Keane awoke with the oddest feeling, as if she were suspended above the ground in an enormous block of jell-o. The air was breathable but oppressively warm in her throat; it scalded her lungs. She pushed through the thick atmosphere to her feet, her blankets falling heavily to the ground. The air went through her lips and down her throat like white hot blades. Nothing looked different. Her room was exactly the same as it was before she fell asleep last night, down to the spidery cracks in the ceiling.
It was perfectly silent, that was the next thing that struck her. She pushed through the air, down the stairs and across the hall to the front door. The hardwood floor felt tacky under her feet, like putty that sucked at her soles and left a filmy residue. But it looked just as it always did. Solid, unchanged. Outside, crowds of birds congregated on the pavement, and cats and raccoons picked their way between them, as if too confused to make trouble. She was glad of that, at least. Cats unnerved her. Her mother put it this way: they looked at you as if they knew what you were thinking. That was what it was.
Between the doorstep and the street was dirt. Every weed, every flower, every blade of grass was gone. The garden was a graveyard of little plastic tags that noted what should have been growing there. Daffodil. Eggplant. Strawberry. All absent. Just yesterday morning Keane had noted with satisfaction the little berries of tomatoes beginning to form on the vines. Now there was nothing. Plain, thin stakes of wood, with nothing wound around them, nothing growing.
The neighborhood looked naked without trees. Unsightly features of the assortment of modest Cape Cods were exposed. A dark tangle of wires here, an aging air conditioning unit there. Missing hedges revealed a litter of toys and gardening tools, dog bowls and coils of hose. Everything was where it had been left, everything was exactly as it should be, except for plant life.
Keane made her way across the soil to the street, where dozens of eyes looked up at her quietly. Bird eyes. Cat eyes. The birds were questioning; the cats were accusing. Where is my nest? The birds wondered. You should know, the cats thought at her. A hungry sparrow fluttered up and landed on her bony shoulder, pecking irritatingly. Is there anything left? Anything at all? We’re starving here. Anything? Anything?
She brushed it off, startled at its touch. Her head throbbed and it was exhausting to move through this thick air. The more she stood still, though, the more the silence frightened her, so she began to jog against the stubborn air, down toward town. It was an unsettlingly bright morning. The sun burned hot and orange above, and the sky was colorless. She could see the reaches of space through the cloudless atmosphere, still and serene. Some of her neighbors were out on their front lawns, staring up, unmoving. She didn’t call to them. The way they stood there, so impeccably still, sent chills rippling over her skin. Lifeless. They looked lifeless, even as they stood, chins to the sky, eyes open wide. She couldn’t bear it if she were to call to them and they just stood there like scarecrows, like marble statues. The loneliness was palpable, but she was used to that. Loneliness she knew how to digest. Death, though…
She stopped to wipe the sweat from her forehead and catch her breath. Her throat stung from that awful air. Jogging into it was like trying to run into a hair dryer on full blast. An unexpected breeze lifted her hair from her scalp and she closed her eyes for a moment, remembering her mother’s fingers, lifting, snipping. “You spend too much time alone,” she would chatter as she worked, spraying the ends of Keane’s hair, trimming. Snip, snip, snip. “Edie Meisner’s son is getting a divorce. Remember Jacob? He was in your class.”
“He picked his nose.”
“Well, every third grader picks their nose. You picked your nose too, sweetie. You think your shit smells like roses?”
She didn’t. But she had no interest in Jacob Meisner. How could she? He would be a waste of time, and even when she promised herself not to get her hopes up, it always stung when they didn’t call anymore. One voicemail and the panic began to grow. Two and her heart thumped angrily at her, off rhythm, I told you so. I told you so. I told you so. She had a normal life. She had a job and a routine. She was even a homeowner. She’d done well for herself, studying intently for her M.B.A. and working diligently at her torturously boring desk job at the bank. She was a good listener and a caring friend. It didn’t matter, though. People couldn’t get past that word. Schizophrenia. “It barely affects my life at all,” she’d explain. “I take my meds, I see a psychiatrist, I know my mind very well. If something starts to go a little off kilter, I know it. I take care of it. I know my mind very well.”
