Horror & Dark Fantasy

THE ROBOTS OF GOTHAM

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Fiction

Ways to Wake

I hear the sound before I open my eyes. Someone is eating, though I should be alone in my room, and it’s too loud, too close. When I look, I see the cat—the one we’re all supposed to adore, that’s meant to have us all therapeutically laughing, lowering our blood pressures by stroking its soft grey fur. I tried once, but it felt to me as soft as cobwebs, as dust, as decaying flesh.

The cat is sitting on the shelf wheeled across the bottom of my bed. It’s eating my breakfast. They must have brought in my porridge while I slept, and now it drips from the cat’s sharp teeth, clogs its whiskers, turns its tongue white. It looks at me over the bowl. Its eyes are dirty yellow, and it doesn’t blink, and it doesn’t look away.

I’ve asked them to keep the cat out of my room, but they never do. They smile as if it’s the odd whim of a child who’ll one day learn better. Perhaps I will. I know that, but it still doesn’t help me love the cat.

I tense, readying myself to move quickly. It’s not as easy as it sounds. I’m old. I feel it in the rattle of my breath, the stiffness in my spine and hips. It’s been worse in recent days, hence having breakfast in my room, but I don’t care. The little bastard’s going to get what’s coming to it.

I lurch forward and the cat is gone before I even see it move. I was prepared for too-soft fur covering a snaky body, the fluidity of muscle, flexing ribs. My hands close on nothing but the bowl, slopping porridge over my fingers. I hear an odd sound from the door, a half-meow, half-yowl, and a voice says, “Oh, puss-puss. Did nasty Mr. Wescombe scare us again? Did he? Did he?”

It’s Della, one of the carers. She strokes the smoky shape wrapped around her ankles, then picks it up and a rasping engine starts up deep inside it as the cat begins to purr. I try to read the expression in its yellow eyes—reproach? Triumph? But of course there’s nothing. It’s only a stare.

“Poor Jack.” Della nestles her cheek into that softness. Then she sees the bowl and her tone changes. “Oh, look at your breakfast.”

I start to tell her that the cat ate it, but I realise my hands are sticky with it too and I lick it off, then catch myself. Am I sharing its food, now? The taste turns sour on my tongue.

“I’ll get a cloth.” The cat flows out of her hands and away. Her movements become sharp and spiky and I know she won’t bring me any more porridge. She doesn’t like me; none of them do. I’m the man who doesn’t like the cat.

“It stared at me,” I say, then realise what I sound like.

“That’s what cats do.” She says it without turning and she’s gone before I can tell her that she’s wrong. They do stare, but not like this.

A little later, as I stretch downward to pull on my socks, remembering the thousand times I’d done it before so easily, and never known that it was easy, I hear it: another of those odd sounds, followed by a hiss. The damn cat’s still outside my door.

It doesn’t meow like a proper cat. The noise it makes is at once raspy and resonant, as if multiple voices are emerging from its throat. Sometimes it sounds a little like speech. At other times it’s a wail, a wounded woman; or a banshee, mourning an imminent death.

And that’s exactly what it is, though no one says it. No, they call the cat something else: a miracle, a blessing.

I remember the way Matron smiled when I first came here and she told me about their famous cat. “He’s been in the newspaper,” she said. “Whenever anyone’s going, you see. He knows. We call the relatives as soon as Jack curls up with one of our residents. He never gets it wrong.”

I had only nodded, wondering if I’d lost my mind or she had.

“He cares, you see. No one has to be alone, here—they’re comforted. By the next morning, they’re usually gone. But the cat is with them.” She had beamed with pride. “Everyone loves our Jack.”

And perhaps they had, until I took up my place in room ten.

• • • •

The next time I wake, I smell it before I see it. The cat doesn’t smell like an animal. It smells like it looks—like smoke. The smell seems to come from a long way away but when I open my eyes, Jack is sitting on my chest. He stares back at me and his eyes are like the last glimmer of dying coals.

