The first cat was crushed, guts splashed across the driveway, mouth a frozen hiss. Its milky eyes seemed to track Ling as she hefted herself out of the car and waddled over.
That was the word that came to her. In Chinese, a word of raindrop suddenness, a reflex.
“What is it, honey?” Raymond said, rounding from the trunk and surveying the mess. “Oh man. You go on inside. I’ll take care of it.”
In the kitchen, Ling prepared a glass of raspberry leaf tea. By the time it was steeped and aromatic, she heard Raymond entering through the garage, taking the back stairs up to the guest shower.
Lovely, discrete man.
She gazed out the kitchen window into the rolling, wooded yard of their home in Maryland. Deep autumn fire, a sparkling brook—
Ling gasped with relief. Sophie had lain still ever since the cat incident.
She blew on her tea, sipped it, supporting her considerable weight against the counter. Sophie turned and kicked again. Ling held her belly, feeling her child’s movements.
I can’t wait to meet you.
Soon she heard the shower, felt a slight tremble from the pipes, and remembered that there had been another cat—with the realization came a wave of panic, and Sophie grew still once more.
At dinner, Raymond and Ling sat across from each other in the kitchen nook. Thai takeout glowed beneath the warm light of the Edison bulbs. She’d been eating spicy food based on her mother’s advice. Spice has an opening principle, she’d said. It will encourage the child to come out.
Ling extracted a sliver of bamboo with her chopsticks and, wrinkling her nose, examined it—an idiosyncrasy that had developed over the course of her pregnancy.
She looked up at her thickset husband, engaged with a box of chicken gang gai. “Do you remember our first date?”
He managed to secure a morsel of chicken with his chopsticks. “Mmm. You mean the date that never was? Thought you’d stood me up. I waited—what?—an hour and a half at the bar downing Coronas.” He popped the chicken in his mouth. “Then you finally remembered to call.”
The bamboo looked, smelled clean. Her teeth snagged it. “I never told you the full story of what happened.”
“No?” He scanned the boxes for his next bite.
“I shut the front door on a stray cat.”
“Really?” He fished out a peapod.
“It was slipping past me into the apartment. I didn’t see it. Must have cracked its spine with the door. It shook me up, but I figured I should still go meet you. Xiaofei had already started up the bathtub, thinking I had gone out. If I hadn’t had to go wash up after handling the dead cat, she probably … wouldn’t have survived.”
Raymond chewed his food but said nothing. She hated when he did that, but the topic of Ling’s fraternal twin tended to shut down conversation.
“So, in a weird way, the cat saved her life,” she continued.
“What’s your point?” he asked at last.
“Well, I didn’t remember until today, ‘til earlier when you went to go clean up.”
“And? You ran over a cat today, you accidentally killed another one—what?—four years ago.”
“Well, I ….”
“Sophie just kicked. Sorry. What was I saying?”
“Hey, you want to move the rest of the meal into the living room, watch some Game of Thrones? I’d like to burn through a few episodes before bed.”
“You go ahead. I really don’t think it’s good for Sophie, all that grime and cruelty.”
Raymond sighed. “Seriously?”
“Go, go, go. You watch it. I feel nauseated.” She didn’t, hadn’t felt nauseated since the first trimester, but she at least wanted to evoke an empathetic response from her husband if she couldn’t get him to follow her strange train of thought.
He plucked up the rest of the chicken and went to the living room. She propped up her feet on his empty chair and moved the box of curry duck closer. “Can you make me some tea?” she called using her pouty voice, brow knit as her mind clutched at the point she’d been trying to make.
In the middle of the night, she gasped awake, the thread of conversation that had gotten away from her at dinnertime now strung out in the forefront of her mind. She shook Raymond.
“What? Is it Sophie? Is she coming?”
She grabbed his arm to prevent him from rolling out of bed. “No. It was the same cat!”
“The cat. It was the same one from four years ago.”
“The cat from today, it was the same one four years ago. All gray, with weird, milky eyes.”
“Honey, you must have just described a gazillion other cats in the known universe.”
“And there was another one.” The Chinese in her spoke up.
“What?” Raymond was interpreting, slowly. “A … third cat?”
A third one.
How could she have forgotten? As she had spoken the sentence, the memory had spilled into her brain.
“I can’t believe it didn’t occur to me earlier when I was telling you about my sister. It was back in Austin, during grad school. I lived in an apartment building then and was working on my comps exam late at night. It was due the next day. I couldn’t settle down and focus, had several chapters left to write. Outside my window, down in the alley was a cat in heat. I tried everything to scare it away—shouted, went down and jabbed a broom at it, even dumped a pot of cold water down into the alley—but around four in the morning, at my wit’s end I hurled my desk chair out of the window.” Her voice grew quieter. “It was terrifying, that moment after I’d released the chair, waiting to hear it crash against the ground. The cat screeched, then went quiet. Hours later, at dawn, I glimpsed it on my way to campus. I can still see it—gray, milky-eyed.”
She couldn’t see more than Raymond’s alarm-clock reddened silhouette, but she could feel his eyes scrutinizing her. Suddenly a hand was caressing her puffy face.
