The Cat in the Mirror
Dead lights. Fog spreads outwards, creeping into the misty streets. It's winter.
Door opens, figure walks out. He breathes heavily, scans both ends of the streets, can't see the ends, tugs his beanie further down his face and takes a few steps into the frost. Engulfed by the ghost of the city, he strolls, bright blue eyes shining from beneath beanie and cloak, down a narrow alleyway of cobblestone and brick.
"Marco! Marco!" A high voice calls out from above. A window, framed with yellow paint, two potted plants beside a miniature windmill. Another figure looking down, grinning mile wide, pigtails twitching. Figure in the alleyway looks up, blue eye squinting through cold smoke and winter. He recognizes her, pays extra attention to his surroundings before he speaks. Figure in the window listens. Ghosts continue to turn the blades of the miniature windmill in the yellow-framed window.
"Jane," the cloaked figure replies. "Not so loud, they might hear."
A black cat silently sprints across the wood board hanging high above the alleyway, escaping the clutches of the invading fog. The cat remains unnoticed by both the figure in the alleyway and the girl in the window.
"Marco! Marco!" the girl in the window repeats, giggling absurdly. "You came back today! Let's play!"
Her pigtails continue to twitch. The windmill continues to turn. The fog continues to creep. The figure in the alleyway remains alert. The world is tilted, but no one notices.
"Not now, Jane," the figure named Marco places a hand on the back of his neck and wipes away at the markings of the hanging mist. "I'm only here to get you out of here."
"What do you mean, Marco?" the girl perches her head on her hands, staring innocently at the man below.
"They're coming for you," Marco replies urgently.
"Good! Good!" the girl in the window laughs. She spreads her arms out through the window, exposing her frail frame to the dead lights. "Let them come! They are welcome here!"
"No, Jane," Marco raises a hand, adjusts his beanie, glances left and right, slightly more agitated than before. "They are dangerous, extremely dangerous, and cannot be trusted. You must not let them near you! You understand?"
The black cat sits on the edge of the roof, high above the girl's head. It peers down at her with knowing eyes, hidden partially by the fog. It remains unnoticed, sitting and waiting for the right moment.
The girl named Jane giggles. "Silly Marco! Guests should be welcomed, not ignored! Let's throw a party for all of these wonderful people!"
"No, listen to me, Jane!" Marco protests desperately. "You have to get out of here now! They're out to ice you, take you away! You can't let them do this to you! Jane!"
"Oh, Marco!" Jane wistfully talks over the man's pleas. "I'll be back! Going to do some party planning! I'm so excited!"
With a delightful squeal she turns away from the window and retreats further into the building. The cat pulls back from the edge of the roof as well, silently disappearing into the fog.
"Wait! No! Jane, come back!" Marco hisses. He grabs his beanie, pulls it over his eyes in frustration, lets out a grunt of nervous annoyance. Recomposing his thoughts, he adjusts the beanie and looks left and right, mentally running through his remaining options. The distance between the ends of the streets narrows. The fog is eating the streets. The fog beckons to Marco and Jane.
The windmill continues to turn, but more and more time passes between each rotation. Marco sees this, and realizes that time is running out. The world continues to tilt subtly, but no one notices.
"Jane!" Marco calls out.
No answer. The window remains vacant.
"Jane!" Marco calls out again, louder than the first time.
No answer. Faint giggling is heard beyond the window. Pleasant humming follows.
Marco steps back, biting his lower lip. Looking around, he spots the entrance to the apartment complex: a red wooden door angled inwards, blending into the surrounding stone facade to complete the dreary picture. He steps forward, mumbles an expletive under his breath, and kicks the door in. The red door collapses immediately, revealing an old, dusty interior within. The wallpaper decays, burnt orange and crusty brown streaks lining the walls, marking the paths of water from ages past. A fountain sits in the middle of the lobby, crumbling under years of oppression.
Marco walks up to the fountain, eyes fixated on a stone angel perched on the fountain, posed shooting an arrow straight back at the entrance, an expression of dignity frozen on its face. The angel's eyes stares down Marco. Marco stares back.
Marco finds the stairs behind the fountain and begins to ascend upwards. He keeps glancing back at the fountain, feeling a sense of uneasiness as he does so. The angel does not speak. The angel does not move. The angel can not physically communicate with Marco. The angel is made of stone. Yet Marco pauses four steps up the flight of stairs to stare at the angel on the fountain. The angel finds a way to let Marco know it knows.
