By Nicole Walsh
The cat followed him home.
Tomas Shine spent three and a half minutes in the stairwell hyperventilating. He heard Mrs Helen Acres, the widow from Unit Two, clatter and batter her way out her door, shopping bags in hand. She spotted the cat outside the stairway and reversed soundlessly into her unit.
Tomas sucked in a ragged breath, filling his lungs to the brim, and looked up. The cat waited on the far side of the glass door. Its tail lashed back and forth. Tomas used the rail to heave himself upright, then crept down the stairs. He opened the door. The cat stood, butt shooting into the air, tail upright like a comma. It mewed.
Tomas stepped aside.
The cat led the way up the stairs. Tomas walked slowly, careful not to step on it. His hand was shaking so badly he couldn’t get the key into the lock. His work bag slid awkwardly down his arm. Sweat pooled at his armpits, licking wet trails past his ribs.
The cat pressed into his leg. A small, frightened noise slipped from his throat.
“I’m sorry,” he gasped. “I’m trying.”
Nervous sweat coated his fingertips. The keys slipped free. They landed on the tiled floor with a loud clang, startling the cat. Tomas pressed into the wall, hand raised defensively.
The cat stared, tail low and flicking. Tomas crouched slowly, extending a shaking hand for the keys. For a sickening moment he was almost eye to eye with the creature. Tomas rose. He slowly and deliberately inserted the correct key into the lock and opened his door.
A small white shape flittered past his brown work shoes.
It was done.
Tomas Shine had a cat.
Tomas took the next day off work.
He woke to find the cat on the end of his bed, curled like a seashell. The events of yesterday folded in like a wave, smothering him. He scooted up against the wooden bed frame at the top of the bed, whimpering.
The cat watched patiently, tail flicking.
He spent thirty-three minutes in the shower, sobbing hysterically. He contemplated ringing his mother, who had never liked him much. She’d had a cat for thirty years. Tomas had grown up in the shadow of it – a huge, terrifying ginger tom. It had eaten his father when Tomas was six years old. Tomas had had his back turned at the time, but the horror of the suddenly empty room and his mother’s small, stricken gasp had set him on a road of anxiety and panic.
A part of his mother died with his father. The part that patted Tomas on the back as he walked past, or hugged him for no reason. His mother became, overnight, a faded hollowed-out creature.
Tomas dragged the edge of his towel through the fog on the mirror to check his reflection. He had always been thin. Today his nose was red and his eyes were swollen. Panic left his gaze fever-bright. Tomas Shine no longer had the luxury of wallowing in self-pity. As of five fifty-three last night, he was a cat owner.
He took a deep, steadying breath and inched the bathroom door open. The cat fell in, rubbing its head against the opening door and the doorframe and him in frantic greeting. His breath locked in his throat as he registered the closed door. Tomas lived alone, but a prudish part of him still closed the bathroom door when he showered or used the toilet.
He dropped to one knee.
The cat climbed into his lap, falling to lie sideways against him. He caught it with his hands to keep it away from his privates and rubbed its head, pushing his fingers into every curve and hollow of its skull and neck. It mewed and scrambled higher, shoving its skinny body into his chest. He hugged it, stroking a hand down the pure white fur. Its plume-like tail flicked his nose like a feather.
“You’re so pretty.”
The cat arched higher, butting its head against his chin. Its body was lean with bone and muscle. It felt young – not a kitten, but only just full-grown.
“I’ll get some things today,” Tomas soothed. “I’ll take the day off. I’ll go right now. Okay?”
The cat made a dove-like noise, purring and mewing at the same time. He curled his hands around its fragile rib cage and butt and set its feet onto the floor very carefully. He got dressed quickly, careful not to look at the cat as he slunk out the door.
It occurred to Tomas Shine, as he wove his way through the confused, dead-eyed people clotting the five cat-related aisles of the grocery store, that he fitted in well. No one would guess he had a new cat. He looked like he’d had one for years.
Tomas checked his watch. The watch had been a gift from his mother. So you remember you have a mother, she had grumbled. The watch was cheap and not his style, but he wore it every day.
He had been away from home seven and a half minutes. Was that too long?
A girl blocked the litter trays. She sniffled into a tissue. She had makeup on but was wearing fluffy pink slippers, like she had started to get dressed but forgot what she was doing halfway. He had no choice but to hover behind her, waiting.
