by Tiffany Sanerd
Jean Baker had lived a very full life. She was respected by people she respected, desired by people she desired, had put herself first and benefited from it. And yet, when she met people – at a bookstore reading, in a theater lobby during intermission, shopping during the holidays – they didn’t ask about the life she’d lived. They asked about her children.
“We’re not trying, but we’re not not trying. We’re leaving it up to fate,” she’d said when she was young and married. Her well-educated, atheist coworkers would laugh. Her religious childhood friends would promise to pray. Her sister would press a frowning kiss to her own procession of babies’ heads, roll tired eyes behind their downy hair, and say nothing.
Later, after she and George had amicably decided to stop trying, she smiled politely and said, “I like having my freedom.” And when someone invariably followed with, “Aren’t you lonely?” she would say, “Maybe a pet would be nice.”
To that, her sister said plenty. “You don’t want to become a cat lady,” she said. Or, “You don’t want dog hair all over your clothes.” Or, “You don’t want your house to smell like bird shit.” Her sister with six kids whose lives became her life, whose clothes were perpetually stained, whose house smelled like bleach and – under that – years of spilled milk and pissed pants. Then it was Jean’s turn to roll her eyes and say nothing.
Later still, after her sister had died, Jean said simply, “I have cats.” And though no one ever asked about the cats, no one asked if she was lonely, either.
The first cat showed up on her doorstep two weeks after her sister’s funeral. As if it had been waiting for the scent of her sister’s disapproval to clear. She coaxed it in, cleaned it up, got it fat. And most days after, they went their own ways. It was her ideal partnership. She named him Phil and told no one it was short for Fulfilled.
Phil continued to go out and do whatever it is feral cats do. Like her cortisone shots, it kept him frisky. He never brought another cat home with him, but another always showed up a couple days on, like he’d made an offer they had to consider.
The second cat was a sleek young tabby, and though it was content to stay inside, it never fattened like the first. She named it Work. The third was solid black with unsettlingly yellow eyes. She named it Art. The fourth was fluffy white with perpetually dirty paws. She named it Food. The fifth was another tabby; this one dour and heavy with kittens. She named it Sister and vowed to rehome it. The six kittens were white with black patches like her granddaddy’s Holstein cows.
After the kittens, she was careful not to let Phil out anymore. He sulked and hid so long she thought he’d escaped anyway. She put a bit of chicken in a dish and left it on the porch as a peace offering. The next morning, Phil was wedged against the bottom of the door, like a draft stopper. When he heard her approaching, he slunk away, revealing several deep, vertical scratches where he’d tried to get to the chicken on the other side.
She gave the cold chicken to the mama tabby on her way out. Phil watched from the hall, growling low in his throat. “Get over it,” she hissed back. She was meeting her family at the aquarium that day and was saving her patience for them.
And a good thing she did. With their overbearing matriarch gone, Jean’s nieces and nephews delighted in letting their kids run amok. Her sister’s grandchildren were scalpels of movement and sound, slicing through the womblike darkness of the aquarium, bleeding Jean’s energy into the soft-edged shadows.
She stopped to rest against the rail of a tall, narrow tank with a Closed for Cleaning sign – the oldest of the herd falling back – when a funny thing happened. How long did she stare before she saw the eyes and lost all of the breath she’d managed to catch?
Kids might try to make eye contact with fish, but adults know better. Know too well that the fish just want to be left alone, to forget so they can begin again in earnest the tedium of their circuit. She certainly had not been looking to make a connection at the aquarium. And yet, there were those paperweight eyes, heavy with knowing under their brown cobbled brows.
She laughed. The sound came out breathy and girlish. It was hard to discern the full size and shape of the sinuous body. How would it feel for such a thing to cling to her? She touched the glass and was rocked by a spasm of want. She shivered so hard it shifted the strap of her sensible black leather purse.