It is not your time. Leeeeave.
Marco adjusts his beanie. Now is not the time for stray thoughts. He continues to ascend the stairs, climbing and pivoting until he reaches the third floor. The fog seeps into the apartment complex. Marco can barely see Jane's door in the encroaching mist. Nevertheless, he pushes through and stops in front of the door, gasping for air. Now or never. Jane has to understand.
Knock knock. Marco begins with the polite knocks. The door quivers and rattles as it is hit. The hinges have rusted along with the rest of the apartment, and struggle to hold the door in place. Marco waits, knocks on the door a few more times, tries the doorknob. The door rattles even more, but is locked. Marco steps back and scratches the back of his head.
"Jane!" he calls out.
No answer. The door remains locked in place.
"Jane!" he calls out again, louder than the first time.
No answer. Faint giggling is heard just beyond the door. Marco furrows his eyebrows inquisitively. He has heard this giggling before, back when he was on the street looking up at the window. Back then, he had assumed it was Jane who was giggling. Now, he isn't so sure.
It is not your time. Leeeeave.
Marco gulps, but pushes the thought out of his mind. He steps back with his right foot, primes it, launches it into the middle of the door. The hinges give way, and the door falls into the room. Jane's room. Marco enters and looks around.
The fog has touched everything. A single queen-sized bed occupies one end of the room, resting atop an old oak frame. A desk sits on the other end, its empty dark beige surface covered in dust and ash. A wardrobe lies tucked in the corner furthest away from the open window, stained with rust and age. A large rectangular mirror hangs on the wall above the head of the bed, feeding Marco the illusion that the room is twice as big than it actually is. The ceiling is low enough to be recognized as such. The room looks like it has been abandoned for decades. There are no lights in the room. There is no water.
Jane is not here.
Marco scans the room desperately, still struggling to catch his breath. He scans the room a second time. He scans the room a third time. Jane is still missing, her presence now only a resounding echo in Marco's mind. Is she in another room? No, this is her room. Jane never leaves her room.
"No. No. No no no." Marco mutters aloud. This can't be all. Jane has to be somewhere around here. Marco runs up to the open window on the far side of the room. He peers out, down at the street below. He can barely see the street. The fog grows thicker. Marco is running out of time.
He runs his hands along the yellow frame surrounding the window. A single tear rolls down his cheek, partially obscured by the mist. The tear falls off his cheek and onto the wooden windowsill before quickly evaporating into the fog. Marco places a finger on the windowsill, gently rubbing the fallen tear off the wood.
The windmill is missing.
Marco freezes in place with this sudden realization. When he was talking to Jane, he had noticed the miniature windmill in the corner of her window, turning slowly in the fog. Now, the windmill is missing. Gone. Taken?
Marco doubles back, looking around the room. He catches movement in his peripheral vision, and spins around to find himself staring at the giant mirror above the bed. The mirror reflects the entire room, including the yellow-framed window on the far side. Marco squints, barely believing his eyes. In the mirror, the windmill sits on the window, gently turning. Marco walks to the side of the bed for a closer look at the mirror. He leans in, eyes focused on the turning windmill in the mirror. He turns from the mirror to the window. There is no windmill in the window. He turns from the window back to the mirror. There it is, continuing to turn ever so slowly.
Marco suddenly sees a black cat in the mirror, sitting on the bed. It is facing the mirror, its tail silently thumping against the dusty bedsheets in rhythm. The cat stares through the mirror at Marco, slowly blinking its bright yellow-green eyes. Marco glances down at the bed. There is no cat on the bed. He glances back at the mirror. The unnatural eyes stare back at Marco.
The cat suddenly begins to giggle, its previous blank expression transformed into an expression of uncontainable delight. The mist wraps itself around Marco like a possessive creature, sending a chill down his spine.
"How incredibly amusing," the cat purrs. Its head tilts to the left. Seemingly, the entire apartment tilts to the left as well. Marco stands his ground. The freakin' cat talked? Despite this, he stands his ground. He knows who the cat really is.
"Give her back," Marco orders, quietly but with ice-cold resolve.
"Why?" the cat's velvet voice resounds through the fog, harmonious with existence. "Her time nears. Her creator beckons to her. It is only natural for her to leeeeave."
It is not your time. Leeeeave.
"Her time?" Marco adjusts his beanie. "Listen, you're taking the wrong person away. She doesn't deserve this fate!"
The cat in the mirror rolls on her back and licks her paws. "Oh? Do explain."
