by Holly Gross
I was in first grade the year we lost Blacky.
My sister Sherri and I were still in our room getting dressed when we heard Mom and Jerry arguing downstairs. Jerry was Mom’s live-in boyfriend at the time. It was only faint mumblings at first, but his voice soon took on a familiar boom. Our eyes locked; both of us regretting our decision to get ready with such leisure that morning.
“We’re not spending money on a goddamned cat!” we heard him shout.
“I think he’s gotten into some kind of poison,” Mom said. “We have to do something. We can’t just leave him to suffer. The girls—”
“Damnit, we are NOT spending money on a goddamned cat! That’s it, end of story!”
“We have to do something,” Mom said sharply. “He’s sick. He’s been lying around here for days.”
“Put him in the garage!”
“In the garage, you want me to—”
Sherri plopped down on the bed tracing her finger along the quilted grooves of our Holly Hobby bedspread.
“I think something’s wrong with Blacky,” I said sitting down next to her.
Mom and Jerry continued arguing, punctuated with long intervals of silence. Sherri and I stayed where we were, waiting and listening for signs of a denouement.
Finally, it seemed, Mom had relented.
“Fine,” we heard her say sounding defeated. “We’ll leave him. We’ll just leave him.”
When I returned home from school the next day, Mom was washing dishes at the kitchen sink.
“Where’s Blacky?” I asked, hoping she’d say that she’d taken him to the vet or that he was better, and already roving the neighborhood.
“Upstairs,” she said.
I started toward the stairs.
“Just a minute,” she said wiping her hands. “I need you to do something for me.”
“What?” I asked, suspicious of her tone. It was the tone Mom took when she had to tell me something that she knew I wouldn’t like. I hated that tone.
She paused and sighed. “I need you to go upstairs and carry Blacky out to the garage for me.”
I knew then that Blacky would never make it to the vet. I stared down at the green and yellow linoleum floor and felt my tears rising up and retreating. Our garage was no place for a sick cat, especially not Blacky. He liked to be curled up in our bed. The thought of his exile turned my grief into anger.
“I’m not taking Blacky to the garage!”
He’s going to have to stay out there until he gets better,” Mom said as she started back toward the sink.
“Wait, he’s going to get better?” The faint possibility renewed my hopes.
“I don’t know,” Mom said turning back toward me. “Just go on,” waving her hand in dismissal. “Just do what I asked you to do.”
Upstairs in our room Blacky wasn’t curled up on our bed like I had expected. He was lying on our bedroom floor with a towel beneath him. I dropped to my knees in front of him.
He was a beautiful cat with long, fluffy black fur and piercing glow-in-the-dark eyes. He looked too regal to be a stray, but he had been loitering around Jerry’s ceramic shop for months, without a collar or tags when we found him.
“Can we have him?” we had chimed in unison.
“You’ll have to think of a name,” Mom had said.
Sherri and I stood there for a moment looking at each other and our new ebony cat. “Blacky,” I said finally. “I think we should call him Blacky.”
On my knees in our bedroom I leaned forward, placing my forearm under his chest. I pulled him up into the folds of my arms, and felt the familiar rough-softness of his fur against my hands and arms.
Blacky was an independent cat, not accustomed to being carried, and I was not accustomed to carrying him. He was also a large cat. He let me carry him, but it wasn’t what either of us wanted. Blacky valued his freedom. I respected it.
Pressing him against my chest I lifted to a standing position. I carried him across the hallway, and down the first set of stairs, pausing at the landing to readjust my grip. I proceeded down the second, longer set of stairs with slow, concentrated movements.
Mom was still at the sink when we passed through. She didn’t turn to acknowledge us. I stared at her profile, willing her to turn our way, but she busied herself by scrubbing a plate.
Just off the kitchen and three more stairs was the backdoor. Just three more stairs, I reminded myself. Then Blacky and I would have a straight, even shot to the garage. I stepped down on the first step and felt a sharp jolt up my leg; the floor rising to meet my foot much quicker than I’d anticipated. I felt something else too—warm liquid on the inside of my arm. I stepped down on the second step, no longer focused on Blacky but the warmth against my flesh. I felt my heart lurch forward, pushing against the wall of my chest. My arms involuntarily jutted out in front of me, collapsing onto themselves as Blacky fell to the floor.
