I was recently chosen as one of the honorable mentions for the 2018 Literary Taxidermy Short Story competition. Hooray! The Literary Taxidermy competition, for those who don’t know, sets a challenge each year: to use the first and last line from different well-known works of literature and create your own completely unique story. The lines I used come from “Through the Looking Glass” by Lewis Carroll.
As the mention didn’t include publication, here is the short story. It’s called “Katrina” which I realize now is probably a mislead.
One thing was certain, that the white kitten had had nothing to do with it: – it was the black kitten’s fault entirely.
Katrina caught her breath. The crash, the sound of shattering pottery, it had all happened so suddenly it took her a moment to remember where she was.
“What was that?” Her stepmother called from the living room.
“Nothing,” Katrina called back. “You’re welcome,” she whispered to the kitten.
The black kitten remained silent but pawed delicately at its handiwork. The succulent, brought un-molested all the way from California, now lay hemorrhaging dirt, roots gasping in the air. The white kitten sat by watching.
The succulent had belonged to Katrina’s mother, but succulents, like people, were destined for death.
Katrina pushed herself up from her bed and went out to the kitchen to get the vacuum cleaner. Through the door she could see her stepmother watching Desperate Housewives. Her stepmother’s feet were settled comfortably on the coffee table next to Katrina’s mother’s ashes.
“What was that?” Allison asked again.
“I knocked over my plant,” Katrina said. “I’m cleaning it up now.”
“Hmm,” Allison said.
Katrina exhaled gently. Allison had been opposed to the kittens from the start, but Katrina had come to rely on them. They needed her, and she needed to be needed. As the long days of summer stretched out until school started again, she couldn’t imagine how she would have filled the emptiness without them.
It had been her father’s idea, of all things.
Katrina carried the vacuum cleaner back to her room, and the kittens hid under the bed. The noise of the vacuum filled the holes in Katrina’s head.
You didn’t even say–
The dirt disappeared, drawn up into the gaping mouth of the vacuum.
The life-giving earth mixing together with the lint and dust-bunnies and buttons and bits of string and millions of dead skin cells within the belly of the machine.
Everything happens for a reason–
She pulled the plug out of the wall with a yank. The vacuum, like everything else, died.
It had just been the two of them, all through childhood, Katrina and Sue. Always Sue, never Mom.
Sue in charge of working at the bank and cursing and bringing over boyfriends, and Katrina in charge of going to school and coercing her mother to eat vegetarian and storming into her room when she felt misunderstood. This was their paradise, their pattern, their life. Every once in a while, Katrina would get a letter from her father, but it never broke into the circle. The circle was impenetrable, unbreakable.
Until Katrina went to college.
The kittens pushed cautiously out from under the bed as Katrina lifted the succulent carefully and put it into a spare cup. She would find new soil for it later.
The kittens, entirely unrepentant, rubbed up against her legs looking for affection.
Katrina reached down to rub a hand along each eager spine. They were so small, she thought, so fragile.
That night at dinner, her father was in a talkative mood.
“–But he hadn’t even checked in,” her father said triumphantly. “The bastard was lying through his teeth the whole time.”
“Wow,” Allison said, nodding. “Some people, huh?”
“I’ll say,” her father said. He speared a green bean and flipped it into his mouth, chewing thoughtfully. “What did you do today, Kat?”
Katrina hadn’t been paying attention, the holes in her head struggling to reach one another, hearing only the clink of forks on ceramic and the sound of chewing teeth.
“Still sleepy, huh?” Her father said. “You think more about getting a job?”
“Maybe,” Katrina said.
“Well, the offer still stands, we could use good hands on the front desk.”
“I don’t know,” Katrina said.
“Really could use your help,” her father said.
“It’d be good for you,” Allison said, looking up from her potatoes. “It’s not healthy for you to be moping around the house.”
Katrina bit back a response.
“Maybe,” she said.
“What if you just try it out?” Her father said. “Come in and shadow for a day.”
“That sounds great,” Allison said, as if the question had been addressed to her.
