CHAPTER ONE – I've Never Liked Cats

I woke up and opened my eyes, my vision blurry and swimming around the edges. I wasn't sure where I was, or what time it was, or whether it was day or night. This wasn't all that surprising to me – it was fairly normal in the grand scheme of things. I try to reserve my shock for real surprises. It's a good way to keep my life on as even a keel as possible, or at least as even as I can ever hope to be.

I was alone, which was comforting. Waking up with someone was usually enough to rattle my cage, because I made it a point to never let anyone stay. There was something about knowing that there was some stranger, or near stranger, that close to me when I was asleep and so vulnerable that made my flesh crawl. My shrink says that I have attachment issues and trust issues and several other random isms and complexes and maybe even a disorder or two, but she has to say that stuff to me. If there was nothing wrong with me anymore, I would stop seeing her, and that would be an expensive mistake for her to make. Not that I fundamentally distrust the psychological profession – I just think that economics is always more motivating than truly getting to the bottom of a troubled mind. And there's nothing like a good collection of isms and syndromes to keep shrinks, pharmacists, and big drug companies in business. God bless America, and all that.

So, I was alone and confused, but there was a certain measure of familiarity and comfort in that, and that was good enough for me. I knew what was coming next, anyway, and that was always when shit started to get weird.

I rubbed my eyes and ran my fingers through my hair, then started to roll toward the nightstand to fish around for a cigarette even though I quit smoking almost seven years ago, but I rolled too far and my trailing leg got all twisted up in the loose sheets, and I fell. I could vaguely make out the heavy grain of the hardwood floor rushing toward my face, but I didn't even bother to close my eyes because I knew that I would never feel my nose smushing into the wide planks. There would be no blood, no broken nose, no potential concussion. The floor wasn't really there anymore, you know. It was always water by the time that I hit it.

So I splashed down harmlessly, sinking like a concrete block was chained to my ankle. My lungs were empty, but my eyes were clear, and the water was warm, like a bath or the womb. I'm sure that Doc Webster would have something snide and borderline inappropriate to say about that comparison, but it was always the first thing that came to my mind, and since this is all about me, that's how I'm going to describe it. Besides, it's not like I really have some kind of mommy complex. It might be one of the only major isms that I don't have. At least not yet. I don't remember my mother, so I can't very well have an ism about her. She's just a void. Nothing but one more void to add to my list.

So I sank. Deeper and deeper, but closer to the light. Not "The Light", like I was dying or crossing over or having some grand foray into a higher plane or a better place. Light, like the sun. Sinking toward the surface. On a lot of levels, that's always been a pretty fitting metaphor for me. I don't think metaphor is the right word, but it sounds good – intellectual, like there really is a meaning to my life or that I have a place in some grand scheme that in reality would probably never have me. Sinking toward the surface. Yep. That's me.

So I keeping sinking and the light gets brighter and brighter, even though my watery grave should be a cold and dark place. The grave should always be cold and dark, if you ask me. Nothing else makes all that much sense. You can't really expect the grave to be a warm and inviting sort of place. Nothing bright and cheerful. It's a grave. It should be damp and dark. Maybe a little musty. Dank. Grave-like. That's all I'm asking for. Not that I'm demanding the grave. I'm just asking for a little meaning, a little organization – something to make sense all the way through to the end, whatever that end may be.

But this isn't my grave, and I'm not drowning. I'm not even remotely concerned about drowning. No matter how deep I sink, or how close to the surface I get, or how long I stay under the water, I don't need to breathe anymore. It's not even a priority to me. There are so many more important things for me to ponder – like light sources and graves and how I ended up dressed all of a sudden when I was so sure that I was sleeping naked in my bed just a minute or two ago – oxygen is the least of my concerns. As long as I don't seem to need it, why should I waste the time worrying about it? That's another stress reducing exercise that I've picked up over the years. I can get it to work over things like oxygen and paying the gas bill, but stress reduction in a lot of other areas of my life still eludes me. I still worry about whether my socks look okay with my shoes, and whether a new piercing in my ear or my face might finally hit a nerve and leave half of my mouth paralyzed and drooling for the rest of my days. Evidently, my sense of priorities still refuses to mesh with reality. But I'm not stressed about that, either.