It is only then that I feel his weight, surprisingly heavy on my ribs. I can’t think how I hadn’t noticed it before. Without blinking, he flexes his claws until they pierce my thin pyjamas and rest against my skin. I want to swipe at him but I can’t move; all the energy has been drained from me.

The cat opens its jaws but no sound emerges. The inside of its mouth is red, the teeth very white and sharp.

The door opens. It’s Della, and a succession of emotions flickers across her features. She’s resigned to seeing me; she’s pleased to see the cat. Then it occurs to her that the cat is with me, and she warms, thinking I’ve relented. Then she realises it’s with me, and sympathy comes; she imagines me slipping away, happy, comforted, and she ends with a gentle smile.

“Oh,” she says, her voice barely audible. “Mr. Wescombe.”

Jack jumps down and wraps himself about her.

I find I can push myself up after all, and I do. Strength flows back into me—that’s how it feels, like being filled. I am suddenly thirsty for it. Wake, I tell myself, and it occurs to me that the word is also connected with death, with funerals. Awake. A wake.

I dismiss the thought and sit up. Jack peers from between Della’s legs, and it is only then that it sinks in; he was sleeping on my chest. Does he know something—has he chosen me?

Della’s eyes are limpid with the beauty of it all. She knows why we’re here—we’re supposed to accept death, go into the dark with grace. We’re expected to cling to any comfort we’re given along the way, grateful even.

I want to tell her to fuck herself, but my throat is too dry. I pull air into it, count to three, let it go. Repeat. I will wake.

She sets down my porridge and smiles at Jack, all conspiratorial, before slipping out of the door. Thankfully, the cat goes with her.

They say that animals sense things. That they can smell cancer, maybe even the bio-chemicals given off by dying cells. I read about it in the newspaper article Matron showed me. “It’s no time to be alone,” she’d said, before sending me off to the ten foot by twelve foot room where I was supposed to wait to die.

But wasn’t there an older legend still? Not about what cats sense or know, but what they do. Sitting on people’s chests, sucking out their souls through their sleeping lips; feeding on them, like vampires. Not knowing who will die, not sensing what will happen, but choosing. Draining them of life until their strength is gone, until nothing remains but an empty husk.

• • • •

Later, I sit in the day room opposite another resident, Reenie, who has set her knitting aside so that Jack can lie on her lap. The cat is limp, like discarded skin. It doesn’t look at me and its eyes don’t gleam. It appears to be what they claim it is—just a cat, happy to be petted, to have somewhere warm to sleep.

Jack. Such a stupid name for a cat.

Reenie has bowel cancer. Even I can smell it on her. She’s like a skeleton in a dress and I wonder, briefly and uncharitably, if Jack intended to choose her room instead of mine. But then, he likes her. Maybe he doesn’t want her to die.

I shift in my seat, wondering what’s happening inside my ageing body. Maybe it’s my heart that will go, or my liver, or a stroke that will turn the world black. That might be better, after all, than slowly fading in this chair day after day until I want to go, am desperate for the end. I might be grateful for Jack’s company then.

I pick up my mobile phone from the chair arm and adjust my glasses. The care home’s WiFi is next to useless, but I bring up the web browser and search and wait. There are plenty of results:

A cat will sit on your chest and suck out your soul.

A witch can send her spirit into a cat.

The chordewa, a being in the form of a cat, will eat a sick man’s food. From then on, his fate is sealed.

Its meow is not like that of other cats.

It is difficult to catch, will claw and bite like a demon.

If it is caught, the woman whose soul is in the cat will be rendered insensible. If it is injured, matching wounds will appear on her body.

“Mr. Wescombe?”

I start as Matron leans over me, her shadow falling across my phone. I clutch it to my chest, concealing the screen. It isn’t her concern. She wouldn’t understand.

“I wondered how you were feeling?” Her voice is too bright and I know why at once. She thinks I’ll go, today or the next day. She’s trying to see the death in my eyes.