They’d stare at her over the table and stop chewing their food, and her heart would begin to sink.
“Do you hear voices?”
“Rarely. If I do, I tell my doctor right away and she adjusts my meds. Really, I’ve been living this for nearly half of my life. I’ve got it.”
“Do you hallucinate?”
“Do you?” Keane would usually snap at this point. They stopped listening and there was nothing that could bring them back.
A slow doubt began to creep up her spine. No, this wasn’t a hallucination. It didn’t work that way. The whole world didn’t suddenly change. The sky didn’t fall. This was well beyond any strange thought she’d ever had, any unbelievable hunch, any voice that wasn’t there at all. She knew her mind very well. This was outside of her. This was something else. It was as if thousands of hands had descended from the sky and begun to harvest, and now nothing was left.
Well, not nothing. She was left. The birds and cats and raccoons. The neighbors frozen on their lawns, gaping up. Did they see the hands? Maybe they did. All Keane could see was the sun. The stars. Bright light that was almost blinding. She stood a moment longer, looking around, feeling exposed in the t-shirt and boxers she’d slept in. Mitch’s t-shirt, Mitch’s boxers. Mitch, the first and last one to stay after she disclosed her diagnosis.
“Do you hear voices?” He’d asked, like everyone always did.
“Rarely.” Before she could continue her speech, he interrupted her.
“What’s it like?”
She eyed his fork as it stabbed leaves of lettuce and shuddered as he ate them.
“Like this. If I didn’t exist. Like I didn’t exist but I’m still right here, talking to you. Eating linguine.”
They married too soon, after a lot of sex and talking and alcohol, but they made it work for a little while. Keane was embarrassingly happy. “What have you done with my daughter?” Her mother said. Mitch called her his changeling. “Do you still love me?” She would ask him every morning, when he woke. Doubts would take root overnight, but she always waited until morning, until he was rested, to ask. “Is there life on Mars?” he would reply, and wrap her in his furry arms. She’d taken that to mean “of course.”
It ended one night without warning, after that incident with the cat. She’d called him over and over, sobbing with her whole body, crying like a baby cries, with her stomach, with her shoulders, with her hands. Straight to voicemail. Straight to voicemail. Straight to voicemail. She’d seen him at a Starbucks a month and a half later, sitting with a pretty redhead in a puffy coat. He didn’t look up at her. She had wanted so bad to just march up to them and introduce herself to the girl, to say, “I’m Mitch’s wife, I’ve heard nothing about you.” Or at least to snatch the cup out of his hands and pour coffee all over him. But she didn’t. You had to hold yourself to higher standards when you had a diagnosis. You had to be extra, extra sane, or people would write you off as a crazy bitch. Sane people had the privilege of acting crazy now and then. Crazy people had to behave.
She took her time, slowed her pace as she grew closer to town. What if there was no one moving down there either? What if Keane was the last person left alive in the entire world? Could she survive completely on her own? Surely not for long. For one thing, she’d need her meds, or what kind of life would she have? When she had her first and only true psychotic break, back in college, she’d gone way off the deep end. She had no reason to believe she might be schizophrenic at the time because she’d never been schizophrenic. There was no reason to believe anything she was thinking or seeing was not 100% reality, because until that point, everything she’d ever thought or seen was 100% reality.
So why were people suddenly always talking about her behind her back? She realized it as soon as she entered a room. Suddenly the atmosphere would shift, everyone would change the subject quickly. They had to have been talking about her, she realized. These were people she barely knew from class, along with her best friends and her professors. Everyone, everyone was discussing her, some horrible rumor she couldn’t even guess. It was because she’d slept with that gross MIT frat boy after the Cristal Ball. That’s what she thought at first. Then she thought it was because she’d worn the same underwear three days in a row when she was pulling triple all nighters during finals. Someone knew, someone told, and now they were all laughing at how disgusting she was.