I finally hit the bottom, only it's not really the bottom. And the fish aren't fish anymore because they coo and have feathers. And I'm not wet. I was never really wet. Just warm. And the light isn't tinted by the soothing blue-green filter of the sea anymore. It's just bright and fluorescent, which is really weird for sunlight. But what I thought was going to be a city park at the bottom of the sea turns out to be a remarkably dry and tidy subway station. Not the one next to my apartment, though. That would make sense, and my current situation isn't even remotely concerned with making sense. It would also be grimy and claustrophobic with the creeping desperation of the city and all of its lowest dwellers, like almost all subway stations are, but this is a sparkling subterranean oasis of light green tile, shining concrete, and nauseatingly garish lights.

I don't know what subway platform this is. It's always the same one, but I've never managed to find it, even though I've spent whole weekends riding the subways endlessly, around and around, sometimes vanishing underground for a whole day. I'm sure that I've ridden every inch of the rails in this city, above and below, and I've looked at every station, every platform, every stop. In town, in the suburbs, all the way to the ends of the lines. But I never reach this place on purpose. I just end up here when I stop trying to find it. I can't read the signs, and I can't understand the people. Even the overly pleasant female voice making whatever unintelligible announcement she makes every time I'm here makes no sense to me. I like the sound of her voice, and it always gives me the impression that I'm exactly where I need to be, but I have no idea what she's talking about. She could be announcing a sandwich sale or an impending tornado or the winner of the Nobel Prize and I wouldn't know the difference. I would look forward to hearing her tell me about it, but I still wouldn't understand.

Regardless of what she was actually saying, I always assume that she's telling me that the next train is my train. I don't know that I actually need a train because I don't know that I really need to be anywhere in particular, but I'm up and I'm dressed and I'm here, and all of that should count for something. After all, it would be sort of weird for me to fall out of bed, sink through the ocean, and end up on a subway platform if I didn't really need to catch a train someplace, now wouldn't it?

So I get on the train. I have a bag on my shoulder that's suddenly very heavy, though I suppose that it was always this heavy and I only now noticed it because it only just now showed up on my shoulder. I drop it into the empty seat next to me because even though it seems like the time of day when the train should be busy, it isn't. There are plenty of empty seats so my bag isn't in the way and no one is sitting next to me. I like it when I have plenty of room on the train. You never know when some crazy guy is going to sit down next to you and start going on and on about whatever bizarre little circumstances strike him as relevant. Granted, I'm completely sure that I could be that crazy guy for whatever hapless commuter might happen to be unfortunate enough to sit down next to me, but I generally don't talk to people, so he might not have to worry about it. But just in case, I like to sit alone.

People drift in and out of the car, even though I never notice that the train is stopping. There are no more stations, and the pleasant announcer falls silent and stops telling me where we are, or whatever information she's trying to share with me. The rhythm of the train is nice. Soothing. Trains rock back and forth at just the right pace. I know, this makes another early childhood sort of reference, and that really does make it seem like I have some pretty serious issues with my mother and all of that, but while it probably is the source of all of my attachment issues, I'm still okay with it. I can be a little obsessive about the whole mess without really having a serious problem. I can't explain it, and I have yet to convince Doc Webster of that fact, but I just have a feeling that I'm right.

I wait for just a few more minutes, until the song that has started playing from out of nowhere switches from a jazzy saxophone to the distant tinkling of a piano that you would expect to hear at a high class restaurant, and I turn to my right. My bag and I are sitting in one of the seats that puts my back to the window, so the rest of the train car is usually to my right, though every once in a while, there's more of the car to my left instead. Spatial orientation doesn't seem to be too important to the transit authority, but at least everything is clean and nothing smells like urine. I'll take disorientation over cat box odor any day and twice on Sunday.

For a fleeting moment, I cock my head to the side. The music isn't supposed to change. This subway always plays the same smooth jazz, but this is a gently rolling piano piece that I probably should be able to name and place, but I'm caught so off guard that I'm not really thinking about the exact name of the song as much as I'm taken aback by its intrusion into this place and time. So taken aback that I almost forget what I'm doing and what time it is, but in the next heartbeat, I've settled back into myself, and the music is meaningless to me because I know what's about to happen.