A great sense of tiredness suddenly weighs me down, but I fight it. “Absolutely fine, Matron. Is there anything I can do for you?”

Her smile fades. She adopts an “If you don’t want my help I shan’t give it to you” expression, then says, “Well, I’ll be in the office.” I stare after her as she stalks off, stiff-legged. If anyone here is a witch, sending their soul into a cat, she would be my first choice. Maybe that explains why she’s so proud of the creature.

Reenie nods in her chair, oblivious to everything. The cat too appears to be sleeping.

It is difficult to catch; it will claw and bite like a demon.

And I wonder.

Slowly, I get up. Reenie doesn’t move and the thought strikes me that she’s already dead, then her mouth pops open with an audible sound. My heart hammers in my chest.

I step quietly towards them. There’s no one else in the room. Della has organised games of whist on the dining room tables and distantly I hear a dry cheer, followed by laughter. No one’s coming in. No one will see.

I half fall, half pounce, and Jack’s eyes are open in an instant but my fingers are already buried in his fur. At last I feel the skinny body, the fragile bones, and I grip tighter. He can’t twist his head enough to bite but he tries, giving off a rattling hiss like a teakettle or maybe a snake, a sound I can feel through his skin. He claws frantically. His front paws find nothing but air but he scrabbles with his back ones too and his claws sink into my hand.

The pain is remarkable. It’s sharp and sick-feeling and wrong, and I hiss too, but still I don’t let go. My face is inches from Reenie’s. Astonishingly, she hasn’t woken. Her face is slack, the skin sagging, her eyelids looking bruised. She barely seems to be breathing. Has the cat already stolen her soul?

I hear the door bang. Someone has come after all. They don’t speak but I hear rapid footsteps and then a hand is on mine, prising, stronger than my own. I see muscular forearms, broad wrists, knuckles that are white where the hand crushes mine: Matron.

My hands snap open, the cat leaps; Reenie’s eyes snap open too. The hissing stops and everything is suddenly very quiet. Matron’s grip shifts to my wrist and she squeezes without looking, as if it’s an unconscious act. The pain is bad, but not as bad as the back of my hand, which throbs with my pulse.

I feel her lips close to my ear as she says, “Go to your room.”

It’s something that might be said to a child and I want to protest, but I think about what she’s just seen and I can’t. I step away—she releases her grip—and Reenie pulls in a shaky breath. She starts to ask what’s wrong, what happened, and Matron comforts her. I can’t see Jack. He might have vanished into the air.

• • • •

Later, Matron comes looking for me.

I’m still in my room. I’m lying on my bed and a book is open on my lap, but I hadn’t been able to concentrate. All I could think about were the things I saw on the internet. If it is caught, the woman whose soul is in the cat will be rendered insensible.

Why hadn’t Reenie awoken until the cat jumped free? Or was she simply weak from illness—or something else? Had Jack drained her too? If I’d hurt the cat, would I be able to see the marks of it on her—bruised ribs, a limp? But I hadn’t managed to hurt him at all.

And then I’d told myself it was senility, catching up with me at last. That I’m nothing but a stupid old man, dying in a home with not even his own faculties left.

I had looked at the photograph of my wife on the bedside table, already years dead. Why was I lingering? I should welcome the cat, open my arms to it. Suffocate myself in its smoke-smelling fur. For surely that was the source of the myth about cats sucking people’s breath, or their souls. They weren’t evil, hadn’t any wicked intentions. Jack was only a cat.

That was when Matron walked in. She didn’t knock and she didn’t smile. Her brows were drawn down, her lips narrowed between slab-like cheeks.

“I want a word with you, Mr. Wescombe.”

Her voice shakes, not from uncertainty, but from rage. It’s been hours, but it hasn’t faded, not a bit. I feel it threatening to burst free as she straightens my sheets and I feel them zipping taut under me.

“You know,” she says, “you chose to be here. We didn’t ask for you. We didn’t want you.”

