Mr. Katzenburger’s Cat
My grandmamma said that people who could see and speak to the dead were special people. She said they were born with a cowl over their faces or they came from families that had “special powers” so to speak. As far as I ever knew, neither of those things had ever been the case for me. If you’d asked her, she’d have also told you it was a sin, too. That the scriptures clearly say that seeking council from the dead was strictly forbidden. You could look to the case of King Saul when he went to visit the Witch of Endor if you needed proof. As born again, Bible believing Baptists had no business trying to contact the other side.
She never told me what I should do when the other side came to me.
The call came during my second period. I heard the vibration but I ignored it since we weren’t allowed to use our phones at work. Two minutes later the “ping” sounded from inside my desk and I knew there would be a message for me. I could check it at lunch and I continued my class without giving it a second thought.
I pulled my cell phone out at lunch and I was surprised to learn that the message was from a Firm called Holden and Straight. I wondered why a group of lawyers would need to contact me and I wished I hadn’t checked my mail. The question lingered and gnawed at me for the rest of the day. Getting a call from a bunch of lawyers was a lot like getting called to the principal’s office, and I pretty much felt the same sense of foreboding and dread that I had experienced in elementary school. Why would lawyers need to call me? Had I done something wrong? Was I in trouble? Was I being sued? I wracked my brain to think if I had inadvertently broken a law or perhaps been the sole witness to a crime. Nothing came to mind and I mentally wrangled with it until the 3:20 bell rang- signifying the end of my working day- I dialed the number with dread tangled in my heart.
The secretary informed me that she was “not at liberty to discuss such information over the phone” and I “needed to come right over,” but did not elaborate. That, I concluded could not be good news. The lawyer’s office was downtown but my husband was en route to meet me for our weekly dinner date and trip to the grocery store. It was our reward for being good parents all week. My folks would watch the kids while we took a much needed break for a couple hours. Mark pulled up to the back of the school and I hopped into the passenger side and informed him of our “change in plans”. He wondered aloud the same questions that I had been asking myself all day, and since I had no answers I snapped at him. He sensed my anxiety. “Maybe it’s something good. Maybe you won the lottery or have a rich uncle that passed away and left you his estate.” He tried to comfort me and patted my hand. “Let’s just go over there and find out before we jump to conclusions.”
He made it sound easy.
The office was located in a pale gray Victorian just off Cherry Street. I had walked by it several times when we lived in town and thought it quite pretty until right up to that minute. The secretary knew me as soon as I walked inside. “Mrs. Smith is here.” She drawled into the phone before I even had time to introduce myself. “My nephew Maddox was in your class,” she said to my unasked question.
My eyes bugged. Oh, Maddox, yes, there was no forgetting that kid. Ever. I pasted a fake smile on my face and pretended to be delighted. “How is Maddox these days?”
“Doing time for stealing vending machines.”
Oh. I was not expecting that. I had no reply but I heard my husband muffle a laugh behind me.
“Mr Holden’s waiting for you,” she motioned to the room on our right. “Go on in.”
Glad for the reprieve, I mumbled “Thank you” and we slipped in to the room behind her. Walter Holden didn’t look as scary as my principal in the 4th grade so we shook his hand and he motioned for me to sit.
“We’ll get right to it,” The lawyer leaned across his desk at me. “I’ve brought you here to inform you that you’ve received an inheritance.”
My husband nudged me and raised his eyebrows. The “see I told you so” look.
Wait. An inheritance meant that someone died. My hopes crashed almost instantly.
“An inheritance,” I mumbled, “but who--” I didn’t have time to finish.
“A Mr. H.M. Katzenburger.”
I stared at him blankly.
“H. M. Katzenburger.” My husband repeated and his face crumpled then he looked back to me. “Wait, who is H.M. Katzenburger?”
I shook my head. None of this was making sense. I mumbled that I didn’t know him.
“Are you sure? He lived in 801 Belview Estates.”
My mouth made an “O”. Belview Estates. Those were the apartments behind our house. Well, to be exact, there was several acres of wooded land between our properties, but in the winter when the trees were bare I could see the dark brick of the building. Belview Estates, he was a neighbor…sort of… I got that part. H.M. Katzenburger I had no clue.
I shrugged. “I think you got the wrong gal.” I suggested.
“Lauren Smith, 105 Sherman Drive,” The lawyer continued. “High School History teacher,” He motioned to a stack of papers on his desk. “It’s all in here. You want me to continue?”
