Received Honorable Mention in Literary Taxidermy. The first and last lines are from Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass”
One thing was certain, that the white kitten had had nothing to do with it; it was the black kitten’s fault entirely. He was too curious for his own good.
The fire alarm screeched an ear-splitting triple tone. Patients of the Harshawat Mental Hospital grabbed their ears. Some yelled back at the offending sound while others tried to run for the doors of the lounge which were kept locked from the inside. Orderlies in scrubs scurried to the selected few patients who needed assistance while barking orders to get in line and follow them. I jumped up, hands over my ears, curious to see the possible burning of the complex.
Too soon, before we could see blue sky, one of the Doctors burst in, “False Alarm! Everybody back to what they were doing!”
The alarm continued, the wailing of those with sensitive ears continued, and nobody moved. My breath came faster and I broke out into a cold sweat. The walls began to bulge closer. My heart raced and adrenaline shot through my body in a warm burst that told me to run. I stumbled forward into whomever was in line before me. They turned and wrapped their arms around me. I curled my arms inward and rolled myself out of their grip. Doubling over, I sucked in air as hard as I could, but it felt like someone was sitting on my chest. Another burst of adrenaline raced through me as I was convinced I was going to die. I heard wheezing in and out as I panted. Sweat droplets hit the floor. Then the floor rose up to meet me.
Momma’s apron was just for show. She didn’t know how to cook. The slow cooker did all the work for her. I watched her arranging store-bought cookies onto a platter from the corner where I played with my Christmas present. This Christmas was going to be the best yet. I knew because I had the best surprise gift ever. My two nasty cousins, spoiled brats who fought over everything, couldn’t fight over my kittens. If they did, I was prepared to let them have it. I’d been practicing with Daddy’s punching bag in the basement.
Momma and Daddy said Santa had gotten me two kittens, but the twins had ruined Santa for me three Christmases ago. They were a year older than me, Samantha, Sam, and Josephine, Jo. Sam and Jo wore matching Christmas dresses but they fought like boys. They had different eyes, but identical smiles, except one had a dimple on the right and the other the left. I imagined them drowning my kittens rather than cuddling them.
I pulled the two kittens onto my lap, one black with yellow-green eyes, and the other white with pale blue eyes. The white one curled up immediately and went to sleep, but the black one peered around my knees and kept trying to wander off. I was sitting inside a white plastic puppy pen that wobbled when I leaned against the side.
When my cousins arrived, I took them to the dining room, but the black kitten had gotten out of the pen. I told Momma it was not right for kittens, but she had traded a store-bought pie for it with the old neighbor next door who was wrinkly and stooped over all crooked. She had changed out the pie pans to make it look homemade.
Sam and Jo soon joined me in looking for it. They giggled as they tore up our house, turning back all the bed linens, emptying the contents of the coat closet into a pile on the floor, and dumping my board games from my shelves. Pastel paper money flew out into the hallway.
“Here kitty, kitty!” Sam, blonde curls framing her face, called in her fake sweet voice.
“Does it have a name?” Jo asked, her brown hair straight, hand on her hip, dark eyes glancing over the mess.
“It won’t know its name yet, you dolt!” Sam’s sweet innocent voice was gone and her eyes were now a stormy gray.
“I bet she didn’t name it yet. And you’re a nincompoop!” Jo would not be out-insulted.
“You’re just poop.”
“No, Charlie is poop. She’s a pig! Look at her room!”
They squealed, delighted at their own joke, and began smelling everything, the carpet, the walls, my new Christmas dress Momma made me wear, as if I were the smelly one.
I yelled and laid into them, fists flying.
“Girls! What is going on here?!” Daddy was mid-scold when the smoke alarm screeched. Everyone froze. The smell of burnt flesh and melting plastic sent him fleeing frantically from the room.
I opened my eyes. The overhead fluorescent was bright and blue. It made my head hurt. I tried to sit up, but flopped back on the pillows as the room spun. The lady who rocked and sucked on her hair was right – the beds in the hospital wing of the nuthouse were much better than those of the rooms.
“Nice to see you awake, Charlene.” Two nurses came to check on me. It was protocol that the staff never were alone with patients. One nurse pulled back the curtain while the other took my temperature and checked my pupil dilation. Did they think I had had a seizure?
“Charlene, do you know where you are, what happened?”
The thermometer in my mouth gave me a good enough reason not to speak to them. I hadn’t said a word since I arrived a month ago. I only saw the others when forced to go to the lounge while they cleaned my room. I didn’t even know the names of most of the patients since I skipped every optional group therapy.
“You know Charlie don’t talk,” the large, black nurse with long manicured nails in wild colors chastised her petite, white compatriot.
“This could be her breakthrough day!” the pale nurse smiled brightly as she removed the thermometer from my mouth. She wrote down my temperature with a cheerful flourish.
