The Undecided by Darren Whitehouse

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The suicide bomber stood next to me on the tube. My day got worse from there.

Maybe my tuxedo represented the worst excesses of Western civilisation and I was therefore a symbolic person to die first. Perhaps he thought I was a rich banker creaming in millions in commissions from the derivatives market. In truth, the tuxedo was hired because I couldn’t afford to buy one and rather than being a coke-snorting London banker, I am (was) an underperforming bed salesman from Crewe.

I would have told him this, had he asked. I would have explained that I was on the way to the Bedlam! annual sales awards, where I planned to down as much free booze as possible whilst ogling Melissa’s (from Accounts Payable) cleavage, before watching Dave, from the Swindon branch, take Salesman of the Year for the fourth year running.

I didn´t tell him because he detonated his bomb fifteen inches from my nuts. I was atomised instantly, along with any chance of getting my gums around Melissa’s boobs. My DNA was smeared across two carriages, several tube maps and, ironically, a poster advertising male wellbeing vitamins.

It doesn’t hurt when you die, at least not in the ´stubbing your toe´ sense. In comparison, being blown up is like a paper cut, at worst.

The best way I can describe it is this: imagine you are a helium balloon, being held by a child. That child is life, always anchoring you but you are always trying to fly away, curious and ever pulling upward. Now, imagine the child lets go and you are no longer tethered. That feeling of acceleration is immense as a new sense of freedom courses through your body. You can see more than you’ve ever seen before, the sheer scale of the universe.

Then you realise that you quite liked the security of being tethered and the wave of exhilaration is replaced by fear as you watch the child getting smaller. You realise you have no control over your direction.  Then, you just pop.

The afterlife is, I’ll admit, a little fucking underwhelming. Whilst I never really went for cherubic angels and pearly gates, I did harbour a faint hope of something better than where I now find myself.

I’m sat in some sort of hospital waiting room but without the coughing and the tired, murderous looking junior doctors.  The walls are covered with wood chip wallpaper and posters of a bearded man with blinding white veneers, complete with photo-shopped sparkles, grinning and pointing toward the camera.

The text underneath reads, “Jesus wants You!” Horrific lift music is being piped in through a speaker that I can’t see.

The room is busy, but no one seems to be in any pain, including myself. I’m still wearing my tuxedo and seem to be in one piece with no obvious bits of metal sticking out of me or blobs of other people stuck to me. A quick fondler in the trouser pocket of the tuxedo tells me my nuts are still in place.

There are a couple of familiar faces from the tube. I recall a young Chinese couple who were watching something on his phone and giggling at each other when the bomb went off. I only see him now, and he looks lost without his phone.

I consider for a moment that I might not be dead and miraculously survived the blast. Then I see a man walk toward me wearing jeans and an Iron Maiden t-shirt. Actually, walk is the wrong word. He glides and as I look at his feet I see why.

He doesn’t have any.

Instead he has a couple of stumps – but these are not like Viet-fuckin’-nam stumps as if there were once feet there suddenly removed by a landmine. No, these stumps look like the feet were never there. He has feet like an upside-down skittle. 

That’s not even the strangest thing about him; he has a four-inch hole in his forehead and as he glides over to me I see right through his head to a smiling Jesus poster on the other side. He sees me looking at his hole.

“Gunshot. Self-inflicted. I was having a bad day.”

“I know what you mean,” I say, unable to take my eyes from where his frontal lobe should be.

“Where am I?” I ask.

He makes a note on his clipboard and smiles. “Well, the good news is, not in Hell.”

“Well that’s a relief.”

“But you aren’t in Heaven either.”

The muzak pipes over the tannoy and I´m actually relived. “So…where am I?”

“You’re in purgatory,” he says, before picking at the fringes of a loose flap of skin on the hole in his head.  “God, it’s so itchy.

Suddenly, a majestic and celestial voice booms over the tannoy, filling not just the room but my head. “It’s your own fault for pulling the trigger. And don’t blaspheme me.”

Iron Maiden boy looks up to the polystyrene tiled and strip-lighted ceiling and mouths Sorry before turning back to me and offers his hand. “I’m Alan. I’ll be your case worker.”

Now, I’ve never been dead before but I remember well as a twelve year old, stood at my Grandmother’s open casket and not being able to resist the temptation to prod her face gently. I think I wanted to check she was dead, or whether she would simply turn her head toward me, give me a toothless smile and say, “Hello love, gis your Nanna a nithe kith.” Instead she just lays there whilst I gently prodded at her cheek. Her clammy and doughy skin felt very much like Alan’s hand.

A naked, middle-aged man with damp hair stands at the reception desk and is directed to one of the plastic chairs. He shuffles over, dripping water on to the faded lino and sits down. I watch him as he starts scratching at his saggy balls, which appear to be sticking to the plastic. He looks confused.

Alan sees me looking at him and checks his clipboard. “Shower. Heart attack. Always confuses them. They take a long time to adjust. It’s the sudden change, you see? Five minutes ago he was cracking one off in the shower. He’s a straightforward case though.”

