…well, she took it. I doubt she’ll use it…” Teri’s voice fades down the hallway.
By evening the mice are running again, their little claws amplified on the cheap fiberglass. The traps begin to clack periodically as I eat salted kohlrabi, mashed potatoes and a glass of milk. You can hear a mousetrap go off a thousand times, and it still startles you. Especially when the clack is endcapped with silence. A silence made more intense by the knowledge that something’s dying, even if it is just a mouse.
I lie in bed and stare at the glowing red ceiling from the butcher’s sign and think about the mice dying above my head. I picture collapsed lungs and broken backs, blood easing out of peanut buttery mouths. The peanut butter makes me think of packing sandwiches for Isaac to take to school (crunchy PB, no jelly), which makes me remember walking into the cafeteria for parent-teacher conferences.
The woman at the front desk handed me a copy of Isaac’s school schedule. The teachers sat at small tables in the cafeteria with their names printed on a piece of computer paper taped to the front. I remember meeting the teachers. Since Isaac’s father died, I heard the same thing at conferences every semester: Isaac struggles to pay attention. He’s quiet in class. Doodles. Forgets to turn in his homework. His English teacher, this hippie kind of guy with a Polish name full of consonants, said Isaac shows “real aptitude” for critical thinking, which was the first nice thing a teacher had said about him in two years.
After conferences, I walked the empty hallways, past the trophy case and the drinking fountains, past a bald janitor buffing the tile floors, his forearms flexing under faded tattoos. He smiled and nodded. Student artwork was taped to the walls, some sort of abstract self-portraits with large eyes and swirls of colors. A poster read, Respect: You got to give it to get it! with a picture of a mountain climber. Another said, Bully Free Zone in big red letters. I tried to imagine the halls filled with high schoolers, some of the kids from the self-portraits. I pictured them getting books from their lockers, borrowing pencils, fixing their hair. Snapping their gum.
Clack. Another trap goes off. I can’t sleep. Maybe Teri’s right. I have let my hygiene go.
The warm bathwater grinds my skin like chalk on teeth, but I force myself to sit a few minutes and rub a cracked bar of soap on my skin. I spin my razor in my hands a few times. The idea of dragging it across my legs and armpits at this point feels monumental, especially with the water grating my skin, so I hop out of the tub.
I can’t fall asleep. I keep thinking about the school. The way it was when I walked the halls and the way it might have looked after the shooting. What happened to that hippie English teacher? Did any of the kids in the self-portraits die? Probably at least one of the fourteen was in that art class. I imagined the light blue lockers splattered red, children’s bodies curled like commas in the violent sentence of the hallway. I pictured blood pooling on the polished floors. Who cleans up after that? The tattooed janitor? Forensics?
In the morning I empty and reset the traps before sipping coffee with Miriam on the front steps. We watch the butcher sweep the sidewalk. He glances up at us and quickly away, before going into the shop. Miriam turns to me. Her glass eye stares straight ahead as her good eye looks me up and down. She tells me that I don’t look so good, which is frightening coming from her.
“Don’t worry,” she says. “Just lean into it. Don’t fight it.”
I tell her, “I didn’t sleep well last night.” She sips her coffee and picks some cat hair off her tongue.
How did I get here?
This photo is a police officer holding me back at the barricade in front of the school.
This one’s me on my knees watching the news choppers circle overhead.
This one’s me sitting alone at the dining table. What you can’t see in the picture is that this is my first night without my son. My first night alone.
After coffee with Miriam I read my book.
‘What’s happened to me’ he thought. It was no dream.
I wake from a sleep that makes me question if I’ve lost a day. It’s getting dark, and I feel an overwhelming urge to get out of the apartment.
The streets are irregularly quiet, just a few people wandering like lost children. The butcher sweeps the sidewalk in front of his shop. He stops as I approach. It’s the first time I’ve seen him up close, and there’s something off-putting about his leathery face. He somehow looks confidently surprised, an expression I don’t understand.
“Well hello,” he says. I freeze and stare at the blood stains on his white apron. He nods toward the sky. “Looks like rain.”
