Janice’s nostrils are hopping with the smell of rot, sharp and cruel as chemical smoke.
“The kitten has passed,” Janice says to the mother and her little boy. A cardboard sign has beckoned them down Janice’s lane, promising free kittens from the calico’s litter. This dappled gray-and-brown one was the last, and now, it is gone, and decomposing, too.
“Passed? As in... dead?”
“Dead, yes ma’am.”
“But he looks so alive,” the mother says, and Janice agrees, but she knows it’s a trick. The light seeping from the missing boards in the barn’s roof, the bursts from the boy’s flashlight, are a daydream of movement. The smell gives it away.
“Danny,” the mother says, reaching out to touch the boy’s back, where his shirt has ridden up to reveal two knobs of spine. “The lady is saying that the kitten is no longer with us.”
“But – ”
“I’m sorry about this,” Janice says. She means it. “Let’s go back outside.”
“Mom, come down and look at him. No way he’s dead!”
The mother’s ponytail is a ribbon of light as she joins her son on hands and knees.
When Steph kneels next to Danny, she has to agree with him, not the old woman: the small creature is alive and alert, with all four paws tucked beneath it, facing the stubbled leg of the tool bench, as if it’s waiting to pounce on a climbing insect.
From above them, the woman says, “Can’t you smell it?” and at the suggestion, Steph thinks she might catch a whiff of decay, though it’s hardly distinguishable from the other smells flowing from the barn junk.
Steph can’t see Danny’s expression in the murk. She can hear the soft puffs of his breathing, smell a note of his citrusy sweat.
“Hand me the flashlight,” she says to him, and when she takes it and angles it so that the beam shines on the kitten’s profile, it lands on the place where its eye once was. She quickly thrusts the flashlight back into Danny’s hand and jumps up.
“You’re right,” Steph says to the woman. Danny begins to protest, but might hear the fear in her voice, because he stands, too, and snaps off the flashlight.
“Mom? I don’t get it,” he says.
Steph squeezes his shoulder and thinks of her friends, who often tell her that she coddles Danny. Because Steph doesn’t let him wander by himself in the park or have sips from her wine glass, they think she’s a helicopter parent. Here, with a dead kitten, in a country barn full of corroded metal and furry mold, Steph wonders if it’s true. Danny knows nothing of tragedy, nothing beyond the slick new surfaces of their condo, the primary colors of his elementary school. All cheerfully alive, bright, and permanent, so that even when his mother says an animal is dead, he doesn’t get it.
While Steph is wondering how she can convince him, the old woman rushes toward the barn’s exit, pulling open the lopsided door and letting it slam behind her.
Janice is in her kitchen scrubbing a frying pan when the boy skips up the barn steps and into the light that filters through the boughs of the tulip pines.
Janice’s boy had never been beautiful, like this boy is beautiful. Pauly had been like a stalk of corn left in the field after harvest, with stiffly straight hair to match. She remembers the earnest flare of his ears, the way his bottom lip would droop to reveal the plush, secret pink of his mouth. How he used to love tending the animals in the barn, the litters of kittens, the laying chickens.
When Janice doesn’t hear their car’s engine, she looks out of the kitchen window and sees the mother, gently laying out the corpse.
Janice crosses the lawn in her stockinged feet, still holding the sponge. She is calling out to the woman, though she doesn’t know quite what words she’s using. She knows she is squeezing the sponge because warm soap slides over her fingers like a baby’s spit-up.
When Janice reaches them, the woman says, calmly, as if in reply: “I was hoping to explain to Danny about death. Do you know why this kitten died? Was it an illness?”
“Explain? Explain death?”
“Well, no,” she says, a half-laugh, looking over at her son, who is cross-legged, pulling at the crabgrass, ogling the animal. “I just mean, to show him what it looks like.”
“Why would you want to look at a dead animal?”
“That’s not –”
“Do you think I’m running some kind of freak show?” Janice says. The mother places her hand flat on the ground to stand, and Janice, withdrawn, hermetic Janice, steps on it. The mother’s fine bones squish under her foot, like the unsteady beams of a footbridge slung between two cliffs.
