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Oct/Nov 2016 Fiction

Hello Kitty

by Stacey E. Bryan

Image courtesy of the British Library Online Photo Collection


I'm already in a heightened state of paranoia when I find the Hello Kitty lunch pail because I think someone has been following me. A man. I'm walking my usual route home from the North Hollywood library when I see it lying in the middle of the sidewalk, bright pink and shiny, lost or discarded. Or placed. I stop beside it. Placed. When I reach for it, alarms clamor somewhere inside my head.

But I pick it up anyway.

Once I'm holding it, an ever-increasing sense of emerging panic tightens across my diaphragm. I stand there squinting under the sun, gripping the lunchbox tightly, wondering what's wrong. Am I having a heart attack? I'm too young to have a heart attack, aren't I?

Above me, leaves rustle in the wind, scratching, whispering. A sparrow wings past, surfing the invisible current, and my head whips around, following the flash of gray until it's out of sight. Unexpectedly, saliva shoots into my mouth. Get you, I think, staring after the bird. And then right after that, what? Get you?

Unnerved, I tuck the metal pail beneath my arm and start walking again. There's nobody in front of me, nobody behind me. I don't see the man. The wind blows through the trees, and the limbs sigh and moan.

It occurs to me I'm having a stroke and the stroke is triggering weird thoughts and feelings as parts of my brain misfire and/or shut down. Do strokes run in my family? I don't remember. I can't remember! Is memory loss a symptom of stroke? Yeah. It is. I'm pretty sure it is.

The lunch pail slips from beneath my arm and clatters on the sidewalk, bringing me back to my senses. I'm okay. Everything is okay. Calm down. I only saw the guy a few times. In the store. Just now, in the library. Something familiar about him. Probably lives in the neighborhood. Calm down. The day is still beautiful, the wind is still beautiful, North Hollywood is still beautiful.

It's a beautiful day in LA. I just need some food, some lunch. I had skipped it, after all, gotten caught up in my reading at the library. I am especially fond of Margery Wilkes Bianco. "Real isn't how you're made. It's the thing that happens to you." The Velveteen Rabbit. I want to know more about her, why she said that, where she got that.

I want to know more about others like her, writers, inventors, philosophers, who stood under the blazing stars, separately or together, mutely acknowledging their vast distance, bowing beneath the staggering weight of duration.

When I bend for the lunchbox again, I feel better, but in the back, still there, a certain angst stirs and strains, stirs and strains. Where has this crazy paranoia come from? I don't remember being psychic. Is anybody in my family psychic? I have no idea. No idea.

I study the box. What's the deal? Is Mephistopheles superimposed over the Hello Kitty design somehow, visible only in black light? Is there a pound of cocaine inside? Hesitantly, I open it. Tucked neatly within is a box of milk, unopened, half of a tuna fish sandwich, and a sprig of watercress. There. See? No coke, no heroin. Although the watercress is odd. Do children, as a rule, enjoy watercress?

Something leaps in my guts and clenches. An almost-thought. I close the box, turn it over. On the back, a name and address is taped to one corner: Lucy, 9 Betty Way. Curiously, I watch as the tin box moves, suddenly rattling as if an animal inside is trying to claw its way out, and then I think, I just looked inside. There's no animal in there.

And then I realize it's my hand, shaking uncontrollably.

I watch numbly as the lunchbox plummets to the sidewalk once more. It clatters. A feeling invades my consciousness, some questing memory. But a moment later my hand is still, and I have no idea what has happened. The address is just an address. Lucy (though, curiously, my name is Lucy, too) is just a little girl.

But now it is obvious I have some kind of neurological disease that's just starting to show symptoms. I decide I'd better get home. Now.

I have to cross one major street on the way home, and my belly clenches in anticipation. Something about the cars, the endless stream of movement in either direction. There's a momentary image of gigantic, roaring metal beasts, fenders and tires that dwarf my entire body. Oh, my God, what is this now?

I stand on the curb gazing at the traffic and the cars, which appear as a normal size, not monstrous, but still dangerous 2,000-ton vehicles one must be careful to avoid. Wait a minute, though. I don't have to avoid them, do I? I just remembered—press the crosswalk button. Boy, am I in the wrong town. LA is made of cars. One can't be constructed of fluff and fear in a town made entirely of moving metal.

