I put all of Gracie’s things in the bottom drawer of the cheap dresser tucked away at the back of my closet. Her food bowls and laser pointer and brush now rest atop a bed of half-spent lighters, hollowed-out cigar halves, and a collection of old cell phones and chargers. The dresser is easy to ignore—but impossible to forget.
I had to get a second job to cover the thousands of dollars of debt I racked up on emergency vet visits, and regular vet visits, and the last-ditch dental operation that I hoped was the reason Gracie wasn’t eating anymore. Working all day is okay, though. Being at home just forces me to face the reality that Gracie was my last bulwark against suicide. And other things.
Her absence is like a presence, and it weaves between my legs when I walk through the front door, and it slowly blinks at me from the nest of sheets and blankets on the bed, and it’s deafening when I open a can of tuna fish. I tried to confine Gracie to the dresser, but that didn’t work. I can’t help but miss her—even when she was being naughty: clawing up the curtains, or kicking the litter out of her box, or the way she’d knock things over at 3am before sprinting through the apartment and leaping into my bed—her little heart racing with the thrill of misbehavior.
At least I’m getting a little better. Take eating, for example. At first I couldn’t eat at all, and now I can’t stop. But getting fat is (arguably) preferable to dying, so that’s an improvement. I also grow increasingly convinced—with each passing day—that I am, indeed, strong enough to resist the urge to plug in my old cell phones (again) and scroll through the contacts list until I happen upon the numbers of my old dealers. Gracie died in the early morning hours on June 6. On the seventh, I had the phones charging and I was wondering if Felix still had his same number. Probably he did. People don’t really change numbers anymore.
I told myself that I wanted to get some old, low-res pictures of Gracie off of my phones, but I couldn’t bear to look at her without being able to touch her, so back in the closet they went. Crisis averted.
I’d try them again in a couple weeks, or days. To get the pictures. Just the pictures.
I was careful with her ashes as I transferred them into her urn, trying to keep the little plumes of dust trapped in the stoneware clay. I never washed the blanket that she lay on as the vet injected her, and I saved the last clump of hair that I brushed off her the day before she died. New science feels like magic, or however that saying goes. Who knows what might be possible in a few years.
I donated her remaining food to a shelter, but I stuffed her jar of catnip into the dresser in the closet. There were lots of memories associated with the nip, and I knew that I’d want to smell it again someday and recall how big Gracie’s eyes would get as I ground the plant between my fingers—pinpricks and splinters—before sprinkling it onto a new toy. She liked it better ground up or made into a tea—a process that I’d perfected with very little experimentation. At least those years of addiction had been good for something.
Two months after Gracie died, at 3:23 a.m., I heard a clang from the kitchen and, half-awake, I smiled and waited to feel her scramble up the comforter and squirm into the space between my arm and chest. I started sleeping on my back just for her, and I still do it. I waited, but Gracie didn’t come.
The next morning, I found my keys on the kitchen floor, surrounded by little bits of stucco from the popcorn ceiling. I’d been finding bits of that stuff all over my apartment since I first moved in years ago, but I’d never before made the connection to Gracie’s witching-hour antics. As I overloaded the coffee filter, I wondered at how she’d managed to jump that high. She’d certainly been capable as a kitten, but in her elder years, her legs sometimes shook and threatened to buckle under her own (considerable) body weight.
That night, I set my keys in the same spot—on the counter separating the kitchen from the living room—and lay on the couch and waited.
But you know what they say about a watched pot.
Two weeks later, after an eighteen-hour work day, I heard my keys clatter on the kitchen linoleum. I’d been on the verge of sleep—the state in which I’m most prone to auditory hallucinations—so I didn’t get up. I had set up the pet nanny cam, and I would check the video in the morning. I wanted to see Gracie, but I also wanted to keep sleeping. She was there, too, sometimes, in dreams.
The shadow thing was tall and shaped like a person covered in a dense mane of fur, and its arms were long and they raked across the ceiling as it moved through the living room, a horrible elongated silhouette of a trapeze artist. It was almost too tall to be captured by the nanny cam’s lens, and the parts of it that were off-screen scared me more than what I could see. The shade’s legs did not move as it glided to the counter where it swatted at my keys and stood, facing my open bedroom door, its dense black form pulsing.
I didn’t come out to meet it, and it slowly dissolved, becoming one with the darkness and the night.