“Ling, you had a nightmare. Go back to sleep. It’s the pregnancy, babe. It’s making your mind hyperactive. You know what they say in What to Expect—”
“I’m very lucid about things right now. I don’t know why everyone says pregnant women’s minds are muddled, when mine feels razor-sharp. Isn’t it possible pregnant women have rare glimpses into the state of things because we have a responsibility to think beyond ourselves? Like smells. If something smells off to me, no one would question the matter—a pregnant woman’s nose tells her what her child needs, what could endanger it—”
“You’re ranting, Ling. I’m not attacking you. I just woke up for Christ’s sake, and you’re talking about some ghost cat or something.”
Ling sighed. “I’m not imagining this. It actually happened.”
Yet her memory of that night eight years ago seemed imprecise. She recalled her neighbors had been having a party instead of a cat mewling down in the alley. Or was she combining two different nights in her mind? And the second cat, the one four years ago … had she really snapped its spine with the door? Hadn’t she gone back into the house that evening because she’d forgotten her phone? Wasn’t that why she’d been able to intercept her sister’s suicide attempt? Or was that also another evening? Maybe the pregnancy was muddling her mind after all.
“We have work in the morning. Please let’s get back to sleep.” Raymond pressed his face into the pillow, muffling his voice. “Try to think about dogs or something.”
The next day when Raymond said “Good morning,” she grunted, then sipped her coffee and ate her soft-boiled eggs in silence. She prepared his lunch and her own, and they pecked each other’s lips and left in separate cars for separate offices at opposite ends of the city.
After several hours of work, she went to the bathroom and cried. One of her co-workers discovered her there and hugged her for a few minutes, stroking her back and long hair. When asked what was wrong, Ling could only say, “There was a fourth.”
Undergrad. Her early twenties. She’d been out at a bar with friends and was walking back to her dorm. The cat had followed her all the way from the bar street. She—
Ling shook off the blossoming memory, got ahold of herself, returned to her desk, but after several minutes of fidgeting, decided she couldn’t endure the rest of the day. She appealed to her manager, who commiserated, told her to go home.
On the way, the memory of the fourth cat sputtered back to life, and try as she did to smother it, on it flared. The cat had watched her enter the rental house. She prepared a dish of milk and spiked it with anti-freeze, then stuck it on the back stoop. From her bed she heard it groaning and rolling on the lawn for most of the night, and at dawn, mind splitting from hangover, she found the cat dead in a puddle of frothy, blue vomit.
Hazard lights clicking, rain pocking the windshield, Ling pulled over onto the narrow breakdown lane of the interstate, cars zooming past, her hands shaking.
“How was your day, babe?” Raymond asked, his smile an attempt to warm that morning’s chill.
Ling was on all fours on a yoga mat in the living room, finagling her body into a comfortable position. In the process, she had found a split end in her long hair, one of the divergent strands kinked, spiraling and zigzagging off into the unknown. In the background, Vivaldi portended the coming of a harrowing winter.
“Babe?” Raymond repeated.
Ling let the peculiar strand of hair join the rest of the lustrous curtain.
“There was a fourth cat. Same as the other three,” she said, gazing down the tunnel of black hair to where it pooled on the mat, spilling over onto the white oak floor. She only provided him with cursory details. In fact, upon arriving home Ling’s confidence in the memory had begun to flag. She recalled a frat boy had accompanied her home that night—Raymond didn’t need to hear the details of either version of what might have happened.
He listened, then said, “Technically this would be the first cat. Yesterday’s was the fourth cat.”
“No, yesterday’s was the first.”
Raymond stretched out on the couch, shaking his head—but his husband-wisdom guided him not to contradict her further. “In any case, there’s a very simple explanation for all of this.”
“You’re overwhelmed with guilt about what happened yesterday.”
She eased off the floor, favoring her back. Raymond sprang forward to help her to her feet.
“You want a massage?”
He looked a little disappointed, but pulled her onto his lap as he sat back onto the couch. “Have you ever killed an animal before?”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. I’ve killed four cats in my life.”
“I mean aside from these milky-eyed felines.”
She thought about it for a moment. “No.”
“I knew it. You don’t even kill spiders when they steal into the house. And FYI, when you ask me to remove them from the house, I just whack ‘em and flush ‘em down the toilet.”
She looked genuinely betrayed. “You shouldn’t do that. It brings a bad energy into our house. Spiders are lucky.”
“They’re vampires that suck other insects dry.”
“Well, no more killing spiders in our home.” We need good karma for the baby, she thought at him, knowing not to travel down mystical avenues with her husband.
“You know, if you’re so worried about this, why is it you’re okay with eating meat.”
“Sophie needs the protein and the iron—once I give birth, we’re becoming vegan.”
“Okay. Fine.” He ran a hand up her back, found her neck. “You look really beautiful.”
She smiled. “I don’t even remember what we were talking about.”
“Exactly. This whole cat thing is absurd.”
She thought for a moment and realized what Raymond had been implying several turns ago in the conversation. She turned a critical eye on him. “I didn’t fabricate these memories in order to aggrandize yesterday’s event. What happened yesterday was awful, but it’s part of a pattern.”
