Coop stepped forward and stood over the bag, his head cocked. “What the fuck did you do?”
From our current Summer Reading issue, “The Cat” by Jackson Tobin
We tumbled into Coop’s basement through the cellar door, tracking snow and stench from the putrid Backwoods cigars Fitz was always burning, mulch and sawdust rolled in a dirty sock. The four of us—Coop, Fitz, Nate, and AJ—like always. There were no windows, and many of the bulbs had burned out among the ceiling tiles, so where light did come from the recessed fixtures, it was a hazy cone of yellow, filtering down like a jail yard spotlight.
Nate burst in last, a full thirty seconds behind. He’d still been in the house when we took off running, and now he came in the door holding his backpack out in front of him. As we spread out on the floor of the Coopers’ filthy basement, peeling off our sweat-soaked ski jackets, he placed the backpack carefully in the middle of our circle.
Something was moving in the bag.
“What?” AJ said, his voice already squeaky with fear.
“Unzip it,” Nate said. He stepped back, sat down cross-legged.
Now we watched the black JanSport as if it were stitched up with dynamite. Our pupils were still shriveled from the blinding winter light outside, so we couldn’t trust our eyes—but there was no mistaking the sound. An angry rustle of paper, a tearing of fabric.
Coop stepped forward and stood over the bag, his head cocked. “What the fuck did you do?” he said to Nate. But his voice was fat with admiration, his grin a salute.
It had been Coop, that morning, blinking in the nuclear snow glare, who said, “Let’s go see Toby Peterson.” Toby was a prissy kid with doting doctor parents. Coop hated him the way Coop hated rich kids, and poor kids, roided-out jocks and Internet geeks, know-it-alls and idiots. Which is to say, it was nothing personal, exactly, us picking on Toby that particular snow day. Coop was all for equal opportunity when he terrorized.
We were out on the frozen baseball field, standing around grinning in our outgrown snow clothes. School was canceled. The night before it’d snowed hard, a whole season’s worth folded up in one long gray cloud. The temperature was falling all through the storm and by the end a hard inch of crust glazed on top of the powder. We felt taller, with all that new earth underneath, and feeling taller was of outsize importance to us. In any group we knew where we ranked in height and every other hierarchy: if we could slosh down a Poland Spring of cheap vodka without puking; how many times we’d been punched in the face; whether we’d had sex yet, and if so, how crippling the stories of our incompetence were. Unfortunately most answers put us right in the middle, and the middle is no place for a sixteen-year-old boy. To be at the top was fine, but even better to be at the bottom—to have suffered. To have a reason for the anger that came off us like a smell; sometimes loud and sometimes hardly noticeable, but always there if you got close enough.
But it had to be the right kind of suffering. Coop had a dead mom—this was the right kind, the cool side of pain. She died when we were still in middle school. Coop and his three brothers all buzzed their heads before the funeral, and when they stood in a line at the gravesite, they looked like different versions of the same person, as if each could turn to his left and glimpse his future, two years, four years down the line.
It was a horrible thing, of course, but mostly for the adults, who debated when a cocktail of Ambien and Belvedere was simply self-medicating and when it was suicide. For Fitz, Nate, and AJ, our parents’ affairs and slow poisonings now seemed fine. Just regular. And Coop? Coop finally had something to be angry about.
The rest of us had two-parent households and, unlike Coop, fathers who came home every night, fathers who asked us how we were—fathers who cried. We had no wars and no death and an inescapably bright future, and in the warmth of that future’s light we gnashed and squirmed. We were as furious as Coop. Maybe more so.
Toby Peterson lived in a big house on Falls Pond, all timber and glass. We’d been taking turns pissing in the Petersons’ mailbox when Fitz slunk around to the backyard. Oi, he yelled after a moment, and we all came around.
The door was open, just a crack. Fitz stood there, a bent little grin burning in one corner of his mouth. He had his hands jammed in his pockets, a posture of victory—he’d nudged up the bar and knew no one would get over it.
Except then Nate lurched forward, kicked off his boots onto the bristly WELCOME mat, and slipped into the house.