This time when she laughed – scoffed really – she’d regained enough of her senses to sound appropriately embarrassed with herself. In the murk of the tank, it almost looked like the creature blushed, too. “Sorry,” she apologized to its horizontal pupils. She let the ebb current of extended family obligations pull her away, into the catacombs of the freshwater corridor.
On her way home, she curled her fingers around the steering wheel and thought of clinging legs; caught her gaze in the rearview mirror and wondered what the creature had thought of her. Maybe octopi were nearsighted, and it hadn’t even seen her.
It was dusk by the time she opened the front door. Her house was the same queasy swirl of light and dark as the aquarium. The mama cat came running. Five kittens mewed around her like fuzzy satellites.
Jean almost stepped on the sixth kitten, lying at the threshold of the entryway and the kitchen. It was already stiff. In that moment, she felt tired enough to lie down beside it. The tabby butted her head against Jean’s ankle then arched backward in a flurry of spit and claws.
Feline grief, Jean assumed. As she carried the small body through the house, she noticed the other cats were also keeping their distance. All but Phil, who emerged from her bedroom to resume his low growling.
“Did you do this?” she whispered as he watched her swaddle the baby in a hand towel and tuck it into a shoebox. He blinked with only one eye. It looked jaunty, like a wink. Rage flickered once in her chest before giving way to exhaustion.
She closed the box and went out the sliding glass door to the garden. She dug a hole where the green grass became brown weeds. Then she said a simple prayer to St. Francis, who had preached to the animals. “Bless this baby,” she said, “And its mother.”
A strange feeling washed over her, like a warm breeze in winter. She pressed her hand to her center. “And me, too,” she added, suddenly crying.
The sliding door stuck a few inches down the track, and while she struggled to unstick it, Phil slipped through. He was so fast he might’ve been a shadow cast by a passing car. She stared after him, to be sure. He stopped on top of the little dirt mound and let the moon touch his eyes.
“No more,” she said to him. He winked and was gone.
He was gone for days, then weeks. She told all her friends and the community page on Facebook; put up fliers at the grocery store, the vet’s office, the gas station, and on the poles at each end of her block. The first tabby finally gained weight, and the kittens were more playful in Phil’s absence.
Just when she’d decided the cat was dead – hit on the road or carried off by coyotes – he returned. In the middle of the night, she was woken by an animal singing a death song. She turned on the porch light, and there he was, naked, crying his sorrow to the night.
She gathered his cold, bristled body in her arms. Felt rough circles under the pads of her fingers and hoped whatever he’d caught wasn’t zoonotic. She set him down in the kitchen, so she could pour a bowl of milk. Every time she took a step, he forced himself between her legs, pulling at her pajama pants and begging to be held. The other cats didn’t come to greet him. He sniffed the milk then grabbed at her cuff again.
“Ok,” she said. As she lifted him, she saw that his ears were gone, right down to the Henry’s pocket. Without them and his fur, he looked like a withered old man. She kissed his head to let him know she was not repulsed.
She considered calling the vet, but Phil had no open wounds, no signs of illness aside from the rash. It could wait until morning, she decided. What he needed now was love. She shut off the lights and toed her way back to the bedroom, feeling like a ghost in her own home. When she bent to lay him beside the bed, he tensed and clung to her thin cotton shirt. “Ok,” she said again, easing onto the sheets with one arm.
Phil’s weight was stifling, but she couldn’t bring herself to move him. As she wobbled at the edge of sleep, she remembered when her sister used to sit on her chest and pin her arms with her knees. Her sister had always been awful. But without her, Jean wouldn’t have known the sweet boneless weight of babies. Her thoughts flipped forward again, to the whole-body press of her lovers.
She must have squirmed. Phil must have panicked. The sudden pain of twenty claws brought her back from the edge, but she must have opened her eyes still half-asleep. Because what she saw where her pajama shirt had been pushed up was a confusion of the cat’s flesh and hers. She blinked, and the cat became something separate again, but it left its claws inside her, their translucent tips whipping like flagellum before slipping under her skin.