So I'm looking to my right because I know that I'll catch a glimpse of her if I time everything just right, and I always time it right. Sure enough, there she is. She drifts in from behind a corner, even though there really shouldn't be any corners in a subway car. She's wearing a nearly sheer summer dress, and one of those big, floppy straw hats that you only see in paintings and magazine ads because real people don't wear them. A breeze blows through her long, honey blond curls, because we're riding on the sort of subway that sometimes feels more like a spring meadow or a feminine hygiene commercial than a subway car. It all makes perfect sense to me, and I'm sure that you can see the logic behind it all, too. It's just one of those situations where it's best to suspend your disbelief and go with it because if you think about it too hard, weird shit might start to happen to you, and this is no time to invite something even weirder to happen.

I watch her as she sort of drifts across the car, and it takes her way too long to make such a short trip, but it's not really such a short trip anymore. She never looks at me, but I always realize that I'm holding my breath because I think that this could finally be the day that she does look up from beneath the wide brim of her insane beach hat that has no place at all in the city. Of course, today is not that day. Yesterday wasn't that day, and tomorrow won't be that day, either. It's the sort of day that will probably never come, but I'll continue to hold my breath, just in case. It's all part of the game, and I'm really quite good at this particular game.

She takes the bag from the seat next to me because it's not really in the seat next to me any longer. Maybe it had been slowly drawn toward her the whole time, or maybe she was a lot closer than she looked. In any case, the bag doesn't seem to be heavy at all anymore because she's such a willowy little thing that it surely would have been more than enough to weigh her down and make her airy gait seem more earthbound, and she's still drifting through like little more than a memory. Who knew that a subway could end up being such a poetic place?

I've always wondered what was in that bag. It seems like I should know, since it was mine before I delivered it to her, but I don't have a clue. It's the right size to be a laptop, but it's way too heavy to only be a laptop computer. Maybe a laptop and a couple of gold bars. That would make for an interesting story. But it could be something as mundane as a big old book, or a concrete garden gnome, or a bunch of horseshoes. The possibilities are pretty much endless, but this is the time and the place when I sit and wonder what's in the bag, only to realize that while I was thinking about it, both the girl and the bag have vanished. I'm sure that they didn't really vanish, since we're on a train. It makes sense that she just kept walking toward the door and got off the train at the last stop. But we didn't stop. We haven't stopped yet. And we never will.

It's that sort of train. This is also the point when I realize that it's the sort of train that never stops. I'm not sure how I managed to get on the train in the first place, since it never stops, but at least now I understand that it doesn't need to stop. I can come and go as I please, and it doesn't even matter that the announcer lady has stopped announcing stops (or that I couldn't understand her in the first place). This is the train that I'm supposed to be on, and it's going to take me where I need to go, even though I don't know where that is, or why I'm supposed to be there. It's a good sort of train. All trains should be this convenient, and I'm sort of proud that our transit authority has come up with something so innovative and useful. I think that more people would use public transportation if they had any idea that it could be this freeform and easy.

So I decide that the next stop is probably mine, even though I still don't know where I am or where I'm going. I'm not even sure anymore if I'm following my gut instinct or if I've had so much practice on this route that I'm starting to learn where I am and where I'm going, but it's the right choice, and I collect my things and start heading for the door. Never mind that I didn't have anything except for the bag that I gave to the girl who never looks at me. I don't think that bag was ever really mine in the first place, and at least the stuff that I have now is mine. I recognize the battered notebook and the iPod with the death's head sticker on it. I even know that the water bottle only looks like it's full of water when it's really full of vodka. If this stuff wasn't mine, how would I know so much about it? None of it will be with me for very much longer anyway.

I take one more glance over my left shoulder to make sure that the girl is really gone because the majority of the subway car has shifted to my left again, but she's nowhere to be seen. The only people left in the car look like trouble. At first glance, I can tell that they're all gangbangers, but when I look again, they're wearing suits and strike me as the Wall Street type. Either way, I know that I can't trust them and I'll be better off getting away from them. Lucky for me that this is my stop.

I lean into the door and I let my feet sort of pull me forward like I'm on one of the moving sidewalks at the airport and the door melts before me, setting me free. I expect that I should be on a subway platform, and I almost expect to be at the same mysterious platform where my journey began because it just feels like I've come full circle, but this is a different station. In fact, it's not a station at all. It's not the douche commercial meadow and it's not underwater, either. It's an alley. The alley behind a restaurant where I used to work when I was much younger and much happier. Or maybe I was just younger and less aware of how bad things can be, so while I thought that I was happier, I was really just oblivious and detached from reality and too naïve to know any better. It's hard to tell. Happiness can be such a confusing and mercurial emotion. Maybe that's why I don't really trust it.

