The Marionette

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Thrillers  |  House: Review Chain


Cathy, a thirty something librarian, is trying to adjust to life after the loss of her twin brother, Danny. One day, she brings home a mysterious book from the library, and she starts to recognize
episodes of her own life written in its pages. The book, The Marionette, is a first hand account of the life of a serial killer, and it seems Cathy is next on his list.

Submitted: October 09, 2017

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Submitted: October 09, 2017

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"I don't kill because I want to; I kill because I have to.  My role has already been written, and I am only playing my part."  I took a sip of my wine and read the lines again. It was a strange way to start a novel. I looked up at the clock, and realized I had been staring at the same page - the first page - for half an hour. Something about the opening words had snagged my thoughts. I was probably just tired.  It had a been a long week covering both the back room and front desk of the library while Ginny, the head librarian, was out on medical leave.

I would have to ask her about this book when she returned, I thought. I had found it this morning on the bottom of a stack of new acquisitions waiting to be stamped "Hollydale Public Library" and added to the shelves.  The subject was not unusual.  In fact, mystery and thriller novels were our most popular genres other than children's books. Ginny had often joked that she had worked at the library so long, she had seen most of our patrons move  "From Dr. Seuss to Dr. Hannibal Lector. "  I'd smile to be polite, but I found that trajectory  more depressing than funny.  

The cover of the book was mildly intriguing. A featureless, androgynous puppet dangled in mid air, held aloft by strings controlled by an unseen master.  One of the puppet's hands gripped a blood soaked knife which dripped gore into a crimson puddle. The title, The Marionette, and the author, Anonymous, were blazed in deep red Chiller font.  Pretty schlocky, even by murder mystery publishing house standards, which valued shock more than subtlety. But here's the thing: when I opened the book to stamp it, there was no publisher listed, no copyright, no dedication, no ISBN, nothing. I flipped to the back - no blurb, no reviews, no barcode.  Just an empty, black space. I didn't feel comfortable shelving it without knowing where it came from. Maybe Ginny ordered it, a pity purchase, from her Goth great nephew, Draven (aka Matt), who fancied himself the next Stephen King.  There was no way I was putting it on the "New Releases" shelf until I had a chance to check it out, so I dropped it into my book bag and took it home.

"Sorry, Draven, not tonight," I said, and I placed the book on the coffee table. I got up, poured the rest of my glass of wine into the kitchen sink, and went to feed Danny's fish. Danny.  Danny is my brother.  Was my brother. My twin brother. I was twenty minutes older.  "Ladies, first," my dad always said. I, apparently, came "shooting out like a watermelon seed," which I guess is good.  My brother was not a watermelon seed or any other fruity metaphor. It was not good. When I was little, I would ask my mom why Danny didn't go to my school or why he struggled to walk, and she would say, "Danny is the way he was meant to be."  I never doubted that and, truly, it made no difference to me.  He was just Danny, and I loved him.

I screwed open the cap on the fish food container and sprinkled a few flakes into the tank. In the dark of the kitchen, the fish tank cast an eerie greenish-yellow glow.  I watched its denizens swim in endless, lazy circles around their glass home.  A few small black and white striped fish darted to the surface to gobble up the soggy flakes. Most just waited until the flake wafted down in front of them and then opened their mouths and sucked it in.  They were not exciting pets.  I had always wanted a cat, and Danny had wanted a dog, but Danny had allergies, and so our parents plopped a bathtub size fish tank in the middle of our tiny kitchen as consolation.  It hadn't worked.  I hated the fish, and I think Danny did too, although he pretended he didn't.  For nearly thirty years now, fish had looped around our kitchen in preordained, predictable monotony.  Just like us.

Now I am the last fish in our family's tank, so to speak.  My dad passed away fifteen years ago, and my mother joined him nine years later.  So, it was just Danny and I for a long time, until three months ago when he left me too. "Goodnight, stupid fish," I said aloud, startled by the echo of my own voice.  I still wasn't used to being alone.  "Goodnight, Danny," I whispered and headed off to bed.

 

"Hey, Cathy, can you shelve the rest of this cart?  I have to leave early today to bring Tyler to the orthodontist."  My cohort and bestie, Barb, leaned in the door of the back room, smiling at me.

"Sure, Barb.  Braces, no fun."  I stood up and stretched.  "I've been sitting for too long anyway.  So you are actually doing me a favor."

"You're the wind, Cath.  See you tomorrow,"  Barb said flapping before turning and heading out toward the lobby.

I walked over to the cart, stacked with a colorful array of hardcover fiction.  "Hey, Barb," I yelled, catching her attention as she was halfway out the automatic door.  "Sorry, but I wanted to ask.  Did you order a grim serial killer book called The Marionette?  Creepy puppet on the front.  Looks self-published?"

Barb narrowed her eyes, thinking.  "Nope.  It doesn't ring a bell.  Sorry."  She glanced at her watch.  "Crap, gotta run.  Love ya!"

I waved at her.  "You too."

It was mid afternoon on a Friday, and the library was mostly empty.  The few patrons we had were in front of the computers in the periodical section.  I nodded at Mr. Callahan, our local Luddite, who was sitting in our only leather wing chair, defiantly reading an actual newspaper while glancing over the top of it to stare and shake his head at the people engrossed in online media. "Hello, Catherine.  How are you today?" He grumbled, still eyeballing the high tech whippersnappers suspiciously.