I shook my head. It sounded like me, but my husband tired of the game.
“What exactly, did my wife inherit, Mr. Holden?”
“Bartholomew. An Eight year old grey tabby.”
“Excuse me?” My husband found his voice before I did.
“Mr. Katzenburger’s cat, Bartholomew.”
“Mr. Katzenburger’s cat.” I repeated, just to be sure I had heard him correctly.
“Exactly.” The lawyer finished. “Now, all I need for you to do is sign here…”
“Wait. I inherited Mr. Katzenburger’s cat, Bartholomew. Are you kidding me? Is this a joke?”
“I assure you this is no joke.” He snapped, interrupting my tirade. “All the rest of his estate will be divided between his family members who are on their way from New York. However, due to the fact that Bartholomew is.. alive… and needs to be cared for I have authorized for you to take charge of him… immediately.”
“So my wife inherited a cat. From a complete stranger.” My husband interjected.
“That about sums it up.” Mr. Holden pushed the papers in front of me. “If you’ll sign here.”
“Don’t do it. This is bull crap. A cat? From a guy you didn’t know? What the heck kind of inheritance is that? We already have a cat, remember and he hates everybody. We need another one like we need a hole in our head. Don’t sign it. They can’t force you to take it.”
“But… His owner just died! We can’t just let him starve! He’s a living being!” For the first time I had a vision of a lonely cat in a kennel in the pound.
“Exactly. A living being that you’re going to have to take care of. Feed. Vet visits, shots. Do you know how expensive vet bills are?”
“Mr. Katzenburger has left you a small allowance to care for the cat.”
My husband stopped mid- sentence. His eyebrows shot up and I could tell he was envisioning a fortune in exchange for the cat.
“He was well off but not foolish in financial matters,” Mr. Holden informed my husband. “He has arranged a trust fund to care for the cat. Its 300 dollars a year until the cat passes.”
He gave me a disgusted sound, but 300 dollars would pay for his vet visits and food, I reckoned. I looked back at my husband and he crossed his arms across his chest. “What if we don’t like him? What if he’s psycho or something?”
“Then you give me a call and I find another home for him.” Mr. Holden said firmly. “Now, I need for you to hurry. I’d like you to go retrieve the animal. Tessa will meet you there. I’ve made arrangements for the super to let you in.”
“Wait. You don’t have the cat here?”
“Certainly not! He is at Mr. Katzenburger’s apartment. I’m deathly allergic to those… things. You have permission to retrieve him along with his food and belongings.”
I caught myself wondering at what kind of “belongings” a gray tabby could have. I had a mental image of packing a cat sized suitcase. Mr. Holden interrupted my daydream, ready for us to leave his office. “Best of luck to you.”
My husband looked over at me as I plopped into the passenger seat. “A dead guy’s cat. Well, this wasn’t how I was expecting our date night to go.”
“What should we do?”
“Go get him I guess. Looks like you just inherited yourself a cat.”
Thus we became the unlikely owners of Barthmolomew, Mr. Katzenburger’s Cat.
Tessa, Mr. Holden’s secretary was waiting on the bottom floor of the grey stone apartments, looking perturbed by the nature of her assignment. She was talking to a young man in blue coveralls when we pulled in to the parking space. I recognized the boy from high school. He had been in my class one semester but with so many students I had forgotten his name. I gave him a smile and said a friendly “Hey there!” As I approached.
Tessa had no time for small talk. “Dennis is going to let you in,” she pushed a cat carrier into my hands. “The cat’s inside. You can take his cat dish, food… whatever cats have. But don’t touch any of Mr. Katzenburger’s Jewish stuff.”
I took a step and stopped. My brow crinkled. “Jewish stuff?”
“Yah. All that Jewish stuff… you know Mr. Katzenburger was Jewish, right.”
No, I hadn’t but with a name like Katzenburger, it wasn’t much of a surprise. I wondered if, when I passed on some lawyer’s secretary would refer to my possessions as “Baptist stuff”. I paused to consider it and she gave me a doubtful look.
“Does that bother you?” She demanded like she was trying to start a fight. “That he was Jewish? That you inherited a dead Jewish guy’s cat?”
No, the thing that really bothered me was that I had inherited a complete stranger’s cat. That he didn’t have any family or close friends he felt comfortable leaving the cat with so he chose a random neighbor. I felt bad for both of them.