I half expect that I'll run into that younger and more clueless version of myself if I stick around for too long, and I don't want to see him again. I don't even want to remember that I ever was him, so I pull my collar up closer to my face against a cold wind that isn't really there, and I head for the mouth of the alley. This place feels like a grave. It's dark and damp and smells bad. That awful wet sewer smell that you only get at certain times of the day in certain parts of the city. I hate that. And I hate that I always seem to be in those places at exactly the wrong time. Or maybe they always smell that bad and it wouldn't really matter what time I happened to pass through. In any case, I don't want to be here for the smell or for the chance that I could experience some horrible time paradox by running into the earlier version of myself who used to have to take out the trash in the dark and the stench.

I walk as quickly as I can toward the street that I know is there even though I should be able to hear cars and I can't. The piano music from the subway has gotten too loud for me to hear much of anything else. I pause for a moment because I don't remember that the music has ever followed me here before, and I know for a fact that there was never anything as pleasant and urbane in this neighborhood as a sonata. There should never be a sonata in a place that smells like a toilet. Or maybe there should always be a sonata in a place like this, to attempt to do something to distract you from the fact that there are places like this and that you're currently in one, whether by choice or happenstance.

I shrug to no one in particular and decide to enjoy the music as I escape from the alley, only to turn the corner and find myself in another alley from another time. This one is also from my life, my earlier life, but I don't recall why it stands out to me, or when I was ever here, except that I'm sure that I was here once. Not just every time that I've gotten off the train and left the alley behind the Yellow Door Diner. Some other time. Some real and concrete time. One of those times that is currently marked by one of those voids that I have in my head. This alley terminates in a brick wall, and if I turn around to glance over my shoulder right now, I'll find that another solid wall prevents me from backtracking, though I have no desire to turn back and risk meeting up with my former self taking out the trash. I'm trapped like a rat in a cage, or a fish in a barrel, or some other not-so-clever animal in a precarious and frustrating situation. There's no need to panic, though. Despite all of my other isms, I'm not claustrophobic in the least, and even if I was, all I have to do is look up, and I'll see the sky, and I'll know that nothing made of bricks and mortar could truly contain me right now. Not as long as I have the piano sonata and all these stars stretching out before me.

This isn't the sky that you'll ever see in the city. This is the kind of night sky that you can only see in the country, and even then, only on a cool, crisp, clear night. The kind of night when everything is inky black, and even the moon is working on a dimmer switch that's turned all the way down to nothing. That dizzying, endless spectacle of stars and meteors and tiny planets and blinking lights that you hope are airplanes and not something else from somewhere else coming to visit and probe or abduct or eviscerate livestock or whatever else the conspiracy theorists are putting out there these days. I sort of lost interest after the crop circles and the mutilated cows. I'm not sure what more the aliens could do after that. Maybe build another pyramid or reclaim Atlantis. That would be a good follow-up, but since they've already done both of those things, I doubt that they'll repeat themselves. The aliens always seemed a little more creative and ingenious than that. I can respect an artist who wants to move forward, rather than bog down in giving the little people what they want time and time again. It's creatively stifling and leaves you feeling a little broken and empty inside, and since that's sort of the opposite of what art is meant to do, I can understand always wanting to move forward and stretch your horizons. Good for the aliens. I'm glad that they're pursuing artistic integrity and fulfillment. We should all be so lucky and driven.

While I stand there, trapped in the closed alley, pondering the stars and the aliens, the bricks fade away from me, and I find that I'm no longer trapped. I don't feel particularly free, just as I didn't feel particularly trapped when the walls were all still in place. In fact, I always feel a little cheated. I'm not sure about all of the other alien conspiracy stories that are out there, but I am sure that someone or something was conspiring against me just now. Nothing like filling my head with aliens and cow guts and human sacrifices from Mayan temples in a faraway tangle of rainforest to distract me from trying to figure out where I've seen that alley before. The memory of it slips away from me, like silken sand running through my fingers. It was there, and now it's gone, and the wind steals away whatever dust and grains remained to mark the spot where that memory could have taken root and blossomed.

