A half dozen feral cats strut up to the sidewalk and merge with the quivering shadows of Ms. Cowet’s wooded yard, as if they were only tenuously cats at all. It’s clear that they moved from the middle of the road because they wanted to, not because Haley’s mother’s car was haltingly rolling toward them with the high beams on. She might have honked, if it weren’t late, like it always is when they return from her parents’ house in the city.
And it’s always late when Haley’s mother returns from her therapist, reeking of cigarette smoke, even though she doesn’t smoke. And it’s always late when Haley falls asleep, after hours in a darkness that starts out indistinguishable from the insides of her eyelids and by the end is almost light enough for her to read the names of the books on the wall-mounted shelf across the room from her.
The summer nights are cobbled together from rubble of shadows left by the sunsets. The days smell like earth and melt like flavored ice; Haley chases them with her tongue stuck out, even though her mother says she’ll bite it off.
Her mother turns into the driveway and Haley wonders if the cats are happy that it’s summer, or if they care. She knows better than to ask her mother, who would remind her she’s allergic and that Haley’s probably allergic too. Cats don’t seem like they care about things like who’s allergic to them and who isn’t, but whatever they were discussing in the street looked pretty serious to Haley.
They keep the windows open day and night—even when it’s raining, the drops fall down so perfectly that the house’s interior stays dry. Their house at the end of the street is the only one in the neighborhood without at least one window-mounted air conditioner. In the winter she can see through the trees to the always-fresh gash of rock from DeFrazio Sand and Gravel Company. In the summer she can hear the excavators. Her mother says that teenagers cut through their yard to get to the gravel pit, where they light firecrackers and smoke cigarette butts. Sometimes Haley collects shotgun shells from the sand.
Haley leans her cheek against her window screen to try to feel the rain, and then pulls it away. If she put too much weight on the screen and fell through, she’d have to lie on the ground, broken in a thousand places, until her mother got home from work and put her back together.
She can’t hear the rain outside, but when she covers her ears with her palms she can hear it in her hands. And either her pillow or her head is stuffed with the sound of a flying planet; she often falls asleep focusing on that sound, trying to determine if it’s steady or if it accelerates and slows down. This time she gives up and grabs a book, a surefire way to cheat the systems of time and space. It stops raining soon before her mother gets home, complaining about traffic and her shoes.
While she cooks dinner, her mother talks to Haley’s aunt on the phone and after dinner she talks to Haley’s other aunt about her conversation with the first. During dinner she excuses her exhaustion by describing her day to Haley. Haley barely listens and hardly eats any of the under-seasoned meal; her mother doesn’t notice when she grabs a Popsicle and scurries upstairs, to her mother’s room. She stares at the fireplace, waiting for it to finish its yawn, but it never does. Last spring she could hear baby birds in it, but this year it’s remained silent.
Haley spreads out on her mother’s queen-sized bed and sucks the sugar and color out of her Popsicle. In the dark she can’t tell what flavor it’s supposed to be. But she leaves the light off; if she can’t see herself, then she won’t leave behind any signs of her presence. The fireplace and the dark windows on either side of it are three black-backed cards being offered to her, and she has to pick one. She rolls off the bed and goes to the left window. Out on the street she sees twice as many cats as the night before. As they pass under the streetlight, toward Ms. Cowet’s yard, she sees the glint of collars around the necks of three.
“You left a Popsicle stick in my bed last night.”
“Sorry,” Haley says without looking up from her cereal. If she breaks her concentration, she’ll dribble milk on her chin.
“It’s a nasty habit. Leaving food around is worse than talking with your mouth full.”
“It wasn’t food, just the stick.”
“It was sticky. It had sugar on it. I don’t want ants on my bed. And you know you’re not allowed to have Popsicles during the day.”
“It wasn’t. It was after dinner.”
“You weren’t in my room after dinner! I was home. I would have noticed.”