“Then why is it you’re only remembering these events now?”
She ran her fingers back through her hair, easily finding that kinky split-end, exploring the intriguing curves of it.
“What happened yesterday must have created a link in a chain of memories because—”
“Because what?” Raymond prodded.
The words she had spoken last night hung on her lips, and when she glanced at her husband, she could see in his disappointed expression that he knew what she was thinking—it was the same cat.
She woke at four the next morning, aroused by Sophie’s shifting positions. As she lay there in the dark, humming a snatch of Bach, the memory of the fifth cat bubbled up into her consciousness—a foul bubble of recollection escaping from a drowned memory.
Sophie grew still. Ling ceased humming, eyes wide, unbelieving.
And why the fifth?
Raymond was correct, annoying as it was that he had to point out such a thing to her—the most recent one should be the fifth, and this freshly remembered cat should be regarded as the first, but such a numbering system felt backwards to her—counterintuitively so. She felt upside-down and inverted. Imagined the cat crouching down, pouncing its way back through time, slashing into her life every four years or so on its way to … well, she wasn’t sure where this whole cat thing was going.
She shuddered, wondering if her mother remembered this other one, this fifth cat.
Raymond having smooched his way out the door, she drove across town to see Dr. Fielding, her gynecologist.
Aside from two thick black eyebrows nuzzling over the bridge of his nose, his entire head was clean-shaven. He dressed all in black, his hypermodern office offering a view of the distant D.C. sprawl.
After her examination, she asked him about the relationship between pregnancy and psychosis.
He swiveled on his stool, testing an irritating squeak. “Most commonly found postpartum, but also prepartum. Why do you ask?”
“I’m having odd memories—things that both seemed to have happened to me but which also seem fantasized.”
“About abortions or miscarriages?” He flipped back through her file. “Don’t recall you mentioning having any in your history.”
“No, no. Nothing like that. They’re about cats.”
“Cats? As in pet cats?”
“Right. I keep remembering all these … misfortunate events surrounding cats that have occurred in my past.” She scrunched her face in doubt, a slight shake of the head. “Have you ever come across anything like this before?”
He folded his hands together. “Not exactly, but the experience of being pregnant can often lead to a future mother remembering events obliquely related to motherhood. I mentioned abortions and miscarriages because a number of patients have reported to me nightmares or flashbacks where they relived or invented these emotionally intense experiences about losing a child. As for cats, not sure how much water it holds, but obviously there’s a pop psychology relationship between pet ownership and a desire for children. Could be you’re associating these remembered cats with your own child, that you’re reliving these experiences in order to prevent similar misfortunes from happening to your baby. A kind of mental checklist of how you should behave as a mother.”
Don’t run over your child. Don’t drop a chair on it from ten stories up. Don’t feed it anti-freeze. “Maybe.”
He flashed a set of expensive teeth. “You don’t sound convinced.”
“No, it makes sense, but it’s just … the memories are horrendous.”
“If you’re concerned about this, I can recommend a psychiatrist. We want everything to be perfect for the big day—for Sophie’s day.”
“Can you give me their number? I’d like to think about it.”
“Of course.” He looked up the info on his tablet and scribbled a name and number on a memo and handed it to her.
“So, you super-excited? You and Raymond are about to have a beautiful baby. Any day now.”
She tried to beam.
Raymond texted he needed to work late that evening. She microwaved leftover Szechwan and blasted “Bolero” for her baby, adjusting down the volume periodically throughout the extended crescendo—she had a long list of great music to play for Sophie, even if the science behind the Mozart effect was bogus.
No matter, Sophie kicked her enthusiasm.
After dinner, she decided it wasn’t too early to call her family. She opened her computer and Skyped her parents. They’d moved back to China with Xiaofei in the hopes that a busy family environment would be beneficial to the latter’s mental health. Her sister had been pale and sickly all their lives, with round, gray eyes, beautiful and tall as their father—but removed from everyone, in and out of the mental hospital, absent for long stretches of Ling’s life.
She talked one-by-one to her father and mother and aunt and cousin and grandparents and even neighbors who’d wandered in, attracted by the noise. (Xiaofei slept through it all as usual.) The hullabaloo lasted an hour and a half before she asked for her mother again.
Her mother’s face strained when she smiled at Ling. Hair streaked with gray, she appeared statelier and more severe than Ling. Touches about the décor—the shade of the paneled tiles of the walls, the requisite red lunar calendar hanging over the wall—heightened the effect of distance between mother and daughter.
“Ma, did we ever own a cat or have cats that came to our house?”
The smile’s tension snapped. “Why are you asking about cats?”
“It’s nothing. Raymond thinks my mind is being hyperactive, and my doctor thinks I’m going through some kind of a pregnant woman bout of worrying, but I’ve been having these strange memories involving cats.”
Her mother turned and shouted at someone to give her some privacy. Her eyes finally turned back to the screen, indicating they were alone.
“What did you remember?”
“I was sixteen. There was a stray cat that would hunt in the woods out back and leave mangled birds on our front doorstep. One day, when you and Baba were out”—Ling’s voice choked, but she managed to get out the words through trembling lips—“I snared it with some rope, dragged it into the pond, and—”
“Stop. Stop.” Her mother was wiping her eyes.
