Expression – Short Stories

My Child Naked

by Bobbi Bartsch Curtis

     A two year nightmare was over.  The future would hold what it held; but, for this evening, she sat holding her baby girl, rocking her as she had every night for four years until it had begun.
     Her “baby” was seven now and more beautiful than she’d remembered.  Her thoughts drifted over the hundreds of nights and days filled with loneliness, despair, fear and all those tears.  For the moment, at least, she was content just to touch her and to look at her thin face.  Her older daughter was on the floor by the chair, leaning against her mother’s leg and holding her sleeping sister’s hand.  She, too, was thinking about those days, wondering if she’d ever be able to forget . . . forget the looks on her mother’s face, the strain, the sense of loss, the pain, when it hit her fourteen-year-old mind, “Mom,” her voice cracked as she spoke, “what’s going to happen now?  Is Donna going to be alright?”
     “Honey, only time will tell.  I’m sure we’ll need to get some help for all of us, I imagine. For right now just be thankful she’s back with us.  I won’t tell you that the worst is over because if may not be.  Donna’s been through more than you or I can imagine.  Lord knows what she’ll be like after almost three years in that place.”
     That Place.  Every time she thought those words she could hear her heart pound. feel her pulse race as rage streamed through every fiber of her body.  Those beasts!  No, that word was too good for them.  They’d locked her baby away from her.  She’d felt the child’s cries every day and night for so long it seemed that every second of those 30 months lasted a year.  Her beautiful, beautiful baby.  She closed her eyes tight to try to block out the anger and the visions of what must have happened.  She took a deep breath to calm her voice.
     “Laura, let’s try to get some sleep.  Come on, honey, I want you both next to me tonight.”  She rose from the chair awkwardly, trying not to disturb her sleeping child, but the movement caused an outburst from the emaciated body in her arms that caused her to fall backward into the rocker.
     Donna’s arms and legs flailed, her face distorted in pain and screams of seismographic intensity filled the silence of the home saddened so long by her absence.  Miriam suffered several bruises from the pummeling of small fists, but she didn’t notice until the next morning when she was brushing her teeth and realized her lip was swollen.
     It had taken thirty eight minutes to quiet Donna.  No one slept in their small house that night.  The three of them sat huddled together on the couch, eyes open, staring from one to another, silently wondering what the next moment might bring.
     In the morning, Miriam put down the toothbrush without finishing, swallowed the toothpaste and wiped her lips on the back of her hand as she walked resolutely to the phone.  She picked up the yellow pages and opened to the psychiatrist section, closed her eyes, put her finger down on the page.  She dialed the number she’d chosen with her blind finger and made an appointment with the receptionist who answered the phone – and the nightmare repeated itself and repeated itself and repeated itself.
The Beginning
     Miriam was feeling a little extra proud.  She was on her way to the Gifted Children Evaluation Center, recommended to her by a woman with whom she worked.  The whole thing had come as quite a surprise. The woman, Nancy Riggs was not her favorite person by any means.  Nancy lived with her nose in the stratosphere.  She would date only doctors and lawyers would shop at only the most expensive stores (though no one could figure out how she afforded it), would pass judgment on anyone whose standards didn’t meet her own.  Her enemies amounted to at least ninety percent of her acquaintances, but she never realized how poorly she hid her feelings toward the people she met and/or with whom she worked.  Nancy was the best brown-noser and back-stabber in the insurance office where she and Miriam worked. Nancy, of all people, had told Miriam that her most recent doctor friend, a pediatrician, had mentioned the Center and its work with overly-bright kids.  Nancy had thought it might be a way for Miriam, who had very little money since her husband had left her with two children and all the bills a few years ago, to get Donna involved in programs geared to the over-achieving child without any monetary out-lay.  Miriam had jumped on the chance, asking for the phone number and immediately placing a call for an appointment to have her bright four-year-old tested.
     The morning of Donna’s day to shine was crisp and exhilarating.  Miriam had dressed Donna in a special occasion outfit; packed her Shrek lunch box with her favorite lunch (ham and cheese sandwich; cored, sliced apple; two Suddenly S’Mores; milk and a note to tell her that Mom loved her very much – Donna could already read at a sixth-grade level); put both kids in the car; and, after dropping Laura at her elementary school, drove to the Center in Midvale and took Donna in to meet the doctors and college students who would be testing her that day.  She kissed Donna and gave her an especially long hug, whispering that she was proud of her and to have fun.  Donna, a naturally out-going child who looked at everything in life as a new and exciting adventure, took the hand of the closest person she’d just met and said, “Shall we get started?”
     Miriam watched her little girl walk down the hall, smiled and waved though the child didn’t see her, felt proud all over again, and went back to her car to drive to work.  The whole day she resisted the temptation to call the Center and check on Donna’s progress.  She did not want to be perceived as either overly protective or overly anxious.  At a quarter to five she hastily cleaned up her desk, drove to the day care that normally tended both her children picked up Laura and drove as fast as possible to Midvale to be at the Center by five-thirty.  Donna’s testing was to be completed by four, more observations made of her at play would be over at five-thirty.  Miriam pulled into the parking lot at five twenty-seven.  She and Laura, both excited, ran into the building and stopped at the front desk.