“No. Should it?” I asked but turned back to her. “I mean, is the cat Jewish too? We’re Baptist. Do you think he’ll go with us to church or should we take him to the synagogue?” I raised my eyebrows. “Could we feed him ham at Easter or is that forbidden?”
She grunted and ordered Dennis to let me in.
Dennis pushed the door open and she held her hand out. “He’s all yours.”
The apartment was packed to the gills with antiques, nic-nacs, books and about everything else you could imagine. It reminded me of the scene in the movie “National Treasure” where the heroes found the room laden with riches.
“Woah,” I heard Dennis breathe. “I always wanted to see what was in here. Mr. Katz sure had a bunch of old stuff.”
“All that’s antiques!” Tessa shouted but didn’t dare come in the door. “Don’t you dare touch nothin’!” Tessa snapped behind me. I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me or to Dennis but we both took it as an order. “Hurry up and get that fleabag so I can go home!”
Woah, Miss Congeniality she was not.
“Bartholomew, here kitty-kitty…” I called out and bent to peer under a table. I heard Dennis still wandering in the apartment and when the footsteps approached me I turned to make sure he wasn’t touching anything.
I jumped. The man that stood behind me wasn’t Dennis.
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” the man behind me said. “I’m Harold. I came to help you with the cat.”
I waited for my heart to start beating again. He was a nice looking man but not handsome. He was wearing one of those retro-seventies looking brown suits. His hair was dark and curly, a little long for my tastes but it completed the retro look. It was coming back into style, it seemed, I blamed that TV show.
“Hello,” I smiled. “I’m Lauren Smith. Were you, um, acquainted with Mr. Katzenburger?”
“We are—were-- related.”
“Oh!” Mr. Holden had made it sound like there weren’t any relations close by. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“It’s okay. He’s in a better place… or will be soon.” He laughed. I wasn’t really sure if that was a joke. “Anyway, I just came to make sure Bartholomew is settled. I’ll show you where to find all his belongings.”
Again, I had a mental picture of a cat sized suitcase.
“He has a lot of belongings, this cat?” I mused as I followed the man into the kitchen. He pointed to a pantry and told me the food was in there.
I flipped the light and looked inside. There was about twenty cans of the uber-expensive cat food in the tiny cans. I laughed and couldn’t help thinking that this cat ate better than some people.
“Expensive tastes.” I commented as I pulled the cat food out of the pantry.
“Only the best for Bartholomew. Your Chance likes it too.”
I froze, my hand in midair. “Chance? How do you know about Chance?”
Harold laughed from behind me. “Chance and Bartholomew were acquainted. They visited each other.” He pointed to the living room window. “They would go in and out through this window. Haven’t you ever wondered where Chance went every day?”
“I figured he was out hunting mice.”
“I’m sure he did, but he almost always came here to visit with Bartholomew and Mr. Katzenburger. Chance wore a tag with his name and address…”
“Oh, my gosh! THAT’S how Mr. Katzenburger got my name and address! I didn’t know him at all! Chance did!”
Harold laughed. “Exactly.” He motioned to a paper bag at my feet and I scooped the cat food inside. “Mr. Katzenburger didn’t have any family left here. His wife passed a couple years ago and he found this little grey kitten one day while he was out on a walk. With a name like Katzenburger he had to love cats, right? So he took it home with him. The kitten would say “Mew” and so he named him “Bartholomew”,” He laughed and shrugged at me. “I guess you could say the rest is history. Friends would come to visit from time to time but Bartholomew was his constant companion. Then Chance started paying them a visit every day. Mr. Katzenburger figured if you cared enough about your cat to keep a collar on him then you probably were a cat lover. He also knew that when he passed on Bartholomew would at least have a friend.”
I felt sadness and shame wash over me, inexplicably. “I’m sorry I never knew Mr. Katzenburger. I never knew anything about him, that maybe he needed a friend. I’m sad that my cat was a better neighbor than I was.”
“Oh well,” Harold smiled. “You’re here now, and that counts for something.”
I sighed. “I reckon so.”
I placed the last can of food in the bag and looked back up at Harold. “So that’s all of the food but I haven’t seen the cat.”
“There’s his bed.” He nodded toward a pillow in the corner of the room. “He’s not there so…He’s in the bedroom. Probably under the bed. “
How was I ever going to get this cat to come to me, a complete stranger? I lived with a cat and couldn’t get him to obey. What hope did I have with Mr. Katzenburger’s cat? I breathed a prayer and almost as in answer a plastic envelope of cat treats beckoned me from the pantry. Thank you, God. I snatched them up and looked back at Howard.
