Lost

Issue 12 | Summer 2024 |

 

 

It started with the cat.

A stocky creature with a chinchilla gray coat that Estelle found rooting around the garbage cans at the back of her building. His wide set eyes and sagging cheeks made him look grumpy.

She’d had cats as a child–Snowball, Bandit, Boots, Ollie. What unimaginative names, she thought, scooping the cat into her arms and taking him up to her apartment. He’d been panting in the hot Florida sun. Once he entered her air conditioned one-bedroom, he perked up. She filled a bowl with water, found some sardines from Trader Joe’s that she rinsed, and put on a plate. The cat consumed them in less than a minute.

She decided to name him Wolfbane.

“You greedy little thing,” she said. Hee scowled at her, but not on purpose, she decided. It was his resting face.

She’d look after him. It would be fun. Although in the nine years she’d been widowed, the only thing she’d taken care of was a wilted Dracaena plant.

 

That night Charlie came to her for the first time.

True, she’d been sleeping, and it was dark in her bedroom. But she would recognize his voice anywhere. They’d been married for 49 years. One shy of their golden anniversary.

“Estelle.”

She heard it clear as water, coming from the cat.

“Estelle,” he repeated. “You left your clothes in the washing machine.”

Nine years after his death, she still thought of Charlie every day. The way his brow furrowed when he was concentrating. His gruff exterior hiding a sunny glass-is-half-full temperament.

She staggered out of bed.

“What in the world . . . ”

She moved through the apartment, turning on all the lights, checking under the bed and in the closets, even looking behind the shower curtain. Nothing.

Grabbing her pocketbook, she went out into the hallway. Sure enough, her wet clothes were still in the washer at the end of the hall, right where she’d left them. She fed the dryer and dumped her stuff in, watching them whirl round and round until everything started to spin.

 

The cat spoke to her while she ate her morning oat bran, read on the terrace, brushed her teeth. She didn’t tell anyone Charlie was back. They’d think she’d gone batty. Sometimes she’d try to say a word and the one she wanted was just out of reach, hiding in a corner of her mind. If she waited a few minutes and thought about something else, it would reappear. Umbrella. Or paintbrush. Or garbage. It was no big deal. Another side effect of getting older.

“You’re not old,” Charlie said. “You’re as beautiful as the day I first met you.”

Estelle had never thought much of the supernatural, didn’t believe in ghosts. But Charlie wasn’t a ghost in the traditional sense. No white sheet or chalky skin, no floating on air. His spirit just happened to reside in the cat. Of this Estelle felt certain.

 

They were making dinner together. Or rather, Estelle was making dinner–baked ziti, fresh garlic bread–and Charlie was keeping her company, perched on one of the kitchen stools. It was a tricky situation, knowing where the cat left off and the person began. If her late husband really was a figment of her imagination, she would have preferred him to appear in human form and to sit at the butcher block table, grating Parmesan cheese for the ziti. He always liked helping her in the kitchen. She would not have made him a cat.

 

The following morning, she decided to go for a walk. It was a 4.2 day. Humid. The sky crowded with clouds. Although rain was in the forecast, Estelle set off anyway. She took the usual route, past the fancy apartment complex, with its 18-hole golf course and spa, past the spot where Whole Foods was coming. She liked to count her steps. One two three four . . . forty-nine fifty fifty-one fifty-two . . . two hundred eleven two hundred twelve . . . until she lost track. There was something she needed to do but she couldn’t remember what. Thunder rumbled in the distance. She wondered how Charlie was faring at home. He liked to sit by the window and look out. Occasionally a gull would fly by and he’d press his nose against the glass, tracking it. She didn’t dare let him onto the terrace. Her apartment was on the second floor. She couldn’t take the chance that Charlie would climb onto the narrow railing and fall.

What had she forgotten to do? Buy more milk? Go to the drugstore?

She stopped walking. Somehow or other she’d gotten turned around and had wandered into a neighborhood she wasn’t familiar with. All the buildings looked alike. Gray apartment complexes. Manmade lakes with fountains. Overhead, the clouds looked heavier, angry almost. She was the only one on the street; everyone else was in a car. She downgraded the day to a 2.5. The best place to be in a Florida storm was indoors. Lightning cracked the sky open and drops spattered against the pavement, pelting Estelle’s face. She reached for her umbrella, then remembered she hadn’t brought it. She could picture where it was, on the hall chair, next to her handbag and the book she’d taken out of the library, something by that romance writer she liked.

“Estelle, you dunce. You’d forget your head if it wasn’t attached. You’re in for it now.”

As she spoke, rain got inside her mouth and she pressed her lips together. The wind picked up. The sound of the rain was deafening. Already her clothes were plastered against her skin, like she’d taken a shower with them on. It was hard to see. She needed to head home but wasn’t sure which direction to go.

At the light, she watched cars zoom past, wondering where on earth she was. If she could get to a phone booth, she could call someone. Then she remembered there weren’t any phone booths anymore and her cell phone was on the coffee table.

An SUV pulled up next to her, its wipers flicking madly. The window rolled down.

“Estelle,” a voice called out. “Get in.”

Without knowing or caring who was inside, Estelle yanked the door open and climbed into the passenger seat.

“Are you okay? It’s crazy out there.”

It was the latest addition to the mah-jongg group. A lovely woman. Younger, divorced, whose mother used to live in the building. Estelle couldn’t remember her name.