"Fine, Mr. Callahan.  Thank you for asking."  I pointed my chin at the cart I was pushing.  "Just heading downstairs to Fiction."

"Very good," he grumbled as I rolled past him and onto the elevator.

Downstairs was empty.  I fished my earbuds out of the pocket of my jeans and popped them into my ears.  I would listen to any type of music, but Danny loved classical.  I was missing him especially hard today, so I turned on the station he set up, and began shelving books to the Vivaldi's Four Seasons. A thin afternoon light streamed through the small, basement windows, and I stopped and watched the dust motes seemingly dance to the strain of violins. I smiled at a memory of Danny moved to spontaneously conduct "Ode to Joy" with a chopstick, accidentally flinging strands of lo mien which hit me full on in the face.  We laughed for an hour, I swear. He loved music to the end. His condition made him susceptible to pneumonia and, although he fought it many times, it took his life on a sleety Thursday in January.  Bach's Prelude in C Major was playing when he gave my hand a final squeeze and passed on. It still seems so impossible.  Back among the stacks, a wave of grief hit me straight in the chest, and I had to struggle to catch my breathe. I loved my parents, and I missed them, but with Danny it was different. It felt like some major part of me, something essential, had been torn away.

I switched onto a Classic Rock station, and inhaled deeply. I needed to getting a grip and finish with the books. I was down to the last few - Morton, Mosse, and, finally, Pearl.  I reached up to place the The Dante Club onto the highest shelf, and I felt a cold prickle on the back of my neck.  I froze, on tippy toes, holding the book on the edge of the shelf. My heart hammered in my chest. Someone was there.  Someone was watching me.  I knew it.  

"Mr. Callahan," I mumbled.  "Is that you?"  I felt a light tug on my pony tail, and I spun around, still clutching the novel above my head. No one was there. The stacks were empty.  I was alone.

 

"Seriously, you were going to fend off an attack with a book?"  Barb laughed.  I had called her after the "incident," and she agreed to meet at the local Mexican restaurant for a margarita.

"Mmm," I agreed, slurping.  "Death by bestseller."

"Well, you should have picked a George R.R. Martin.  A Dance with Dragons would have left a mark."

"Good point. I'll remember that next time I'm stalked by my imagination."  I had gone from terrified, to confused, to embarrassed over the course of the last couple of hours.  "Seriously, I think I'm losing my mind or something."

Barb pushed the guacamole in my direction.  "You're not losing your mind.  You're grieving, Cath.  Not just your brother, but your old life is gone."

"What do you mean?" I asked.  "I still have you, and my job, my house, the infernal fish. Not much has changed, really."

"Hasn't it?  Cathy, I've known since first grade.  You have always lived for your brother.  You were, are, an amazing sister.  But you just accepted that that was what you were supposed to do - be there for Danny, look after him.  That's done now.  You don't have to live for anybody else now.  Have you even considered that?"

I hadn't.  I guess I didn't want to, or I wasn't ready to.  Not yet.

 

A Nor'easter was forecast for the weekend, and it arrived as expected on Saturday morning with high winds and sideways rain.  Normally, I would have planned for the weather by stocking up on books, but I had bolted from the library so quickly the evening before that I forgot my bag on Ginny's desk. With the storm came a drop in temperature, and I congratulated myself on bringing enough dry wood in the house to keep the fire going in the woodstove for a month. I became especially grateful to my last weekend self for stacking a half cord in the garage, when the power went out midmorning.  

By noon, I had swept the entire house, organized the recycling, de-slimed the stupid fish tank, and repotted an out of control philodendron.  On my pass through the family room with my dust cloth, I saw the book. I was ready for a break, and I honestly will read anything when desperate, so I grabbed a blanket and curled up on the chair near the window with The Marionette.  

This time, I had no problem getting past the first page.  It was fairly predictable stuff, but not half bad.  It was your typical inside the mind of a killer story. Our protagonist, if that's the correct word for a murdering psychopathic narrator, referred to himself as Anon, short for Anonymous.  He spent the first few chapters detailing the horrors of his childhood:  drug addled mom with a string of horribly abusive boyfriends, various injuries including a terrible knock to the head, a penchant for pulling wings off butterflies.  He covered the basic ingredients that make up a serial killer. Danny and I had binge watched enough seasons of crime shows that I honestly believed I could be a FBI profiler by this point.  I was not without a reasonable amount of empathy for the child Anon, but I could recognize fact from fiction, and so I didn't take it too seriously.  By the fourth chapter, he had stalked and murdered his first victim, a young woman he had seen several times by the eggplants in the grocery store, so any pity I had for him was gone by that point.  It did make wonder though, not for the first time, if poor Anon, or others in his line of work, ever had a chance. Did his brutal upbringing seal his fate?  Did all paths lead to psycho killer? Or were there even any other paths at all?  Anon seemed to believe that this answer was no.  Per his middling attempt a hook, "My role had already been written."