“Straightforward?”

“He’ll be going down.” Alan flips through his clipboard. “Let’s see. Oh yeah, he worked for a charity that helped child victims of war and removed land mines from Angola. I mean, he was guaranteed a place in Heaven, until he started stealing the donations to fund his prostitution habit. Such a shame. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.”

“Or the head!” The majestic voice laughs over the tannoy.

Alan ignores the quip.

“If it’s so straightforward, why is he here?” I ask, not unreasonably, and now starting to wonder what Alan might have on me.

Alan smiles. “It’s just my opinion, having read the file. Sorry, I should have explained. The people here are what we call The Undecided.”

“The Undecided?”

“Yeah. See most people, when they die, there’s a fairly obvious destination.” Alan signals to the ceiling and then the floor with his pencil.

“So I’m Undecided?” I ask, naively as it turns out.

“No,” Alan laughs, before pointing at one of the Jesus posters, but He is. Everyone gets a case worker here. I’m yours.”

Suddenly, Melissa from accounts’ cleavage feels a long way away. “I’m dead though, right?”

“As a doornail.”

“No going ba-“

“I’m not a time machine. You should have gotten a different tube. By the way, I thought you might like to know that Dave did win Salesman of the Year and shagged Melissa in the cloakroom to celebrate.”

“You aren’t making me feel any better.”

“Sorry. I’m new to this.”

“New?”

“Yep. Died yesterday. You’re my first case.”

It’s then that I notice the small badge pinned to his Iron Maiden 1990 No Prayer on the Road Tour t-shirt. It resembles the badge a McDonald’s worker wears but instead of stars it has space for five Dove badges. Alan has none. Great, I´ve got the new boy. I slump into the chair behind me.

Saggy Balls man is approached by a smiling nubile brunette dressed in a short cocktail dress. She’s stunning, other than the rope-mark around her neck.

“Is that his case worker?” I ask

“Yeah. She’s been here a while now. Killed herself over a boyfriend in the nineties. She’s pretty isn’t she?”

I nod and decide that God doesn’t like me very much.

“Alan,” I say. “This is all a bit overwhelming. Why do I need a caseworker?”

He sits next to me. “All of the Undecided are appointed one. It is what it says on the tin really. God hasn’t decided if you’ve been good enough to share eternity with Him.”

“But that’s ridiculous,” I say. “I’m a bed salesman from Crewe. I’ve got a mortgage and I drive a Fiat. I’ve never murdered anyone.”

“Yes, we know that.”

“Bloody hell,” I continue, “the last fight I had was at thirteen!”

Alan checks his clipboard. “Neil Sanders. Yep, we made a note of that one at the time. You punched him first.”

“He stole my Gary Lineker sticker for his Panini album.”

“He did, and he got marked down for it, but he’ll be okay, he donates blood platelets every month.”

“How is that fair for Christ’s sake? I only needed Lineker and Terry Butcher for the entire album!”

The celestial voice booms out from the tannoy directly into my head. “Do not blaspheme me. It won’t help your case. Besides, our records show you were also missing Bryan Robson and Steve Hodge.”

I suddenly wish I’d kicked Neil Sanders hard in the bollocks, screaming Donate this, you Lineker-stealing shit head.

“I pray though,” I shout out at the invisible tannoy.

The tannoy responds. “Praying for a Millenium Falcon or a blow job from Samantha Lewis are not what I want filling my inbox.”

Saggy Ball man and his nubile case worker look over with disapproval. I ignore them. “Yeah, well, me and every other kid in that school would have sent the same prayer but whatever. What about my donations? I give to Cancer Research. Check it, it should be there.”

Alan doesn’t look at his clipboard but instead takes a plastic seat next to me. “Look mate. Don’t waste your energy trying to argue the point.”

“But I have a standing order.”

“Yes,” Alan says. “You donate two quid a month.” He scrolls down his clipboard. “And in the last six months of your life you told thirty nine different charity street collectors that you already had a standing order set up for their specific charity.”

I slump a little lower. “It’s been a slow year in bed sale-“

Alan holds a finger up to silence me. “In the last year alone you also walked past three hundred and eleven homeless people, contributing a grand total of fourteen pence to one beggar’s cup because you were drunk and it was snowing. However, you faked being on the phone an impressive two hundred and thirty eight times.”

My mouth moves but no words come out and Alan continues.

“In 1989, you told Alison Ramage that your Nan had died so that she would sleep with you.”

“She had died,” I protest.

“1n 1986,” Alan says.

“Factually correct though,”

“There’s a statute of limitations on these things,” Alan says, offering me a glimpse of a Jesus poster through the portal of his gunshot wound.

She was a crap shag anyway I think.

“We know,” booms the tannoy. “We were watching.”

“Christ, you can read my thoughts now?”

“Yes. And I’m listening sunshine,” booms the tannoy

“This isn’t good Alan, is it?”

