The last time I saw Mom, her skin was blue, but in the casket, she looked like a waxen doll. Dad shielded Jezebel’s eyes with his hands as she squirmed. He held her at a distance and looked at the stained glass windows of a cathedral we’d never attended—scenes depicting Jesus holding little orange children in his arms, Jesus baptized by John in the River Jordan with a dove perched upon his holy head, bloody Jesus hanging from a cross by nail-impaled hands and still smiling. I knew the stories, but I’d never cared much for them. Jesus was still smiling even though my mother was dead.
The cathedral was empty, save for the three of us and the priest, who was sleeping with his bald head resting on the wood of the front pew. He wasn’t even completely bald—he had twiggy gray hair combed over his bald spot, but it didn’t conceal the patch. It looked like a fried egg. He probably hadn’t slept in days because of all the funerals. No one could keep track of who was fighting in Europe and who had picked up the virus.
I reached into the casket and placed my hand on Mom’s cheek. She was cold and hard, and I jerked my arm away as if she was burning. My fingers were coated in a peach-colored powder. The place I had touched left fingerprints on top of the skin, which was still blue beneath the caked foundation. The makeup was a mask.
Dad was studying the chandelier overhead, a huge brass contraption pretending to be gold, with a hundred flaming candles spread out in nine stacked rings. They looked like nine circles of hell.
I placed my hand on the hollow spot between his shoulders. Nothing to see here, Dad. Come on. He felt so light, so empty, so easy to steer away even though I was smaller than him. His hand didn’t leave Jezebel’s eyes until the mahogany doors shut behind us.
We didn’t go to the burial because Dad didn’t want us to know what would happen to Mom. I didn’t know what would happen to her, but I had seen bodies tossed into pits the size of trenches a few streets away. Dad didn’t let me go outside anymore because he was afraid that I’d be snatched up and tossed onto a boat headed east. Dad was afraid of everything.
World War I, they said on the radio, as if they were asking for more wars to follow. The next announcement called it “The War to End All Wars.”
* * *
The bookshop where we live sits on a street corner within walking distance of the Charles River, but people avoid walking the streets whenever they can. The customers say that the humidity of late August is so severe because the city has forgotten how to breathe.
We live above all the words, just up the stairs from pages that smell of magic and must. When the glass doors shut at seven pm, Mom used to pull a dusty volume from the shelf and climb the creaking steps two at a time. She flipped pages as she walked with a hand on the wooden rail to guide her, whispering the story to herself like one of those moving picture girls rehearsing her lines.
Now this is my job.
I turn left into the room I share with Jezebel, never looking up from the book, just like Mom used to do. I can’t tell the stories like she did—spinning the tales like her threads in the factory, but with more fervor—so that the characters sprouted from the pages and replaced our world with their own. I’ve watched my share of princesses run away with strangers. I’ve seen the gods ignore their creations when war devastated the polis. I’ve sat beneath the Bodhi tree and been sucked away just before nirvana could fall upon my head like sin fell upon Eden. I can only stumble over words.
I trip on the rug and the book skids to a stop beside one of Jezebel’s porcelain dolls, one with eyes that roll into the back of its head when it lies down. I panic for the split second that I am airborne, flapping my arms until I catch my balance just before I hit the hardwood. Neither Jezebel nor Dad notice. Jezebel is curled up in Dad’s lap, eyes closed but not asleep, and Dad isn’t combing her messy red curls with his fingers. The hairs on his arms stand straight up, but his forehead is sweating. He’s just sitting there on the bottom bunk, staring at the toy box overflowing with stuffed animals and metal trains.
I look back at the floor before retrieving the book. It wasn’t the rug that I’d tripped on. A dead crow lay with its wings spread open, its neck split so that you could see the hollowness of its bloody throat. I’m getting used to the appearance of dead birds around the house, but I still feel like someone is scraping their nails against the lining of my stomach every time I see one.
I turn to a random story and begin reading, taking a seat at the edge of the bed so that I can sit with my back away from the crow.
I can’t see the moon through the window.
* * *
Jezebel caught the cat on the street and brought it home just a few days before I found Mom dead beneath the bed sheets, her nose and mouth foaming with blood. The cat was curled up on her chest, purring as loud as a locomotive, its giant green eyes glinting as it watched me without blinking. The entire room felt like it was vibrating, and all the energy was coming from the cat. I ran to find Dad.