My aunt isn't home when I finally arrive, safe and sound. I begin to feel better, though, despite all the strangeness of the afternoon. I find myself standing before the refrigerator, staring into its interior, Hello Kitty still tucked, forgotten, beneath my arm. What am I looking for? My eyes ping pong along the shelves but keep straying back to the milk carton.

I'm not there more than 30 seconds before the doorbell rings. I freeze, hoping they'll go away. In this strange state, I feel vulnerable. I just want to stay here, curled up and safe in some corner, waiting for my aunt to reappear. Outside, the wind continues to bluster, but the doorbell remains silent. I pad to the front window and peer out from behind the curtain, expecting anything at this point.

What I don't expect is to see him, him, stuffing a flyer into the mailbox, then moving on to the apartment building next door. The wind grabs at his clothes, yanks them in every direction. My blood freezes. The hair on the back of my neck spikes straight up. What are the odds? The odds are nil. He's stalking me. And there's something else, something weird: a familiarity, a warm feeling obliterating terror, like a mild sedative working its way through my nervous system.

I whirl around and against my better judgment yank open the front door and gallop outside. The man is nowhere in sight now, yet I strain after him, feeling my guts pull in the direction he has gone, as if an invisible string is attached between us. What the hell? Was I going to turn out to be one of those women who are drawn to violent, unstable men?

I approach the mailbox and yank out the mail, grapple at the flyer as it threatens to kite off into the wind, slap it flat on top of Hello Kitty. A mimeographed color photo of an animal stares back at me: glossy black fur, sleepy green eyes, beneath which are the words: Lost cat. If found, please call 555-1212.

The wind tears some coupons from my hands and sends them pinwheeling across the gleaming grass. Lost cat. Lost. Suddenly sick to my stomach, I eye the lawn in glassy-eyed contemplation as if throwing myself to my hands and knees and chewing on that soft rug of green would somehow make me feel better.

But I can't puke now, because there's no time for that. From the corner of my eye, I catch movement and see him, the man, now across the street, walking away. The unaccountable tug at my innards happens again, the unwarranted pull in his direction.

I don't know what that's about, being drawn to a strange man who's stalking me. What I do know is I want to stay home, safe, warm, and so I can't do that. I have to do more than be warm and safe at home. Something tells me this. So I follow the man, my potential stalker.

I shove the remaining mail, including the flyer, back into the box and clutch Hello Kitty as if it's little Lucy herself and I'm leading her by the hand safely across the street. Only it feels distinctly as if Hello Kitty is leading me somewhere. I raise the hoodie on my sweatshirt. I am going. The day, my life, the world, is demanding this from me somehow. The burning stars are demanding this of me.

The man is not difficult to follow. He's big without being fat, wearing a bright red teeshirt. Somehow I know that if I was a bull, I would be enraged at the sight of him. He meanders down the sidewalk, and I trail him as casually as possible from across the street until he makes an abrupt left turn, disappearing behind a large gray building.

I approach the corner and hesitate—God, not this again. I make myself press the button, then cautiously step out into the street when the cars stop, convinced they will not remain stopped long enough, and bolt crazily for the other side.

When I'm finally across, one kind of panic replaces another. Now I'm convinced I've lost him. But as I round the large building myself, I see him up ahead, still striding forward with a nonchalant air, the rest of the flyers now stuffed into his back pocket.

He stops three-fourths of the way down the sidewalk in front of an aging motel-style apartment building. From the other direction, a blonde, middle-aged woman wearing a vivid purple tracksuit seems to appear out of nowhere and approaches him warily. He throws his arms out, but she doesn't reciprocate. Instead, she grasps one of his outstretched hands and shakes it rather formally.

He turns and ascends the stairs to the second level of apartments while the woman gazes after him. He notices she's not following and backtracks. He thrusts out one arm as if to say, "After you." The woman hesitates, then shuffles up the stairs with him close behind.

He doesn't appear to be forcing her in any way, but I can't shake the feeling that something odd is going on, something illicit. They reach the top of the stairs and disappear into the dark doorway of the corner apartment. That's when I turn my head and read the street sign that says Betty Way. That's when the doorway of the stalker's apartment closes, bearing the number 9 on its faded light blue façade.

