1 | I wake up.
My eyelids are heavy. Where am I? What’s that against my arm? So soft …
“Oh, hey, kitty …”
“Kitty? I’m Pem.”
Did that cat just talk to me?
“Excuse me?” I clear my throat and say it again. “Excuse me?”
“You don’t recognize me, William?”
“Holy cow, you did just talk to me.”
“Are you drunk?”
“Um, no. No, I don’t think so.” My head hurts but not like I’ve been drinking. It’s an unfamiliar pain. “Um, where are we, Pem?”
“We’re at the Station. Where else?”
Pem paws at her face in small circles that are getting larger with each swipe.
“What’s the Station, Pem?”
Pem stops wiping. Stares at me with wide, unblinking eyes. Then pulls back and lets go with a giant lick down the side that lifts the foot up. Does that about twelve times, then licks chops.
“Huh? The Station. You know. Our house …”
I don’t recognize this place. It certainly doesn’t feel like home. My finger hurts. There’s a callus here. Looks like a ring.
“Did I lose my ring?”
“I dunno. Did you? I don’t have any use for rings.”
“Oh. Of course not. Well if you see it around, tell me, okay?”
“You bet. Hey, I’m hungry. How about you open a can of food for me, huh?”
“All right. Where is it?”
“Over here.” Pem trots in dainty little steps over to a stack of canned food.
I read it out loud: “Grool’s Gruel.” There’s a black, wispy tentacle dripping some slime. “You eat this stuff, Pem?”
“Hey. Momma’s hungry, okay? Give it.”
“All right, all right.”
I crack the can, but now I need a fork and plate. I look around in the cabinets for dishes. There aren’t many, but I do find a stack of saucers. Drawer has some silver in it. I fork out the food and put it down. I stroke her back, like a reflex.
What’s out the window there, over the sink. Let me take a look …
“Holy cow! How high up are we, Pem?”
“Is that a mattress down there? At the base of a tree? We live in a tree?”
“Nom nom nom …”
Not getting anything from her while she’s eating. Go take a look out the front door.
“Wow, that’s a long way down. Are those steps or a ladder? I guess it’s kind of the same ….”
I feel a pull, like a magnet in my chest near my heart. She’s out there somewhere. I know she is. I feel my finger again, and it points.
“Um, what’s with this, Pem?”
She’s licking her face but is done eating. “You’re pointing again. You do that sometimes.”
“Right, but what does it mean?”
“I dunno. It’s how we know where to go.”
“Where to go where?”
“You know. Where we go. We do stuff every day, then come back here and sleep. And more importantly, eat.”
“Huh.” I take a step outside. Feels new.
2 | The hundreds
Yep. That’s a mattress. At the bottom of this huge tree with boards nailed to it, a little house in its branches. “And we call this the Station?”
“Yep.” Pem is a talking cat. Still not over it.
“And what’s with the mattress?”
Pem turns her head at me. “I dunno. In case we fall?”
“Have we ever fallen?”
“I’m not sure. My mind’s usually on other things.”
My finger itches. It’s the ring finger, all callused and missing its ring. It’s raising my hand up and pointing me … out there, somewhere. “Wow, what a view.”
Pem sits on her back feet, front feet between them. “I know, right?”
“What am I looking at?”
“That’s the Valley of Sights and Sounds. It’s the bigger world, William.”
I look at my finger, itching and pulling me toward it. “And this is where we go?”
“Yeah. We follow the finger.”
“And she’s out there?”
Pem shoves her face into her side and gnaws at some fur. “Sorry. Had an itch.”
“It’s okay. I know the feeling.”
“We don’t know where she is, William. That’s why we’re looking.”
I’m curious. “And what are you looking for, Pem?”
Pem’s eyes are huge, ears pointed up, then one ear rotates toward the Valley.
Pem’s eyes narrow to slits, and she relaxes in the shoulders. “Yep. Fine.”