The other nurse pursed her lips and leaned close, “Alright, Charlie, tell us, what’s the secret of the universe?” Her eyes were brown and she held them open wide, brows up, waiting for me to give her some great wisdom.
Charlie. The twins had made fun of me, calling me Charlie, calling me a boy.
I wanted the twins to be jealous, to hate me for having the cutest, fluffiest, smartest kittens in the whole world.
The pale nurse had blue eyes, blue as the sky. “You don’t have to speak, Charlene. You rest. The Doctor will check you out and then you can go back to your room.” She smiled and her eyes crinkled at the edges. The halo from the light behind her head made her seem like she was angelic. They left me in the blue lights. I closed my eyes to shut out the headache I felt coming on.
Daddy had been drinking again. He stumbled into my room and fell across my feet at the end of the bed. He smelled strongly of whiskey and sweat. I carefully tried to pull my feet out from under him.
“Oh, Caroline, I miss you so much!” he blubbered.
My heart beat faster. He might be drifting off to sleep, or he might wake up. If he woke up, I wanted to be able to run for the door. I tried to pull my feet ever so slowly, inch by inch, out from under him.
He woke. His eyes squinted at me. “You look so much like your mother.”
Fear made me pant and locked my limbs in place. My brain screamed run, but my legs refused to budge. Daddy crawled up on the bed, turning to face me, pushing my legs down flat, straddling them. His breath reeked as he stared into my eyes, now nose to nose on all fours above me. He wasn’t seeing me, his eyes glazed over. He caressed my cheek tenderly and gave a low shushing sound as he ran a thumb over my lips. His hand slid down to my chest. My heart raced as he leaned in closer to my lips. I kicked and yelled, throwing him from me.
I felt bed linens fall from around me, my thrashing arm hit something solid. The Doctor in his white coat rubbed at his arm.
“Charlene?” He studied the fresh sheen of sweat on my forehead. “Bad dream?” He was holding the end of his stethoscope as if he had been listening to my heart while I slept. Embarrassed, I allowed him to continue, taking deep breaths as commanded while the stethoscope listened to my lungs.
“I am prescribing group therapy today. It’s in thirty minutes. I’ll have the nurses take you.” He gave me a knowing look. I was not skipping this one. He stepped out. I saw him head for the door, cigarette in his lips.
In high school, it was cool to skip fourth period and smoke with the boys in red flannel and the girls in rock n’ roll t-shirts. It was a small school, made even smaller by the twins. There wasn’t enough room there for the three of us.
“Charlie! We saw you with your girlfriend.” Jo threw the word girlfriend at me like a stone.
“Yeah, we always knew you liked pussies!” Sam giggled and stomped out her cigarette.
“Black or white, doesn’t matter to her.”
“Do you prefer dark and hairy or shaved and smooth?” Sam leaned in close to me and took a strand of my hair, wrapping it seductively around her finger.
“Shut up.” I tried to be still, but I felt a white hot anger rise in me.
“I bet she likes to stroke the soft peach fuzz!” Jo goaded.
“SHUT UP!” I screamed.
Even two on one, it was worth it. Years of shoving Daddy off me had given me resilience. I hit and hit, not caring what I hit, nor seeing whom it belonged to.
The prosecution said I did permanent damage and showed no remorse. Sam would slur out of her beautiful lips and Jo would only regain sight in one of her eyes. Any guilt I felt was overridden by the satisfying smack of skulls on the sidewalk.
“Do you have anything to say for yourself?” the judge asked me. Her robes were black, but her hair was white. Just before my court appearance I had seen her in the hall, tossing an empty water bottle in the trash instead of recycling. She was both black and white, determining who was innocent and who guilty. Which was I?
“Charlene, do you have anything to say?” the psychotherapist asked. We were seated in a circle – the girl who rocked and chewed her hair, a man who couldn’t keep still, and others I did not know. There was a crooked man in the corner at the piano giving us mood music. He was playing softly with his crooked fingers, ear bent to the keys. I took this all in sitting straight in my chair, lips clamped shut. I only wanted to get through this and go back to my room.
“I have a cat,” declared a woman. My eyes darted to her. She was looking at me, challenging me. “My cat had two kittens, one white and one black–”
I began to breathe faster.
“–The white one was all innocence and love. The black one was too curious for his own good.”
“You don’t have a cat, Crystal! You can’t have pets here!” said the jittery man, bouncing his legs.
“I lost the mother, though.”
“What happened?” asked the girl around her mouthful of hair.
Crystal gave me a sly glance, “Car ran her over, Marci.”
“BAM!” yelled one of the other men before erupting in a fit of giggles.
“NO, NO, NO!” I had shrieked as two nurses held me back from the ER doors and my Daddy sank to his knees at the foot of an operating table where lines and tubes and sheets obscured the form of my mother.