Mom never liked the damned thing. The moment she saw Jezebel walk through the glass doors with it, she started yelling. I thought that was a little extreme, but I didn’t care for Puss either. Cats leave tufts of fur everywhere and the fuzzball would piss all over the books. Puss, that’s what Jezebel had already named it. It was orange like a tabby, but it had these black fur boots for paws and black rings around its eyes like a mask. Jezebel held it to her chest with her arms crossed, the cat stretched out to its full length with its paws dangling to the floor. It was almost as tall as Jezebel.
Dad dodged bookshelves, his shoes clicking across the floorboards as he ran towards her, trying to figure out who had pulled a knife or a gun or who he was going to beat up. Dad was so small and bony and his round glasses were always falling off his nose. He couldn’t see anything without them. He would never have the guts to fight a man, either.
He let Jezebel keep the animal when he saw her kissing its crummy head. Mom protested, but at least she put up a fight.
I swear the thing was smiling, its whiskers twitching into a satisfied smirk.
* * *
Some nights when it’s hard to breathe and the house is sleeping, I slip out the window and dart across rooftops until it is just me and the moon. Her beams will glint on the steel heart of Boston, and I will pull a book out of my coat pocket and read to her. People say that the virus spreads through exhalation, but my lungs feel freer when I am above all the citizens.
I would like to know if the Earth lives on when the moon dies.
* * *
The day the cat appeared, Jezebel told me to read to her. I tried to object because I had duties: sweeping the shop, dusting the shelves, checking the books to make sure Dickens hadn’t become a fantasy or the Grimm Brothers hadn’t started writing nonfiction. But Jez insisted, and Mom was tired from a hard day at the factory.
Jezebel ran across the creaking floorboards. I heard a few books fall, and I knew I’d have to pick them up later. Jezebel didn’t know how to take care of the nicer things in life.
I squeezed between three shelves in the back of the store. It was a small hideaway that no one could see unless they knocked out an entire row of books, and no one could get back there unless they were as small and Jezebel and me. She came back holding a tattered, heavy book with an old woman reading to a group of children on the cover. Mother Goose’s Tales.
Jezebel flipped to a random page, and at the top it said: “The Master Cat, or Puss in Boots.”
“There once was a miller who was so poor that at his death he had nothing to leave his children but his mill, his donkey, and his cat,” I began.
Jezebel watched the pages as if something would climb out of them at any second.
* * *
Dad started coughing this morning. Coughs heavier than mucus or tobacco. I haven’t been to school in a week because it’s closed thanks to the virus. No one wants it to spread, but no one knows how to keep it contained. Sometimes I wonder if I’d rather be stuck in a desk all day or if I’m okay with keeping up the bookstore—if I’m okay doing laundry and making dinner and keeping Jezebel entertained. Dad tried to work, but I sent him to bed. Customers don’t come anyway. The only books wives send overseas are Bibles. The only books the wives and widows read are romances, and we stopped carrying them after Jezebel picked one up last summer.
* * *
In the night, I can hear Puss patrolling the hallway and climbing the stairs. Sometimes things bump in the dark, and I never know what he’s doing. There are picking noises and lots of scratching, and at three every morning he likes to start yowling. I don’t think anyone sleeps longer than a handful of hours anymore. When I do sleep, I dream of trains. Trains that shoot railways across the Atlantic and never end, trains that circle the globe. The cars are packed with bodies upon bodies, barricades of uniforms in some and others packed with people like the florist next door and the milkman who doesn’t stop anymore, like Mary and Gretel and Jill whom I used to chase around the playground. I weave through car after car after car, but I am the only human breathing. I can’t get off the train.
Once, Puss climbed the ladder to my bunk and tried to sleep with me. I climbed out the window.
* * *
I pulled Mother Goose’s book from the shelf and I took it up to the roof. The sky was so cloudy that night that I couldn’t see the moon at all. I needed to read to her, to coax her out of hiding, to feel her presence. To feel anyone’s presence.
The wind was roaring and my skin was burning with cold. I dropped the book off the roof, making sure that I heard it hit the ground. The pages seemed to scream as gravity ripped out their stitches. That is what I imagine it sounds like when God decides to tear out an angel’s wings.
* * *
I like the moon because she’s bolder than the stars. They’re fading, and they’re dead by the time I can see their light. Lots of times I can’t see the stars at all because of the smoke from the steel factory. But if the moon wants me to see her, I can. Sometimes she hides because it’s been a particularly bad day. I understand.
* * *
The next day, the book was back in its place.