I’m nervous to ask again, but I do. “So what are you looking for?”
“Why better food, of course.”
She’s putting me on. But that’s okay. I can tell we’ll have time to talk.
I walk toward the Valley, in the direction of my finger.
Pem rushes in front of me, presses her body against my shins.
“What are you nuts?”
“What?” I ask. “I thought you said this is the way we go?”
“No, no! Not that way! Not over a freakin’ cliff!”
I look down and see that my finger was leading me right over a cliff, yeah. “Whoa. Good thing you stopped me.”
Pem rubs against my legs some more, and I pet her back and face.
“Let’s try the trail, okay?”
Pem struts along the edge of the cliff, then veers away from it and down a slope.
“There’s a trail?” I ask.
“Isn’t there always?”
I walk over to where she is and see there are, in fact, hundreds of trails at the base of the hill.
“Oh my …”
“What? Too many options?”
I’m stunned silent.
“Yeah, humans have trouble with options.”
“Cats do to,” I said.
Pem cocks her head at me. “Is that so?”
“Oh yes. If you build a box that has multiple ways to escape from it, but only give the cat one option at first, it will continue to use that option once others become present. Even after it’s removed, the cat will still try to use the first option.”
“Yeah,” Pem says, “okay, but first of all, that’s not options. That’s learning. And second, if you’re putting cats in boxes, William, we gotta talk.”
I laugh, either at her or myself. “I dunno how I know that. I can’t recall putting a cat in a box before.” Then I stop laughing, ‘cause, “I can’t remember much of anything, Pem.”
Pem’s eyes narrow and her little mouth looks like a smile.
3 | Littered pages
Pem and I go down one of the hundreds of paths, and the wooded canopy forms quick. A wind whips through, and there’s something stuck to my shin. It’s paper.
Pem smells it, then rubs her face against it. “It’s paper.”
I smile. “Yes, I can see that …”
The wind brings several more sheets, each sticking to me on various parts of my body. I grab at them, collect them. I sort them and try to read them. “It’s like my eyes can’t focus.”
“Let me try,” Pem says.
“But you’re a cat …”
“Okay.” I lower one of the pages and hold it in front of Pem’s enormous eyes.
Pem reads: “Even though we loved each other—and it was that love that sustained us like food during our lean years—that love was not enough to heal the wounds we inflicted on each other.”
Pem looks up at me.
“Go on.” I say it almost without thinking.
“So when the day came when she told me she couldn’t take it anymore, that she was leaving in the morning, I wasn’t surprised. Heartbroken, but not at all surprised.”
Pem looks at me again, then rubs my hand with her cheek, twice. “I’m sorry, William.”
“Why?” I ask.
Another wind blows and hundreds of pages flutter all around us.
Pem’s eyes get busy, and her head rapidly shifts around as she tracks all the pages. She leaps after one of them, mouth open and paw outstretched. She brings it down, then strikes it several times with short, quick clamping paws.
“Hey!” I say. “Don’t tear them up!”
“Oh, right!” Pem says. “Sorry.”
I pick up some of them, then feel a surge of hopelessness. “I’ll never be able to put this back together.”
Pem sits on her back feet, with front feet between. She turns her head sideways and looks at me.
“What?” I ask.
“Don’t give up.”
I look at the mass of pages in my two hands. “What is all this, anyway?”
“It’s your book.”
“I have a book?”
Pem tilts her head again. “I guess. I watched you typing for a long time. Then you threw it away.” Pem looks at the pages. “I think this is it.”
I feel some urgency to go get the other pages.
It’s like Pem feels it from me. “I’ll help.”
So we run around, getting the pages back.
I look over and see Pem pawing at one of them, then turn and crouch over it.
Pem goes on it.
I feel disappointed. “Oh, Pem, why’d you do that?”
She looks behind her, smells, then paws at it, smells again, then walks away.
“This one’s about me,” she says.