     “Miss,” Miriam addressed the receptionist, “where would I find Donna Butler?”
     The pleasant young woman smiled and looked down at her log.  “I’m sorry; Donna was picked up at eleven-thirty.”  She looked up to Miriam’s confused expression.
     “No.  I’m Donna’s mother.  She was here for the Accelerated Testing Program.”
     “I’m sorry, but Dr. Schmidt signed her out at eleven-thirty.”
     “Signed her out to whom?”
     “I don’t know.”
     “Then would you ask him, please?  Donna was supposed to be here all day, and I’d like to know where she is and why she left.  She’s only fours years old.  She didn’t just walk out your front door alone.  She knows better, and I would think that you do, too.”
     The woman picked up her phone, hit a button and waited.  “I’m sorry, there’s no answer in Dr. Schmidt’s office.”
     Miriam leaned over the counter and put her face two inches from the woman’s nose, “You’re sorry an awful lot!  NOW, WHERE’S MY DAUGHTER?”
     The woman cowered under her, “I don’t know.”
     “Then you’d better find someone who does!”  The rage in Miriam’s voice was intense. Laura backed away from her, never having heard her mother sound like that.  A door opened across the hall and a man in jeans and a western shirt emerged.  “May I help you with something?”
     “Maybe.  Where’s Donna Butler?”
     “I was testing her this morning, and she didn’t return after lunch.”
     “Don’t you think it’s a little odd that a four-year-old just didn’t ‘return after lunch’ and disappeared from your facility?”
     “No.  Dr. Schmidt told me that she’d been picked up and would return at a later date.”
     “PICKED UP BY WHOM, AND WHO IN GOD’S NAME IS DR. SCHMIDT?”
     “This is the craziest thing!” she grumbled as she drove toward Nancy’s house.  “Where could she be?  Laura, I’m really worried.”  Laura, age eleven, might not have been as brilliant as Donna; but she was no dummy.  She’d also been her mother’s friend and confidante since her father’d deserted them three years before, making her mature well beyond the average adolescent.
     “Me, too.  Donna wouldn’t leave there on her own.  She knew we were coming to get her.  Someone’s lying.”
     They drove in angry confused silence the rest of the way to Nancy’s house.  After pulling in the driveway, Miriam marched to the door and knocked ’til it shook in the casing.  Nancy’s voice could barely be heard over her hammering, “Coming, COMING, for shit sake!  What do you . . .” she opened the door and her voice failed.
     “What have you done with my daughter?”  Miriam screamed in Nancy’s face.
     “I don’t know what you mean.” she stammered, trying to grasp control of herself.  She hadn’t expected Miriam to come so close to the answer so fast.
     “You’re the one who thought this up.  You must know something.  Now WHAT do you know?”  Miriam was backing Nancy down the foyer and into the kitchen.  Laura was right behind Miriam.
“Miriam, calm down and tell me what you’re talking about.”  Her control was returning, but not fast enough for Miriam to miss the blush rising on Nancy’s cheeks, the changing pitch of her voice and the darting of her eyes.
     “I think you know exactly what I’m referring to.  In fact, I think you know everything!  Now where’s Donna?”  She spit out the words between clenched teeth.
     “Dear, tell me what happened.”
     “Don’t ‘dear’ me.  I went to pick up Donna from the Center, but there’s no Donna to pick up. ‘ Someone’ picked her up earlier today.  ‘Someone’ I don’t know.  ‘Someone’ with no permission from anyone, anywhere to pick her up.  Are you grasping this?”
     “Sit down.  You’re overwrought.  I’ll get some tea.”  She turned her back under the auspices of putting the water on to boil so she could hide her sigh and a deep breath to calm down the rest of the way.
     “I don’t want tea.  I WANT DONNA!”  Miriam was behind Nancy with her hands ready to circle Nancy’s throat, ready to squeeze as hard as she could, when her eyes picked up a familiar sight — Donna’s Shrek lunch box — the edge was visible from behind an oak breadbox on the counter.  She put her hands down before Nancy even knew they were there.
     “Nance,” Miriam whispered so close behind Nancy that it startled her.
     “How did she get so close to me so fast?” Nancy thought.  She froze, not sure how to proceed.
     “I could use a cold, wet washcloth.”  Miriam hissed.
      “OK, I’ll get you one.”  Nancy left to go to the bathroom for it, thanking her lucky stars as she went.  She needed a minute to regain her composure, and Miriam had given her one.  Miriam seemed to be calming down and believing that Nancy didn’t know what was going on.
     In the kitchen Miriam pulled the lunch box from behind the breadbox, grabbed Laura’s arm and ran both of the to the car.  They went to the nearest police station.  Back at Nancy’s, she heard the screened door slam shut, ran to see Miriam’s car roaring out the driveway, and immediately placed a call to Dr. Schmidt.
     The sergeant listened to Miriam’s story and started typing up a report.
     “Wait a minute.  Aren’t you going to go to Nancy’s house and get her?  She’ll know I have the lunch box.  Do you think she’s just sitting there waiting for you to drag her in for questioning?”
     “All in good time, all in good time, madame,” was the response she got.