He puts a friendly arm around my shoulder. “You’ve been undone by the little things,” he says. “But don’t feel bad. Look around you. This is how busy it is every day. Most people think it’s the big ticket items that make the most difference but it’s the small stuff He sweats about. He likes consistency rather than grand gestures and the thing is, you’ve been consistently underperforming.”

“A bit like your sales figures,” The celestial voice laughs over the tannoy.

I try to ignore it but end up shouting at the speaker, “It’d be nice if someone was on my side!”

“I’m on your side, Alan says. What you’ve got to realise is that for every billionaire philanthropist that suddenly decides to give a shit ton of money to Africa when they get diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer there’s a beggar sharing his Pret soup with another. Who would you rather spend eternity with?”

“So I’m stuck here?”

“No. It’s not all bad. In fact, if it was all bad, you wouldn’t be here, you’d be down there with the nail bomber that took you out, having your nuts roasted like marshmallows on a stick. I’m not even joking man, they do that. You’re teetering on the edge though.”

“And what about you?” I ask, “I mean, why are you here?”

Alan looks genuinely surprised by this. “Me? I…I’m on a trial.”

“What sort of trial?”

“Suicides are a special case,” he says. “We automatically come here, regardless of what we’ve done on Earth. I could have been the Pope but as soon as I pulled the trigger on myself, the score was reset to zero. Basically, I have to earn my way back into His good books by processing the Undecided. He really has a thing for people who waste of a life.”

“I thought you said the bomber was in Hell. Surely he should be here?”

“Murder trumps suicide. Says it on page six fifty-three of the handbook”

My shoulders sag a little. “How long are you here for?” I ask.

He taps his badge on his chest. “Until I get my Doves.”

“So you’re an Undecided as well?”

“Yep.”

A deep sob pierces the room and I realise it’s coming from Saggy Balls man who has his face buried in Cocktail Dress girls shoulder. She looks across at Alan with a sad face and draws an imaginary knife across her throat.

“Oh dear,” Alan says. “She’s just told him the bad news.”

I watch Cocktail dress girl take hold of Saggy Ball man’s hand and lead him to a door on the far side of the room. He drips shower water on to the floor behind him and leaves footprints on the floor that fade quickly.

It’s a dark green wooden door with a silver knob, shaped like a crow’s head. She knocks twice on it and it swings in-wards, revealing a burning pool of lava and a cacophony of screams, male and female. Cocktail Dress pats him on the shoulder just as a large veiny hand, bubbling under the skin with fire, reaches through the door and skewers his balls with sharp talons before yanking him through to the underworld. There is a bone-snapping scream, cut off as the door slams.

I turn to Alan and say, “We should work on my case.”

At that moment, there is a pling-plong on the tannoy and a soft, mesmerising female voice calls Alan to the blue door.

I can’t see a blue door but then realise the green door has now changed colour.

“Come on,” says Alan. “It’s your turn.”

“Fuck off,” I say, my balls retracting. “Heaven or not, there’s no way I’m going in there.”

“Don’t worry.” Alan glides over to the door. I find myself gliding right behind him, pulled by an invisible force, and it occurs to me that if I could have moved this smoothly on a dance floor in my teens, I might not have had to tell Alison Ramage my Nan had died just to get laid.

We reach the, now blue, door and Alan gives a gentle knock. Again it swings inward but rather than eternal fire and ball-grabbing talons, the door opens to a public park. We glide through.

It’s a hot summer’s day and joggers pound the pavement. Kids are stripped to their waist and splash in the stream. In the distance I can hear the retreating siren of an ice cream van and the air is filled with the smell of hot dogs.

Alan points to a wooden bench underneath the burnt orange of a Japanese maple tree. A woman is sat there. Even from thirty feet away I can see that she’s achingly beautiful.  She’s looking at me and I find her gaze the most excruciatingly painful yet exhilarating thing that’s ever happened to me. She smiles and beckons me over.

“Come on,” says Alan. “I’ll introduce you.”

We glide over the grass. Either the rest of the world can’t see me, or they think it’s perfectly normal for a man in a tuxedo to glide two feet in the air with skittles for feet.

As we approach the woman, I become utterly transfixed. She has short blond hair and high cheek bones that just encourage you to look at her eyes which change colour, flitting between pools of deep green and grey. She is wearing a halter-neck top that plunges to the valley of her breasts, which glisten in the sun with damp. My mouth is dry.

She smiles at me, and for the briefest of moments I think I am in Heaven. I think that God recognises the anguish and torment of a thirteen year old boy having his Gary Lineker sticker stolen, has let me in to Heaven and that this beautiful woman is my reward for a career dedicated to helping people sleep in top of the range orthopaedic mattresses with in-built memory gel.

Then Alan speaks with a shaky voice. “Miss Fer. You look…different.”

“Hello Alan,” she says. “You’re still on my list, in case you were wondering.”