“Christ,” Fitz whispered. “I didn’t tell him to go in. Nobody said to go in. You guys saw.”
But no one said anything in reply. We stood there, our gloved hands cupping our eyes, pressing our faces to the glass. Through clouds of hot breath, we watched Nate slink around the first floor. Watched him creep up the stairs, his feet leaving the top step.
When his socks reappeared, we scrambled over the snowbank and out of the yard. AJ looked back and saw Nate stumble on his way out the door, falling farther and farther behind, but then we went around the corner and he was out of sight. All we could do was keep running and hope he was behind us.
Now, in the darkness of the basement, Coop bent and unzipped the backpack.
He yelped and jumped back, cradling his hand. There, hissing at us from its place on the flattened backpack, was the cat.
It was a Maine Coon, a monster, huge in the space between us, its long cirrus coat haunted with black. Two eyes blazed like headlights through a fog. The thing arched its back, flashed us two pairs of long yellowish fangs. The mouth of the bag, where the zipper met the seam, was shredded into ragged streamers of canvas.
“You stole their cat?” Fitz said.
Nate shrugged, as if, when he had gone into the house, there had been only two possible outcomes—leave with the cat or don’t—and this was simply the way the coin flip had worked out. “His door was locked,” he said, by way of explanation. “Toby’s. And—and I felt like I’d been in there a long time, and maybe somebody was coming, and right when I turned around, there was the cat.”
On cue, the cat leapt from the bag and up to the busted spine of the Coopers’ couch, landing without a sound. Slowly it walked along the edge, pawing at the pilling fabric, watching us. It looked like a small tiger wrapped with smoke.
“You, my friend,” Fitz said, “are nuts. Good luck bringing it back over there without getting caught.”
Nate did the thing where he looked like he was chewing but there was nothing in his mouth.
AJ stared at the cat and shook his head. “This is the dumbest thing we’ve ever done,” he said.
“We?” Fitz replied. “We didn’t do anything.”
“Fuck you, Fitz,” Nate said softly.
“Nah,” Coop said. He’d been sucking on the wound, the place the cat had clawed him, and when he took his hand from his mouth we saw three angry red slashes. “Hold on. I’ve got an idea.”
The Petersons would pony up for a reward. These kinds of cats, these Maine Coons, were more wild than tame. Surely she’d gotten out before, Coop said. After the cat had been gone for a while, they’d panic, resort to Facebook posts, e-mail chains, fliers. They’d offer a hundred bucks, maybe more, and we’d convince somebody else—somebody they’d never expect, maybe a girl—to return the cat and collect the reward, in exchange for a small middleman’s fee. Piece of cake.
“As long as none of you left a trace at the scene?” Coop said, eyeing us.
We turned to Nate. “I don’t know!” he said. “I took my shoes off? It’s not fucking CSI.”
But what to do with the cat? She’d calmed down now. She was perched like a gargoyle on the corner of the couch, her long tail ticking into view behind her back. Carefully Coop approached her. He reached out and stroked her head. She closed her eyes, leaned her ears into his hand.
When he finally said, “She stays here,” the rest of us ought to have been relieved that the whole thing was settled, that he would keep the beast, the evidence, in his house, no one else on the hook—but. There was something in the way he was looking at her. She was looking at him. They were looking at each other.
The next day at school we studied Toby Peterson from afar, peering at him from the other end of hallways, eying him icily across the cafeteria. He was in a long wheat-colored wool overcoat with the collar turned up. The usual girls came by his locker between classes–Ivy Harrington, Colleen Gallagher–and though they wore expressions of concern as they spoke to him, that wasn’t necessarily about his cat getting kidnapped. It could have been anything. His whole life was a fucking tragedy.
Still, we were antsy—Coop hadn’t come in that morning. Fitz sent him texts and got no response. He skipped school a lot, but the three of us couldn’t help feeling like it was a bad idea to be missing on that day. So after school AJ took a detour on his walk home and went by the Coopers’ house.
