by Maura Yzmore
I’d picked up Dorothea when she was a tiny kitten, from a cardboard box, the kind that people who don’t want to deal with their cat’s new litter leave outside their building or a pet store or in a dumpster. Dorothea’s box was outside a coffee shop just before the morning rush, and it was full when I arrived. The kittens were gorgeous, their furs a mixture of white, black, and yellow. They were so gorgeous that, in the time it took me to wait in line for my foofy drink—I hate coffee, but need the caffeine and love the sugar—Dorothea was the only one left. Nobody wanted a little black kitten. Perhaps they thought she would bring them bad luck.
I saw her cowering in the far corner of the box, all alone, without her siblings’ warmth. I squatted and offered her my hand, and she approached me, slow and tentative, still wobbly on her weeks-old kitten legs. She sniffed and licked my hand, then looked at me with her gorgeous yellow eyes, and that was it; I was smitten. As I carried her home, she licked the sweet caramelly frothing that had spilled through the tiny lid opening on my frappuccino.
It was as if Dorothea had been in my life forever. She was very smart and never made any messes. She knew when I needed to be left alone and when I really needed a cuddle, even if I pushed her away. Dorothea had character. She knew what she wanted and was assertive, but not pushy, just clear and patient and unrelenting when she wanted me to do something, like empty her bowl of the dry food she considered a boring necessity because I’d just come back from the store and she knew I’d bought some delicious wet food for her as a treat. Assertive but not pushy, like Dorothea, was something I often wished I could be.
Dorothea was a natural around my friends, as if she’d known them as long as I had. When my girlfriends and I were all together, relaxed and tipsy and a little sick from all the crappy food and cheap alcohol, she’d stay up with us, half-asleep deep into the night, every so often lazily moving from one lap to another.
My beautiful cat mostly paid no mind to the men I brought home. She knew they wouldn’t be around for long, as did I. But she loved Charles. She took to him from that first night when he and I stumbled into my apartment, ripping clothes off each other, tequila running through our veins. She took to him more than I did, and would forget all about me whenever he came over, spending as much time as she could on his lap, leaving shiny obsidian hairs all over his pants. He never complained about it, and petted her gently and absentmindedly, like she was his to begin with. Charles was a good guy, perfect even, open and kind, and he really liked me, but there was something missing, some sort of key to the cast-iron cage where my affections for men resided. The key was rotten and rusted, I knew, but there was nothing I could do. When Charles got tired of waiting for the cage to open, Dorothea stopped eating. She wouldn’t let me pet her in weeks.
Then I met Dex through work. I knew right away I was in trouble, but couldn’t help it. There was a darkness to him that made me lose my mind, and my stupid heart just threw away the shackles and went all in.
The first few months were great. I think; I don’t really remember. There was booze and darts and fucking in the filthy stalls of dive bars all over the seediest parts of town. Then came the rolled-up grass, the spoons with simmering liquid over the flame of a lighter held in a trembling hand, the needles. Then came my misplaced jewelry and money missing from my purse, and the accusations, and the throwing of bottles and plates at each other from across the room, and the slaps, and the fists.
I would completely forget about Dorothea for days at a time. She’d go without food and water, as Dex had taken over my entire life, and there was no thought in my mind that wasn’t all about him, about the pull and the push of the darkness that I couldn’t get enough of. But Dorothea never seemed to be around when Dex was. I don’t know where she went at those times, but once or twice I swear I caught a whiff of Charles’s cologne when she walked past me, and I felt my gut twist.
My head is throbbing and I feel like my mouth is filled with mold. I open my eyes and try to sit up, but a sharp pain in my ribs stops me.
My arms ache as I try to prop myself up to sit. Every breath hurts.
I am in the park near my building, in my nightgown, covered in leaves and branches. I am freezing.
I hear a soft meow.
‘Dorothea?’ I call out.
I touch my throbbing head. There is something caked on the left side and I get a flash of Dex coming at me with a baseball bat, calling me a bitch, screaming to tell him where I’d hidden the money.
Another meow, louder now. I feel like I am going to be sick.
‘Libby, it’s me,’ I hear a man’s soft voice. ‘Are you OK?’
‘Dorothea wouldn’t leave me be until I came with her. You know how she gets…’
I try to smile, but stretching my lips sends a jolt of pain through my skull.
I feel Dorothea’s small weight as she walks along my stretched legs toward my torso. She nuzzles under my chin, purring.
Charles gently brushes the leaves and branches off my back, and helps me up.
Maura Yzmore is a writer and scientist based in the American Midwest. Her literary flash has appeared in Bending Genres, Jellyfish Review, Gone Lawn, and elsewhere.
Find out more at https://maurayzmore.com or on Twitter @MauraYzmore.