My heart raced as I reviewed the footage and recalled Gracie’s heavy breathing as she’d snuggle into my arms after—what I thought had been—her early morning escapades. Could it have been that this thing had been terrorizing my cat?
I strained to remember how long ago the night sounds had begun, and—once again—found my memory frustratingly inadequate. I couldn’t even remember Gracie as a young cat, only as my little old calico. That time was just gone, and she was locked into my memory as the too-fat kitty who needed help getting onto the couch and who shook and fought as the muscle relaxant coursed through her body before the final injection that would stop her heart. The night sounds had been with me my entire time in Baltimore—and probably in San Ramon, too.
I called my mother between jobs, and I could tell from her verve and praise that she was high. I didn’t care about that. I expected it. What I cared about were bumps in the night and maybe anything that she’d seen that she couldn’t chalk up to a bad trip. But that would have to wait until after a screed about my father and about how everyone in her life was just so judgmental. No one cared about her, she said, not even me.
I busied myself with some cleaning while I waited for my turn to talk.
Had she seen any of those ghost shows on TV, I asked. The ones where the production crews showed up to old houses with their incomprehensible machines and stayed the night. I’d been watching them, and they got me thinking about our old house. Hadn’t her and Dad said that it was haunted? Or that the lady who lived there before us was crazy or something?
Oh, honey, she said. It wasn’t the house that was haunted. It was her. Ever since she was little. The thing would slouch in her closet and then unfurl up the wall and loom above her mother—my grandmother—as she stood in the doorway and chastised her for screaming at night.
I had to pretend to not be too interested. When Mom was up like this, she would go on for fifteen minutes if I showed even the slightest investment in what she was saying. She’d be on to another topic soon enough in a bid to keep me on the line. I couldn’t blame her. When I’m inebriated, I’ll say anything for attention, too. So I kept quiet while she talked about broken windows, and missing money, and the thing’s presence being so stifling that she began to creep out of her window at night and get up to all sorts of trouble.
After a few more minutes, she was back to petty gossip.
I was furious with her when I hung up. Had I gotten this shadow thing from her, too? Hadn’t her stringy hair, greasy skin, and inability to say “no” been enough?
I moved my bed into the living room and waited up all night. In the morning, I covered the windows with tin foil to keep the light out. I pulled down the wall clock and set the hands to 3:23 and then pulled out the battery.
Work called when I didn’t show up, and I let it go to voicemail. My manager came knocking at my door a few hours later. He was doing a wellness check. I wasn’t well, I said. I needed to take a mental health day. We didn’t have those, he said, and then he fired me.
At least I still had the lower-paying job.
Nothing happened that night or the next.
I set the microwave timer for four minutes and let it run for thirty-seven seconds before popping the door open and leaving it. I set empty tallboy cans and bottles along the counter between the living room and kitchen. I put my keys up on a little box in the center of all the empties. I thought it looked very enticing.
Still, the thing did not come.
Until it did.
It slid out from underneath the far closet, void black and flat as it stretched up the wall and filled out—a human form but taller, long arms with silhouetted cowlicks of spiked, untamed hair all over its body. It raised its arms and sank its fingers into the popcorn ceiling, raking through the stucco as it floated across the living room—legs perfectly still.
I stood from my mattress and waited for it by the counter. The air felt colder upon its approach and smelled like burnt ozone. It stopped gliding just inches from me, reached one arm down from the ceiling, and carefully swatted the keys from atop the enticing little box, disturbing none of the cans or bottles.
It was strange to hear the sound of them hitting the floor and sliding—like hearing your alarm clock go off when you’re already awake. I closed my eyes and waited for the patter of little feet on carpet, waited for the little mmmup as Gracie would leap at the side of my bed, sink her claws into the mattress and pull herself up, waited to feel the warm little life cuddle against me and purr. But Gracie was dead, and I was not lying in my bed, I was standing in front of this shadow thing that loomed over me, its head slowly pivoting around the room—maybe looking for my little fat cat. Maybe it had lost something, too.
“She’s gone,” I said, and my voice cracked. The thing’s neck craned down toward me.
I wrapped my arms around it, and though the air surrounding the shadow thing was cold, its body was warm, and it was solid like a tree trunk.
“You’ve always been with me,” I said, and I held it tight to stop it, too, from disappearing.
Richard Cochnar’s short fiction has appeared in Coffin Bell and Déraciné. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, with his cat, Tilly.