* * *
A lady came in the store this morning, our first customer in a week. She was dressed in white and she seemed to float across the floor like an angel, not making a sound. She talked to me like I was a man, like I knew what I was doing, and she said that influenza was spreading, that I better be good, be safe.
Our hands brushed when she handed me a thin book. She was an otherworldly cold, not like New England winter or Mom’s skin, but electrifying. I watched her walk out the door, her skirt swishing in the wind as she crossed the street.
I looked down at my fingers because they were still tingling. The skin was raw where she’d touched me, like a crescent-shaped burn. I still had the book in my hands.
I ran out the door, down the street, trying to spot the lady. I ran for blocks and blocks, past the bakery, barber, butcher, department store—all closed. We were the only shop on the street still open. I don’t know how, but she’d disappeared.
I looked down at the book in my hand. The name on the cover was Revelation.
* * *
In the afternoon, I heat soup for Dad and carry it on a tray to his room. I don’t know how to make anything else. He hasn’t eaten a thing all day, and neither has Jezebel. Puss keeps butting his fat head against my legs and biting my ankles. He doesn’t stop until I spill broth on his fur. I don’t know where he scurries off to, and I don’t care.
Dad’s room is too quiet. He is asleep with one arm reaching out to the empty side, fingers spread wide like whatever he’s searching for is just out of reach. He makes little moaning sounds, and I wonder if he dreams of trains, too. He wanted to be a soldier, but the army wouldn’t take him. I’d give him the moon if I could.
Puss jumps onto the bed right in front of me and I drop the tray. The bowl hits the edge of the metal and the soup spills all over Dad. He doesn’t flinch. He yawns and pulls the quilt closer.
“I’m so cold,” he says, closing his eyes. His face is turning blue.
The spoon is still hot in my hand. “I made you soup,” I say. His skin should be burning.
Puss hisses at me before stretching his boots toward Dad, arching his back and raising his tail high. I try to wipe up some of the noodles with my jacket, but it isn’t working. When I look up, Puss is parked on Dad’s chest, eyes boring into me. I grab him by the scruff of the neck and tote him into the hallway, closing the door behind me. Puss is growling all the way.
“What are you doing with my cat?” Jezebel shrieks. I don’t even know where she’s been all day. In one hand is a faux pearl earring, and a fool’s gold necklace rests on her collarbone. Her cheeks are pink with too much rouge on the apples. Lipstick is smeared across her mouth, even across her chin in places, making it look like blood. She does not look like my sister.
“What are you doing wearing Mom’s jewelry,” I say. “You don’t even remember her.”
She drops the earring and snatches Puss away from me, cradling him in her arms like she did the day she found him. “Jack,” she says, looking at me like she is dreaming with her eyes open, “I want to go as a queen.”
Puss grows longer and longer until his boots touch the floor. My sister convulses. Puss slips from her grasp and she clutches her stomach with her hand until she vomits. Once. Twice. Three times. Mahogany spots are breaking through the rouge—the precursor to blue. I can’t help her. I am no savior.
Puss is walking towards me on two legs, paw outstretched, his bandit eyes unblinking. I run, slamming every door behind me.
I can feel him purring through the floorboards.
* * *
I am no prince, no huntsman, no knight, no redeemer. I am but a blind mouse. I am the fool.
* * *
I am not sure who I am praying to, but I am praying. My hands are not steepled; they are clasped around my sides. I can see my breath in the air on the roof, and I want to close my eyes. I need to close them, but I’m scared. This is not my war. The city is so quiet, so empty. I can hear the cats diving in the trashcans below. The sky is murky and gray like the Charles, like the skyscrapers, and I cannot see the moon, but I am praying. I am sort of crying. I miss how Mom always smelled of violets and pound cake. I miss her crooked smile and the dark circles beneath her bright eyes. I miss her callused fingers playing with my hair even though I’m too old for that, the scars on her hands from the sewing machines, the lines in her palms that told her everything would be okay. I miss the stories. I miss hiding with her in myths and tales and religions that never had to be real. I miss, I miss, I miss.
If there is a God, it would be nice to hear from him.
I don’t hear the cats climbing up the sides of the building. I don’t hear them as the train whistles, as the cars keep clattering across the tracks over and over and over. I see them. I see a swarm of dead birds covering Boston, raining from airplanes like bombs. I see bodies piled upon bodies upon bodies, barricades of humans that refuse to let me run. I see them and I want to un-see them. I cannot see the moon for all the fur, for all the feathers, all the flesh.
None of it has to be real.
I close my eyes.
2014, 3rd Place Fiction Winner