I bend forward and set the Hello Kitty lunchbox onto the grass where I'm standing, across the street from number 9, Betty Way. I lean against a tree, staring at the apartment. Of course little Lucy lives here, in this apartment, the apartment of a man who either lives a parallel life to mine, showing up in all the same places, or a man who is stalking me.

It fits in, makes sense somehow, in the context of this very strange day. Lucy the child, with half a tuna fish sandwich inside her and half of it sitting at my feet, has a stalker for a father. Or an uncle. Or a big brother.

I am not surprised. I am not scared. They have lost a cat with black silky fur, or perhaps they have not lost a cat with black silky fur. At some point I went through the looking glass, but I don't remember how or when. I don't remember entering the portal...

Now I recall seeing the lunchbox on the sidewalk, the feeling I had of it being placed there. The limbs above me shift in the wind, and a butterfly flitters by, drawing my attention. Before I can stop myself, I'm chasing after it, trying to swat it out of the sky.

Abruptly I stop mid-step, one hand pressed lightly against my temple as if a fascinating theorem has just occurred to me. Except it hasn't. There is only the wind pushing the distant butterfly who only narrowly escaped the looming violence of my balled-up fists.

Since when did I want to hurt things, kill things? What was it I had thought earlier as the bird had flown by? Get you? Yes. Get you. I had thought that, hadn't I? And yet it felt right somehow, fine, acceptable.

"Real isn't how you're made," I whisper out loud, over and over under my breath like a mantra. "Real isn't how you're made." I bend forward and retrieve Hello Kitty, staring at the address to confirm I've read it right. "It's the thing that happens to you. It's the thing that happens."

Across the street, the door of number 9 bounces open, and my stalker emerges, sans the woman, but now with a large golden Labrador bounding and leaping at his feet. At the sight of the dog, the hair on the back of my neck stands straight up, and I involuntarily bare my teeth. I slide behind the tree. The rough bark bites into my cheek.

I hear my stalker coming down the stairs, then see him jogging down the sidewalk back the way we had come. The Labrador, tail wagging crazily, tongue lolling, races off at full speed in the opposite direction. I frown, confused. Once they're both out of sight, I'm up and moving, before I even realize it, like chasing the butterfly.

I'm across the street, I'm running up the stairs. If I stop, I won't keep going. So I keep going, keep going. I knock at the door of number 9, hard enough to make my knuckles sting. There's no response. No footsteps, no sounds whatsoever. I throw a quick glance around, then try the doorknob. It's open. I mutter a silent "I'm sorry" to my aunt, in case this turns out to be the dumbest thing I ever did. In case I never see her again. I step inside.

The blinds are drawn and the room semi-dark. I rip the hoodie off my head, impatient for an unobstructed view. It's a small studio apartment. My footsteps are muffled by a worn beige carpet, and I almost walk into a small bed jutting out from the corner. I step around it and move toward a miniscule nook where the "kitchen" is, little more than an island counter containing a toaster, a small juicer.

Behind it, against the wall, a mini-fridge. It takes one glance to show that nobody's back there, crouching down or tied up. A cursory examination of the entire apartment reveals no children's toys, clothes, or otherwise. Daughter shifts to niece.

There is nothing else in the room except the bed in the corner, a wooden chair in the other, and the three kitchen appliances. I set Hello Kitty down on the counter and tread lightly toward what I imagine is the bathroom, heart thundering, limbs shaky. I brace myself to find the woman in the bathroom, tied up in the bathtub, because there's nowhere else she could be, and there's no other way out of here except the front door.

But the bathroom, too, is revealed to be empty.

I return to the middle of the studio, baffled. Gradually, the unthinkable is dawning on me. If the woman never left and I can't find her, it means he must have killed her and stuffed her somewhere. The only explanation is that her corpse—probably still warm—is under the bed or crammed into the tiny closet by the front door.

But how? How? There hadn't been enough time for that. I notice my rigid body, poised for flight. Leave now, it's telling me. Leave. Now. But instead, I find myself approaching the tiny closet. I watch my hand reaching out. Leave! Run! Instead of running, I jerk open the closet door. Empty hangers clatter from the suck of air. The rest are filled with clothes.

