Over the next week, he settled his father’s estate and arranged for the body to be cremated. But along the way, Luke also started a collection of black cats with sky-blue eyes
There would be no funeral or memorial. Luke’s mother’s ashes had been scattered in Tuscany where his parents had first met as college students. His mother had been in college, his father had been backpacking across Europe using the remains of the inheritance from his parents.
Luke’s father used to tell stories about how he lied to the beautiful Italian girl. He claimed to be an art history major when in reality he was just a waiter who wrote poetry and short stories for fun. He just wanted to experience someplace beautiful.
Luke wrote an obituary for the paper, then on a sunny Friday morning, he set about scattering his father’s ashes into the Atlantic Ocean. “Goodbye, Dad.” Walking home, he saw people on their way to work. Blue-collar people like his father, going off to restaurants, factories, and hotels. Feeling a little depressed, Luke took a seat on a nearby bench. He closed his eyes for just a moment of rest but awoke to rain. “Shit.” Luke sat up and quickly made his way to an alley, to escape the downpour. Well, it wasn’t a complete escape since there was no overhang, but the fire escape provided a small amount of relief from the storm. Thunder crashed through the sky, followed by a baby’s cry.
Was there a baby somewhere? “Hello?” Luke followed the sound down the alleyway, past the dumpsters, to a dark corner.
A woman with long black hair was sitting with her legs pulled to her chest. In her arms was a baby wrapped in an old sweatshirt. “It’s so cold.” The voice, it was Shannon’s. She looked up at him with her blue eyes. Her face was thin, with bruises on her mouth and cheek.
“Do you need a place to stay?”
“Sure,” she replied. “Thank you.”
“I’m Luke,” he said, reaching out his hand. “My place is just a few blocks from here.”
“Kelsey,” he repeated. “That’s a pretty name. Here, take my jacket, follow me.”
Kelsey followed Luke back to his apartment, where she was bombarded by a flurry of black cats running in all directions. “You have a lot of cats for such a small place.”
“Actually I only have one, she’s just really fast.”
“Yeah, sure,” Kelsey giggled as she motioned at the four separate food bowls. “Monday?” she read aloud.
As she said the name, the first cat appeared from behind the sofa. The creature stood tall and proud, like an Egyptian queen.
“Monday was the first cat I found. I was feeling a little down, so I named her Monday because things can only get better from there- right?”
“And Tuesday, was she your second cat?”
“Tuesday was actually my fourth cat.”
“You’ll see.” They watched as the other cat bowed down to Monday then proceeded to follow her to the food bowl.
“Tuesday always follows Monday.”
Next, a larger cat emerged. This cat was the reason why Luke’s joke would never have worked. “I call her Garfield.” The fluffy cat curled up on Jame’s lap and hissed at the other two. “She hates Monday.”
“Cute, and um.. does that last one say, ‘Iced Coffee?'” Her words caused a black cat to poke its head from a kitchen cupboard.
“Icee- cup!” Luke said happily. The cat leaped into a nearby plastic cup, fitting perfectly as if made of liquid. “I wanted to name her Pepsi, but she only answers to Icee.”
“And she looks like an iced coffee,” Kelsey said with a smile. She wiped tears from her eyes. “I’m sorry. It’s been a while since I had a reason to laugh.”
“That’s a shame.”
“You look really pretty when you smile.”
Luke noticed the baby had stopped crying and was beginning to fall asleep. “I can hold the baby while you take a shower, just to warm up a little. You can help yourself to any dry clothes.”
“That sounds nice.”
While Kelsey took a shower, Luke made a make-shift crib for the baby out of a laundry basket and some towels. But as soon as he put the baby down it started to cry. That was when he realized he had never asked the baby’s name or even gender.
He picked up the baby, rocking it gently in his arms. “Hey, little guy. You’re safe now.”
Kelsey emerged from the shower wrapped in only a towel. “Oh,” she said with a panicked look. “Do you know of a place to buy diapers around here?”
“There’s a grocery store down the block, but,” he went to the kitchen and pulled out some bag clips. “Use one of the clean towels to make a temporary diaper.”
That caused Kelsey to laugh. “You only own, like, three towels.”
“But your baby has been soaking wet for hours. I can buy more towels.” It was still raining as Luke went outside. He didn’t think twice about buying baby supplies but, on his way home, he wondered what he’d be coming home to.
Luke opened the door to find Kelsey wearing a white t-shirt that was much too big for her slender frame. She was holding her sleeping baby in her arms as they both lay on the sofa.
The baby opened its eyes and looked up at Luke.
“What’s your name little one?” he asked.
“Shannon,” Kelsey said with a yawn. “Her name is Shannon. I named her after my mother.”
“Yeah, she died when I was nine.”
