Roger was seven when he died.
He was seven but he barely acted his age, always running around the neighborhood as if he’d just shot out of his mother like a cannon five minutes’ prior. He lived next-door to us and you could tell from the precision his Dad cut their lawn with that their family was more well off: shinier cars in the driveway, neater rows of thick bush in the backyard. And the food they cooked Roger for dinner; the aroma that would romance my senses when I peered through open windows nose-first, the magic in his bowl that could awake the kings of the jungle. It was enough to convince us we weren’t just a bunch of animals in cohabitation.
But since Roger died, those things didn’t seem to matter.
I heard Roger’s parents talking about him the night after he died. I couldn’t make out the words but I sat next to their kitchen window and listened. I knew I shouldn’t have; I knew it was intrusive, but what were they gonna do? Roger’s dad hated me. The old man would shoo me away like I was some rabid dog, even when I was sitting on the curb waiting for the wind to blow and for my parents to come home.
I watched Mrs. Sherman pick up the toys Roger left behind, and she’d shake them violently, the jewelry on her wrists making sounds like Christmas, and she’d wail and bark at her husband. Mr. Sherman seemed indifferent. I wanted to comfort Mrs. Sherman. I wanted her to pretend I was theirs for a night, that Roger’s things were my things and that they wouldn’t have to be painful for her. I wouldn’t be painful. I ran back home where my family had already eaten dinner and my own cold feast was waiting for me, ready to nourish but not to romance.
Two months later I began to throw up. Carol took me to the doctor in one of her I’m-too-busy-for-this-Steve moods. Her and Riley weren’t my real parents. They took me in years back, when no one could find my actual parents but sometimes they acted like I was as much of a nuisance as unclaimed dog feces left on the curb. The doctor tried to burn my eyeballs with a bright light at the end of a stick. I swatted at it and the next thing I knew Carol was clamping my limbs to the table, and I looked at her as if to say, “Same team, Carol!” and she looked back at me as if to say, “I’m too busy for this, Steve!”
The doctor gave me tablets to swallow, but they didn’t last long inside me and I threw them up when we were stuck in traffic on the way home. It was probably the first thing I’d eaten in days. I don’t know if it was Roger’s death, or the changes in these teenage years, or the traffic, but I felt irritated and wanted to jump out the window.
The next morning, Carol and Riley’s going-away bags were at the front door. The last time they were at the front door I didn’t see Carol or Riley for three moons and four suns. More going-away bags than usual lined the door that day, so I guessed they would be gone longer. I didn’t care much; I wanted space. I went into the backyard and took shade under a row of thick and soft and bright green bush, the type of bush that a desert mirage would envy. Sure, it was a weird place to lie, but no person or animal could make me care.
I lay there and wondered about Roger. I wondered whether he felt much pain when he died.
Cars drive along our street too fast usually. I know they drive too fast because Riley always yells at ‘morons’ and ‘ya goddamn idiots’ to slow down and informs them there are kids in the neighborhood. There are animals in the neighborhood too, but Riley never mentions them to either the ‘morons’ or ‘ya goddamn idiots’.
The car that hit Roger was a big, black and loud one and it didn’t stop or turn its noise down until about four houses after Roger found his way under the car’s steel belly. Poor Roger laid lifeless and stiff, like he was just sleeping under this very row of thick bush. There was no blood. He just lay there, peacefully. Maybe that’s a good way to go. The neighbors were all horrified, and the driver cupped his hands to his mouth after he’d stopped and realized what he’d hit. The grey-haired woman across the street was the first one to attend to Roger until Mrs. Sherman ran out onto the road, still in her fleecy gown and without any paint on her face. I’d never seen her care for Roger that way, as he lay lifeless and stiff in her arms, her face wet and shiny with fresh tears.