There are stacks of clothes on the floor also, piled in neat rows. But no body. I'm about to close the door when two things happen simultaneously. I spot the purple tracksuit hanging from a hanger just as I hear a voice and footsteps approaching outside. I stare into the closet, frozen. The seconds tick by.

Somehow I move, find myself at the side of the door. The wooden chair appears in my hands. My aunt's face flashes before me, no one else's. My life flashes before me, an abbreviated series of confusing images: fire, the tail of a rat disappearing beneath a hedge, a mangy barking dog, fire again, fire, sunlight slanting across a pillow, three perfect droplets of white, white milk.

The door swings open. A smallish black and white dog runs into the room. My hackles rise. My arms twitch, holding the chair. The man steps in next and immediately spots Hello Kitty on the kitchen counter. Oh, God, Hello Kitty! Up close, he's even bigger and taller than I thought.

He starts to turn as the chair hurtles down toward his head. His arm jerks up, deflecting full impact. A leg snaps off with a satisfying crack as it meets his forearm. He staggers while I leap for the door. Weirdly, he yells out, "Lucy!" as my sweaty hands grapple at the knob. I'm yanked back by my hoodie. My legs fly out and I land on my back, hard. I see stars.

"Lucy!" he yells again. He's calling his kid. Or his demented, murderous niece to come out from wherever she's been hiding and join him in the mayhem. Because I don't know this guy! The crazy logic spirals though my mind in milliseconds. With no conscious thought, I roll over, grab at his legs, heave. He slams down to the floor. His head whacks the wall. He grunts. Yes!

I'm clambering to my feet, but he's already there, pulling me back. The black and white dog hovers, dancing nearby. His shrill bark pierces my eardrums and makes my skin crawl.

The man has both arms wrapped around me, and we're rolling around on the carpet, grunting and groaning. Our feet kick, scattering broken chair parts. I roll over the shattered wooden leg. It gouges my back. I jerk free an arm and whisk my hand toward his face in a vicious arc. Blood blooms in four streaks across his cheek.

I draw my legs up between us, then jam both feet into his knees. He says, "Uhh... Potnia," and his grip falters. I wiggle away, leap to my feet. The black and white lunges at me, barking madly, as if I'm the one who stalks and murders women, as if I'm the one with a body beneath my bed.

No! comes the crazy thought, no, no, no! Not true, not true!

I push the crazy thought away.

The man's still on the ground, writhing around. I lift my foot, aiming directly at his heart. He rolls away as my foot lands with a dull thud where his breastbone used to be. I turn once more for the door but step sideways on an errant piece of wood. My ankle twists. I screech, arms akimbo.

He grabs my pant leg, pulls. I fly sideways toward the bed. My head grazes the edge of the metal frame. Lightheaded, my thoughts scramble. For my aunt, I think, for my aunt. I think of the stars, how long it takes the light to reach earth.

"Lucy!" he cries again, still gripping my ankle. Dizzy, I draw the other leg back, preparing to smash him in the face with my heel, but something happens. As if a filter has lifted, something penetrates--a tone, an undercurrent. The feeling from earlier returns as I'm engulfed by a warm, soft calm, like slipping into a bath and a silk robe simultaneously.

I lie on my side panting, fingers clawed into the ugly worn carpet. My leg is still lifted, a potential battering ram. I look at his face. His eyes find mine. Blood pours down his cheek in ragged runnels. But he's smiling. Smiling. I should be scared. But I'm not. The smile is sweet somehow, not deranged. Then he chuckles, a deep rumbling sound like a waterfall. The black and white prances over and licks his face joyfully.

"Lucy!" he bellows. He releases my ankle and rolls onto his back, throws his arms wide, laughing. "Do you hear her?" he shouts toward the ceiling, "Do you see her?" As I stare at him in my warm, befuddled state, the claw marks on his face begin to disappear. I blink. Then black and white licks the blood away. There's nothing left but smooth, unblemished skin. The bloody gouges are gone. I blink again.