“It’s a kitten,” she said. “Do you think this is too high? I don’t know. I don’t know.” She burst into messy tears.
“You need something,” Tomas said, at last. “If it doesn’t work, you can try elsewhere. A cat store. There are four on this street.”
“I didn’t feel ready. I thought this would be…” The girl stared at the cruel white lights, the empty aisle, the shuffle of dead-eyed people. “It’s worse though, isn’t it? How familiar it all looks. How ordinary. When nothing is ordinary. Not anymore.”
Tomas studied the litter trays. He wondered how close he could reach without being rude. He suspected if he leaned in too close she would start screaming hysterically. He could sense panic radiating off her.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I didn’t sleep. Did you?”
Tomas felt the seconds tick by, scraping his nerves like sandpaper. It was so quiet he could hear the tsk of his unloveable watch.
“My mother had a cat,” he said.
“We were lucky,” the girl whispered, then clamped her hand to her mouth and looked around in horror. There were no cats in the aisle today.
He reached past her to get a tray, risking her screams.
“One per cat,” he whispered. “And one extra.”
The girl fumbled, fussing with the colours.
“Do some people have more than one cat?” she whispered.
“A man at work has three.”
The girl gasped.
“I don’t know.”
They froze in unison. A cat followed its owner through the meat section, down the far end of the aisle. It was a small ginger tom, tail upright. Tomas wondered whether his eyes were as wide and panicked as the girl’s.
He displayed his watch.
“I need to get back.”
“Yes, of course… I should…” She trailed off, staring at the trays.
“Good luck with your kitten.”
Tomas felt the weight of her gaze as he turned the trolley and rattled away. He wished he was the sort of man who could keep a conversation with a pretty girl going. Ask her out for coffee, perhaps. He wished he didn’t have a cat.
Everything was different now.
Tomas Shine arranged the kitty litter, food and water bowls, scratching post and cat-bed. He set toys at even distances around the unit. The cat watched him, ate ravenously, then slept on the couch.
Tomas slunk into the bathroom, turned the basin tap on hard and rang the National Cat Helpline. He whispered down the line until he was given details of a licensed local mentor, opting for a more discrete text conversation.
Harriet Jane was fifty-three years old and lived up the street. Her website was very impressive. She came from a long line of crazy cat ladies, spanning back long before the world changed. Her mentoring packages were sold out, but she listed an emergency number, which he texted. In moments, he had a free crisis appointment.
Tomas paused by the couch. The cat was curled into a seashell shape, its perfect pink nose tucked under its tail.
“I’ll be back soon.” Tomas stroked the velvet nose. “I won’t go out much, I promise. Just to work. I’m just… getting a few more things. Okay?”
Tomas slunk out the door. He surprised the old woman from Unit Two. Her horrified gaze dropped to his ankles. He jerked a nod back at his unit.
Anger curdled her expression.
“My son’s moving me.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t…”
She kept walking.
Tomas stood on the concrete of the driveway under the vast humming silence of the sky and considered running away. He could leave his job, his unit and all of his belongings to the cat. It happened all the time. It was on the news most nights.
His gaze lifted to the street. The apartment block opposite him had been empty for over a year. There were no lights at night. Cats displayed themselves on various window ledges. Someone had painted jagged angry words across the front of the building: Cats R Here.
An engine revved. He jumped aside, nearly run down by Mrs Acres’ car as she tore down the drive.
“Idiot,” she hissed, through the half-opened window. “That’s how this happened. Dreamy, scatter-brained fool, just like my husband. I’m sixty-four and I’ve never. Never!”
She took off, furious.
Tomas Shine sat in his car until his hands stopped shaking. He tried to imagine cat hair on the seats, clinging queerly to the dashboard, like in his mother’s car. It took a great effort to start the engine, to ease out slowly (in case other cats were in the drive) and steer down the road to the coffee place.
He spotted Harriet Jane immediately. She was in the corner booth, strangled by a bright scarf, hair wild about her head. She was rummaging through a huge handbag. She waved at him.
Tomas battled an intense, overwhelming urge to run.
“I can always spot them,” she called brightly.
“Thank you. For seeing me.”