Looks like rain. Looks like rain. I roll this sentence around in my head and say, “It’s dark.” He wrinkles his brow at me in…disappointment? What the hell is wrong with his face?
“Dark? Hmm,” he says and clicks his tongue a couple of times. I put my head down and walk away.
It was a statement of fact. It is dark. The streets are empty as though there’s an impending storm. A few blocks down the road, the sidewalk opens to a parking lot where the farmer’s market is usually held. Tonight, it’s vacant. The vendors have gone home. A few stray plastic bags tumble in the wind. In the middle of the parking lot I spot a small shape and walk toward it. The streetlights flicker on, throwing cones of yellow light, but the shape stays in the dark. When I get close enough, I realize it’s a black cat.
The cat sits like an Egyptian statue, but with some American girth around its hindquarters. I expect it to run away as I approach, but it doesn’t. It just sits. The wind blows a plastic bag against my leg. I look up, but there’s nobody around. An empty two-liter bottle rolls and spins under a streetlight. Then a loud, rhythmic DING da ding ding DING and a vibration on my leg. It’s the phone that Teri gave me. I push the button. I have a new text message from a number I don’t recognize.
Pick her up, the message says.
I look around the empty parking lot and back down at the cat. Must be a wrong number. Some parent telling another parent to pick up their daughter, maybe. The wind seeps through my jacket, so I turn to walk home. The phone goes off again. DING da ding ding DING. I hasten my pace. I need to be back in the safety of my apartment. I run to my building but tire out in only a few blocks. I put my hands on my knees and bend at the waist, taking huge breaths. I check the phone. The text message says, The cat.
I look up. The butcher is locking his shop door. His face glows red with the neon Closed sign.
“Now just what in the world are you doing?” he asks.
“Huh?” I breathe.
“Did you just run a marathon?” he says.
What is it about his leathery face?
“Looks like you made a new friend,” he says.
I look behind me and the cat from the parking lot is sitting in the middle of the sidewalk.
“Be careful with new friends.”
I’m squinting at his face and I realize that he has no eyebrows. I look closer and see swirls of scar tissue around his eyes.
“Here,” he says. “I’ve got something for your new friend.”
He unlocks the door and holds it open for me. I pause and look up at the swirling scars encircling his eyes and walk into the butcher shop.
He turns on the light. Everything’s put away and the room smells of bleach. Several large knives rest on white towels atop cutting boards.
“I’m Finch, if your friend hasn’t already told you.” I look behind me and see the cat. Told me? The cat?
Finch disappears into a back room and returns with a quart-sized Ziploc bag.
“Here,” he says. “Chicken livers, gizzards, intestines, hearts. A bunch of leftovers. Guts!” He bends over laughing but stops abruptly and says, “For your friend.” Then nods toward the door where the cat waits.
Back in my apartment, I melt butter in a frying pan and gag as I sift through the bag of guts and drop the quarter-sized organs into the pan. The cat purrs and arches its back, weaves between my feet. I dump the cooked innards into a bowl, pick up a fried liver and smell it. It smells like butter. I ease it into my mouth, slide the rubbery thing around before sinking my teeth in. My mouth fills with crumbling iron like dissolving pennies. I press my tongue against the roof of my mouth and keep moving the flavor around. I set the bowl on the floor and the cat eats as though it has never eaten before.
After dinner, the cat curls into my chest, and for the first night in years, I fall into a coma-like sleep, free from dreams.
The cat and I wake well-rested. She watches me empty the traps and slaps at the mouse carcasses that swing down when I pull the shoe laces. Before putting it in my pocket, I check the cell phone that Teri gave me. I have eight unread messages, all from the same number. Each one says the same thing, Name the cat.
I text back. Who is this?
I get an immediate reply. Who is this?
I’m not going to play that game. Another text comes through. How about Shabina?
I roll the name over my lips. Three syllables are a lot for a cat’s name. One syllable is for pets you don’t care about, like Spot or Buck. Three-or-more-syllable pet names are for vanity pet owners trying to be clever, like Bing Clawsby or The Great Catsby. Two syllables. That’s the sweet spot. I suppose I could call her Shabby. Seems to fit her.
