“Janie, will you please eat something? Please? Maybe later, okay? Are you comfortable? Would you like a blanket? You look cold, Janie. Are you cold? Do you need a blanket?”
“No, thank you,” she replied softly, wrapping her arms around her legs.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, Adam, I’m sure.”
He kissed the top of her head, and although she smiled, she didn’t look up. She simply smoothed her hair and squeezed her legs tighter.
“I’m going to the store for some cigarettes. Need anything?”
“No, thank you.”
“Okay. I shouldn’t be gone long.”
Adam bent down to kiss her again, but when she preemptively started to fix her hair, he backed off with a sigh. He headed out the door without another word, and as he drove to the store, his thoughts throttled the backs of his eyes. There was so much pain in thinking about his dear, fragile wife. She was so distant, so tortured, and he felt absolutely powerless to help her. It wrenched his heart to pieces to watch her shrink away from his touch. He wanted so badly to hold her, to console her, to make her understand that these things just happen.
Children die all the time.He still hadn’t cried. What difference would that have made? His son would still be dead, and he would have spent even more money on tissues. Men keep it together. Men keep it quiet. He knew it wasn’t the healthiest way to get through, but he didn’t know any other way. He had to be strong for Janie—someone had to. She was so fragile. Someone had to be her barracks.
He had known death before, but not close death. Not death that had ripped so sizable a chunk out of his soul. But the emptiness in Janie’s soul was larger, deeper. He could live with the hole in him; maybe not happily, but he could survive. Janie couldn’t. So, he held it together. Even when those violent surges of remembering whispered “you have no son” and threatened to knock out his knees and send him, sobbing, to the floor, he found a wall to collapse against, and occasionally, to create a hole of his own in the plaster. He knew Janie would need more time than him, but the longer it took, the angrier he became. He couldn’t explain it and he didn’t want it, but he couldn’t bring himself to grin his way through the sickening knots of rage in his gut. He tried his best, but the harder he tried, the worse she seemed to get. She became more and more withdrawn, and beyond his rage, Adam really began to fear for her. He was afraid that if he gave her space, she might become accustomed to loving solitude more than she loved him. He believed that isolation would only sustain her grief. She needed to go out, to participate in life again, and then, maybe when the time was right, they could try to have another baby. Tyler could never be replaced, but another baby could be good for them. In time, she could be happy again. She could get on with her life.
“With our life,” he sighed as he pulled up to Cozy’s Corner Store.
He pushed open the door and the brass bell above his head signaled his arrival, abruptly waking the elderly clerk dozing on the counter. He snorted and blinked dazedly, and as Adam strolled in, he began smoothing his clothes and hair with scores of apologies.
“No worries, Mikey. It’s not like I’m the President or anything.”
“Store policy states that we treat everyone like the President. How do you do, Adam? It’s been a while.”
“Oh, you know. It’s Janie. She’s just so…well you know,” Adam replied as he ran his hand through his astonishing crop of orange hair.
“Doing any better?”
“Doesn’t seem like it. She just sits around all day looking out the window. She doesn’t speak. She hardly eats. Frankly, I’m at a loss.”
“Things’ll turn around, I’m certain of it. When my Ellie passed, I was quiet for a time too. Try not to worry so much,” Mikey replied, and when he smiled, the deep crow’s feet beside his eyes actually gave him a youthful glimmer. “Now, what can I do for you?”
“Cigarettes, please. Two packs,” he said and handed over his money.
“Out of ten dollars? Ten cents is your change, and there you go. Is there anything else I can get for you? Anything for Janie?”
“No thanks. I’m afraid you don’t sell what she needs,” Adam murmured.
Just then, he felt something tugging at his pant leg. He looked down to see a black kitten pawing at his cuff, looking up at him with large emerald eyes and a permanent grin.
“Hello there, little guy,” Adam warbled as he reached down and plucked the kitten from the floor. “Who’s this little rascal?”
“Just some stray. He’s been hanging around for a couple of months now, just wandering in and out. I don’t mind though; never does no harm.”
Adam cradled the kitten in his arms, stroking its head and scratching beneath its chin as a joyful purr vibrated against his fingers.
“Well, he seems to have taken a likin’ to you.”
“It appears so,” Adam said. His brow crinkled when he noticed the kitten’s unusual coloration. “Well, that’s strange, isn’t it? He’s all black except for this one small patch of white on his side. You see? I’ve never seen that before on a cat, only one little spot of white.”
“Hey! I think I have a solution to your problem with Janie,” Mikey chirped. “When Ellie passed, I got ol’ Oscar, my bloodhound, and he’s been the best friend a guy could have. Pets are like that, you know. You can talk to them about whatever you want and they never judge you. Maybe you’d like to take the cat home? Maybe Janie would warm up to it and get back to her old self again.”
“Yeah, that’s a good idea, but…I don’t know,” Adam said.
As he patted the kitten’s head, its ears flattened in anticipation of his touch. Its eyes disappeared to slits and its smile lengthened in delight.
“Come on, son. What harm could it do?”