She turns to me and says, “You can call me Lucy.”

When she speaks to me, it’s like a nest of ants have burrowed inside my head and are eating away at my brain. I keel over in agony but my gaze is drawn to her as her eyes turn to fire and visions of most unimaginable suffering and torment. Her lips part and her tongue is forked like a snake and covered in pustules which ooze yellow fluid onto the grass.

She kneels next to me. I can feel her snake tongue lapping at my ear, as she hisses “I’ve got a special place just for you.”

“Lucy. He’s not yours yet,” Alan says.

She snaps her attention to him but he stands firm, hole in his head and all. “Boss’s orders. It says so right here.” He taps his clipboard.

Lucy smiles and her tongue retracts and the deep fire in her eyes returns to a more placid green. She shrugs and retakes her seat on the bench, and she becomes again a beautiful young woman.

I vomit on the grass.

“Who are you?” I croak, wiping away sick with my tuxedo, relieved that although I might face an eternity in hell, I won’t face a dry-cleaning bill.

“Not someone you want to spend an eternity with,” says Alan.

“Alan, that’s not a very nice thing to say,” Lucy says

Alan smiles nervously at me. “This is…well…you know who this is don’t you?”

“Yes,” I say. “I think I do.”

Alan checks his clipboard. “When I said you were teetering on the edge I meant it. You really were a selfish arse as an adult and it’s only your time in the Boy Scouts and the few charity runs that you did in your twenties that’s saved you. The fact is that JC and Lucy here can’t decide which way you should go. So you get a choice.”

My heart soars. “Then I choose Heaven.”

Lucy throws back her head in laughter and the veins on her neck bulge and pulse. I realise they aren’t veins, they are worms and they are moving around inside her throat. Then the sky darkens, the children playing in the water disappear and the music from the ice cream van stops. She roars, but her voice is male and full of menace “That’s not the choice boy.”

“She’s right,” says Alan as the sky lightens and the children return to splashing in the water. Fear comes at me from all sides, like a pack of wild dogs circling a limping gazelle.

“The choice is this,” Alan says. “Either, we can flip a coin. Heads you go up. Tails you go with Lucy here. Fifty-fifty.”

“What do you say,” Lucy whispers into my ear. “Wanna take a chance on me?”

I read somewhere that a mathematician from some university had proved that a coin toss is not actually a fifty-fifty chance. That due to the embossed head there is a greater probability of landing on heads, per one thousand throws. I’m mildly encouraged by this, until I recall the image of the hand appearing from behind the green door and grabbing Saggy Balls by his saggy balls and my faith in science and probability retracts along with my testicles.

“Or you can go back for another chance,” Alan interrupts my thoughts.

“I thought you said I couldn’t go back?”

“You can’t. Not as yourself. There’s CCTV footage of you on the tube just before you blow up. Would be a bit of a tricky one to explain away.” Alan says.

I wonder if I could go back as Gary Lineker in his eighties prime.

The celestial voice booms, this time from the trunk of the maple tree. “No. You can’t.”

Alan says, “We originally had you slated for a brain tumour at fifty-three so technically, you’re twelve years early.”

“Great” I say, “I’m really glad I saved extra for my pension.”

Alan just shrugs. “It’s an aggressive brain tumour though. It’ll get you within a few weeks. If you go back, you’ll have twelve years before we see you again but you’ll have to tread carefully. Now you know what’s in store, the bar has been raised for you, so you’ll have to be extraordinarily good.”

“I can do that,” I say. “Make me a priest or something and I’ll pray every day, or maybe I could be a missionary in Africa. I’ve always wanted to travel a bit.”

“Over to you Lucy,” booms the maple tree.

Lucy smiles at me. “I choose. Call it a perk of the job. I’ll see you soon.” Suddenly I am floating upward, like a helium balloon that has been detached from its child owner. I watch Alan and Lucy get smaller before a searing pain stabs my abdomen and darkness takes me.

When I come to, my bones ache with cold and my skin itches with sores. I put my hands to my face and feel a full beard. The fire of hunger burns from within me, but I smile because I’m alive. I feel something running down my cheek and I realise it’s a tear. The only tear ever produced with equal parts happiness and fear.

I pull back the cardboard blanket that covers me and look at my feet. To my relief, they are both there again, and I wiggle the toes that stick out through my battered trainers.

Across the road is the entrance to the park and through the gates I can see Lucy and Alan sat on the park bench, watching me. Lucy waves and blows me a kiss. I give her the finger and Alan laughs. Then they are gone.

The city comes alive with commuters and for a while, I sit in awe at humanity and ignore the hunger and cold that consumes me. A few passers-by throw a few coins into my coffee cup and I mutter a few thank you’s but mostly I just people watch.

I see a face I recognise walking down the street. It’s Dave, Salesman of the Year, from the Swindon branch. He’s dressed in a good suit and looks like he’s had his greying hair dyed but it’s definitely him. He walks with the smugness of someone who nailed Melissa from Accounts in the cloakroom.