“Lead the way.”
He crooked his finger at me and I followed him. In the living room I found Dennis nosing around in Mr. Katzenburger’s bookshelf.
Like he reads. I thought to myself and when his hand hovered over a small figurine I used the voice I reserved for my students.
“Dennis Strickland! Do you feel like going to jail today?” I snapped. “You know good and well that we aren’t supposed to touch anything except the cat!”
Dennis dropped his hand and mumbled something like “He’s dead, he ain’t gonna miss it.” After too many years of teaching I had come to anticipate backtalk and I knew how to shut it down.
“Shame on you, Dennis! This was a man’s life, everything that was important to Mr. Katzenburger is in this apartment. He was a good man and his life needs to be respected! How’d you like it if a complete stranger came in and started looking through all your granddaddy’s stuff?”
I thought appealing to his decency would do it but instead he gave me a challenging look and I read it perfectly: “You ain’t the boss of me, Mrs. Smith. I’m not in high school anymore.” It seemed to say and I felt as though my head was going to spontaneously combust. Disrespect from a child was one thing but smart answers from a grown man who should know better made me rattlesnake mad.
I set my jaw and met his glare with one of my own. “You know what, Dennis? You’re a grown man. I can’t tell you what to do anymore.” He puffed his chest out when I said that but he wasn’t ready for what I was about to tell him: “The lawyers have already taken pictures of this apartment and all its contents. So, you know what I’m going to do? I’ m going to tell Tessa I caught you plundering in all Mr. Katzenburger’s “Jewish stuff” despite her instructions for you NOT to do so! I’m also going to have Mr. Holden inform the family that if one paperclip is out of place when the family gets here to press charges! So unless you wish to be implicated in a theft, I suggest you wait for us out in the hall!”
Dennis stuffed his hands in his coverall pockets and shuffled by me with a “Yes ma’am” and a glare that could curdle milk.
Harold’s dark eyes were the size of saucers but he smiled at me.
“Bravo, Mrs. Smith. You handled that expertly. Are you a lawyer?”
Any other time I might have been offended by that question, but given the circumstances I took it as a compliment.
“High school history teacher.”
“Almost as good then! However, I have one question:” he said as he continued on his way. “Jewish stuff? Really?”
I held up my hands in surrender. “Tessa’s words. Not mine. She told us to gather the ‘Cat’s belongings’ and not to touch any of Mr. Katzenburger’s ‘Jewish stuff.’ I thought it sounded sort of racist too.”
If he was offended by that, he certainly didn’t show it. “So you’re not Jewish, I assume.”
“Are you sure?”
I was pretty sure I was Baptist, yes, but he continued before I could speak.
“Must have gotten that nose at the mall then,” he joked and I smiled. “No ma’am. I think you’re one of us. Give or take a couple generations.” I didn’t argue, if we traced our history back far enough who knew what we’d find? “Bartholomew?” He called out and pointed to a corner room. “I think he’s back there.”
We entered a small, cluttered bedroom. The ornately carved bed was far too big for the room and all the other furnishings seemed cramped. Photographs in antique frames and old books were stacked on every possible place.
“Bartholomew? Here kitty.” He called.
A low growl answered him and my eyes bugged. It was almost demonic. It didn’t take much to figure his hiding place.
“You call him, he won’t come to me now.”
My brow crumpled. “Now?”
“Since… his owner passed.”
Whatever made him think he would come to me? I sighed and peeked under the bed, fully expecting to get my face scratched off by a possessed feline.
Instead I saw a large gray tabby. He looked at me with frightened eyes and I realized with a start that I knew this cat already! I had seen him wandering in the woods on the other side of the fence with Chance.
“Hey there stranger,” I crooned and despite my earlier assumptions he seemed to relax a bit when he saw me. “Come here Bartholomew, here kitty, kitty.” I coaxed him out with the cat snacks I had procured from the pantry. To my utter amazement he went obediently into the carrier without too much coaxing.
“I got him and I still have all my fingers!” I called out to Harold but no one answered. I wondered if he had stepped out of the room to make Bartholomew more comfortable. “Harold?”
My husband’s voice answered me. “Babe, where are you? Who are you talking to?”
“In here. Where did Harold go?”
I almost collided with my husband and Tessa as I exited the bedroom with the cat.
“Who’s Harold? I thought you said his name was Bartholomew.”