Marco looks down. He remembers.
The hospital, two weeks ago.
Sunlight reflects through the window. A welcome sight to any other person, but not Marco. He sits in his hospital bed, half-asleep with various needles stuck in place around his pale and thin frame. His head is shaved. A necessity, the doctors say, given that half of his hair was already ready to fall off. No one comes to visit Marco. He has grown used to it.
Inside, Marco is miserable. Alone. He is always alone. His mom died of cancer when he was young, and he never knew his father. Marco spent most of his youth either behind bars or in bars, living the fast, hard life on the streets that took the lives of all the friends he ever had. All of them. Marco does not want to make new friends. He does not want to watch friends die over and over again as he sits helpless in the cold, forgotten streets.
A bed is wheeled next to him. Marco pays no attention. He considers going back to sleep. Yesterday was Marco's 25th birthday, a day that he had quietly noted and shoved to the back of his brain. Marco is looking forward to his day of death more than his birthday. His life has been nothing but a wreck.
"Hi! What's your name?" the occupant in the new bed asks. Her voice is young and cheerful. Marco looks over and sees a girl, perhaps middle-school aged, grinning freely at him. The girl has long, blond hair tied into pigtails. There doesn't seem to be anything wrong with her. Why is she here?
"I'm..." Ah, forget it. Dying men shouldn't be making new friends.
"I'm Jane!" the girl announces brightly. Marco stares at her with his sunken eyes. Her smile suddenly clicks in his soul, releasing long forgotten memories of his old neighborhood.
This girl...someone like her would be assaulted, raped and killed in five minutes if she were to ever step out into those streets
...but this ain't the streets.
Jane's bed is always next to Marco's, so they wind up talking every day, day in and day out. Marco discovers many things about Jane. He listens with interest as Jane talks about her life with blissful eyes, a life that Marco can scarcely dream of. Two-story house in the fields, white picket fence, sun-drenched backyard marked with golden yellow grass and apricot trees (Jane is particularly enthusiastic about the backyard. Her "imagination land", as she calls it), a chimney that works every winter to keep the house warm. Slowly but surely, these stories change Marco.
Jane tells Marco of her family. A pleasant, blond-haired mother, a tall, glasses-wearing father, and three brothers, all younger and sometimes annoying, but generally the best companions a sister can have. She fondly remembers early Christmas memories when she would wake up her brothers with some fresh home-brewed hot chocolate and take them outside for an early morning romp through the backyard snow. She talks about her friends at school, how she gets along well with the girls of the suburbs and city, and how she would organize birthday parties for her friends as well as the friends of her friends, a task that she works hard at and takes pride in to see her friends happy. Jane is fond of her family and friends. She is proud of them, and tells Marco a lot about them. Marco ends up returning the favor by talking about his own life. Jane hears Marco's life story and giggles.
"We're so different!" she exclaims. "I'm glad I got to meet you."
Marco sees the light in her eyes. He tries to imagine what life has been like for Jane. He wonders why his own life is different. He is fascinated by her stories. However, as more days pass he begins to notice something. Jane is now paler, her skin is no longer radiant. Her eyes remain bright and her grin remains wide, but her eyelids begin to droop more with each passing day. Marco, on the other hand, feels stronger. His health is returning to him; he is returning to life.
One day, Jane stops talking. Marco is feeling alert, the first time he feels this way in a long time. The therapy is working. If he follows the schedule, he will be out of the hospital in weeks. But Marco is not relieved. He is worried. He hopes Jane will recover and talk to him again. He misses their talks, and can't help but think that Death is taking the wrong person away from the world. What about her family? Her mother and father and three brothers? What about all her friends? What will happen to them if Jane is taken away?
The next week, Jane's bed is wheeled to the emergency room.
The cat sits and licks her paws. Marco hasn't said a word, but the cat knows what Marco is trying to say. The cat stares at Marco before letting out a sigh, furry chest rising and falling in sync with her thoughts. She stands up on all four paws and makes her way to the mirror surface. She pauses, looking up into the eyes of Marco with a concerned expression on her velvet-black face.
"You wish to take her place," the cat purrs. "But surely you understand that the world operates beyond all levels of understanding, and that placing demands on it exceeds what lies in store for you."
Her voice turns icy. "If you tempt the hand of fate, you will find yourself outside of existence looking in. Your proposal is not one to be taken lightly."