     When the police finally arrived at Nancy’s house five hours later, she was gone along with most of her clothes and personal items.  When the police called the Center the following day, all they could find out was that, “Yesterday was Dr. Schmidt’s last day,” and that he was going to another clinic, but no one remembered its name.  The signature on the sign out sheet showing the last known location of Donna was illegible.
     Miriam and Laura spent sleepless nights and distracted days from then on.  They were angry together; they cried together; they sought help from every known source together; but no one could find Donna — not a trace.  Miriam called the police station six or seven times a day at first, asking if they’d found or heard anything.  Their answers all amounted to the same thing:  “You’ll be the first to know if we do.”
     Miriam, although she hadn’t suspected her ex-husband but had to be sure by his reaction to the news, contacted Jim by phone and told him that Donna was missing.  At first he’d thought she was trying to get money out of him, so he hung up on her.  He called the West Valley City Police from his home in Castle Rock, Colorado; and, finding that her story was true, called her back, apologized and offered his help.  He took a leave of absence and flew to Salt Lake City the next morning.  He and Miriam hired a private detective who was able to add nothing to the minimal amount of information the police had gathered.  After taking Miriam’s ex-husband’s money for five months and getting nowhere, he refused to take more.  He couldn’t watch the physical deterioration of the mother and sister of the pretty, little girl for whom he was searching and continue to be paid for finding nothing over and over again.  He kept working the case; and, eventually, he was the person who lead to Donna’s return home.
     Nancy and Schmidt were never found.  Miriam found out from a friend with connections that the Midvale Police were refusing to cooperate with the West Valley Police and hadn’t run an investigation on the Gifted Children Evaluation Center.  She contacted the State Attorney General and reported the matter.  The Center issue was handled.  No connection to any other incident of this sort was found.  What was found, however, that Schmidt had given false information on his employment application, resume and other documentation.  The Center received a hand-slapping for not being conscientious about checking the backgrounds of their employees.  No other leads concerning his identity or location ever surfaced.  He’d been there only three months and had given notice showing he’d accepted a position in a fictitious clinic in Georgia.  Nancy had also used an alias.  She’d been in town several months.  Where she’d come from remained as mysterious as where she’d gone.  The initial position she’d taken with the insurance company had not required a background check so the fact that Nancy Riggs had been deceased for six years surfaced only after the police investigation had taken place.  That investigation was shelved after the first few months due to lack of evidence.
     For Miriam and Laura day and night, month and year, became indistinguishable. Work days went by, Miriam was running on automatic.  She knew her job.  She knew how to approach new clients and how to please existing clients.  Her warm, helpful smile had been one of her best assets; and it continued to pay off, covering for the pain she felt every minute.  Laura did reasonably well at school after the first few weeks of fear and disorientation.  She was enough like her mother to gather the necessary strength each morning to continue through each day until her mother came to get her at the day-care center.  Their rides home, as both of them relaxed and allowed themselves to feel again, were lonely, too quiet, and too reminiscent of old rides home with Donna, the vivacious one of the three, monopolizing the conversation.  By the time they got home Monday through Friday all they managed to do for the first hour was sit on the couch and hold each other, sobbing quietly or crying convulsively.
And then one night . . .
     The phone rang only a few minutes after they’d begun their ritualistic observations of the empty chair at the dinner table.  Miriam went to the kitchen, sniffled, composed herself and picked up the phone.  “Hello?”
     “Mrs. Butler?”
     “Yes.”
     “This is Scott Rivera.”
     Pausing for a moment in disbelief, not lack of recognition, “Oh, Scott.  I’m surprised to hear from you.  I’d thought you’d forgotten about us.”
     “No ma’me.  I couldn’t forget you or your daughters.  I know it’s been a long time.”
     “It certainly has.  Close to two years.”  She then realized that he’d have no reason to call unless he had some kind of news on the whereabouts of Donna.  Private detectives whom you hadn’t heard from for extended periods of time didn’t just call to shoot the shit.  Her excitement was evident in her voice, “What’s happened?”
     “Please don’t get your hopes up, but I think I may have a lead.  May I come to see you tonight?”
     “Certainly.”
     “I’ll be there in a half hour.  You still live at the same address?”
     “We do.”
     He hung up.  Miriam stared at the phone a moment before placing it in the cradle.  After all this time, what could he have?  She talked incessantly until he arrived.  Laura sat and listened to her mother hypothesize for the entire half hour.  Both of them were breathing too fast when Scott Rivera pulled into the driveway. They met him at the door with sparks of hope showing through their dark-circled eyes.  He noticed that Laura looked too thin.  She’d grown about four inches since he’d see her last but didn’t seem to have put on an ounce of weight.  Miriam, who was an exceptionally pretty woman in her late thirties, had streaks of gray through her jet black hair and the wrinkles of a sixty-year-old in her forehead and around her eyes and mouth.
     “Mrs. Butler, I came across something I think you should see.  I don’t think it’s a good idea for Laura to be with us, though.”