“I like to help. He’ll have a hot chocolate. They do amazing hot chocolates here.”
“On soy,” Tomas winced.
Harriet frowned, disappointed.
“They don’t taste as good on soy.”
“My stomach’s a bit off,” he lied. He rarely drank cow’s milk.
“It won’t like the soy.”
The world crashed down. Tomas folded into the chair, sobbing. Harriet Jane passed him a tissue and patted his hand.
“It will be alright.”
“But it won’t,” he whimpered. “Will it?”
By the time he had calmed down the hot chocolate had arrived. Harriet Jane dropped marshmallows into both drinks, creating a colourful scum.
“Better?” she said, in a tone that suggested it better be.
“Yes,” he lied.
“I meet all local crisis requests within three hours of their call or text,” Harriet explained. “The government pays for the crisis appointment.” She decapitated sugar satchels. “The sugar helps too.”
She upended one in his drink.
Tomas circled his spoon through the sludge, trying not to lift too much sugar from the bottom. She cut straight to business:
“When did it happen?”
“Last night. After work. It…” His voice cracked.
“Followed you home?”
“The busway. It’s always the same story. They like the young professionals.”
There was a light layer of cat fur on Harriet Jane’s clothing. Even as she spoke to him she was waving at people on the street outside. The chef came out of the kitchen and set his hand on Harriet Jane’s shoulder. She reached up, pressing her hand over the chef’s a moment, meeting his gaze with a sad little nod. Everyone knew Harriet Jane. In this appalling new world, licensed cat people were the most useful, popular and respected people in any community.
“This is my other office,” Harriet Jane said. “I’m here several times a week. It’s increasing, you know.”
Tomas lifted his gaze in confusion.
“Cat ownership,” she explained.
“You track it?”
Harriet Jane’s gaze slid off his.
“I started to, but my cat doesn’t like it. I don’t keep files, either. My cat reads them.”
Tomas let his breath out slowly.
“I haven’t told work.”
“You took today off. That’s a start. Have you been to the store? There are four pet shops on this road. Quality stores. Young professionals can afford things like that. You do work, don’t you?”
“You’ll need to keep the job.”
“What if I can’t?”
“You’ll need to. It’s not cheap, having a cat. Is it a young cat?”
“A kitten?” Her voice tightened.
He shook his head.
Tomas stared at her.
“You’ll need photos on your phone, Tomas. A lot of photos. You need to be ready to show people.”
“Young, you say? Perfect teeth? Lean? No flabby pouch?”
Tomas shook his head.
“Is it playing?”
“With… the end of the rug. Fluff on the floor.”
“Young then, like you said. It must have eaten its last owner.”
Tomas’ breath caught.
“No, no, that’s a good thing. It settles them. The kittens…” Harriet stared off into the distance, face haunted. “I’ve lost three girls this month. One ran off, silly girl. The other two…”
Harriet Jane shook her head. She splayed her fingers and set them against the table, visibly grounding herself.
“You look like a nice, responsible boy. You’ll be fine.” She consulted her watch. “I only have forty-five minutes. I have two cats. I need to get back.”
“They don’t get along. They prefer me there.”
Tomas felt the world folding in on him.
“I need help.”
“I provide Mentor Program packages.”
“You’re booked out.”
“Join the waitlist. Something will open up. Very few people survive their first month.” She extracted a brochure. “I made these to guide our work together. We will briefly cover each topic today, and meet for a half-hour in three days time for any questions you have. After that, you need to purchase a Mentoring Package.”
The brochure was hand-written and badly photocopied.
“My mother had a cat,” Tomas admitted. “It ate my father.”
“Not everyone is a cat person. We will cover neighbours, friends, intimate partners and work relations.”
“I don’t have, er, many friends. Or a girlfriend.”
“Good. That’s good. Dating won’t be easy now. You have a cat. Now, I have these flyers printed as well.” She dived into her handbag. It jingled with cat toys. “First up, you need to warn your neighbours. This effects them as well.”
Tomas Shine sat in a hard plastic chair. The clock on the wall behind him ticked loudly, counting the seconds of his silence. His hands were locked in his lap to prevent them shaking.
“Take your time,” Mrs Odelle Madden instructed.
A lady from HR was seated beside her. Tomas had been off work for three days. He had not obtained a medical certificate. He had arrived at the office twenty-seven minutes late.