The old woman has trapped her there and is bombarding her with questions that don’t have answers. Steph doesn’t try to defend herself, because the woman wouldn’t care, wouldn’t stop to think that Steph had no idea that the kitten would be dead when they drove up. And, when she realized the kitten was dead, she thought its body presented an opportunity for a teaching moment, that’s all. Isn’t it better for Danny to see what a dead animal looks like before he has to experience death in human beings? His grandparents lying still in caskets, evacuated of breath and heartbeat?
From the second Pauly scrabbled up her body and latched onto her breast, Janice felt a new presence, a third member of their little family. An impossibly tall, impossibly leaning man, sleeping beside her in the hospital bed, and later, scratching purposelessly in the dirt of the fields, alert to every sound from the house.
Pauly’s whole childhood, she’d felt death’s patient watchfulness as Pauly climbed a tree or rolled down the hill on his skateboard. As he got older, it worsened. Seeing Pauly leave in someone’s car, she jumped in her truck and followed, always keeping the rear lights in her vision, as if seeing them meant keeping him alive.
When Janice couldn’t trail Pauly, she protected him through her vigilance. Sitting up in an armchair, her worry unraveling the edge of the crocheted throw, she wouldn’t go to bed until he walked into the house, smelling like burnt chemicals. He might be amped-up or toothless-tired but always, when she stayed awake, he was whole.
The night the cops knocked on her door and told her that Pauly was dead, Janice had been asleep, a puddle of drool collected on her shoulder.
Janice jerks her head toward the boy at the word, aggravating a hot worm of nerve in her neck. She lays her hand over the spot, though this gesture does nothing to ease the pain. Meanwhile, the little boy is gaping at her, the old crazy lady suddenly more interesting than the dead kitten.
Janice releases the mother’s delicate hand. “Get off my property,” Janice snaps. She squeezes the last bit of water from the sponge.
In the antiseptic interior of the car, Steph’s hands shake on the steering wheel, her right one pulsing with an impending bruise. As she reverses, she doesn’t take her eyes off of the woman’s unmoving body standing sentinel over the kitten until she forces her attention to the shadowed, pitted lane, wary of deer that might dart from the dusky trees that surround them.
Out on the two-lane road heading south toward the city, Danny is quiet. Steph is searching for neutral conversation when he asks, “Why did that lady get so mad?”
Steph puts on her brightest voice. “I’m not sure, honey. She was probably worried that we might catch whatever the kitten had,” she says, though she knows that isn’t the case. That is something mothers say to comfort their little boys, to keep them in ignorance of other people’s irrationality, of the woman’s unfathomable reaction to a perfectly reasonable idea. Better to let Danny think that the woman was worried for Danny’s health. It’s better that way, Steph soothes herself. Let him learn about death the way that other children do, from episodes of “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” and “Sesame Street,” rather than eyeless kittens in creepy country barns.
“What do you think his name was?”
“The kitten, Mom.”
“The kitten,” she repeats. “No idea, but I bet he was a good little guy.”
“May his memory be a blessing,” Danny says, automatically.
Steph’s eyes burn with tears as she navigates the car over the hills.
Eighteen years of unblinking alertness, until the night that Janice failed. She closed her eyes just for a moment and startled awake at the rattling knock on her door, the men monotoning boredom about a leaping deer, a thick elm.
Janice heard the shrugging undertow to their words. That’s one less methhead, anyway.
She should have told the mother and her boy what she knew: there was no preparing for death, no explanation for why Pauly had been taken away instead of the two other boys in the car. Not unless it had been Janice’s fault. That's what this mother should be doing... not showing her boy death but, rather, peering through her peephole, anticipating its arrival so that she could spread herself beneath it, run beside it, chase it down until it took her.
When Janice can’t see the woman’s headlights anymore, she focuses on what is real. The white-and-pink sunset clouds above the barn’s gambrel roof, the mud wetting the bottoms of her socks. The kitten on the grass. The body that is not her son’s body.
After covering the animal with Pauly’s shirt, Janice lowers herself to the earth and digs under the roots, making space for a grave.
Joanna Theiss (she/her) is a lawyer-turned-writer living in Washington, DC. Her short stories and flash fiction have appeared in journals such as South Florida Poetry Journal and Barren Magazine. One of her pieces was selected as a winner of Best Microfiction 2022. Links to her writing are available at www.joannatheiss.com.