     “Mr. Rivera, Laura has been through every detail of this with me.  Her sister is as important to her as she is to me.  What is it that you have?”
     “I’m  . . . this makes me very uncomfortable, Mrs. Butler.  Laura needs to leave the room.”  Laura took the hint and went into the kitchen.  She needed some cold water anyway.
“First of all I hate that name.  I’m Miriam.  Second, I’m very impatient.  What do you have?”
     Scott took a deep breath, glad that Laura was receptive to his request since he couldn’t possibly show what he had to a fourteen-year-old.  It was hard enough to do what he had to do next.  “I came across this magazine while I was running an investigation for a client with a cheating husband.”  He pulled the rolled up rag from his pocket and opened it to a page he’d marked.  He noticed that Miriam was so interested in what he was specifically going to show her that she hadn’t yet noticed the type of publication he was holding in his clammy, shaking hands.  He held the glossy pages open for her to see, stealing himself for her reaction.
     Miriam was silent, mouth clamped shut, eyes wide.  Neither Scott nor Miriam breathed.  Miriam’s hands clenched into fists.  Her nails dug into the heels of her hands making eight small slits.  Scott choked out, “Does this look like it could be Donna?”
     “Yes,” she mouthed, no real sound came from her throat.
     “I thought so.  I’ve already begun inquiries into the source of the photos, the location of publication anything that might lead me to Donna.  Miriam, are you going to be alright?”
     “I’m not sure.” she croaked.
     “Do you have someone who can come and stay with you?  I know this is a huge shock.  I wasn’t sure how you’d take it but had to be more sure of the identity of the child in this photo.  I’m so sorry!”
     “I’ve seen my child naked before, of course, just not with some son of a bitch’s penis shoved in her mouth.”  Her voice became more shrill with each syllable she spoke.  Scott dropped the rumpled piece of rat shit, as he thought of it, on the carpet and leaned over to take Miriam by the shoulders.
      “Miriam,” he yelled at her face, “MIRIAM,” louder this time, “for Laura’s sake get a grip!”
     Miriam closed her eyes, the picture of Donna burned into her brain.  She opened them again and, setting her jaw forward a bit, said, “Scott, get those fuckers.  We’ll be fine.”
     For the next few weeks Scott pushed all other cases aside and concentrated exclusively on finding Donna.  The kiddy-porn magazine sold in Europe and South America and also to an “elite” group of upper snobby Americans.  His secretary was able to access the mailing list on the internet.  The publisher’s address was, according to the New York City Police Department, an abandoned building in an industrial area — not too surprising.  The man who’d purchase the copy of the magazine that Scott had in his possession claimed he’d picked it up while on a business trip in London.  He wasn’t able to come up with any clue to Donna’s location, and this case was pissing him off.
     During those same weeks Miriam and Laura slowly got over the shock but not the anger.  Miriam called the police and asked them to reopen the case based on the photograph that proved that Donna was still alive.  They told her to call the FBI since the photograph also proved that it was not a local issue.  She did and was told that they’d request the police file and get back to her, but it would take at least six to eight weeks. She wanted to scream, “Yes, six or eight weeks more for those scum to do more unspeakable things to my baby girl,” but she knew that making enemies out of the authorities would not make them move any faster.
     Four weeks later at three forty-eight AM, Miriam saw the flashing of red and blue emergency lights reflecting off the walls in the hall outside her bedroom.  Something told her to get up.  She grabbed her robe, got Laura up, she wasn’t sure why, and had her put on her robe and shoes, too.  Although she’d never been one to run to see a building burn or slow down to see a car wreck, she and Laura went outside to see what all the flashing was about.  Outside of their circle, down the access street and west three houses was a roadblock of police cars and a lot of screaming and shouting.  Miriam and Laura crossed the circle and walked to the edge of the ruckus.  As they walked in that direction, she could hear words from her neighbors that made her skin crawl, kiddy-porn among them.  Three handcuffed men and a familiar-looking woman were being pushed, pulled or dragged through the house’s front door.  The woman saw Miriam coming in their direction and turned her face away as quickly as she could but not before Miriam clearly recognized her old “chum,” Nancy.  The last office out of the house carried a bundle wrapped in a blanket.  Miriam ducked around the officer blocking the sidewalk with Laura running right after her.  Their hearts pounded as they both ran to see the bundle. Two policemen ran up behind them to pull them back.  One of them snagged Laura’s arm, but Miriam’s hand pulled down the edge of the blanket just as the other officer grabbed her by the shoulder.  Miriam’s scream woke anyone who still happened to be sleeping in the neighborhood.
     “DONNA!”  She pulled away from the hands on her shoulders and yanked the body of her child away from the man who was carrying her.  “YOU BASTARDS!  YOU SAID YOU’D GONE THROUGH ALL THE HOUSES HERE!  YOU SAID THERE WASN’T A SHRED OF EVIDENCE TO PROVE THAT MY BABY WAS STILL IN THE STATE.  YOU BASTARDS!”
     Miriam and Laura walked home.  Not one officer moved to stop them.  Miriam’s cheek rested on the brown, curly hair that had once smelled of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo.
The End
© Bobbi Bartsch Curtis 2017