“Sure,” Katrina said, “if Allison will take care of the kittens.”
Allison narrowed her eyes, but then thought better of it.
“Sure,” Allison said with a forced smile. “Deal.”
After dinner, Katrina and her father washed the dishes together.
“I was thinking,” her father said softly. “Kat, it’s probably time to bury the ashes.”
“No,” Katrina said. She moved her hands under the soapy water, waiting for contact. The dishes, that was what mattered, cleaning the dishes.
“It’s just going to get harder the longer you wait,” her father said.
“I have it handled,” Katrina said.
“I just don’t know if it’s healthy–“
“It’s my decision,” Katrina said. “You didn’t even know her.”
Her father dropped his eyes. He took the plate Katrina offered him without speaking and dried it reflexively with the dishtowel.
“Well, all right,” he said.
When the dishes were done, Katrina watched the soggy bits of food swirling around in a circle, slowly sucked down the sink.
“Are you trying to kill me?” Sue asked.
They were in the kitchen before dinner. Katrina tossing a salad with peppers and tomatoes and lime juice. It looked green and friendly, and Katrina tried to focus on the vibrant colors and not lose her temper.
“It’s not going to kill you, Sue,” Katrina said. “It’s just a really good school. And not much more expensive than in-state schools.”
“Sure,” Sue scoffed, “not much more than free. Free tuition, Kitty. Think of that!”
“I am thinking,” Katrina said. “But I’m also thinking of after. I mean I’d get to see a whole new part of the country. Bowdoin has a really great alumni network and–“
“And it’s in Maine,” Sue said.
“Be grateful it isn’t out of the country,” Katrina muttered.
“You are,” Sue said, following Katrina into the living room where they ate. “You are trying to kill me.”
“Mom, would you cut it out?” Katrina said. She only called Sue “mom” when she was truly annoyed, but the conversation had been going on for weeks. “Let’s just watch the show.”
“You can’t keep avoiding this,” Sue said.
“I’m not avoiding it,” Katrina said. “I’ve already made up my mind.” She turned on the television and the familiar sounds of Hercule Poirot filled the room.
“Well,” Sue said, “well, what if I say I won’t pay for it?”
Katrina exhaled. She had hoped it wouldn’t come to this, but it was too late now. They had come to the edge of the shore and there was nowhere left to go but into the deep water.
“Doesn’t matter,” Katrina said. “Dad said he’d help pay.”
Katrina’s father was the manager of a hotel in St. Louis. That was where he met Allison. That was where Katrina found herself headed the day after the succulent. She had kissed each kitten before leaving.
“I think you’ll really like it here,” her father promised.
Katrina stared out the window as the houses of the suburbs swept into the run-down factories, abandoned warehouses into the glass buildings all under the arch in sunlight.
Katrina hated it. She missed the fog and the hills, the sedate palm trees nodding approval. Sea gulls screaming for the sheer joy of it, her mother sitting with her toes in the sand, head thrown back laughing, and for once looking beautiful.
Katrina said nothing.
“So you’re Theodore’s daughter, huh?”
“I guess so,” Katrina said.
“Cool, cool,” the boy looked a few years older than Katrina, and not wearing it well. He had acne smeared across his forehead and a single earring in his right ear. Katrina pitied him.
“I’m Calvin,” the boy said. “You can call me Cal.”
“Like the song,” Katrina said.
“Oh like, Simon and Garfunkel,” Cal said. “I get it. Funny.”
“Sure,” Katrina said.
“The job is pretty easy,” Cal said. He gestured to their surroundings, a tiny office tucked behind the registration desk. A single fan tilted and whirred. “You just answer phones and get people their key cards and stuff. Basically, a monkey could do it.”
“I might be under-qualified,” Katrina said.
“No, no,” Cal said, “you’ll be fine.”
Katrina counted time: the hours, the minutes, sixty seconds to a minute, three thousand six hundred in an hour. Each one passed like breath, close to the next one, closer to the last.
At lunch, her father stopped by.
“How’s it going?” He asked.