He was, however, a bit of a deviation from the usual killer in that he said he didn't have a type.  Usually, if you believe the crime drama of the week, a serial killer is acting out some fantasy retribution scenario against a person in his past over and over again.  Because of this, the victims are often very similar to one another - same age range, same ethnicity, same basic physical features. The perp will go about his usual business, working a job, coaching Little League, whatever, until he sees a person who fits the bill. Anon was different. He used a certain spidey sense to pick his victims.  He'd be occupied with his daily life:  gassing up the car, buying a gallon of milk, perusing the produce, and he'd cross paths with someone who made him feel all tingly. Sometimes, if he was feeling especially buzzed by the encounter, he'd add him or her to list on the spot.  Most of the time, he'd wait to see if "fate had them cross paths again." By chapter eight, fate had thrown him the eggplant shopper, a fifty year old mechanic, and a plump church lady.

After a few hours, I took a break from Anon long enough to race to the mailbox in the pelting rain.  The trip was wasted on a few grocery circulars, a pre-approved credit card application, and a postcard from a gutter cleaning service. The latter was addressed to Danny, which produced a wrenching feeling in my gut.  After drying off and pouring myself a diet soda, I settled back into my comfy chair.

"Ok, Anon, what does Fate have in store for you today?"  I turned to chapter nine and began to read.

 

I see them every day.  I watch.  I wait.  Who will be next?  When the wheel stops spinning, where will the arrow point?  Today, was a surprise.  I had seen her before, the library lady.  She was mostly ordinary.  Everything about her was average - her height, her looks, her age. Most of all, I had never felt her.  Not until today.

For many months, I have been delivering packages. That's my job, at least, for now. I am almost as invisible as she is, which serves me well.  They hardly notice me when I stand on their front stoops, or enter their garages.  They barely look up when I hand them my clipboard to sign for their boxes. The library was not on my usual route, but I had agreed to fill in for one of the drivers who was ill.  It was late, almost closing, and I waited for her at the front desk. I tapped my fingers on the counter and gazed at the drones staring at the computers on the far side of the room. I heard an old man cough.

Five minutes went by, and I got impatient.  The lights above my head buzzed and flickered.  I started to sweat.  I don't like being anywhere for too long.  I took my clipboard and decided to go look for her.

I crossed the room to the staircase. Nobody noticed me.  As I said, they never do.

As soon as I stepped into the downstairs, I felt a flood of energy buzzing in my head. It was coming in waves from the corner of the room.  A woman, the library lady, stood by a window, her chin tilted up, eyes closed, face bathed in weak sunlight.  She was glorious.  She crackled like fire.

She wiped across her eyes with her shirt sleeve and fiddled with the phone in her pocket.  I willed myself invisible.  I watched as she took books from the cart and placed them back on the shelves.  Her ponytail bobbed as she reached up to a high shelf opposite me.  She stopped moving and called out.  She sensed my presence.  I could feel her fear.  I normally do not touch the chosen before their time, but I saw my hand float forward, as if in a dream, and gently grasp her silken hair.  

I stared at the page, but my eyes had lost their focus.  The words blinked up at me and then faded like fireflies on the edge of a forest - library, glorious, crackle, silken, fear.  Blood thrummed in my ears.  I closed my eyes and tried to focus on my breathing. Deeply in, slowly out, deeply in, slowly out. Still not looking, I closed the book and swept it off my lap onto the floor. I pushed it with the heel of my foot under the couch.  My whole body erupted in a shiver as if I had just experienced something repulsive, like stepping on a giant spider with a bare foot.

What the hell had I just read?  It's fiction, Cath, fiction,  not real, made up the brave, rational part of my brain began its efforts to convince me that I was being ridiculous. I pulled my legs up on the couch and wrapped my arms around them, making myself small as I wedged into the cushions in the corner.  The argument within my head continued, but now Danny's voice had taken over.  "How many libraries are there in the world, Cath?  How many 30 something, female librarians?  It's just a coincidence.  A creepy one, yes, but still a coincidence.  You're fine, you're safe," the Danny in my brain assured me. I wanted to believe him, but every instinct in my body was screaming at me to check the locks, bar the windows, call the police. My phone was only an arm's stretch away on the coffee table,  yet I could not move to reach it. I stayed frozen in place, listening to the rain, listening, listening, until I fell asleep.

 

Morning sunshine is magical.  It streamed in through the bay window in my living room, nudged me awake, and assured me that last night's terror was just a simple mixture of stormy weather, overactive imagination, provocative prose, and a pinch, or, let's be real, probably a whole handful, of loneliness.  I unwedged my legs from my arms and my backside from the crook of the couch and stretched.  My mouth was dry and my neck felt pinched and sore from my awkward sleeping position. Although I felt relieved and more than a bit silly, I still avoided putting my feet down near the spot where the book lay under the couch.  It was going to stay there for a while.  There was no way I was going to touch it any time soon.

It was Sunday, and the library was closed. I didn't want to be alone, so I texted Barb to see if she wanted to go for a walk.  She declined - "too muddy," but invited me to join her in taking her youngest daughter and her friend to the movies.  Per Barb,  the movie was a sequel of a sequel of a sequel to a movie that was only created in the first place as a vehicle for selling cheap toys. Normally, I would have passed, even with Barb's bribe of gourmet jelly beans, but I jumped at the offer instead.

The movie turned out to be more entertaining than I expected, or maybe two hours of candy coated innocence and optimism was just what I needed.

"That was fun," I told Barb.  "Thanks for inviting me."

Barb looked at me with narrowed eyes as she slurped her frozen hot chocolate.  "Uh huh, sure.  Are you okay, Cath?"

I nodded, smiling.  "Yeah, I'm good."

