(This is the second in a multi-part short story. You can read the entire series, as it develops, here.)
In the morning, the apartment was cold. Sarah thought she could see the faint puffs of her breath. Her eyes were itchy and swollen and she rubbed at her nose as she made her way to the kitchen.
“Damn, cat,” she thought. She was sure that today, in the daylight, she could find the cat and shoo it out of her apartment, if there was, in fact, a cat, and she hadn’t imagined it all.
Her coffeemaker sat on the counter, staring back at her, unblinking. It was as cold as the air in the apartment and the pot was as empty as the day she purchased it. The digital display was black. She shook the plug in the socket but got no response.
She looked around the room, bathed in the cool, dim morning light, and tried to remember where the thermostat was. Finally she saw it on the wall. It read 49 degrees. There was, of course, no cat.
There was a knock on her door. “Sarah, it’s Michael, from upstairs.” Michael, her new landlord, lived on the floor above her in the old three-story Victorian. “Welcome to San Francisco. The power’s out, but it usually comes on pretty quickly. Everything okay in there?”
She opened the door. “Cold but okay.” She hugged her robe around her.
Michael glanced around. “Well, I’m glad to see your stuff arrived okay. Let me know if you need anything for the unpacking – tools – that kind of thing.”
“Most of it’s okay,” she said. “I’m missing my coffeemaker right now.”
“Well, I’m sure it will come back with the power,” Michael said, stepping into her bay window. He pointed across the street. “That little place right there has pretty decent coffee and they’re open every day.”
“Okay then,” Sarah said. “I know where I’m headed. Thanks for the welcome. I’ll have you down for a glass of wine when I’ve finished unpacking.”
“Whenever that is,” Michael said. “Take your time.”
Sarah pulled open a box in the bedroom and dug through it. She found a hooded sweatshirt and her down vest. She traded her sweatpants for a pair of jeans, and slipped into her sneakers. This wasn’t how she had pictured her first morning in the city. She had envisioned herself sipping French roast coffee at the table in her bay window, looking down at the street, reading the paper. Later in the morning, she would slip into a trench coat and a cashmere scarf and explore her new neighborhood, returning later in the day with cut flowers and fresh sourdough bread. Of course, she didn’t have a trench coat or a cashmere scarf, but these were the details she was sure city life would eventually supply.
She pushed the box into her closet with her foot and closed the door. Just as she was leaving the apartment the power came back on. Her coffeemaker blinked at her from the counter, and she heard the thermostat click. At least it would be warmer when she got back.
A black cat was lying on the bottom of the front steps. It stood and stretched when it saw her, winding itself around her ankles. It made a little trilling sound, trying to get her attention.
“You’ve got the wrong girl, Cat. I’m allergic to you. I’m not going to pet you. Sorry to disappoint,” she said. The cat wandered off and rubbed itself against the carved post at the foot of the stairs.
In the tiny shop across the street, the barista was just turning off the battery-powered lanterns. “Come on in,” he said. “We’re open. We’ve got back-up power for the coffee machines, and we cook with gas.”
It was warm in the little shop and Sarah lingered over a vanilla latte and a croissant, reading the morning paper. Then she wandered down the street a ways, looking at the other “painted ladies” that filled her neighborhood, some of the Victorians converted to apartments and some businesses. Interspersed were some that were clearly still single, stately residences. with neatly trimmed hedges and iron fences. She spotted a corner drugstore and ducked in.
“Can I help you?” The Asian woman behind the counter wore a pink smock that looked like something out of the 1950’s. Her name tag said “Lulu”.
“I think I’m having allergies,” Sarah said.
“Hayfever?” the woman asked. “It’s sort of late in the season for that.”
“I think it might be a cat allergy,” Sarah said. “I’m allergic to cats, and –” She paused here, wondering how to continue. “I think there might have been one in my apartment before I moved in.” She gestured toward her building down the street.
“Any of these would probably work.”
Sarah read the packages and chose a box. The woman rang her up and handed her a little pink bag, neatly folded at the top. “Welcome to the neighborhood,” she said.
On the way home, she passed a narrow building, wedged between two larger Victorians. In contrast, it looked like a sliver of a place. Even the front door and window were tall and narrow. The door was painted a deep lacquered red. Gold velvet curtains covered the window where an arc of deep purple letters proclaimed, “The Women’s Room”. Underneath, in smaller letters, was listed: “Books, music, herbs, tarot, tea, & good company”. Sarah tried the door, but it was locked. A small brass plaque on the door said “Wed. – Sat., 2 p.m. ’til midnight”.
She ran into Michael on the way up the front stairs.
“Found your coffee?”
“I did,” she said. “It was just what I needed. Hey, Michael, can I ask you something.”
“Was there a cat in the apartment before I moved in?”
“No,” he said. “You’re the first tenant since I finished the renovation. I don’t have a cat and never have. The Grossmans in the ground floor place don’t have one either, although they have that little hand-puppet of a dog.”
“So the black cat I see sometimes on the steps doesn’t live here?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen it,” Michael said. “But why are you asking?”
“Oh, it’s no big thing,” Sarah said. “I’m just having some allergies, I think. Must be getting used to the new neighborhood,” she said.
Back in the apartment, she turned on the lights and opened the blinds in her little living area. She gave the couch a push to one wall, considering how it looked there, and placed a couple of boxes in front of it as a placeholder for a coffee table.
“I guess it’s time to start unpacking,” she said, to no one in particular.
The bedroom was still cold, but considerably warmer than when she woke up. She pulled up the blinds, and began straightening the covers on her bed. That’s when she heard the faint “meow”. She looked around the room, but it was empty save for the boxes and the bed. She got down on her hands and knees on the polished hardwood floor and looked under the bed, but since she’d only moved the bed in the day before, there wasn’t even a dust bunny under there. She looked toward the closet.
“Meow,” she heard again. It was muffled.
She opened the closet and peered inside. There was the box she had pushed in there after she got dressed, but nothing else, not even clothes hangers. (“Remember to get clothes hangers,” she thought to herself.)
“Meow.” She jumped a little. It was louder, plaintive, and clearly right in the closet. She pulled the string to turn on the light, but still saw nothing. Then, bending down to move the box, she felt the cat brush her arm as it left the closet. There was the unmistakable softness of cat fur, the movement of air, the soft sound of padding feet, and the flick of a tail. But again, there was no cat.
In the daylight, the invisible cat seemed much more real, and somehow less scary.
“I’m sorry, kitty. I didn’t see you in here,” Sarah said, as she scratched her arm.
After all, what else could she say?
You can read the entire series here.