“Slowly,” she said.
“It’s good that you’re here,” he said. “I mean, what would you be doing instead?”
“Moping,” her father corrected.
“Am I not allowed to grieve?”
“You’re not allowed to wallow.”
“Kat, can we not right now?”
“Sure, Dad, sorry for missing my dead mother.”
“Kat, come on,” her father’s forehead crinkled. “I miss her, too, you know.”
“Do you?” Katrina asked. “You two didn’t talk. You just sent messages through me.”
“Well,” her father rubbed the back of his neck. “It was complicated between us, you know.”
“If that’s what you want to call it.”
“Let’s not do this now.”
“Let’s not do this ever.”
“Look, Kat,” her father said, “I just wanted to say, I’m proud of you, okay? If you want to go home early today, that’s okay. Just don’t give up on it yet.”
“Fine,” Katrina said. “I’m going to go home and mope.”
“All right,” her father said.
Sue didn’t cry the whole drive out to Maine. She insisted on taking the days off and driving despite Katrina’s argument that flying would be faster, cheaper, and less embarrassing.
“I’m moving you into college, baby girl,” Sue said. “Don’t think you’re getting out of it.”
They stopped at all the cheesiest road-side attractions. The biggest taco, the oldest toothbrush in the continental United States. Katrina took a picture of Sue riding the bucking jack-a-lope in Wyoming. They ate burgers and fish sandwiches and ice cream sundaes. They slept at Super 8’s and drank disgusting diner coffee.
It was Katrina who cried when they crossed the border into Maine.
“Just call me whenever you need,” Sue said. “I’ll drive out to you whenever. Just say the word.”
“Love you, Sue,” Katrina said.
“Love you, baby girl.”
It wasn’t until Katrina was home for Christmas that Sue told her about the diagnosis.
When Katrina got home, the kittens were mewling at the door. Their food bowl was empty, their water was spilled across the kitchen floor. Allison was upstairs napping.
Katrina sopped up the water and refilled the kittens’ bowl.
She sat in the living room and looked at her mother’s urn.
It was plain, gray, made of metal or maybe pewter, Katrina wasn’t sure. Her father had taken care of the arrangements. Katrina could barely recall that time. The seconds, the hours.
She would go back to school, but for what reason?
Her mother had died while Katrina was taking finals. The doctors had said weeks, probably months. It should have been weeks. It should have been months. Her mother told her to finish out the semester. Her mother told her–
The kittens pushed their way into Katrina’s lap. The black one started chewing on her thumb. The white one rolled over onto its back. Katrina stroked its upturned belly as it began to purr. She still hadn’t named them. Someday they would die.
“Everything happens for a reason,” she said out loud. A pastor had said it to her after her mother’s funeral.
Condemnation in the guise of comfort.
“You’re doing really good,” Cal said after Katrina had been working the front desk for a week. “I could definitely see you moving up to manager someday.”
“It’s just nepotism,” Katrina said.
“What’s that?” Cal asked.
“You say that a lot.”
“Sorry,” Katrina said.
“It’s okay,” Cal said. “I get it. It’s not always fun to explain things to stupid people.”
They were folding towels. The hotel was quiet, as it often was between rushes.
“You’re not stupid,” Katrina said.
“That’s all right,” Cal said and looked so pathetic that Katrina felt she had to offer something in return.
“Talk about stupid,” Katrina said, “how about failing your finals instead of being home when your mom dies?”
“Really?” Cal said. His looked at her, his face frozen, the face of someone watching a car crash.
“Yep,” Katrina said. She focused on the towel in her hand, the rough cloth against her fingers.
“Wow,” Cal said. “Damn, Katrina, I’m sorry.”
“You’re telling me,” Katrina said. “I got a D plus. First D of my life.”
“That sucks,” Cal said. “That really sucks.”
“Well,” Katrina said, “everything happens for a reason.” She hid her shaking hands in another towel.
“The thing is, Kat, I think the time is right,” her dad said at dinner.
“Right for what?” Katrina asked.
“You need to bury her.”
