Gone to See the Cat

{Note: this submitted for the Fantasy category of “The Cat With Blue Fur” writing contest run by The Drabblecast.  The main rules were that a character in the work have the name of the contest, and that the entry be less than 2,000 words.  In these things I succeeded, although I didn’t win the contest; I did, however, get enough votes to puff me up like a toad.  Drabblecast has moved all the entries into a private area, but I’d always intended for it to be out in the public eye.}

The thing that Helene felt most, that almost destroyed her in that first month when Hell was at its sharpest, was that she had not even listened to the last words her daughter had said to her.

She had heard Amelie speaking.  She had even been aware of what had been said, in a peripheral way.  But she had been distracted.  Something on TV she had thought was worth watching, the internal struggle not to have a third cookie after supper, some pointless trivia brought home from work in a fold of her brain that she could not set aside, all the normal things that on a normal day would have been of no concern.  But thanks to them, she had not actually heard.

This had been underlined when the police started to take the matter seriously.  Had Amelie told her where she was going?  Think hard, she had been told; any hint will help.  She had thought very hard, but it never got any clearer.

“I’m going to see the cat with blue fur with Chloe.”  That was what she remembered now, still, a year later.  But she also knew that it wasn’t quite right, that like most memories it was a construction.  It had definitely been “Chloe,” because Chloe was gone too.  She was almost as certain about “cat with blue fur,” because it was so unlikely.

But… the cat?  A cat?  She had hunted for any connection to the phrase, and found nothing.  That night, when she hadn’t really heard it at all, she had assumed it was a show, something on Nick or Disney XD that Amelie hadn’t bothered to share or inflict.  It was not.  It was not a band.  Not a game.  Not a book.  It was, if Google were a judge, not a part of popular culture at all.

Had Amelie meant some person?  That was what the police had settled on, adding to the AMBER Alert the possibility that the girls’ abductor was a man with dyed hair.  Helene had, over the months since, come to think that unlikely.  Who in this age calls himself a “cat?”  Why would her daughter adopt a slang out of use even when Helene had been a girl?

That first month had been so hard.  The first week, perhaps the hardest of all.  Waking up on the couch, creeping to Amelie’s room, hoping she had slipped in without waking her worried mother, taking in the terrible subtext of the bed sitting undisturbed in the first grey light of the coming day.  Then that indecisive hour.  Call the police?  Call Chloe’s parents?  What was their number?  Their last name?  When Chloe’s parents had at last called her, it was almost a relief, even as the conversation ran from vague accusation to desperate mutual reassurance, ending in a comparison of the pitifully few known facts.

Then, so many people in the house.  The police.  Chloe’s father, Hank.  Stefanie and Brenda from work, appearing after she had called in to explain her absence.  All concerned, but all in their own way inquisitive, making Helene feel judged.  The feeling was irrational, and she had tried to dismiss it even as it brought a new wave of tears.

Detective Siddons was at least professional.  His questions, whether spoken or merely suggested by his glances at her, his looking into Amelie’s room, all so clearly devoted only to advancing the search, and she loved him for it.  Hank mainly stood in a corner, looking worried when he knew he was being seen, angry when he did not.  The aimless condolences and solicitous murmurs from the co-workers were almost too much to bear.

The first suspect, Helene’s ex-husband, was dismissed in the length of time it took him to sleepily answer a call to his land line in New Zealand.  Siddons had probed for other possible suspects, and Helene knew that she, Hank, and his wife Sylvia had never been entirely cleared from the list, but she also knew that no one else ever joined them.  This had been the point at which the cat with blue fur had entered the official notes, spreading outward from one police agency to another with never an echo.

Helene had hardly left the house that first month, terrified of missing a call from Amelie or from whoever might have her.  Brief, breathless flights to the grocery store, then back to sit and look at the changing images on the soundless TV while burning vacation and sick days.  Days filled with circular wondering about what she should have done or not done differently in the days before it happened, maddening and inconclusive.

She had given Amelie all the right talks.  She had been open and honest about the vices that lead the young astray.  Amelie may have been as curious as any other thirteen year old about drugs, drink and boys, but her curiosity was informed.  Helene could not imagine her smart, savvy daughter just climbing into the back of a van, however persuasive its driver might have been.  And yet, she had waking dreams of a man, his face hidden by the shadow of his car’s window frame, calling out to an Amelie who in the vision was only half her true age.  “Help me find my cat, please!  He’s blue.  Wouldn’t you like to see a cat with blue fur?”

