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The Cat Next Door

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My husband, Mike, hated the cat next door, but that wasn’t surprising. My husband hated lots of things….and places….and people. We had sounded so good together, Michael and Grace. I’m sure he hated me, too, and regretted our marriage. His only pleasure seemed to be hitting me when we discussed anything. That was arguing with him. It was embarrassing for me, but no one knew. I think no one knew. I kept up my ladies’ nights-out with my old neighbors and he didn’t seem to mind that. Probably glad to get rid of me. And my friends didn’t seem to notice any of my troubles.

We had ‘discussed’ buying in this neighborhood. I said we couldn’t afford it, that he had dreams of grandeur. He hit me and I cried and curled up quiet in the corner of the couch.

Shortly after we moved in to the new house the cat showed up. He obviously lived close by, but seemed to prefer visiting us – or, at least, me. The cat would come during the day when my husband was out. He’d sit on the patio staring at the sliding screen door. He wouldn’t make any noise or moves, just sat and stared.

I don’t know anything about cats. I know the black and gray striped ones are tabby cats. That’s it. This one was almost solid black and fairly long haired, but not very long haired. He had big yellow eyes. And he’d sit there on the patio with a very self-possessed attitude. A little arrogant, but I may have made that part up.

I used to like Ancient History in college and got pretty involved in the archeology of the Egyptian civilizations. Cats, it seemed, were important to the Egyptians. They showed up in hieroglyphics, etchings and artifacts from tombs and the like. And there was that giant cat-like Sphinx. How that fit in with the other cats, I don’t know. I never gave those cats much thought except to note in the illustrations that they were highly stylized, all very similar, all shown in places of honor as if they were even gods or royalty or wielded some kind of power. They didn’t look anything like tabbies or the cat next door. So, they remained unexplained and kind of mysterious to me.

One day I slid the screen door open. Spring was in the air, some leaves unfolding on trees and plant shoots peeking out of the flower beds. I left it open and went back inside. The cat sat there for a few minutes and then came to the open door and looked in. His head craning around checking out the room. His attitude didn’t change, but he came in and started to explore. I tried to figure out his attitude, but it was very neutral, maybe, even haughty. That’s how my relationship with the cat next door started.

He came most days but every week or two would disappear for a few days. I started calling him No-Name, but decided he needed a better name than that. While I tried to pick out or make up a name, I realized I didn’t even know if he was a he. I don’t know how to tell a cat’s sex. I thought Dominic was a good name for a long haired, black cat, but shortened it to Nick, then, Nic. Finally, exasperated, I tired of fussing over Nick or Nic and named him both. He or she was named Nix.

As time passed Nix seemed to relax more around me and around these new surroundings. He even came closer when I took a break after my housework was done. Sometimes I’d stretch out on the couch and look at the patio and garden through the double glass doors. There was a chipmunk that scooted across once in awhile. Birds were chirping and flitting around the bushes and trees. Nix would even jump up and cuddle next to me and purr when I absently petted him. Or her. The other animals didn’t excite him. Nix wouldn’t be dissuaded from his own life.

Nix even had a time to leave and go home. A little before Mike was due home Nix would go to the screen door and wait for me to let him out. And off he’d go.

One day Mike came home early and caught Nix on the couch with me.

"What the hell is that cat doing in here?" Mike yelled and Nix backed away to the end of the couch, his eyes wide and staring at Mike.

"He’s just visi…."

"I don’t want any goddam cat messing up my house!" He walked over to me and stuck his nose right in my face. "What did I tell you about that cat!" His hand shot out and slapped a stinging blow across my cheek. "Huh? What did I say?" He slapped me again on the other cheek and I started to cry. "You’ll have something to cry about when I skin that cat!" He launched a kick at Nix on the arm of the couch. Nix’s back curved up and he hissed, his mouth open wide and mean teeth showing. It sounded almost like a growl when he jumped to the floor and dodged around avoiding Mike’s kicks. Mike yanked open the screen door and Nix darted past, escaped out onto the patio, and was gone. But there was no escape for me. It wasn’t a good night.

Nix didn’t come back again until after it happened. One of my friends drove us for our ladies’ night out. It was a beautiful late spring night that we spent on the boardwalk for one place. And in a bar for another. I was a little tipsy when she dropped me off at my house. Maybe a little more than just tipsy. But I was okay to see my way. The moon was a brilliant full one that lit the flagstone walk all the way to the door. Just the hugely bright moon, but no night birds. No night other sounds at all. Total silence.