She screamed, and Phil stumble-leapt from the bed. She pressed her hands to her stinging torso and scrambled for the bathroom. The overhead lights and unflattering mirror showed her the sober truth: normal cat scratches, fresh and red but barely bleeding. She swabbed them with peroxide, to be safe.
“Phil?” she sang quietly, apologetically, out into the hall. Neither he nor any of the other cats answered. Sick from shock and shame, she crawled back under her sheets.
In the morning, she searched the house for Phil but found nothing. Having learned her lesson once, she was sure he was hiding. She phoned the vet. When they heard about his ears, they told her to bring him immediately, whenever she found him. If it was after-hours, they would come over.
Jean made her day a trap. She ate Phil’s favorites. She made the other cats wait when she served the soft food. She went into rooms then stood flattened against the wall, holding her breath and listening for the whisper of his paws as he snuck down the hall. Before bed, she put a bowl of chicken outside. Then she couldn’t sleep, thinking of how he had clawed the door so desperately before, and she got up to place a second bowl inside.
He was gone, she told the vet when they called the next day. The vet told her she should call the police.
“To report a missing cat?”
“To report a cult,” they said.
She called the police.
“You want to report a missing cat?” The secretary was incredulous.
“No, I want to report…Someone shaved my cat and cut off his ears,” she said. There was a long silence, then a click as the call was transferred.
“Officer Johnson. How can I help you?”
“Someone shaved my cat and cut off his ears.”
“Have you called a vet, Mrs…?”
“Baker. Jean Baker. I called the vet, but the cat’s gone. They said I should call you.”
“They said it might be a cult,” she prodded.
“Oh. Well. That’s not something we’ve seen around here,” he said, as if it were a product the police store didn’t carry.
“What about my cat? Do you think someone stole him?”
“That’s unlikely, Mrs. Baker. Why don’t you put some food out for him?”
“I tried that, but-”
“If we hear anything about your cat, we’ll give you a call.” Then Officer Johnson hung up without getting her number.
Her nephew, Gabriel, came over and installed a motion-activated floodlight. It popped on several times a night, but when she pulled back the curtain in her bedroom, she never saw anything. Not the cat or a cult member or even a rabbit. After a couple disrupted nights, she turned it off.
Several bowls of chicken went bad on her doorstep. The other cats seemed to blame her. They eyed her suspiciously and wouldn’t approach their food dishes until she backed away. The kittens that had once leaned into her palms flattened their ears and bared their tiny teeth when she reached for them.
Ten days after the incident with Phil, she found blood in her overnight pad. This is it, she thought. If the spotted pad was a Rorschach, then the correct answer was cancer. Every time, cancer. She knew she should call her doctor, but she decided to wait until there was something more to tell him. Wait, maybe, until it would be too late for him to recommend any of the futile things her sister had tried.
There was no blood the next day, or the next, or the next. It was like waiting for a bill she couldn’t pay. Only it never came. Somewhere in the midst of those first, frightened days, the second cat – Work – disappeared. Maybe it was for the better, all things considered. She’d have to rehome them soon anyway.
She eased back into routine, but it was just going through the motions, because she knew death was out there. Or rather, in there. She could feel it stretching up her spine, like a cat getting comfortable in a square of sun.
“You don’t have to hide from me,” she said, to the tumor and the kittens, who were half-grown and half-feral now. There was desperation in her voice, though, because the third cat had also gone missing. She should have gone looking, like she had for the first cat, but that’s when the nausea started. She’d endured it as long as she could; she called the doctor’s office.
Jean sweated and vomited her way through several more days. She was sore and bloated but also inexplicably hungry. The fourth cat – Food – disappeared after a disturbing fever dream. By then, she was too weak to feel anything but resigned. Maybe, she thought, Phil had found a new home and was calling them back the same way they’d come.
She drove herself to the hospital. She didn’t want to tell her nieces and nephews yet. A nurse drew blood for a CA-125 test. Dr. Martin came and explained the transvaginal ultrasound process. She didn’t tell him she’d read about it already.