And why couldn’t anyone understand her anymore? Keane had always been a very outspoken person, and she loved to engage in a good debate (Mitch called her argumentative but could she help it if he was always wrong?) but suddenly, people couldn’t keep up. They couldn’t follow her train of thought. It annoyed her because she couldn’t explain things any simpler: Einstein’s theory of relativity was wrong. Imagine if you lived in an infinite number of universes at the same time. How can mass be expressed in terms of speed? Since everything could exist, everything does, in one of those infinite universes. We are being born and dying and living on Mars, all right this instant.
People didn’t get it. They were growing stupider every day. Everyone. All of them.
And then there were the ghosts. Everyone knew the dorm was haunted, by some student in the 50s who’d committed suicide there. And there were plenty of stories of people who’d seen the ghost of the dead girl. So why was everyone suddenly so weirded out that Keane could see her? Maybe she was a little psychic, because the ghost would talk to her too. And then a few other ghosts appeared and told her their stories, the janitor who’d been killed after a wall collapsed on him, the girl who’d died of food poisoning and warned her not to eat anything green.
She finally understood that she was living in a movie, that people all over the world were watching her life, taking notes, reviewing it in magazines. Keane’s performance is moving, but even she can’t pull the film out of a sea of tropes and into relevance.
After she’d spent a week in the hospital, after the meds seeped into her system, she could see where all of that had been imagined, and she was humiliated when she returned the next semester. But people seemed genuinely glad to see her again. No more dates though. Not one until after graduation.
There were a few people outside the police station, standing still in the dirt and looking up at the sky with their mouths open. It was the creepiest sight. Two were uniformed officers, and then there was a woman in a bathrobe holding the hand of a little boy in footie pajamas. They all stared up. Outside the general store, Mr. Meisner stood with his wife, broom in hand, apron smeared with what looked like blood, probably from the meat locker. Maybe she would ask Jacob out, Keane thought. If he was still around.
There was no one in the store, no one in the police station, no one in any of the buildings. There were just people, standing on the grassless lawns, unshaded under telephone poles instead of trees. And so many birds, shuffling around the street, mice darting around, cats milling. One of them looked into her eyes and mewed, and she stiffened.
They looked at you like they knew what you were thinking. Can you hear me think, little brat? Keane never had anything against cats in the past. It wasn’t until the incident that caused her divorce that she realized how disgusting they were, how smug and shitty and stuck up. That wild, feral thing Mitch had “rescued” from the forest behind the house. The forest that wasn’t there anymore, only fields of dirt. Keane had taken pity on the cat because Mitch wanted her to. She bathed it and fed it and sat stroking it for hours. He had been tense lately, but that cat seemed to fix things, so she loved it. She kissed its paws and played games with yarn to amuse it. She fixed delicious, healthy meals for it from scratch, from recipes she found online for pampered cats. Nothing green of course. She knew better than that. But plenty of other vegetables, carrots and potatoes and peppers. Part of her knew the cat was an experiment. If she could take good care of the cat, Mitch would see how wonderful a mother she would be, and would change his mind. “You know why,” he’d say any time she broached the subject. “It could be like you. It could be sick. How could you want that?” Because I like being alive, you shit, Keane would think. God forbid a sick person should mar his perfect little world. God forbid another Keane should walk the earth.
But then things started to look up. She could see it flash in his eyes now and then while she fussed over the cat. Maybe? He’d think. It was always followed by a question mark. Maybe? But at least he was considering. Before he’d been intractable.
She and the cat had an understanding. She took care of it, and it loved her and praised her with purrs, showing Mitch what a responsible, caring mother she could be. Cats understood. Cats knew.
These cats weren’t normal though, walking among the scores of birds and mice, not lifting one paw to harm them. They were evolved. They knew, too, but they weren’t jerks about it. They understood compromise. They were compassionate. The birds couldn’t flee to their trees; the mice couldn’t retreat into the bushes. It would be in bad form to kill them under these circumstances. Unsportsmanlike. The cats understood this.
