by Paul Dickerson
No Until, No After
Chloe the cat wakes her owner up at four every morning, then again at seven. She clears countertops with the swipe of her paws—practicing her hockey skills with her owner’s keys, wallet, phone, and remotes. She is always hungry, but most reminded of her hunger when her owner is asleep.
Chloe dashes to the kitchen like a flower-pot-sized horse. She kneads the ground with her crown-shaped paws as her sleepwalking owner staggers into the dark of the kitchen. Her whole body shivers, shock waves rippling through her smallness up to the tip of her raised, wiggling tail. She crashes up against her tall owner’s shin, over and over, reminding him of her starvation. Her owner is groggy and annoyed, but is always coaxed into a level of endearment, referring to Chloe’s dramatic daily morning performance as her Happy Dance.
After six months together, Chloe’s owner leaves her for three weeks to visit his parents in Ohio. When he returns, he notices that Chloe’s stomach sags a little lower, and her words are a little squeakier. Chewed-up bits of cardboard are spread like ashes around their house. According to Chloe’s sitter, Chloe was convinced her owner had died.
Apparently, Chloe and all other nonhuman animals can’t conceptualize death. They see life through one moment of immortality, to the next moment of immortality, to the next moment of immortality, until, to their surprise, they die. But it’s hard to believe that all animals don’t understand loss. Grief is the oxygen that all living things share.
When Chloe was first adopted, her owner was still in the habit of holding knives up to his skin, hiding in bathrooms at parties to draw his own blood. Adopting Chloe was his latest get-happy-quick scheme. At worst, Owning Cat would cross off an item on a checklist of things he wanted to do before he died. At best, Chloe would be a guardian angel, a Sabrina’s Salem, a Team Rocket’s Meowth.
Of course, Chloe did not end up being a dying man’s last wish or a superpowered English-speaking pet. She was instead an eight-pound tornado of mischief and demands. An earbud decapitator, claw-strict open door policy enforcer, cockroach slayer, tortilla chip torturer. A foot tackler who sleeps on her owner’s hip while he’s in the ludic loop of checking apps on his phone, and reads books with him in a language she doesn’t understand, and guards the bathroom door while he is butt-ass naked on the toilet. And she wakes her owner up at four in the goddamn morning, every single goddamn morning.
Even after Chloe’s owner comes back from a month away from her, nothing changes in the timing of her morning rituals. She wakes him up at four, she wakes him up at seven. The only difference is that there is still food left in her bowl from her midnight snack, and she does not ask for more. Maybe this is instead her idea of quality time. She rubs up against her owner’s leg, right below his last self-inflicted scars from months ago. There is an enthusiastic message in the crackling fire of her purrs. She looks up at her owner in the morning gray and tells him,
You’re still here. You’re still here. You’re still here.
School Paper Headlines
Fifth grader dissociates at recess. Good at geometry. Walks in circles while the boys play football, girls play on the playground. Same speed, same circumference, same direction. Anywhere but here. Anywhere but here.
Fifth grader washes dead skin like cobwebs from his palms until it burns. It burns. The germs don’t like the friction, the solitude. Fifth grader eats lunch at the boys’ table. He is afraid to talk to the other boys, but his hands are clean.
Fifth grader digs headspace into his arms, cries. Clandestine tears. He cries in class while his teacher demonstrates long division. He cries like he brushes his teeth. It just seems like something he’s supposed to do. It keeps him warm.
Fifth grader responds to short answer homework question—“Why did the worm lie to the bird?” He writes a series of short answers on the topic. So many possibilities. His answers intrude on the spaces provided for the next four questions. His words wrap around the corners of the page. His words move like recess. Circles. Not enough room. Never enough room. Never enough. When will it be?
Fifth grader checks windows for dark clouds. On the school bus. At the assembly. In the science lab. Negotiating with the sky. Scared of thunder. His brain—a balloon filled with too much airwaterblood. His life—a series of checks. His checks—a series of re-checks.
Fifth grader has more interests than hiding from people (he swears with his deformed pinky).
Fifth grader loves Hot Cheetos, and root beer, and PlayStation, and basketball in the driveway, and the Loch Ness Monster, and the dreamy class president, and the fat cat with the lawnmower purrs who falls asleep in his lap, and big trampolines, and the potato bugs sleeping under rocks at the reservoir.
Fifth grader wants the other kids to know things about him, to know even just one thing about him.
Fifth grader opens his mouth to speak, but prefers looking up, counting the tiles on the ceiling. One day he’ll learn to talk to the numberless world in front of him.
Paul Dickerson is a second-year MFA creative writing candidate and teaching assistant at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in 3Elements Review and on Ecotone’s blog. You can follow him on Twitter @pauldickerson18.