RAFFERTY – DREAMMASTER

by Bobbi Bartsch Curtis

Many years ago, in a city not too very far away lived a man, his wife, and their three children – two boys and a little girl. They lived well and happily with their large, rambunctious Chow-Chow and mellow British Shorthair silver tabby with soulful gray eyes. His name was Rafferty, aptly named by the youngest child, the little girl, for a character from a TV show that she and her mother watched together. The star of the show, Patrick McGoohan, was handsome in that bad boy way that intrigues most women and his character’s demeanor fell on the feisty side. The cat was definitely handsome, and his swagger gave away a certain air of male feline earthy sensuousness, which the cat seemed to understand by nature was attractive to females – his favorite two people in the house.  His grouchy sounding voice was a fair to middlin’ representation of the Rafferty character on TV.  The little girl insisted that he “meowed” with a slight British accent.

Our main character had a history of daring do. One fine spring morning, about five years before the time of our story’s main thread, he arrived on the scene in this little family group by becoming a stowaway under the hood of a recent model Ford.  It could have been better only if he’d arrived on the scene in a 1965 Mustang, the car that Dr. Rafferty drove on the TV series AND, incidentally, was Mom’s first car. Across the street from the family’s somewhat sprawling home was an old-style gas station, owned and operated by the man who lived in the back of the station. Although this was a neighborhood within the city limits of a major metropolitan western city, there was a feel of Mayberry about it. Everyone knew everyone for a few block radius, older businesses that were owner operated still flourished, and it was not unusual to take a meander across a four or six lane thoroughfare to say, “hey” to your neighbor and have a chat while sharing a cup of coffee that either of you might have just brewed. Just as the nighttime chill was falling off for the day, a navy blue Granada pulled up to the pumps as the station owner walked out the door and greeted his customer at her open car window.

“What can I do for you this fine day?” he asked as he bent down to meet with her eyes.

“I’m having a bit of a problem as a matter of fact. There’s a terrible noise coming from my engine,” said the well-dressed, middle-aged woman at the wheel, “and I was wondering if you’d take a look to see if you can figure out what it is. I’m trying to get to work without being late, but I can’t take this sound any longer. It’s been going on for the entire fifteen miles I’ve gone since leaving home.”

Although he realized that this may not end in an exchange of money for service, he opened the hood, looked about a bit, pulled out a large ball of gray fluff, closed the hood and went to the driver’s side window.

“Did that noise sound anything like a cat screeching?”

“Oh my, yes.” she said. “Thank you so much.” and she pulled away nearly as quickly as she’d shown up.

Our mechanic ended up waving good-bye to her while holding a cat rather gingerly under his left arm. The cat was shaking and holding on to the man’s arm with all his might, and across the street walked the man of the house on the other side of that street, morning coffee cups in hand, the man to whom you were introduced earlier with the wife and three kids

“I see you have a new mascot.” he said, with a bit of laughter behind his voice, knowing that our friendly neighborhood mechanic was not what you might call an animal lover.

“I just got stuck with him.” he stated with a bit of irritability.

“I saw. What cha’ gonna’ to do with it?”

“Don’t know. Don’t much care.”