I get another text. Shabina means eye of the storm.
Shabby and I sit on the front steps where Miriam and Midnight wait. Miriam hands me a coffee with cream. Her eye is focused on the butcher sweeping the sidewalk. He looks at us, and I raise my hand to wave, but he quickly looks away.
You’ve got dirt all over your face,” Miriam says.
I lick the back of my wrist and slide it across my cheek and look down. There’s dirt smeared across it.
“Don’t fight it,” Miriam says. “Lean into it. It’s all about becoming who you’re supposed to be. I fought it for years. Thought there was something wrong with me. That I needed to get over it. That there was some sort of recovery for me. That maybe I’d have a life more like the ones on TV. Then I realized I needed to build my own world. Make it how I needed it. That’s what you need to do. If you need a world filled with catharsis, build it. If you need a world of peace, build it. If you need a world of malice, build it. If you need a world of revenge, and so on. But you can’t build a new world if you hang on to the hopes of having your old world back.”
“I found a cat,” I say.
“Well then,” she watches the butcher go into the shop then turns her glass eye toward us. “You’re on your way.”
Shabby and I pick up some kitty litter and set things up for her in the apartment. I forgot to buy a litter box, so I use a cake pan. Then I lie down and read my book, but after the restful sleep I got last night, I’m finally able to get past the sentence: ‘What’s happened to me’ he thought. It was no dream. And you know what, The Metamorphosis is a decent book. It seems to me that Gregor’s downfall was his inability to embrace his new life, to lean into it.
At night, the rain comes, and with it, a stampede of mice. They fight and climb over one another like the Running of the Bulls. They funnel out of the streets and into my dry ceiling where the traps wait. Shabby paces and moans, tilts her head toward the shoelaces. I pet her behind the ears and drop some leftover chicken guts into her bowl. But the stampede keeps her distracted.
“Shut up!” I yell at the ceiling. “It’s okay,” I whisper to Shabby, and I slide my hand across her spine. But she continues to yowl. A clack goes off and a shoelace gets sucked into the ceiling tile like a spaghetti noodle. I lift the tile and slip my hand up and reach for the sprung trap and two mice drop from the ceiling into the room. Shabby leaps on one and sinks her claws and teeth into its back. I see a brown flash running toward the refrigerator. I dive and grab it in my bare hand.
How did I get here?
This one’s me seeing Isaac’s picture on the news.
This one’s me seeing Logan Marlow’s picture on the news.
This one’s me reading the newspaper. What you can’t see in this picture is that in the article I’m reading, Logan’s father stated that he took Logan target shooting on a regular basis.
I sit up, breathless, amazed at my own agility, and examine the mouse in my fist. I look into its little black eyes. Its nose twitches. Its tail swirls. I squeeze it a little tighter and its tail spins like a propeller in the red light. Its black eyes bulge, and I squeeze tighter until its tail goes limp and its nose stops twitching. A small pop comes from its throat, but I can’t stop. I keep squeezing until its insides press out through its mouth and anus, veiny membranes stretch like a balloon, then slowly deflate. I squeeze until its bones crackle in my fingers. Until its body presses between my knuckles like pudding. Then I shake it off my hand and into the garbage.
I fall into bed and watch how the red neon projects sliding raindrops from the basement window onto the ceiling tiles. Shabby licks the remnants of mouse guts off my hand with her sandy tongue. I picture Isaac at school. The police said that some kids reported that Isaac helped them, that he found a janitor’s closet and told the other kids to go in there. With gunshots ringing through the halls, and screams ricocheting off the metal lockers, Isaac told kids to get in the closet and lock the door. Then Logan Marlow turned the corner. Isaac tried to run, but Logan Marlow shot him in the back. The kids in the janitor’s closet, they all went home to their families.
I can’t stay in bed anymore. I need to go outside. Get some fresh air. Shabby follows me out to the empty street. It’s the middle of the night. Everyone’s gone home to their families, probably tucked tightly in their beds, dreaming of something other than dead children and gunshots. At night the park is quiet, like the school hallways after conferences. No one’s around. Just some rustling leaves and the white noise of sparse highway traffic in the distance. I approach the center of the park, where the statue of a soldier sitting with a rifle across his lap looks out at the grassy area where kids run and shriek when it’s daylight.