After Coop’s mother died, it seemed like every mom in town had silently agreed to raise the Cooper boys collectively. For the months after the funeral the Coopers’ doorbell rang itself hoarse, and Coop kept coming to school smelling like our own houses, like our mothers’ banana breads, our grandmothers’ famous pot roasts. It was a beautiful thing, to see the town come together like that, but of course, when parenting is divided up a dozen times, a hundred times, each share becomes pretty minuscule.
Our Coop was the best among the brothers—the most loyal, the least explosive—but even he knew most of the Oakville PD by name. Whenever it looked like one of the boys had finally gone too far, a concerned neighbor or two would trek down to the station, remind the officers that these boys were growing up motherless.
By now Coop’s two older brothers were gone. His younger brother was in seventh grade, mostly barricading himself in his bedroom. Mr. Cooper had a job as a medical device salesman and though that basically meant quick jaunts to the local hospitals, his schedule had filled up since becoming a widower. Many of the mothers of our town seemed just as committed to making sure he was getting on okay. Which meant the Coopers’ house often felt like it had been abandoned in a hurry, right in the middle of a bad party. Half-empty cans of Mountain Dew were crimped and capsized everywhere. Pizza boxes left a floury film when we cleared them away to play cards.
When AJ got to Coop’s house, there were no cars in the driveway. He yanked on the iron cellar door but its two rusted eyelids were locked shut from the inside. This was unusual. He went around to the back of the house, crunching through the snow in the yard, the hem of his jeans wet and stiff.
The blinds were down on Coop’s window but through some gaps in the plastic slats AJ could see light on the other side. He stood there for a long time, until his teeth started to chatter, until the sun slipped behind the trees. But the blinds never rose. Every so often he thought he saw a shadow move on the other side.
Two days later, just as Coop had predicted, Toby Peterson moped his way around Oakville High taping up fliers. There was a big color photo of the cat in motion, her face turned toward the camera, her body blurry at the edges. In the photo you could barely make out the wild burning of her eyes.
MISSING, it said in large print above the picture, and underneath the picture it said TOBY PETERSON 699-0532 $$$REWARD. That was all. We needed to strategize—we hadn’t yet figured out who we could ask to bring the cat back—but Coop still hadn’t come back to school.
On Thursday afternoon the three of us met at Fitz’s, pretending to play pool in his basement and listening for any sign of his parents creeping down the stairs.
“Where the hell is he?” Nate asked Fitz. Fitz had known Coop the longest—Mr. Fitzsimmons had been a pallbearer at Mrs. Cooper’s funeral—so sometimes he had a map for the cobwebby parts of Coop that the rest of us could only guess at.
Fitz shrugged. He grabbed the 13 ball and fired it across the table at a corner pocket. It clipped the rail on a half bounce and clattered onto the tile floor.
“He does this every once in a while,” Fitz said. “Disappears. Maybe his brothers came home and they went camping or something.”
“Maybe he just doesn’t want to give back the cat,” Nate said.
Fitz turned to him. “Dude—I know. You see the way he was looking at that thing?”
AJ took the 8 ball and bowled it slowly toward a side pocket. It hung for a moment on the lip of the hole before it dropped out of sight. He didn’t know why he wasn’t telling Nate and Fitz about going to Cooper’s house. But every second that passed made it harder for him to speak. There had been something strange happening in Coop’s bedroom. He had a feeling it wasn’t his to see, and therefore it wasn’t his to share. He took the cue ball and rolled it back and forth between his hands, listening to it ramble across the felt, feeling its weight each time it hit one of his palms.
“Tomorrow,” Fitz was saying, “he’ll be back tomorrow, and we’ll find somebody to bring the cat over, and then we’ll take the reward money and forget about the whole damn thing.”
The next day, the three of us skirted our morning schedule. We badgered our teachers for hall passes and nurse trips to try to keep an eye on Toby. He was there after homeroom, goofing around with Amanda Klein and Gabby Wasserman. He was there in Fitz’s AP gov class, third period, sucking up to Mr. Burr with some political cartoon he’d snipped out of the newspaper. “You know me well, Peterson,” Mr. Burr cooed between belly laughs. Fitz snorted loudly from the back row. Toby, a smug little smile stretched across his face, pranced back to his desk and continued doodling some twilit chateau.
