2017 Fiction Award Winner, Chosen by Patricia Park

Ashley Morrow Hermsmeier

 

Greer pulled a strip of rubbery, partially chewed chicken from her mouth and tossed it onto the saggy porch.

“I wouldn’t do that,” said a distracted voice beside her. Rita—Greer’s friend slash latest boss—eyed the gray tabby eyeing the meat, then dove once more into the cold rotisserie chicken sitting on the side table between them. She’d been excavating the carcass for a while now, cracking bones and flicking bits of tendon at Greer between pauses in the half-hearted small talk.

Greer toed the meat toward the cat. “It’s gone off. Hurts my jaw.”

“That’s why I go for the dark meat. It’s softer.” The tabby crouched over the masticated meat, sniffed it, and then, purring, ate it.

“I fed a stray once and it showed up yowling every night for almost a year,” said Rita.

Greer ran a hand along the tabby’s spine. “He’s sweet.” To her all animals were male until they proved otherwise. “And besides,” she said, “he probably has an owner near here. You take everything so serious.”

Rita laughed. “You’ll see, girly.”

“It would be nice to have some company at night. It’s too quiet around here.”

“I bet. No one yelling at you, calling you stupid, or giving you bruises. Must be a real drag.”

“It was someone to cook for.”

“Jezus, Greer.” Rita slid a paper grocery bag toward Greer. “Let me know if there’s anything you don’t want.”

The bag held a can of tuna days away from expiration, three severely dented cans of New England clam chowder, a rusty head of iceberg lettuce…

Greer held up a bag of tortilla chips. “Why are these open?”

“A stock boy found it on the shelf like that.”

“The pothead one, you mean?”

The sun had set and the air was beginning to cool. Summer had ended weeks ago, but Greer shivered with this first nip of fall. The whirligigs would start up any day now, just before the maple leaves began to turn. She tore another strip off the bird for the cat. It ate. She leaned forward and dropped her hand. The cat came to her, sniffed, then pressed its head into her palm and leaned its body against her leg.

“Just promise me that if Jeff comes around you won’t feed him too,” said Rita.

“What would I even make, a tuna fish tortilla chip casserole?”

“There’s more than one way to feed a man, G.”

“I’m off men for the next year.” She had made declarations like this before. To Rita. To anyone who’d listen.

“Have you ever gone a year without one?”

“You make it sound like going without a shower or toothpaste or vodka.”

Rita didn’t laugh. “When was the last time you went more than a week without a man around?”

She thought a moment. Jeff had been two and a half years; before that, Todd had been three years, Jeremy a year…what did it matter anyway? If anything, her relationship history proved her loyalty and…and work ethic, for Chrissake.

Rita continued, “Why don’t you try dating—as in, go on a date with someone and then never see or speak to them again—like the rest of us? Or at least decide whether or not you actually like a person before going out again.”

Greer wanted to say, “What’s not to like? You like one, you like them all,” but instead vapidly stroked the cat’s back and counted the bits of green growing in the rot between the porch boards. Two, three, plus three, six, seven… Without warning the cat pinned its ears, spun around, and swatted her hand. Greer yelped, more in surprise than pain. The cat darted off the porch and around the side of the duplex. She put her hand to her lips, and when she showed it to Rita, two red lines had already started to welt; no blood came to the surface.

Rita shook her head. “That cat’s an asshole. If he comes back, don’t feed him.”

“He was just trying to play—you really do take everything so serious.”

***

Greer worked at a small grocery store two miles away. Rita got her the job after being promoted to assistant manager—when Greer had finally decided she needed to leave Jeff. Doing so had meant she no longer worked as a clerk at the Jiffy Lube he co-owned, and so, thirty-eight and single again, she had taken Rita’s offer. Like everything else in this world, the grocery store depressed her to no end. The lights were too yellow. The aisles were too cold. And until she started working there, she never realized how terrible it could be to find food where it doesn’t belong. Salsa on the magazine rack. Beef jerky in the apple bin. Once, she found a slab of raw steak, out of its package, in the middle of the ice cream aisle—she spent ten minutes crying in the employee bathroom after that one.

She enjoyed mopping. Well, she enjoyed pushing the bucket of soap-water around with the mop and found that she could do laps around the store without anyone bothering her. Until yesterday, when the butcher held up a wet bag of shrimp and said, “These are gonna be tossed tonight, you want ‘em?”

She shrugged and tried not to think about how depressed expired-gift shrimp made her feel. Was it so obvious—her situation—to the rest of the world?

That night, while draining noodles to go with the shrimp, she heard a faint “mew” at the back door. Rita’s voice in her head told her to ignore it. She opened a half-used jar of alfredo sauce, intending to use the last of the milk to thin the congealed sauce and perhaps have enough left to use another day.