Glass breaks and my heart jumps. A raccoon stands on a bench and pulls bottles out of a garbage can. Shabby lowers her head. DING da ding ding DING. The raccoon stops and looks around but doesn’t see me crouched behind the soldier statue. One new text. Kill it. My heart drops through my feet. I look at Shabby. Does she have some sort of tracker in her? Who’s following me? I pick Shabby up by the scruff of her neck and comb her for scars, any sign that something could have been implanted. Who…I start to text, but another text comes through. Kill the raccoon. Then another. Kill it. Then another. Kill it!!!!
I lean against the statue and breathe giant white clouds into the air. Shabby climbs on my lap and pushes the top of her head into my chin. Her hair stands up and her back arches into a parabola. She revs up a low growl as the raccoon turns the corner into view. The raccoon stands up on its hind legs and growls. Shabby goes after it, and the two animals tumble in a ball of fur and hissing and claws and teeth. I run over and grab the raccoon behind its head. Shabby has dug her nails into its stomach and clings to the raccoon when I pick it up. I shake Shabby free and slam the raccoon into the corner of the soldier’s bench. The raccoon yowls and swivels and bites my wrist, but I don’t let go. I smash the raccoon again, harder this time, and it grumbles for a few seconds and goes limp. I smash it again and again.
I look around and realize I’m holding a dead raccoon in the middle of this park in the middle of the night. How did I get here?
This one’s me dodging reporters outside my house.
This one’s me sitting at the kitchen table with a knife.
This one’s me running into Pastor Ellis at the grocery store. What you can’t see in this picture is that he’s telling me that Isaac’s murder is all a part of God’s plan.
I lay the dead raccoon across the soldier’s lap and run home. Shabby follows behind, tail frolicking in the cool night.
When we get back, I melt butter in the frying pan and plunge my hand into the cold bag of chicken guts. I let the blood sift through my fingers and pull out the flaccid chunks of maroon livers and nightcrawler-shaped intestines. They sizzle when they hit the pan. Shabby can smell it. She climbs my leg and digs her nails through my sweatpants and into my skin. “Hang on,” I tell her. “Give me a minute.”
Shabby bobs her head in the bowl of fried chicken guts. I eat mine out of an old coffee mug, picking them up with my fingers and slurping them like Chinese noodles. The cell phone on the table goes off. DING da ding ding DING. One new text from the same number. I open it and see a picture of the dead raccoon lying across the soldier’s lap and three words: You did it!
Jesus, I did do it. But what did I do? What got into me? Why this bloodlust? I took genuine joy in killing that raccoon. Just like the joy I took in squeezing the life out of the mouse that fell through the ceiling. Just like the joy I’m getting from grinding the chalky chicken liver between my teeth right now. How did I get here?
This one is me turning off my phone.
This one is me reading my Facebook page.
This one is me smashing my iPad on the coffee table. What you can’t see in the picture is that I had just read posts from “truthers” who claim that my son is still alive and that I’m a political whore working for the liberal media in order to undermine the second amendment. Or the post from a troll saying that my son was probably a faggot who is better off dead.
Days scatter like mice, bump into one another, die, get unclamped and drop broken into the garbage. The next few weeks I’m out every night, dressed in black, hunting. With Shabby by my side, we kill pigeons, squirrels, rats, raccoons. We leave their carcasses littered across the neighborhood, on parked cars, hanging by their tails in windowfronts of high-end fashion stores. And every night, DING da ding ding DING, we get a picture of our prey. We page through the photos throughout the day, swipe the pictures side to side, place our thumb and forefinger on the screen and stretch to zoom in on the claw marks or the glazed eyes of some dead creature. Shabby and I are now on a meat-only diet. We gain power from the proteins of dead animals.
Miriam’s eyeing the butcher when Shabby and I sit. Finch looks up from his sweeping and stares at us. Miriam stands and puts her arms above her head like an animal trying to make itself look bigger. After a long tableau, I wave.