I stare. Is she supposed to speak to me that way?

“You’re afraid,” she goes on. “I know you are. But is that Jack’s fault—is it? He’s an innocent creature. And you—you’re a coward, Mr. Wescombe.”

I have no words. I wonder if she’s right.

She pulls hard on the sheets and I am lifted slightly from the bed before she lets them go. She leans over me, her breath coffee-sour. Her eyes are red-rimmed, as if she’s overcome with emotion.

“Unless, of course, you just like hurting cats.”

I still can’t speak.

“I hear some people are like that. Not nice people. Not our kind of people.”

She waits for a reaction, staring into my eyes, but I can’t meet her gaze. She straightens. “There’s really not much I can do about that. Except let you know how it feels.”

She reaches out and pats my arm. But she’s not patting it, she’s lifting it, gently, out of the way. She rests it on the bed next to me. Then her movements turn rapid. One hand pushes down on my shoulder; the other forms a fist and presses into my side, finding the place she’s looking for.

She leans on it.

The pain starts deep inside then spreads outwards, exploding from my kidney until there’s nothing else. I hear a dry gasping and realise it’s me. I can’t get any air; I’m suddenly desperate to breathe, panting like an animal. She lets out a muffled grunt, one of effort, and the pain intensifies. My mouth opens and closes. Lights spark before my eyes. I think for a moment that I see my wife looking at me—I try to read what’s in her eyes but I can’t. It’s only a stare.

Matron straightens and I let out an involuntary whimper.

She puts her face in close. Her eyes are bright and sharp and she looks happy, even triumphant. She reaches out again—I flinch, hating myself, but can’t help it—and she pulls me forward, plumps my pillow.

“Good night,” she says brightly, as if she’d just bobbed in for a nice chat before bedtime. “Sleep tight.”

It’s not bedtime. I’m not sure it’s even suppertime, though I can’t think; the pain is subsiding but it’s still there. Still, she crosses to the window and closes the curtains, and without looking at me or saying anything else, she walks from the room.

I stare at the ceiling, concentrating on taking steady breaths. I realise she was right. I won’t be going down for supper. I don’t think I even want to, don’t feel hungry at all.

Sleep tight, she’d said.

I’m not sure I will. And I remember I never used to—I never slept tight, even when I was a small boy. I would lie awake in the dark thinking about monsters, the kind that vanished under the bed or hid in the wardrobe. I hadn’t realised there were other kinds, not then.

After a time, the cat comes. The door is closed and he can’t get in, but I hear him slinking against the wood, first in one direction then back again. He’s pacing; waiting. As I feel my eyes begin to close, I hear that peculiar meow. It doesn’t sound at all like a cat. It’s more akin to a small child’s cry of distress.

• • • •

There is a weight on my chest. I lash out but my flailing hands touch nothing. I open my eyes and see an empty space.

My breathing slows. The cat didn’t come for me, and I feel relief; he hasn’t really chosen me, I’m over-imaginative, a fool; an old sod put out to grass. Then I remember the door’s been closed. Has he been scratching outside it all night?

I swing my legs over the side of the bed, wincing at the twinge in my side. I pause until it subsides and pull on my clothes. I’m going downstairs for breakfast and I tell myself that’s because I won’t be afraid, won’t be shamed, but I know it’s because I don’t want another visit from Matron.

In the dining room, I help myself to a bowl. The room’s busy but there’s an empty seat next to Reenie, and she looks up at the wrong moment and catches my eye.

I sit next to her. Her head is bent over her cereal. She looks up at me through her fluffy white fringe, her eyes too bright.

“Enid Shaw’s dead,” she says.

“Pardon?”

She looks down, scoops cornflakes into her mouth. Milk drips from her lips. “Jack knew. He went to her, you know. He stayed at her side all the time.”

“But she was fine. There was nothing wrong with her.” I wonder if it’s my fault. Was the cat so frustrated, shut out of my room? Had he been hungry, and finding nothing—no sustenance—gone to someone else instead?