She tilted her head and scrutinized me for a couple of moments before turning her attention back to the play area in the food court where her daughter and friend were scrambling up and down a foam slide.  "Ugh, the germs," Barb mumbled.

The sky outside was starting to darken again, but the Hollydale Mall was bright and bustling and filled with the sounds of children laughing and shoppers chatting. Barb got up to check on the girls and to scold a boy who was pushing kids down the slide. I watched, feeling comforted by this clean, well lit place.  Ok, Hemingway's probably rolling in his grave at that one, but, still, as I watched Barb tie a child's shoe and the teriyaki on a stick guy waylay consumers with offers of free meat, I realized I felt safe and I didn't feel alone.  

Using the intuitive power that comes with knowing someone for more than thirty years, Barb zoned in on my thoughts on the drive home. Judging from the roiling black clouds and gusting winds, The Nor'easter was gearing up for round two.  Barb eyed the road, the sky, me, and the back seat, using the magical multitasking skills of an experienced mom, and then suggested that I stay over.  "We might lose power again," she said, "and I don't like the idea of dropping you back home on your own. C'mon, it will be fun.  I'll have Will make us a batch of margaritas.  I owe you for the movies, seriously." What she didn't say was that she was worried about me and that it had nothing to do with the weather. I protested weakly for a moment or two before taking her up on her offer. In truth, I was hoping she would ask because, back at the food court, I had realized something else.  I was afraid to go home.

I enjoyed the zany theatrics of Barb and Will and Sunday night parenting. There was homework drama, bath time battles, bedtime stories.  I helped out by making emergency brownies after a snack duty notification was found at the bottom of the first grader's backpack.  Mostly I just watched and enjoyed the family feel of it all. I obviously don't have kids, and I never really had a serious relationship.  I had had a few boyfriends, here and there, but my relationships always seemed to peter out.  Barb told me that I had subconsciously sabotaged them, and I probably did.  In a way I felt that I already had a soul mate.  Maybe it was just the fact or being a twin, or maybe it was being a twin to someone who needed my care, or maybe it was Danny being such a terrific a guy that other guys fell short of the bar he set so high. I suppose Danny could have found someone else too, but he never did.

 Barb settled herself on a kitchen stool as I set the brownies out to cool on a rack.  "Finally, they are all in bed.  I'm sorry, I didn't realize it would be so crazy."  She smiled.  I knew she loved the crazy.

We chatted with her husband, Will, who mixed up a batch of his famous margaritas.  

"To tequila." We raised and clinked our glasses.  "To Will," we added, thanking him, before he headed off to watch TV.

"Oh, and to Ginny," Barb said and we clinked again.  "Did I tell you she called?  She said she's going to be out for at least two more months.  She's fine, just healing slower than she hoped."

I was sorry to hear it, for her sake, and because I had wanted to ask her about Draven.  I would feel better about the book if I knew he had written it.  "You know that book I mentioned to you the other day, the creepy puppet one?"  Barb nodded.  "Do you think that Ginny bought it from Draven?"

"Draven?" Barb mumbled through ice cubes.  "I doubt it.  She told me he moved a couple of months back to Wichita.  He gave up all that goth stuff, found Jesus, and joined a Christian rock band. Started going by Matt, or Matthew, again.  Apostle, all that. "

It wasn't what I wanted to hear.  "Do you think he might have given it to her before he left?"

Barb topped off our drinks from the pitcher.  "Nah.  Ginny complained that he was always starting things but never finishing.  Writing a whole novel, that'd be unlikely.  I'd be shocked if he could pen lyrics to an entire song."

Draven was my only theory.  If he wasn't Anon, who was?  I could feel prickles start to rise on the back of my neck.

"Listen, I'm sorry I was a bit on your case the other night.  I shouldn't have been pressuring you to deal with losing Danny and all that.  I'm sorry, Cath."

"It's okay, you weren't."

"I'm just worried about you," she said, and held my eyes.  I knew she was holding back, thinking about saying something or not.

"What?" I asked.

"I know with losing your parents, and with Danny needing help, it was hard," she ventured.

"Yup, and?" I encouraged her.

"Well, do you think that maybe you kind of used Danny as an excuse?"

I could feel heat start to rise in my cheeks.  "Excuse for what?"

"Barb, you were first in our class.  You are the smartest person I know.  You had a full scholarship to NYU, but you turned it down and went to community college instead.  You pushed all of your boyfriends away.  That last guy, Scott, he was crazy for you. I just wonder if you didn't use Danny as an excuse for not living your life."

"I have a life, you know," I protested.  "It might not be all this."  I swung my arm around in an arc, and Barb rescued the pitcher before I knocked it across the room.  "Do you use your kids, Barb, to avoid having a life.  Would you let them fend for themselves, so that you could go off and travel or do some other grand self actualizing adventure?  Should I have left Danny alone?"

I could see fire in her eyes now.  Bringing in the kids was dumb of me.  "You are missing my point," she said.  "No, you should not have left Danny alone.  But he wasn't alone; he had your mom. Through all of your twenties, he had your mom. You didn't need to stay.  Why did you stay?"

I opened my mouth to yell at her, but, instead, I started to cry.  Barb came over and hugged me hard.  "Oh, Cath, I'm sorry.  Damn it.  I did exactly what I didn't want to do. I'm a crappy friend."