Something wasn’t right. If he hadn’t seemed heartbroken before, now he looked positively—normal. Or as normal as Toby could get. What if he didn’t give a shit about the cat, and we were stuck with it?
Because there was no denying it: Toby didn’t seem as sad as he was supposed to. He didn’t seem like a kid whose cat had been kidnapped.
We couldn’t wait for Coop any longer.
We fled the school through the back entrance, running headlong through the patchy bare trees of St. James cemetery, across empty Route 1, and down the windy hill toward the Coopers’. Still no cars, no signs of life. Over the house the starchy blue of the sky was filling up with soot-colored clouds, burbling in from the north; the dome of coming snow wrapped everything in a gauzy hush.
AJ was the fastest. He burst onto the porch, pounding the door. Nate came after him and jammed the doorbell. Fitz, ten seconds behind and hacking all the way, just wrenched the front door open and stepped into the house.
Following Fitz into the house, Nate swore he saw a blur of color on the landing, something moving just out of sight, but before he had time to say anything Fitz was already thundering up the stairs, AJ behind him. A door opened and there was Ben, Coop’s thirteen-year-old brother, apparently every bit the truant his older brothers were. His nose was blazing with whiteheads and his hair was mussed with sleep. “Thank God,” Ben said, yawning, as we pushed past him in the hallway. “He hasn’t left his room in days.”
But when the three of us turned the corner at the end of the hall, Coop’s door was wide open. This seemed a bad omen. We stumbled over the threshold into the dark room and collided with a smell so foul and so stagnant it was nearly solid. Like burnt hair and gangrenous meat. There were blankets and towels everywhere—soaked, darkened cloth, balled and piled in drifts as tall as Coop’s bed, which, oddly, was pristinely made. And there was no sign of Coop.
AJ gagged and pulled his shirt over his nose. Nate nudged some of the towels aside with his shoe, but underneath there were only more of the same. He stepped carefully across the room and lifted a slat of the blinds.
“Look,” he said, yanking the blinds open, and when we got over to the window, there was Coop, stumbling through the backyard and out into the woods.
Now the snow teemed down in flakes the size of thumbnails. Coop in his jeans and sneakers and green Oakville Crusaders T-shirt was a smudge of color against a white world that was closing up like a fist. AJ bellowed his name. He kept running. Slowly his shape grew bigger as we gained. He was moving awkwardly, carrying something. He took a left into the World War Two memorial park and skidded down Piper Hill, which had been abandoned by sledders and dog walkers in the storm.
At the bottom of the hill there was a flood grate and Coop caught his foot in it. He fell with a yelp and the bundle in his arms spilled forward onto the ground.
We slid to a stop. Coop scrambled to pull the bundle back to him—his pants leg had yanked away and his ankle was swelling and filling in with purple.
And then we took in the rest of him. The shallow scratches all around the edges of his scalp, the dark flaky stain in the gutter between his nose and his mouth.
“Coop,” AJ said. “Where have you been? What the hell is going on?”
Coop had his eyes squeezed shut. Snow was landing on his bare arms and burning up.
“I just needed a little more time,” he said.
“More—time—with what?” Nate gasped. He yanked a crumpled flier from his jacket pocket and waved it in front of Coop. “Look at this. Toby made fliers, like you said! We can get the reward. This whole thing—it’s over!”
Coop laughed. “No,” he said. He looked at the tangled wrap of blankets in his arms. “Not exactly.”
After we left the Coopers’ the evening of the snow day, Coop scooped up the cat and took her to his room. As soon as she was in his arms she started purring, a low drone like an engine idling.
The rest of the night he and the cat lay around in his bed. His room was warm and dark and the winter wind scraped at his window. He heard Ben come and go from the bedroom down the hall, the noises of the toilet and sink. He wondered where his father was, and when he would return, but the anger Coop felt about his father’s steady absence was minimal by then, nearly gone. The kind of sore that only hurt when you poked at it.