“I suppose you’re right. It’s worth a shot anyway. Alright, I’ll take the cat with me. Thanks, Mikey.”
“No problem. You give Janie my best, y’hear? You tell her I miss her face ‘round here. And as for you, little kitty,” Mikey started, pointing at the wide-eyed feline, “Don’t you go causing any trouble for these folks.”
The cat tilted its head to the side and blinked slowly as if to say “I understand”.
“Thanks again, Mikey,” Adam said as he walked out with the kitten curled up in his arms.
When he got home, Janie was still crunched up in her recliner, staring out the window. She didn’t even turn to acknowledge his presence.
“Sweetheart, I have a present for you,” Adam cooed.
“What is it?” she asked stiffly.
He placed the kitten in her lap, and for a moment, both Janie and the cat seemed frozen by one another’s curious stares.
“That’s strange. He seemed very personable before.”
When she shakily reached out, the kitten stretched to meet her hand. After bumping his head against her fingers, he began to knead her legs. It was as if Janie, who had been made of ice, suddenly felt the warmth of a long-forgotten sun. Her face and body softened with a gasp, and with the kitten cradled in her arms, she planted thankful kisses on its cheeks.
“Oh, my baby! Oh, my sweet baby boy! Where have you been?” she exclaimed with her face buried in soft black fur.
“Tyler! Tyler! My baby! My sweet baby boy!” she cried with tears rolling over the kitten’s fur in beaded streams.
“Janie, no!” Adam said as he snatched the cat away from her. “This isn’t Tyler, honey. This is a cat. Do you understand? It’s just a cat. It’s not Tyler.”
“No, Adam! Please, give him back to me! Give me my baby. Please! Tyler wants his mommy!” she shouted, arms outstretched and fingers wriggling to reach the kitten.
“Janie, this is not Tyler!”
“But the white patch! He has a white patch, a birthmark, just like Tyler had in his hair. One white spot in all that black. The cat has it too! Please, Adam, you have to believe me. It’s my baby! He’s come back to me!”
Janie jumped out of the chair, ripped the cat out of Adam’s hands, and retreated to the corner where she stood, cowering and clutching her Tyler returned.
“That is not Tyler, Janie! Please don’t tell me you really believe what you’re saying.”
“You never believed in him.”
“This is so messed up, Janie. This is…I thought this would help.”
“It has! It really has! Thank you, Adam. Thank you for bringing him back to us,” she said.
“There is no bringing him back. Our son was hit by a car, Janie. Our son is dead.”
“No, no, no, Adam. You know this is Tyler. You must know,” she sobbed. “Tyler, my poor baby Tyler. You mustn’t blame your daddy for being skeptical. He doesn’t know you the way I know you. I know you’re my son. I know it. I know it! Come on, Tyler. Let’s get you some food.”
Janie set the kitten on the floor and he immediately began circling her legs, mewing and purring and tugging at her pants.
“You must be starving. Come on, Tyler. Chowtime,” Janie said and as she walked merrily into the kitchen, Tyler trotted just as merrily at her heels.
“That’s not Tyler, Janie!” Adam growled as he slumped down into the recliner and massaged his temples.
“Keep your voice down. You’re going to give him a complex.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sakes, Janie!”
“Sshhh! He’s trying to enjoy his meal.”
Adam was at a loss. Catatonic or raving, his wife still seemed helpless, or at least unwilling to accept the help he wanted to give. That night, Tyler was set up in his old room, and Janie stayed awake for hours, reading stories and singing lullabies while she rocked him to sleep. Meanwhile, Adam sat in the master bedroom, chain-smoking and listening to his wife’s madness.
“Everything’s like it was when you left. Everything’s the same,” she sang. “You’ll never leave me again, will you, baby?”
“I think I liked it better when she was quiet all the time,” he murmured, exhaling the smoke loudly to drown out the lunacy.
Over the next couple of weeks, there was never a moment when Janie and the cat were apart, except for the five minutes when Tyler ran out an open door and towards the road. Janie caught him at the curb and carried him, yowling, back into the house.
“No, Tyler! Not out there! Not again! No, I won’t let you leave me again!” she sobbed. When Adam tried to console her, she slapped him away. “You think I’m crazy, don’t you? I’m not crazy! My baby needs me and I need him! I need him, not you! Don’t touch me, Adam! I can feel your judgment when you touch me!”
Wounded by her words and enraged that her delusional love for the cat overpowered her love for him, Adam decided it was his husbandly duty to intervene. Sometimes people recognize when they’re on the brink; sometimes not. Adam recognized it immediately, but he still allowed himself to topple over the edge. All he had to do was wait for Janie to feel comfortable enough to allow distance between her and the cat. It took time, but eventually, Janie could shower without Tyler locked in the bathroom with her. Instead, he slept just outside of the door. Occasionally, she grew paranoid enough that she would jump out mid-shower to make sure his body was still huddled against the crack between door and carpet. It was a kink in Adam’s plan but one he could sidestep. One morning while she was in the shower, he made his move. He couldn’t deny the sense beating at the back of his brain, begging him to stop, but it was firmly locked behind grief turned madness. As it turned out, he and Janie had more in common than he’d originally thought.