“His name is Bartholomew Katzenburger. I was just looking for Harold. He was just here.”
My husband and Tessa exchanged worried glances.
“Ain’t nobody been in that room since you sent the dumb guy out, honey.” Tessa popped her gum and it annoyed me.
“No. He came to help with the cat. He came in just after Dennis and I. Surely you saw him. I mean, he was standing right there.” I pointed to the center of the room.
“There hasn’t been anyone else in this room. You and Dennis. That’s all.” My husband tried to convince me but I wasn’t buying it. There were lots of people in the hall and he was a social butterfly. He found someone to talk about the football game and they simply missed Harold. “I was standing right there, Babe. I could see you when you kicked Dennis out. There wasn’t anyone else with you. You can ask Dennis if you don’t believe me.”
No thank you, after the tongue lashing I gave Dennis he would be the last person I’d ask.
I shook my head, trying to sort the thoughts that swirled in my head. The brown suit, the penny loafers, the dark eyes. There was no way I imagined all that.
“He said his name was Harold…” I was trying to convince myself more than them now.
“Harold… as in Harold Katzenburger?” Tessa asked me. “The dead guy.” She looked over at my husband. “I think your wife is one of those psychos.”
“Psychics,” he corrected under his breath, “and no, she’s not. She is however, highly imaginative and somewhat emotionally unstable right now. Look, Babe—“He walked to a photo on a side table. “See? This the guy?” He turned it to me.
My heart skipped a beat. I looked into the same eyes I had just seen minutes before. “That’s him!”
Tessa finally stopped popping her gum. “That’s Mr. Harold Katzenburger. The dead guy.”
I looked back up at my husband. “But… he spoke to me…”
Tessa leaned in like we were sharing secrets. “What’d he tell ya?”
“Where to find the cat’s stuff.”
“Well let’s grab it and scram. This place is giving me the creeps.”
My husband wholeheartedly agreed with Tessa’s advice. “Yep, let’s go before my wife makes any more acquaintances from beyond the grave.” He practically pushed me out of the apartment but I stopped halfway in the hall. “Wait, the cat’s bed.”
“Leave it.” Tessa bossed me and it made my scalp prickle.
“How would you like it if you moved and didn’t take your bed?” I growled.
“I’ll get it!” Mark snapped and waved his hands. “Take Mr. Whiskers out to the car.”
I walked outside the apartment where an odd assortment of neighbors and the curious had gathered. Not much happened in this apartment complex, apparently, and less in this town, if we had a paper then Mr. Katzenburger’s death would make the first page.
I refused to believe any of the earlier scenarios that Mark and Tessa had proposed. I was quite sure that my meeting with Harold was neither a figment of my overactive imagination nor had I had an encounter with the other side. I wasn’t psycho either, so in the absence of any better explanation then I had to believe that they were both distracted and I had, in fact, spoken to a living person.
I pushed my way through the gawking crowd and into the parking lot, still smarting from their accusations. It wasn’t a hot day, but I didn’t want to leave the cat inside nonetheless. I placed the cat carrier on the trunk and I looked up in time to catch a glimpse of the dark brown suit and curly head duck between two people in the crowd.
“Hey!” I shouted as Harold caught sight of me and I waved him to me. As he approached I wondered what I was going to say to him. “I really need you to go back in there with me so they’ll know I’m not psycho” was not really an option. I smiled sweetly and tried to take the gracious southern belle approach.
“I just wanted to thank you for helping me in there. My husband Mark is getting Bartholomew’s bed. If you’ll stay a minute I’d love to introduce him to you.”
“Well, it’s nothing, really and I’d love to meet him but I really have to be going…” He tried to weasel his way out of it, and despite the fact I was raised better I reached for him.
He leapt back like I had the plague or something. “Look, lady, don’t touch me” he spat. “You don’t understand--“he never got time to finish that sentence because I jumped in with both feet.
“No, you don’t understand! Nobody saw you back there! When I told them I spoke to a man in Mr. Katzenburger’s apartment they thought I was crazy! That Tessa thinks I’m one of them psychos that talk to dead people!”
“Psychic?” Harold’s eye brows rose. “Surely that’s what she means. Don’t worry Mrs. Smith. You certainly aren’t ‘psycho’. Tessa isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer if you’ll forgive my saying.”