When she laid back, her bones and boobs and other wayward parts tried to come out of the gaps in the gown. Like a cartoon of springs exploding from the back of a clock. As the doctor twisted the probe inside her, that’s what she told herself she was. Just an old clock that needed winding.
A few times the doctor stopped, made incremental adjustments, and snapped a picture. The machine with the screen made a noise like an old-fashioned film camera, and she waited for the photo booth strip to fall between her legs. She repeated this thought aloud. The nurse smiled tightly. Dr. Martin remained fixated on the silver topography of her interior.
Another thrust and twist. She swallowed a nervous burp. On the screen, a black pocket opened. It looked like a fisheye with a cataract. She resisted the urge to pat her belly. I see you.
The doctor removed the probe, threw away his gloves, and washed his hands. “I’ll be back,” he said over his shoulder. The nurse went with him.
Jean cleaned herself; swabbing the great gooey mess from her thighs with the “gown,” which made an equally bad napkin. She redressed quickly but needn’t have.
There was no clock in the room – aside from her – but she didn’t want to get caught with her phone out, like a kid and not a grown woman about to hear she was dying. So she continued to wait, reading drug and disease pamphlets that would never apply to her again.
Dr. Martin knocked before re-entering. He was followed by another man carrying a small machine. The nurse brought up the rear, closing the door behind them.
“This is Dr. Nilsson,” said Dr. Martin. She looked for clues in his eyes, but they were still fixed on her abdomen.
“Do I have cancer?” she asked.
“It will be a few days before we have the test results, but we do not believe you have cancer.”
They were wrong, but you couldn’t tell doctors that. “I was so sick,” she said instead. “It must be something.”
Dr. Martin nodded. “Mrs. Baker, have you seen another doctor in the last year?”
“No,” she said.
“You haven’t left the country? Tried any experimental treatments?” Dr. Martin’s usual, professionally indifferent voice climbed in pitch.
“No.” She fidgeted, and the paper under her hips tore.
“Mrs. Baker.” Dr. Martin removed his glasses, rubbed the bridge of his nose. Just like a doctor on a tv show. “Mrs. Baker,” he started again. She was getting sick of hearing her name. “The ultrasound images found a…fetus in your uterus. We need to know who you’ve been seeing for IVF treatments.”
“A fetus?” Jean laughed, high and thin. “Can a tumor look like a fetus?”
Dr. Nilsson cleared his throat. “You aren’t in any trouble, not legally anyway, but we need to know what we’re dealing with so we can help you. Who was the doctor?”
“Dr. Martin is the only doctor I’ve seen since Dr. Khan retired,” she said. “It can’t be a fetus. I’m 72. And I haven’t been with a man in years.”
“With IVF that’s not necessary,” said Dr. Nilsson.
“I haven’t had anything done to me,” said Jean. She was scared now. More scared than she’d been of what she’d expected.
“Based on its size in the ultrasound images, your fetus is mature enough for us to detect a heartbeat. Do you mind if I try? If no heartbeat is present, we can perform a biopsy to determine the nature of any possible growths.”
Jean raised her hands in surrender. The nurse helped her lie back, lifted her blouse, unbuttoned her slacks. Don’t cry, Jean warned herself as the woman smeared lubricant across her stomach. Just let them see they’re wrong.
Dr. Nilsson held the machine in one hand and a plastic wand in the other. When he pressed the wand to her stomach, she shuddered so hard her shoulder throbbed afterward. The wand jumped. The speaker crackled.
A horse galloped through the white noise. Dr. Nilsson’s hand trembled. Back to distortion. The nurse looked at Jean, squeezed her aching shoulder through her sweater.
“That was a heartbeat,” she whispered.
Jean realized she had known it was there all along. Felt its hunger and felt its satisfaction when she fed it. The tears she’d been fighting dampened the corners of her eyes. She had been calling it a tumor, but it was a baby. Her baby.