Marco hesitates. He thinks of his own life, the death of his mother, the deaths of his friends, the hardships he has had to face out on the streets. Sitting on the bed, he stares out the window. He can barely see the window now; the fog is all-consuming. Time is running out. The cat waits.
Marco realizes that he does not want to let go. He suddenly finds himself standing at the edge of the cliff, looking out at the treacherous crevasses beyond, swarmed with thoughts of gray clouds and thunderous rain. The room has faded. Marco is in the other world now.
"The bridge that connects and divides both worlds," the cat purrs. "Unfortunately, there is only room for a one-way street. Down, that is."
Jump, his heart tells him. Do it.
No, his mind replies. Live.
As Marco stands on the cliff, he thinks of the streets. Bark Lane. 31st Street. Elm Street. Streets he grew up on, hung out on, loitered on under the shadows of towering concrete and brick behemoths. The lot on the corner of Elm and Hemingway, fence half shaved, brick walls covered in colorful designs that silently screams at alert passerby. Marco remembers staring at the art pieces on the walls, appreciating the talent of brothers who deserve better mediums to showcase their budding talents, talents that will remain forever beneath the webbed canopies of the structures high in the sky. Just a few blocks down, Marco remembers witnessing his first murder, walking on 31st Street at 3 AM when suddenly a rusty red truck shoots by, dragging a screaming half-dead man across the cold, hard pavement with nothing but heavy rope. One gang sending a message to another gang, nothing more. The cops find the body and calls for witnesses the following day, but Marco remains silent. He remembers the old high school on the same street, 31st street, the school where Marco built himself an almost legendary reputation as a tough nut who faced off against all the bullies, adding to his growing collection of scars, bruises, and memories. Marco spent more time in the hospital than in the classroom. He became a regular patron at the police station.
Marco's heart is hardened... or so he thought.
Jane was in pain the last few days before they wheeled her bed away. Her eyes were never fully open, her breaths few and far between, forced in and out by the willpower of Jane herself as she lay there, air wheezing through her battered lungs. Marco, on the road to recovery, could only sit in his bed and watch as the frail girl fought her battle against the growing fog within her mind, body and soul, desperately but halfheartedly clinging onto the last bits of hope, weary of the world. She was fighting a losing battle, but Marco could always picture Jane in his mind, smiling that bright smile of hers.
Marco takes a few steps forward until he feels nothing but air beneath the tips of his shoes. He stares down. It's a long drop. The thought hits him. As soon as he jumps, he will die. Marco hesitates again. The cat appears behind him, looking as aloof as ever.
"Once you jump, you commit. You cannot stop yourself mid-fall. You cannot reverse the fall. There is only one way down, young man, and if you take it, you will have entrusted us all control of your being. Do you still want to jump?"
The cat's tone is neutral, but Marco understands. Here he stands atop the cliff, peering down at the abyss below. To jump or not to jump, was there ever really a choice? Marco wants to live, but at the same time he wants Jane to live. The most obvious solution would be to have them both live, but deep down he knows that the cat is not going to let that happen. One of them is going to leave this familiar world. One of them is going to be left behind.
Marco takes a deep breath. He has made up his mind. He turns to face the cat. The enigmatic feline yawns, not a care in the world.
"Be calm, young man. Fate dictates your paths, both straight and narrow. One has to start the journey. Either you or her, it does not matter, but one is one, and one we shall have to take."
"Then I'm going," Marco says. "Jane stays."
The cat seems to giggle. A shroud of faint mist circles around her before disappearing again. The cat's true form, hidden behind the furry visage and yellow green eyes. The fog. The mist. Marco closes his eyes.
"Before you jump," the cat suddenly interjects in an imploring tone. "Tell me, why are you willing to do this? Why are you willing to sacrifice your own life for sake of another? In time, she too will still take the same path. Your action only delays her journey."
Marco opens his eyes again and turns to stare at the cat. His eyes are dark and determined, the eyes of a man firm in his resolution. Slowly but steadily, his left hand reaches up and pulls the beanie off his head. A scar across the back of the skull, not a hair in sight.
"Life is fleeting," Marco says. "A friend once told me that. His name was Derron. In our circle, we called him D-Money. A good kid, bright smile. In more ways than one, he was my rock. The kid had aspirations, nobody could deter him. He wanted to get out of the dump we lived in and make a name for himself, had his sights trained on the college a few blocks down. He inspired me too, gave me dreams of my own. We went through hell together, D-Money and me. But fate's a bitch..."