The tabby jumped to the back of a patio chair and stared at her through the window. Its mews became louder, more aggressive—as if he were trying to pronounce “me-ow” one syllable at a time.

“Sorry, kid! I’m using the milk. You better scram,” she said with her back to the window.

The cat leaped from the back of the chair and onto the window screen. It hung there by its claws, face pressed against the window, eyes trained on her, and then the screen pulled free of the frame. She heard the crash and rushed outside to find the cat sitting tall and proper, unashamed by his behavior. He looked at her with round, dilated black eyes.

“Oh fine. You can have some.” She decided water would do just fine to thin the sauce. She was stroking the cat’s back for a moment, enjoying the mechanical purr as he drank, when the smoke alarm went off in the house.

She’d left the burner on when she set the pot of strained noodles back on the stove, and now dark smoke rose from the pot. She put it in the sink and ran water over the mess, then opened the kitchen window and waved a dishrag at the smoke detector until it stopped screaming.

When she turned around, the cat was on the kitchen counter, licking its paw over the now empty shrimp plate. She threw her rag at him and shouted, “Shoo, Goddammit!” but the rag didn’t startle him. In fact, he looked at her with a sort of amused satisfaction. The damn thing was still purring.

“You need to go now,” she said, and reached for the cat, but he reached faster. She cried out, this time in pain, and the cat bolted. The scratches now had a set of puncture wounds to complete the look. The bite marks were white at first, but unlike the scratches, blood seeped to the surface. She remembered hearing from someone that cat mouths and claws were riddled with bacteria, so she found some expired hydrogen peroxide and poured it over her hand. She microwaved a frost-bitten curry dinner, ate half of it, then went to bed.

Once, she had made the mistake of blocking one of Jeff’s slaps. Instead of a stinging face, she had ended up with a bruised and tender forearm. The feeling was similar now; she woke with a stiff, swollen hand. Greer pulled work clothes from a pile on the floor, squeezed the last of the mealy toothpaste onto her toothbrush, and reheated yesterday’s coffee—all with her less dominant hand. She decided to walk rather than ride her bike to work—her hand was so stiff she doubted she’d be able to squeeze the brake. It had rained some in the night, and the morning air had that longed-for fall bite to it. She tucked her sore hand into the front pocket of her sweatshirt and cradled it gently with the other hand.

The butcher and the woman from produce stood smoking at the back entrance.

“How’d those shrimp turn out?” he asked. His food gifts always came with a follow-up. Sometimes she considered turning down the expired food, but she was in no place to turn down free anything right now.

“Wish I could tell you. A cat broke into my house and ate them.”

He laughed. “A cat burglar, huh?”

Greer smiled and nodded. Produce rolled her eyes—she could afford to not laugh at his stupid jokes. Greer opened the heavy steel door between them.

Almost as an afterthought, Produce said, “Hey, there was a guy asking for you.”

“He just walked by a few minutes ago. Asked if you worked today,” added the butcher.

“Did you catch a name?”

“Nah,” said Produce, “but he was handsome in that scruffy kind of way. Blurry tattoo on his forearm. Kinda shady, yeah?”

Jeff had found her. She had known he’d try to make contact eventually. It had been almost three weeks, and despite the nagging suspicion that it could make things worse, she had hoped the restraining order would do its job.

“What’d you tell him?”

Produce shrugged. “Said we didn’t know your sched.”

Just before the door closed, Greer heard the butcher say, “Am I kinda scruffy?”

Greer went straight to the manager’s office, stopped at the window and waited to be waved in. Rita sat behind a gunmetal desk cluttered with papers and office knick-knacks, complete with a weepy-looking plant atop a stack of file folders. The room smelled like fermented fruit and soggy cardboard. The office had no central heating, and poor insulation made it as cold as the frozen food aisle; Rita had on a scarf and fingerless gloves.

“Can I take a half-day?” asked Greer.

Rita made a frowny face. “But I want my bestie here. My misery can’t be complete unless I know you’re suffering with me.”

“Jeff came by.”

Rita rushed to the office window and pulled the blinds—as if he were lurking somewhere in the building, spying from the cluttered hallway.

“He’s not here now. At least, I don’t think he is.”

“What’d he want?”

“Don’t know. But, look at this.” Greer held up her wounded hand. It throbbed a little with the sudden movement.

Rita’s eyes grew wide. “Did he do that to you? I’m calling the cops.”

“No, it was that stupid cat.”

Rita opened and closed three desk drawers before fishing out a used tube of antibiotic cream.