“I went out for a walk . . . ”

The woman turned right at the intersection and suddenly everything snapped into focus. Estelle was only a couple of blocks from her building, by the cleaners she used when her regular cleaners were on vacation. Relief flooded through her.

When she got to her apartment, she took the spare key from underneath the mat and opened the front door.

Charlie immediately ran up to her, rubbing against her ankles.

“I must look a sight,” she said to him, closing the door quickly before he could dart out.

“Not at all. You’re like Venus rising from the sea.”
 

At mah-jonng, Mel was talking about his latest job, volunteering as a docent at the science museum. He’d learned all about human anatomy.

“The brain has the texture of jelly,” he told them. “There are 100 billion nerve cells in the brain. Sixty percent of it is made of fat. Also, here’s something wild–brain information travels at 268 miles per hour.”

“How could scientists possibly know that?” Estelle asked.

“It’s easy. Branches connect nerve cells at more than 100 trillion points. Scientists call this the neuron forest.”

Estelle tuned him out. For some reason, the Common Room was stuffier than usual. It was like breathing stagnant air. Gazing at the snack table, she wondered if she had the energy to walk all the way over and fix herself an everything bagel with cream cheese. Voices at the other tables created a steady hum, the sound of too many bees. There was something she needed to do, but she couldn’t think straight.

“It’s your turn, Estelle,” Mel said. “We haven’t got all day.”

Estelle stared at her tiles. She recognized two flowers and a dragon. That was right. But she didn’t know the symbols on the other tiles at all. They might have been written in Braille.

“Are you okay?” the woman who had rescued her asked.

She really was very nice. Stopping the car, driving her home.

“Actually, I have a small headache,” Estelle said. “I think I’m going to larch.”

She saw the others exchange worried looks.

The thing she was supposed to do tickled her brain like a feather.

“Leave. I’m going to leave.”

 

Once inside her apartment, Estelle turned on the radio and danced around the apartment with Charlie. First, they waltzed. Then they sambaed. Then they made up their own steps, with lots of twirls.

“Hurrah!” Charlie cheered. “We did it. What’s for dinner?”

She hadn’t thought about what they would eat.

That’s when it came to her. Soup. She’d forgotten to go to the market to buy vegetables.

“No worries,” Charlie said.

She got out some organic salmon and poured it into his bowl. Then she dumped a can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle into a pot.

As she waited for the soup to heat up, she leaned back against a sofa pillow and closed her eyes. The radio was still playing. Ella Fitzgerald was singing “Dream a Little Dream of Me.”

Colors blinked overhead. A shimmering palette of charcoal, cream, blue. Shining fairy lights. Everyone talking at once, so loud it sounds like crashing. Someone taps her on the shoulder. Her eyes flick open to get a better view and she gasps, because there, right in front of her, is the real Charlie, handsome and young, the way he looked on their wedding night when their lives were as festive as a present wrapped in tissue paper.

“Ma’am,” says a voice.

Charlie is leaning over her wearing a yellow coat and a helmet with a number on it. When she reaches out to stroke his lips, he flinches.

Estelle opens her mouth to say Charlie, but no words come out.

“Are you alright, ma’am?”

Something terrible is happening. Red lights flash outside the window, an acrid burning smell. As she struggles to sit up, she catches sight of the gold wallpaper in the hall beyond the doorway. The door is on the floor.

“I’m sorry. We had to break it down when you didn’t answer the bell.”

Not Charlie. A fireman. She can feel disappointment pressing down on her. There’s another man in the bedroom, more in the kitchen.

Her eyes dart around the room, searching wildly.

“You’re fine, ma’am. Everything’s fine.”

She tries to speak, feels her heart flap violently inside her chest.

“Char . . . ”

“Is there someone else living with you, ma’am?”

Estelle concentrates, hoping to find the word she needs. The burning smell is everywhere.

“Cat,” she manages to say. “My cat.”

“We’ll find him. He must be out in the hall,” says the fireman, who gets up, stepping over the damaged door.

Another man is opening windows. “The smoke detector in here isn’t working. Luckily, one of your neighbors smelled smoke.”

He opens the door to the terrace.

“Don’t,” Estelle calls out, too late.

“Is there somewhere else you can stay tonight?” another fireman asks. “Until the place airs out.”

“Close door!” Estelle yells, and they all stop what they’re doing and stare at her.

She takes a breath. “Don’t want my cat out there.”

“All right,” one man says, sliding the glass door shut.

She goes into the kitchen, moving purposefully.

“Charlie,” she calls, trying to tamp down her panic. “Where you?”

The soup pot is black and the smell is stronger here. Stove, refrigerator, dishwasher, microwave. Counting them, one by one to calm herself. Apart from the ruined pot, everything looks the same.

“Ma’am,” she hears a voice call out. “We found him.”

She returns to the living room to see the first fireman, the one who looks like Charlie, holding a cat in his arms.

A gray and white cat who is scowling. Is it . . . please let it be . . . she gets a good look. That short broad face. Those stout legs. It curls its body against the man’s chest as if it never wants to leave him. No. This is the cat she named Wolfbane. A pet. Nothing more. Her disappointment hangs in the air, heavy as smoke.

“It’s alright, ma’am,” the fireman says. “He’s not injured. Just a little scared.”

He holds the cat out to her and she looks into its flat, expressionless eyes.

“Everything’s under control now. No real damage.”

But Estelle knows he is wrong. Charlie is gone. The damage has just begun.