“I know I’m not Psycho!” I shouted at a man in the parking lot and several people milling around the door of the apartment building turned to give me an uneasy look. I deflated almost instantly and hid behind my hand as if somehow, that would help. “I’m not emotionally unstable nor am I talking to dead folks either,” I hissed through my teeth. “We’re Baptist. We don’t play that game. We don’t believe in, much less speak to ghosts.”
“Well I for one am offended by that. Ghosts are spirits who refuse to cross over for whatever reason, and that is most assuredly, not the case here. I have only a few loose ends to tie up before I go, and now that Bartholomew is taken care of, I really must be on my way.”
“Wait, what?” His words registered in my brain and everything around me came to a screeching halt. “Say again.” I ordered him like I would one of my students.
“I said I haven’t refused to cross over, I just have a few loose ends to tie up first.”
I stared at him, open mouthed. I know my momma would say it was rude but I couldn’t manage anything else.
Harold gave me an apologetic look. “In all honesty, I never imagined you would be able to see me. You’re pretty fundamental Baptist, most of them don’t acknowledge our kind.”
Acknowledge our kind… did he mean Jews? Gosh, I hoped he meant Jews… to imply the other would mean I was talking to…
“Harold Katzenburger,” he held out his hand but then pulled it away just as quickly. “Oh, sorry, you’re not allowed to ‘touch the plane’. I’m new at this… ‘living on the other side’ thing… Oh, and I do apologize, it would have been much less awkward if I had reached out to you while I was living… on that side… but I never planned on having that heart attack…”
“Okay…” My mind slipped back into my earlier assumption. It was the only one I was willing to believe: I was being pranked. There were cameras somewhere, some jerk recording this for his youtube channel. “Who put you up to this? One of my students? Mark?” No, Mark wasn’t that good of an actor. It had to be someone else, I wondered who. Then I figured if I found them I was going to kill them. Could I say that anymore without it being listed as a ‘terroristic threat’? I didn’t know. I was going to find them and beat them unconscious, then.
“Oh, Mrs. Smith! I assure you, this is no joke.” Harold insisted but I couldn’t believe him. Despite the fact that it was rude and my momma raised me better, I lunged at him. Living or dead he didn’t have enough time to react before my hand swiped at him. Instead of coming into contact with a stiff fabric of a brown suit; my fingers swept through a blast of cold air. It hurt, almost like electricity.
“What the…” I mumbled as I looked down at my empty hand. I narrowed my eyes and glanced back up at Harold who looked on at me sadly.
“Oh dear! Weren’t you paying attention earlier? You’re not supposed to touch the plane. That’s going to cause you troubles… I do wish you hadn’t done that.”
I was aware of Mark calling my name, I turned slightly, as if in a dream. He was standing several feet away.
“I got the bed, what are you doing out here?”
I turned back but of course, my undead friend had already disappeared.
“Nothing. I thought I saw someone I knew.”
“Living or dead this time?” His mouth turned up into a grin but given the circumstances, I didn’t think it was all that funny. “What’s wrong, babe?”
I shook my head. What could I tell him? That I’d just been having a conversation with a… I shook my head again as if to clear the thoughts away.
“Let’s just… Let’s go. Take the cat home, okay?”
I could tell he couldn’t understand my attitude but he grimaced and shrugged. “Sure. I suppose our new addition is ready to get out of that cage. You know, I’ve seen this cat in the woods behind the house.” He started but I ignored him.
It was several minutes to our house and I didn’t speak at all. Bartholomew talked for the both of us though, the entire ride he yowled incessantly.
“I know, I know, Bartholomew.” I told him when we last pulled into our driveway. I wondered how Chance would react to having another cat in his territory.
I held Bartholomew’s carrier in one hand while I fumbled with the lock. I tried not to bump him and as I entered the darkened hallway I could see Chance’s white socks in contrast to his dark fur. He was stretching and I could tell he’d been sleeping all day and he was a little perturbed about being wakened so early.
“Hey Chancey. I brought you a friend,” I sat the carrier and Bartholomew peeped out at him as I held my breath and waited for a reaction from my cat.
Chance sniffed him as if to say hello and inspected the carrier.
“Let him out will ya?” Mark said from behind me. “Let him explore his new home.”
I worried that Chance wouldn’t bode well with an intruder on his territory but I unlatched the carrier. Bartholomew stepped out cautiously with his nose in the air.
Chance sniffed him but then trotted lazily in the direction of his food dish. Bartholomew went right to work exploring the house.