We stayed like that for a while.  When I finally let up, she went to the sink and filled up two cold glasses of water.

She handed one to me.  "Let's not have any more margaritas for a while, okay?"

"Deal," I said.

She set me up on the pull-out in the den, apologizing several more time while she handed me pillows and blankets. I lay in the dark for a while after she and Will went up to bed.  I thought about her question.  Why did I stay?  And my answer was that I don't know.

 

When I returned to work on Monday, I scanned around the front desk for any deliveries.  There hadn't been any.  I also casually asked Mr. Callahan if he had seen a delivery man on Friday night, and he didn't recall anyone coming in. Henry, the man who had been delivering books and mail to the library for years, arrived with an armload of packages in the late afternoon.  I asked him how he was feeling, and he said, "Fantastic, never better," and then started making his predictions for the upcoming Red Sox seasons. All of this put my mind at ease that I was not, in fact, being stalked by a semi-literary, psychopathic serial killer.

Also fortunately, the weekend Nor'easter seemed to get winter out of Mother Nature's system, and we were soon treated to an early and beautiful spring.  True to our word, Barb and I continued to avoid both margaritas and the topic of my life choices since that night at her house.  I also avoided The Marionette which was presumably still lolling among the dust bunnies under my couch. Nobody seemed to be missing it, and I decided to take a Schrodinger's cat approach to the situation.  If I didn't look under the couch, maybe it was still there and maybe it wasn't. Maybe I had simply dreamed the whole thing up.

 

June 22. Today was the six month anniversary of my brother's death. Time is a funny thing, or at least it has been for me since that day.  One moment, I feel like I just saw him hours earlier.  I can feel myself scraping grape jelly across his burnt toast (just the way he liked it) at breakfast that morning while he informed me of the weather forecast (he was a meteorology nerd).  Other times, is was like he'd been gone forever, and I'd struggle to remember what his voice sounded like or the exact color of his hair (strawberry blond with a touch of grey). I suppose anniversaries should not matter; they are just dates on a calendar, but somehow today did.  I felt different.  I paced behind the front counter of the library like a caged animal.  Ginny, who had finally returned, got sick of me and sent me out the stacks to check for a book that a patron swore she had returned, but was not showing up as such on the computer.

Ginny would have to apologize for giving the young woman a hard time about the book, for I located after a few minutes of perusing the shelves.  It was a slim volume of poetry by Mary Oliver, and I shouldn't have opened it. I know I shouldn't have opened it, but I did, and I read this:

To live in this world

you must be able to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go.

Well, that's all it took.  My knees buckled and I sank to floor and I wept. Fortunately, the 800s are not a library hotspot in the summer, so I had no audience for my tears other than Shakespeare and his ilk, and I knew they'd understand. Mary O. was probably right.  It was time to let it go, to let him go, to let my old life go, but I couldn't.  I wasn't ready.  Not yet.

After a few minutes, I managed to calm down, and I got up, and went to the ladies' room. The face that looked back at the me in the mirror was red eyed and splotchy, so I splashed some water on it to clear the evidence of my grief. I did not think I could handle anybody asking me if I was okay.  Once satisfied that I didn't appear too deranged, I headed back to the front desk with the poetry book as proof of our patron's veracity.

"I'm sorry that took so long.  It wasn't shelved in the correct location,"  I placed the volume on the counter.

Ginny stared it as if she had never seen a book before and was exceedingly puzzled by the strange object.  "Well, I do not know how that could have happened.  It must have been one of the volunteers.  They get so confused sometimes."

The young woman, who had been waiting patiently for my return, looked at me, and rolled her eyes.  I smiled at her conspiratorially.  She picked up her stack of newly checked out books, nodded, and headed out the door. Clearly, she was an insightful woman. She read poetry and she knew not to wait for an apology from Ginny, because that was never going to happen.

After Ginny scanned the book in as returned, she pushed it toward me on the counter and asked me to bring it back to the 800s.  My eyes started to sting and I backed away from it.  "Ginny, how bout I do it after I walk to the post office?  I could use the fresh air."

Ginny scrunched her face up like she was smelling a pickle and looked outside.  The cloudy sky had opened up and rain was pelting down in sheets.  "It's pouring outside; you'll get drenched, Cathy.  Do you even have a coat?"

"She can borrow mine.  I'm about to settle in and won't need it for a while."  I turned at the sound of Mr. Callahan's voice.  He was standing behind me in the New Releases, a bright yellow rain coat in his outstretched hand.  "Here, Catherine."

I grabbed his coat, threw it on, and raced out the door.  "Thanks, Mr. Callahan.  I'll be back soon," I yelled.

"But, Cathy, the mail..." Ginny yelled after me, but I didn't turn back.

 

I had had no intention of actually going to the post office.  I walked through the downtown, past the florist, the coffee shop, three bank branches, and a House of Pizza.  A few people were scurrying about in the deluge, but they took no notice of me passing through like Christopher Robin on a mission, bare, skinny legs and blue Keds sticking out from under a giant, yellow slicker.

It didn't take me long to walk out of our little downtown and over to the cemetery.  The rain drummed off of the high stone wall and orange tiger lilies and Queen Anne's Lace bent their sodden heads as I pushed through the graveyard's gate.  I had not been back since the day of the funeral, but I knew my way to Danny.  He was buried next to my parents, his name added to their stone. There was a space on the stone and a plot of green grass left for me. I guess it never occurred to any of us, myself included, that I might be buried elsewhere with a husband and a family of my own.  It only occurred to me now that that might be possible.