As he approaches I see him look at his phone to avoid eye contact, the same move I’d pulled hundreds of times.

He’s a few feet away when I look up and say, “Spare any loose change, Sir?”

He sneers at me and then gobs at my feet. “Get a fucking life, loser.”

He walks off and I smile but say, “Have a great day anyway. And remember, it’s the little things.”

He glances back at me with a look of confusion before smirking and walking away.

He can’t see her, but walking next to him is Lucy.

She looks back at me and winks. I smile back, shaking my head and then go back to watching strangers.

Darren Whitehouse writes short stories as a coping mechanism for the guilt he feels about the novel he is still yet to finish.  He is interested in stories that tap into the darker and less understood areas of human life but tries to do so with a pinch of humour. Most of his ideas come from browsing the news although sometimes they appear in bowls of cereal or jars of peanut butter – usually when he doesn’t have a pen handy.  He lives in Buxton, Derbyshire.

"The Last Cat," He Said by Peter Toeg

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Jacob would die in November. His pain would be controlled and he could stay at home, the doctor assured us.

First, he would experience neuropathy in his extremities and skin changes. As biological systems failed, he would endure surges in emotions and restlessness, some disorientation. Mobility would not be lost until nearly the end. Joints would swell. He would sleep more and probably experience hallucinations. Finally, the insidious disease would take his heart.

“Better to know in advance when you are going to die, right Hon?” Jacob said to me in June, on hearing the news.

I couldn’t argue. He’d lived a full life and wanted to go on his terms.

My husband chose to die without advanced treatment and extreme measures. The alternative the doctor explained was “ghastly” (my word). “It might buy you another six or eight months,” he’d said. With intense treatment, the side effects could be “devastating” (Jacob’s word). The “with treatment” timeline, however, was indeterminate.

“Can you be that precise in a diagnosis, doctor?” Jacob asked, sounding ever upbeat.

“Medicine is a science. There is a natural and predictable progression of this disease. We will be monitoring you for any changes,” he assured us.

Death seemed so orderly at the time.

***

Two years before Jacob’s diagnosis, we adopted Ellie. It had been a few months since we’d lost our previous cat, one in a string of two-dozen dogs and cats.

Ellie was Jacob’s cat.

I took the spot as the first cat person in the family, dating to our college days in Pennsylvania. I’d been raised with cats and dogs—a houseful of pets coming and leaving us.

Jacob took to our first cat, albeit with some caution that, only now, I found curious. Gus slept with us. I sometimes awoke in the night to find both Jacob and the cat awake facing each other. I never gave it much thought at the time.

We had maybe a dozen cats over our forty years together, sometimes three cats at a time. All were indoor, and many found a lap or the bed to be a resting place.

Jacob once instructed our son Tommy to, “never to stare at a cat.”

“Why?” Tommy said. He’d been rough-housing with one of our males.

“Cats see you a threat when you look into their eyes, Tommy,” replied Jacob with a little more intensity than required. “They can attack.”

Tommy said nothing.

“That’s not quite right, Hon,” I said to Jacob. “Cats in the house are not predators.”

“What’s pred-a-tor?” asked Tommy.

Regardless, we all survived and no cats cornered us when play got out of hand. OK, I recall a few swats.

Surprisingly, Jacob spent more time with our cats than I did. I’d find him in discussion with one, both on the floor in relaxed positions. Not unusual. I called it a genuine love for cats. He even selected a couple from the pound—all rescues—and took the ever-hopeful approach to train them.

“Dogs have masters. Cats have staff,” I reminded Jacob on more than one occasion.

As we aged, the burden of keeping cats took a toll: the bending and cleaning, care, and vet visits. Feline deaths were the hardest and Jacob, a man once wary of cats, became a best friend to many. A loss of any of those friends made him unable to function for a bit. Most importantly, neither of us wanted a cat to outlive us.

We ended up catless by attrition. A few months afterward, the vet called asking us to consider taking an abandoned, middle-aged Calico.  Jacob jumped at the prospect like a man desperate for a friend.

I didn’t agree with his plan. We would be sacrificing our freedom to travel. We’d worry, as in the past, about a cat in someone else’s care. I yielded, reluctantly.

Jacob lit up at the opportunity to work his charms on his furball friend. “The last cat,” he said, before we ever took Ellie home. His appeasement of me. “I promise.”

I dismissed the statement. The man was smitten by anything with four legs.

But, Jacob knew. The “last cat” would be his last cat.

***

That final summer into Fall, Jacob and I spent time reminiscing and reflecting on life’s lessons. Old memories revived, questions never asked now answered, mysteries unraveled. Animals, a topic of conversation, as always.

I knew Jacob had a dog as a youth.

“Oh, yeah. I was seven or so when Pudgie arrived as a pup. We had a lot of years together. We bonded. He slept with me and followed me as I rode my bike around town, even to school.”

“He stayed at school?” That didn’t make sense.

