“Kittens” by Meagan Lucas

Issue 11 / Fall 2017

 

Cheryl stood over the grocery store cooler, the fluorescent lights reflected off the plastic wrapped meat. She had ten miraculous dollars left in the grocery budget and after endless ground beef casseroles Tim deserved a steak. She ran her index finger over a line of white fat through the tight cellophane as her phone chirped and vibrated in her other hand.

This call wasn’t a surprise; she’d been waiting for it for five years.

“Hello,” she said after the third ring. “Yes, this is she.” The voice on the other end of the line told her what she was expecting to hear. She wished she could say feared, but resignation had taken over fear months ago. “Thank you,” she said, disconnecting and pressing the speed dial for Tim immediately.

“Hey, baby,” he said, seconds before she got his voicemail.

“I need you to pick up the kids from school and take them to my parents.”

“Okay?” he said.

She could see his brows coming together in her mind’s eye. “I’m at the grocery store, and then I need you to meet me at the ER.”

He blew out a sigh. Static crackled in her ear.

“You left her alone?”

 

The first time she’d gotten the call, despite the heat of the day, Cheryl’s body felt encased in ice. She thought she’d freeze to death, hypothermia taking her on the ride to the hospital. Each subsequent time, she’d felt it less. Now, she actually felt her body temperature rise.

The first call, a lifetime ago, Hannah had been thirteen, and they’d made a thousand excuses. Hannah was naive. She was just a kid. She was confused or had been pressured, or didn’t really know what she was doing. The second time, at fourteen, Cheryl was suspicious they were wrong. At fifteen, they’d made the flying trip to the ER three times, and found her themselves a fourth. Tim had stumbled upon Hannah and a friend, prone and blue lipped in her bedroom. At sixteen, Cheryl and Tim spent half their life savings on rehab and still found themselves in the ER twice and the county jail two more times. At seventeen, they spent the other half of their savings, plus some, on promises that she would change. But the only good that came from their bank account going into the red was knowing that they wouldn’t be getting any emergency calls for a few precious weeks.

 

The emergency room waiting area felt like home. Her bum knew the seat. She no longer heard the slide and screech of the door. Memories of teaching Jack long division under the hum of the florescent lights; of watching Annie text her crush, her legs dangling over the side of the plastic chair; of reading to Ben from the ratty book he found in the filthy children’s corner filled her mind. All of her children shallowly distracted, their worry for their sister, for their lives as they knew them, hovering just under the surface.

“Have you heard anything?” Tim asked from behind. She hadn’t seen him come in.

“Not yet.”

He sat down beside her, resting his elbows on his knees. She studied the thinning patch on the back of his head, the crease across his neck, the way his shirt clung to his shoulder blades. Holding on to hope had turned her hair white, and rimmed her mouth in tiny lines; it had stolen the hair on Tim’s head. Cheryl couldn’t remember the last time she saw him naked. They hadn’t always been like this. Waiting to save Hannah was killing the rest of them.

“Were the kids okay at my parents?” she asked, curious but also wanting to break the silence.

“They knew why they were there.”

“Well, of course.” Cheryl closed her eyes so he wouldn’t see her roll them.

“But yes, Ben especially was excited about the kittens.”

“Oh shit, I forgot about the kittens.”

“Yeah.”

Cheryl rubbed her temples. Non-skid shoes squeaked toward them. She looked up and into the earnest eyes of a middle-aged doctor, the corners of his mouth turned down. His hands were clasped in front of his abdomen.

“Mr. and Mrs. Davis?” His eyebrows went up.

She nodded.

“Can you please come with me?”

 

It’s not like they ever had a lot of money. They’d lived paycheck to paycheck with a hundred or so to spare. “Just in case” money they’d called it. In case she forgot to pay a bill, in case something small broke, in case of a field trip or group gift they couldn’t wiggle out of.

Oxy and heroin were expensive. Not the drugs themselves, as Cheryl had recently discovered, they weren’t a high-class high. But the fallout of addiction was financially devastating. Cheryl could still remember the first time Hannah went to rehab, the feeling in the pit of her stomach when she checked the bank balance before she went grocery shopping to discover she had to feed the family for a week on twenty-three dollars.