She sighs. “She wasn’t fine. She couldn’t have been fine, could she?”

I can’t answer and don’t. What would be the point?

“They let the soul out. Did you know they still do that, let the soul out?”

I had heard of it. I pictured the carers gathering about Enid’s bedside, opening a window to let her soul go wherever it was destined. But I don’t think her soul was there. It had already gone, stolen away by a smoky shadow while she slept.

Reenie lightly touches the scratches on the back of my hand and the pain pulses, once, under her fingers. She turns her china teacup in its saucer. “You’d like him,” she says, “if you got to know him.”

I frown.

“Oh, now. You know you would. So warm, he is. And his fur’s so soft, when he lets you touch him.”

I shake my head. She must know what Jack’s comfort means—or thinks she does. It isn’t a gift. If anything, it’s the opposite: a taking away.

“Better to know, though, isn’t it?” Her voice is so low I almost don’t hear.

I sit back in my seat. When I was young, I used to kneel by my bedside, close my eyes and clasp my hands. I pray the Lord my soul to take. And I used to believe in that prayer, but belief didn’t last long enough. If my soul was taken then, would it have been easier? Now I’m going into the dark, and I’m going alone.

Maybe I’m afraid of the wrong thing entirely. Maybe the real fear is that I’m wrong about the cat. It’s only a cat; it’s only death. Souls don’t escape through lips. They don’t fly on angelic wings through open windows.

They don’t even exist.

I think of my wife’s picture by my bed and try to believe that she’s waiting for me.

• • • •

I go to bed as usual, but somehow it doesn’t feel like usual. The air is heavy, as if there’s a storm coming. I pray the Lord my soul to take. The prayer doesn’t seem so very long ago. For a moment I think I can smell my mother’s perfume: rosewater, the only one she ever wore.

I turn to the bedside table and see my wife’s photograph. When I tilt my head, all the dark areas of the picture turn into mirrors, and I see myself in fragments: lined and leathery skin; stubble, once dark, now white; sagging jowls. My appearance doesn’t match the image I carry inside. I’m still in here somewhere, the boy I was, the man I have been. What does Matron see when she looks at me? An old man who hates a cat. I don’t suppose she thinks about why. She sees one of us after the next, old, older, oldest, all on our way to the next place, no point in lingering or protesting.

A soft pressing against the door. The scrape of claws on wood. There’s no other sound, no yowling, no mewling in protest. The cat can wait. He has time.

Except, maybe, he doesn’t.

Quietly, I get up. The carers have done their last rounds—I heard Della’s soft cries of “Night night,” as if we were children—and I pad to the door and pull it open. I expect teeth, claws, but when I look into the corridor it’s empty. Jack has gone, but it doesn’t matter. It’s not him I need to find.

I creep along the carpet. My hand, the one Jack scratched, starts up with a deep and painful throb. Not far away, a glow rises from the staircase. The desk at its foot is staffed all night, though the light flickers and I wonder if the carer is watching television on her phone. Anyway, I’m not going to the desk. It’s Reenie I’m going to see.

I should have known it at once. The cat loves Reenie best, though it never spends the night in her room. It likes being close to her, safe, protected. Or is it the cat that’s protecting her?

I pass the doors ranged at intervals along the corridor. None of them are locked. That would be foolish, in case of an emergency. I half expect Jack to come haring down the corridor, a screeching trail of smoke, but he doesn’t. Reenie’s door is number three. The handle is cold in my hand and I turn it until there’s the faintest snick.

Reenie is lying on her back. That will make it easier, I suppose. Her hair has fallen from her face and her profile is limned by moonlight coming through the curtains. Her nose looks sharper than in the daytime and her chin more prominent, even witch-like. Her skin is stretched over her features in some places, wrinkled in others. Is this what we are, this imperfect material? It’s a wonder anyone can believe in God. If we were designed, surely everything would work as long as we need it.

