Thinking of a Cat
Copyright © 2013 by Michael Litzky
Sally was ready now to be a killing machine, but there was nothing to do.
In several places the defenders had to fall back, pushing people behind them, because they were outside the invisible boundaries of the plaza. But as soon as they reached that line, the vampires were stopped, as if pressed against invisible glass. The human corridor to the hotel had been abandoned. A 20-foot gap, thick with milling vampires, separated the crowd from that haven.
Malcolm, still speaking into his headset, walked off of the stage, into the middle of the plaza, and sat down in the midst of stunned people. Charity, still shaking, saw his tall frame fold itself gently to the ground, saw hands reach out to touch him. She found herself hating him, sitting there, getting loved up. Her own hands were bloody where she’d bitten them to keep from screaming. Some of these people were alive because of her.
Malcolm Donald was sick with complicated guilt as he talked calmly. His amplified voice stroked the crowd. He talked about setting up his office in a tent here, he joked with the crowd about making appointments to see him. Privately he worried about whether the Board of Supervisors and the Police Department would let him live out here. But he pushed those doubts away, fearing that if he doubted, these people were all dead.
Sally prowled the edges of the plaza, moving, moving. Outside the white faces whispered and cajoled, like always. The mounds of bodies were outside the boundaries of the plaza; she supposed city workers would clear them away in the morning. People were starting to sing and chant again. Some were spreading sleeping bags, some were talking.
Suddenly she stopped. Maybe if she’d been fighting for her life she could have kept going. But now she simply sank to the ground, sat with her back against a concrete wall. She wasn’t quite numb, she was aware of the pain she felt, but she couldn’t focus enough to let it in or out. All she felt was hunger for Lavinia’s strong arms around her. The desire to nestle her face against Lavinia’s chest was a physical ache. She wrapped her arms around herself.
She heard Lavinia’s words to her in the middle of some of the hottest sex she’d ever had, just three weeks ago: “Open yourself, baby. Not just here—” where her fingers were “—here.” Lavinia’s hand on her heart. Like her hands had been on Lavinia’s heart just, just a few…
Tears flowed down her cheeks. She put her face in her hands and wept. It felt like a knife was cutting through her chest. She still felt Lavinia’s hand on her heart, something only one lover had ever done before. But for that guy (was his name Todd?) it had been part of the New Age Woo Woo in which he wrapped a one night stand and he had never returned her calls.
Lavinia had coaxed her out as their relationship evolved. “Look in my eyes, babe. Don’t look anywhere else.” Fingers stroking her inside. “Open to me. Risk everything. It’s worth it. Come on, come on.” She had opened to Lavinia, she had risked everything, or started to. And she had lost. Even her last words from Lavinia were meaningless nonsense.
And yet they echoed somewhere deep in her subconscious; she’d heard something like them before. Fly time her robin? She was too tired and sad to puzzle out something which was probably just nonsense anyway.
She looked up at the people around her. They all looked away quickly except a man with red hair and gentle green eyes who looked like he wanted to comfort her. He was clearly partnered with the grey-haired man with the chubby friendly face, so he probably wouldn’t demand anything. The old bristly, lonely pre-Lavinia Sally Yan would have glared at him and maybe even flipped him off. But now she actually thought about asking him to hold her. He reminded her of someone comforting, though she couldn’t imagine who. Her mother, a nonentity in her father’s shadow, had almost never given her any comfort. Anyway, it wasn’t just touch she wanted, it was Lavinia’s touch.
Jesse Casselberger was a natural giver. He knew the crying woman wanted to be held and knew he wasn’t the one she wanted to hold her. He raised a heartfelt eyebrow at Walter. Walter shook his head. They busied themselves preparing a nest with sleeping bags and blankets.
Malcolm’s voice still soothed the crowd, urged people to get some sleep. “Defenders will take shifts watching you in the night. Nothing will get into this home and we’ll be on the lookout for the real danger: pickpockets.” Laughter.
Soon enough, Sally thought, she’d be completely alone. She’d have to drive the camper they’d come to San Francisco in. She’d even have to sleep in the bed she and Lavinia had shared. She didn’t have any other home to go back to. They’d both sublet their apartments after leaving their day jobs to travel in their moving home. She could get hers back eventually, but not now. She’d be sleeping in the old green camper alone for many nights.
The anguish of that made her open her eyes and call out, “Hey, uh, what’s-your-name?” She had meant just “hey you,” but Jesse answered by telling her his name.
“Actually, I, um,” she started. What she wanted was for the gentle male couple to hold her between them without demanding anything from her. But when it actually came to asking, she flushed and shook her head.
But some people have natural empathy. Jesse caught Walter’s eye and the two of them left their nest, walked over to the wall and sat down, one on either side of her. At the unquestioning love and support, she felt fresh tears gushing. Several men in the crowd cast envious glances at the gay couple, wishing they’d asked the attractive young woman if she needed help. Mercifully, Sally didn’t see their hungry looks. Jesse put a tentative hand on her shoulder but when Sally cringed just the smallest amount, he took his hand away instantly.