She finally got up the courage to speak to one of the staring people. “Excuse me,” she said timidly to one of the police officers, a young woman with short sandy hair and blank eyes. But the officer didn’t answer. None of them did. And they all wore the same blank expression.
She felt something curl around her ankle and she screamed into the gelatinous air. No one reacted. It was one of the cats. A black one with white spots and yellow eyes. It was circling her, urging her to stay.
Mitch’s feral cat had been black with white spots, but its eyes were a deeper golden, almost red in the copper dusk. Those eyes were bright red when she caught it in the act. It had trapped a bird, one of the baby birds from the nest that had been sitting above the door all spring. It was batting it back and forth between its paws, growling, aggressive, cruel. Hateful. And as Keane stared, frozen in horror, it looked up at her and grinned horribly. She had loved those birds. She and Mitch had watched the nest as the mother and father bird had built it, laid eggs, as the eggs had hatched. Those eggs held all the hope she had for her own babies, for her motherhood. All her hope that she and Mitch could have their own family, fill their own nest with chirping children. And this cat, this evil thing, had murdered. In cold blood. The nest lay on the ground a few feet away in the garden, and two more baby birds lie still and lifeless on the sidewalk. She screamed at the cat to leave that last baby bird alone, but it ignored her. She looked around helplessly, and screamed again, and when it didn’t listen, she grabbed the snow shovel that had been sitting on the porch since winter and beat it away.
She didn’t kill it. She didn’t want to kill it. She just wanted to get it away from the bird, to do whatever was necessary. That baby bird was still alive. It was moving its wings. She had to hit the cat. There was no other way. But Mitch had come home, and seen her standing over it with the shovel, and he had gone into the house and emerged with a packed suitcase, one that he must have packed some time ago, and a cardboard box. Without a word, without even looking at her, he’d picked up the injured cat and placed it in the box, gotten back into his car, and driven away. He came home much later, but he didn’t speak to her. They ate together at the kitchen table, meatloaf and baked potatoes and a salad of beets, nothing green. Then he’d climbed into bed next to her and he’d turned out the light. And in the morning, he was gone.
Keane reached down and picked up the cat, the gentle cat. It purred in her arms. “You see,” she said out loud. “I would be a wonderful mother. I would protect all of my babies, no matter what it took. You would too.” The cat looked at her with inquisitive eyes. And my brothers, and my sisters?
She placed the cat down carefully and looked around again. No grass, no trees. Dirt everywhere, and people just standing there stiffly, looking up at the sky. The air was so thick. So painfully thick. It was difficult to breathe. It was difficult to walk. It felt nice to just stand there, with the police officers and the mother and child. It was a new world and this was her new family. As she stood, she lifted her eyes and connected with the sun. She felt an odd sensation creep over her skin, like a cool caress of wind, and then her skin began to harden like a shell. Her mouth stretched open and her eyes gaped. The cat wound itself around her ankle, mewing anxiously. Will you protect us? Will you stay?
Her arms grew arms and her fingers grew fingers. Those fingers grew fingers, and waxy nails bloomed out from the ends. Her feet stretched down, down into the cool damp soil and her toes explored the depths, growing toes, growing more toes. Her legs sprouted legs and twisted comfortably, settling her deeply in the ground, stabilizing her. As her many fingers fluttered and waved at impossible heights, she felt an enormous burst of energy surge through her. Her cells vibrated with life and her soul trembled with possibility. Oxygen flowed forth from her body and she kissed the air with her skin. Yes, she thought, from the core of her thick torso, as the birds settled into her hair, nuzzling her cheeks. Yes.
DANA MELE is an attorney and writer based in the Catskills. Her short fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Typehouse Literary Magazine, Lunch Ticket, Right Hand Pointing, and Mad Scientist Journal, among others. She doesn’t hate cats.