39 - Where's the Cat?

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In the emptiness of the house in the long stretch of hours that followed Liz's departure, Nat tried to distract herself with more cleaning. She carried the trash from the kitchen out to the garage, passing the in-progress couch on her way to shove the bag in the bin. She shut off the radio, which was still wailing the kind of classic alternative rock that Liz was always so fond of, and then immediately regretted it as the silence filled the house. 

She grabbed her phone, shoving it in her pocket, removing it frequently to check for a missed call. She sent several text messages. It was hours before she got a reply: 

"Nothing's broken. Bad sprain. Getting food. Don't wait up." 

She agonized over the message, wondering how best to reply, drafting up many answers before ultimately closing out with no response. 

By the time Liz came home, Nat had vacuumed every corner of the house, dusted every knick-knack and picture frame, wiped down every counter. The house felt unnaturally unclean, like a house that had been purged of its occupants and was waiting to be shown to buyers. 

Liam was wearing a navy blue sling and a bandage to keep his arm immobile. It was his right hand, she noticed -- the hand that had been in the dog's mouth. 

She wanted to bring it up. But Liz walked past her, headed straight into Liam's room, and Nat lingered out in the hall, straightening paintings and eavesdropping for any conversation coming from the other side of the closed door -- and felt terribly ashamed every time she caught herself doing it. She left for the den, pulling herself into the nest she had made of the couch, and waited. 

Would Liz want to talk? Would there be some chance to explain herself, now that the heat of the moment had cooled? 

Would there be some kind of punishment? Would Nat need to brace herself against a yelling match, an argument where she was put on trial? 

Or would there be only the cold silence of a closed door? Maybe Liz would go to bed without her again, kicking her from their marriage bed once more by implication. 

But none of those things happened. Instead, Liz simply walked past the den and settled into a chair in the sitting room, a fast food cup in her hand. Nat trailed her into the room like a lost puppy. 

"How is he?" 

"Worn out," Liz said. She pulled a book from the end table, listlessly flipping through the pages. Trying, Nat assumed, to avoid eye contact. "But nothing's broken." 

"Did he say...what happened?" Nat ventured, cautiously. 

"Says the dog bit him." Liz lifted her gaze then, sending a piercing look up at Nat. 

"I...think he must have gotten his hand stuck in there," Nat tried, feeling her features rearranging themselves into a placating smile. "It's open. The mouth, I mean. Probably enough room in there to squeeze a hand in, and then..."

Liz waved a hand. "It's whatever. I don't care." 

That was a damn lie, and Nat knew it, but she didn't know what she was supposed to say. 

Silence settled. Liz turned a page in her book, taking a sip from her drink. Nat thought she caught a sharp whiff of alcohol from across the room, a phantom scent, but she didn't say anything. 

Instead, she glanced around the room, feeling an unsettled feeling, a displaced wrongness. 

"Have you seen Fluff?"

"What?"

"Fluff. The cat. Have you seen him today?"

"Christ, Nat, I've been gone all day. Why are you asking me?" 

Nat crouched to scoot the sofa away from the wall, staring intently behind it. She hadn't seen the cat all day. If she thought back, it may have been longer. The realization that she could not immediately place him in space and time made her blood cold. He was prone to hiding, of course, especially when she was running the vacuum. But he always came out when it was quiet. It was kind of weird that he was still gone. 

Liz didn't look up from her book. 

It irritated her. She wanted to yell, for Liz to get up and help her look, or at least to show some signs of sympathy, concern. But Liz's face was curtained, closed off. It showed nothing, and the irritation rose in Nat as she got up and started through the house, shaking a jar of treats in her hand. It was not like Fluff to hide when there was food present.

"Fluff? Kitty kitty. Fluff-kitty. Where are you hiding?"

Maybe he'd snuck out when the garage door was open. Maybe somehow he'd darted outside when Liz had left for the emergency room. 

He was getting older, she thought, panic beginning to rise in her chest. Perhaps he had been sick, and crawled away somewhere to die, and she hadn't noticed.  

"He probably got outside," Liz called, from the other side of the house, unmoving from her position. Her voice still sounded distracted. "Check for an open window or something."

Sure enough, in their bedroom: The screen was missing from the window. Curtains fluttered against it. The cat must have popped the screen off, she thought. Seen a bird and jumped outside.

"The screen is off in your bedroom," Nat said, and didn't realize the slip of the tongue -- your bedroom, not ours. She did hear the tinge of panic in her voice, though. 

"Really? That's the thing you're freaking out about?" Liz threw her book aside. 

The calm that had descended, the momentary hope that a fight wouldn't happen, evaporated. 

"Our fucking son is in the emergency room all day and you're worried about a fucking cat." 

"You said it was just a sprain!" 

"It's a fucking cat. This is our son.

"It's your son!" Nat snapped, and clapped a hand over her mouth, as if she could catch the words before they escaped, but it was too late. 

They hung there between them. 

She realized that, while she regretted saying them aloud, that the words had not been wrong. Liam wasn't hers. He had never been hers. He was a hand-me-down, like this house and the store and her new last name. Another part of a life she had inherited, no different from any of the antiques that cluttered the house. 

A second-hand life, and it didn't fit her any better than someone else's clothes. 

"I see." Liz stood, passing by her. Her voice dropped. "If that's how you feel. You'd better start looking for him, then." 

 Anger curdled in Nat's chest. Fluff may have been a cat, but he was hers. She let Liz leave and then headed outside, storming into the gathering twilight to look for the cat.   

It wasn't the first time in his life that Percival J. Fluffernutter had escaped for a neighborhood stroll, but it had never felt this final, or this awful. 



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