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, when the bottle threw itself off. The cap was unscrewed and the last bit of spilled water sat on the surface of the carpet, slowly sinking in before her mind could register what happened. Katrina squinted against the dark, fuzzy room too sleep-struck to care until she drifted off 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. A week had passed but she couldn’t part with it. Or the cat toys. Or the collar, the food bowl, the kitten formula she stowed away in the back closet. Even the litter box occupying key real-estate in her cramped apartment bathroom had been awarded free rent. Donation wasn’t an option. They had withstood 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 promised 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 wiry brushed against her bare legs. Without a second thought, she leaned down, arm straight and fingers fanned out. But instead of colliding with fur, her hand continued downward and hit the cold kitchen-tile. What was she doing? A week, she reminded herself. Bagel was gone. Never mind the feeling of fur against her legs. It was just a phantom comfort born from the loss of many mornings when that sensation had been a part of her everyday, wonderful routine.
An empty bed waited Katrina after work, and with it, a second 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 towards her door.
Intruder? No, the steps sounded too small, even for a child. Katrina eased out of bed and into her slippers. Had she left the bathroom window open? She lived on the third story, but maybe a raccoon had snuck in. The thumping continued. She gripped the doorknob as gently as a light-bulb, turned, and waited. The footsteps rushed towards her door. She sucked in her lips as the thing on the other side lurched to a halt. Was it dangerous? Would it claw her eyes out? As soon as the thumping swiveled the other direction, she snapped the door open.
Nothing. The hallway was empty. Katrina 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. The exact same time, in fact: the red letters of her alarm clock blared, “3:00 AM.” She stood up to close her door, but decided to leave it open in case nothing wandered in.
The conspiracies argued in her head throughout work and the next evening, she cracked open a can of Bagel’s favorite cat food. She made a show of digging out the can opener and cranking the handle slow like a drum roll. Bagel knew those sounds. Dinner time, he used to strut down the hall, plop by his bowl and yowl. If anything could draw him out, it was this. A few minutes passed. Then an hour. The surface of the pate puck had lost its glisten and the smell of warm cat food was now etched into her tile grout. With a sniffle, Katrina smacked the bowl against the inside wall of her garbage can until its contents flopped into the grocery bag liner. She knew the salmon pate would fester underneath the kitchen sink as she slept, but she was too disappointed to care. She left her door open, regardless.
That night, Katrina woke to a cat on her chest. She wanted to flick her eyes open, she wanted so badly to see Bagel’s white belly and pink nose, but she didn’t want to scare him off. Bagel was dead. She knew that. But at the same time, Bagel was there. So long as she kept her eyes closed, she could pretend everything was as it should be.
Gingerly, she reached up, expecting her hand to pass through like it had in the kitchen, but when her fingers tangled in fur, a sob caught in her throat. He wasn’t entirely solid: when she pressed in to ruffle up his sides, her hands would sink in, like pressing into static, so she stuck to the bridge of his forehead. 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.
Gooey bliss nestled in until she forgot about the miracle of the moment, and she opened her eyes. There was an ephemeral quality to Bagel, like he was the byproduct of a silver-screen projection, but his pupils were sharp as glass. As soon as their eyes locked, Bagel shot off the bed to the doorway. Katrina jumped up. Should’ve shut the door. The cat looked back at her, as if checking her reaction, before barreling down the hallway.
Katrina blew past her slippers and comfy robe. “Bagel!” she yelled. Death must have unleashed some primal quality because the chunky cat had never moved faster. He darted towards the front door, velocity building like a turbo jet. Just as he would have rammed nose-first into its wooden surface, he flew straight through. Katrina was hot on his trail in only a t-shirt and shorts. She ripped open her door, tore down the apartment hallway, two flights of stairs, and out the lobby door. Katrina chased her ghost cat across the sidewalk and alongside the apartment building, and just when she doubled over, coughing, Bagel crouched in front of a dumpster.
“Bagel!” she forced out. Her throat was a cheese grater and the teeth were going the wrong way. She clicked, she begged, she pstpstpst, as she crept up behind him, but Bagel ignored her, pawing adamantly under the dumpster. Fed up, desperate, she reached out to grab Bagel by the scruff, but he sprung forward and his fizzled, wiry frame faded into rusted walls.
He was gone. Truly gone. As Katrina turned to slink away, the unmistakable squeak of a newborn kitten made her stop. She got on all fours, head sideways against the pavement, and peered under the dumpster. There, fumbling for comfort, a kitten’s head wobbled. Katrina scooped up the newborn, held its shivering form against her chest and 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 it’s cold, wet paws told her this was her kitten now. It’s what Bagel wanted.
A few hours later, the kitten was plump-bellied and curled up on a heating pad in a cardboard box. Katrina set an alarm three hours out for feeding time. Exhaustion sunk in as soon as her head hit the pillow, and maybe she imagined it, but as she fell asleep, she felt a sweet, rumbling purr and a warm weight on her chest.