Lorene had a secret. She had not decided if she would tell anyone about it or not.
She was not sure who she could tell, even if she wanted to. Not her father. He would pick it apart, tell her the ways in which she was wrong or mistaken.
She could have said something to her teacher. She had been kind to Lorene, listened to what she had to say. She was gone now, disappeared without a word. One morning, she wasn’t at school.
Maybe Agathe. She was the upstairs neighbour. She lived with her brother. He was in a wheelchair and Lorene never saw him. But Agathe was nice, she though, would stop and say hello to Lorene when she saw her.
So. The secret.
There was a cat in the back courtyard.
Lorene had never had a pet.
One of the boys at school had a dog. Or, at least, he said that he did. No one had ever seen it, but the boy talked about it incessantly. (She liked the word “incessantly”, it had a wonderful combination of sounds.)
Of course, in the books she read the kids often had pets. None of that, however, had prepared her for the sheer cuteness of the thing. The cat was tiny, it’s body mostly black with white socks. Lorene decided it was a girl cat and named her Ruru. She was not sure where the name came from, but she liked the repetitive sound.
It was warm and sunny and Lorene was playing amongst the rubble in the yard.
The girl looked up, a grin sprouting as she saw Agathe.
“Hi! I’m digging in the rocks. I want to be an archeologist.”
“That’s great. Have you found anything?”
“No, not yet. But I’m sure I will,” she paused. “‘Archeologist’ is a great word, isn’t it? I wouldn’t want to have a career with a boring name.”
Agathe looked surprised. “What do you think of ‘medic'”?
Lorene considered it seriously. “Not bad. Short, but solid.”
The older woman laughed. “I like the sound of that.”
Lorene was distracted now, gently moving pieces of concrete. She glanced up. “How is your brother?”
“The same as always, fine.”
“That’s good,” as she continued poking with a stick.
“Good luck with the exploring. I hope you find something interesting.”
“Agathe! Hi, Agathe! I’m on my way to school.”
“Doesn’t school start before this?”
“Lorene was feeling a little sick this morning, weren’t you, chipmunk?”
“Oh, I hope you’re feeling better now,” the woman said, her face distracted.
“I am…,” the girl’s words trailed off, her face blank. Then, suddenly, it lit up. “Have I told you about Ruru?”
“What is ruru?”
“Your cat? I didn’t know you had a cat.”
“Oh, she doesn’t really,” her father interrupted.
“She’s white and black. She’s so little. And she purrs when I pet her.”
“You know, Lorene, you need to be careful with feral cats…”
“She’s my friend, Agathe. She won’t hurt me.”
“She wouldn’t mean to, but cats scratch or bite when they get scared.”
“Oh.” Lorene’s face had fallen.
“Just be careful, gentle.”
“I will. I love Ruru.”
The woman looked at her watch. “I have to go, my shift starts soon. Have a nice day.” And she hurried off.
Outside the apartment building, sitting on the crumbling cement step, is Lorene, by herself.
“Oh, hi, Agathe.”
“Are you doing more excavating?”
“Not today,” Lorene seemed particularly downcast, poking at the ground with the toe of her shoe.
“How is Ruru?”
“Good, I think,” Lorene says with the optimism of the young child she is.
There was a bit of a pause.
“What do you think I should be feeding her?”
Agathe was not really sure. She had never had a cat.
She was trying to think of something good for the cat that Lorene could find and would not be too expensive.
“I tried that. She just drinks a little.”
“Hmmm…” Agathe was not sure what to say. Her minimal understanding of cats made her think fish would be good, but she also knew that suggesting such a thing would be to impose quite heavily on Lorene’s father’s resources. A light went on.
“Maybe we could go to the river and fish. I think Ruru might like fish.”
Lorene’s face lit up.
“That sounds great! That’s right. Cats like fish, don’t they?”
“I think so.”
“When can we go? Tomorrow?”
“We’ll see. You have to ask your father. Where is he?”
