There was a tremble in the old woman’s voice over the phone. She told me her grandson had found Mother’s cat from one of my flyers. My sick grandson, she said in a way that made us both pause.
“A white cat with one blue eye,” I said.
“Yes,” the old woman said. “This is your cat.”
The cat had been one of the only things left after my aunts backed a U-Haul up the driveway to my mother’s house. They did this six weeks ago while everyone else was distracted, attending Mother’s funeral. They took the antiques, the furniture, and photographs. They even took the self-portraits my mother had painted in the last couple of years—images of a woman with large brown eyes and a bowl haircut posed with a cat. And though my aunts had left the bell and record collections, the cat was the thing that Mother had cared most about. She let the cat eat from her plate, let it sleep in her bed, carried it around like it was a baby. She asked the cat each day if it knew how much it was loved.
The first time I heard Mother say I love you to the cat, I thought she was talking to me. My mother and I were not affectionate and didn’t say such things to each other, so I was surprised. I turned, poised to say that I loved her back, loved her very much in fact, but then I saw she was talking to the cat. I felt like someone hit me in the stomach.
She said, “Have you ever seen anything so precious?”
I said nothing.
Since no one else wanted the cat, I took it home with me to my apartment where it slept on a blanket on the couch. I set out dry cat food, which it did not eat, and I tried to pet it, but it hissed and swatted at me. It had lost so much weight that the skin on its stomach was loose. It vomited in my shoes.
I did not tell the old woman that the cat may have run away on purpose. Instead, I asked if the cat she found answered to the name Annie.
“Mmmhmm,” the old woman said, then called out “Annie” not bothering to move the phone from her mouth. “Ah, here we are. What a pretty kitty you are, Annie.” I could hear the woman smile because her mouth made a moist clicking sound when she stretched her lips.
I gave directions to the abandoned Lion’s Choice off Mamie Street and the I-49 frontage road. She told me she knew it, and when I arrived, she was already there in a large grey Cadillac with key marks down both sides in a coiling grape vine pattern.
The old woman and the boy sat on the hood. The child’s head was large and bald and translucent. He held a bundle in a wool blanket that he clutched to his chest.
“The flyer said there would be a reward” the old woman said, her voice trembling. She looked me up and down, staring at my baggy jeans and stained shirt. My hair was greasy, stuck to my scalp. I hadn’t showered in a couple of days, hadn’t showered regularly in the six weeks since my mother had died.
“Sure,” I said. “Let me see the cat.”
The old woman and the child did not move. “It’s a real nice cat,” the boy said. “It slept with me last night.”
That’s right,” the old woman said. “A real sweetie.”
“The cat used to sleep with my mother,” I said. “She trained it to sleep on its back with its head on a pillow. It was sort of cute.”
“That’s really something,” the old woman said. “Trained it, huh?”
I nodded. “I don’t know how you train a cat, but she did.”
The child smiled at me and began to stroke the bundle. “I bet she did it with fish. Kitties love fish.”
“You think so?” the old woman asked and made a goofy, fish face for the child, her eyes wide, cheeks sucked in. He laughed.
“Can I see the cat?” I said. Though I was standing a good ten feet away, I raised both arms as if to take the animal from the boy. The old woman and the child stopped laughing.
“Well, sure,” she said and jerked her head at the child. “You can certainly see your cat.”
The boy slid off the car, frowned hard at my pocket, and glared into my face. “My reward.”
“He’s saving up for a trip to Disney World,” the old woman called. She shifted her position on the car so that both of her feet dangled over the fender. “He picks up cans from the side of the road to recycle, you know. Between treatments.”
“The cat,” I said. I tried to take the bundle from him while he held it awkwardly with one arm, but he had a grip around a leg.
“The reward,” he said again. The bundle shifted, the boy with his hands on what seemed to be the cat’s front legs, and me with an arm around the torso. The kid was stronger than I anticipated, and I could only grasp the blanket and pull. The cat yowled, freed itself, and I saw that instead of Annie, it was a long-haired calico with a missing ear. It floated for a minute as it looked between the boy and me and then ran up my neck, using my chin as a springboard. It arced over the child’s naked scalp and bounded over the parking lot in three great leaps—its tail stiff and abnormally long—before vanishing under a fence. The old woman, the child, and I stared at the place where the cat disappeared, and on the other side of the fence a dog barked once and fell silent as dogs farther down the street started barking as well.
The child was the first to move. He folded the blanket into a perfect square. “I saw your cat,” he said without looking at me. With his head bent, I traced the path of a single, large vein as it curved around his ears. “It was smashed flat in the highway. You should have taken better care of it.”
“Michael,” the old woman said. She was on her feet with her hand held out to him. When the boy clasped her fingers, she turned over his little fist over and kissed it. Then she led him around the Cadillac and helped him in.
“He doesn’t realize what he’s saying,” she said to me as she pulled a pair of sunglasses from her pocket. They were large and stylish and covered most of her face. The old woman’s voice shook again, and she tried to smile. “I hope you find your mother’s cat.”
“Did he really see the cat?” I asked.
She opened the car door as if she hadn’t heard me.
“Did he see the cat?”
The old woman was sitting now. She looked up at me in the space between the door and the car’s roof. “Probably not. He’s a kid, you know. He’s sick.”
“Where might he have seen it?” I said. I put my hand on her door so she wouldn’t close it.
The old woman frowned and looked back towards Mamie Street. “Over there,” she said, gesturing with her hand. “If it was anywhere, it was over there.”
I looked down the street as cars flashed past. I imagined the cat, its tail spinning as it prepared to cross the intersection, decided to look for Mother on the other side. I envisioned a car driven by a teenager bounce once, speed on. I imagined having to tell my mother that her cat had died. She’d wince as if someone had punched her in the stomach. How might she have reacted had she heard something happened to me? Would she have cried out or stood silent as I did when I learned Mother was dead?
“Ok then,” the old woman said. She smiled at my hand still clasping her door. “I think we’re done here.”
“Wait.” I reached into my pocket and pulled out the sweaty five dollar bill I had brought as a reward. I tried to straighten it, but it was too old and moist. “Here,” I said.
The old woman stared at me, and all I could see was my reflection in her glasses. She took the bill. “Well, bless your heart,” she said. She handed it to the child who grabbed it, sniffed it, and put it in an envelope so thick with other bills that the flap wouldn’t close.
“Thank you,” the old woman said as she closed the door and started the engine. She didn’t look at me as she skidded out of the parking lot.
I watched them merge onto the highway and coast through an intersection, and then I walked down Mamie Street, squinting against the sunlight for a glimpse of white fur. I walked past the light at Hardy and back toward the hospital and Wal-Mart, but I didn’t see anything that looked like Annie. At least, I thought she had made it this far. I decided to put up more flyers.
Michelle Nichols has been published in a wide variety of journals, including Bitter Oleander, descant, The Distillery, Flycatcher, Louisiana Literature, Pank, Story South, and Texas Review. She earned a Ph.D. from the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers, and she lives in rural West Texas with two dogs and cat.