Wondering if my mind is as decayed as her flesh, I reach out and tease one of the pillows from beneath her head. She stirs, letting out a breath smelling of mint and the cod fillets we had for dinner.

I hold up the pillow and a sense of unreality steals over me. Am I really doing this? For what—a story, a feeling?

I glance around again, guilt I suppose, and see the cat staring back at me.

Jack is sitting in her chair, which still has a paperback folded over its arm. He must have been there all the time, waiting to see what I would do. Is he amused at my folly or outraged at my presumption?

But as I stand there, my strength drains away. I don’t think the cat is making me weak; I just feel suddenly very old. It’s the sight of her that robs me of energy, sleeping like a girl, the breath going in and out of her, the thought of what dreams might be passing through her mind: her daughter bringing the yellow roses she loves; a picture painted by her grandson; a clean, soft ball of new wool.

The cat is there because it likes her, that’s all. Because she’s kind to it. There’s no superior knowledge in its yellow eyes, nothing demonic.

The voice inside me protests, saying it might be her or me, but it’s a small voice and I’m no longer listening. I place the pillow on the floor next to her, where it could have fallen naturally. I reach out as if to pat her hand then turn to the door. I’m afraid and confused and a little cold. I stumble as I leave.

Still, nobody comes.

I climb into bed and pull the sheet over me and shiver. I stare at the ceiling. I don’t know if I’ve failed or been saved from something terrible. I can feel my wife watching me from her photograph. I know exactly what she would say.

• • • •

The next morning, I’m woken by a shriek. A single heartbeat thunderclaps in my chest, then there’s nothing; I flail at the sheets like a drowning man. Footsteps hurry along the corridor.

I stand, grab the bed for balance. My heartbeat steadies a little, though it rushes in my ears. Outside my room, the corridor is empty. Just one door is standing open: Reenie’s. I can’t move, can’t breathe. I put the pillow next to the bed, didn’t I, not where she could have smothered?

I force myself to take a step towards the room, and another. I look down and see my bare feet on carpet, the nails thick and yellowish, and I grimace.

When I reach the doorway, Della is leaning over the form lying on the bed. Reenie’s face is grey, her lips thin, her cheeks hollow. She’s obviously dead.

“Open a window,” Matron says from her place by the wall. She doesn’t look at me, doesn’t help Della as she struggles with the latch and throws it wide. I know it’s to let the soul out. I try to sense Reenie floating past me, her arms outspread like a child playing aeroplanes, but there’s nothing. Whatever was in her body is long gone.

A movement calls my gaze to the chair in the corner. Jack is still curled in the seat, the image of contentment. As I watch, he rests his head on his paws and licks his lips.

• • • •

Once back in my room, I lie down and think of what I might do to the cat if I had a gun, a knife, a rope. Then I remember that it isn’t the cat at all; it’s someone inside the cat, using it to do whatever they want.

My door bangs back against the wall. Matron is suddenly there, her face up close, seeing if I’m awake, making sure I’m looking at her. She stares then smiles a smile with no warmth in it.

She places her elbow on my side, making a show of positioning it, preparing to put her weight on its spike. My gaze darts around, betraying my fear with a side-to-side motion: No. But I don’t want to plead. I take a breath; try to steel myself against what’s coming.

She leans over me again. “Looking for Jack, were you?”

I don’t reply.

“You know, if you hurt that cat again, I won’t finish you.” She tilts her head, smiles pleasantly. “Of course I won’t. I’d never send you away. I’ll keep you here, Mr. Wescombe; I’ll make sure to look after you myself.”

Then she’s gone.

I take another gulp of air. My heart staggers from one beat to the next, like a blind man clawing his way along the floor. It will be tonight, I know. One soft drift of fur, ungraspable as smoke; one glimpse of yellow eyes; the smell of dying embers; and I’ll be gone.

• • • •

I catch sight of her later, when the other residents are at lunch. I’m not hungry, so I decided to take a walk, to see this place with no one in it.