The kids were amazing. They didn’t once ask for fancy shoes, or the sparkly new toy advertised during Saturday morning cartoons. Yet Cheryl lived in fear of birthday party invitations, school fundraisers, and car problems. She felt like a bitch for being so focused on money. It wasn’t like her. She was a generous person, but it wasn’t just dollars the drugs were stealing from their family. It was the way that Jack’s foot tapped under the kitchen table, how his lips were always chapped, and his test grades plummeted when Hannah missed family dinner. The way Ben liked to make a fort behind the curtain in the front window—the coldest place in the whole house, but with the best view of the driveway. Annie stopped eating. Cheryl would take treats to her at midnight when everyone else was sleeping, hoping to tempt her shrinking daughter and put some meat back on her bones. Her heart broke when she would find Annie curled up in her sister’s empty bed.

 

“I‘m so sorry,” the doctor said after they’d sat and the broad expanse of his desk was between them. Cheryl looked down at her hands and traced her rough cuticles with the side of her thumb.

“I’m going to leave you alone to process this. If there is anything you need, please let me or my staff know.” He left the room and took the air with him.

Tim stood and paced, and ran his hands through his hair. Dark rings emerged from beneath his arms when he raised them. He finally stopped, facing away from her, studying the doctor’s diploma.

“What do we do now?” His voice was quiet and low.

“Well, I’m sure there is paperwork, and I have a car full of groceries, and we need to get the kids—”

“No, I meant,” Tim turned and shook his head. “Wait, what? You checked out at the grocery store? You got the call and then you waited in line?”

“I didn’t have anything frozen, and we need to eat.”

“She’s our daughter.”

“I pushed her out of my body.”

“Oh, so this is how this is going to go? Who loves her more? Who is hurting more?”

“Not at all. I was going to say I remember exactly the moment she became mine. She was still inside my belly. It was the middle of the night. I don’t know why I did, but I started singing. Ha! You know me, I don’t sing. But I did then. You are my sunshine. And she kicked. It was the first time she had. It was the first time that it hit me that a person was in there. A person who was mine. I couldn’t sleep that night with the weight of that responsibility resting on me.”

Cheryl didn’t know when she’d started crying, but water was dripping from her face. She used her sleeve to wipe it.

“I remember too the moment that she slipped away. Last year. She’d been home from rehab for two months. I took her to get our nails done to celebrate sixty days of her being sober. I was bursting with pride. This was the time she was going to beat it. I was a good mother. Everything was going to be okay.

“Do you remember? We thought she was actually holding down a job? We had conversations! She helped around the house! Two good months tricked me into believing. Then she got up from the manicure chair to wash her hands before they put the polish on. I was gushing to the nail lady about my brave daughter and all my dreams for her when Hannah’s jacket on the back of her chair made a strange beep that I’d never heard before. I reached into the pocket and pulled out her phone. The screen was full of notifications from a messaging program I’d never heard of. I opened it. I couldn’t believe it as I scrolled through screen after screen of messages. We weren’t stupid. We’d been monitoring her phone, watching the bill. When she told us she wasn’t in contact with her old friends, we believed her. But we’d been duped. She wasn’t sober; she was just better at hiding. She was a liar. All the money and hope we’d spent on rehab had just taught her how to trick us.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Tim’s arms were crossed tightly across his chest.

“When she came back to her seat and saw me with her phone, she just shrugged, picked up her jacket and phone and left. We didn’t see her for a week. I couldn’t stand to tell you.”

“Why?”

“Because we’d been so hopeful, and because it was my fault she was gone.”

“It wasn’t.” He sat beside her and pulled her into his arms. It was the first time they’d touched in more than a week. Cheryl felt her skin suck him up like a sponge.

“I know that now. I know that she made the decision. But for the longest time I blamed myself that I couldn’t fix her.”

“You can’t fix her.”