Marco's words are cold, he speaks with zero emotion. He has replayed D-Money's death so many times in his head that it has turned into a broken record. Every moment down to the last detail, the sullen eyes, the bloodied mouth, the fading heart. Marco can see himself on the street, kneeling next to a pool of blood. D-Money's blood. His friend's blood. The quiver on his friend's lips as he grabs Marco's coat collar, staring blankly past him and whispering:
"Life is fleeting."
The cat listens, her tail thumping rhythmically against the cold rock surface.
"D-Money's death really hit me hard. If wasn't the first death I've seen, and definitely not the last, but his in particular was especially difficult because he wanted to go somewhere. The rest of us were just living out our lives in the streets, but D-Money...he wanted to get out of it all, man. He wanted to make people happy. All my life, I've seen people who wanted to be the same, but they were all talked out of it, one by one, by the crap conditions we lived and breathed in. But him...he kept going in the face of everything trying to push him down in order to fulfill a dream he never will fulfill."
Marco closes his eyes as he reflects on his past memories.
"Jane reminds me of D-Money in many ways. The smile, the eyes, the enthusiasm. They both wanted to go somewhere, they both had the same fire to them. I remember sitting on that hospital bed, listening to her describe all these things in her life that I could never dream of having. I felt anger well up inside me directed not at Jane, but at myself, because I realized that there were so many things that I could never have. It's a depressing feeling.
"But Jane...she always seemed to have a reason for talking to me. She must have seen how miserable I was on that first day we met. When she talked about her life, she was open to everything imaginable. She included me in the conversation. It was like she was showing me around her memories, pointing things out to me and introducing me to aspects of life she knew I would enjoy. I remember one particular instant when she started talking about her pet cat. A well-groomed cat with velvet fur who purred when stroked and curled up on the couch next to the fireplace whenever it snowed outside...man, the way she describes it made me feel I was there in that house next to that cat. For the first time in my life, I imagined what it would have been like to own a pet. And it wasn't just pets, too. Brothers, friends, mother, father. Family. She put me in her shoes, and I saw the most wonderful things."
The cat is now silent. Marco stares out into the horizon, lost in thought. The clouds are slowly parting, and rays of sunlight bathe the canyons below in warm light. A beautiful sight. Marco wishes he could stand and stare longer.
He closes his eyes. It is now or never. Summoning up strength, he lifts his right foot up and hovers it over the edge of the cliff. The cat looks down, then looks back up.
"Young man, you have intrigued me, very much so. The stories you speak of are ones that I have not heard in a long time. Therefore, to recognize your will and devotion, I am willing to make one small concession to your trip, should you choose to take it."
Marco's eyes are still closed. His right foot continues to hover over the edge of the cliff. All he has to do is lean forward.
"What is it?" Marco asks. He wears a peaceful expression on his face.
The first thing Jane sees when she wakes up is the hospital ceiling. Through her peripheral vision, she sees that an oxygen mask covers her mouth and nose. Tubing connects her wrists and arms to nearby machinery. The loud electronic whine subsides, and intermittent beeping takes its place.
Jane does not remember much. She looks over to her left, and finds that even moving her eyes causes her head to hurt. She wonders if someone has been inside her head.
Jane closes her eyes, hoping the pain will go away.
"Jane," a familiar voice calls out.
Jane opens her eyes again, wide this time, and turns to her left. At her bedside stands a tall, bald man holding a beanie in his gloved hands. Jane can see the peaceful expression on his face clearly, but has trouble focusing in the rest of his body. The man looks out of place next to all the hospital machinery; he looks faded, but happy.
"Marco?" Jane says aloud. Or so she thinks. She is still too weak to use her vocal cords.
"Listen," Marco says. "When you get out of the hospital, live your life. Show others the kindness you showed me. Show them, and stay true to yourself. You still have a lot of time left."
Marco looks imploringly into Jane's eyes.
"Jane, thank you," he continues. "Thanks for letting me see the world from your point of view. Thanks for showing me the way, thanks for giving me happiness, thanks for everything."
Marco smiles, bows, and puts on his beanie.
"I have to leave now. See you later! Peace!" His form suddenly blurs before slowly fading away into the distance.
Jane tries to sit up, but her body feels heavy. She is suddenly aware that are others in the room, shouting frantically and moving around her bed in a frenzy that is foreign to her.
"Her heart rate's returned! Quick, stabilize her before we lose her again!" a doctor shouts.
In another part of the hospital, the earsplitting screech of the life support machines alert nearby doctors into the room. Too little, too late.