“Me too. I mean who dies of breast cancer at the age of twenty-eight?”
Luke froze, his eyes went wide. “Her name was Shannon, and she died at twenty-eight?”
“That’s not the strangest thing. I was only nine, but you know what her last words were to me? Someday you’ll find a nice guy. Who says that to a kid?”
“The kind of person who comes back as a DTF angel with a pierced tongue,” Luke muttered. He felt a little awkward knowing what he knew about ‘Shannon,’ but technically the baby he held in his arms was a different person than the one he had swiped right for.
“Huh?” Kelsey asked with a sleepy blink.
“Sorry I was talking to myself.” Luke looked at the innocent little baby. Would she grow up to be a wild angel with a heart of gold? Maybe she would be a rebel or an artist. But no matter what, he would watch over her. He would fight for her happiness.
Kelsey smiled as she stroked the baby’s cheek. “Maybe someday this little one will find a nice guy.”
“What about her father? Is he still around?”
“You mean did I fuck a total bastard, who cheated on me when I was eight months pregnant?”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean…”
“He was not a nice guy,” she said with a sigh. “He told me he never wanted to be a father.”
Luke looked into the baby’s eyes and smiled. “That’s his loss.” Luke stood up and went to the kitchen. “So tell me about your mom, unless you’re too tired. I was going to make some coffee and work on a few projects.”
“Coffee sounds nice.” Kelsey pulled her legs to her chest, under the borrowed t-shirt. “It’s been a while. I was one of those eat-healthy, no smoking, no alcohol, no caffeine moms.”
“You say it like that’s unusual.”
“I know. I’m not a special snowflake or Wonder Woman but F-K did I miss caffeine.”
“Something my mother used to say. My grandparents would try to get me to say “fudge” or something that wouldn’t get me sent home from school, but my mom…” Kelsey smiled, as if a happy memory was filling her mind. “She told me F-K is just enough of a swear word to let people know you’re serious while still looking like a cutie pie.”
“For my mom, it would have been ‘dannazione.’ She was born and raised in Italy.”
“That’s cool. Is she still around?”
“No,” Luke said with a sigh as he loaded and coffee maker, adding a full pot of water. “She passed away when I was fourteen; car accident, died on the scene.”
“Oh, wow. I can’t even imagine. Well I mean I can imagine losing a parent, but I was always grateful for the chance to say goodbye.”
“For the longest time I wondered, what would be better or worse; losing someone quickly without the chance to say goodbye or watching someone die a slow and painful death- but at least you get to be by their side. Little did I know, while most kids were taking first-year finals in college I would be watching my father get an MRI.”
“He died of illness?”
“Yeah.” Luke gripped the counter for strength. He didn’t want to cry, but one fact always pissed him off. “He was originally diagnosed with a repetitive motion injury; a bad back.” It was then he realized he was still holding baby Shannon. She looked at him with eyes filled with nothing but love and compassion. “After two years of physical therapy he was only getting worse, so the insurance authorized an MRI, that’s when they found the cancer. But that’s not how I want to remember him.” Luke walked to a nearby bookshelf and took down a sketchbook.
“This was my Dad’s journal. He was a traveler, a philosopher and funny as F-K.” Luke put the book down on the table in front of Kelsey as he went back to the coffee maker.
“Tell me a joke.”
As he poured two cups of coffee, Luke told her the same ‘brain cancer’ joke he had told Shannon.
Kelsey’s reaction was a similar over the top laugh. “My Mom would have loved that, she always had a thing for dad jokes.”
It was then Luke realized Kelsey never mentioned having a Dad. “Really?”
“I guess it was because she had to play both roles, it was just her and me- and my grandparents. I come from a long line of girls who make bad relationship choices, I guess.” Kelsey pursed her lips, sadness radiating in her eyes.
Luke knew he needed to lighten the mood. “What was your mom’s favorite joke?”
Kelsey pursed her lips for a moment. “What should you do if you break your arm in three places?”
“I think I know this one.”
“Don’t go back to those places,” Kelsey said, her mouth morphing into a smile. “I always loved that joke; places vs places, a play on words. But it’s really such a terrible message.”
“Oh?” Luke walked over her coffee before going back for his own, since the baby was sleeping comfortably on his shoulder.
“Yeah, I mean what if you broke your arm parasailing or river rafting or even skydiving. Would it be worth it to never feel that rush, that energy- all to avoid ever getting hurt?”
The way her eyes sparkled as she took a sip of her coffee had Luke mesmerized. “I know what you mean.” He opened his laptop to a stomach-churning sight; with all of the stress and drama of his father’s passing he had never gotten around to changing his background. There on his desktop was him and Stacy kissing in Times Square.
“Is she dead too?” Kelsey asked. Her chin was pressed against Luke’s shoulder.