When the first month had become the second, Helene began to go out again.  Out to work, because there was no leave left to take.  Out to a trauma therapist, covered by her benefits, whose only contribution was to make her angry at the platitudes of those who hadn’t experienced the loss.  Out to drive around the city, looking into her own teen haunts with a vague, dim hope flickering inside her, finding only that most of her teen haunts had been built over.  She almost went to the school to try talking to some of her daughter’s friends, then abandoned the notion.  Those who would talk had already spoken to the police.  Those who wouldn’t, the ones more likely to know the dark side of their generation’s world, would remain silent.

Detective Siddons called with decreasing regularity.  His tone amended as the weeks passed.  At first he was warmly sympathetic, even when he was clearly toying with the possibility that she had killed and concealed the girls.  Later, distracted resignation took over, and finally vague resentment.  She didn’t blame him.  How could he retain the initial fire when the message was always the same: the forces of official justice have not forgotten, they continue to seek the girls, and there is no news as yet.

Helene had sometimes sat on the floor of Amelie’s room, where the scents and sense of her still remained.  Once she had even laid on the bed, weeping quietly, but the impression she left on the bed-clothes horrified her for reasons she could not articulate to herself.  Every time she went in, she sought for hints.  In none of the books or magazines or posters were there any cats, blue or otherwise; Amelie was more given to ponies.  The police had long since laid bare what few secrets the laptop had held, and the boy towards whom she had expressed a mild crush had passed through a brief and embarrassing and ultimately fruitless interrogation.  Amelie had not kept a diary.  Helene looked at the school notebooks to remind herself of her daughter’s handwriting.

Resignation had crept into Helene’s own thoughts after half a year.  When was increasingly replaced with if in references to Amelie’s return.  One night her own inward voice had asked if it would be better Amelie were dead; she would not return, but she would also be free of worse, more drawn-out terrors.  Horror that she could form such a thought, and rebel imagination’s juggling images of those terrors, kept her from sleep the whole of the night.

She thought she was as used as she could be to Amelie’s absence now.  The anniversary of the disappearance dawned, bright and sunny and without regard to how Helene felt.  Someone to whom Detective Siddons had given over the task called with another restatement of the police’s continued and unproductive efforts.  She warmed a plastic tray of frozen macaroni in the microwave, not because it brought her a measure of joy or even nutrition, but because it was Thursday.  As she poked her fork into it, Helene realized that she and the police were wrong in their reckoning, off by a day because this was the anniversary of the alarm being raised; Amelie had gone the previous night.

A slow tear running down her cheek, Helene decided that she would sit up the whole night anyway.  She even put a candle in the window as the sun set, ridiculing herself for it as she did so.  It would have had more meaning a year ago, or even the previous night.  She had never heard of anyone making a big deal over anything a year and a day later.

Something with Ronald Coleman was on the TV, the sound too low for her to make out what was being said, when the front door opened behind her.  She whirled.  Standing just outside, Amelie, looking at her, the half-smile she always wore when feeling guilty slanting her lips.

“I’m sorry I’m late, Mom.”

Helene stood, trying to disentangle herself from the suddenly grabby chair.  Chloe was there, beside Amelie in the fan of light spilling onto the porch, looking down and shaking her head.  The chair let go, and Helene charged her daughter, half-blind with tears.  She was so happy her daughter was back, so angry that she had been gone so long, that it seemed impossible to breathe.  She folded Amelie in her arms, half-expecting to hug nothing but air, surprised that she was surprised to find a warm person there, half-afraid of crushing the girl by hugging as hard as she wanted.  Finally, she choked, “Where have you been?”

“We went to see The Cat with Blue Fur… but we took a wrong turn.”  There was a tone of confusion in her voice, and from the tentative way the hug was returned, it was clear she did not understand her mother’s passionate reaction.  “It’s OK, though.  He found us and showed us the way back.”

Helene released her grip, took a step back, and looked at her daughter carefully.  She was dressed in the same clothes she had worn the night she had left.  There was a smear of something mossy-green on one shoulder, but the outfit was otherwise clean… and it fit.  The band of temporary red dye Helene had helped her put in her hair the Saturday before the disappearance was still there.  Helene stared, realizing that Amelie was not only back but was entirely unchanged after a year and a day away from home.

Amelie, growing self-conscious in the face of scrutiny, glanced towards her friend who had started to shake a little, then took a darting step towards her mother, entering the house for the first time.  She craned to whisper confidentially in her mother’s ear, “I’m worried about Chloe.  I think she looked at it too long.”

Helene saw the driveway over her daughter’s shoulder, saw her car, and saw by its back bumper a cat.  It walked down the driveway, tail flag-poling side to side as it went, the picture of feline confidence.  It was, even in the odd light of the street-lamps, a bright unlikely blue, the blue of summer skies and favourite crayons.  It passed behind the car, out of sight.

Helene pulled the girls inside, realizing at last that she had heard her daughter perfectly, and would never understand what had been said.

“Gone to See the Cat” © 2014 Dirck de Lint