They had been there for five days—two weeks after Mr. Price had died—before the cat turned up. Alice found it first, dozing on the porch in a warm pool of sunlight, its tiny gray belly rising up and down. She thought it would be better to leave the thing undisturbed and brought the mail back inside.
“Mom?” she said, walking toward the sitting room at the back of the house. “Mom, there’s a cat on the porch.”
“A cat?” This was Nina, Alice’s daughter, who was just waking up and coming downstairs.
Alice’s mother didn’t move from where she sat. She had been like this since her husband’s memorial. She had barely moved, had barely spoken. If she had felt good, she probably would have mentioned how late it was—it was nine a.m.—and how Nina should make an effort to rise earlier—even her summer vacation was no excuse—and that she herself barely ever slept and had been awake since four.
Her kids—Alice, Raymond, and Lindsay—were still hanging around the house with the bags they’d packed to hold them over for a few nights. They spoke to each other in whispers, made sandwiches, and took advantage of the HBO.
Alice had barely taken any time off since she’d started work at the design firm six years ago, so her boss happily let her take the week. She urged their mother to eat and to drink. One morning, Alice had even tried to entice her with a bowl of grits creamed with butter and salt, but it hardened, uneaten, and was scooped into the garbage. Alice answered the home phone, which rang every half-hour with another one of her mother’s friends seeing if she was okay.
Lindsay, the reluctant new head of the family, taught his niece how to play Gin Rummy. He was in-between jobs, as he often was, so their father’s death had “come at the perfect time, actually.” He had mentioned more than once to Alice that their inheritances were saving his “goddamn life.”
An uptight financial advisor, their father had worked constantly and rarely, if ever, had he indulged his family with the money he’d made. It had been in his blood to bargain, to clip coupons, to buy the generic brands even when they could have afforded it. Now that he was gone, the money was all theirs—“Thank God.”
Raymond, the second eldest, asked his niece about college and her plans for a major. He made business calls and typed up quick emails to colleagues, sometimes using the computer in their late father’s office. He tried and failed to give Lindsay some pointers for improving his resumé.
The week had bled into Wednesday and all four of them, again, had stayed.
“Yeah, there’s a cat on the porch,” Alice repeated, tossing the mail onto the side table next to her mother, who glared at her quickly before looking back out of the window.
“A cat on the porch,” Mrs. Price said quietly and, although it was almost whispered, hearing her mother make noise made Alice jump just a little.
“What’s going on?” Raymond asked, entering the room behind Nina.
“There’s a cat,” Nina said.
“A cat?” Lindsay asked, entering the room behind Raymond.
“Yeah, there’s a cat on the porch,” Alice said again. A layer of familial exhaustion thickened her voice. “Doesn’t have a collar. Seems really young. Maybe we should take it to the vet? I don’t know.”
Without speaking, Mrs. Price stood and walked past the four others. They followed her out to the front porch where she scooped the cat up into her arms and then looked back at them. Her long swirls of silver hair had succumbed to time and the darkness under her eyes was like the black below two half-moons.
“Well, is somebody going to drive me to the vet or should I do it myself?”
A command disguised as a question.
Once they had seen the vet, the cat came home with them. There had been no earmites, no roundworms, no leukemia or fleas. No microchip had been found between its shoulder blades.
Mrs. Price ate lunch that day and began to move around. She kissed her granddaughter on her cheek and said she was so proud of her and that her grandpa was too. She clung to the cat like a newborn baby. Raymond went out and bought cat food and a collar and a litter box. Lindsay knew his mother was doing better when she said, “How long before you actually find a job?”
Because of the cat, they kissed her cheek and packed up their things, finally comfortable leaving.
A few weeks passed before Lindsay called Alice at work.
“Hey, Sis,” he said.
“Hi, what’s up?”
Alice only half-listened to what Lindsay said next. She was in the middle of typing up an important email.
“Al, are you listening? Why do I even ask; I know you aren’t listening,” Lindsay huffed into the phone. “Al, seriously. It’s about Mom.”
“Okay, I’m sorry,” Alice said, closing her laptop altogether. “I’m all yours, what’s going on?”
“I went to Mom’s house last night just to see how she’s doing, and… Alice, I don’t think she’s doing very well.”
“What do you mean? Is she sick?” Alice asked.
“No, I don’t think so. I mean, maybe. I’m not a doctor. It’s nothing urgent.”