Matron is sitting in the staff office, behind its broad panes of glass. They go in there to drink coffee, chat, go through paperwork: medical tests maybe, letters of admission or their opposite.

I see her before she sees me and wonder if that’s an advantage. She’s alone in there. She sits very straight, and appears to be staring straight at me; except she’s not. She looks dead. Her eyes are blank and she doesn’t move and doesn’t blink. Her mouth hangs open a little. I see the tips of crooked and yellowed teeth.

Then Jack jumps up onto the counter. His hiss is audible through the glass. Matron still doesn’t wake. Her eyelids don’t flicker. Her breathing—is she breathing?—is as gentle as before.

I put my hand to the glass and the cat glares, every hair and muscle rigid. If I were to go inside, he’d rip the eyes from my head.

Then Matron stirs and the cat’s back lowers from its arch as his limbs relax.

I hurry away from them before she can see me. I don’t know why; I don’t suppose there’s long to go until I see both of them again.

• • • •

I lie awake, my door ajar, waiting for Jack. My curtains are open but there’s no moon and I can’t see any stars. The whole place feels tired. Fatigue rises from it all, an exhalation I can feel. It’s everywhere and inside me and I stretch, feeling each scraping joint and strained muscle. I am not afraid.

In my hand is an unfamiliar object. When I hold it up, it gleams dully. I wanted a knife but instead I took a knitting needle from Reenie’s workbag in the dayroom. It seemed appropriate.

I expect I’ll know when Jack comes in, that I’ll sense his presence, but I don’t. There’s the sound of something landing on my bed and a sudden weight on my legs, then stillness.

I don’t move. My hand on the knitting needle is slick with sweat. I open and close my fingers but don’t let it fall.

Another soft sound as the cat lies down then shuffles forward. It’s almost weightless, as if there really is nothing but smoke. It comes to me again that my suspicion isn’t real, only a story I told myself because there’s nothing else to do, nothing else to believe in.

The truth is I never did like cats.

I tighten my grip on the weapon but Jack doesn’t move. Maybe he’s sizing me up, deciding what I am, deciding what to do. Maybe he’s smelling cancer or decaying cells, or simply the knowledge of death.

I still can’t move. Or perhaps it’s that I won’t move, or don’t want to move. In my mind’s eye I see the picture of my wife, the love in her eyes trapped behind glass, caught in time. But nothing lasts long enough, not even that. They say that people are reunited after death; that they find each other, but the truth is I’m not sure she would have wanted it. We’d—drifted apart, isn’t that the term? The photograph was an old one. She hadn’t looked at me that way in years. We’d been alone even while we were together, but people didn’t separate, not then. We weren’t supposed to just give up.

I hold onto the needle, wondering which would be worse—being here alone, or being alone in whatever comes next—alone for ever. And a voice echoes in my mind: If you hurt that cat again, I won’t finish you. I’ll keep you here . . . I’ll make sure I look after you myself.

And then the same voice, but the tone is different. No one has to be alone, here—they’re comforted.

I stare up at the cat and see eternity reflected in the depths of its yellow eyes. I haven’t seen it so clearly in a very long time.

Alison Littlewood

Alison Littlewood’s latest novel is The Crow Garden, a tale of obsession set amidst Victorian asylums and séance rooms. Her other books include A Cold Season, Path of Needles, The Unquiet House and The Hidden People.

Alison’s short stories have been picked for many Year’s Best anthologies and published in her collections Quieter Paths and Five Feathered Tales, a collaboration with award-winning illustrator Daniele Serra. She won the 2014 Shirley Jackson Award for Short Fiction.

Alison lives with her partner Fergus in Yorkshire, England, in a house of creaking doors and crooked walls. She loves exploring the hills and dales with her two hugely enthusiastic Dalmatians and has a penchant for books on folklore and weird history, Earl Grey tea and semicolons. You can talk to her on Twitter: @Ali__L, see her on Facebook or visit her at www.alisonlittlewood.co.uk.