“Let me have a look see,” and the family man gently traded coffees for cat with the mechanic. He took the cat’s face and front paws in his right hand lifted them up to meet him, eye to eye, falling in love with the big, scared eyes in the flash of that first moment. He held him close and started to cuddle his big head into his chest while the cat calmed down and started to purr. He nuzzled closer as his shuddering started to diminish. The humans spent a few minutes chatting and drinking their coffee inside the waiting area of the gas station, and the animal lover took home a new member of the family. Over the course of the day, as his wife got home from shopping and the kids got home from school, everyone became a huge fan of the big fuzzball; and he began to enjoy the warmth and love of that family, rubbing against each person, purring like a well-tuned Porsche and stretching out on each and every piece of furniture, checking for comfort one by one. He became an integral part of their lives immediately. This was a house pre-prepared for a new fur baby. The last cat had passed over the rainbow bridge a few months before, but they had a dog who preferred cat food to dog food since his last fur brother had also been feline. Bowls and food were already in place, and the only change needed was to get the litter box and an old bag of litter out of the basement and get it set up in the back hallway. No muss, no fuss, and life went on with the big silver tabby curled up on the little girl’s bed each night as though they’d been besties for many years, and day rolled into day, rolled into day, rolled into day.

The family’s home was over 125 years old and had been added onto a few times. The original front portion of the house had been built with a crawl space and no basement. Sometime during the 1930’s or 40’s, when the last add-on took place, a basement was dug; and whole-house heating was installed. This meant installing duct-work under the front end of the house. The construction had been a bit unconventional in that it left the crawl space under the front end of the house totally accessible through the basement at the top of the front-end wall. Rafferty had found his way into the crawl space early on in his explorations of his new home. The crawl space was au naturel – dirt floor with all the stuff that dirt surrounded by nature can bring. Early one morning, Mom was making coffee to get herself started on a day off that was going to be a busy one with plenty of chores to do. She turned to see Rafferty sitting at the doorway to the basement. He looked oddly excited. She acknowledged him; and he ran to her and dropped a gray mouse, about half alive, at her feet and sat back looking proud and expecting praise. The mouse began to wiggle a bit and was chee-cheeing. It sounded as though it were in pain. Rafferty nudged it closer to his mom’s feet and purred, looking up at her for approval. She patted him on the head and tried to get him to pick up the mouse as she called for her husband. The cat sat there smiling and looking pleased. The mouse was lying on its back, bleeding and struggling.

“Honey, please, come quickly!” she said more loudly than before.

He came around the corner into the kitchen. “What’s wrong?” Just as he finished the second word he heard and then saw the mouse. Grabbing some paper towels, he picked up the mouse with them and took off out the back door. Rafferty knit his brow, humphed, and clumped from the room disgusted. Mom went about her business of getting everyone else out the door. She sat down at the breakfast bar for a second, peaceful cup of coffee. Rafferty jumped up on the stool next to her, pawed her arm a couple of times and said, “Rowl.” Without really thinking about it, she patted him on the head and then ran her hand down his back. She left her arm sitting next to him, hand on the stool top. He patted her arm again and said, “Rowl.” this time with more conviction. Mom looked over at him. He looked a bit perturbed. “Rowl.” he said pointedly.

“Oh my goodness! You brought me a gift.” She picked him up and held him to her chest with his head on her left shoulder, ruffling his fur on the back of his neck with her right hand. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to be unappreciative; but, Babydoll, a live mouse? I couldn’t even tell that was what you had. It was the same color you are.” She cuddled his big head a bit more. “You’re adorable. Thank you.”

The following spring, as the thaw was beginning, Rafferty took off out the back door. It wasn’t something he did often, but Mom wasn’t so very worried about it. He knew where he lived. She left the inner door part way open even though it was a bit colder than was comfy in the house, but she didn’t want to miss him announcing himself when he came back. He had been out for about 45 minutes when she heard his rather distinctive rowl at the back door. She let him in, he ran to the kitchen, threw something from his mouth onto the floor and sat down looking quite satisfied with himself again. Mom walked over and looked down to see a frozen, dead eel. Seems a neighbor with a fish tank had lost a member of the swarm. So sad, but now that dead member was sitting on Mom’s kitchen floor, not far away from where there’d been a half dead mouse a few months before.

“Honey! He’s at it again! It’s worse this time!” Mom yelled toward the living room where Dad was watching basketball. Dutifully and laughing under his breath, he went to the kitchen to see what kind of new present Raf had delivered to his wife. Dad took the dead eel out to the trash can beside the garage and all went on as usual until one cold winter morning later that year when our beautiful ball of fluff curled up in another car engine to get warm.

