by Bogi Beykov
“Good evening, this is DreamNet – your friendly neighborhood internet provider. My name is Lilly. How can I help?”
“Thank God it’s you, sweetie?”
“Missis Hartford, how are you today?”
“Oh, you know, still breathing. I wish there was a way I could remove all of my bones and put them in a jar with my teeth, so I don’t feel this constant pain, every living minute…”
Lilly looked around the office, her eyes trying to escape another dreadfully long conversation with the old lady. Almost everyone had already left, and she was too polite to cut the conversation short.
“…But you are still young, so you have nothing to worry about!”
“Missis Hartford, you know that this is an internet company and I’m not even sure you have internet.”
“No, but you know, it’s Jessa.”
“Yes, my cat. She is still missing, darling, and I can’t find her anywhere. I know, I know, I shouldn’t be calling but my son won’t even pick up these days and I am worried sick. You see, she never leaves for this long, not even in the spring. She is just the nicest cat, I hate the thought of something bad happening to her.”
“I’m sure she is fine, Missis Hartford,” Lilly was thinking about all the work she still had to finish for uni after she got home. The finals were getting closer and while her position at DreamNet was supposed to be a part-time job, the part was becoming increasingly bigger.
“Have I told you before how beautiful she is?”
“Yes, several times.”
“She has this black fur that’s so shiny, it’s almost greasy. But she’s not because she is so clean. I taught her well and she never ever caused any problems like that, you know? In the bathroom I mean. She only has this scar…”
“Missis Hartford, I’m so terribly sorry but we have other clients waiting on the line who may need help with their internet connection…”
“I thought you closed the office at eight.”
“Oh well, time flies.”
“Ok, sweetie don’t worry, I will not bother you but if you see her by any chance…”
“I will definitely let you know, Missis Hartford. Have a good night.”
“You too, Lilly. Thank you.”
It was getting dark fast this time of the year and Lilly’s bike had no lights on. Thankfully she didn’t live that far away, and the streets were almost empty. She would usually make it back in fifteen. A couple of blocks later and a turn around Shamrock Park and she’d be home to help Mom with dinner. Slightly Distracted she almost missed the red light at the crossroads next to the old Baptist church. She stopped for a moment to catch her breath. An old rusty van parked at the corner was momentarily brought back to life by the illuminating red glow of the traffic light. Then Lilly spotted something moving on the roof of the van. It jumped off and flashed across the street and into the darkness. It was a black cat. The light was back on and Lilly instinctively drove off.
“Could it have been Jessa?” she wondered, “She might get hungry and find her way back.”
She saw Jessa in her dream that night. Standing in the middle of the street, calmly waiting as the cars drove by. It was like one of the old silent movies she had seen as a child. The pace was all wrong. It looked like things were moving too fast or maybe the scene was recorded in reverse and then played backwards. Only the cat was unaffected by it all. Staring straight into her eyes.
“You can’t leave here without locking the server room!” her boss yelled at her the next day, “What if someone had broken in?”
“I’m really sorry, Mr. Ales, it won’t happen again.” She hadn’t even taken her coat off yet.
There was a cliché stock image print of Brooklyn Bridge hanging on the wall in the office. Lilly would sometimes look at it and wonder about things. Only to reprimand herself after a while to ‘come down from the clouds’ as her Mom says and resume her worries where she left them. This time the old lady called only once, right as Lilly was turning off the lights.
“Still no sign of Jessa, sweetheart, what am I to do?” This time the sadness in her voice was stained by defeat. Emptied of hope she sounded dull and quiet.
“Misses Hartford, I’m sure she will come back. As a matter of fact, I saw a black cat just like her last night on my way back home.”
“Oh no, no, she knows the way back home…” the connection was poor, filling up with white noise, “She always found her way in the darkest of hours.”
“Don’t worry, Misses Hartford, I will go look after work, she is still there probably.”
“Be careful. These days, it’s cold in town. I need to go now, sweetie, need to look for my Jessa. Good night.”
There was no one on the other end of the line. The old lady was right about one thing though, it was getting much colder.
After locking the office and on the way to her bike, Lilly heard a noise. She felt a brush against her leg and turned around to see the cat. Jessa was looking up at her with typically feline disdain.
“Ah, here she is. Why are you not home, huh?”
She had an old scar on her right leg that seemed to have been caused by a pretty deep cut, maybe a fall or a vehicle hit. Lilly thought she could take Jessa home with her and then call Missis Hartford with the good news. But when she reached down, the cat lashed out and scratched her viciously.
“Why did you do that?”
Jessa started licking her palm bored with indifference.
Maybe she could at least lock her in the office until the morning. But as soon as she thought of that, the cat pranced off and ran down the stairs.
“Wait, hold on!”
Lilly followed her down and across the street. But the cat was fast. Before Lilly could catch up, she had already jumped over a fence and disappeared into the night.
Missis Hartford had not called in a few days. But Lilly kept seeing Jessa. Once behind a trash can, another time on a bench under a streetlamp. It was as if Jessa was the one discovering Lilly, lost in her thoughts on the way home and bringing her out of it. She once showed up outside her window. Or maybe it was another dream.