The cat was beautiful. Coop told us later that when he reached out to stroke her head she would press her feathery ears and the crown of her skull into his fingertips, moving slowly against his hand so that it traced the whole length of her spine. She pawed at the folds of his comforter, lifted an edge and burrowed around underneath. After a while, he realized he was talking to her. He laughed a little, to himself, imagining how he would react if he found out one of his friends was huddled in bed talking to a cat. But he didn’t stop. It was the most natural thing in the world.
He told her about his friends, about school. He told her about his older brothers, Keegan and Lyle, how he felt more abandoned by them than by his father, but somehow he found himself doing the same thing to Ben. And he told her about his mother, things he hadn’t managed to say out loud in years, when he slowly sunk into sleep, the cat’s lantern eyes simmering like an afterimage on the inside of his eyelids.
He woke to a voice. The room was utterly dark, though he didn’t recall turning the light off. He glanced around and noticed the white moon through the window and then the twin lights of the cat’s eyes. She was in the middle of the floor, looking at him.
She spoke again. When she spoke her mouth didn’t move—nothing moved—her voice just sort of seemed to radiate from the inside of his head. He wasn’t sure that she was speaking English but still he understood. This is what the cat said:
She said that she had been waiting for him.
She said that he had been through a lot, so much pain, too much pain for someone his age, but now she was here to help him.
All the while those glowing yellow eyes on his.
She said that she could show him things that would heal him. She could bring him peace. All he needed to do was to kill her. He needed to snap her neck and then pry open her mouth and breathe his own air into her body. Fill her with his life.
Coop shook his head. Tears bubbled and smeared the edges of his vision. This was a dream, this was a terrible dream, and he was afraid.
You are not dreaming, the cat said. There is nothing to fear.
Coop was crying now. I don’t want to hurt you, he thought.
The cat was still looking at him. Is that what you think death will do? the cat asked. No. You will free me.
I can’t do it, Coop thought. He wanted to run from the room, but he had the sensation of something holding him down. The cat’s eyes were unblinking, unmoving.
You must, the cat said. I can help you.
And the cat leapt up onto the bed. Up onto his lap. He saw his arms extending toward it in the darkness. Suddenly he knew why he was crying. As soon as he’d heard the cat’s voice he’d known he would do whatever it said.
Thank you, the cat was saying. Her voice roared like wind in his ears. Thank you.
Coop’s hands were turning blue. The whole time he told the story he’d been trembling. He unrolled the blanket and there was the cat.
Its smell pushed back against the cold. The cat’s fur was starting to peel off. When he unrolled it gently from its swaddling a matted patch the size of a football came away in the towel.
“I know what it sounds like,” Coop said miserably, staring at the body cradled in his arms. “But watch this.”
And we looked on in horror as he lifted the broken thing’s face to his own. He took his thumb and pulled open its tiny mouth, and then he closed his eyes and put his mouth to the opening. Fitz turned and puked in the snow.
Nate watched as the middle of the cat pushed out just slightly, like a mitten absorbing a hand. Coop was actually inflating it. After a few seconds he pulled his face away, gasping for breath, and with his thumb and forefinger he pinched the little mouth shut and plugged the slits of its nostrils.
Holding its head carefully that way, Coop jabbed the cat at AJ. “Do it,” he said. “Breathe it. Quick.”
AJ took a step back. “Fuck no,” he said. But Nate, like always, stepped forward. He bent at the waist and jammed his mouth onto the cat’s face. Then Nate gently cupped its head and Coop drew his hand away.
How to describe it? Nate had a friend in elementary school who could do wild things with his eyes, make them spin in dizzy circles away from each other, point off in opposite directions. Nate had always wondered but never asked the kid—did he see two different things? It might have been something like this: Nate took a deep pull of the air from the dead cat’s rotting lungs, tasting the filthy fur and Coop’s still-warm breath and the coppery tang of cold necrotic skin—and the world cleaved in two.