“She thinks our dad is back from the dead. I think you should just go over there and talk to her.”
Checking the time and realizing it was almost her lunch hour, she immediately got off the phone with Lindsay and grabbed her car keys in a panic. She knew that if she waited until after work she would spend the rest of the day worrying.
“Ali!” her mother exclaimed when she answered the door.
“Hey, Mom, everything okay?”
“Yes, of course! Aren’t you working today?”
“I’m on my lunch break.”
“Well, let me make you a salad. And cherries, Lord, I have so many cherries.”
The two of them went to the kitchen where Alice dug into the cherries while closely observing her mother, who was chopping vegetables with a butcher’s knife. Alice spat the bloody pits into a napkin.
Her mother had always been a little odd, a little eccentric. She had always said exactly what was on her mind without regard to others, despite her tendency towards piety.
When Alice was young, her mother would get into fights with all of the other mothers. Mrs. Price found the women who raised the children that attacked her own and went straight for the throat. Alice remembered many school functions that had ended in screaming. Her piano recitals. Raymond’s football games. Lindsay’s spelling bees. Although she knew her mother would never change, and especially not recognize the flaws that needed changing, Alice had eventually come to see this as a comfort. A constant.
“Where’s the cat? He doing okay?”
“Oh, yes, he’s doing fantastic. He’s around here somewhere, probably upstairs in the office. He’s always in there.”
After enjoying a perfectly normal salad and a perfectly normal glass of lemonade, she gave her mother a hug. Alice had expected hysterics. Praying. Strewn-about Bibles. Perhaps candles lit around an altar of old photographs. Instead, her mother was in the highest spirits she’d been in since the funeral. Lindsay must have misunderstood.
“It’s so good to see you this happy again,” Alice said as they stepped outside.
It was hot to an unbearable degree that day. The heat pulsed with a steady drone. Alice slapped a gnat that had landed onto the slick of her shoulder, then broke the dead thing in half trying to get it off the slick of her palm.
“I am happy,” her mother answered.
“Mom, everything’s okay, right? Lindsay called me a bit worried about you.”
“Worried about me? And he couldn’t have come to me about it?”
“Well, you know how overly reactive Lindsay can be. It was something about Dad. But he probably just misunderstood the grieving process.”
“Oh,” she said quietly. “Yes, I suppose I should tell you this too.”
“Tell me what, Mom?”
Mrs. Price’s eyes shimmered with tears.
“Is something wrong, Mom? Just tell me.” Alice’s heart beat quick and hard.
“Nothing’s wrong! Everything’s perfect.”
Mrs. Price’s face became solemn, her smile falling, her brow furrowing. She stepped towards her daughter and gripped her elbow.
“Listen to me. This is important.”
“I said nothing’s wrong! Everything is perfect. It’s nothing bad. It’s something godly.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Mom! You’re scaring me.”
“Your father isn’t dead,” she said bluntly.
So it was true. She did believe it.
When Alice didn’t respond, her mother, with the wide eyes of an awestruck child, moved close to her face and whispered, “I don’t know how or why, Ali, but he’s come back. I can’t explain it. I just feel it. If you saw it, you’d know. The cat! It’s Daniel. It’s your father. It’s his soul in there. Like I said, I don’t know how or why. But the cat, it’s Daniel! It’s Daniel.”
Alice said nothing, so she went on.
“Daniel loved sitting on the porch. Do you remember that? He always said he wanted to get fresh air and rest his eyes, but really it was just an excuse to nap.”
Alice only stared back at her, so she went on.
“That’s where we found him, Ali! Asleep on the front porch. But there are more things. There are more coincidences. His favorite place in the house is the office, where Daniel always spent so much time, doing this and that for the firm. And the chair in the living room, Daniel’s chair, he’ll lay in it while I watch television. And he watches it with me! He sleeps in my bed with me. It’s just as if he never left. Because he didn’t, I guess. My Danny. My Danny didn’t leave me.”
Mrs. Price grinned brightly through the three tears that rolled down her face. Alice swallowed hard, not moving or breathing. The acid of the lemonade had begun to make her mouth burn.
“Danny!” Mrs. Price called suddenly.
“Danny come here!”
A few moments later, the cat trotted out onto the front porch. Alice flinched when it ran its furry side along her leg.
“Don’t be scared, Ali,” Mrs. Price said. “It’s your father. Isn’t he more loving than he used to be? So sweet.”