“I got a cat,” he admitted, his voice small.
“We wondered,” Madden said. She was a stern, middle-aged woman.
“It’s… hard to adjust.”
“Not a kitten?”
“A young cat. I’m… adjusting. I need this job,” he blurted.
“That’s not in question,” HR soothed. “We just need to see some photos. Do you…?”
Tomas fumbled for his phone. The pretty white cat was shockingly un-photogenic. No angle did it justice. He had been up half the night trying to get a decent photo. His photo gallery was long smears of the same scene over and over again, from slightly different angles.
Madden flinched at the screen-saver and passed it to HR.
The HR lady studied the photos.
“It’s pretty, Tomas.”
“It followed me home. I didn’t…”
Madden raised her hand.
“You don’t have to talk about it. In fact, it’s best you don’t. We can arrange counselling. On work time, paid for by us.”
“Did you consult a cat person, Tomas?” The HR lady’s voice was tense.
Tomas jerked a nod.
“Good,” she soothed. “Very good. Keep those appointments. This changes everything. You have other responsibilities now. Your personal leave will be extended for cat-related matters. You will get an extra week’s annual leave a year, which you can take any time you like, if the cat is lonely or needs company. Understood?”
Madden’s lips were pressed thin with disgust:
“We are a cat-friendly work-place,” she said. “Although the cat, of course, must never come inside. Someone might step on it. Or put the wheels of a chair over its tail.”
Tomas jerked a nod.
“You’ll need to use personal leave if it’s unsettled.”
“It’s going to be an indoor cat,” Tomas whispered. “The unit…”
“That’s between you and the cat,” Madden interrupted. “We don’t need to know this.”
“Tomas,” the HR lady said. “Do you need more time?”
Tomas shook his head.
“It’s the weekend tomorrow,” the HR lady soothed. “You should leave early. Four pm. So you can be home before dark.”
Tomas managed another nod.
“Do you have any questions, Tomas?”
Tomas shook his head.
“Here’s a leaflet about support groups.” The HR lady slid it across. “One meets in the building across the road. You can access them during work time. We want to help you make this work.”
There was a panicked, desperate edge to her voice. It had been two months and fourteen days since they last had a Cat-Related-Incident inside the building.
Tomas’ vision clouded with tears.
“There’s a meeting today,” Madden interjected. “Tell him.”
“There’s a meeting today,” the HR lady said. “Three PM. Sometimes it helps to talk about it.”
“Not in here,” Madden hissed. “Make sure he understands that.”
“I understand,” Tomas whispered.
The girl in the cubicle next to Tomas got a cat last year. She was off work for two weeks. When she returned her hands were latticed with kitten scratches and there was cat hair on her cardigan. She had dripped tears onto her desk for three hours before HR came to get her.
They’d had a farewell party for her. She hadn’t attended.
Tomas could tell who in the office had a cat by how they behaved. The people without cats avoided him. They moved desks to put extra space between them.
Tomas stared at his screen. He had little work to do. Clients and other businesses went down on a daily basis, vanishing without a trace. The government kept the economy turning. If you were eaten by a cat, the government fined you every dollar you had. If you had a cat you could claim disability, but most people preferred to pretend to work.
Jan Hyde from Payroll came up with a question about his timesheet, which she could have phoned through. He noticed the cat hair on her jacket for the first time. He stared at it as she talked. Her words flowed around him, inconsequential.
She picked up his phone and stared at his screensaver.
“I’m sorry,” she said, simply. “It gets better. I promise.”
Mick Gordan, a bulky gym junkie with a four-wheel-drive, came by with some papers for the shredder. He leaned on the screen over Tomas’ desk.
“Heard the news,” he said. “I’m sorry. If you wanna get a beer…”
“Takes time to adjust.” Mick’s gaze was distant, voice tight.
“No worries, buddy.”
Tomas took his lunch at twelve-thirty-three and watched the lunchroom empty. Only Meghan Chance from the front desk sat with him. She was nineteen and her hands were latticed with scratches from playing with her cat.
“It’s just shock,” she explained. “They get over it eventually. It takes a few weeks.”
Meghan checked her phone. She did that a lot. As far as he could tell, no messages were coming through.