He was there, with his three best friends, at the bottom of Piper Hill, because he could feel his knee in the snow, could feel the winter gnawing at him. But he was also somewhere else. He was in a car driving along a winding coastline, the sun diving gold and red into the ocean. His window was down, and in the rearview, his face, but older: the faint creases around his eyes were deeper, as if underlined in ink; the sooty suggestion of facial hair that he wore on his upper lip had spread all over his jaw. And as he peered into—what? this other world? this other self?—he could feel everything there, too: the wind coming off the water, warmed by the sun at its fringes and roaring in through his window; the stale sour memory of that afternoon’s coffee on the backs of his teeth. And the longer he held his gaze on this other world, the more he found he knew, the knowledge blooming, seeping in: he was driving to meet someone, something important, and he was late—
But then the urge to breathe, an alarm blaring from his other body, elbowed its way in—Man, I am freaking out, Nate thought, and that thought, those very words, boomed and warbled like distant thunder out over the ocean—and now the picture of the other world, the picture of Nate’s future, was starting to come apart, it was starting to bubble and peel around the edges—
He jerked his mouth away from the cat and sucked greedily at the frigid air. It bit at his lungs. It brought tears to his eyes. Just like that Nate knew he was all there again, only there, sixteen years old, on his knees in the snow with a dead cat in his arms.
He looked around at the others. A dark bead of blood shone in the corner of his mouth.
He blew up the cat again and handed it to Fitz.
We each saw different stuff. For all of us, it was the future, strictly speaking—but it was as if the thing cast us out on different lengths of line. Fitz, he got next Tuesday, three o’clock that afternoon. He would put the cat down and come back to us grinning, his eyes scrolling into focus, his hand snatching blindly around for a pad of paper to scribble the answers for his AP gov exam, or announcing that Mandy Carr was gonna get a DUI over the weekend. “Well,” he crooned, “she was going to get a DUI. Let’s see if old Pat Fitzsimmons can’t be her hero.” His glimpses were practical, opportunistic. They drove the rest of us wild with envy.
Especially Nate. Because Nate got more stuff like driving the car along the water, frantic and late for some appointment; he got hospital rooms, gravesites. Big inscrutable moments, in other words, way way out, the only common thread being that he was always stressed or heartbroken. When he came back he was misty and raw—and yet he craved the cat as much as any of us.
On the night before his biggest wrestling match of the season, he tried to get Fitz to tell him how he could get an edge.
“Maybe if I hold your hand,” Nate muttered, blushing a little. “Like in movies.”
Fitz snorted. We were in the janitor’s closet, our new haven, cross-legged in a circle on the dusty concrete. It was four days after Piper Hill.
“Sweetheart,” Fitz said. “You can hold my hand. We don’t need the cat.”
Nate slugged him, and then they tried it. Nate’s clammy hand wrapped around Fitz’s, Fitz forced to cradle the cat lefty. But it didn’t work like that, of course. Fitz took off to wherever, and Nate stayed right there in the closet, squeezing his eyes shut so hard he gave himself a headache. We could see only our own futures. We could see only what the cat chose to show each one of us, alone.
Which, for AJ, was ecstasy. He’d come back gasping, flushed all over with pleasure. “I have a girl,” he’d whispered, on our first day with the cat. “A baby girl.” Even Fitz had a hard time sneering at that, the blazing joy that pulsed off AJ. The dazed look of wonder he wore as he fished a plug of fur out from between his teeth.
And Coop—he didn’t say what he saw. He came back with his mouth set in a grim line. Passed the cat around the circle without a word. “What’d you see?” the rest of us would ask. “Where were you?” But he would just shrug.
“Same as you guys,” he’d say into his lap. “Same as you.”
And for a while it worked. Fitz rocketed to the top of the class. He fancied himself a hero, disseminating his miraculous study guides (with a few wrong answers, naturally, so he could remain at the top of the curve); zipping around town to rescue crippled Mrs. Kellogg’s runaway terrier; off to the mall to console poor female classmates who were about to get dumped. Suddenly he wasn’t so interested in our nasty old pranks, in getting a rise out of saps like Toby Peterson—and neither were the rest of us. AJ was spending a lot more time with his parents. Nate, too, had turned softer, gentler. He’d quit wrestling. He was listening to a lot of jam bands, which, somehow, we let him get away with.