I sat down on the thick, spongy grass in front of the marker.  "Hi, Danny.  It's me, Cath,"  I said.  I felt a bit stupid talking aloud, but who was going to hear me.  "I'm sorry I didn't visit you sooner.  Did you know it's been six months?" My family's plot was in the shade of two huge maple trees.  Their deep green leaves sparkled in the rain.  A bright red cardinal chirped at me from his shelter under the leafy canopy. "It's really beautiful here.  I wish you could have seen the spring.  I know it was your favorite season."

The rain started to let up and streaks of sunlight pushed through some of the darkest clouds on the horizon.  "I miss you.  I'm not quite sure what to do now.  I guess I always thought that we came in the world together, and we'd leave together.  I don't know why I thought that."  I looked up at the bird, who seemed to be fixed back on me.  "Barb wants to know why I stayed.  Why I never left when we were younger, when I could have.  She thinks I was scared to.  I don't know.  Maybe I was.  Actually, I'm sure I was.  But I don't thinks that's why.  I stayed because I figured that was the hand Fate had dealt me, dealt us. You got the crummy end of things, and it wasn't fair. It wasn't fair that I was the watermelon seed and you weren't.  I left you behind once, and I wasn't supposed to leave you again.  I didn't want to.  But now you've left me, and I don't know what to do."  

I looked back up at the bird and silently wished for guidance.  For a sign. The bird held my gaze, chirped at me once, and flew away. I stood up.  Freshly mowed grass clippings and dirt stuck to my legs.  I didn't bother to brush them off.  My heart felt tired.  Without saying "goodbye", I turned and trudged back to the library.

 

The rain had let up by the time I pulled into my driveway that afternoon.  I sat in my car listening to NPR.  A scientist was explaining that gravitational waves from a black hole merger had been detected. A black hole. Science was not my best subject in school, and all I knew about black holes was that they sucked everything in.  No escape.  I looked at my house.  Little snakes of steam coiled up off the sunlit roof. The gutters needed cleaning.  Truth is, I didn't care about black holes. At least not the literal ones.  I just didn't want to go into my empty house again.  My family had collapsed one by one: my dad, my mom, Danny, and the gravity of their loss had pulled me in. "The universe is speaking to us, and we can finally hear what it's saying," the scientist concluded.  I turned the radio off and backed my car out of the driveway.

Somehow, I ended up downtown.  I drove on autopilot, my body, out of habit, knowing how to steer the car safely, while my mind pondered what message the universe might have for me.  "Stop feeling sorry for yourself," it scolded.  "Redecorate!" it chirped.  "Give up," it whispered.  "Take a left," it ordered.  Screw you, Universe, I thought and I turned right.

I pulled into the Second Chance Animal Shelter, parked the car, and walked in. I rang the bell at the front counter and was greeted by a chorus of muffled yipping and a 20 something guy with dreadlocks wearing a faded, paint stained Nirvana t-shirt.

"Cat or dog?" He asked.  

"Umm, cat," I blurted.

"Kitten?"  He stared at me.  "Nah, I don't think so," he said, answering the question for me.  He continued to look me over.  

"Well, I...." He put his finger in the air to shush me.  

"Hold on a second. I'm really good at matching animals to their human companions," he explained.

"Really?  What's your criteria?  Is there a questionnaire or something you want me to fill out?" I scanned the desk for papers and clipboards.  

He smiled at me like I was missing the whole point. "Just a vibe I get.  Yup, I know just the one for you."

As much as I wasn't thrilled to be pegged on sight as a crazy cat lady, I was curious to see what dreadlocks had determined to be my perfect match, so I followed him into the cat wing. The place seemed well kept.  Its denizens groomed, napped, or frolicked in modestly sized, but tidy metal crates.  

Dread stopped at the last crate on left and gestured for me to look in. A medium sized, pale gray, short haired cat lounged on its side.  

"She's a really nice cat, friendly and chill."  To prove him right, she got to her feet, walked to door of the crate, and presented her head for rubbing.  Dread obliged and scratched behind her ear while she examined me with crystal blue eyes.  "This great lady is about five years old and has only ever been a human companion, not feral, so she totally tolerates people."

"How did you end up with her?"  

"Her owner passed on.  You know, shuffled off this mortal coil.  Closest relative didn't want the cat cause of allergies, so he brought her here."  

The cat, bumped her head against Dread's fingers a couple of times, and then, satisfied, returned to lounge against the back of the crate.  

"What's her name?" I asked.

"Destiny," Dread answered.  

I guffawed, practically spitting on Dread.  "You're kidding me, right?"

"Nope.  I know, kind of a lame name for this beauty.  But there it is." He tapped on the placard next to the crate.  DESTINY was scrawled in large, block letters.

I rubbed at my temple, convinced the Universe was punking me.  

"Don't sweat it." The bemused smile had returned to Dread's face. "You can always change it.  Cats do not care what you call them. Check it out."  He peered back into the cage.  "Destiny, yo, Destiny," he cooed.  The cat yawned and started licking its paw.  "Not at all. See?"