Dr. Nilsson regained his composure, the wand tracking across her stomach, in search of what it had lost. She could feel the baby pushing away from it.
“I don’t think it likes it,” she said.
Dr. Nilsson blinked at her, his pupils unfocused.
“We have the images from your earlier ultrasound,” he said. “But I would like to see the fetus myself. Would you mind if we did a second ultrasound today?”
Jean’s stomach knotted. She wasn’t sure if the apprehension was hers or the baby’s. “Is that safe?” She thought she’d read something once about the dangers of ultrasounds, but maybe she was confusing them with x-rays.
Dr. Nilsson straightened. “I think it’s best if we’re honest about your situation. The ultrasound images we have are less than ideal.” The other doctor shifted behind him. “Dr. Martin wasn’t looking for a fetus when he took them. But what I’ve seen, well, it doesn’t look normal. And that’s hardly a surprise, given…” He pointed at her with the wand.
This time, she and her stomach flinched in tandem. She tugged her blouse down over the sticky skin of her torso. “This is a lot to process. I think it would be best if I went home.”
Dr. Martin stepped forward, beside Dr. Nilsson, creating a wall. “Mrs. Baker. Jean. This is a very serious situation. A complicated situation. As your doctor, I assure you, we only want –”
She shook her head. Shook the nurse’s hand off her shoulder. Started pushing herself up. She knew what they wanted. Their names on a study. Her life and the life inside of her laid out in numbers for a roomful of their peers. The tests wouldn’t end with another ultrasound.
“I’m going home,” she said, lifting her purse from the arm of a chair.
“I don’t know if –” Dr. Nilsson was saying, but she was already past him.
“I’m going to discuss it with my family,” she lied. “I’ll make another appointment. Soon.”
She didn’t know if they heard her, because Dr. Martin and Dr. Nilsson were talking over each other, dueling pianos of polite doctor speak. She made it through the door, down the hall, past the desk. The receptionist’s chair squeaked behind her.
She was almost to the vestibule when she felt a hand close around her upper arm. She gripped her purse, ready to swing.
The nurse pressed a thick blue folder into her hand. “Congratulations, Mrs. Baker,” she said. Jean saw her own fear and awe mirrored in the woman’s eyes, saw her touch the cross swinging under the collar of her scrubs.
* * *
“You and I have something in common now,” she said to Sister’s retreating tail. Though the kittens were almost grown, and Jean’s baby was still growing.
She opened the blue folder, opened her laptop beside it, opened a string of browser windows, wrote a long grocery list. Every time she felt scared by something she read, she reminded herself that she shouldn’t be pregnant at all. There was no sense worrying about science when a miracle grew inside her.
That night, it wasn’t worry that kept her up but wonder. She could feel the baby swimming, strong and graceful, in the ocean of her blood.
The next morning, Sister didn’t lead her kittens to breakfast. The disappearances no longer bothered Jean. Maybe the cats knew she was pregnant, knew she didn’t need them anymore. Maybe they didn’t care. It was all well and good. As she’d already noted, the kittens were grown. They didn’t need their mother, and they certainly didn’t need her. She should call around, maybe post a flier at the vet’s office, find them new homes.
More important than that, though, was her long grocery list. She folded it into her purse and left.
As she compared prenatals in the vitamin aisle, a vaguely familiar voice called, “Jean!”
She blinked at George’s second wife. She couldn’t remember her name. It might not be old age, she thought with a secretive smile. It might be pregnancy brain. “How are you?”
She let her eyes drift back to the label in her hand as the woman went on. About vacations and movies and health scares and grandchildren. “You didn’t ever have children, did you?”
Jean had been waiting for the question. Hoping for it, even. Now she turned her secretive smile on the woman. “I’m leaving it up to fate,” she said.
The woman laughed. “You always were a hoot,” she said.
Jean put the vitamins in her cart, beside the fish oil supplement, in the front basket, where they wouldn’t get lost among the fruits and vegetables, the blender, and the big box of newborn diapers. “You take care,” she said to the woman.