"That's what she's made of! So she fights, she fights!" I take this in calmly, distantly, from my warm place. Without warning, he grabs the dog up off the floor. It yelps in surprise. Then the tail whirls, propeller-like. Some mysterious, innate aversion to the dog diminishes somewhat as I watch the display, curious.

The man lifts one of its floppy ears and whispers into it. Then he sets it back down gently. Staring, I roll over onto my butt as the air seems to shimmer and the room grows warm. Everything fuzzes around the edges like a fog has blown in from somewhere. I think of a gassy drug pouring into the room from the vents.

The dog vacillates, then expands, engaged in a chimerical transformation. He rises up, up, up, stretches out, elongates, transmutes, until he is now a teenaged boy, a naked boy with darkish skin and inky black curls streaked with white, standing in the middle of the studio. The air clears, the edges sharpen back into focus. I sit on the carpet, listening to my heart beat.

I know only one thing: I am here in this room I am awake I am not dreaming.

The man bounds to his feet, opens the closet door. He burrows into the piles for a moment, then turns and offers a stack of clothes to the boy who begins dressing without hesitation. Once the kid's clad in jeans and a teeshirt, the man says, "Go on, buddy. Go on. See you later."

The boy stares wordlessly around at the room, down at me, back at him. Then he seems to make some decision and takes one long-legged step over my prone body to the door. He goes out, and we listen to his energetic galloping down the stairs and footsteps running off into the distance. Outside, the wind has soothed itself into a fitful murmur.

"Holy crap," says the man, smiling. He stands there, rubbing his cheek where the claw marks no longer are. He has a wild, admiring look on his face, like someone who has bumped unexpectedly into a beloved celebrity. Up close, I notice how big his hands are. He could have crushed me, battered me with a minimum of effort. But he had actually been very restrained during the fight.

His hair is brownish, streaked with gold, as if he's out in the sun a lot. It curls down just past his ears. We're quiet while I sit there, panting. He is not panting. If his face sustains no wounds, neither will his lungs run out of air.

Slowly my breathing evens out.

"I turned her back to Labrador," comes his voice. I look up. His skin seems to glow in the gathering gloom. "The woman," he says. "I know you want to know. Even though you know." He smiles. "She was done. Turned her back. She ran home."

Back to Labrador. She ran home. If the words were colors, they'd be bright yellow.

I think of the stars, of standing on two legs. The man gazes steadily at me. His eyes are luminous, mirror-like. I know this man. I know him. Little pieces are trickling back. Suddenly he addresses the ceiling again, performing for his invisible audience. "You saw the fire," he yells, craning his head up to the ceiling. I look up, too. There's nothing there.

"We all saw!" Back at me now. "The same way you fought me, you fought the fire." Quietly. "For your aunt. Who isn't your aunt. Mrs. Johnson, who isn't your aunt."

Here they come, here they come, all the little pieces.

"You ran into her room. You cried and cried, little Lucy, and sprang upon her. She woke. She got outside, escaped the fire. Your love pierced the sky. The vibration drew focus upon you. Your love and awareness leaped out toward the reeling cosmos. Yearning will make you human soon. The pull is strong."

I remember. As if the black, billowing smoke, sound like papers rustling, billions of papers, sound preceding immense heat, had been stoppable. Mrs. Johnson, Mrs. Johnson. As if my furry paws, burning, my tiny cries could do anything. But they had, they had...

I blink. I come back.

The murky room gets gloomier as the day grows older. The man takes a step closer. My stalker. My would-be killer. But none of these things. Something else entirely, something no one in this world could even guess. Not even I, until a moment ago. He looms above me gigantically, teeth flashing. He holds out his hands. I place mine in his, and he hauls me to my feet.

A warm pulsing current flows from his skin. He wraps his arms around me. I stiffen. He says into the side of my hair, "I know you have questions..." He leaves this hanging, and I fill it in, though-I-already-know.

He showed me the portal. I stepped through it.

"Everybody already knows. But think about it this way."

I wait, wrapped in his arms, prepared to think.

"You're as real as I am. Border Collie is as real as his caretaker." He gestures toward the door where the boy had recently departed. "When Border Collie stops at the corner and looks both ways before crossing the street, a supernal call flies out because the rhythm of the world has jittered. Fraction of an inch with him. But still. Enough."