“See?” Mark’s arms were loaded with the cat’s belongings. “He’s fine. Like I said before I’ve seen them together in the woods behind the house. They’ll be fine. They’re friends already. Comon, I’m starved and we still have a trip to the grocery store.”
I locked the cat door and left the two new friends inside the house. Bartholomew would be an indoor cat for a couple days until he got used to his new home.
I still wasn’t talking during the trip back to Jesup.
“So, this Mr. Katzenburger. How did you know him exactly?”
“Chance and Bartholomew were friends. Chance came to visit Bartholomew and Mr. Katzenburger. Mr. Katzenburger saw Chance’s collar and left him to us. He knew if he passed then Bartholomew would at least have a friend.”
Mark’s eyebrows rose. “Really, and how did you find that out?”
I didn’t answer.
“The dead guy, told you that,” he finished for me.
I nodded blankly out the window but didn’t say anything.
“So what did he look like?”
“Seventy’s style brown suit. Dark hair. Brown eyes. Big nose.” I snapped and he gave me an angry cat meow in response.
“I was just askin’, “there was a hint of defensiveness in his voice. “I’ve never spoken with the other side before, I can’t help but be curious.”
I ignored him.
“Was he all wispy and see through… or was he like… a real person?”
I continued to look out the window.
“What did he tell you?”
I groaned. He wasn’t about to let this go. The thing about my husband was once he had a thought he never let go of it. He’d worry with it like a dog with a bone. “Just where the cat’s stuff was. He said he wanted to make sure he was taken care of before he left.”
“Taking care of the cat. Yep, that sounds like a decent thing to do before you cross over to the Great Beyond. Do you think that goes for, like everybody? Gosh I hope that stupid Buster passes before we do. I’d hate to have to hang out ‘till I find a family that likes having their yard destroyed.” He rambled on for several more minutes about the lack of intelligence of our Black Lab, Buster and I was glad the conversation changed. We drove several more minutes before he asked: “We’ve been married for 20 years, have you always been able to speak to the dead or is this a new development?”
“I don’t speak to dead people!” I snapped back at him. “I never have!” Then how was I going to explain it? “I’m not psycho either! I’m just… like you said… highly imaginative and somewhat emotionally unstable right now!” I had about blown a gasket when he had said that earlier and I couldn’t believe I was using those exact words.
He gave me the “I told you so” look and continued driving and thankfully the conversation stopped. We grabbed a bite at the western sizzlin’ but I could barely enjoy the food. I tried not to look at anyone in the restaurant, least I look up and find Harold or one of his undead friends.
I couldn’t talk to Mark either because halfway through the meal he popped out with: “Next time you see your friend Mr. Katzenburger ask him which side Elvis is on.”
I wanted to cry. I hadn’t asked for this. I hadn’t gone looking for this… none of it made any sense. If I hadn’t spoken to Harold earlier that day then every bit of this was all in my mind… I was crazy. If I had then I wasn’t crazy but the neat little box where I had packed all my preconceived notions about the world had just been blown sky high.
The trip to the grocery store gave me a bit of respite. I didn’t think about the cat or Harold but my gloom and confusion trailed behind me like a dark cloud. My husband didn’t ask any more about it and I tried to pretend it never happened. I bought myself a tub of rocky road in anticipation for later that night when my mind would be going a thousand miles an hour and I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Perhaps that would help.
My brother Jonah had taken my children to the playground across the street from my parent’s house when we arrived. We pulled under the canopy of pines and he waved to us from the bright yellow bench. The kids were already groaning about “not having enough time to play” even though this visit had been particularly long.
“Let’s go!” I snapped at them. “I got rocky road in the car.”
My brother laughed: “That kinda day huh?”
Charlie and Abbie had to go “once more” down the slide and my brother looked up at me. “Rock Road. Momma said you had to go to the lawyer’s office. You ain’t gettin’ a divorce are ya?”
Mark chuckled: “Let me tell you about your sister,” and I knew he was going to blabber everything about my meeting with the recently deceased Mr. Katzenburger. I shot him a deadly look that told him we would be getting a divorce if he breathed a word of it. Fortunately for our marriage, he caught the hint. “Your sister inherited herself a cat.”
My brother looked like he was waiting for the end of the joke.
“A cat. That’s a thing now?”
“Yep. One of the neighbors left her his cat.”
He grunted, disinterested and returned to his phone.
“Well we got ice cream.” I blurted, rudely, but I could tell that Mark was ready to burst at the seams.
“Okay. Catch ya around--“But he never got a chance to finish whatever he was going to say. A scream let out on the playground.