I'm sure there's a reason that alley was taken away from me before I had the chance to ponder and figure it out. Perhaps it was simply to preserve whatever faculties and sanity I have left, because my experience has taught me that no matter how long and how hard I try to fill in the voids in my life and place all of my little nags of déjà-vu, nothing ever comes of it. My voids are firmly entrenched, and they seem quite content. Doc Webster says that my subconscious is protecting me from something, but we all know that's just shrink-speak for "no one really knows all that much about the human brain and how the big squishy blob really works, so we just make up fancy stories that sound plausible enough that we can bill your insurance company $175 for a 50-minute hour". Again, that may sound cynical, but I think it's simply a realistic and perceptive stance. The mob should really get into the psychiatric business. It's a total racket, but it appears so much more socially acceptable than bookmaking and loan sharking and kneecapping.

A totally unexpected flash of darkness creeps through the very edge of my peripheral vision. I actually feel my heart skip and lurch.

Nothing new ever happens here.

I whip around, though of course I'm far too late to catch whatever zipped past a moment ago. I'm not sure where it came from, or where it vanished to, because there's suddenly nothing around me at all. No alley, no subway, no seafloor, no meadow. Just the stars above and nothing all around. There's not even anything beneath my feet anymore, but I know that I won't fall. I've already fallen once tonight, and that seems to be my limit. I never fall more than once. But there's never a shadow that passes through this place, either, so maybe I should be a touch concerned that I seem to be floating. If the abyss holds something as concrete as a barely-seen shadow, then it could end up being wispy and flimsy enough that I could rip through it and fall to some unseen and unknown place. Everything could change, even though nothing here ever changes.

It's almost enough to make me feel unsettled. Not quite, but damn close. A damn sight closer than I ever have to deal with. Doc Webster is going to love this at our next session.

But before I have a chance to dwell on that, and bearing in mind that dwelling on such things only leads to unnecessary stress, I immerse myself in the stars again. A sea of stars. That could so easily lead to such hackneyed notions as galactic babies, but that circles back around to the womb and early childhood, and I'm trying to debunk that whole notion, so I'll just link it back to the sea in which I sank to the surface earlier, and that can be my full circle that doesn't really reveal anything or tell me anything or open some big can of psychological whoop-ass. That's not really a can that I ever care to open, though I'm pretty sure that I take a peek in it every nine seconds or so. That's how these things work. I have too much time on my hands, especially here, in my moonless sea of stars.

Only it's not moonless, either. Maybe that's why I could see that shadow a moment ago. The darkness is usually so complete and so serene, but when the moon is out and it's as oppressively full and bright as it is right now, hanging low enough that I can feel the cold casting off it in searing waves of paralyzing bitterness, it's no wonder that shadows and dancing bits of darkness are visible now. Maybe it's been there the whole time, and I can just see it now because my tranquil stroll under the Milky Way is lit up like the Vegas strip this time around. But since the moon is what's casting the light that's making everything visible, it hardly makes sense that the newfound light is the reason I can see the moon. I feel a chicken and the egg moment bubbling just beneath the surface, and I have larger concerns at the moment, so I try to shake it off. My attempt is generally successful, and on the first try, no less. That pretty much never happens. I always have to argue with myself. This is getting really weird in a place and time when everything is usually so normal. And that's pretty weird all by itself.

Maybe I should be more concerned, but before I have the opportunity to give that enough thought, the shadow zips by again, on the other side. I react faster this time, darting my attention to my right before I give myself the chance to think or analyze or fret. I don't exactly see anything, and since I'm not sure that I really saw it, I'm not sure where it came from or where it went. My heart is beating faster than it should, and I can hear myself breathing, which is a big change because earlier, I sort of swore off oxygen as an unneeded encumbrance to all this freedom and wandering weirdness. I can feel the stinging cold again, but now, I don't think it's coming from the moon, lurking there so serene, like the easy, low-hanging fruit that some glittering serpent is goading me into snatching from the forbidden tree. This time, I think that the cold is coming from within me, like something has broken open inside me and is leaking refrigerant into my veins. Not that I usually have a refrigeration unit inside me, but maybe I do come equipped with such a thing here. I suppose that it could come in handy from time to time, though right now, I would much prefer a nice crackling fire over the numb that's seeping through me. It's unnatural. Lots of things are unnatural at the moment, but this is possibly the worst of it. Maybe not, but it seems that way to me.

