The Cats Came Back by Sarah James

“What should we do today?” Lucy asked.

“I don’t know. What did we do yesterday?” the old woman responded.

“We watched television. You ate applesauce.”

“Did we?”

“We did.”

“What did we watch?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

The old woman kicked under the afghan. “It does matter. I’m asking, so it matters.”

The list of what they had watched was long. The old woman had sat in front of the maple-encased box for most of her awake time and a fair amount of her asleep time. Lucy did not feel like reciting such a very long list.

“We didn’t watch anything,” Lucy said.

“Oh,” said the old woman sadly. “That’s a shame.”

They were silent for a while. Lucy did not like silence. It reminded her of all the things that were not being said.

“Should we watch TV today?” Lucy said.

Lucy did not wait for an answer. She needed the noise, the confidence of a game show host. The answer was irrelevant, anyway. The old woman often did not know if she wanted something until she was faced with it.

“Why are my feet cold?”

“You’ve kicked your afghan off.” Lucy adjusted the afghan to cover the old woman’s toes.

“I suppose I must have done that because my feet were hot.”

It was not that long ago – August, or September, maybe – that Lucy would have scolded the old woman for the way she fussed and kicked. “Don’t kick off your afghan,” she would have said in September. “Then your feet will be cold, and you’ll be unhappy about it.” By October, Lucy realized this was a waste. Although scolding served to disrupt the silence, it upset the old woman and upset Lucy. All a waste. It was better to adjust the afghan and move on.

They watched a confident man with perfectly parted hair tell contestants to spin a wheel.

“Lucy, you should kill me,” said the old woman.

Lucy did not let her eyes leave the screen. “How would I do it?”

“Have you got a bit of string? You could strangle me.”

“I haven’t got a bit of string.”

“You could smother me with a pillow.” Lucy did not respond, and the old woman sighed. “But you won’t.”

“I can’t. We’ve got things to do today.”

The old woman laughed.

“We do,” Lucy insisted. “We just haven’t decided what they are yet.”

The old woman just laughed again.

Lucy’s cheeks felt flushed, so she closed her eyes. Her eyelids felt nice, warm against her pupils. Her pupils were ice against her lids. She imagined snowflakes forming in that cool-warm place, patterns crystallizing, cooling everything.

Maybe she should do what was suggested. For what were they waiting, for what were they watching?

The thoughts did not last. Lucy knew the answers.

The cats came back. Lucy could hear them mewing at the door. It was time for breakfast.

The two gray tabbies were partners in crime. They scurried around the neighborhood, always together. To Lucy’s door they came twice a day, for breakfast and for dinner, always mewing. Lucy liked them. They were never silent.

“Hello, tabbies,” Lucy said, opening the door. The tabbies bolted inside.

“What are these?” asked the old woman. Sometimes now, the old woman did not remember the tabbies from visit to visit.

“These are the tabbies,” said Lucy.

The old woman laughed as the tabbies cavorted around the furniture, chasing one another under rugs and over shelves. “Why do they run like that?”

“Because they’re hungry,” Lucy answered. “Are you hungry?”

“No,” said the old woman.

Lucy gave her applesauce anyway. The old woman often did not know if she wanted something until she was faced with it. She lived in the moment that way. Lucy gave the cats food and the old woman applesauce and everybody ate what they were given. The tabbies disappeared after licking their plates clean. They had other places to be, other families to entertain for a moment in exchange for scraps of food. Lucy watched them leapfrog each other down the deserted street. They would return at desk.

A different game was on TV, a different host, but the same perfectly parted hair. Lucy imagined being on TV, spinning a giant wheel and answering a question.

“For what are you waiting?” the host would ask her.

“For the thing that will make it better, and then I will be glad I waited for it.”

“Correct!” the host would say. “And for what are you watching?”

“To fill the time until the thing gets here.”

“Correct again!” The host would be impressed with her confidence, and she would be rewarded with a new car.