Katrina looked at the plate. Someday it would return to the earth it had once been. Ceramic into carbon into nothing. Katrina was angry at the plate.
“Who are you the ash police?”
“Katrina, it’s for your own good.”
“Is it? Or do you and Allison just want your coffee table back?”
“Leave Allison out of this,” her father said.
“Sure, she’s not a part of my life anyway.”
“You didn’t want me to be,” Allison said. “You’ve made that very clear. Ted, why don’t you and your daughter figure this out between yourselves.”
“Allison, please,” her father said.
Allison stood and took her plate out to the living room.
“Katrina, I don’t know if you understand what you’re putting us through.”
“Oh, yes, me and my grief. Look if I’m such a burden, why don’t you turn me out?”
Katrina felt her voice raising, something rising inside of her, the dark tide, the deep water.
“I’ll go live in an orphanage. Or on the streets. I’m sure Sue would have loved that.”
“You never wanted me! You just used me against mom! Now you’re trying to get rid of her, too!”
Katrina couldn’t keep the hysteria down any longer. Standing on the edge of the cliff, waiting to dive, jump, it all fell apart. Sucked down into the sink, a swirl, lost, losing, nothing held together, ash and dust and buttons and millions of dead skin cells–
As if in answer, a crash came from the living room.
“Allison?” Her father asked, half-standing.
“Shit,” Allison said.
“What was that?” Her father asked.
“Listen,” Allison said, “it was those damn kittens.”
By now Katrina was on her feet. She stepped through the door to the living room, drawn unable to turn back from the scene that confronted her.
Allison standing holding her plate high, staring down with disgust. On the floor, under the coffee table, two kittens. One black, one white, both covered in gray dust. The urn, her mother’s ashes, all that was left of Sue. The lid had come off and was rocking gently by the fireplace. The urn on its side, the life-giving mother ash, gasping on the carpet, the kittens pawing, covered in a fine dusting, the remains of her mother–
“You know I’m proud of you, honey,” Sue said.
Katrina was home for spring break. Sue was resting on the couch, almost sitting up. It had been a journey of learning what more could be lost, little by little, inch by inch. Now, sitting was a triumph.
“I know, Sue,” Katrina said. She was holding the bowl of ice chips. She took a deep breath.
“Look,” Katrina said, “I’m not going back after break. I’m going to stay, okay? You need someone to take care of you. And–“
“Stop that,” Sue said. “After all the fuss you made. Don’t think I’m going to let you out of it that easy.”
“I could enroll in community college here,” Katrina said.
“And waste your father’s money?” Sue rolled her eyes. “I’d never hear the end of that.”
“Mom,” Katrina said. “I’m not going back. I’m staying here with you.”
“You listen here, missy,” Sue said. “I’m your mother, and you’re going to do what I say. I’m not leaving for a good long time, and I want to see my daughter finish her first year of college.”
“End of discussion,” Sue said, and leaned back into the couch. “I’m proud of you, now shut up.”
Katrina locked the door. She ignored her father’s pleading, she ignored Allison’s apology. She lay on her bed and stared at the ceiling and let the evening pass. Eventually her eyes fell shut.
When she opened them again it was three in the morning and the kittens were begging at the door.
Katrina sat up. She opened the door.
The kittens came in shaky and apologetic. They had been cleaned, Katrina saw, but it made her sick to think about.
The black kitten looked up with hungry eyes.
“You don’t deserve love,” Katrina said.
The black kitten blinked once and began to purr.
“Don’t you know it’s your fault?” Katrina said.
The white kitten licked its belly.
“It’s your fault,” Katrina said again. She sat down because the room had started spinning.
The black kitten leapt into her lap and curled against her chest. She could feel its quick heart beat through her shirt.
“Stop that,” she said. But then the white kitten was in her lap as well.
She held them against her and held them against her and held them thinking a million thoughts about guilt and grief and how everything happens and maybe not for a reason but it happens all the same and when she finally stood it was with a feeling of emptiness or perhaps simply the need to stand but–
Which do you think it was?