She’d gotten everything on her list, but she continued on, to every store in town that carried anything for babies. And when she couldn’t fit so much as a binky more into her trunk, she realized she needed to make space. In the cabinets and in the spare room, for what she’d just bought, yes. But also in her life, where she’d left no room for what was coming.
When she got home, she went straight to her desk and contacted every board she chaired, the charities she’d long supported, the up-and-comers she was mentoring, the organizers of the convention she’d co-founded, even her nieces and nephews. She told them she was working on something important and wouldn’t be available for a while.
She had called many of those things her children. But now she could see they were as capable of living without her as the cats were. Only the life in her stomach – and here it kicked, and she laughed, and it kicked harder, and she wiped away a tear – truly needed her.
When she’d regained her composure, she called Dr. Martin’s office and said she was under the care of a specialist, hanging up before the nurse could request a name. They didn’t think the baby would make it, anyway. Her skin crawled at the thought of their skeptics’ hands, chasing her baby’s heart.
It was a blessing. Beyond anything a doctor could understand or accept. If God had gotten her this far, He could get her the rest of the way. If that was His plan. And if it wasn’t His plan? She remembered her sister saying, “You don’t understand unconditional love until you’ve had a child.” She’d been right. Jean loved her baby – unconditionally – already.
* * *
The time when her body felt as mysterious as an ocean was over much sooner than she expected. Within days, she felt more like a narrow stream, the tips of her baby’s fingers and toes testing her skin like the fins of spawning salmon.
Less than a week after the ultrasound, she stopped in the middle of scouring gristle from a knife to lean against the kitchen counter. Carefully, she laid down the knife. “Do you see it moving?” she asked the wide eyes of the last kitten.
Twelve hours later, she woke with a start from a nightmare about suffocating to find her own body looming over her. The baby was a tight coil, too big for her stomach, pushing against her bones as if they were the thin glass of a goldfish bowl. “Not long now,” she tried to laugh, though it came out more a gasp.
She rocked herself upright – wanting to floss away what felt like hair between her teeth – and felt a single point of pain. Too high to be a proper contraction. She felt it again and lifted her nightgown to see a finger tent-poling her skin. She pinched it gently. “I’m here,” she said. There was a pause in the pressure, the pain fading like an echo, the bulge smoothing to a bump.
Then the bumps became many, more than the ten there should have been. But she didn’t get to count them. Because in an electric current – a drowning wave – the pain surged back. It didn’t feel like her body was contracting around the baby. It felt like the baby was flexing outward. “Oh,” she said, trying not to scream.
The bumps became fingers again, purple as bruises at the tips where her skin was stretched tightest. And now she couldn’t help but scream, because it felt like the baby was burrowing out of her. That wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen, even when it went wrong.
It was too late now, though. She fell back on the bed. When she wasn’t screaming, she panted, “Unconditional love,” like a mantra. With a wet pop, the first finger burst through. It was the clear blue of art glass where it wasn’t streaked with her blood.
More followed. Faintly, she heard herself tear. The pain was transformative, muffling all other senses. Through a narrowing porthole, she saw the fingers continue to reach, to grow into arms. One for every time she longed to hold and be held. Her own arms felt detached, impossibly heavy, but with a slippery smile, she watched them rise.
She had been right to assume for so long that she wasn’t made for motherhood. Her body was in tatters, as flaccid and useless as a burst balloon. It reminded her of what she would miss: no first birthday, first words, or first steps.
But there was this: the arms wrapped her wrists, and she dragged her baby closer, so it could look her in the eyes and know how much her sputtering heart loved it.
“You’re all I ever wanted,” she sighed before tentacles filled her mouth, probing the cat hair between her teeth.
Tiffany Sanerd lives in rural Illinois. She writes horror comedy in the winter and dark fantasy in the summer. Her work is equally influenced by boredom, pesticides, her kids, her cat, and the antiques she sells as a day job.