“What the hell was that?” Miriam says.
“What?” I say, taking a sip of my coffee.
“Why did you wave?”
“I don’t know. Why did you put your arms over your head? He seems nice. I’m just being friendly.”
“Is that the world you’re trying to build? Friendly?”
“No. I mean, I don’t know. He gave me chicken guts for Shabby.”
“The butcher,” I say. “Finch.”
“No, who’s Shabby.”
“What fucking cat?” Miriam yells.
I look and Shabby is not next to me. “Shabby…you know Shabby. The butcher, he said, ‘Here’s for your friend.’ And he gave me a bag full of chicken guts.”
“Oh my God. He wasn’t talking about your imaginary cat. He was talking about me,” Miriam says. “I’m your friend. The chicken guts were for me. That spiteful fuck.”
“Why would the butcher want to spite you?”
“Because I lit his face on fire.”
“He did this,” Miriam said, running her finger across her scar. “With his knife. He’s my ex-husband. He was a drinker and a womanizer, and one night I had enough, and I hit him back. So, he pinned me to the bathroom counter and rested his butcher knife on my face and slid it down. The next few weeks, I made sure I was extra sweet. I had stitches and an eye patch, but I would bring him beer and make him dinner. I even called him sir a few times. I lulled him. Then, one night, I waited until the bastard passed out, and I got my hairspray and my lighter and I sat down on his stomach. And while he was still asleep, I used my homemade blowtorch and lit the son of a bitch on fire. Now, every morning I sit here to remind him of what can happen.
“You and I have had catalyst moments in our lives.” Miriam says. “Do you know what a catalyst is? It’s an event that forces change. Your son was murdered. My husband half-blinded and nearly killed me. And here we are, not the same. People sometimes think of catalysts as good or bad. Winning the lottery or getting diagnosed with cancer. But a catalyst doesn’t have a moral compass. It just exists. When we perceive a catalyst as being ‘bad,’ we fight it. Those abrupt familial deaths, the car accidents, unfaithful spouses. We take it all in and try to homogenize tragedy, try to shuffle it into the past, pack it away and make it a lesson. NO! Let it change you. When you cut yourself, you scar. You are forever changed. But we fight internal scarring. We fight letting it change us. Lean into it.”
Shabby and I are reading a book about human anatomy. We’re learning about how the jugular vein connects with the subclavian vein at the junction of the neck and thorax, when a pounding on our door startles us. Shabby runs off and I open the door. Teri walks in without a word and looks around the apartment. Her face shifts from anger to sympathy when she takes in the room. She leans over the garbage and draws a hand up over her mouth when she sees the rotting mice.
“Good god, Jenny. What’s happened?”
I hesitate. Teri approaches like she’s going to touch my face, but I step back.
“Jenny, look at yourself.”
I look down at my hands with the fingernails sharpened to points, at my black sweatpants clumped with cat fur.
I start to say, “I got a cat,” but Teri interrupts.
“You need to stop sending me these pictures,” she says. She holds her phone up to my face and pages through the pictures that have been getting texted to me every night.
“I didn’t send those,” I say. “Those were sent to me.”
“They’re from your number,” she says as she pages through dead birds, gutted squirrels, raccoons bleeding out through their mouths. “I mean, what the hell is this?”
I look closely. “That’s an opossum.”
“I know it’s an opossum. It’s a dead opossum with its tail and head cut off. Why are you texting this to me?”
Actually, the head and tail were bitten off, but I don’t tell her this.
“I didn’t know…” I say.
“What’s going on with your teeth?”
I scrape my tongue across my incisors and canines. “I’ve sharpened them.”
“Why? With what?”
“To help me bite. I used a metal file.”
“This is unbelievable,” Teri says as she tracks through spilled cat litter over to the fridge and opens the door. “I see you’re eating meat now. Jesus.”
The fridge is filled with beef livers and tripe, 75% ground beef, round steak, chicken necks.
“You know what? I don’t even know what to do anymore. Give me the phone back.”
“What? Give me the goddamn phone back, Jenny,” she says.
I step forward and peel my lips back so she can get a better look at my teeth. “No!”