Mom got home from a night shift just before sunrise. She ran into the house to start breakfast for everyone. The boys came down first, and she asked one to take out the garbage while the other’s morning task was to empty the dishwasher. Dad came downstairs next, kissed his wife good morning, and started the coffee brewing. The little girl was the last to arrive. Her normal morning chore was to set the table for breakfast. Everyone was pretty used to the natural flow of the weekday mornings so no one paid a lot of attention to the fact that Rafferty had gone out the door with the older brother as he took the garbage to the outside trash can and had not returned. Everyone who needed to leave the house piled into the car, dad started it, dropped the boys at the high school down the street, his daughter at the middle school in the other direction and headed across town to his place of business. In the meantime, Mom cleaned up the kitchen, got meat out for dinner, put down fresh food and water for the dog and cat, let the dog back in from the backyard, did a quick look around and went upstairs to get some sleep after a 12 hour shift. The phone rang. Dad was nearly in tears. He had heard an alarming noise from under the hood of the car while on the interstate. He’d heard a bumping sound and saw in the rear-view mirror what he thought was their cat making a beeline for the side of the interstate and down the embankment. Upon arriving at work and parking the car, he checked under the hood to see a few clumps of silver-gray fur flying around. Mom jumped out of bed, threw on jeans and a sweater, searched the house, calling the cat’s name over and over (to which he, unlike a lot of other cats, usually answered by coming to see the caller). He was nowhere to be found. She went to the back door and called outside a few times, also without response. She grabbed her coat, purse, paper, markers, tape, a stapler and got in the spare car that was housed in the garage. She drove to the neighborhood across town where her husband had thought the cat had jumped ship. She traversed all the streets in a five-block area without seeing anything that looked like the best pet they’d ever had. She expanded her search to about 10 blocks out and 12 blocks wide – still nothing. She went back to where the exit lane came off the interstate and started going into the little neighborhood stores and convenience stores to see if they’d let her post signs. All of them did. She ran the route around the general area again, going up and down all streets, calling her cat and getting nowhere. She had run out of tears by this point and was glad that they always kept at least one box of tissues in each of the cars. Her head was banging and her heart was breaking. She ran through the streets again. She saw a few outside cats walking about, but not her cat. Not her special baby. She could barely speak when she got home. She called out from work for that night, got the kids from school, and they planned their routes of attack as they drove back across town to search for Rafferty. They returned home late that night, distraught and catless. Rafferty’s little girl couldn’t be consoled. She cried throughout the night and into the morning. Mom kept her home from school. The boys weren’t much better off but wanted to go to school. Mom and daughter went back across town after dropping off the boys and started their search from the beginning point of the interstate exit again. No luck. They stopped in all the little local stores and convenience stores to ask if anyone had heard anything. No one knew a thing. They went back across town, got the boys from school, went to the house to get some snacks and went back to cat hunt, but no cat appeared. Dad was going to work each day and holding down the homefront the rest of the time, hoping the phone would ring with news of their pet, getting meals ready, and the like. That night everyone got some sleep due to exhaustion, but Mom’s sleep was broken several times. Her night was filled with dreams of diagonal lights, claws, screams, snarls, gnashing noises, searing pain, and large teeth. She’d waken from the dream, bathed in sweat with her heart racing. She’d go to the bathroom, rinse off her face, calm herself and get back in bed only to fall right back into the dream as soon as she fell back to sleep. She went back to working her regular schedule, sleeping in the morning when the kids were at school, broken by the same nightmares, and then all of them going across town to search as soon as school let out. Two weekends consisted of searching and dreaming of diagonal lights, claws, screams, snarls, gnashing noises, searing pain, and large teeth.

At the end of two weeks, they went for their normal afternoon search, starting at the convenience store that was at the end of the interstate exit. They walked in, and she talked to the manager on duty.

“Well, we haven’t heard a thing. I was about to take down your sign since we usually don’t leave them up longer than two weeks,” he said with a bit of concern in his voice.

“Sir, as much as I understand, could I convince you to please leave the sign up for another couple of weeks.”

“Ma’am, I can see that your pet means a lot to you and to your kids. I’ve seen you here every day that I’ve worked. Let’s make a new sign so that it doesn’t look so much like I just left your sign up longer than I’m supposed to, and we’ll let the new sign take on a new set of two weeks.”