Her mother is standing at the little table where she keeps her purse, waiting to pick it up until Haley agrees with her that the timeline is off. Haley can tell it’s Wednesday because her mother’s wearing a tee-shirt and jeans instead of the pantsuits she wears the rest of the week; on Wednesdays she does bookkeeping for a contractor friend who rides a motorcycle and gently mocks Haley’s mother with Haley when he visits.
“I kept the light off,” Haley explains.
“That’s strange, Haley. And I thought you were afraid of the dark.”
“I am,” Haley says after thinking for a moment. She wipes a drop of milk off her chin. “I’m scared of all the parts of darkness.”
“Does darkness have more than one part? I have to go. Please keep food in the kitchen, and nothing sugary before dinner. These rules are for your safety, Haley. Because I love you.”
“I know, Mom. I love you too.” She hugs her mother, who smells like make-up but doesn’t look like she’s wearing any.
“When we’re young, we create private worlds in our minds; later, we create them in our bodies.”
Haley reads two more sentences, then flips the book shut. She reopens it, almost as if to check that she hasn’t left any signs of her visitation on the page, and closes it again. Her mother bought it at the only bookstore in town. It has a box cutter gash across the cover photo of a blurry rose, and a black marker stroke across its barcode.
When Haley hears a knock on the front door, she aligns the book with the dust marks in the stack it came from and slides off her mother’s bed. As she slips silently down the stairs, she imagines that the person at the door is the woman from the bookstore. She’s wearing her store vest and name badge but the name is crossed out like the barcode. She’s here because Haley triggered the silent alarm in the book’s binding.
The stairs spit Haley out right in front of the door, and she can see that there’s no shadow on the other side of the curtain. Nonetheless, she attempts to pull the curtain aside as gradually as her hand will allow; if she can move slower than the earth does, she can be invisible. But there’s no one there, so she opens the door at normal speed to check the porch. A flyer falls from the door frame and lands between her feet. Something about a missing cat. Haley unfolds the sheet and places it on her mother’s place at the kitchen table.
She doesn’t dare return to her mother’s room, so she turns the fan on in her own and falls asleep, and wakes up to her mother pounding on the door. Haley doesn’t remember setting the chain on the door, but she accepts her mother’s lecture and explanation that this is a safe neighborhood.
“They’d probably just jump the fence. No, I mean if they built one. Just boys being boys. I know I don’t want them taking down my trees to build one. No, I don’t want that either.” Haley’s mother glances at her without removing the phone from her ear. “Turn that down a little, Haley. No. It’s just too loud for her ears. Just a little after dinner. None during the day. Yes, the officer told me about it. Although the boys were long gone by the time he got there. The foreman called them ‘terrorists.’ No, she didn’t notice anything. Of course. Yes. Haley, your aunt loves you. What? No, I’m not telling her that. Aunt Lily. Haley asked ‘which one?’”
By the time she finds the room—it’s relocated from night to night—it’s crowded with shadows purloined from throughout the house. She doesn’t know who the host is, but they always wait for her to arrive before starting the meeting. Tonight the room was where her mother’s bedroom should be. She pushes her way into the mass.
“Haley! Wake up!”
“Huh? Mom?” Haley squints at her mother waving at the foot of the bed. Her bedside light is on.
“Haley! Aunt Sue is dead!”
Her mother grabs her by the ankles.
It’s late when they return from the funeral. Haley enjoyed the sandwiches at the party at her grandparents’ afterwards, the mini kind that the supermarket sells in big plastic platters. Her mother brought childhood photos of herself and Sue and forgot to show them to anyone; she just clutched the leather photo album like a small purse and didn’t eat anything. Haley had to get her own food and the first sandwich she took was seafood salad that dripped mayonnaise onto her hand. She put it back and Aunt Sue’s boyfriend saw her do it but he smiled and he asked her if she’d read the book they gave her for her birthday and she lied that she hadn’t, because she didn’t want to talk about it. She said she was bringing her mother food, grabbed two sandwiches, and ate them in the empty parlor.