“My girlfriend broke up with me,” she announced.
“A year ago. It was the cat. Not everyone likes cats.”
“Do you…” Tomas froze a moment, shocked at his audacity. “Is it possible to have friends, or date people, who don’t have cats?”
Meghan took a bite of her salad. It crunched very loudly. She touched her phone again, consulting the screen.
“How many friends did you have who had cats?” she asked. “Before?”
“You can eat with me. There’s Jan in accounting. And Meryl down in archives. And Stu on security. He’s got three cats. I think it’s ‘cause he’s at the door all the time. There’s Mick as well. Wouldn’t peg him as a cat person. He’s really hot.”
She gave Tomas a pointed look.
“I’m not gay.”
“It’s easier if they have cats.”
Tomas packed up his half-eaten lunch. Meghan was tapping at her phone screen again. She had a picture of her cat as a kitten as the screen-saver. Harriet Jane had explained this was required. It, like the hair on your clothing, gave people fair warning.
“HR gave me a brochure. Therapy and social groups,” Tomas blurted. “Do they help?”
“Oh yeah,” Meghan’s voice was high and bright with a lie. “I’ve met lots of people.” She avoided his gaze. “Hey, um, do you want to get a drink maybe, sometimes? As, er, friends?”
“Sure,” Tomas lied.
“Sometimes we all meet. After work. For drinks.” She consulted her phone.
“I’ll add you to the group chat.”
Tomas stared into his coffee. Three weeks had passed. He was trying to grow a beard. People no longer sat next to him on the bus. Somehow, they knew.
“People treat me differently.”
Marcia Sands sniffled into her tissue.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “Every time you see me, I’m crying.”
“It’s okay. I cry a lot too.”
Tomas had left work that first day at 3pm, but hadn’t made it up the stairs to the support meeting. He had frozen in the cavern of the dark, deserted lobby. The ‘Cat Support Meeting 3pm’ sign loomed over a single discarded shoe. Piles of windswept leaves rimmed the lobby. Behind him, papers and rubbish hissed down the wind tunnel of the street. Cats prowled, skulking in and out of lobbies of abandoned buildings.
Going home was easier. Sitting on the couch with the cat in his lap watching TV was easier. He had called his mother in the long, lonely hours of the second night and she had filled his ear with how useless he was, how he never called or visited, how he only ever rang when he wanted something. He had hung up with the unsaid words balled up like a wad of fur in his throat: I have a cat.
Maybe he would come to understand his mother better now? They finally had something in common.
“Everyone keeps saying it will get better,” Marcia sniffled.
Marcia Sands, girl-from-the-cat-aisle, worked in a bookstore a block from Tomas’ work. Retail was booming. There was a lot of time and money to shop. Fetching coffee or eating out soaked up long work hours. Books, movies and music were cat-friendly nightly pursuits.
Marcia Sands attended the 3pm group session for new cat owners. It was nine am and her makeup was smudged. She had lost weight. He wondered whether she had brushed her hair this morning.
“You’ll find your people,” Tomas soothed.
Tomas checked his watch. It was nine-oh-seven. They were late for work. It didn’t matter.
“I eat lunch in the maintenance room with a few people. An older lady from archive. The girl on the front desk. A fellow in my office. Someone in security.”
“A girl?” Marcia whispered.
“She’s into girls.”
“Oh.” Marcia’s cheeks reddened. “It’s silly. I’m sorry. The guy I was going with…”
Tomas had heard a lot about Anthony (Ant) Williams that second week, when they had had coffee after Group. Ant and Marcia were Breaking Up. The way Marcia described it made it sound like it had capitals: Breaking Up. It sounded like a complex, complicated thing. Tomas didn’t really understand, but he had never had a steady girlfriend.
Marcia was avoiding Anthony’s name this week.
“He says I don’t have time for him anymore.”
“You have a cat.”
“Exactly! I can’t sleep over. The kitten gets lonely. Scratches up the furniture. Pees on things. It needs me there to play with it and he… he hates cats.”
She let the last words out in a rush.
“It’s one thing not to like cats, but to hate cats? I don’t think that’s fixable.”
“And he…” Marcia fussed with her sweater. There were finger-shaped bruises on her shoulder and wrist.
“You said you tripped on a cat toy.”