Paranoia plucked Janie from the shower, but she discovered Tyler’s body was in its usual place against the door. Something seemed off, though. He was there, but when she tried to open the door, he didn’t budge. She whistled and called his name, but there was no response. Her pulse accelerated to a panicked flutter that, with one final push, peaked painfully in her chest at seeing the pile of black socks balled up against the door. She screamed Tyler’s name as she threw on her robe, but dashing past the bedroom window, she caught a glimpse of something strange: Adam was outside, walking toward the highway that ran behind their house. That was strange enough, but even stranger was the bundle he carried in his arms. She saw the blanket first and what it was wrapped around second, and her scream rang out third. Adam turned and saw her standing in the window with tear-stained cheeks, shaking her head pleadingly. He shook his head too, and though it was more apologetic than pleading, there was a pride in him that dried her tears with the furious heat that flared in her cheeks. She tore through the house like a bat out of hell, screeching and clawing at the air as if it could pull her forward even faster. Adam stood on the edge of the highway with the cars and trucks zipping by only mere feet away. He outstretched his arms and held the dangling kitten out as if in sacrifice.
“Adam, no! Please, don’t! Don’t hurt my baby!” Janie shrieked as she ran toward him.
“It’s not your baby, Janie. It’s not our baby,” he replied calmly. When she came to a panting stop, he whipped around and met her tearful gaze. “Don’t you understand, Janie? It’s just a cat.”
“No, Adam. Please, no!”
“This is for your own good, Janie. You’re sick. You need help,” he said, facing the road again. “Why won’t you let me help you? I love you so much. I just want to help you. I want to make you better again so we can start over. I want that so much, Janie. I want to be a family again.”
“We can be, Adam. Just give Tyler to me. Everything can be like it was,” she pleaded with open arms.
“No it can’t. Not until this cat is gone. After he’s gone, you can start getting healthy again. We can move on. We can forget all about this, forget about Tyler…”
“No! You’ll never make me forget!” she screeched. “I will never give him up! He’s mine, now and forever, and if you don’t give him to me, you’ll regret it. Just do the right thing and give him to me.”
“I can’t do that, Janie,” he sighed.
He grasped Tyler by the scruff of his neck, and as he held him aloft, a low growl rumbled in the kitten’s throat.
“Say goodbye to insanity, Janie.”
When she screamed her dead son’s name, the kitten twisted in Adam’s hand and swiped at his arm. The claw dug into his wrist and tore the skin so deeply that the cut immediately began to weep blood and itch like mad. Tyler fell, landing on all fours and promptly running to Janie, but Adam also recovered quickly and took off after him.
“No! You leave my baby alone, Adam!” Janie cried.
She charged at him, hurling her body against his and sending him staggering backwards onto the highway. He shook his head in bewilderment, giving no notice to the frenzied squeals of tires bearing down on him. In the last second before impact, Adam screamed, but it was soon silenced. Although Janie’s stifled sob was the echo to the madness, she was soon silenced as well by the small meow that seemed to say, “It’s over now, Momma. Let’s go home.”
The world went crazy for a while. There were flowers and plenty of food. There were mood-boosting cards and ones that would have made her feel even worse if Tyler wasn’t so good at kneading her into a smile. She was sad to lose Adam, but not for long. Just a few months later, she emerged from her mourning den and greeted the day with no more grief. She made her way down to Cozy’s Corner Store, nodding happily to each person who passed and Tyler skipping at her heels.
“Hello, Mikey!” she sang as she burst through the door.
“Well, Ms. Janie! Don’t you look lovely today! Get your hair done?”
“Oh no. Just trying something new.”
“What can I get for you?”
“Well, I’m going to need milk, lots of milk, and five cans of tuna fish. No, better make it ten cans,” she replied.
“Ten cans? Hostin’ a luncheon?”
“Oh no, it’s not for me.” She pointed down at Tyler, who mewed as he circled her legs.
“Well, hello there! You’re gonna eat ten cans of tuna, little fella?” Mikey cooed.
“Oh goodness, no! It’s not all for him. We actually have a new addition to the family. I just found him today. He came all the way back. Just like Tyler did. Just like I knew he would.”
Janie stepped aside, and there, cowering behind her legs, stood a large tabby with astonishing orange fur.
“Thanks for everything, Mikey. Have a wonderful day,” she said. As she danced joyfully out the door, she called for her new family to follow. “Come along, Tyler. You too, Adam.”
Jessica McHugh is a novelist, poet, and internationally produced playwright running amok in the fields of horror, sci-fi, young adult, and wherever else her peculiar mind leads. She’s had nineteen books published in seven years, including her bizarro romp, “The Green Kangaroos,” her Post Mortem Press bestseller, “Rabbits in the Garden,” and her edgy YA series, “The Darla Decker Diaries.” More information on her published and forthcoming fiction can be found at her website.