Every time Sally thought she was cried empty, she’d hear again Lavinia’s sad voice lamenting their lost home and speaking words which might have been just delirium. Through it all, Walter and Jesse sat quietly beside her. When she finally fell asleep, Jesse glared at the person to his right until she moved, then Walter brought over their sleeping bags and they cuddled up with each other, but not touching Sally because she hadn’t asked.
Charity Claire was shivering with her arms wrapped around her knees when a thought came to her from right out of that horrible night a year ago. If I right now said to the vampires, “Welcome, come in,” we’d all be dead. She started, as if she’d run into a wall of razor blades. How precarious their safety was! If anybody in the crowd welcomed the vampires in, they were all dead. She jerked to her feet and darted glances here and there.
She felt like she was hiding a murder weapon. She couldn’t share this with anybody for fear of planting the idea in the wrong mind. She was the loneliest woman on earth, surrounded by people who all seemed to be coupled up (or tripled or quadrupled), many recovering from the shock at sunset by having quiet or noisy sex inside sleeping bags and makeshift shelters. But not little Charity with her stupid Puritan first name and her stupid full name that sounded like “chocolate éclair” and her mousy nerdy good looks and her deadly secret. Just as she had protected the crowd by bloodying her own hands to keep herself from screaming, just as she had never told anyone what happened a year ago, now she prowled alone, exhausted, looking shyly into faces and then quickly down again, dreading seeing the one face which would destroy them all.
When Sally woke in the middle of the night, she saw a sleepy Jesse Casselberger sitting beside her, watching her as she slept. Seeing him like that, she instantly placed who he reminded her of: not a person but a cat. Callista had had a red cat named Cinnamon who would lie on Sally’s chest with his moist nose against hers, purring and gazing solemnly at her with great green eyes. Cinnamon always seemed to know when a human needed a cat.
Jesse had his hand on somebody, certainly his lover curled up beside him. For a few floating peaceful seconds she couldn’t remember who he was, or why she dreaded coming fully awake. But the pain quickly filled her like salt water so that a little sound like a lost animal escaped her.
He watched her with sympathy, waiting for her to lead. She couldn’t bear to cry any more, so she spoke, her voice just outdistancing the tears. “I’d been thinking of getting a cat.” If she’d found a cat as smart and quirky as Cinnamon, she would have.
Jesse nodded, acceptance being his gift. “I’m more of a dog guy, but cats are pretty special.”
“You’d have to keep it in nights. You’d have to keep it in days too, I guess.” The speculation was soothing. “The first night it wasn’t indoors at sunset, toast.” A gush of fresh tears threatened to fill her throat when she processed what she’d said.
“I wonder,” she said quickly, “how there are any animals left in the world. Birds, dophins, snakes even. They all have blood.” It was the first time she’d thought about this, and her genuine curiosity helped keep away the hurt for a little while. “But the vampires must not eat absolutely anything with blood because if they destroyed all the animals, the ecosystem would be, I don’t know, I don’t know.”
Yesterday she would have run this train of thought past Lavinia. Lavinia would have figured it out, or seen some side of it she was missing, or at least had something keenly intelligent to say. They had talked about everything from Richard Feynman to Richard Wagner to Richard Nixon to Richard III. Sally was crying again; she couldn’t help it. The old tough-as-nails Sally Yan seemed to have broken into a thousand pieces.
Jesse firmed himself to offer: “Can I put my arm around you?” He tilted his head and shrugged minutely, the gesture taking the place of the words, “I’m not trying to come on to you or anything.”
But Sally wasn’t ready to let anyone in again, not yet, maybe not ever. She shook her head, trying to stop the crying. Jesse nodded quickly, ashamed that he’d made her try to suppress her emotions. They were silent for the rest of the night. Jesse lay down and Walter’s arm went around him automatically. He drifted in his beloved’s arms, watching people around him and wishing he knew how to fix everyone.
Charity Claire passed within 20 feet, looking at them with sad envy. She imagined herself with two gentle men comforting her, demanding nothing. The memory of that awful night a year ago rose again and this time it took her over.
It had been just seconds before sunset. The dreaded evil faces which she could never avoid looking at would soon be all around and her apartment only a precarious oasis. Suddenly he was there outside the window: a living man with the smile of a tiger, looking at his watch. As she leaped back with hammering heart, he carefully smacked the glass with a ball peen hammer and broke it, sweeping away broken shards and climbing through just as the vampires appeared behind him. “One sound,” he promised, still smiling, “and I welcome them in.”
Throat dry as sand, she had tried to make herself call his bluff. But the vampires were hissing outside her window and instead she had done everything he demanded. He had stayed all night, he had hurt her, he had slept in her bed, it had been part of his thrill knowing she had nowhere to go until dawn, when he left her bleeding and sobbing quietly. She had washed the sheets a dozen times and still it hurt like knives to sleep in her own bed.
The force of the memory faded into a familiar ache as she passed on. But she saw a man pat his pocket to make sure his wallet wasn’t missing as she ghosted by, and that little gesture hurt her almost more than she could bear.
And a long time later Sally Yan jerked awake to the realization that if she stood and turned and scanned the mass of vampires prowling the perimeter of the plaza, she might see Lavinia’s face again.
She looked straight ahead at the growing light, not knowing whether she was going to turn her head, certain it would be a stupid thing to do.