by Mark Brazaitis
It was a coincidence. It must have been. Residents of a retirement home—in this case, the Sunrise Manor in Sherman, Ohio—do die. Chuckles, the Manor’s midnight blue Persian cat, simply had the misfortune (if indeed it was his misfortune—who knew if Chuckles cared one way or another) to be sitting on the heads of each of the three deceased residents (all three were women) when he was discovered.
He hadn’t asphyxiated them. At least, there was no proof he had. There was, however, no proof he hadn’t, because the families of the three women hadn’t requested autopsies. Perhaps, they would have if they had known about Chuckles’ possible involvement in their loved ones’ deaths. But Marilyn Baker, Sunrise Manor’s director, didn’t share this information with them. When her assistant director, an earnest young man who wore bowties, asked, politely but pointedly “Isn’t it their right to know?” she said, “Do you honestly think Chuckles is a murderer? Good God. What’s next? A homicidal hamster? A mass-murdering mouse?”
Her assistant had his eyes on her position. He was hoping she would die—he often thrust second helpings of chocolate pudding on her at lunchtime, doubtless intending to speed up the clogging of her arteries—so he could rule the place.
She was only sixty-eight, and while it was true that over the past several years she had contended with a series of infirmities small and large, from conjunctivitis to congestive heart failure, statistics said she would live at least another decade. Mr. Bowtie, she thought, had better be best friends with patience.
Mr. Bowtie wasn’t the only person associated with Sunrise Manor who knew of Chuckles’ relationship with the three dead women. Fortunately, the residents discounted the Chuckles-as-Murderer theory and instead promulgated the Chuckles-as-Bad-Omen theory. According to the paranoid geniuses behind this idea, Chuckles, like a figure out of an Ingmar Bergman film, knew which one of the old folks would be the next to die and upon the appointed evening sneaked into the doomed person’s room.
To assuage her residents’ fears, Marilyn Baker announced one mid-morning before Bingo that Chuckles would be “relocated.” The residents assumed he would be euthanized. No one seemed disturbed by this fact. They were, she thought, selfishly obsessed only with their own impending deaths. As far as they were concerned, the rest of the world could fall off a cliff.
The truth was Marilyn was planning to take Chuckles home, which, at the end of the day, she did.
She had loved the cat from the beginning of their acquaintance, detecting in him some of her own cynicism and superiority. Besides, he was flat-out gorgeous, the feline equivalent of a matinee idol. (Although she admired Bergman films, she preferred movies with handsome heroes and happy endings.)
Marilyn blithely planned to allow Chuckles to go wherever he wanted in her house, at any time of day or night, but as the sky grew dark, she began to have reservations. There was nothing in particular she could identify as the cause of her unease. Chuckles couldn’t have been more docile or more loving. He had settled onto her lap as she sat in her easy chair in her living room and drank rosehip tea and read Cosmopolitan, which she’d pilfered from Agnes Hopewell’s mailbox. (The old woman was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s; she wouldn’t miss the magazine.) Chuckles purred whenever she touched him. When she stopped petting him, he expressed no discontent. He merely closed his eyes and drifted off into sleep. What, she wondered, was he dreaming? Of female feline companionship? Of catnip?
Or of murder?
She knew this was a paranoid and ridiculous thought. But in the stillness of her house—she lived at the end of a cul-de-sac, bracketed by houses containing families who religiously enforced an 8 p.m. bedtime—she couldn’t help but conjure the worst possible scenario:
She wasn’t ready for death. “Certainly not death at the hands of a cute kitty cat!” she said with a false note of jocularity she was sure Chuckles, even in his sleep, could detect.
Better, she thought, to keep her bedroom door closed tonight. Closed and locked. Would it be overkill—ha, ha—to put a chair under the door handle? Perhaps it was best, she thought, to be uber-cautious. Tomorrow night, she would allow Chuckles greater liberty.
“Bedtime, my boy,” she said. In order to appease him, she refilled his dish, although she had fed him only an hour before. “Good night, sweetheart,” she said, patting him affectionately, but without the warmth of an invitation, on the head. “Sleep tight.”
She slipped into her bedroom, locked it, and propped a chair under the door handle.
In bed, she thought, I am one big coward. Imagine thinking a cat will kill me. Me!
She could see why Chuckles, or any cat, would want to silence Jane Ann Fitzgerald. The woman had never shut up, and it wasn’t only her abundant aches and pains upon which she discoursed. Say “God bless you” after she sneezed, and she’d preach an entire sermon! If Chuckles had anything to do with her death, Marilyn couldn’t blame him.