The next day it suddenly started snowing. The office was almost empty. People were evacuating town, escaping their disappointing family obligations in pre-booked hideouts. Lilly, now busier than ever, was flooded with work and an avalanche of papers for her winter break.
She felt lonely.
This small town now seemed perplexingly vast and hollow. The cold slowly creeping in and reaching for her heart.
The phone was ringing for a while. Lilly had to pick up. And she knew it was her.
“Missis Hartford, she keeps running away. I can’t grab a hold of her.”
“There is nothing we can do, sweetie.” The line was moaning with noise, hurting Lilly’s ears. The heavy snow piling up outside, must have been sticking to the cables and messing with the signal.
“Are you all by yourself, Misses Hartford? Do you need some help around the house? I could drop by…”
“No, you can’t.”
“I can barely hear…”
“You are such a good girl, Lilly…”
The wind blew open the window. The haze of snow, invading in, mixed with all the sheets of paper and flew around in a frenzy.
Lilly struggled with the window for a moment and by the time she came back to her phone, the old lady had left her too. After doing her best at putting everything in place and mopping the floor, she finally left exhausted. Her bike, waiting for her to be late as usual, had frozen to the pole.
She shouldn’t have brought it today. She should have paid more attention to the forecast.
Lilly thought, “I will be home soon. It’s not that far after all. Fifteen minutes…”
Or maybe longer this time. The storm was growing stronger. Slowing down time in its freezing embrace.
“…Only a few blocks away, then the park…”
If she could only see it. The snowy curtain, carefully laid down over the town, was the storm’s claim to the stage tonight.
“…It’s muscle memory. I remember. There is nothing I forgot this time, did I?”
She hit the brakes and came to an abrupt stop. At the corner of the old Baptist church Jessa was standing in the middle of the street, staring at her.
“You’re not running away this time!”
Lilly abandoned her bike and sprang into a pursuit. Jessa turned into a small alley where the light was so dim, Lilly had to run with her arms extended. But the cat stopped a few times and looked over her shoulder, to give the girl a chance to catch up. Lilly saw Jessa’s shiny eyes, reflecting the dying glow of the streetlights in a mirror of bottomless darkness. The girl’s lungs were burning. Every breath was painful, as if forced by a torturous machine. She slowed her pace and so did Jessa. She was now only a few steps in front but ignoring Lilly’s pleas, she kept moving forward inch by inch. The wind was blowing so hard, Lilly now couldn’t see anything but Jessa’s tail. She kept crawling forward until her freezing outreached hand stumbled across the metal railing of a staircase. The cat was already climbing up the steps. Lilly followed and floor by floor they started ascending an invisible building. Supported by the rails, Lilly felt her strength recover momentarily and she leapt forward to grab a hold of Jessa. Her hand slid over the shiny coat. She felt the warmth, the surprise of an escaped heartbeat a second before the animal slid through an open door. Lilly was startled for a moment but quickly recovered, opened the door and was now inside too. Blinded by the light, she followed along a long and bright corridor. Feeling heavy and very sleepy, she sat down on a bench for a moment. But Jessa didn’t let her rest for long. She was in front, waving her tail provocatively.
“Follow me,” she whispered in her own silent way.
“I’m tired. Leave me alone.”
“We’re almost there.”
And so, they continued. Now walking side by side. Lilly looked around slowly. She was disoriented, her eyes hard to focus.
“Is this a hospital?”
“Come this way.”
She stepped into a room and Jessa jumped onto a chair next to the bed.
“Is this better now, sweetie?”
Lilly recognized the voice. This was Misses Hartford. She looked younger and was dressed as a nurse. Bent over some machine, she pressed a few buttons.
“Ok, your infusion pump is adjusted. Let’s check the respirator.”
She was attending the patient in the bed.
Suddenly, Lilly felt bad about being in this room. She didn’t want to stay here any longer. But trying to open the door, she now realized it was locked.
“I’m so tired,” Lilly mumbled, “I don’t think I’m feeling too well.”
Shy stumbled towards the bed and sat down for a moment.
Everyone had so many expectations of her and she had to make them all happy. Maybe if she paid more attention… But she was always so easily distracted.
“I hope it’s ok if I just lay my head down for a moment.”
It was ok. Because there was no one else in the bed but her. She remembered now.
Missis Hartford’s pleasant voice. The voice she used to hear every day when the nurse came to check on her. The dark evening when she left the office late. The freezing cold of the first snow outside. The icy road which made it so hard for her bike to break. And that one black cat that jumped in front of the road out of nowhere, causing her to veer off into the incoming traffic. Lilly hadn’t left this room in over a year. She had been in a coma since the accident.
“You come with me, Jessa,” nurse Hartford ordered.
“Don’t meow me, now. We need to leave Lilly to rest on her own,” then leaving the room she looked out of the window and added, mostly to herself, “This winter looks to be even colder than the last one. Good night, sweetie.”
About the Author:
Bogi Beykov is half Polish and half Bulgarian. Most of his short stories combine humor with sci-fi elements. You can read more on: http://boguslaugh.com/