“These damn cats,” her mother says, stopping the car in the road. “And I’m starving too. That’s what happens when Lily’s in charge. When I die I want catering. Or at least something that isn’t day old.”
“I thought the sandwiches were good,” Haley says.
“You didn’t eat anything! I was worried about you. But I’ll cook something, if we can ever get to our driveway.”
“You okay Little Bun?”
“I was thinking about Auntie Sue.”
“She didn’t want us to tell you she was sick.”
“Would you tell me if you were sick?”
“I’m not sick, Bun. And Sue believed in Heaven so that’s where she is.”
“We go where we believe we’ll go?”
“That’s what I think, yes.”
“Do you believe in Heaven?”
“Not in so many words.”
“It’s just one word,” Haley says.
“That’s a saying. It means—well, I believe that we’re all a part of the universe and we return to it when we die.”
“So is Auntie Sue in Heaven or is she part of the universe?”
“Both, Little Bun. They’re just different words for the same thing.”
Haley grabs some sheets from the scrap paper drawer, and draws a few trees at the table while her mother boils ravioli. She holds it up to show her mother and sees the image on the back.
“Do you think they ever found this cat?”
Haley runs up the stairs two at a time to watch as the car pulls out of the driveway. She’s needs to see her mother off safely to her therapy session and make sure she’s actually leaving. Occasionally she turns around if she forgets her checkbook or dream journal—Haley doesn’t really understand the concept of either one. Her mother has explained that dreams are symbols of our feelings, and that we can understand our feelings better if we write them down. Haley wonders if that’s why people write books. But how could her mother not understand her feelings? She rests against the windowsill to catch her breath.
As the sun sets and the streetlight gets brighter, the cats arrive from every direction, out of the woods and off of porches, congregating in the middle of a street that it’s suddenly impossible to imagine a car ever driving down; the point where the cats gather is the only living, moving spot in as much of the neighborhood as Haley can see. She counts twenty cats before their impatient pacing makes her lose count. They’re waiting for something, and after what could be five minutes or an hour (Haley wouldn’t be surprised to see her mother’s car returning down the street, were it not clear that the darkness the road disappears into is concrete) they get their cue—they run toward Ms. Cowet’s house and out of the line of sight. Haley can see even less from the other window, and by the time she gets downstairs to the living room they’ve disappeared.
It’s only a foot tall sitting cross-legged, and its hair looks like the end of a corn on the cob, but Haley circles behind the Buddha under one of the trees in Ms. Cowet’s yard to avoid its line of sight. You never know when a sculpture may come to life. The other figures scattered around the porch are less troubling; if the stone hedgehog were to awake it would still only be a hedgehog, and run off to hide in a bush. But Buddha, Haley knows, might ask her some tough questions.
She stops in the deep shadow of the Buddha’s tree and plots her course through the yard’s spotted darkness. There are no lights on, and she’s sure that the cats must have disappeared into the back yard. She decides that staying close to the side of Ms. Cowet’s house, crawling under the windows, is the best way to the back unseen, since she knows no one is watching from her own house.
She runs from the tree to the side of the porch and stubs her toe on a stone mushroom that she quickly rights before continuing to the side of the house. She’s wearing the canvas boat shoes aunt Lily bought her when they all visited the ocean for the Fourth of July. They went to a restaurant where you killed lobsters with a metal nutcracker—or maybe they were already dead, Haley was too horrified to watch and made her mother order her a chicken salad.
Haley looks back at the street; the trees in the front yard are so dense that she can barely see the streetlight at all. And ahead of her is the back yard, open and exposed to the full moon’s light, but no cats to be seen. She crouches under the first window, then quickly under the second to look around the corner to the back of the house. A light is shining out of the basement window sunken into the garden bed. She can hear a chorus of meows coming from the open metal bulkhead past it.