I catch another glimpse of the shadow, and I begin to think that it's taunting me, trying to get caught. It's flashing here and there almost nonstop now, and I'm getting a little bit dizzy trying to keep up with it. My breaths are coming in ragged gasps now, and I can feel a prickling of cold sweat on my skin, tracing zigzagging patterns around the hairs that are standing on end pretty much everywhere that I have hair. This shadow, or darkness, or whatever fragment of the abyss and my over stimulated imagination it may be is nothing but a small little thing, but it's quick and it's unsettling and it's new.

Did I mention that it's new? That's sort of a very big deal. Nothing new ever happens here. Until right now. To be completely fair, this was all new to me once, but that was a long time ago, so it hardly counts anymore. Technically, everything is new at one point or another, even forever kinds of things like thunderstorms and spaghetti and stubbing your toe on the coffee table in the middle of the night. So of course everything here was new at one time. How else could I be so calm and at ease here? I've had the chance to go over and over everything that happens, and everything that exists in this place, and I always know what's coming next, so there's never a surprise. I'm not afraid to fall or drown or be trapped, because I know how it ends. Spoilers are a major nuisance with a new book or a really good movie, but in situations like this, I don't really mind them so much, and neither do you. Or at least you wouldn't, if you were here with me now, which you aren't. But trust me when I say that you wouldn't mind a good spoiler in a place like this. It helps a body gain some perspective and keep a grip on reality. Not that reality is really worth as much as everyone claims, but that shadow is still zipping around me like a dragonfly looking for an emergency exit and all the distractions and asides in the world don't appear to be changing that all that much right now, so I make the decision to slow it down enough to catch it.

I can do that here. I have the power. I have the technology.

So I focus and settle into myself until the moonlight dims just a little and the shadows soften just a tad around the edges and the sonata quiets to a pleasant lilt in the background. I can feel the fabric of everything stretching and twisting around me, and I know that I'm taking a huge chance and I could very easily destroy this whole place. That would crush me in ways that I don't like to admit to myself, so I resist the urge to wield my god complex too wildly. This is a surgical strike, not the endless surf crashing down every sandcastle that I've ever built. I've never done this exact thing before, adding another upsetting layer to the weirdness, but there's nothing else for it. I need to fix this place so that things can get back to normal and I can get on with it. After all, there's more to come. I know how this ends, remember? Or at least I used to know…

I exhale long and low, trying to let go of my need for oxygen again, but something very warm thumps against my left shin, and all my concentration falls to shards and ashes as I scream like a school girl and flail in entirely every wrong direction. The warm something bumps into my other shin with less insistence, no doubt in response to my reaction. I open my eyes (which at some point I squeezed shut) and look down through a crooked, one-eyed squint to find that my shadow really wasn't a shadow at all. It was a cat.

There's never been a cat here, shadow or otherwise. I'm not really a cat person. In fact, I'm not really a warm-blooded animal person. Not that I'm personally cold-blooded, at least not in the literal sense of the word (despite somewhat popular opinion to the contrary), but the animals that I like are cold-blooded. Reptiles and fish, mostly. Insects, or rather, arachnids. I have a tarantula named Norma Jean that has been with me through thick, thin, and everything in between. I trust her more than I trust most people, and while that may be a sad statement about the way that I interact with the world, it's the truth, and there's nothing that can be done about the truth. Well, there are some things that can be done about the truth, but I've been told that none of those things are healthy, so we'll just leave it at that and pretend that I'm functional.

A large, grey cat is winding back and forth around my legs. I know that the sound is a purr, and that's generally considered a good thing with cats, but I also know enough to understand that you never trust a cat. It's like being fool enough to believe everything that a person says to you – especially if that person is me. The words that come out of my mouth might say one thing, but my next action could very well betray that statement. Maybe it won't, but I would be lying if I said that it wasn't a possibility. I like to think of it as simple spontaneity, but I've been told that it's more like deceit or instability. I suppose that's all in the eye of the beholder and yet another reason that I should stick to spiders and mysterious subway trains that run off the map rather than putting all of my energy into trying to interact correctly with people. Better for everyone that way, no doubt.

But in the meantime, there's still a long-haired grey cat rubbing against my shins so hard that I'm pitching backward with each pass, and the persistent thing is no doubt shedding all over me, and since I'm still not sure where these clothes came from, I'm quite sure that I have neither a lint roller nor a dry cleaner handy to deal with clinging, wafting cat hair. Besides, this cat isn't supposed to be here at all. It's an anomaly. A flaw. A wrongness.

Affectionate, but wrong all the same.