He opened the crate, reached in and pulled the cat out.  He cradled her in his arms, and she started to purr loudly.  "You two should have a little alone time to check each other out."  I followed Dread and Destiny to the "Get Acquainted Room," a bathroom sized space adorned only with a deflated beanbag and a couple of inspirational quote posters.

Dread placed Destiny on the floor, and I settled into the beanbag.  "I'll be back in ten." He closed the doorway gate and left us alone.  The cat sat across from me, primly checking me out.  She really was beautiful.  Her gray fur was so light it was almost white. After a few minutes of staring at each other, the cat must have decided that I passed her test because she came over and curled up on my lap.  Her warmth and her weight, her aliveness, felt amazing.  

"So what do you say, Cat?  Want to come home with me?"  She purred loudly.  "I'll take that as a yes.  But I need you to have a new name." A few possibilities came to mind: Hermione, Smokey, Miss Kitty, Jones, but none felt right.

I leaned back against the wall and looked at the poster opposite me.  It showed a path in the sunlit woods forking off in two directions.  In bright white against the green leaves, were the words:  "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less travelled by, And that has made all the difference."  I smiled and looked down at the pale gray cat sleeping peacefully.  "Frost." I told her.  "Your name is Frost."

 

Adopting Frost had been an impulse, and so there were a few small bumps in the road in the beginning.  The first being the loss of one fish and the terrorization of the others as an unexpected feline paw swished through their tank on the night of Frost's arrival  But fish being fish, they soon forgot about the day that their calm and predictable world had been rocked, and they resumed their regular circuit around the tank as if nothing had ever happened. I crafted a makeshift tank cover out of discarded pizza boxes to prevent Frost from having another go at them, but that soon got moldy.  Barb took pity on me and had Will come over and help me make a more permanent, wooden one.  She also helped me through all the other first time cat owner, sorry - companion, logistics: litter boxes and scratching posts, toy mice, and cans of stinky food.  Fortunately, Frost was easy to please and, if she thought me inept, she never let on.

After a few weeks, I had fully adapted to my new life as a bonafide crazy cat lady.  Apart from Frost's coming on board, not much else happened that summer.  I worked, I went to a few of Barb's kids' soccer games and pool parties, we resumed our relationship with margaritas, and I read books.  I thought about taking some classes as the local college, but the deadline came and went without me enrolling.  One Saturday in August, I drove to Home Depot and bought two gallons of butter yellow paint to perk up my living room.  But now it was nearing the end of November, and the cans remained in the corner of the still drab room, unopened. Frost helped.  I didn't dread coming home anymore, and I didn't feel so lonely once I got there.  Yet I still felt stuck - like running in a dream when you try to pick up your feet but they won't quite move. I still talked to Danny in my head, sometimes even aloud, but he never answered. He had moved on, but why couldn't I?

It was Sunday, the worst day of the week for me.  The library was closed, and I knew that every person on Earth, except me, was busy with their families. Frost, thankfully, was being extra affectionate and amusing.  She'd spent most of the afternoon snuggled at my side as I lay reading, but was now playfully batting a twinkle ball around the living room. She had a system down: smack, stalk, pounce, repeat. The ball rolled over toward me, and I deflected it back in her direction.  She swiped it with her paw, sending it rolling under the couch. She padded over to me and started to meow loudly.

"Seriously, Frost.  Can't you get it?"  I complained. In response, she started to pace back and forth while she griped at me.  "Okay, okay, chill out.  I have get up to stoke the fire anyway."  I went to the kitchen and returned with the broom.  I swished it under the couch and swept out the twinkle ball and the book. I looked down at it.  A thin layer of dust had settled on the cover, but the gruesome puppet was still clearly visible.  The Marionette.  How had I forgotten it was there?  Frost, having naturally lost interest in the ball, now slinked forward to inspect the book.  She sniffed the cover and rubbed against its edges.  Unimpressed with her find, she vaulted on the couch and curled up in a ball.  

Somehow, Frost's indifference toward The Marionette made me realize how silly I had been to get so worked up about its contents.  Anon wasn't stalking me.  How could he be?  The book wasn't magic.  It wasn't even well written. To prove my newfound courage to Frost and to myself, I picked up the book and cleaned it off with the corner of my shirt.  

I stoked the fire with a couple of logs and then settled down next to Frost.  She opened her eyes enough to peep at me.  "I'm going to read this book, Frost.  I am," I announced, showing her the book, but she had already fallen asleep. I found the place where I left off, and began to read.

The librarian would be mine.  That much I knew, but not that day.  Too many people to interrupt, to see.  I always did my work alone. The energy I felt radiating off her in waves, pulling me to her, dissipated as soon as I exited the building.  I suffered for its loss, as I always did.  The kill left me charged, but to be so close to the energy and not to have it, drained me.  It was weeks before I had the strength to venture out into the world again.

My work resumed.  I had to in order to survive.  But I remember little, for it meant nothing.  The tiny sparks of my ordinary victims sustained me, but all of my thoughts were of her.

This is worse than I remembered, I thought.  Seriously, the prose was more likely to kill me than a madman.  

I started to watch for her.  To linger in the places that I thought she might appear.  One day, she did. I stood on the corner under the eaves.  I watched the rain pour down and a figure caught my eye. A woman in a yellow coat, head covered, an anchor on her sleeve.  Her face was obscured, but I knew it was her.  She crackled like lightning as she swept past me. I recognized the flavor of her energy.  I tried to follow, but she went to the hallow garden and my way to her was blocked.