“By my bike. Outside. The entire day.” Jacob looked so lost in the telling. An old friend in memory. “Winter challenged my mom to keep him inside. He’d break free and find the school on his own and sleep in the snow.”

“Wow. The quintessential dog story.”

“He was the only dog in town allowed in the public library,” said Jacob proudly. “He made a fuss at the door the first time I started doing homework there. The librarians relented. They knew Pudgie.”

“But no cats in your life.”

“Nope. As a kid, I kept my distance” he said. A soft hesitation in his voice.

What an odd remark. “Kept my distance?”

Jacob looked like he’d been waiting to tell me something. That “can’t-keep-it-in” look on his face.

“Pudgie didn’t do well with cats?” I asked.

“No.” Long pause. “Actually my mother decided we would not have cats. Never, at least until my brother got older.”

Hmm? “Tell me why?” I asked.

“I was six and Mom had just given birth to my brother. I’d been begging for a cat for weeks. Something to do with a cute cat commercial. Before the ubiquitous cat videos.”

“Ah, so getting a cat at that time would be a trouble for Mom. Underfoot, breaking it in…”

Uh oh. I sensed a confession coming. All of Jacob’s facial muscles sprung into action.

“Not exactly. Cats, my mother told me, can suck the breath from a baby when he sleeps.” He didn’t smile. “Well, not all cats—and not all babies.”

“That would have set off a few alarms, I guess. For Mom. Maybe the authorities would have to reduce the domestic cat population.”

Jacob didn’t laugh. In the spinning of his story he became lost in thought—or a medication haze.

No response, followed by no basis for this fact. “My mother said I needed to know. At some point, I would have children. You know.”

I nodded. Jacob and I had Tommy. He survived. “But clearly you never took her advice?”

He looked at me as if to lighten this up, a little eye roll.  He probably saw me relax a little and smile. “But, I believed her…at first.”

“Are you telling me you know of a cat that sucked a baby’s breath?”

“Oh, no,” Jacob said quickly. “I wouldn’t accept that theory until I could prove it. Or rather, disprove it.”

I checked the clock. This discussion might end up a marathon. “And how did you prove it, or disprove it?”

He looked at me as if I had the answer. “Experimentation.”

“I see.” I didn’t.

He said nothing.

Until I could prove it No! It dawned. I stood involuntarily. “You watched Tommy while he slept? And the cat? Our child? That was the experiment?” Anger as a strange emotion in our relationship burned inside me. “Why didn’t this come up when Tommy came along? Why not tell me?

Jacob looked as though he were in physical pain. “I’m sorry, Hon. I didn’t think you’d understand.”

“You didn’t think to—“ I shook my head to maybe clear it. His disease would excuse only so much.

“This was the third year of our marriage. I plead stupidity.”

Any anger vented and I relaxed. I did not want to argue with my husband as he approached death. Tommy turned out okay. The idea of the cat behavior made no sense.

“Plea accepted.” And that ended it.

***

The waning weeks of Jacob’s life raced by. Lots of talk. Good food. Visitors. Even a few short outings.

Tommy came often.

“If only all our days could go so well,” Jacob admitted.

I agreed.

He seemed to have a firm grasp on his situation.

“I envy you, Jacob,” I said to him one rainy September day. “You’ve not given up control of your life. Others clutch wildly any means to prolong the inevitable.”

Jacob looked directly at Ellie by his side on the loveseat, one paw extended with a sonorous purr action. “We have choices and means. And with age and illness comes wisdom. Some revelation comes late in life.”

“What are talking about? Means? Wisdom? Are you keeping something from me, Hon?”

He smiled, almost playful. “No, you’ll find out in your time. That’s the way life works.”

I did a double take I felt in my neck.

I’m almost certain the cat said,“Yep,” to that.

Jacob looked so placid. Still talking to the cat. Or sitting quietly in breathing in synchrony with the beast. It had to be the meds.

Yet, the disease advanced with more symptoms, all as described by the doctor. When Jacob slept, as he did more often, I tended to affairs of the house. Jacob made many arrangements and sometimes I found myself duplicating his actions. The man never told me everything.

I loved cats. Always have. This last cat acted as aloof as any cat, but I could not bridge the gap.

When I entered the room where she slept, she invariably fled. When with Jacob, she stayed under his protective arm, but with one eye peeled. Ellie did not take to my touch. That was mildly annoying since I was the one who initiated Jacob to cats.

Sometimes she watched me. Those moments when you know you’re being watched.

***

Jacob had maybe six weeks to live according to the schedule. In October, he had lost much of his mobility as muscles weakened. We managed pain. I experienced growing weariness. Waiting for—an end.

On a sunny day late in mid-October, Jacob lay dead. He reclined on the loveseat in the sunroom. As if frozen in place. Reminiscent of a painting of a lord by some Old Master only this was my husband.

The sunlight artistically framed Jacob against a backdrop of brushes of green and fading colors through the windows. Flowers losing bloom, hanging on. Season’s end. Life’s sunset.