I think that could be another one of those metaphors about my life, but before I have the chance to file it away, the cat speaks.

Yeah, I said speaks.

I know. Weird.

"So, genius, have you figured it all out yet?" the cat asks me, surprising me with both his directness and his accent. I expected a talking cat to be more elusive and skirt around his real question. I just have the impression that a cat would be more subtle and delicate, or at the least more cagey and standoffish. Blunt and straightforward is unexpected – even more unexpected than the ability to speak. And as for the accent, well, the fluffy grey feline didn't strike me as a straight-shooter from somewhere in Canada where they all sound like they play a lot of hockey and yield to every moose that wanders down Main Street, but evidently, that's where talking cats learn how to talk. Who knew?

"Not in the least," I replied with a shrug as a pair of undeniably intelligent orange eyes gazed up at me.

"Is this going to take long? I have other appointments, you know," the cat replied.

"I would imagine that a talking cat would keep a pretty full calendar."

"As if a talking cat is really all that unusual. I'm in demand for many reasons, not just because I happen to be a sparkling conversationalist."

"My apologies, then. I didn't mean to offend."

"No problem. I'm just here to find out if you've found out what you need to find out yet. Technically, that's my primary occupation – and most of the entries in my social calendar," the cat intimated with a wink. He stopped rubbing against my shins and sat down a few feet in front of me. He curled his tail around his front feet and peered up at me eagerly, as though sure that I was on the brink of an epiphany simply because he was here and expected that I should be on the brink of an epiphany.

"I have no idea whatsoever. Up until a moment ago, I had no idea that I was supposed to be on the lookout for some kind of breakthrough. Everything was perfectly normal up until just now. Are you responsible for the little changes tonight, or are you one of the changes?"

"I'm here to ask the questions, not answer them."

"You sound like my shrink."

"Then you should know the drill. And you should also understand that even though I say that I'm not going to answer any questions, I will anyway."

"Now you don't sound so much like my shrink."

"You must have one seriously uptight shrink then."

"Doc Webster isn't so bad. She just has a thing about rules and her oh-so-precious boundaries."

"You hit on her?" the cat sputtered, breaking his casual demeanor and widening his eyes in what could only be described as genuine surprise. Perceptive little bastard.

"You're a perceptive little bastard, aren't you?" I said out loud, though I suddenly realized that I wasn't certain that I should be insulting my newfound totem.

"Multitalented, and not technically a bastard. Some of us know both of our parents."


"Humans behave more like alley cats than alley cats do these days. But seriously, man, can we get back to the point? Places to go, things to do…"

"Sure. I wouldn't want to keep you. So, am I looking for something big or something small?"

"From what I've gathered, you pretend to look for small things because you're too scared and too lazy to look for the big things that you really want to find. It's sort of pathetic, if you ask me."

"Wow. Very perceptive little bastard."

"I hear that a lot, especially tonight, evidently. So, what have you figured out so far? Anything?"

"There's piano music and a full moon and a talking cat. Other than that, everything is exactly as it always is. Exactly as it should be, or at least, exactly as I expect it to be, and that makes it all normal enough."



"Umm, yes," the cat insisted, swishing his tail in apparent frustration and revealing the white tips of his front toes.

"Umm, no," I countered. "Donovan."

"How low must I stoop?" the cat muttered, not exactly to himself, so I took it as an insult, though I wasn't particularly bothered by it. It's not every day that a guy gets insulted by a cosmopolitan talking cat, so even an insult is intriguing. "You are Donovan. I am Eugene. Maybe we should have started off with introductions, but in a place like this, the rules are pretty flexible. I expected you to be able to keep up. I hope that I haven't overestimated you."

"Me too."

"So tell me, Donovan, what do you make of the piano and the moon?"

"It's nice."

"That's it? Nice?"

"Pleasant, nice, tranquil… What are you looking for?"

"It's not what I'm looking for – it's what you are looking for, remember? And if you see it as nice, then I guess we'll have to go with nice. But maybe you should try looking a little deeper the next time. After all, if you ever really want to find something of any heft, then you're going to have to see a lot more. The world in a grain of sand. Maybe that's asking too much of you. You've chosen to be blind for so long…" Eugene the talking cat mused, licking one front paw absently and rubbing the back of his left ear.