She thanked him profusely and repeatedly.  She made another sign with paper and markers she still had in the bottom of her purse, and they went about searching and talking to the other store personnel. They left the area disgusted and disheartened. They knew from talking to the other store folk that her signs weren’t going to be up much longer if they hadn’t already been taken down for good. They headed toward home. As they drove near a favorite hamburger stand, she stopped and went to the pay phone to call home to see what her husband might want for dinner – the kids needed something that felt like a treat and shakes from this place could make some of the pain seem a bit less cumbersome. He answered the phone out of breath. He gave her an address and quickly told her that a woman had called to say that she thought she had Rafferty. She ran back to the car and told the kids to hold tight. They got back across town in record time, and she pulled up to the address that her husband had given her. It was an older three-story frame house, built not too long after her own house. The porch was raised above ground level with five steps required to reach the porch and with wooden latticework forming the front and side walls that went from ground level to porch level. The crisscross pattern of the old-style lattice pattern immediately caught her eye – diagonal lights. She and the kids ran up the stairs to the house’s front door and rang the doorbell. It was one of the old ones that you turned the knob, and it made noise to let someone inside know that there was someone at the door. A young woman answered the door with a look of anticipation. She asked if Mom and the kids were the family who had lost the cat. Mom nodded. The woman indicated that the cat they’d found was pretty well beaten up by the neighborhood strays who had had him cornered under her porch for quite some time (claws, screams, snarls, gnashing noises, searing pain, and large teeth). Her husband had tried on many occasions to get him from under the porch but was not able to overcome the cat’s protective behaviors. This evening, the cat was so exhausted that he’d been able to get him out and bring him in the house (they were now inside a long hallway, lined with doorways, that went toward the back of the structure from the vestibule). Mom could see a man at the end of the hallway with his hand on what looked to be the doorknob to the door at the farthest end of the hallway on the right side. The woman explained further that the cat under their porch had matched the description at the convenience store at the interstate exit. She’d driven over there that very evening to get the phone number (if the manager had removed the sign, there would have been no phone number to call at the time the woman went to find it) and called to give her address. The man indicated that he was going to open the door, but the cat was very skittish so he didn’t know what we should expect. He opened the door and a streak of silver came at turbo speed down the hallway, up Mom’s left leg and chest and became wrapped around her neck with his tail wrapped across her face – one of his favorite sleeping positions with her.

“I guess there’s no question as to the ownership of the cat, huh, Honey?” the young man said to his wife.

Mom attempted to get a word out, but cat tail and wrestling style cat hugging prohibited her speaking. Her oldest son thanked the man and woman profusely, giving them the promised reward from Mom’s purse, as Mom was kneeling down so that her daughter and younger son could wrap themselves around their pet in a group hug. Finally, Rafferty relaxed his grip and his little girl was able to free him from her mother’s shoulders. Everyone exchanged the necessary pleasantries; and the family went home, crying happy tears this time. Dad had gone to the hamburger joint and had everyone’s favorite flavor of shake with awesome home-style burgers and fries, and their incredible sautéed mushrooms for Mom. Rafferty was on a pile of blankets with a heating pad under the top layer and his favorite toys and some treats within paw’s reach. His fur-brother was licking his wounds and nuzzling him with big, sad eyes. (Some people think Chow-Chows are vicious. Those of us who have accepted them as family members know better.) Mom had applied some antibacterial ointment to the cat’s most obvious wounds; the dog was licking it off; but nothing was ruining their happy reunion.

You may think the story ends here. You are close to the truth. Remember the dreams? There’s a bit more.

Mom was off that night and was easily able to take her most awesome cat to see the vet in the morning. She got up and made breakfast. Kids and husband did their respective chores and went to school and work. She packed up the cat and went to the vet’s office. They gave him a couple of shots for both infection and pain, gave her some pills and ointment for further treatment, and Raf and Mom went home. She lay down on the couch with her best-of-all-pets on her chest and both arms wrapped loosely around him so as to avoid causing him pain or distress. She stared into his eyes and was drawn into their depths.

“Yeow a-wow purrow magow.” Rafferty said.

“I know, my honey, they were mean to you, and it was terrible.” she cooed to him.

“A-mow ta-wow mahow oo-ow gawow.” he continued.

“Yes, my baby, I’m so sorry. They hurt you. You were scared and cold. You were lonely.” she cooed again.

He shook his head as if to say no. Their eyes were still locked on each other. “What, my love?”

“Now oo-ow gawow.“ he insisted.

“You weren’t lonely?” she questioned.

“Ah aha aoo. Ah aha aoo.” he explained more slowly and calmly than he’d been articulating, taking great care with his pronunciation. He repeated, “Ah aha aoo.” with intensity, and suddenly she was seeing the diagonal lights of the lattice work from under the porch, looking out. She heard the hissing and snarling and felt the nails and fangs. Her peripheral vision was clouded over and the fringes of the focal point were unclear.  She felt as though in a trance but was fully awake.  She was reliving pieces of her repetitive dream but was fully awake, having been drawn into the depths of those big, expressive, grey eyes.  Raf was showing her.  Wrapped within it all, though, she felt as though she were enfolded in her own arms.

“Ah aha aoo.” he insisted again.

“Did you just tell me that you had me?”

Rafferty slowly nodded his head without breaking eye contact with his human. He held her gaze for a few more seconds and said rather quietly, “Ah aha aoo.” licked her hand, put his head down on her chest and calmly fell asleep, listening to her heartbeat.

© Bobbi Bartsch Curtis, 2015

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