“You’re crazy,” she says. “You’ve lost your mind. Fine, keep the phone and call me when you come back from around the bend, you crazy bitch!”
The sun slipped away, and the ceiling’s been glowing red for hours. I haven’t eaten all day, and I’m ready to hunt. Shabby and I go out the back exit of the apartment building where she tiptoes around a puddle and jumps toward a little brown mouse that quickly scurries under a dumpster. We slink on between office buildings and restaurants. We elude streetlights, glide past the post office and pass unseen through Pig’s Eye Park. We walk through dark patches of forests, little shrugs of wildlife that survived urban development, down along the muddy waters of the Mississippi, until we get to a suburban neighborhood of 1970s cookie-cutter houses.
Driveways line the street like teeth on a zipper, but we stay off the street. We walk between houses, through backyards, through the cold, blood-tinged air. An owl perched on a high branch yells into the moonlight, waits for an unknowing mouse to scurry across the frosty grass. I squat and piss behind a fishing boat shrink-wrapped in black plastic behind a single-car garage. The piss steam rises to my nose. I pull up my pants and jump a chain-linked fence into another backyard.
Three trees and not a leaf on the grass this late in the fall. A wooden swing set with a yellow plastic slide and a climbing wall sits in the back corner near a small shed painted the exact same green as the house. Beside the detached garage, a dead garden pokes up from behind red landscaping stones. Shabby and I lean over a bird bath in the middle of the garden and drink, both of us thirsty after the long journey. The garage begins to vibrate, and a pair of headlights turns our attention to the driveway.
Shabby and I slink behind the garage as a pickup truck pulls in. The engine dies. The door slams. The garage shakes again as the garage door closes and the silhouette of a man walks toward the front of the house. Shabby and I follow him. We get closer until we can smell alcohol and deodorant. He’s wearing a flannel shirt and some sort of utility work jeans. Shabby and I close in, our footsteps soft as water, until we can see the black hairs poking out from his baseball cap. And we pounce.
The man jumps and fights as I dig my nails into his neck. Shabby latches onto his leg and we all fall to the ground. He bites me between my thumb and forefinger. My hand screams out in pain, but my heart screams louder. Shabby climbs up to his stomach and digs her nails in. The man flips me onto my back and looks down at me, squinting, genuinely frightened. I reach beside me and grab a red landscaping paver and bring it to his temple with all my energy. The man falls unconscious across my chest.
The man breathes fast, shallow breaths. Blood pours down his eyelids, where Shabby laps it up. I roll him to his back and bite down on his jugular. Blood arches into the crisp air and the warmth steams my face. I bite down again and drink one, two, three mouthfuls. When I look up, my reflection stares back from the bay window. The bottom half of my face is painted red with blood. My eyes are two giant pupils. My hair is stringy and matted. My reflection fades and I see a round-faced boy, about eight years old, staring out the window, trying to make sense of what he’s seeing. Trying to understand if he’s awake or dreaming that this cat-monster is eating his father on his own front lawn. Perhaps the same lawn where he learned to throw a baseball. Perhaps the same lawn his big brother, now dead, played army with him.
Shabby and I slink away. We go back through Pig’s Eye Park and behind the post office and through the alleyways, and back to the apartment where the ceiling still glows red. We lick our paws and wipe them on our faces.
Clack! A mousetrap goes off. Scratch, scratch, silence.
‘What’s happened to me,’ he thought. It was no dream.
Lean into it.
I take out a picture of Isaac and me.
This one is us rocking on the porch swing, dressed in our nicest clothes. My arm is around him and his head rests on my shoulder. What you can’t see is that we had just come from his father’s funeral and that the funeral was closed casket. You can’t see that I had just promised my son that we would get through this. That I would never let anything bad happen to him. That I love him. That he is my world now.
DING da ding ding DING. Another text. Another picture. This picture is Logan Marlow’s father lying dead on his front lawn with a hole in his throat. Below it: I’m still hungry.
Jacob Wrich is a playwright and short story writer. He is the author of the short fiction collection, The Prodigals. He lives and works in Minnesota.