Opening her window to the fog, she wondered if the cat had returned. Just before dark last night she had placed a bowl of mashed sardines under the false spirea bushes surrounding the above ground pool. The fog wafted into her room. She saw very little except shadowy shapes, the top limp branches of a sun-burst locust tree which appeared to be floating, the smoky blue roof of the garden shed. No sound, not even birds who usually woke her up in the morning. The pool itself had all but disappeared, the surface of the water or the deck no longer visible. Leaning out, Cassie peered down, listening for the cat, but heard only her own breathing.
The fog almost covered the second storey of the neighbours’ houses, but she could make out windows, chimneys, and the arch of a gable. Perhaps sardines from a can were not to its taste. Shivering in her thin nightie almost the same colour as the fog on the window pane, she carefully closed her bedroom door and tiptoed past her parents’ room. The hard wood floor was cool to her soft feet. She did not expect either her father or mother to be awake before noon. They had not returned home until three in the morning.
Emmanuel had just left the house minutes earlier, promising to come back and wake her if necessary. He had dared her to let him stay the night in her bed where he left his underwear. Rolling it into a ball, she stuffed it under her own panties in a drawer. Her parents no longer checked to see if she was sleeping. Emmanuel had sneezed over her stuffed bears on the bed. She heard every drunken step up the stairs, her father’s curse on the landing when he tripped, and her mother’s loud, “ssssshh, you’ll wake Cassie.”
After they left last night she opened the tin of sardines. Her mother would never notice one missing from the stockpile of tinned goods she kept in the pantry. Cassie then phoned Emmanuel to say the coast was clear. She had first noticed the cat a week ago, having heard a rustle in the bushes just feet away from the deck stairs. There it was, so concentrated on ripping the head off a bird that it didn’t scurry away when she approached, but continued gnawing on the skull. When it became aware of her presence, it simply hissed. Cassie stepped back and the cat resumed his meal. It was a large calico cat with one ear bent and one eye puckered shut, the fur knotted on its back, skin revealed in patches, scratched and pimpled with black and red sores. She stood watching it eat the poor bird, licking its paws, separating each claw. Then it suddenly pricked up one ear and dashed into the bushes, leaving behind feathers and a bird’s delicate foot.
Her parents refused to let her have a dog although they had once allowed a gerbil. It died within a week and they said she was responsible for its death, so no more animals. Once Emmanuel had hoisted himself over the fence last year and joined her in the pool, she stopped thinking about pets. Still, the animal looked hungry. Why not feed a stray cat? Careful that her parents, if home, did not see what she was doing, she left out food and milk and it returned each evening. Emmanuel wasn’t interested in her story of the wild cat, but pushed her up the stairs to her bedroom where he liked to caress her legs first.
Outside the fog felt damp and cool to her skin and she imagined herself walking right through a cloud. A squeak, a meow, a hiss and rustle: she couldn’t quite determine the sound as she approached the ring of bushes scarcely visible herself to Emmanuel’s father who had opened his own window and spied her in the fog below. He had seen Cassie leaving food for the cat the other day, and wanted to tell her not to encourage the presence of feral creatures in the neighbourhood. They spread disease, wrecked gardens, and bit children, he would have said, although he had never in fact heard of a cat biting a child.
Last night he shouted at Emmanuel who had come home too late and smelled of recent sex. “Where the hell have you been? Do you know what time it is?” He knew of course where his son had been. Emmanuel shoved past him on the stairwell, mumbling something about needing sleep and “leave me alone.” Emmanuel was sixteen, big for his age, and a student of martial arts. Strictly speaking, having sex with fifteen year old Cassie was statutory rape. He leaned over the window sill as if to move the fog aside with his hands: ah, yes, there, the fog appeared to separate to his advantage and he could make out her shape bending under the bushes. It would be absolutely reprehensible, not to mention illegal, to seduce Cassie. He was afraid to speak to his son.
Since his wife’s death in a year ago in the car crash, he was burdened by grief, insurance policies, grocery shopping, depressed over the declining sales commissions at the furniture store, and perplexed by Emmanuel’s sullen belligerence. Now he had to remind himself that, yes, he had loved Emmanuel’s mother and cried over her death, but he had forgotten what it felt like to caress her flesh. He imagined Cassie wrapped around Emmanuel’s taut and vigorous physique. His hand reached beneath his pyjamas just as Cassie entered the bushes and disappeared.
Fog wet the bushes and soaked her thin nightie, but she circled the pool behind them. Not even Jackson could see her anymore.
“Here, Kitty, Kitty.”
“Cassie, you there?”
Emmanuel had crossed over the fence.
“Here, I’m here on the other side, Manny.”
“I’m getting wet in the fog. Let’s go to the shed with me. Your parents sleeping?”
“I’m looking for the cat. Yes, they are.”
“Forget the cat.”
Jackson saw Emmanuel’s outline as he climbed the fence and pushed into the bushes. Removing his hand from under his pyjamas, he leaned out the window as far as he safely could as if to call his boy home or warn both kids about the dangers of savage and mangy cats. As he dressed he thought now was a good time to speak to both kids, kindly and fatherly, about the trouble they’d be in if Cassie’s parents found out. Well, he’d begin his warning with the cat: a filthy animal that should be put down.
He didn’t see Emmanuel and Cassie running to the shed, nor hear the door shut. Downstairs he stepped outside into the thickness of the fog. He could just make out the steps and the paved walkway leading to a vegetable patch. Above the garden rose the cedar fence marking the boundary between his property and Cassie’s house. He could climb that like Emmanuel whom, he recognized for the first time this morning, stood taller and broader than his own father. Should it ever come to a physical confrontation, Jackson could not be certain of winning.
Straddling the top of the fence, Jackson admitted that he could just as well have walked around the corner to Cassie’s, which would have taken longer. He didn’t want to waste time. They’d be in the bushes, possibly petting the cat, or Emmanuel might even be hoisting Cassie on to his … Jackson took a deep breath. He would caution them about the dangers of disease and discovery.
In the shed Emmanuel sat on a wooden tool box, his jeans crumpled around his ankles. Cassie straddled his thighs, holding her damp nightie above her navel, just as his father pushed into the bushes and called their names. Their breathing was loud and their attention concentrated.
“Cassie, you there? It’s Emmanuel’s dad. Emmanuel?”
The sound underbrush was sharp, unexpected, as he tripped, fell towards the curve of the above ground pool and struck his head against its grey sides. The next sound, his own yell, broke through the fog, momentarily distracting Cassie until Emmanuel pulled her down again. The cat’s claws scratched one fierce time and tore the skin of Jackson’s left ankle. He had not put on socks in his haste to warn the kids.
He reached for his ankle when the cat slashed again, this time ripping the back of his hand. Jackson kicked, but missed, and the cat dashed away. Holding his hand close to his eyes, he saw streaks of red and felt the heat of new pain. Over the rim of the pool, he plunged his hand into the water. Temperatures had fallen overnight as they usually did in late August when only the kids, braving the cold, still splashed about in the pool. Cassie’s parents would soon close it.
KENNETH RADU’S most recent collection of short fiction, his fourth, is called Sex in Russia: New & Selected Stories, published last year by DC Books Canada. Some of the stories take place either in the Russia of reality or a Russia of imagination. There is sex, both real and imaginary, as well.