“No,” Luke muttered as he quickly right clicked and changed the background to one of the default Windows backgrounds. “She just didn’t see a future with me.”
“Wow, that’s messed up, but at least you didn’t get her knocked up-” she paused before saying something she truly could not take back. “Oh, God, I’m so sorry.”
“I have work to do,” Luke said with a sigh. “You can read or watch tv…”
“She doesn’t let you see your kid?” Kelsey asked as she picked up the sketchbook.
“Do I look like I have a kid?” Luke shouted a little louder then he would have liked. That was when the baby woke up. Luke rocked her, holding her little body close to his. “Shh, sorry I didn’t mean to yell.” He turned to Kelsey. “My ex got rid of it and broke up with me when I confronted her about the charge on our shared credit card. She actually thought I would support her. I mean I’m not against abortion but the way she talked about it, was like she made a batch of cookies and threw them in the trash; not a big deal, just a mistake.”
“Nothing about you is a mistake,” Kelsey said with a true kindness in her voice.
Luke turned to look at her. She had the sketchbook open to a page with photos of his parents, and a pencil sketch of his father’s smiling face. “My mom drew that.”
“I could tell. The way she captures all the little details.” She traced her finger along the outline of the portrait. “You look so much like him; your eyes, your hair, your smile- it’s like you were meant to live on in his honor.” Kelsey paused an closed the book. “I don’t know what I’m saying. That’s just something my grandparents used to tell me; I look so much like my mother, maybe I was meant to live on in her honor. Not that I have any photos around to prove it.”
“To prove that you’re the spitting image of your mother?” Luke asked rhetorically since he had already experienced all the prof he would ever need. He closed his laptop, resting it on the floor. “I’m actually kinda tired. We haven’t really discussed sleeping arrangements.”
“I could sleep on the floor next to the hamper-crib,” she offered.
“Or we could sleep head to feet on the pull out bed. Stand up.” Luke quickly and effortlessly opened the sofa bed using only his free arm.
“You’ve been sleeping on this thing for way too long.” Just as the words left her lips, all four cats took their place on the left side of the bed forming a wall.
Little Shannon was reaching for her mother.
“Let me take her for a while.” Kelsey laid herself down on the bed with his enough room between herself and the cats for Luke to sleep in the middle. Luke watched as she moved the baby under the shirt, allowing her to breastfeed. It was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. “I’ll cuddle my baby while you cuddle with your fur babies.”
“Yeah, sure,” he said with an awkward laugh. This was actually the first time his cats had attempted such a display. Usually they slept in their own chosen areas of the apartment. Luke retrieved a blanket from a nearby closet, and gently placed the fleece covering over Kelsey and little Shannon.
“Oh,” Kelsey said with a moan. “That feels so nice.”
Luke understood. After all he had found her in an alleyway, the feeling of a bed and a blanket had to be a vast improvement. But her voice, it was driving him to sinful thoughts. “I’m going to take a shower and change into some sweatpants.”
“We’ll be waiting,” Kelsey said in a playful sing-song voice as if to imply she was speaking for everyone in the bed.
Luke turned on the shower to it’s coldest setting. He took a deep breath and proceeded to violently jerk off while standing under the freezing cold water until he could barely feel his legs. Kelsey was beautiful, kind, but most importantly she was so fragile. The last thing he wanted as to come off as just another predator.
After his body was cleaned and his sex-drive thoroughly extinguished, Luke put on a pair of sweatpants and maneuvered himself into bed, sleeping back to back with Kelsey.
He locked eyes with Monday, who was soon joined by the faces of the other cats, staring at him with their glowing jewel-like eyes. “She needs you.” The voice was female, ghostly, and apparently coming from the combined mental power of his cats.
“I don’t know,” Luke said in a whisper. He felt as hand, but it wasn’t Kelsey. The hand touching his wrist was large, rough and callused. It was his father’s hand. The ghostly apparition guided Luke to Kelsey’s shoulder. She was trembling. Luke tried to pull back his hand, but that was when he heard her crying. “You ok?”
“I’ve lived in the streets for six months. I gave birth in a New York alleyway, then hitchhiked my way to New Jersey because that was where the trucker who picked me up was headed. He forced me to pay him with sex while my baby watched.” Kelsey’s sobs intensified. “Through all the pain, the humiliation, I cried for my mother. I begged her to help me, but she never did. I’m only twenty-one, but I feel so broken inside like I’m not worthy of ever being fixed. I’m going to live and die as a screwed up sex toy. And then my daughter…” Her sobs intensified. “My daughter doesn’t deserve my life.
Luke held her hand. “Kelsey?”
“Yeah?” she turned her head to face him, wiping her tears on the blanket.
“Will you go skydiving with me?”
Kelsey smiled, then laughed. “I would love to.”