One human voice rises over the cats’, though Haley can’t hear what Ms. Cowet’s saying. She doesn’t sound at all like a witch like Haley always assumed from her mother’s description; her words rise and fall kindly, confidingly, and even before Haley crawls close enough to see through the window, she knows the old woman is talking to the cats.
There’s no furniture in the basement; Ms. Cowet is sitting on the hard floor with more cats than Haley can count, climbing across her lap, cleaning themselves, cleaning each other, eating and drinking from the bowls around the floor, and meowing. Ms. Cowet is wearing a black turtleneck and black leggings. Sometimes she addresses the crowd, sometimes she addresses a single cat, and every few moments she writes in a notebook.
Haley nearly screams when a cat suddenly jumps onto the inside sill of the window she’s looking in. The cat stares at her and meows, then turns to Ms. Cowet and meows again. Ms. Cowet starts to stand and Haley jumps back from the window and runs through the darkness to her own porch. The cat that saw her is the one from the flyer. She waits just inside the door, catching her breath and waiting for a knock. But when she hears steps on the porch they’re followed soon after by the noise of her mother’s key scraping into the already unlocked door, and when she opens it she hugs Haley and chides her for unlocking it, when Haley knows perfectly well that the bolt should always be set when her mother’s out.
The next afternoon, Haley watches, paralyzed, as Ms. Cowet approaches her mother in the driveway. She wants to run downstairs and beg Ms. Cowet not to tell her mother about her trespassing; she can barely believe it happened, that Ms. Cowet was talking to those cats and they seemed to be talking back. Earlier today, the man who put out the fliers came around and left a new page advising that Kurtz had returned home the previous night and appeared unharmed.
Haley watches her mother talking to Ms. Cowet, but can’t hear a thing. Ms. Cowet doesn’t look angry, and at one point she hands Haley’s mother a small paper bag with handles made of rope. Her mother takes the bag and gestures at the house.
“Everybody says Ms. Cowet’s weird, I knew she was an artist,” Haley’s mother says, and hands Haley the bag. Inside are three paperback books by an author Haley’s never read.
“That’s her,” her mother explains. “A pseudonym. Apparently, she’s quite a successful writer. This is her summerhouse, believe it or not. I never noticed she wasn’t here the rest of the year, but then again this is the first time she’s ever talked to me either.”
“Why’d she give you these?”
“They’re for you. She said she thinks you’ll like them. I’m not so sure, but I’ll skim them.”
During dinner, her mother glances at the bag.
“I should have been an artist,” she says. “Your grandfather knew a great sculptor—you’ve seen his work at the Museum of Fine Arts. He saw some clay that I’d been playing with and said that I was a natural.”
By the end of dinner she’s forgotten about the books. Haley disappears with them to her room, and stays up all night reading the first one.
Haley knows that the cats will stop gathering when September starts to shake the leaves off the trees; the cats’ conspiracy is seasonal and the rest of the year is for playing out ambitions established in summer. Haley has only a few weeks left before school starts, and the days are once again shorter than the nights. The nights are shedding the rough texture that made their darkness feel like some earthbound relative of the sky.
She settles on the large rock in the backyard and looks toward her house with her pencil ready to draw; she sketches furiously, capturing the house as it stands right now, trying to pin down the elusive bit of forever that lives inside. And when she’s done, she folds the drawing up and puts it between two pages of the last of Ms. Cowet’s books, marking the spot she hopes to reach before it gets too dark to see the words.
Richard Charles Schaefer is a Massachusetts native living in Chattanooga, Tennessee with his wife, two children, and two cats. He recently finished his first novel and is working on a collection of short stories. His work has appeared in Lowestoft Chronicle, Furious Gazelle, Nude Bruce Review, and is scheduled to appear in the July 2019 issue of Adelaide Literary Magazine. Find him on Instagram as Counterfeitchocolatecoin.