Missing and Beloved
One day Janice came home to find the cat lying on its side with its eyes closed in the middle of the kitchen floor. It was such an odd spot—out in the open, on cold vinyl—that Janice assumed the cat was dead.
Now, as she listens to her children tromping around the house looking for Ember, their calls growing more urgent, Janice thinks of that day. How relieved she felt when she saw the cat’s ears twitch. She couldn’t have felt so relieved, she tells herself, if she didn’t care about the cat.
Janice knows that the cat is not locked in a closet, cabinet, or hamper, nor did she get out of the house when she brought in the mail. Still, when Ethan and Sasha come running into the kitchen, Janice says, “Did you check all the closets, cabinets, and hampers?”
“We looked everywhere,” Ethan says, distraught.
“Hm. I wonder if she got out when I brought in the mail.”
The problem is, Janice is working more. The problem is, her feet ache even before she’s spent hours hooking little bags of craft sticks and pompoms onto displays and, on the nights the kids are with their dad, teaching skating lessons at the arena. The problem is her pride, which made her say “I don’t want your money” when she and Rob divorced eight months ago.
Now they live in a house with old, splintery floors. An apple dropped in the kitchen will end up in the living room. On one side of them is an alleyway, on the other a store they call Don’s Inconvenience. Don sells mopeds, oscillating fans, and single sticks of gum, but not batteries, salt, or beer. Sometimes, Don tapes a note to his front door: Closed until next Tuesday.
When Ethan and Sasha come back from the old house, where their dad still lives, they wear new socks, and their pockets are stuffed with cash.
If Janice had the guts to tell the truth, she would say to the kids, “You know that hole in the ceiling of the utility room in the basement? Well this morning after I dropped you at the bus, Ember decided she wanted to get up there. She was being completely neurotic, like when she won’t stop scratching at that spot on the wall. She was pacing and meowing and pacing, and I guess I was in a bad mood to begin with because Sasha and I got in that fight about the shoes and I was late for work and I couldn’t find my Metropass—all I know is all of a sudden I’d just had it with the cat. Why do I spend so much time trying to keep this cat from doing things that are bad for it, like eating string and sticking her paw into the fan? Why do I have to work so hard? She wants to go up in that hole, fine. We’ll see how much she likes it. So I picked her up, and I put her in the hole. It wasn’t easy. I had to stand on a stool, and the hole is actually pretty small. I had to more or less stuff her in it. She wasn’t happy. But then she got up there, and she disappeared.”
Irrational is what Rob always accused her of being. In turn, she would accuse him of being uptight. “You try so hard to hide it,” she would say, to worsen the wound, and then she couldn’t help but laugh at him, so furious and indignant in bright orange sneakers and a tiny tee- shirt.
But look at what she’s done.
After two rounds of the neighborhood, the children lie stacked in their beds, knit with worry. They love this cat with all their hearts. When she scratches neurotically at that spot on the wall, they gently redirect her. When she snatches food from their plates, they laugh. When she growls and lashes out, they exclaim, indulgently, “Oh Ember! You’re a meanie, aren’t you!”
“What if someone takes her?” Ethan asks, close to tears.
Sasha is more of a thrower than a crier. She looks angry at this hypothetical cat thief. “She’s so cute. Everyone will want her.”
“Don’t worry,” Janice says, kissing them.
She glances about the room, at the walls splattered with glow-in-the-dark paint, the dropped ceiling hung thick with trinkets. Ninja stars, cereal box pinwheels, tassels of yarn—it was their attempt to make a dismal room homey. She imagines Ember up there, prowling across the tiles. She remembers her startled hiss, her resistant heft.
“You know what?” she says, turning on the white noise machine. “If she’s not back in the morning, I’ll call in sick. I’ll spend all day looking for her if I have to.”
In the basement, Janice climbs atop a step stool with a flashlight. The hole is too small to see inside of. She shakes a bowl of kibble by the opening and waits. All she hears are the faint strains of a TV. Don’s TV is on all night long. Janice assumes he’s watching Korean soap operas: he has a vast collection of them, on VHS, behind the counter (he rents the tapes and the VCR together, as a package). The tone seems about right. It seems an incongruous choice for an energetic, if partially toothless, middle-aged man, who bounds about his store in a gold chain and loafers, chattering and smiling, looking for things he can never find, giving out the wrong change.
“I don’t trust the guy,” Rob said when he first met Don. Then he sent someone to the house to install an alarm. “They’re my kids, too,” he said when Janice protested (no one in this neighborhood had an alarm). Since the security company decals went in the windows, the amount of trash tossed onto their front stoop has multiplied. The most intriguing item: a pair of soleless shoes. The most offensive: the used dressing from a wound, the gauze pad encrusted with blood.
Janice thinks she hears a scraping noise. It’s coming from the far wall, the one they share with Don. It might be coming from the very spot Ember likes to scratch at, where the drywall is scarred with her claw marks. Janice kneels down and presses her ear to the rough patch. She taps (she’s not sure why). The scraping noise is gone. Amplified by the cavity of the wall, she hears a voice, high and mocking: the cruel heiress of a dynasty, belittling her younger sister for her kindness.
