Nothing had knocked the water bottle over. Katrina was rolled on her side, staring in the direction of her nightstand and fighting to fall asleep (which only seems to drive sleep away, but what else was she supposed to do?) when the bottle threw itself off the edge. The cap was unscrewed and the last bit of water drained out, sitting on the surface of the carpet slowly sinking in before she could register the bottle had fallen over. Katrina squinted against the color dark room a bit too sleep-struck to care before she drifted to sleep wishing for a warm weight on her chest.
The next morning, with one hand wrapped around a mug of tea and the other fighting the toaster, Katrina tried very hard not to stare at the cat tree by her couch. It had been a week and she hadn’t been able to part with it yet. Or the cat toys. Or the collar, the food bowl, and the kitten formula she always kept stowed away. Even the little box occupying key real-estate in her cramped bathroom had been awarded free rent. Donation wasn’t an option. They had withstood one too many foster cats: seniors, strays hit by cars, cats with kitty colds, mothers unable to nurse and their bottle-fed darlings. Bagel was the latest and last, she’d told herself, and with his passing, her home was reduced to a population of one.
Katrina was blowing a steam cloud off her tea when something warm and wiry brushed against her bare legs. Without a second thought, she leaned down, arm extended and fingers fanned out. Instead of colliding with fur, her hand continued downward, like the foot-drop surprise when expecting another step on the staircase, until it hit cold, tile floor. What was she doing? A week, she reminded herself. Bagel had been dead for a week. Never mind the feeling of fur against her legs. It was just a phantom comfort born from grief and the loss of many mornings when that sensation had been a part of her everyday, wonderful mornings.
An empty bed waited Katrina after work, and with it, another sleep-elusive night. She didn’t remember when she finally fell asleep, but she definitely remembered waking up. Thump. Pause. Then the determined patter of steps across the hallway carpet. Another thump at the end of the hallway. Pause. Then the sound of steps charging her door again.
Intruder? No, the steps sounded far too small, even for a child. Katrina eased out of bed and into her slippers. Had she left the bathroom window open? A raccoon could have snuck in. The thumping continued. She gripped the doorknob gently as a light-bulb, turned, and waited. The footsteps rushed towards her door, and she held her breath. As soon as they swiveled the other direction, she slowly creaked the door open.
Nothing. The hallway was empty. Katrina shut the door and sat on the edge of her bed with her hands tucked under her arms. Nothing had brushed against her legs this morning and nothing had knocked her water bottle off the nightstand yesterday. Now, nothing was running down her hallway about the same way, about the same time Bagel used to. In fact, it was the exact same time Bagel used to: the red letters of her alarm clock blared, “3:00.” She stood up to close her door, but decided to leave it open the rest of the night in case something wandered in.
The connection wasn’t lost on Katrina and the next morning, she cracked open a can of Bagel’s favorite cat food. She made a show about digging the can opener out of the drawer and cranked the handle slowly like a drum roll for the main performance. Bagel recognized all of those sounds. He’d come puttering down the hall, all entitled and indignant until he’d plop by his bowl and yowl. Sometimes, she’d even take longer because she loved when he’d stand up on his hind legs pawing at her. A few minutes passed. Then an hour. The caned food sat in the bowl getting warm. She threw it out once it stank up her kitchen knowing fully well the smell would sit overnight in the garbage can, postponing the inevitable.
She woke up that night to a cat on her chest. Instead of snapping her eyes open, she squeezed them shut. Bagel was dead. She knew that. But Bagel was also sitting on her chest the way he had so many times before. So long as she didn’t open her eyes, she could believe he was completely, fully alive instead of the between state he was phasing through.
She reached up gingerly, expecting her hand to pass through like it had in the kitchen. But when her fingers ran through his wiry hair, she choked back a sob. He wasn’t completely solid: when she pressed in to ruffle up his sides, her hands would sink too far and his form would begin to fizzle. So she confined herself to stroking his fur and for a while, it was as if she had never lost her kitty boy. He purred contently, feet tucked under his chest, and the rumble rocked the sleep into her. That’s what she had been missing these past few days: not just the cat but all that came with him.
Relaxation nestled in until she forgot about the miracle of the moment. Her eyes cracked open and two round, kitty eyes stared back. There was an ephemeral quality to his fur, like he was a projection of the real Bagel, but his eyes were just as full as they’d always been. Still, it was nerve-racking and she sucked in a breath. That did it. Bagel pounced off the side of the bed and darted to the doorway. Katrina shot up. Should’ve shut the door. The cat looked back at her, as if checking her attention, before shooting down the hallway.
Katrina blew past her slippers and comfy robe, and took off down the hallway. “Bagel!” she yelled completely aware of its futility yet unable to stop herself regardless.
Death must have unleashed some primal ability because Bagel had never moved faster. He darted towards the front door only increasing his speed. Just as he was about to ram nose first into the wood, he passed through unencumbered. Katrina was hot on his trail. She ripped her door open, followed Bagel down the apartment hallway, the two flights of stairs, and out the lobby door. Still, Bagel ran like he was on a mission. In just a t-shirt and shorts, Katrina chased her ghost cat across the sidewalk and alongside the apartment building, and just when she was out of breath, Bagel stopped in front of a dumpster.
Huffing, Katrina patted her thighs and called to him with a strained voice. He responded by meowing adamantly and pawing under the dumpster. She clicked, she begged, she pstpstpst, but he ignored her. It had been a long, awful week and Katrina was cold. She was tired. She was angry. Completely fed up in ways entirely new to her, she reached out. Bagel leaped through the dumpster, phasing through its filthy, rusted sides.
He was gone. Really gone. She knew it was final this time around. She puffed as the last bit of adrenaline wore off. Her cheeks went red as disappointment crashed into her eyes hard as the icy air.
Just as Katrina turned, she heard the unmistakable squeak of a newborn kitten. She got on all fours, head against the pavement, and peered under the dumpster. It’s head wobbled as its small limbs fumbled in the dark for its mother. Katrina scooped up the newborn and held its shivering form against her chest. With a sigh, the kitten snuggled into her. A little boy. She glanced around for its mother, but the blue tint of his nose and wet, dirty fur convinced her she wasn’t coming back. This was her kitten now. Bagel had told her so.
Once the fed kitten had settled into its makeshift nest (a cardboard box complete with a heating pad), Katrina set an alarm three hours out. Exhaustion sunk in as soon as her head hit the pillow, and she maybe she imagined it, but she felt a warm weight on her chest and a sweet rumble purring as she drifted off to sleep.