He sighs, a sonorous moan. "More with you. The bigger the stone, the larger the ripple. It can be crow, it can be squirrel. You're granted the test, the chance to taste the upright life, to see if it registers. For many it doesn't, and that's fine. Animal is real. Human is real. They're just different. Very different. We give you a chance to see."

A chance, a taste. And then return to Labrador, or Border Collie, and run home. As I will turn back to Persian and run home. Not as fast as dog can run, but as fast as cat. A fast cat trotting beneath the teeming stars, unaware the stars are there. A fast cat who knows nothing of what is real or what it becomes, because it will be nothing but a fast cat dodging speeding metal monsters, chasing swallows, rough tongue lapping milk.

The man releases me from his embrace and backs away.

"Lucy," he says, "come with me. Come outside." He says this as if it's a grand invitation, a doorway leading to untold bliss. He opens the door, and we step out onto the landing. The sun is setting, the world orange. He clasps one of my hands between his gigantic palms and gazes out at the sky.

Passion spills from him, a stream of magnetism rippling with consciousness. The energy penetrates, assails my being, packs my cells with knowledge. The energy spins out wordless images.

I see him extending a fleeting legerdemain that shreds our animal, shifts to us human, lends us a tale. People think Persian is a niece. Or Labrador's a daughter. Or Border Collie's a son. Neighbors glamored to ignore the animal/human traffic. After one returns to animal, the story remains but diminishes slowly, until everyone simply forgets. No one will remember. I will not remember. His eyes are pale brown, lightening to gold around the edges. I will not remember.

Conjuring checklist for the day: assemble a scrumptious feline menu: tuna, milk and watercress. Baste heavily in magic. Amplify the tug between us, create an urge to follow that supersedes all else, even self-preservation. Throw in the Hello Kitty pail for a touch of light humor. I guess he has the right to entertain himself.

Then pull me in. Pull me in. Because I've ignored the call and haven't come back. My fighting nature won't let me go back. The mystery of the stars proves more compelling than the life of cat. But there are rules that can't be broken. The hint, the taste, now back, back.

This city will lose its name, become a nameless place punctuated by the drone of speeding machines, a vast space perpetually scorched by the sun. Los Angeles. Los Angeles. I commit it to memory, trying to hold on.

The man reaches up and touches my cheek. When I turn toward him, I find our faces inches apart. Our eyes lock. My mind races with possibility. I am beautiful, after all. Black hair and green eyes. Persian translated well into this form. I can use this. I can get what I want.

His eyes are ablaze with love, but not the kind that succumbs to fleeting seduction. The thought of temptation immediately melts away, and I wilt, relieved. He pets my cheek, one, two, three times. "We'll meet again." Something ancient, like starlight, shines out from within him, burning hot.

"Now, come here," he says. He wiggles a puckish finger at me. "Come here."

"Out here?" I ask him.

The yearning spirals outward, puncturing earth and sky. I close my eyes, bowing beneath the enigma of existence, the immense gravity of being.

"Anywhere."

One last quick human thought. "Hurts?" I swallow. My throat is a little dry.

Softly: "Doesn't hurt." Warlock bends forward, whispers into my ear.

Raises an enormous hand, dripping with alchemy.

No blinding light, no searing pain, just as he says. Just shimmering air, edges melting, sense of heat and penetration, clothes falling away. And then no memory of talk or worries or anything, anything.

Lucy cat returns to herself, all four paws connecting with earth, black fur shiny bright, waving in the slight breeze. Before she runs away from the man, she rubs her cheek luxuriously along his blue-jeaned calf, awash with kitty love. Doesn't know why. Seems familiar.

Then she runs and runs away from the man, a fast, blissful cat bolting beneath the tumbling stars, home to Mrs. Johnson, whom she loves, home, home to warmth and softness and milky white milk.

Her kitty brain and kitty soul cradle a nugget, a potent dream of becoming that is locked away, safe for later. And this goes with her, even in the midst of cat in her domain, low to the ground, loving the orange heat of the shrinking sun, no past or future, just now, just now, birds, bugs, warm, soft, old woman at home calling, here, kitty, here, kitty, kitty, here, Lucy kitty.

 

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