Janice remembers an advertisement from the side of a truck, two women in profile brandishing power tools like pistols. Handy Gurlz. She likes the idea of it. But the woman who answers the phone—Laura—is as brusque and beleaguered as any man. When Janice explains her predicament, and asks if Laura has one of those little cameras on flexible poles, Laura says, “Even if I did, it wouldn’t help. There are a million little nooks the cat could’ve gotten into. It could have fallen into a cavity and can’t get out, or it’s tangled up in wires. There might be old rat poison back there.”
“What do you suggest then?”
“Short of tearing your house apart, there’s not a lot you can do. Eventually, and I don’t mean to sound morbid—this is if it...passes away—you’ll start to smell it. At that point I can come cut a hole in your drywall. I won’t touch any dead animals, though. You’ll have to bag it yourself and call the city to pick it up.”
The children come barreling down the stairs of the bus. The look on their faces, when Janice shakes her head, is enough to make her want to come clean.
Amid a collage of flyers for ESL classes and gutter cleaners are two other lost cat signs. On one, the ink is waterlogged and distorted. The cat is grey and enormously fat.
LAST SEEN AT 32 BAIN
The other is an orange tabby, with only one ear.
GOT OUT ON 9/31
MISSING AN EAR
Reading these, Ethan looks deflated. He and Sasha have worked hard on their flyer, carefully choosing a photo and laboring over the wording. “We don’t have a reward.” Impatiently, Sasha takes a pen from Janice’s bag and adds a line to their sign.
MISSING AND BELOVED
APPROX. 11 LBS
CALL 647-939-9872 DAY OR NIGHT
Janice googles “dead animal in walls smell.” One website says, “It’s impossible to describe. There is no comparable smell to death.” Another asks, more philosophically, “How can you describe the smell of a rose, without saying it smells like a rose?” One poster on a message board says, “I’ve had my ex in the wall for months and the only thing I smell is asshole.”
She lies in bed, sleepless, surrounded by the padding of Ember’s footsteps, the click of her nails against the rafters, and she thinks about the time she let Sasha climb the batting cage in the park and a woman scolded her and the time Ethan cried so hard he threw up and the time she found Ember in the bathroom sink and turned on the faucet because she thought it would be funny.
It rains, drenching their flyers. In the house, the children drag about, snagging their socks on the floors. Ethan imagines Ember shivering under a porch. Sasha says all the stuff dangling from their bedroom ceiling rattles when the heat comes on, and she can’t sleep. Janice thinks she smells death, but when she sniffs again, it’s gone.
And then they are running down the stairs, panting and laughing, past her and out the door, a blur of streaming hair and bobbing knapsacks, down the sidewalk to where their father’s car is waiting at the curb. Each time it happens Janice feels a pain she can’t describe. There is no comparable feeling.
“What happened?” Rob demands over the phone.
“She got out.”
“Did you leave the door open?”
“Well, the kids are completely ruined.”
In the background, Janice can hear Sasha wailing loudly. Her daughter who doesn’t cry.
She walks around yelling Ember’s name, pounding on the walls. In the utility room, she tears at the hole in the ceiling, pulling off chunks until it’s large enough to put her head through.
The scraping noise again. From that same spot of scarred drywall, more persistent this time. Janice runs for her phone.
When Laura arrives, she’s wearing not overalls or a sassy jumpsuit but rather an ankle-length black dress with long sleeves and a white collar. “I’m catering a wedding,” she explains.
“It’s a Downton Abbey theme. There’s an apron and head thing that go with it. I’ll have to charge you more for the emergency call.”
Pressing her ear to the wall, Laura says, “All I hear is a TV.”
“Cut the hole anyway.”
“Are you drunk?”
“A little, but I still want you to cut the hole.”
Laura’s saw is skinny and long. She slides the tip into the wall. “Sorry if I was rude to you on the phone the other day,” she says as she cuts and, surprised, Janice says, “It’s okay.”
When she’s finished, Laura has outlined a neat square, two feet by two feet. Her dress is covered with dust and debris. She shrugs—“It’s an idiotic thing to ask someone to wear.” Then she eases the square piece out.
They are looking into Don’s basement. In Don’s wall, opposite their own square hole, is another square cutout, where an access panel used to be. The cover has fallen out, giving them an unobstructed view. What Janice sees fills her with wonder. A lair more than a room: windowless, lit by a number of stained glass lamps, it’s as ornate and decadent as the store above it—and the house, the neighborhood, the world—is not. The walls are lined with heavy velvet drapes, the floors padded with Oriental rugs. Against one wall is a large, brightly lit aquarium swarming with tropical fishes, along another a TV the size of a movie screen. On the screen are an Asian couple, their faces larger than life, eyebrows black accents against pale, floury skin. They are arguing, their voices like the sound of breaking dishes.
It takes Janice a moment to notice the cats. And then the room is teeming with them: cats trundling lazily across the carpet, cats lazing upon an overstuffed ottoman, and in the puddled bottoms of drapes, and atop a tall platform wound with gilt rope—and upon an armchair, a group of three, curled up together rump to nose: Ember and fat Lila and the one-eared Scarlet, no longer fierce or lost or missing, grooming one another.