"Really?" I asked, piqued by the notion that I had somehow chosen this path. All my years of therapy had me convinced that while technically the information that could fill all of my voids still existed deep in the twisted depths of my subconscious, I couldn't intentionally access any of it because it was too dangerous or too disturbing or simply too much for my conscious mind to process, so it was all suppressed – kept tucked away from me for my own good. The idea that I was actually the one who was simply choosing not to see what was right there in front of me… Well, that was practically revolutionary. I felt something stir, way down deep in a place that I didn't have much use for these days. It took me a minute, but then I was able to place what it was. Hope. Not merely the shallow excuse for hope when I delude myself into thinking that subway lady is going to look at me one of these days, but real hope. The kind that's enough to get people out of bed and out of the house every morning for no other reason than they hope that something good will happen.

This was by far the weirdest segment of the whole evening so far.

"You won't make the effort to open your eyes, but you can't wait to embrace the notion that you're willfully blind. I don't care if you are hitting on your shrink – keep seeing her. Put her on speed dial. You need her," Eugene shook his head ruefully, and I imagined that he would have clicked his tongue at me if cats were capable of doing such things, which they evidently were not.

"But that could explain so much… I think I want to know, but maybe I don't. In fact, I'm pretty sure that I don't really want to know. The voids have been a part of me for as long as I can remember, and maybe I want to keep it that way, even though I say that I'm doing all of these things to try to put the pieces back together," I babbled. I thought that I should feel some sense of shame, or at the least have the decency to blush in chagrin or hang my head a little bit, but this was freeing. Damning, but liberating. So I said it. All of it.

"Maybe I really do prefer to be broken."

Deep. Scary. But since I'm here with Eugene in my safe little place, it's more exciting than troubling.

"That's fucked up, but at least we're getting somewhere. I'll tell you what, Donovan. You think about that, or do whatever it is you do in that mess of a head, and we'll pick this up again next time." I think that Eugene would have pointedly looked at his watch at the end of that comment, if talking cats wore watches, which they obviously do not.

"Next time?"

"Yeah. This time is over. So I'll be here waiting for you next time."

"But I'm not ready to leave yet. There's more to come," I countered.

"Of course there's more to come, but you're not ready for any of that yet."

"But I know what's coming."

"Not anymore, you don't. Now quit arguing and get out of here," Eugene replied in a stern voice with a distinct air of finality.

"So even more is going to change?" I pressed, taking my eyes off of Eugene and his rapidly twitching tail to peer into the darkness beyond to see if I could catch even a glimpse of something else that was set to change and further erode the norm tonight.

"Change tends to build upon itself, especially when that change has something in store for you," Eugene replied cryptically, though it was easy enough to grasp his confidence in his words.

"I don't really do change…" I started to mutter, but I stopped in mid-sentence, crying out in pain.

"And I'm not here to waste my time, so I suggest you get over your bullshit stagnation and deal with it," Eugene snarled as I looked back down at him. He was still sitting there in front of me, long tail swishing back and forth in front of his politely arranged front paws, though I noticed a faint reddish tinge to the white toes on his right front foot that hadn't been there before. I had no idea that a cat scratch could burn so intensely.

I hadn't seen Eugene move in the least, but I hadn't really been paying attention, either, so I guess that was my mistake and a valuable lesson learned. Never let your attention stray when a talking cat shows up and starts rearranging the metaphorical furniture. In the barest eyelash of a second, Eugene had lashed out at me, taking a swipe out of some part of me with his obviously razor-sharp front claws. I hadn't quite figured out what part of me he had hit, though my shins presented the most likely location since he was right there at knee-level, but the pain seemed to be radiating from several different points on my body, all at the same time. I opened my mouth to say something to Eugene about resorting to physical violence on our first meeting, but I was frozen to the spot and I couldn't recall how to form whatever muddy thought was slogging through my head into some kind of coherent message that could come out of my mouth.

"Just go home and think about it. I'll expect some progress next time," Eugene nodded, twisting his head far to one side and tilting it so nearly sideways that I wondered if his skull might detach from his neck and roll across the floor in a more gruesome rendition of the Cheshire Cat's lingering, disembodied smile. Thankfully, Eugene stayed intact, leaving just his poorly veiled parting shot to hang among the starry night sky of my no longer tranquil little world.

I wanted to say something, maybe even protest being dismissed before I was ready to hang it up, but it was too late. I was already paused, and for the first time in a rather long time, I didn't know how this was going to end tonight.

Truly and exceptionally weird.