Rita covered the afternoon shift, and Greer borrowed her car. A bobblehead of some character from a fantasy show she didn’t watch nodded from the dash while she adjusted the seats and mirrors, reminding her of the last time she’d been in Rita’s car. A time when that fantasy-head had nodded at her in the passenger’s seat while Rita drove her to the ER—the pain in her side so severe she could hardly breathe. Am I dying? Am I dying? And the nodding head just kept confirming that, yes, yes she was. Something was at least. Later, the X-rays showed two broken ribs and a partially collapsed lung. She stayed on Rita’s couch after that, and by the next week, Rita had secured her a job at the market and moved her into the duplex. Rita’s cousin had been the former tenant. Thinking of it all now, Greer realized she probably owed Rita her life—the bobblehead nodded in confirmation of this, too.

The doctor’s cold fingertips massaged the lymph nodes in her neck and asked, “Have you ever had a bad reaction to a cat bite or scratch before?”

She shrugged. Not that she could remember.

The doctor lifted Greer’s hand and turned it over. “Did your cat do this?”

“No. It’s just some cat that’s been coming around. I thought he was someone’s pet, but maybe he’s feral. He’s certainly unpredictable.”

She felt self-conscious, even though she knew that was silly.

“Well, I’m concerned about cat scratch fever here.”

“That’s real?”

“It is, and I’m putting you on a round of antibiotics. If you start to feel worse—cramping, muscle aches, fever—come back right away.”

Jeff had never liked cats. He hated them, actually, and Greer never really understood his contempt. He’d kept a BB gun by his front door and shot the cats that crept into his yard.

“They come over here and shit under the shrubs, and then the neighbors’ dogs come over and eat it,” he used to say. “It’s a public nuisance.” He laughed every time he hit one, too.

“It’s like that video game where you shoot the ducks,” he said once, “only the cats jump up in the air, do back flips sometimes. Fuckin’ hilarious.”

She’d ask him not to shoot at them—she’d even grabbed the BB gun from him once, but that had ended with a fat lip. She’d felt for the cats at the time, but now as she forked over twenty bucks for antibiotics, she could almost understand the desire to make a cat smart. Though Jeff had more hate in him than any cat—than probably anyone—deserved.

She left Rita’s car in the parking lot and walked home in the fading light. The morning chill returned with the sun down. A scuff of feet behind her made her jump. Without turning around, she instinctively crossed the street.

Her thoughts went only to Jeff. How did he find out where she worked? She glanced over her shoulder. Whoever had been there hadn’t crossed the road with her. Even so, she quickened her pace toward home. If Jeff found her, would she have to move somewhere new?

She could see the figure on the other side of the street, now. A man, and she tried to convince herself that he wasn’t intentionally keeping pace with her. From the corner of her eye she could tell that he, whoever he was, had the hood of his sweatshirt pulled up. The streetlights began to turn on with tinny clicks. She stepped over a smattering of soggy whirligigs on the pavement under the maple at the corner and shuffled into the alley beside her landlord’s house. Reggae and pot fumes floated from out his open window. She followed the chipped flagstone path to her back porch door. She imagined the man closing in. She fumbled with the keys—her hand even more stiff with the sterile bandages tied around the wounds by an urgent care nurse. She entered the house and re-locked the door.

“Stop it,” she said. “You’re being paranoid.”

Her phone chirped. She jumped in the dark of the kitchen.

A message from an unknown number read, “I miss you.”

It could only be him. But she had changed numbers.

Another chirp with the message, “So. Much.” She tapped the cursor into the textbox and let it blink.

She flipped on the porch light and peered out the window of the kitchen door. The yard was empty.

She texted Rita, “You and T-Rex have any interest in a sleepover?”

She saw herself from above just then. Saw her thumb hit “Send” as if it weren’t her own. It happened like that sometimes. There were moments when she wondered if she was seeing herself, or some kind of cosmic premonition—a warning of sorts: If you aren’t careful, this is who you’ll be. Sometimes, rarely, the moments were full of hope that her life could be different, that it might already be. That she could be someone who could be happy. But, there were an awful lot of Coulds in those moments—and often a heavy pour (or three). In the moment she texted Rita, she saw herself, suspended somewhere between the cracks of the ceiling and the peeling linoleum floor, and felt certain she wasn’t her. She could not be someone she despised so much. Could not be someone so afraid. Someone so sad. Then just as swiftly as she had left it, she returned to her body and found herself still crouched in the kitchen, clutching her phone, briefly aware of the great chasm between the Coulds and the Could Nots. That’s how the moments worked.

***

She didn’t turn on any lights until she heard the click of T-Rex’s toenails on the porch. The dachshund paused at the door to jump on Greer, pawing at her knee with front legs just a little too short for his back legs.