A moan from the old woman shook Lucy from her reverie. Lucy looked over to see the old woman was crying. “Why are you crying?” Lucy asked.

“Because it would be better if I were dead,” the old woman responded.

“Why do you say things like that?” Lucy could feel her cheeks growing warm again. She tried to remember to breathe deeply, like she had been told to do when she felt her cheeks grow warm. “Why? Is it not enough to be with me?”

“There’s nothing to do,” the old woman whined.

“There’s television to watch,” Lucy scolded.

“And then what? Then what happens?” Unlike the tabbies, the old woman did not always live entirely in the moment.

“Then you get better,” said Lucy. “One day, you and I will get better.”

The old woman was silent.

Dusk fell, and the TV lit the room blue. Cheery game shows gave way to grim murder dramas the same way daylight gave way to long shadows.

“Why are my feet cold?” the old woman asked, several times.

Several times, Lucy responded: “You’ve kicked off your afghan again.”

And several times, the old woman said: “I suppose I must have done that because my feet were cold.”

And many times, Lucy breathed, and did not scold her.

The cats came back. Lucy heard them mewing. She let them inside so they could tumble about.

“What are these?” asked the old woman.

“These are the tabbies,” said Lucy.

“No, they’re not.”

“Yes, they are.”

“No,” the old woman insisted. “These are different cats than were here this morning.”

“Of course these are the same cats,” Lucy said. She looked at the tabbies, expecting to find them tumbling too fast to examine them closely. Instead, the tabbies were sitting still, and quiet, and looking up at her, all yellow eyes and whiskers.

“These cats have never seen us before in their lives,” insisted the old woman.

And Lucy looked, and Lucy noticed. Had their stripes always been so dull? Hadn’t their eyes been greener that morning? Didn’t this one have a slightly shorter tail, didn’t that one have a pink nose, didn’t both have ears a little bigger –

“No,” said Lucy. “Two tabbies come here every day, for breakfast and dinner. Here are two tabbies, and it is time for dinner. These are the two tabbies who come every night for dinner.”

“That’s just slippery,” said the old woman. “Why are my feet so cold?”

“What’s more slippery, me or you?” Lucy was warm again. “How likely is it that two tabbies would show up at our door at the exact time two different tabbies usually show up?”

On television, a handsome man with perfectly distressed hair was questioning the suspect in a murder. The old woman fell silent. The cats still looked at Lucy.

“Well, I’m feeding them,” Lucy said. “I’m feeding them regardless if they’re the same tabbies or different.”

Lucy put food out for the cats, but the cats did not seem hungry. They ate, as cats do, but not as quickly, and they left bites on their plates.

“I’m glad the cats were different today,” said the old woman. “It gave us something to talk about.”

And Lucy nodded.

“For what are you waiting?” said the TV detective. He looked out from the screen and directly at Lucy. His hair was not parted. He did not want Lucy to win this game.

Suddenly, they were in a room with a table. A single solitary lamp swung from above them, illuminating their faces like the moon. The tabletop was cold, as if it had spent time outside in October.

“For the thing that will make it better,” Lucy began, but the TV detective did not like this answer. He clucked his tongue and paced.

“Let me ask you again.” Shirtsleeves rolled, he leaned towards her. “For what are you waiting?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted, tears streaming over from her eyelids. “I don’t know.”

“And for what are you watching?”

“We’re not,” choked Lucy. “We don’t absorb what we see, let it enter and exit us. We’re not watching. We’re letting light and sound bounce off our bodies, we carry no signals.”

“You should kill me,” said the old woman, and the dream dissolved around Lucy.

“I can’t,” Lucy replied. “You’re all I have.”

###

Sarah James

 Sarah James has written for The-Toast.net and TheNeapolitanOnline.com. She is a graduate of the Fordham University playwriting program. She lives in Chicago and blogs at sarahjameswrite.wordpress.com.

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