“So it happened? I-I-I—“
“Yes, it happened. Yes and no.”
Ling knocked over her mug of now-cold tea. “What do you mean?”
Her mother paused, lips pursed.
Ling reached across the computer for a Kleenex and started dabbing up the mess on the table and her flannel nightgown.
“Your sister (Heaven help our miracle) remembers. She was in the house at the time and witnessed the killing from her room—she hid in her magical fairy fortress and refused to come out for hours. But we also remember all of us going on a picnic that day. We were all out of town when the cat was killed.”
It was Ling’s mother that told her about the sixth cat, the one that Ling killed when she was twelve years old. As she spoke, the memory unfurled in Ling’s own mind—an event re-occurring in the present. Indeed, her mother seemed to be remembering it anew with her—strangling it with fishing line in the crawl space beneath their house.
“Gray. Milky eyes,” her mother confirmed.
Her parents remembered both of the cat killings, or at least the repercussions of the events, the confused expression on Ling’s face afterwards, Xiaofei’s anxiety attacks—but they also remembered alternate, co-occurring events. They and Ling had maintained double memories, but over time one strand had been buried, with the idyllic laid over the dirt as the true version. Though she had witnessed both murders, for some reason Xiaofei had been unable to construct a similar cognitive paradox, living only with the horrific memories.
Ling noticed her mother referred to the cats using a numbering system matching hers, although she had not been told about the first four cats. Apparently, she and Ling’s father had always called them Cats 5 and 6, with a foreboding sense that there were other cats missing from the series, perhaps also recognizing the fact that these events were occurring backwards, that the origin had been some point in the future.
“What should I do, Ma? I’m freaking out about this.”
“I don’t know, Ling.” She grew silent, brow creased. “I will go to the temple and pray for you and talk with the monks there. Maybe they will have an answer for us.”
“I don’t know where else we could turn.”
“Okay. Call me back afterwards. Doesn’t matter what time.”
“I love you, Ma. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I … I don’t know what to say.”
“I know. We love you too.”
She made tea. Did yoga while listening to the Cure, an indulgent counterbalance after nine months of classical music. It was now quarter past ten, and her mind was reeling. The tea hadn’t soothed her, the yoga hadn’t brought about peace. Her hands were shaking. Her eyes strayed to the clock every few minutes. Raymond still had not returned home. Her mother had not called her back.
She texted him.
She called him.
Could mean innumerable things—he was driving, in a meeting, had fallen asleep at his desk.
“Answer the phone, damn you!”
She jabbed the End button, then sent her mother a message on WeChat, but no response was similarly ambiguous on that end—Skype was about the extent of her mother’s technological proficiency.
Then the memory of the seventh cat hissed out of the dark at her: a butcher knife, her sister drenched in blood, the cat squirming and whining on the back porch.
Ling tore at her temples, on the verge of screaming.
It’s too much. Too much.
Headlights flashed across the living room windows. She rushed over, recognized Raymond’s car snaking up the drive.
Minding her belly, she made her way to the front door, ready to unleash a lengthy harangue—but instead threw her arms around her husband.
“What the hell?” he murmured into her hair.
She withdrew, sniffing. “You’ve been drinking.”
He nodded sheepishly. “Couple of drinks. Meeting went late. We ordered food, then the director suggested we hit the bar before calling it a night. Can’t really turn down opportunities like that, can I?”
“No, but we had a pact.”
“I know. I just”—his eyes flicked over her shoulder, and he cocked his head, listening to the plodding zombie dance of tom-tom drums—“what the hell are you listening to?”
He swept past her.
“‘All Cats Are Gray,’” she added towards the empty doorway. Her eyes penetrated into the darkness, felt an army of milky eyes gazing back at her.
“Still thinking about cats, huh?” She heard him tossing his computer bag on the easy chair.
She shut the door. Locked it. As she did so, she noticed faint, ancient scars on her arms. Brambles, she’d told Raymond when he had asked her about them forever ago, but she noticed now the parallel marks—deep scratches inflicted by a cat trying to defend itself while being stabbed to death.
She followed Raymond into the living room. Quietly: “Yes.”
“And do you think listening to this Goth nonsense is going to help?”
“I need to tell you something.”
Another memory had just switched on.
“Let me guess.” He plopped down onto the couch, stretching out and clicking on the television. “There was another cat”—his eyes went Bela-Lugosi-wide, voice taking a stab at Vincent Price—“and it was the same cat.”
“You don’t understand. I spoke to my mother this evening—”
“Yeah? How’s she doing?”
“She’s fine, but she also remembers me having a … history with cats.”
He put down the remote. “Were you the one that brought up the subject, or did she raise it independently?”
“Aha”—he loosened his tie—“well, depending upon the way you phrased the question, it’s possible that you influenced her answer.”
“You didn’t hear our conversation.”
“Well, tell me about it.”
“I can’t. I’m afraid you’re going to take the baby and abandon me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I killed five other cats. Intentionally. I poisoned one, I drowned one, I g-garroted one, I butchered one, and I … cooked one.”
“You’ve cooked cat? Is this some Chinese dish or something?”