Only the pillow lay askew on the floor below him. Next to the cat who glared at me.

I knelt at the loveseat and took the mirror my husband used to comb his hair. When I held it at his open mouth for half a minute, no fog formed. His eyes were wide, empty.

Unbeknownst to me, Jacob had willed his body to medical science—a grandiose beneficiary—and pathologists descended on his remains in the two days after his death. Arrangements were made, and his body was transported.

They made their examinations and cuts and recorded their conclusions.

They had not expressly been looking for it, but cause of death was determined.

Afterward, a few questions remained. For some people, the cause mattered a great deal.

Asphyxiation. Not expected. His lungs and airway were clear. Other people took an interest. One, a lawyer. Technically, an inquiry was conducted, but not an investigation.

One day in early December, with snow covering leaves that Jacob would have raked, the inquiry ended.  Officially.

My son had left for Madison after a visit. Ellie and I occupied a chilled house. The noisy furnace needed attention.

This is the last cat.

I awoke that night in the light of the Long Night Moon filtering through my bedroom window. I lay flat on my back, hearing breathing, my dream blending into life. I had been running free. An animal, leaping with eyes wild. I slowed my breathing, but it was not mine I heard. The rhythmic trill continued.

I opened my lids at that instant and looked up. Just over the top of my pillow. The green eyes. Wild.

Wisdom. Ah, Jacob. The cat got it, at last.

Birthday Girl by Sharon Frame Gay

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The faces around the table are blurred. They’ve lost their hard edges, my vision deteriorating. In front of me is a cake gaily decorated in pinks and greens with enough candles to set off the sprinklers in the ceiling.

I am one hundred and four years old today; April the 11th, the time of year when spring lambs are born. I came into this world in a small town in North Carolina. Father named me Charlotte, after the city where he grew up. He said he wanted to move to the shadier side of the Carolinas, up into the Great Smoky Mountains, where you hear owls as you fall asleep and count the hills and ridges as they rise from the smoke of dawn. Over a century later, I’m still living in the same small town Daddy moved us to after he and Momma started their family.

When I married, I moved from my childhood farm to a house near Main Street, and from there to a tiny apartment above the drug store. Finally, I came to this retirement home. Not five miles away from my earliest memories it sits near these beloved hills.

To prepare for the party, I was bathed and brushed like a poodle in one of those fancy pet salons. The nurses and attendants in the facility fussed over me with lotions and hair dryers until I was exhausted. Then they stood back, smiled, and flourished a mirror. I stared long at the reflection.

Peering back was a very old woman. My face looked like one of those storage bags they sell on television, where they put a vacuum hose in it and suck all the air out. I have dark brown eyes, but they’re cloudy now, covered with overhanging lids, two tiny orbs peering out of fleshy curtains. There are skin tags and age spots scattered across my face and neck like a map of a heavily populated state. Hair, once long and thick, the color of an oak leaf in the fall, is now wispy and white, scalp shining through like a baby’s bottom.

“Thank God I still have my mind.” I burst out laughing. “That’s what they all say.” I laugh some more.

The gals give a hug then leave me in my room in a wheelchair. It’s not time for the festivities yet, they say, so here I sit, fingers laced in lap. The skin on my hands is paper-thin and fragile. I am afraid of banging them on a doorknob, or bruising them knocking against the nightstand reaching for water, so I wear soft white gloves for protection.

I’m in my best nightgown, light blue with tiny white dandelions sprinkled across it, the bodice smocked and embroidered. It’s my favorite piece of clothing, and I insist on wearing it today. On my feet are pink slippers with non slip bottoms.

I never wear shoes. I only walk to the bathroom and back. The rest of the time, I am in this wheelchair, my feet in retirement.

My daughter Esther knit a yellow shawl that I wear every day. I wrap it around my shoulders and pretend she’s here with me, though she lives three hundred miles away.

She’ll be here today, along with my son Gerald and his wife, kids and grand kids. Esther will bring her sons, too, and their wives and grand children, even a couple of great-grandchildren. Esther’s husband Roy passed away five years ago. She still has to work, well into her seventies. After retirement, she’s moving back here, to be closer to me.

I think to myself, Hurry, Esther.

Four years ago, my hundredth birthday was quite the shindig. I suppose everyone thought they would celebrate my natal day, and have a hail and farewell party all at the same time. It was something to behold. The party was in a rented hall, and over fifty people attended. There were speeches, little kids reciting poetry, live piano music, and a potluck dinner. My birthday was announced on national television. A photo of my face peered out of a Smucker’s jelly jar on the Today Show.

 Most folks don’t make it another four years, but I surprised everybody, including myself. Family and friends have dutifully gathered every April 11th and twisted paper streamers through the dining room of the facility, brought vases of peonies and jugs of lemonade and ice tea, and sang “Happy Birthday”.