I heard our front door open and figured Riley was grunting at one of the bags he was carrying out of the house. At the same time Eric from across the road walked into our backyard. He was a bit of a dick and he roared at me to leave, even though it was my own goddamn backyard. I hated Eric, but fear outweighed the hatred, so I didn’t stick around. I ran to the front door, where I could see Carol and Riley getting into a yellow car on the street. They took off quickly and without a goodbye. I knew I’d miss them, but I also wanted to be alone. I wondered if I’d still be around when they got back. I knew things were changing and I felt that change right there and then as I threw up on the doormat.
I was still around when they got back, five moons later. I’d had to put up with Mrs. Nightingale’s sickening perfume and underuse of top buttons, having visited me several times and showing the two largest teats these vertical pupils had ever seen as she’d bent down to massage my neck. Her cold hands prickled my hairs. After the second moon, she looked at my food, untouched from the previous day, and called Carol to tell her about it. I couldn’t work out why it was such big news; I just wanted her to leave and let me sleep.
As soon as she was home, Carol took me back to the doctor. She didn’t seem frustrated or busy this time. She carried me carefully inside the bright white room, and when I tried to swat the doctor’s eye-burning fire stick she just stroked my head and calmly held my limbs. After we got back in the car, Carol’s face was wet and shiny with the same fresh tears Mrs. Sherman had when Roger died.
We got home and Carol carried me inside. It hurt, and my body was weak with the hurt, and I felt like I was a plate of jelly about to spill through her arms. I’d been told for years I always landed on my feet but in that moment, I felt like I’d land face-first.
An hour later, Riley entered the house like he had something important to do and to my surprise he stopped in front of Carol and me. For fifteen minutes he stroked my head, which was hanging from Carol’s arm like a newspaper hangs out of a letterbox on a rainy day. Riley stroked my head the same way they did when I first arrived all those years back. I wanted to run away from both of them. I loved them, dearly I loved them, but I just wanted to be by myself. To be by myself under the row of thick bush. That was where I wanted to be, that was heaven for me. Heaven awaited and I did not want to keep it.
That night, dinner was not cold, nor pragmatic. It was warm, it was flesh, and it filled the air like it was boasting its beauty to any nose that would have it. I ate, and it was as if I could still feel the explosive pulse of the animal on my tongue. Two mouthfuls were enough.
Later, I was wedged between Riley and Carol on the couch, their couch, the couch usually out of bounds for me. Riley’s hand stroked my head and Carol’s patted my back, as if she was feeling the quality of an Egyptian rug. I knew whose hand was whose because my head was pushed down like a dashboard bobble-head on a bumpy drive. That was Riley’s way of showing affection. Something I’d missed. It was lovely and all, but what I really wanted was that row of thick bush. I wanted that row of bush to hang like clouds above me.
The next morning, I pulled myself from the couch. I was exhausted. Each step to the front door was like trudging through thick mud. The door was closed, and I realized it was too early to be let out of it. I saw an opening in the window but was far too tired to jump up there. Riley appeared in his gown. He sat on the floor with me, gently caressing my head and offering to hold me once more with a tap on his chest. I loved Riley, dearly I loved him, but today I sought heaven. I wanted to lay under that row of thick bush. He opened the door for me and I could’ve sworn he had a wet and shiny face, just like Mrs. Sherman’s when Roger died all those suns ago and just like Carol’s when she drove me home from the doctor.
I hurried around the side of the house as fast as my aching paws would let me, and I found my nirvana. I curled myself into a ball in the soil, like I was about to sink into it and provide the earth with nourishment, something my body had refused for days. The sun trickled through the leaves above me, and the wind made a singing noise with the branches, trying to put me to sleep one last time. I closed my eyes. I thought again about whether Roger felt anything when he died. I began drifting off. I curled my tail over my paws, and my paws over my whiskers, and thought it was time this old tabby discovered for himself.
DAVID SONNTAG is a freelance writer, content marketer, and singer-songwriter. Originally from Western Australia, he’s a sucker for the ocean, strumming in front of a crowd, and reading under the sun. Dave wrote his first short story in 2017, after ditching his banking career. With Tim Winton and Haruki Murakami as his creative inspirations, Dave writes about family, human behaviour, and overcoming fears – often with a twist.