“I cooked it alive! I was four years old.” I was trying to stop it for good.
He stared at her.
“Well? Say something! What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with me?”
“The baby is driving you crazy. Can we turn this crap off?” He stood, strode over to the stereo, and silenced the music. “That’s better.” He exhaled and guided his wife to the sofa. “Ling, listen, sit down.”
The touch of his hand on her shoulder brought out the tears. She buried her face in her hands and began sobbing as he seated her.
I’m losing my mind. Sophie, I’m sorry. I’m trying to be strong for you.
Raymond knelt before her and stroked her hair. “Are you telling me the truth about these cats?”
“Yes. I killed them. I remember. My parents remember. My sister remembers. In fact, I must have killed all of them on purpose, at least on some unconscious level. I think the other day I saw the cat was wedged under the tire, snoozing, but I chose to overlook the fact.”
“This is ….” He gestured “mind-blowing.”
“I know.” She found his eyes, mouth trembling. “Please don’t leave me. Don’t take Sophie and abandon me.”
“Christ, Ling, I wouldn’t do that. Even if it’s true you’re some kind of psychopathic animal mutilator.”
She fell forward into his arms, and he guided her back up onto the couch, sitting down beside her, holding her.
“You know how superstitious your mother is, and you know you and I don’t see eye to eye on all the mystical bullshit—”
Her body tensed. “It’s not bullshit.”
“Relax, relax. You know what I think? I think you’re about to give birth, and you’re projecting all your motherhood worries onto this cat business.”
“Dr. Fielding said something similar.”
“See what I mean? You’re chasing this thing into weird places. You’re my Ling, the sweetest person I’ve ever known. You, cook a cat alive?” He laughed dismissively.
“It sounds crazy, but it feels so real, and how do you explain my mother and father remembering the same things I do?”
“Mass hallucination? Mass-implanted memory? I don’t know. I had a professor in grad school tell me about this time back in the 80s when he was living at college with two other dudes. One evening there was a power outage, and the three of them found this metallic mushroom sprouting out of the floorboards. It began unleashing spores all over the house and into their bodies and transforming all of them into these half-metal, half-fungal monsters. One of them went so far as to try and hack his own transforming hand off. Then the power cut back on, and with it the ceiling fans that dispersed the toxins filling up their house. From pesticides. They had all hallucinated the same thing, perhaps feeding each other’s imaginations.”
She sniffled, wiped her eyes. “Can you turn on the ceiling fans?”
Raymond licked his lips. “Okay. It’s decided. I’m playing nice husband tonight. Tea. Bath. Massage. Bed. How does that sound?”
Ling felt warm, peaceful.
The cat thing was dispersed by their love making, but when she dozed, she dreamed she was attending college in the 80s, sharing a house with two other versions of herself—child Ling and teenage Ling—when a gray cat materialized in their house and began replicating, filling in every inch of the living space, planting cat spores in their bodies and brains.
An unfamiliar sound roused her.
Green flashing light.
Raymond’s hands no longer cradled her belly, their Sophie.
She blinked, realizing it was her phone that had disturbed her. She squinted at it, shaming the blurriness into sense.
Ling’s throat constricted, heartbeat quickening.
I shouldn’t answer.
She remembered Raymond’s story, the dream.
That’s all it is. Hallucinations. Not cats. Not cats.
She picked up the phone.
Let it go to voicemail.
She answered. “Ma?”
“Ling, I talked to the monk.”
“Okay.” Ling shot up in bed, a chill running down her spine. She wrapped a blanket around her, juggling the phone between hands. “So … what happened?”
“Took me so long. I’m sorry. The first temple I went to I got into a fight with the monks there. They wouldn’t listen to me, but an old woman overheard what I was saying, and she sent me somewhere else, another temple, in the countryside. A monk there knew what I was talking about.”
“He’s come across such a demon before. He knows how to stop it.”
“A demon? Ma … I don’t think—”
“Listen to me. Time is short. It must have sniffed you out because of Sophie—that’s who it was after, but its timing was wrong, and so it hopped off the only way it could—like a crab or a chess elephant—backwards through time, to find you at a more vulnerable age and get its revenge. To steal your life force.”
“So what do we do?”
“I can’t aid you from here. You have to follow it yourself, stop it—before it finds you ….”
She waddled down the stairs.
The light of the television shone through the living room doorway at the bottom, carving a skewed blue polygon out of the darkness of the front hall. Raymond must have fallen asleep while packing in more episodes of Game of Thrones. Indeed, she found him sprawled out on the couch, snoring. He’d been into the liquor cabinet as well.
She shook him. “Raymond! Wake up!”
“Huh? What? Is it Sophie? Is Sophie coming?” He responded with his rote half-roll onto his feet.
“No. I need you to tell me where you buried the cat.”
“Oh, fuck’s sake.” He plopped back down, wringing his hair. “I thought we were done with cats! Lemme sleep.”
“Just tell me where you buried it.”
“Go back to bed, Ling.”
“I didn’t bury it. I dumped it in the trash.”