“He is in the apartment.” And Lorene skipped off into the building.
“The word ‘fishing’ is interesting, isn’t it? Like a swish, it’s kind of soft. You know, I’ve never been fishing before.”
Agathe smiled down at the little girl.
“It’s been a long time since I have. I don’t know why. Sometimes I buy the fish that other people catch.”
“Daddy doesn’t do that. Maybe he doesn’t like fish.”
“Maybe. Not everyone does.”
“I hope Ruru likes this.”
They sat in silence. Agathe had found the fishing rods and tackle she had used with her father when she was Lorene’s age. Before the war. They used to pack up their things and walk along the river, past the north edge of the city. Her father said that the fishing was better there.
They couldn’t go very far now. It was safe enough here, on this bend of the river, but they could still here the occasional sound of snipers in the distance.
“What did you do at school today?”
“Not much. My teacher wasn’t there. She hasn’t been there this week. The principal was there, but she just sits and does her own work. She told us to read or draw or whatever. It was fun at first, but it’s getting pretty boring.”
“I bet. Is your teacher sick?”
“I don’t think so. No one will say why she isn’t there.”
Lorene glanced around and then spoke to Agathe in a very quiet voice. “I think she left.”
“What?” Agathe was taken by surprise.
The girl continued in a whisper. “I think she went away. She didn’t talk about it much, but she said a few things that made me wonder. Her boyfriend was killed last month. She’s been different since then.”
Agathe was at a loss. It seemed to her very wrong that Lorene knew anything about these things.
“It must have been very difficult for her.”
“I want to stay here.” It might have seemed like a non sequitur, but Agathe knew it wasn’t.
“Yeah. I don’t know what it would be like, to be elsewhere. Or even to be here without the war. But I can’t imagine leaving.”
They lapsed into silence again for a short while. The younger was the first to speak.
“Would you leave if you could?”
“I have never considered it.”
“Because of your brother?”
“I guess so. He needs me. And is in no condition to leave.”
“Hmm. What if he died?” she asked with the matter-of-factness of youth.
The question felt like a knife in her gut. Agathe had thought about it, far too much really. But she could not tell her that. The war may have brought premature maturity to kids like Lorene, but there were still things they didn’t need to hear.
“I don’t know what I would do. But I do know that I am helping people here. What would happen if all of the doctors and medics and ambulance drivers left? Who would help the people that still lived in the city?”
“What if we all left, though? Would the war be over then, if there was no one left?”
It was getting cold, and was already dark, as Lorene crouched just outside the back door of the apartment building. A piece of fish lay on a plate on the ground. Her glance darted around, scanning for the cat. She began calling to the cat softly.
There was nothing. No sound of a cat’s movement. No call in reply.
“Lorene! Come in now! It’s time for bed!”
The sounds of her father were loud in the stillness of the growing night. She did not want to go in. Not yet. Maybe Ruru would come.
She stood up slowly, her eyes still searching for the cat, her ears attuned for any noise, as she made her way to the door.
She sat on her bed, her back leaning on the wall it was pushed against, a book was open on her pulled up knees. She was not reading, though. Ruru was nowhere to be found and she was very worried. There were many things that could have happened. She could have been killed by an emergency vehicle. She could have been trapped by shifting debris. (That was something that could happen to anyone. One of Lorene’s school friends had to have his leg amputated after a short cut through an empty lot. ‘Amputated’ was such a brutal word.)
Maybe Ruru was sick. She had been eating very little, after all. Lorene did not know if the cat could take care of herself. She was small, she might not have good hunting skills. Lorene had no idea. She didn’t know anything about the sicknesses that cats got. Things could be really serious. Ruru could be out there, somewhere, dying, alone.
Tears came to Lorene’s eyes. She loved Ruru, wanted nothing more than to find her and cuddle her, but she didn’t know where to start.
