Fiction · 01/25/2012

An excerpt from Echolocation

Late in the night the cats took up meowing, nearing a howl. Geneva and Cheri heard them at the same moment — Geneva lying on top of the covers of the mattress she slept on and Cheri tucked tightly into her childhood single bed. Both of them left their windows open a crack each night to get the fresh air. It’s what Auntie Marie always taught them to do.

They assumed the cats would let up after a bit but when they did not, they each got up from bed, slipped on clothes and shoes, and made their way out to see what was agitating the animals. Could be a hungry fox or a coyote, but one of them surely wouldn’t be stupid enough to take on the wild cats.

Cheri walked to the back door of the house with a flashlight and found Geneva already waiting. They nodded to each other and walked out, side by side. As they neared the shed, Cheri turned on the flashlight and pointed it in the direction of the noise. Dozens of pairs of gleaming eyes shone back, open mouths, swishing tails.

There was no coyote, no fox. Cats weren’t warring with each other either. It was something else: Auntie Marie was dead. They both felt she was dead before they knew it for sure. They would find her later in bed, mouth agape, hands and feet like ice. But for the moment there were the cats crying, the chill breeze rattling the remaining leaves.

“Why didn’t you make her get treatment?” Cheri asked, shutting off her light and looking up at the sky, the moon.

“Why didn’t you?” Geneva stepped away, headed in the direction of the woods.

“I wasn’t here,” Cheri said.

“Right,” Geneva said over her shoulder. “You weren’t here.”

Cheri followed Geneva’s straight, angry back to the woods. They walked in silence with Geneva leading until they found the spot in the clearing. Using the moon’s pale light, they gathered up leaves, twigs, and larger branches and set them down in the fire round. Geneva pulled a lighter out of her pocket and bent over the pile. She lit the lighter but could not make it catch.

“I need help,” she said. Cheri knelt down beside Geneva and cupped a hand over the flame. The flame caught and they both bent to blow on it in unison until the fire was in good shape. They sat back a ways from the round, close enough to each other that their cross-legged knees could have touched.

“What do we do now?”

“About what?” Geneva rubbed her nose with the clutched sleeve of her shirt.

“With the cats and everything?” Cheri poked at the fire with a stick.

“The ASPCA could help trap them. Get them to a shelter.”

“Those cats can’t live in a shelter. They’re wild. They need to be able to come and go,” Cheri said.

“What am I supposed to do with them? I can’t do it all myself. Not like this.” Geneva turned, faced Cheri and waited until Cheri turned to her, looked. Then she lifted the small stub of arm she still had left and flapped it in Cheri’s direction.

Cheri lowered her eyes and Geneva felt a moment of satisfaction. Felt she had gotten through. Cheri would stay. It was what Auntie Marie had hoped. She wanted the two of them to live there, to take over the store, the cats. It must have been her dying wish and Geneva was relieved that it was going to come true.

“I guess we could shoot them,” Cheri said. She would not be trapped so easily. She stood up from the fire and left Geneva sitting where she was.

The town turned out for the wake and funeral. Auntie Marie was a hero, a saint for facing her cancer the way she did. People praised her for not taking treatment, for going out the way she wanted, for waiting for her miracle.

After she was buried in the ground before it froze up for good, Cheri and Geneva were left to figure out next steps. They’d both been left the store and property, but it was decided that Geneva would stay and work it on her own.

They would shoot the cats together.

The cats kept up their racket every night in the week after Auntie Marie died. Never letting up, or letting go. Geneva was sure they knew that they would soon die. That Cheri, in her selfish need to flee, would kill them.

On the day Cheri was leaving, they set out to kill the cats with Auntie Marie’s rifle. She’d taught them both to shoot when they were young because if there was going to be a gun in the house then everyone should know how to use it properly, to respect it. They were unclear whether Geneva would be able to shoot, but they were willing to give it a try as she’d always been the better shot and neither one wanted to see the cats needlessly suffer because of bad aim.

That day, the sky was a ghostly, pale blue with tufts of milkweed suspended in the air. A lingering flock of geese flew overhead, their V small and haphazard, not like the larger flocks that had flown over in August. It was time to head south or risk spending the winter in the cold, foodless north. Cheri felt this, too, and could barely conceal her eagerness to get this over with, shoot the cats, and leave it all behind.

She realized that this might be the last time she saw any of it. Saw Geneva. Here was a thought that both pleased and horrified her. She had become a person who could easily walk away from her responsibilities. She was not the person her aunt had raised. This much was clear.

“Well,” Geneva said as they stood before the shed. “I guess we might as well do it now.” She raised the butt of the rifle to her shoulder, and took aim. The gun slipped. Geneva dropped her head and handed it over to Cheri. “I can’t do it,” she said. “It’s too shaky.”

Cheri took the rifle, lifted it, and aimed. The cat she chose first was a sleek black Tom with white paws and a white diamond on his forehead. She put her finger on the trigger and eased it back. The cat stared at her. Opened its mouth wide, but no sound came out.

She felt it knew it was about to die. It did not run, even though that is the most important instinct living creatures have — to run when in danger. The cat flicked its head and lifted a paw to its mouth, licked it, and then swiped it over its face.

Cheri lowered the gun from shooting position and placed it on the ground. She had seen the face of her Auntie Marie in that cat and she could not kill it. Could not, in fact, kill anything. Geneva had killed before — rats that got into the shed, a rabid raccoon — but Cheri had never been able to. “You don’t have the stomach for it,” is what Auntie Marie said when they were growing up and Cheri choked at the rifle time and again. “You’ve got too much of your mother in you. Just a tender heart with black all around the edges where your bad side fights your good side.”

“I can’t do it,” Cheri said when it seemed the silence might rise up and pull her into the sky.

“I know,” Geneva said and let her right hand snake out to find Cheri’s left one, which she grabbed, squeezed tight, and then let go.

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Myfanwy Collins lives on the North Shore of Massachusetts with her husband and son. Her work has been published in The Kenyon Review, AGNI, Cream City Review, Quick Fiction, Potomac Review and other venues. Her novel, Echolocation, will debut in March 2012 and is available for preorder. A collection of her short fiction, I Am Holding Your Hand, is also forthcoming from PANK Little Books in August 2012. Please visit myfanwycollins.com for more information.