Trash pick-up wasn’t till Thursday morning, so the mangled carcass was still out in their driveway, interred in black plastic. A stroke of luck. She wobbled out of the living room and into the kitchen. Flicked on the lights, eyes working over the counter, considering the knife block, various kitchen tools hanging over the sparkling tile. According to her mother, the only way to destroy this creature was to dispatch it in a unique way each time she encountered it—nine times. Knives wouldn’t work anymore since she had already stabbed one to death in the past—or in the past future—her mind became entangled when she tried to apply language to the situation, both English and Chinese.
“Ling, what are you doing?” Raymond called from the other room, voice no longer sleep-trammeled.
“I need to find the cat and kill it.”
Huffing, she made her way to the utility room and found Raymond’s toolbox. Tore it open and dumped the contents on the floor. The clamor summoned Raymond to the doorway.
“What the hell?”
“I need your help! I need a weapon.” She groaned as she kneeled and began rummaging through the tools at her disposal.
Box cutter? Too similar to a knife.
Then her eyes lit up.
He watched her pick up the electric drill. “What are you doing with that?”
She checked the battery—fully charged. “Where are the—what do you call them?—the bits?”
“For Christ’s sake, Ling!”
“Where are they?”
The ice in her voice pierced into him. He went quiet, stooped down, and unrolled the felt scroll for her. She plucked out the largest of the bits and fumbled to fit it. He took it out of her hands, fit the bit—clumsily, either from drowsiness or drunkenness—then handed the drill back. She pulled the trigger; it whirred to life.
“What are you going to do with that, Ling?”
“Will you come with me?”
“Where are you going?”
“If I told you, you’d say ‘no,’ so I can only ask you to have faith in me, to come with me and help me find the cat.”
Raymond shook his head. “You’re not going to go mutilate that cat carcass, are you?”
“Not exactly.” She began to stand, when warm fluid gushed onto the tiled floor. Both of them stared at the spreading puddle for a moment.
She touched it, sniffed her fingers, and the intensity in her brown eyes softened for a moment.
“Your water broke,” Raymond whispered reverentially.
“We need to move fast.” She grunted, trying to stand, recovering her resolve.
He helped her up. “We’re getting you to the hospital. Put the drill down.”
“No, Raymond. We’re not going to the hospital. If I don’t find this cat, I’m going to die—Sophie too. Follow me.”
She tottered past him, through the connecting door to the foyer, cursing her massiveness.
Raymond snapped his fingers. “The hospital bag! Let me go get it. Maybe you should change clothes, Ling. I’ll grab you a sweatshirt and those stretchy pants. Wait down here, will you?”
She watched her half-drunk husband clamber up the stairs. She’d already secured the hospital bag in the trunk of her car that morning. Figured she had several minutes before he checked down there—possibly enough time for her to find the cat.
She slipped into her running shoes, threw on a jacket over her flannel nightgown, stuffed the drill into the pocket, and opened the door.
The cold night air brought on the first labor pain, tightening knots that gradually entangled surrounding nerve structure. Her legs gave out and she leaned over the railing, a couple of steps above the paved walk that wound around to the driveway, waiting for it to end. After a minute or so, the pain retreated, and she continued down, puffing.
More amniotic fluid dripped down her inner thigh. Or was it blood? She could not bring herself to check. If she found blood—which every baby book in the universe concurred was bad news for mama and little one alike—she might not be able to go through with this plan of her mother’s.
Nine revolutions, she had said.
The trash bin stood guard by the garage door at the top of the driveway. She opened the lid and was struck by a gag-inducing warmth. The bag must have torn open beneath the weight and haphazard pokes of the intervening days’ trash. She could hear things down in the bin—buzzing, wriggling busy-ness.
She shut the lid and began to walk backwards, counterclockwise around the trash bin. The first step she took, she felt something pushing against her, as if she were a nock pressing up against some vast, invisible bowstring. Gripping the top of the bin to maintain her balance, she shuffled through four revolutions, until she felt that the force up against her was too powerful. She glanced up and found to her amazement that the garage door and path to the front of the house had receded several yards from her. She and the trash bin sat in the center of a depression, not down into the ground, but away from everything else.
She eased down onto her hands and knees and now crawled backwards, managing several more revolutions—only three more to go. She stopped, panting, and the second labor pain struck her.
She cried out, rolling onto her side; it made the pain more tolerable, though she couldn’t fathom why, could only squeeze her eyes shut and wait.
Not now, Sophie. Not now. Give me more time. Just a little more.
She opened her eyes.
The pain had passed.
The house, the woods, they were now distant mirages in a stretched-out whorl of concrete, nocturnal sounds echoing down into the depression as if through an empty parking garage.
She continued to crawl. For the last revolution, she had to worm her way backwards, face and belly and legs scraping against the rough cold of the concrete, every inch its own special torture. She grunted, screamed, then heard Raymond’s voice traversing the concrete wasteland: “Ling? What the fuck?”
All of the tension snapped.
She blinked and pushed herself up to a kneeling position, glancing around. The trash bin had imploded into a warped funnel, its interior a hybrid of durable polyethylene and dripping refuse, stretching further back into otherness.
She scanned the horizon and found the frantically gesticulating pinpoint of Raymond.