She scratched his chest the way he liked. “Oh Rexy, you’re so sexy.”

“That line never gets old.” Rita held a plastic bag containing her toothbrush and clean underwear for the morning. “Should I have brought my gun?”

“You don’t have a gun.”

“I have pepper spray.”

“I’m being paranoid and just need company. You don’t have to stay. Have you had dinner?”

Rita accepted her offer of a cold chicken-salad wrap she’d pilfered from the “Day-Old” stack in the deli, two days prior. The soggy tortilla broke apart in their hands. Greer found a packet of saltines, which they used to scoop out the chicken salad.

They ate mostly in silence, listening to the crunch of the stale crackers and the clicking of Rex’s nails on the wood floor, his reconnaissance mission around the interior nearly complete.

A yowl came from the back porch. Rex let loose a high-pitched bark from the bathroom. The tabby was crouched on the back of the porch chair.

“He’s come to finish you off,” said Rita. “I told you not to feed him.”

“Well I definitely learned my lesson. That reminds me—” Greer pulled the antibiotic pills out of her bag and swallowed one with a swig of boxed chardonnay. She rinsed out a mason jar and poured a glass for Rita.

The cat made a kind of pathetic mewing sound and rubbed the length of its body along the (now screenless) window.

“I think he feels bad about the whole thing,” said Greer.

Rex came tearing into the room, growling between barks. He lunged at the window. The cat startled and gracelessly leapt off the back of the chair, hit the railing of the deck with a thud, then disappeared into the shrubbery.

“See? Rexy knows an asshole when he sees one, why can’t you?”

Greer went to the window. “You never know, he might be the abused one. Like the schoolyard bully who gets burned with cigarette butts at home—maybe that’s his problem.”

“The problem is you thinking up excuses.”

Greer caught a glimpse of gray and white as he ducked under a hedge in the far corner of the yard. She felt a little sad seeing him slink away, rejected.

***

The next morning Greer emerged from her room to find that Rita and Rex had gone, their blankets folded neatly at one end of the couch. She put a mug of water in the microwave and removed the bandages from her hand while she waited. The swelling had gone down a little, maybe, and the throbbing had stopped, some. Purple and yellow bruises, like tiny pansies, had blossomed around each puncture wound. She took another pill with her lukewarm tea and went back to bed.

The cat woke her. He was yowling again. She checked the clock on her phone: four in the afternoon. She’d slept through her work shift and had five messages from Rita, first asking if she planned to come in, then annoyed by her lack of response, then worried whether she was okay. Greer responded, “Sorry. In bed. Feel awful.” And she did. She didn’t own a thermometer, but she shivered, and her reflection in the bathroom mirror confirmed it: Pale, sweaty, glassy-eyed. Not good.

The cat called again. He was in his spot, rubbing against the kitchen window. His eyes followed her while she made more tea and slouched around the kitchen rummaging for something to eat. She swatted fruit flies off a brown banana, decided she wasn’t hungry. She found one of the expired cans of tuna behind some rice that had a pantry moth fluttering around at the top of the bag.

The cat watched her with its round, black eyes. His cries soft and mewling, she could hear his purring through the thin window. He did love her, she thought, he just didn’t know how to show it.

She set the tuna by the back door and crouched in the doorway stroking his back as he ate. She closed and locked the door before he finished eating and could ruin the moment. She lifted the blinds on the kitchen door window. Jeff stood at the bottom of the porch steps, his hands shoved deep into his front pockets. He shrugged and flashed a half smile.

She snapped the blinds down again and crouched below the window, knowing and at the same time rejecting the idea that he’d seen her. And, maybe he hadn’t been there at all. Maybe she’d imagined it. Her stomach cramped and sweat broke out on her forehead.

Then came footsteps on the porch, back and forth, back and forth. Footsteps that made the porch creak.

“GeeGee, open the door. I’m sorry. I want you to come home.” He moved to the window above the kitchen sink. She could hear him press his face against it, and she pressed her back hard against the door.

“I can’t do any of it without you. I’m dying here. Can’t we talk?”

He paced again. The tuna dish went skidding across the planks. He swore. She willed her body to disappear, to not betray her. She mouthed the words, Don’t feed him, Don’t feed him, Don’t feed him, and she tried not to listen to his yowls.

 

Ashley Morrow Hermsmeier holds an MFA in Fiction from Pacific University and currently teaches English and writing in San Diego. Her flash fiction and short stories have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Michigan Quarterly Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, Front Porch, Cease, Cows and Pure Slush, among others. Her story “When the Bees Come Back” won Gemini Magazine’s 2015 flash fiction contest and received a Pushcart Prize nomination.

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