Until I opened the front door. The television voices were talking. I checked myself in the hall mirror, took a deep breath and concentrated on my balance. I walked into the room, was stunned and frozen in my tracks with the television voices yakking in my ears. The screen door was open, but the screen was gone, just shreds around the frame. I don’t remember clearly what else happened. I ran through the house calling for Mike, I think I screamed. I was afraid. Somehow the police came and took control. I don’t remember calling them. They even left the television babbling for their forensic people. A plainclothes cop tried to talk to me about what happened, gave up and tried to just calm me down.

A few months have passed and Mike is gone. No trace of him, alive or dead. I discovered that I secretly liked it better that way. Except the chill I’d get thinking of him showing up uninvited one day. The plainclothes detective said the case would stay open and under investigation until they find the answers. His name is Matthew Bond and he’s quite easy to talk to. He came back almost everyday after Mike’s disappearance and chatted with me, but was studying the screen door each time.

"What do you want to know about that door, Detective Bond?"

"I can’t figure out why it’s that way." He shook his head and smiled a little.

"Like what way?"

He went to the door and pointed to the shreds sticking out of the frame. "Well, these shreds around the top are almost all bent into the room. Like someone smashed his way in. And the ones down here are bent out like something was dragged out of the house over them."

"So where does that take you?’

"Nowhere. At least not yet. It doesn’t make a story I want to tell you, Mrs. Young."

"If it makes any kind of a story, tell me, Detective."

"No, ma’am."

"Tell me." My words were a command. "Look, my husband and I were not exactly a holding hands couple."

"Well, Mrs. Young, right now it looks like someone really big came in through the screen and someone or something got dragged out. But we haven’t found the screen or any telltale marks outside. Nothing on the patio, no steps or drag marks in the dirt off the patio. It’s as if nothing touched the ground out there. We’ve searched the area thoroughly and nothing there either. We’ve covered Mr. Young’s background and he wasn’t very well liked, but nothing that would come to violence."

Detective Bond came back twice more to study the screen, then, gave me permission to get it repaired. That was about ten days after Mike disappeared and I was starting to settle down and even hope for what I shouldn’t hope for. While the repairman fitted the door with a new screen, I was surprised to see Nix sitting quietly on the edge of the patio watching him. I hadn’t seen him – her – since days before it happened.  The workman finished the screen, demonstrated how smoothly it worked again and I signed his work order. He left and I went to the screen and slip it open.

Nix stuck his head in, craning his neck checking out the work and looking around the room. He crossed the threshold and he was back. Our acquaintance resumed and his routine was the same. He came in the afternoon and left a little before dark, but he seemed more relaxed. I was getting more relaxed, too, as time went by.

Detective Bond rang the bell every once in a while and that acquaintance resumed, too. He stopped talking about Mike and talked to me about me. He was pleasant company and I liked his visits. The visits were supposed to be casual 'I was in the area' ones, but I didn't care. Detective Bond became Matthew, Matt, and Mrs. Young became Grace. Nix accepted him and allowed him to scratch his neck a little, just a little. On one of his visits Matt suggested we go out to dinner. 'No big deal', maybe, pizza or Friendly's, so we could see if we liked each other in new surroundings. Matt had this nice easy way of talking. I think he had been working some psychology on me because I felt no guilt at all about accepting. I was delighted to say yes.

And it was a gorgeous summer day to feel so good. Enough with work. I went to the couch, puffed up the pillows and stretched luxuriously as I lay down where I could see the garden and listen to the birds. Nix hopped up on my lap, lay down and shifted a bit to get where he wanted to be. He was facing me and tucked his paws under his body. He was a still, shiny ball of black fur staring at me steadily with those big yellow eyes. I wondered what was in his mind behind those eyes. He reminded me of the Egyptian cats forever frozen in their tombs and hieroglyphics. Royalty, gods, mystics, or maybe just Egyptian cats to chase Egyptian mice. I wondered why Nix never left his black hair all over my white jeans or the couch or all aver the place.

I stared back into Nix's eyes, but didn't get any message back from him. He blinked once slowly and broke my concentration. Whatever was going on behind those big yellow eyes, Nix was keeping secret.

#

Patric Quinn

 

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