“Raymond! I’m okay! Sophie’s okay! I have to go in deeper—”
“To find the cat.”
Raymond had no words, but she knew him, knew he was thinking about folie à deux or some other convenient psychological escape hatch—at the end of all this, he would still explain away events according to a gas leak or underground chemical deposit or solar flare or anything other than what Ling was actually experiencing.
She approached and peered inside the trash bin funnel. It narrowed to a small hole with frayed edges, as if something had scratched its way through to the other side. She climbed over the lip of the funnel and descended on hands and knees—past disturbing odors and swaths of squirming insect life. She reached the hole and with grimy hands tugged at the sharp flaps of sheared plastic, ripping it wider for her own entry.
Beyond twisted a tunnel like the interior of a strand of fusilli, full of a shimmering, musky gas. It passed not through the ground, but a series of frozen, warped tableaux. The first scene depicted the apartment where she’d lived with her sister in Maryland—right around the time she’d met Raymond—the aftermath of her snapping the cat’s spine. The tunnel jinked away, towards the alley in Austin where the cat had been crushed by a falling chair. She crawled down, past Austin and into undergrad at UVA, where the gray cat had succumbed to a bowl of antifreeze. Ling screamed out as another surge of labor pain consumed her but managed this time to keep moving, inching around a widening bend.
The labor pain dissipated, and she found herself in 1996, the pond in the backyard of her childhood home in Buffalo. The tunnel curled around her stick-thin sixteen-year-old self and through a rip in the frozen ripples of water.
She pulled out the drill, tested it and duck-walked into the darkness of 1992, the crawl space beneath her home.
Farther back. Farther down.
Back porch in winter. Blood splattered over the rattan furniture and two girls—Ling and Xiaofei, the former comforting the latter, shielding her from the sight of the dismembered cat—or rather where a cat should have been—Ling realized that in each scene she passed through, the creature was missing. Each time it had escaped backwards.
The kitchen. The edges of linoleum were curled and discolored, smeared with blood where bits of mutton had been licked up, the mutton she had used to lure the cat into the oven. There she was at four years old, gazing at the oven from a safe distance. It was splintered open by what must have been massive claws, red heating coils splayed out like flagella.
The tunnel’s exit.
She emerged into a dark room. There was just a sliver of light shining beneath a door’s threshold, illuminating an inch-wide bar of carpet.
She waited for more of the scene to resolve, statue-still, heart hammering.
The air smelled rotten with that thick musk from the time tunnel. She heard something breathing in the darkness, deep inhalation.
She remembered her cell phone and removed one hand from the drill and dug into her coat pocket. Pulled it out, activated the light. The weak, narrow beam illuminated a halo of vertical white bars several yards away. She guided the light to the left, passing over more bars—crib, her pregnant-mother mind was quick to decide. The light found its edge and then passed beyond, illuminating familiar (though outdated) aspects of a nursery.
Then her breath caught.
She collapsed onto the carpet. Felt as if every muscle were being compressed, every mole of oxygen being squeezed out of her—no labor pain, unlike anything she’d experienced before. She lay there, shuddering, hands clawing at her throat. The drill and phone had tumbled aside, but by some fortune the light of the phone angled back towards the crib.
She saw now what she had overlooked there.
A form hulked over the bars of the crib. Gray, furry, bulbous. Behind it waved multiple tails webbed together like a bat wing. Several pairs of claws gripped the rails. Another pair clutched a limp infant to its mouth, sucking its face. The head, more insectile than feline, was a strategy of milky eyes, its sneering lips tracking towards fleshy conchs, mazy as inner ears. The eyes may have been watching her, but it was too focused on the baby to cease what it was doing. The child, Ling saw, swaddled in pink, was gray and shriveled, either dead or close enough to be discounted as such. With each breath of the cat, Ling felt the timing of those compresses and understood what was happening.
The baby was her thirty-two years ago. She was being de-souled, one breath at a time.
She reached out with arms as gray and wrinkled as the infant’s and grabbed ahold of the drill. She attempted to inhale, to gather some final bit of strength, but her throat only managed a dry wheeze. Catching Ling’s movement, the creature perked up, letting the child droop away from its strange mouth. The baby gasped, dim color flaring back to life in its skin, and a surge of power coursed through the adult Ling.
She scrambled to her feet, hoisted her weight forward, crashing into the side of the crib. The drill spun to life, boring into one of those conical organs. The demon screeched through discordant panpipes, a hemisphere of its head deflating, and baby Ling dropped into the crib, screaming, screaming, blood and life flowing back into her little body.
Ling yanked out the drill and pumped the trigger again, ramming the blurring bit into another one of the bizarre conch organs. Geysers of opalescent gas, sparkling in the dim ambience of the phone’s light, erupted from the wounds, the musk overpowering.
The creature scuttled backwards, ripping the drill free with one of its claws and Ling grabbed the baby, intending to set it safely out of harm’s way, but the creature shifted its weight, toppling the crib.
Months ago, Ling had typed up the perfect birthing plan, printed it, and tacked it to the wall over the desk in their home office, where she could pass by and peruse it at her will, making the odd amendment.
Brian Eno’s Thursday Afternoon would be playing softly on repeat.