If she tried to talk to her father, she knew he would dismiss her concerns. He would tell her that there were more important things than a small cat. That there was a war and, if she wanted to cry about anything, she could cry about that. The fact that their city was crumbling around them. The fact that she did not have a mother because the medications that would have saved her in peacetime were not available because of the war. The fact that she was growing up without having a proper childhood. The fact that her father was stuck doing stupid, menial work because no one needed a philosophy professor in the middle of a war. The fact that they did not matter in the bigger picture.
A small black and white cat was not one of the things she should worry about.
She didn’t talk to her father about things she cared about very often.
Agathe was slumped at the kitchen table, her hands wrapped around a cup of coffee. It wasn’t really coffee, it wasn’t made from ground beans. That was an unimaginable luxury. It was some weird combination of dried stuff that tasted not entirely unlike coffee. That might be wishful thinking on her part, though.
There was a soft knocking at the door. Agathe startled at the sound and stared at the door in surprise. She could not remember the last time someone had knocked on it. As she jumped to her feet, she wondered who it could be. All she could think of was Cecelia, her elderly neighbour across the hall. Something must have happened to Cecelia or her husband.
She pulled open the door a crack. There, looking very nervous and very young, was Lorene, her eyes darting low.
“Why, hello. How are you?”
“Well, thank you.”
“Would you like to come in?” she added when the girl did not continue.
“Who is that?” came at a loud volume from the further bedroom. “What is going on? Who is here?”
“Just a moment,” Agathe said softly. “I’ll be back in a moment.”
Lorene stepped inside, as Agathe walked briskly from the room. She could hear the faint sounds of Agathe speaking, her voice low. Then came a loud, “Who? I don’t know her. Why is she here? Make her leave. Now.” There was more faint murmuring and then Agathe returned.
“I’m sorry,” she began. “My brother doesn’t like the unexpected.”
“I can go,” Lorene said quickly.
“No, no, why did you come?”
“It sounds kind of silly now. I haven’t seen Ruru in a few days and I’m worried about her.”
“I’m sorry, Lorene. What do you want me to do?” She did not sound particularly friendly now.
“Could you come and help me look for her?”
For a moment she thought that Agathe might say yes, but a sadness came over the woman’s face.
“I would if I could, Lorene, but certainly not now. I have to work soon. I’m on night shifts this week.”
“Can’t you ask your dad?”
“Yeah, maybe…” and she turned around and quickly left the apartment before the tears could begin to fall.
The sky had quickly gone dark. One moment there was plenty of light and then it was gone. Lorene had spent the last several hours walking an ever-increasing spiral out from the apartment building. She had had no luck yet. She ought to have gone home already, before the light disappeared, but her worry for the little cat had overrode her natural sense of caution.
“Ruru.” She called the name out into the darkness, with no hope now of hearing a response. It came out of its own accord. “Ruru.” She stumbled over a small pile of crumbled concrete. She hit the ground hard, one knee taking the full impact, the fabric of her pants tearing on contact. Pain shot up her thigh. She sat down heavily on the ground, holding her leg. For a moment the pain blotted out everything, she couldn’t think. As the pain receded a little, she took a few minutes to steel herself before she managed to sneak a peak at her knee. Blood ran down her leg, but not too much. She had scraped off a layer or three of skin.
Taking a deep breath, she got up. She really should go home now. Hopefully, her father would not be too worried. She had left a note, after all.
She walked swiftly, with a little limp, keeping to the rubble-free middle of the road. Then there was a flash in the distance and the deep bass of a bomb landing. The ground shuddered and she wobbled. She tried to walk more quickly. She needed to get home.
Another flash, not quite in the same place as the first one, but that same wave of sound and feeling. This was so much worse than listening to it from home.
She started to run, awkwardly, trying to watch the ground, being careful about where she was going.
A different sound reached her now, a high-pitched whining. It sound like it was right over her.
Then there was light. And noise. And blackness.
Illusive by Monique Cuillerier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at notwhereilive.wordpress.com.
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