She picked the cat up and held him out towards Alice proudly. “Say hello to your father.”
Alice peered back into the eyes of the cat and saw nothing of familiarity. The cat’s eyes were green and her father’s had been brown. It blinked tiredly, bored.
“Say hello to your father, Ali,” Mrs. Price said.
“Hello,” Alice croaked.
“You think I’m crazy, don’t you?” Her smile fell. “I swear I’m not. I wouldn’t believe it if it hadn’t happened. I wouldn’t believe it if I were you.”
“No, I don’t think you’re crazy,” Alice murmured finally. “Mom, I really have to get back to work.”
Mrs. Price nodded, disappointed.
Alice turned and hurried off the porch. She backed out of the driveway and beeped the car horn at her mother, who was waving with one arm and holding the cat with the other. The moment Alice turned back onto the main road, she started to cry.
When Nina came home from a friend’s house that evening, Alice was crying on the shoulder of Parker, the man she’d been seeing for the last six months. Alice knew this was a mistake because she wasn’t as attracted to him as she’d hoped she would be. Parker was sweet, though, and did favors without asking.
“Why don’t I leave you two to talk for a while? I’ll go pick up some takeout,” Parker said, and stood.
His eyes were always earnest and his sandy hair issued a constant cowlick like a little boy, which he tried to press down with his fingers every few minutes. He barely made eye contact with Nina as he hurried out.
“There he goes again,” Alice sniffed. “Doing favors without asking.”
“He’s whipped,” Nina agreed.
She sat on the sofa next to her mother, who took a breath before telling her that her grandmother believed the cat to be her dead grandfather. Alice was surprised to see Nina unmoved.
“Don’t you find this as disturbing as I do?” she sputtered.
Nina pursed her lips analytically and thought for a moment as a college student would before answering. “Not disturbing, no. It’s a little weird, sure, but… I mean, who’s to say whether or not reincarnation exists?”
“What? You can’t tell me you really believe in that stuff.”
“I don’t, not really. But Sara told me once about her half-brother who her grandmother swears is the reincarnate of her grandfather. Like, he acts exactly like him. I don’t know, old people can be strange like that.”
“You don’t think she’s sick?”
Nina shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t know.”
They were both silent for a minute before Nina added, “I like your hair up in a bandana like that. Very chic.”
Alice, horrified at her disinterest, opened her mouth to redirect the conversation, but Nina said, “I’m going to go shower,” and left the room.
Her conversation with Nina did little to put Alice at ease, so she called Raymond.
“Dad? She really thinks it’s Dad?”
“Yes,” Alice cried into the phone, gripping it like a lifeline and relieved by his concern.
“Ali, you don’t have to cry. Don’t be so dramatic.”
“We just lost Dad and now we’re losing Mom,” she sobbed.
“Ali, calm down. Now you’re freaking me out too. Jesus Christ.”
“I think the three of us, we should go over this weekend and just make sure she’s okay. Don’t you think? Don’t you think we should? I just don’t know what to do.”
Raymond exhaled loudly into the phone. “Yes. I guess you’re right.”
“You weren’t there, you don’t know how weird Mom was acting. Like, not herself. Well, not not herself. Herself but much worse.”
“Okay, Jesus, I get it. I’ll probably have to cancel a few things, but you’re right. We should make sure she’s okay.”
When Alice got off the phone, she called Lindsay.
“Saturday, then?” he asked.
“I can do that.”
“What if it’s true? Like, what if the cat, I don’t know, is somehow Dad?”
Silence. Then, “Don’t be stupid, Al.”
“What if it’s Dad, though?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I mean, I was never that close with him. I don’t know if I care to find out whether or not it’s him.”
He paused before exclaiming, “Would you listen to us? The cat is not Dad.”
Alice called ahead and told her mother that they were all coming for dinner on Saturday—Alice, Lindsay, Raymond. Parker thought Alice needed the extra support so he insisted that he come along, too. He was very cheesy about it. “Ali, let me be there for you,” or something to that effect.
“Oh, this is so last minute,” her mother said, although Alice had phoned her about the dinner on the previous Wednesday afternoon. “The house is a disaster. I’ll have to go grocery shopping, I’ll have to clean everything…”
Alice worked on her assignment while her mother went on.