Tasty energy?  The hallow garden?  What was this crackpot going on about?  Well, at least I knew it wasn't about me.  I didn't have a yellow coat or a garden.  I could barely keep a plastic plant alive. My stomach started to rumble, and I went to the kitchen to make supper.  

The cupboards were mostly bare, but I found a frozen burrito.  As I watched it rotate around in the microwave, my brain picked at Anon's words.  Hallow, hallow, hallow.  That means holy, right?  Holy garden?  I felt my heart skip.  Did he mean cemetery?  Could he have followed me to the cemetery? But I don't have a yellow coat. The day I went to talk to Danny, it was raining.  My heart was pounding now.  I borrowed a coat.  I borrowed Mr. Callahan's yellow coat.  

I backed up and leaned against the fish tank.  Surely, lots of people wear yellow rain coats.  Is there any other color, really?  Frost was awake and she snaked in and around my shaking legs.  I reached into my pocket and pulled out my phone.  My hand trembled as I typed the name of the local golf course into the search window.  The one where Mr. Callahan was a member.  I held my breath as I clicked on the link, although I already knew what I would find.  The club's logo was an anchor.

My head felt like it was full of bees.  How was this possible?  How was any of this possible?  I lurched over to the sink, turned on the tap, and stuck my head underneath.  I needed to stop the buzzing.  The cold water sloshed over my hair and trickled down my neck and the front of my shirt.  I closed my eyes and remembered I should breathe.  My pulse started to ratchet down and the noise in my head began to fade. I'm not sure how long I stayed like that, seconds, minutes, hours?  Frost started meowing at me and rubbing up against my leg. She wanted to be fed.

I turned off the faucet and slid down to the floor.  Frost gave me a sniff and then licked the puddle made by my dripping hair.  "What should I do, Frost?" I asked.  "I can't call the police.  They'd think I was crazy." Maybe I was crazy. I had had that book for months, so how could Anon be writing about events that happened after it was already in my house?  Events that had not even happened yet?  Was my story already written? Was everyone's?  If I kept turning the pages, would I discover my fate?

The sky outside my kitchen was dark now.  I crawled across my floor to Frost's cat dish and poured in some food from the nearby cabinet.  Frost gobbled it up while I sat there watching.  After she finished, she started padding back to the living room.  Halfway there, she stopped and turned, staring at me with her wise blue cat eyes.  She wanted me to come with her, to be brave and to face my fear.  

Frost hopped up on the couch and sat next to the book. I left the kitchen and came over to her.  I didn't want to know my next chapter, but I needed to know.  There was no other choice.  I picked up the book and began to read.

I follow her.  I follow her every day.  I watch her drop off the mail at the post office.  I see her talk to the old man outside the library. I listen to her laugh with her friend. I know where she lives. She is alone, alone, alone.  And I wait.  I wait until she knows that she is not alone. That I am here too.  

My heart thumped wildly in my chest.  But I did not stop reading.

I watched you today, Cathy. All by yourself. Again.  Why did you wash your hair in the sink?

My eyes raced across the page wildly.

Did you lock your front door today, Cathy?  Can you get there before I get in?

Bang, bang, bang.  I heard pounding on my front door.  I threw the book on the floor and sprinted for the kitchen.

He was already there, standing as if frozen in the middle of the room He wore dark clothes and his face was covered in a black, knit ski mask. The glow of the fish tank reflected in the sharp, steel knife gripped in his right hand. He stared at me, and I stared back.  His eyes seemed blue, but then green, familiar.  They were Danny's eyes, my father's eyes, my mother's, mine. I stood transfixed by them.

He took a step forward and grinned.  His expression was terrible, that of a predator toying with its prey. I took a step back toward the living room and felt Frost push through my legs to stand in front of me.  She hissed and spat at him.

The smile on his face disappeared.  He stared at the cat and then his eyes started to dart around the room.  

Frost hissed again, displaying her sharp teeth. He tilted his head as he looked at her. He was confused.

"The cat," I said, now understanding.  "You never wrote about the cat.  There wasn't supposed to be a cat."  He looked at me now, panic in his eyes.

He lunged at me, but I turned and raced back to the living room. I grabbed the book and held it high above my head. He stood in the doorway, the cat behind him now.  "I changed things.  I can change my story.  My story isn't written."  I backed up towards the wood stove.

I knew what I had to do.  He started to walk slowly towards me, knife raised. His eyes were fury. I opened the door of the stove.  "It isn't written! It isn't written!" I yelled, ripping pages out of book and shoving them into the fire.  He charged at me.  I tore out a fist of paper, and threw the book onto the flames.  I covered my head with my arms and braced for his attack.  It never came.  

I felt Frost's sandpaper tongue rub against my hand, and I slowly unwrapped my arms from my head and looked up.  No one was there.  The house was empty except for me and Frost.  I looked at the few remaining pages of The Marionette still clutched in my hand.  They were blank.  Anon was gone and he would never be back.

And then I sobbed.  I cried for my father.  I cried for my mother.  I cried for my brother.  I cried for me. When I had no more tears to shed, I lay and watched the sun rise through my window.  I was quiet and I listened.  I heard the universe.  It whispered, "Let it go.  It is time to let it go."  I heard the universe, and it sounded like Danny.


 


© Copyright 2018 Hart McHugh. All rights reserved.

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