“Mom!” I yelled, my voice cracking from the tears gathering at the back of my throat. “I dropped him! I dropped him!”
Mom came to the top of the stairs. Blacky didn’t move.
“He’s bleeding! He’s bleeding!” I said smudging my palm across my forearm, and raising it up for her to see.
“He’s bleeding,” I repeated, scooping him back up and into my arms.
Inside the garage a ray of light streamed through a small, dirty window, illuminating particles of swirling dust that all seemed to land on the blanket that had been placed on the floor for Blacky.
I hated the garage, and I was certain Mom did too. It remained almost empty except for a few yard tools, which were placed just inside the door so that they might be retrieved quickly. Within its walls it held a sense of morbidity and appeared to be in a perpetual state of dusk. Regardless of the time of day, the garage consistently refused to acknowledge the sun’s light.
Later that evening, I filled Blacky’s food and water dishes. He hadn’t moved since I brought him there hours earlier. Still, he appeared strong and beautiful, all stretched out, his head resting on his front legs. He raised his brow to meet my gaze, and his eyes glowed yellow and bright against the dark shadows of the garage I felt a twinge deep within my chest and along my spine when I’d thought about the haste in which I had carried him there.
I spent the next several days diligently avoiding the garage, except to bring in food and water. When I did venture inside I avoided Blacky, stealing only quick glances as I filled his dishes and dashed out the door. I dreaded the weekends when I’d have no school, and no distractions.
Still when the following Saturday arrived I was feeling suddenly and unexplainably hopeful about Blacky’s condition. I ate breakfast and headed to the garage determined to give Blacky the care and attention I knew he deserved.
Inside the garage the suffocating aroma of cat spray hung heavy around my face and chest, making it difficult to breathe. Blacky was still there, lying on his blanket with his front paws outstretched in front of him. His head and neck were upright, and turned toward the door as though he’d been expecting me.
I walked toward him, noting a shadowy line that appeared to be moving across the floor. I crouched down to take a closer look and began to half-walk, half-crawl as I followed it. The line was made up of hundreds, perhaps thousands of tiny red ants; ants that were marching straight towards Blacky’s blanket, up onto his paws, his neck and his eyes. Oh God—his eyes.
I pulled my hands to my mouth. Blacky’s eyes no longer shone bright against the darkened backdrop of the garage. They had been snuffed out—swarmed by hundreds of these tiny red ants. They were feasting on his eyes. Blacky was gone. He was dead—or being eaten alive. I wasn’t sure which.
I grabbed the sides of my head with both hands, covering my ears as I stood up and slowly backed away. I was going to scream, I could feel it rising and pushing up from the depths of my stomach. I turned with my head still in my hands, and ran from the garage. I stopped just outside the door and began circling the large oak tree that took up half of our backyard.
Mom came running out from inside of the house, stunned by the spectacle I was creating.
“What’s going on?” she asked shaking her hands out in front of her, then grabbing onto both sides of her hair.
“Are you hurt?” she asked, surveying the yard for clues. “My God,” she yelled, “What happened?”
I clenched my fists together against my outer thighs, and began circling the tree again. Mom tried talking me in, but I wasn’t budging. She stumbled after me trying at first to match my pace around the tree, finally grabbing onto one of my stiffened wrists. She put her arms around my shoulders and directed me toward the house.
Our neighbor emerged from her backdoor to see what was happening. Mom raised her hand slightly, her palm facing upward and shrugged.
“We’re having some issues with the cat,” she offered. “Holly’s pretty upset about it.” She tried to pull me in closer. I jerked away from her and resumed my dizzying pace around the tree, while the neighbor looked on in confusion.
It wasn’t often that I held the cards, but I deserved this moment of defiance. I had earned it.
About the author
Holly Gross is an aspiring writer, and homemaker. She was a finalist in the 2011-2012 Loft Mentor Series. She was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota where she now resides with her husband and two daughters. She is currently working on her Memoir, and enjoys further developing her craft through an array of classes and other writing opportunities offered by the Loft Literary Center.