“What happened to the kittens?” Marci had started rocking and humming, her wet hair hung limply over her shoulder, but she was listening.
“Don’t know. Gave them away to a nasty lady.” Crystal’s mouth frowned in distaste.
“Why would you do that?” Marci’s face echoed her frown.
“She had a fake smile, but her eyes were tired of being fake all the time. FAKE! Fake! FAKER!” The woman looked at me with angry eyes. Those were the eyes of my twin cousins who called me Charlie. I imagined her head collapsing like a cantaloupe.
We sold her things. We sold most of our things, except dishes and beds. The tiny apartment we could afford was near the twins’ school. Their Dad took my Dad out drinking and dropped him off at home when he was too plastered to do much more than cry about Momma.
That’s what Uncle thought. He never came inside to check on me.
“Crystal, that’s enough. We appreciate your memories, but let’s keep all name calling out of group session,” the Therapist intervened. “I believe it was Charlene’s turn.”
They stared at me, all of them. It was like when the entire courtroom went silent and I was up in front of everybody. I should have spoken then, but I didn’t. They thought I was crazy. They MADE me crazy. The heat of my anger boiled over. It was lava burning a hole through a wall of solid rock. I couldn’t hold it in anymore.
“I got mad, okay?! But it wasn’t me! It was his fault; the curious one. He chewed on the Christmas tree lights. He electrocuted himself.”
“BAM!” shouted that man again. Marci was rocking and humming loudly. The man at the piano hit a bad chord and I winced.
“The kittens battle all the time inside me: curiosity and loneliness. What would it be like to taste the exposed wires?”
“The wires in the car?” the Doctor flipped some papers on his clipboard, his dark curls swirling down towards the clipboard with my file, all lies.
“The white one was so sad that it stopped eating. I tried and tried, Momma tried, but it just… wouldn’t!” Tears coursed down my cheeks, unchecked.
Momma had wept tears as she buried first one kitten, then the other in the backyard side by side.
“I’m so sorry, Charlene. These things happen. We can get you new kittens.” Her tears had dried when she said this.
“NO!” I had screamed and shut myself in the car in the garage.
“Momma was a fake,” I continued, “She never liked cats. She loved that car, though. Her tears at the kitten’s burial were just show, for me, but I didn’t cry at her funeral.
“When my cousins cornered me, the black kitten wanted to know what it would be like to choke the life from them, but the white kitten knew that I would be lonely without them. They were inside me; they were me. Then the kittens were both mad. They tumbled into one big kitten mass that wanted to hiss and snarl and claw and bite. I tried to walk away that day when the bell rang for fifth period, but the kittens inside me needed a winner once and for all.
“And when my Daddy came to me, drunk, confused, thinking I was Momma… I wanted to stop him. I tried and I tried, but I just… couldn’t. Not when he sat on my legs and held my arms up. It was all my fault! I looked too much like my mother.”
“It wasn’t your fault, Charlene,” interrupted the Therapist.
“Did you kill him?” asked the man who always said bam. His eyes glowed with anticipation that my answer would be yes.
There was a newspaper clipping hidden in a groove in the metal frame of my bed. ‘Man Found Dead Outside of Humane Shelter.’
The winter wind blew in near Thanksgiving and snow flurries settled on the black asphalt parking lots, spotting them with white.
Daddy had stumbled up to the shelter, bottle in his coat pocket, newspaper in hand.
“When the EMTs found him, they discovered a single picture had been circled in pencil in the paper – two kittens, one white and one black. In his pocket was enough money to pay the adoption fee for one cat.”
“He was trying to make you happy,” the Therapist tried.
“Me, or my dead mother?!” I snapped.
“Do you think you know which cat he was going to buy?” The Therapist leaned forward, redirecting me, hands clasped together, elbows balanced on his knees. His hair was black and curly. It contrasted with his white coat like the reverse of the judge.
I had the same choice: which kitten to buy. I could buy into a life like the white kitten, full of light, but tragically flawed by loneliness, or one like the black kitten, full of dangerous curiosity. But the universe isn’t black and white, it’s a mix of the two.
“Neither one is good.”
“So which is worse, the black cat’s curiosity or the white cat’s heartache?” rephrased the Therapist.
“No, which cat killed your mother?” asked Crystal.
The group was silent, even Marci had stopped rocking, but she wetly sucked on her hair.
I only just realized that the piano had stopped playing when the old man with the crooked back and crooked fingers called out, “What happened to the twins?”
I looked into the Therapist’s green eyes, a middle ground between his black hair and white coat. My mind was a myriad of stripped wires, bloody school girls, and a hit from behind that knocked out an old drunk in front of an animal shelter.
“Curiosity and loneliness each make us do some terrible things. Which do you think it was?”