The same was true of Violet Ellsworth, who’d reminded everyone twelve times a day that her grandson was attending Princeton, and Nadia Garcia, who perpetually compared the fruit served in the Sunrise Manor cafeteria unfavorably with the succulent delights she’d plucked off trees during her girlhood in Costa Rica.
But Marilyn, surely, Marilyn wasn’t worthy of feline assassination. The opposite: She had rescued Chuckles! Who else would have taken him in? And she loved the cat—he was lovable!
Or was he simply seductive? Did he intend to lure her into complacent sleep before pouncing on her head?
But wouldn’t she wake up if she found herself suffocating?
Yes, she would certainly wake up!
But better, for tonight, to sleep alone. So she did. And it was a good sleep, a deep sleep, until 3:33 in the morning when she heard, outside her door, a faint sound. She couldn’t call it a mew or a purr. It was more like a low, deep whisper. It was accompanied by a sound against the door—not scratching but almost a gentle knocking.
“Who is it?” she asked, but there was no answer.
She approached the door. Had she forgotten to push the chair against the handle? Or had she changed her mind at some point in the night and removed it? Whatever the case, the chair was off to the side.
Was the whisper louder now, the knock more insistent? It seemed so. The voice was more distinct. It might, in fact, have been pronouncing her name.
Could some intruder have entered her house in the middle of the night? Or was she imagining everything?
“Chuckles?” she asked. She didn’t know what was more ridiculous—his name or the fact that she was hoping he’d answer.
She glanced at the door handle. In the pale glow of her nightlight, she noticed she hadn’t pushed in the lock. But of course she had. Hadn’t she?
“Chuckles?” she asked again.
She heard what again sounded like her name followed by a sound as of soft hands turning a knob. Slowly, the door opened. She was so scared she couldn’t scream.
But there was no murderer standing at the threshold, only soft fur rubbing against her ankles.
“Chuckles,” she said, residual fear filling her voice. Her next words were calmer: “Chuckles. My dear, sweet boy.”
His purr was familiar, appreciative. He continued to rub against her.
She felt her terror dissolve. But she wasn’t prepared to give in completely to complacency. She thought she ought to go sit in her easy chair, resume her earlier pose, Chuckles on her lap. She called the cat, hoping to lure him out of her bedroom. But he was no longer at her feet; he’d slipped under her bed.
He’s only a cat, a sweet, innocent cat. No, he’s a possessed killer. No, he’s only…
She knew she wasn’t thinking clearly. Exhaustion could confuse a person, and exhaustion carried her back to her bed. She told herself she would sit up. Chuckles couldn’t very well climb on top of her head and wrap his thick tail around both her nose and mouth.
She sat stiff against her headboard. Presently, Chuckles emerged from under her bed and found a comfortable spot on her thighs. He settled on her like a living heating pad.
“And here I thought you were a thief, an intruder, a rapist, a murderer,” she whispered. He looked up at her with his warm, golden eyes and seemed to smile. He kneaded softly, purring. She patted his head, his back. He rolled over and she rubbed his belly. He loved her touch.
There was so much that could kill you, she thought. Just the other week, Thelma Mae Ritter’s twenty-three-year-old niece had been driving out of the Sunrise Manor’s parking lot when she was sideswiped by a speeding pickup. No matter her seatbelt and airbag, she died instantly.
“But a cat?” Marilyn said to Chuckles as she slid into a more comfortable position. His purring was like a lullaby. She yawned, and her eyelids fell like theater curtains. “A cat can’t kill you.” Slowly, she sank into her bed as into a warm bath. “No, a cat can’t kill you. A cat can only love you.” Something pulled her, gently, deeper, and a great pleasure, or only an absence of her familiar aches, an absence of even the possibility of pain, spread to all parts of her body. “Right, Chuckles?”
His answer came as if in a dream. His voice, she realized, was familiar. She’d heard it a long time ago, perhaps at the very beginning of her life—or even before.
Mark Brazaitis is the author of seven books, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize and the 2013 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose, and Julia & Rodrigo, winner of the 2012 Gival Press Novel Award. His latest book, Truth Poker: Stories, won the 2014 Autumn House Press Fiction Competition. He wrote the script for the award-winning Peace Corps film How Far Are You Willing to Go to Make a Difference? Brazaitis’ writing has been featured on the Diane Rehm Show and the Leonard Lopate Show as well as on public radio in Cleveland, Iowa City, New York City, and Pittsburgh. A former Peace Corps Volunteer and technical trainer, he is a professor of English and the director of the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop at West Virginia University.