But we could no longer ignore that it was taking something out of us. We had to carry Listerine with us everywhere to wash the rotten smell from our breath. And though we were getting better at clinging to the other side, at understanding what the cat was trying to show us—better at holding our breath even as our brains, starved of oxygen, made the lights overhead fizz on and off, like stars glimpsed through filmy clouds—that meant we had a hard time coming back, struggled more and more to anchor in the place we really were. When we met in the handicapped stall at the movie theater, huddled together and rushing finish up before the previews started, we watched each other stumble back from our futures, our eyes whirring in their sockets. The toll was right there on our faces—still us, but a little bit gone. A little bit less.
And there was the queasy jolt each time one of us carefully excavated the cat from the cooler we kept her in, tucked inside Nate’s black JanSport. Maybe it was guilt; maybe it was something else. Nearly all of her fur lay in a reeking pile at the bottom of the bag. Her soft parts—her eyes, her tongue, the pads of her feet—had fallen off, or else spoiled in their places. We’d covered the resulting holes with duct tape. After two weeks we were pros at the whole process, but the mouth shape we had to make was always changing; now we had to purse our lips like trumpet players so we didn’t end up swallowing pebbly teeth.
By the time Christmas break came—fifteen days after we’d chased Coop to the bottom of Piper Hill—we had a bald, putrid pile of bones, held together with staples and tape. We had a dumpster stink that we couldn’t scrub off our bodies. And we had a decision to make.
Walking home after school we talked it over. AJ was adamant that our time with the cat was up (and it was his day, in fact, his turn with the cat, but to further his point he hadn’t used it once that day). Fitz and Nate were on the fence. And Coop wasn’t saying anything.
He walked on slightly ahead of us, his hands balled in his pockets. These past weeks had not been kind to him. The pallid green tinge that had begun to show on his face was now creeping down his arms. He grew more sullen and remote by the day.
“Coop,” AJ said, “I mean—it’s practically unusable at this point. There are punctures all over the place.”
Coop walked on without turning.
“Either way,” Nate said, “we can’t keep it at my house anymore. I put it in the freezer in my basement, like you guys said, but the stink still got out. My parents are getting suspicious.”
“Can’t keep it at my house,” Fitz said.
“Or mine,” AJ said. But we were wasting our breath. Coop would gladly keep the cat at his house if that was the issue.
Coop turned abruptly on his heel. “We haven’t even really looked at all our options!” he said. “Like—let’s say we figure out it’s the lungs that count, right? Then we just cut the lungs out. Put ’em in, I don’t know, formaldehyde or something. The stuff barbers use for their scissors. And rig up a tube—”
We were mortified—and then mortified that we weren’t really all that mortified.
“Okay,” Nate said slowly, “but if the lungs aren’t the important part, then we’ll have ruined it anyway.”
“Besides,” AJ said, “that’s not the point. This is bad for us, man. This is . . . this is evil shit.” He chanced a glance at Coop’s face. “It’s killing you.”
Coop laughed. A busted, jagged laugh, a hammer through a lightbulb. “Don’t be dramatic,” he said.
“Fitz?” AJ pleaded, looking around for backup.
Fitz took a deep breath. “Coop, we’ve reached the end of the line here. We can’t keep lugging around . . . ,” he paused—we made a habit of not saying what we were doing too explicitly, but this time he went for it: “. . . a dead cat forever. Time to let it go, buddy.”
All those sessions with the cat had sapped our reaction time. Coop had his hands clamped around Fitz’s throat before the rest of us moved. He jacked Fitz up against a tree, rammed him hard into the stippled bark. For a moment we just stood there, frozen, watching Fitz’s face, his eyes bugging, his Adam’s apple jamming against Coop’s fingers like a knob of ice pinched in a straw.
Fitz croaked out something indecipherable. He was peeling at the skin of Coop’s wrist with his fingernails. Finally Nate and AJ lunged over to the two of them.
“You wouldn’t have any of this without me,” Coop spat, his face close to Fitz’s. “You realize that? You guys didn’t have to do anything.” When he spoke the corners of his lips pulled back and we could see a lipstick smear of something red on his teeth. “You didn’t have to kill her,” he said.
“Coop!” AJ cried. Nate had his arms around Coop’s waist, and AJ was trying to pry is fingers free. “Let him go! He can’t breathe!”