While waiting for the party to begin, I glance around the room. My eyes rest on a photograph of Peter, my husband, dead so long ago I barely recognize him. I wonder if that will change in heaven. Will I walk right past him, or run into his arms?

He passed away almost forty years ago. I gaze at his face, so much younger than mine now, and try to remember what it was like to feel the bulk of him wrapped around me as we made love, recall the fights, the kisses and the laughter we had over the years. Would he still think I was pretty if he saw me now? Would he sneak his hand up my leg, a sly smile on his face, and will I slap it away, tired and weary, like I was when the kids were babies?

He went off to war decades ago then came home. We had to learn the map of each others’ body all over again. There were shy moments in the dark, his stranger’s breath on my neck, a warrior now who knew things. Things we didn’t share, because he refused to talk about the battles. It was never the same between us, but over the years things softened, grew more comfortable.

Peter was as dear to me as my next breath. The day he died I begged God to take me with him. I cried and yanked strands of hair out of my head, heart yearning. Over time I learned to talk about him the way you talked about a character in a book, fondly, but able to close the cover and move on.

Now they wheel me down the hall. There’s a singular quietness in the dining room, as though everyone is holding their breath. We push through the door, and the room energizes with children and teenagers, middle aged folks, and the other ancient ones who are on a journey in this tired old place.

They light the candles on the cake and sing right away, as though they want to make sure I live long enough to purse my lips and send weak wisps of air towards the cake. Esther steps in and helps, blowing the flickering candles out before the wax runs down into the frosting, turning it hard and inedible.

I clap my gloved hands together and make a big show of opening presents. Talcum powder that smells like another era, new slippers to replace the ones that I have just recently broken in to perfection. Bath soaps and a fresh Bible, with a white cover that looks like leather, and a rose colored book mark. There are sweet cards with bluebirds and posies. I thank one and all, flash a gummy grin and raise my Minnie Mouse hands in the air, give a thumbs up. They all laugh, hug me, then drift over to the refreshments, cheese and crackers, little sausages in puff pastry, cake for later.

One by one, I am approached by my guests. As always, after they kiss my cheek or shake my hand, they wish, “Happy Birthday,” then ask what the secret is to my longevity.

Truth be told, I have no idea. But they want to know, they are eager to know. Their faces peer at me with such yearning and hope that I set out to oblige them.

I tell the stout, sweating young man who works for the local newspaper that my secret is exercising every day and eating plenty of vegetables. I assure the spinster in the corner that it was years of living alone after Peter died and my children left home that afforded me this luxury. To the tightly wound nursing facility manager, whose very breath comes out in spirals of angst and tension, I say that a glass of wine every night is the key to survival. And once, just to see what might happen, I announced to my fellow residents that daily masturbation does wonders to loosen the body and enhance one’s longevity.

I am not sure why I ‘m still here, or what God had planned for me. I don’t know what I did to maintain my body, and give it cells and atoms that are more robust than someone else’s.

What I do know is this: I lived. I laughed and played as a child, and I grew into a woman. My heart was broken and pelted with the heartache of many storms. I got back up and tried again, and again, and again.

I held sick babies in my arms, and a dead husband in my lap, waiting to hear the squall of the ambulance. There were Little League games, weddings, Christmas trees, and funerals. Quiet, magical days drifted into one another like waves on an autumn pond.

I had friends who helped, friends who hurt. Scares. Oh, so many scares. Frights that kept me up nights, cursed my days.

And joy. The kind of joy you can only get when those frights go away and are replaced by love so magical, so sweet, that the sun pours itself into your soul.

My life is like this old nightgown, faded from many washings, but soft as a summer’s morning, yielding and cozy. I remember when it was bright and starched and filled with promise. Over time, it learned to give in, to fold without whimper, yet still cover with a sense of purpose. Every button knows my fingers, a rosary of sorts, as I twist and stroke them in my hands.

On bright days, I ask the nurse to put it on a hanger, set it on a hook outside for a few hours. It comes in smelling of sunshine and trees. I pull it over my head, bury my face in it. Remember.

I asked to be laid to rest in it. Esther shakes her head. She thinks I’m kidding. I’m not. It’s written in a letter to her, in my dresser drawer. I asked her to lay me down in blossoms of pink peonies, strewn around the coffin like a spring storm. I tell her to wash this gown, set it in the sun to dry and place it back on my body.

Until then, I look around the room, touch my collarbone with a finger, my way of getting God’s attention, and whisper, “How about next year?”

Sharon Frame Gay grew up a child of the highway, playing by the side of the road. Her work has been internationally published in anthologies and literary magazines, including: Chicken Soup For The Soul, Typehouse, Fiction on the Web, Lowestoft Chronicle, Thrice Fiction, Crannog Magazine, and others. Her work has won prizes at: Women on Writing, The Writing District, and Owl Hollow Press.  She is a Pushcart Prize nominee.  You can find her on Amazon as well as Facebook as Sharon Frame Gay-Writer. Twitter: @sharonframegay