“Someone call 911!”
We looked up to see a woman hunched over the motionless body of an older woman and I forgot about the Rocky Road. Several people were already on their cell phones as people surged forward. Others leaned over the woman, one was administering CPR. There was nothing I could do besides pray. I held my children back. “Go get in the car!” I ordered them. “And pray for that lady.”
We dropped to our knees and I prayed a jumbled prayer that consisted mostly of me praying “Dear God, please help, please help, please help.”
I never was the kind of person you’d want around in a situation.
I looked down to see a familiar pair of brown penny loafers.
Harold stood beside me, a very pretty lady in a white dress stood beside him. They watched the proceedings with interest.
I opened my mouth to say something but a thought flashed through my mind: “Don’t talk out loud, Mrs. Smith. Everyone will think you’re crazy.”
I think I heard Harold chuckle but it was overshadowed by the wailing of the woman in front of us.
“Please help her! Mamma! Mamma! Don’t leave me!” It was pitiful and the thought of my own mother leaving me filled me with dread.
Is there anything you can do? I mean you’re… I was going to say dead but I stopped short. You know, can’t you help?
Am I God that I can give or take life? No. Only He can do that. You are doing everything in the world that could be done.
I looked back at the scene before me. Several more people were crouched over the woman’s body. I looked back up at Harold but was drawn by the woman beside him who seemed to jump and flicker like a video that hadn’t downloaded properly.
They should leave it alone. You’re better off here, you know.
He was speaking to the woman and for the first time I took a close look at her. She had the most peaceful face and bright blue eyes. Cornflower blue, my mamma called it. I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen eyes that blue before. She smiled at me for a split second before she flickered and disappeared completely.
The people in the park gave a jubilant shout.
“She’s back! We got her back!” I was aware of the other woman crying, people hurrying around but I was not close enough to see.
Harold looked back at me like he’d lost a friend. Looks like your prayers worked. I hope she’s not angry for having to go back.
Was she just…? I asked but I never had time to finish.
Dead? Harold filled in. Not exactly but almost. You see she went back.
This cannot be happening. I thought to myself but the roar of the ambulance brought me out of my thoughts. It pulled into the park several feet behind our car.
We moved out of the way to let the workers through.
We stood transfixed, watching as the paramedics lifted her in the stretcher. Harold moved to my side, and for the first time, I could not only see and hear him, I could sense him. A cold jittery, almost electric feeling enveloped me.
Look away. Harold ordered me.
The crowd of good Samaritans followed the paramedics until they pushed us back against the car. I couldn’t help it, I seemed drawn to that woman. Her blue eyes met mine and I knew, we both knew we’d seen each other a few minutes prior.
Look away, Lauren!
There was such urgency in his words that I dropped my eyes. That was the first time I had ever heard him use my first name and there was something so tender and familiar in his voice that I obeyed him.
I don’t know what happened next. I felt a wave, a powerful, cold energy that passed by me. It was not unlike the feeling I had when I touched Harold but it was stronger, heavier and more sinister.
Don’t look at them.
I didn’t know who or what we weren’t looking at but I didn’t care to find out.
The heaviness pressed on my chest and I couldn’t breathe.
Who are they?
The dark ones. They follow death, feed off of our fears. They are only here to condemn and confuse those who follow the light.
I yearned to breathe but the air was heavy, like concrete. It felt like something was all around me, like I was underwater but it was heavy and it was pressing in on me. I wanted to move, to get away.
Don’t move, don’t breathe.
No problem. I remember thinking as the darkness nibbled away at my consciousness.
The siren started and the ambulance roared away. I remember being released from the heaviness, like breaking through the surface of water. I could breathe and I gulped in air.
I was suddenly aware of the ground tossing like angry waves, of beads of perspiration popping out on my face.
“Sis? Are you okay?” My brother asked but he seemed so far away. He was at the end of a tunnel.
“Lauren! Where’s your inhaler?” I heard Mark dump my purse in the passenger seat and rummage through its contents. This is it. I thought as I fell. I am dying too. Someone shouted at me from the light but I felt the gravels crunch as my body hit the ground.
I was aware of people around me, though I could not see I could sense them. Mark, Jonah, my children… then the new, electric sensation I realized was Harold, but there was something else. Something dark and evil that meant me harm and before I lost consciousness- I was afraid.
Don’t worry Lauren, I’m here with you. Harold said.
Somehow I didn’t find that comforting.