Janine sat in her chair as the evening light faded, looking at the photos on her end table. She didn’t know when she fell asleep, but when she woke up, the living room clock said it was almost two in the morning. The only light coming in the window was from the streetlight outside. She stood up stiffly, stumbled into the bedroom and fell onto the unmade bed, still in her office clothes.
That had been Janine’s evening routine since the accident – come home from work, eat a frozen microwave meal that she didn’t taste, go into the living room and stare numbly at the photos of her late husband and son, and fall asleep sometime after dark.
She hadn’t cried when she got the news. Steve and Billy had been on their way home from a fishing trip when an oncoming semi-truck jack-knifed in front of them. The trailer axles had swatted their car like a baseball bat. Steve had died at the scene, Billy had been airlifted to the hospital. Janine hadn’t cried while waiting for the surgeons to come out of Billy’s trauma room, and she hadn’t cried when they did come out, grim-faced and shaking their heads. She hadn’t cried at the service, or at the graveside on that gray, wet day. She hadn’t cried at all, not even as she fumbled her way through day after day of work.
Janine was in her early forties but looked ten years younger. Before the accident she had taken meticulous care of herself – hair always nicely styled, clothes trim and clean. She was a regular at the health club, and she noticed the way the men there snuck glances when they thought she wasn’t looking. She didn’t admire herself in the mirror like the Jersey Shore-looking guys, but she knew that her reflection was that of a trim, toned, brown-haired, fresh-faced, five foot five former cheerleader.
All that had ended almost a year ago. She had come home from the funeral, sat in the living room chair, and shut down. She had stopped eating healthy and exercising, quit paying attention to her appearance, and started sleepwalking through her job and her life. Her hair was pervasively mousy and unkempt, her clothes perpetually rumpled, and her diet of microwave meals had made her lose weight, but also lose muscle tone. As a result she looked sallow, sunken and withdrawn. She had stopped socializing with her old friends and her co-workers as well.
One night, while sitting in her usual chair, a noise outside her window invaded her solemn vigil…a mewing noise. She paid it no mind, but it continued. After an hour, or two, she glanced out her window, and saw a small cat on her sidewalk. It was black and white, tuxedo-style, and while she watched, it meowed again. Janine turned back to her photos, and when she left for work in the morning the cat was gone. That night, the meowing returned. Janine watched the cat instead of her photos for about a half-hour, then returned to them. The next night was the same. The fourth night – the anniversary of her family’s death, she did something she hadn’t done for a year: She got up and went to the door. She walked outside, and the cat stayed where it was on her sidewalk as she approached. When she stood next to the cat, it rose and twined between her legs, and Janine could see its ribs and hip bones through its fur.
“Well, come on then,” she said. The cat followed her to her front door, and came in as she held it open. She opened her freezer and found a tuna meal, which she microwaved and set on the kitchen counter. The cat looked at her, then sniffed, licked and started to eat. “You are a skinny one, aren’t you?” Janine’s voice was raspy from disuse. She then returned to her chair and her photos. She could hear the cardboard meal box sliding back and forth as the cat licked it clean. Later, as she stared at her photos she saw the cat out of the corner of her eye now and then as it explored the edges of her rooms. She was starting to drift off like she usually did, when something furry bumped her ankle. She looked down groggily to see the cat curling up between her feet. When Janine arose late that night and stumbled to bed, the cat followed. In the morning it was sleeping on her feet. She put it outside when she left for work, and it was waiting for her when she got home.
This routine continued for a week. The next time she went to the grocery store, she came home with a bag of cat food and a small bowl, in addition to her frozen meals. She’d changed her routine to include watching the cat eat in the evening, and she noticed it filling out; the cat’s bones were no longer prominent.
One evening, while looking at the photos as usual, the little tuxedo cat jumped up into her lap and bumped her chin with its head. Unconsciously her hand stroked its back, and its fur was silky and soft. She sat that evening, staring at her dead family and stroking the cat for a change. The next morning when she was getting ready for work in her usual, haphazard way, the cat sat on the bathroom counter watching her. For whatever reason, Janine stopped and actually looked at herself in the mirror that morning. For the first time in over a year, she was shocked at what she saw. After a half-hour with scissors and a comb, her hair hung neatly once again.
That day at work, people noticed the difference in Janine’s appearance. She acted no more social, but her clothes and hair were more like they used to be. That evening after feeding the cat, when she settled into her chair, and the cat jumped into her lap, she looked at the cat, instead of her photos.
“What should I call you?” she asked the cat. She looked at its face. “I should call you…” but she didn’t finish the sentence. Instead she began to sob. It began small, but shortly Janine hugged the cat tight, buried her face in its soft fur, and cried.