She touched her cheek. The bruise was old and yellow and hidden under the wrong tone of makeup.
“He stopped coming over. The cat growled at him.”
“It’s just a kitten.”
“Mine followed me to the store,” Tomas blurted.
“My cat. I have security screens. The balcony doors were closed. It was all locked up. I was in the cat food aisle, and it was suddenly there, at my heels.”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you ask someone?”
“My Mentor said I was buying the wrong food.”
Marcia’s eyes widened.
“What if my kitten follows me to Ant’s?”
“Will you go back?”
“I don’t know. Last time he wouldn’t let me leave. I pushed the screen out in his toilet window and climbed out. He came after me, but he was too big. He did this.” She gestured at her shoulder. “He ripped my shirt off. I had to go home in my bra. I don’t think he’ll stay with me, now I have a cat.”
“Maybe that’s for the best.”
“He has two dogs. They say if you’re a dog person, cats will avoid you.”
“Mick at work had dogs,” Tomas recalled. “Rottweilers. The cat ate them.”
“If I had to choose between Ant and the kitten,” Marcia Sands said. “I’d choose the kitten. It’s sweet and plays. And sleeps on my pillow at night. Does yours?”
“The bottom of the bed.”
“My sister says that means I’m a crazy cat lady.”
“There’s good money in that.”
“She says no man will ever date me again, now I have a cat. She thinks I should stay with Ant. Ant has a good job and a nice car and he’s very handsome.”
Marcia stirred her fingertip through spilt sugar. When they had sat down her hands had been shaking so badly the sugar had flown everywhere. She had let loose a shocked, embarrassed laugh that burst out like a flock of parakeets.
“You fucking slut.”
Tomas blinked. A huge man in jeans and a leather jacket had materialised. The spit in Tomas’ mouth dried up. His balls shrank, drawing up into his belly in fright.
“This is the little shit you saw after group last week, isn’t it? The fucking cat man!”
The thug grabbed the edge of their table and upended it. Marcia lifted her hands and screeched. Mugs, sugar and phones smashed and splattered everywhere.
“Ant!” Marcia wailed.
The thug grabbed her arm, yanking her upright so hard her teeth snapped together.
“You dirty little skank.”
Tomas scrambled up, pants soaked with coffee.
“What?” Anthony (Ant) Williams sneered. “What the fuck you gonna do about it, little man?”
Ant shook Marcia.
“You and I are going to have a little chat, missy.”
“Don’t,” Tomas gasped.
“Don’t… step on my cat.”
The big man looked down, and froze. A pure white cat with a beautifully plumed tail was sitting behind him at the entrance of the cafe. People were slowly edging away from the cat. Its attention was locked on Anthony. In the sudden, awful silence, a yowl started in its throat.
Ant released Marcia.
“I didn’t…I wasn’t…”
The cat ate him. It was very quick, and not as messy as Tomas had expected. He half-closed his eyes, not wanting to see. The cat’s mouth stretched hugely, a six-foot-six blur of pink and white, then Anthony was gone.
The cat sat peacefully, licking its nose.
Tomas held out his hand for Marcia, helping her through the mess. The lady at the next table, white dress splattered with coffee, retrieved their phones and Marcia’s purse.
“Thank you,” Marcia winced.
The woman smiled, avoiding their gaze. Other folk righted the table. Tomas stepped out of their way and picked up the cat. It didn’t weigh any more than it had this morning. He tucked it against his chest. It was still yowling.
Marcia wiped tear-streaked makeup from under her eyes. She scuffed over and cooed and petted the cat.
“He’s so pretty,” she gushed. “You didn’t tell me about the tail. What a pretty, pretty, smoodgeable little thing!” Marcia tapped the tiny pink nose. “Boop! I just want to squish you. Squish you right up!”
The cat stopped yowling.
“I’m sorry about Anthony,” Tomas winced.
Marcia Sands shrugged, face lent in against his chest as she kissed the cat’s nose.
“He wasn’t really a cat person.”
Marcia Sands followed him home.
Tomas Shine had a cat, and a girlfriend.
About the Author: Nicole Walsh is a cat enthusiast from the east coast of Australia who loves fern gardens and long dresses. She writes short stories and novel-length speculative fiction and urban fantasy. Visit Nicole at https://nicolewalshauthor.
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