The lights would be dimmed with electronic candles spaced throughout the birthing room.
The pillows would be sprayed with lavender.
Raymond would be at her side, holding her hand, coaching her in the useless but sweet way of a good husband.
Dr. Fielding and a nurse would be guiding Sophie out into the world.
She would have an epidural.
She had not imagined that when labor began in earnest she would be back in Buffalo, 1980, cradling her infant self, a time demon crushing her belly—but she could not hold Sophie off any longer. The child had dispatched her message that it was time to be born. Ling’s months of reading and training took over. She breathed and panted, one hand pushing the sagging, grotesque head out of her line of sight, the other arm protecting infant Ling from the dying demon.
The pain had intensified. Wave after wave assaulted her body, each one crashing farther and farther afield, till the childbirth flared out of her fingertips.
The cat-thing continued to squeal through its atrocity show of a mouth, shriveling as the air grew more rotten with its sparkling blood gas, its claws sunk into Ling’s legs and sides and belly.
Time seemed to have grown still around the three of them—the birthing mother, the crying child, and the monster.
Where are my parents? Can’t they hear our screams?
It was not until a couple of hours into the ordeal when Ling’s roving mind understood that there was something else wrong with this scene, with this room, but she repressed the thought, would not let it mature. She was too locked into the machinery of birthing.
“Come on, Sophie,” she chanted. “I love you, baby. I love you. Come out. Come meet Mommy.”
Several more hours passed. Infant Ling finally slept. The cat had shrunk down to a flat pelt, its claws relinquishing her flesh. Soon the carcass began bubbling and at last vanished, and the cloud of blood that had glamored the room started to thin out.
A new voice entered the scene, and Ling held Sophie in her arms, wrapping her in one of the extra swaddling blankets in the overturned crib. (SIDS hazard, her modern mind critiqued her parents of thirty years ago.) Then the placenta came—and the cloud of blood had fully evaporated. She reached for her phone and cut off the light. Now it was just the three of them in the darkness, her cradling a crying Sophie, who woke baby Ling to join in for the chorus.
Then she heard voices. The door swung open, and she gazed over at her mother and father, laughably ‘80s with frizzy hair and mustache, harried from sleep deprivation and the alarm call of crying infants. The pair were dumbstruck, mouths gaping.
She was about to speak, to attempt some explanation, when two hands emerged from the floor, wedged underneath her armpits and began to pull. She tried to resist, but felt that vast bowstring pressing against her. The babies were ripped from her arms and everything washed away, as if she had clicked through to the next image of a three-dimensional slideshow.
Raymond lifted her out of the trash and into the October night. Back into 2012.
That was when the latent thought sprang forth—Xiaofei had been missing from the nursery.
A pale, skinny Ling emerged from Bridgewater Mental Institution, hair entirely silver, cropped short, wearing a pair of huge, square sunglasses she’d bought at CVS during one of the weekend fieldtrips into town. She no longer wore a wedding band or engagement ring. To his credit, Raymond had stood by her for eight months before the divorce.
It was eight months after her institutionalization that Ling decided she would lie. She lied that the antipsychotics had finally begun to kick in. There’d never been any cat demon. She suspected it had been a case of fetal abduction, an obscure crime she had come across during her months of reading at the hospital. She had left the house the night labor began, intending to wait for Raymond in the car. Two of the thieves seized her and began to extract the fetus. A third waited for Raymond to emerge from the house, then chloroformed him. When Raymond came to, he found his wife, minus child, stuffed into the trash bin. During one of his visits in the hospital cafeteria, Ling presented him with this alternative possibility of the events of that night.
He nodded, and when she found his eyes, she understood that their maimed marriage was dead at last.
As it happened, one of the demon’s claws had embedded itself in her belly around the location where a forced Caesarean section might have been performed, lending further credibility to her story, even if the punctures were too narrow for a fetus to pass through. Her psychiatrists and therapists and Dr. Fielding were as willing to overlook this discrepancy as Raymond was.
Weeks after the conversation in the cafeteria, the papers arrived. Raymond never again contacted his ex-wife.
There were times, especially towards the approach of her discharge date, when she tossed and turned on the lumpy mattress in her locked room, listening to the sounds of the hospital around her—times when she was struck with guilt. Raymond deserved the truth.
The taxi waited for her at the end of the long drive over the meticulously landscaped hospital grounds. The fires of autumn had been extinguished. Only a scattering of gray leaves clung to low limbs.
“Washington Dulles, please.”
Tomorrow, she would fly to Beijing to be reunited with her family. A bittersweet homecoming. She’d waited so long to see her parents. Her sister.
She laughed aloud, and the driver scrutinized her through the rearview mirror.
“Not really.” Ling’s voice cracked. Hidden by the sunglasses, tears brimmed out of her eyes.
Nothing funny about it at all. Raymond should be accompanying her for the reunion. After all, Xiaofei was his daughter too.
Tim Boiteau lives in Michigan with his wife and son. He is a Writers of the Future winner and author of the dark fantasy novel “The Drummer Girl.” His short fiction has appeared in Deep Magic, LampLight, Dream of Shadows, and previously at The Colored Lens.