The four of them arrived, all tight smiles and nerves. Their childhood home was honeyed in the glow of the sun just beginning to set. A tropical humidity belied a mild, cool breeze. It sent goosebumps up Alice’s arms, which Parker wouldn’t stop stroking. This did not soothe her.
“I’m fine, Parker, thank you,” she said as they climbed the stairs to the porch just as her brothers pulled into the driveway. Raymond had given Lindsay a ride.
“Why are you in your work clothes?” Alice asked Raymond as the two made their way across the lawn.
“I was called in today, just for a few hours.”
“You’ve met Parker before.”
“Yes, we’ve met,” Parker said eagerly. “Raymond. Lindsay.” He shook their hands and pawed nervously at his cowlick.
Lindsay said, “I’m guessing you know about the…”
“Yes, he knows,” said Alice.
The front door opened.
“I thought I heard voices.” Their mother was still in an apron. “Come on in. The house is a mess, though. I wish you’d warned me a lot earlier.”
The four of them followed her inside. Everything was just as clean and uncluttered as it always was. They were all wondering when they would see the cat.
“Thank you for having us, Mrs. Price,” Parker said.
“Aren’t you just the sweetest?”
They sat down at the table and dug in. Alice wasn’t very hungry. She nibbled at her bread amid the comments from her mother to “please, please, eat” because there was “enough food to feed an army.” Then, to Parker, “Parker, aren’t you just the sweetest? And so thin—please, please eat because there’s enough food to feed an army.”
“So, Mom,” Lindsay began during dessert. “Where is… Dad?”
Alice couldn’t help but wince.
“Oh, I let him outside quite a bit. He always comes back. And it’s better for me to not have to scoop the litter box so often. You know how I live alone. It’s a lot to do all by myself and he enjoys time in the yard, always has.”
“Mom,” Raymond murmured. “This is not normal.”
“What isn’t normal?”
“This thing with the cat! It isn’t normal. Dad’s gone. He died almost two months ago.”
“I know he died. But he came back for me.”
“He didn’t, Mom. He did not.”
Alice had always hated confrontations and arguments. She felt like a soda can on the verge of exploding. Her pulse quickened, her hands shook.
“Maybe we should—” Alice began, but was cut off by her mother.
“Maybe you should all go.” Mrs. Price stood and left the room.
Alice, Parker, Raymond, and Lindsay sat at the table for a moment not knowing what to do, not knowing if they should press the matter further.
“You shouldn’t have gone about it like that,” Lindsay finally hissed at his brother.
“You just sat there and did nothing! Don’t blame me for trying.”
“Shut up,” Alice scolded, feeling about eight years old. “Shut up.”
“You should all leave!” Mrs. Price shouted from the other room. “Don’t bother clearing the dishes! Just leave!”
“Maybe we ought to go and leave her alone for a while,” Parker said gently, placing his hand on Alice’s back.
“She’s in denial of the whole thing,” Raymond exclaimed as they made their way out of the dining room. “It’s just foolish.”
“Oh my God, please stop talking until we get out of the house,” said Alice.
The sun had just set when they walked onto the porch. Stifling humidity hit like a wall. The trees and grass were buzzing with life and it made Alice feel achingly melancholy.
“She just has to figure it out for herself,” Raymond spat, quickening his pace. “There’s nothing else to—” He stopped walking.
“Shit, how did we not see that?”
On the driveway behind the tire of Raymond’s jeep, the cat’s head and tail were intact, but the rest of it had been pressed flat into the concrete.
None of the four turned around as they heard the sound of the screen door being thrown open and slammed closed, heard Mrs. Price’s footsteps approaching them. Alice could make out, faintly as if underwater, that Mrs. Price was yelling something, something furious and cruel, probably. She was nauseated with dread.
The footsteps stopped. There was silence. Mrs. Price stumbled forward and fell in front of them onto the concrete of the driveway. The worst part of it all was that there was no screaming to slice up the silence. She only sat, quivering, crying without noise. Lindsay and Raymond made their way over to her.
Alice watched her mother silently. She looked so small that Alice wondered how anyone could be frightened by her. It made her think of love and loss and loneliness—three consecutive swells of grief in her chest within a span of a few seconds. Ow, she thought, like a kid would. Without thinking, she reached selfishly for Parker’s hand and squeezed. She felt his pulse quicken beneath his skin.
Then Parker squeezed back, more tightly than she, and Alice quickly thanked God that she hadn’t yet said goodbye.