At AJ’s cracking voice, Coop snapped out of it. He let go, his blood searing his fingers from white back to red. He took a woozy step backward. Fitz doubled over, gulping loudly at the air.
Coop cursed. “You guys don’t get it,” he said.
“Don’t get what?” Nate asked.
But Coop couldn’t bring his eyes to meet us. “It’s just, I don’t know. Different for you,” he said. “For you guys, it’s a game—a way to beat tests and win games and get girls. For me—for me it’s a skill. I get better and better at controlling it every time, and now I can really steer it, I can really see what I want to see. And yesterday I finally was able to steer it back. For the first time. Into the past. Into stuff that already happened.”
He looked up at us now, his sunken eyes wheeling between us. And just like that we knew what he meant. We knew what he was trying to see.
“But, Coop,” AJ said quietly, “those are just memories.”
Coop looked at him for a long time. Then he set his jaw, shook his head.
“Fuck it,” he said. “Bury the thing.”
It was midnight, the day before Christmas Eve. We had arranged a sleepover at Nate’s. The plan was to sneak out the back door and raid his parents’ utility shed. We’d have two shovels, a four-gallon tank of gas, and a book of kitchen matches. We’d have a dead cat in a cooler in a backpack.
But Coop didn’t show. As we walked to the frozen baseball field, we discussed different theories for how we could best help him. Fitz spitballed about going to his house, giving him the cat after all. “I know, I know,” he said, “but the thing’s pretty much busted by now. He can’t get any more out of it and this way he gets his own time to . . . grieve, or something.”
But Nate and AJ were unmoved. “It’s gotta be burned,” AJ said. “I was reading on the Internet about some stuff like this”—Nate waved both his hands in surrender; he’d already made it very clear that if he was going to be cursed for life he’d rather not know too much about it—“Okay, fine. But we gotta burn it. All of it.”
So in a white shaft of moonlight we dug and dug. The snow had melted and refrozen, so it was slick and packed heavy. It took a half hour just to make it down to the dirt, two of us digging, the third man standing watch at the top of the crater, squinting at the parking lot for incoming headlights.
We layered the bottom of the hole with Coop’s filthy towels, dropped the backpack on top of them. There was a soft phoomph as a lank pile of fur tumbled out. Finally, with a gloved hand, Nate opened the cooler and shook what was left of Toby Peterson’s cat into the hole. Then he glugged on the gasoline, shaking the whole tank dry, a shine coming over the pile at the bottom. And then we took one last look around for signs of our imminent damnation.
But there was nothing. The wind grew and scuttled a soda can over the ice.
Honestly, we felt sort of gypped. This was it? As far as we could tell the sky wasn’t about to be rent open. No cackling demon was materializing to scorch us with hellfire. And worse than all that, there was nobody burning rubber into the parking lot—there was no sign of Coop. He was letting us do it. What did that mean? What did all of it mean?
Nothing. Probably it meant nothing. Probably Coop was trying to get the sleep he’d neglected since that first day at the Petersons’. Or maybe his dad had finally come home. Maybe he was just mad.
But still—there was this moment, this one achingly long moment, after the blazing match fell from AJ’s hand and before the pyre lit, where we couldn’t help but wonder if it meant something else. We’d all seen it, right? We’d all been warped to the future? Seen our own destinies? Tasted the dead blood magic in our mouths? Suddenly we were dying to ask each other one more time—to grab each other by the shoulders and shake, our eyes bugging out, saying, Fucking promise me that this was all real! Because without Coop there, it felt like it had been him we’d thrown into the bottom of that hole. It was us—AJ, Nate, and Fitz—and we were thinking: How do we go on like we don’t know what’s coming? How do we forget what we already know?
Then the match hit the cooler. A dry, tinkling sound. Toby Peterson’s cat went up in a fat geyser of flame, so bright and hot we had to jump back from the hole—and we wondered, for a moment, if that scorched-cat reek might hang over the town for years. If the oily crater we’d burned into center field might be permanent. But there was no way to know. We’d have to wait and see.
Jackson Tobin is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is at work on his first short story collection.