“I know.” She laid her head on his shoulder. She breathed deep the scent of the detergent she used to wash her family’s clothes. He put his hands on her arms and pushed her away until he could look into her eyes.

“You’re not surprised this happened.”

“Are you?” she asked.

He studied her face.

She crossed her arms in front of her chest. “It was only a matter of time,” she whispered.

 

Cheryl finished the paperwork while Tim picked up the kids from the farm. When she finally got home she could barely move her shoulders for the knots of tension in her neck. She left the groceries on the counter. Tim sat in the dark family room, she could see the glow of the TV and hear the clink of ice cubes in his whiskey glass. She was sure it wasn’t his first, but it was promising that he was still using a glass.

She mounted the stairs, feeling guilty that she didn’t want to check in on the kids. Guilty in her relief. Shouldn’t this be the worst day of her life? She didn’t want to see the hope in their eyes or answer their unspoken questions. They had agreed breakfast was the best time to tell the children. Let everyone get some sleep. Maybe it wouldn’t be as terrible a conversation to have in the morning. She craved a deep bath, for hot water stinging her skin to her chin and the random slurp of the overflow drain. Jack and Annie’s doors were closed, but Ben’s was always open. He was afraid of the dark. She crept by and heard only silence. She smiled as she pushed her bedroom door open. She wasn’t a bad mom to wish for some alone time.

She kicked her shoes off into the bottom of the closet.

“Mama?” a small voice called from her bed. In the light from the hall she saw there was a tiny lump right below her pillow.

“Benny! Why aren’t you in bed?”

“I can’t sleep, so I was waiting for you. Where were you?”

“It’s too late, baby. We’ll talk about it in the morning.” She scooped him into her arms and carried him to his bed.

“What happened to the littlest kitten?”

She’d known this conversation was coming. She might be able to make him wait ‘til tomorrow to hear about Hannah, but Ben wasn’t going to let her off the hook about the damn kittens.

“Well, Benny,” she took a deep breath. How was she supposed to explain the facts of life to a six year-old, when she barely understood them herself? “Sometimes, in a litter of kittens, there is one that isn’t strong enough and the mama kitty abandons it, and we have to take that kitten away so the others can thrive. You see, if that one is sick and can’t make it, it’s better for the others if it goes away.”

“Where does it go?”

Cheryl was sure that her stomach was on the floor somewhere. It had fallen so fast and violently. “Don’t worry about that. Papa took care of it.”

“Is it always the littlest one that is the weakest?”

“Oh no, sweetheart. You never know which one it’s going to be when they are born. As they get older you can just tell because that one needs more help, more food, more attention, and still can’t do what the others can. It will never be able to take care of itself.”

“Why doesn’t the mommy just give the kitten more food?”

Cheryl was glad it was dark in the room. He couldn’t see her face. Couldn’t see the tears streaming down her cheeks. “She does. She gives that baby everything she can. Even taking food away from the stronger kittens, but soon she realizes that if she keeps doing that, they will all die. To protect the whole litter she has to let go of one, or risk losing them all. But you don’t have to worry about it, okay, kiddo? The rest are going to grow big and chubby and strong, and maybe we can go back to the farm and play with them tomorrow. Okay? Sweet dreams, little love.”

Cheryl kissed Ben on the forehead and pulled his covers up to his chin. She walked to the door and blew him a kiss.

“Mama?”

“Yes, baby?” she answered, although she had nothing left.

“Is Mittens going to be mad at Papa? Won’t she miss her baby?”

“With her whole body. For the rest of her life. But Mittens knew, sweetheart, she knew what needed to be done, that’s why she left that kitten alone.” She turned and walked down the hall.

 

“Kittens” recently won the 2017 Scythe Prize for Fiction.

 

Meagan Lucas is a Canadian who found home in the mountains of North Carolina. Her stories have been published or are forthcoming in The City Quill, Dime Show Review, BLYNKT Lit Mag, and The Scythe Prize Anthology. Rural life, the gray space between right and wrong, and the dark underbelly of the American Dream figure prominently in her work. Read more at meaganlucas.com and follow her on Facebook.

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