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we might be hollow (but we're brave)

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It’s not the nicest building, but the apartment has a place to sleep, eat and shit for the manageable price of $700 a month. The only glaring deterrent is the footnote in his rental agreement that states smoking indoors is strictly prohibited, but Andrew guarantees that the landlord doesn’t care enough to monitor on a monthly basis, nor does he give enough fucks to listen at all. The first thing he does after hauling his few boxes and mattress through the front door is shove his bed against the wall where the widest window is installed. It makes for the perfect place to stretch an arm for ashing and to feel the breeze leak in late at night. He doesn’t need much more than that.

That first day, he spreads himself across the bed and focuses his eyes on the water stain lingering in the corner of his ceiling. He lifts his arms upward and watches the sunlight glint across his fingernails. The sleeves of his shirt slip down to reveal bare forearms. He clenches his eyes shut and forces himself to try the new thing Besty had been talking him through—a “mantra” as she liked to call it.

Here. I am here. This is happening right now. I am in South Carolina. This is the east coast. I live alone now. This is my studio apartment. This is the 6th floor. I am on my own. This is real. I am safe.

Andrew repeats these facts to himself, letting his hands fall down to press against the mattress. He runs through the mantra until it’s all white noise in his head. When he thinks he can breathe again, he reaches into his pocket.

As he lights his first cigarette, he sticks his head over the ledge of his balcony and considers how long it would take a body to reach the ground at this height. Andrew shivers a little at imagining how it would happen. How the limbs would look sprawled on the concrete. How much it would hurt.

The window by his bed will serve more than one purpose, he thinks.

 

 

Andrew first sees it a few days after moving in: a flash of black streaking past his window. For the sake of knowing what the fuck he was dealing with, Andrew pushes his head through the opening and glances to the left. On the neighboring balcony is a mangy looking cat perched on the window sill. Andrew observes the space between his and his neighbor’s balcony—which, in all honesty, was big enough for a couple potted plants, a carton of cigarettes and, apparently, a fucking cat that likes to leap two feet between ledges attached to 6th-floor apartments—and decides he’s mildly impressed.

Not that he’d admit it, but the cat has more guts than him.

Andrew looks to his own bare balcony and decides that if his cat-owning neighbor can utilize the space as a home for tobacco contraband, so could he.

He spares a parting glance toward the animal. The thing swishes its tail and stares right back.

 

 

The second time, he doesn’t realize right away what is happening. Andrew by nature—or nurture, if one can take the sick joke wrapped in that psychological twist—is a light sleeper. He doesn’t hear so much as feel the lightness of a foreign object pressing gently into his calf. Jolting awake, he scans the darkness for the intruder, prepared to reach for the set of knives stored between his wall and mattress, only to find—

a cat, mid-step, ears flat against its head and eyes glowing in the darkness with such discontent as if to say, “can you chill the fuck out?” Of course, this is out of the question. Andrew snaps his fingers in a sharp gesture as his wordless response of, hey, get the fuck out of my bed. The cat flicks its tail and casually weaves its way toward the window, not bothered in the least by Andrew’s hostility.

When Andrew uses his foot to shove it all the way out, the thing hisses and swipes a clawed paw across his instep, but he enjoys the pain. It’s a sharp marker of success—a reminder that he’s here and this is now, and everyone can fuck the fuck off.

 

 

The third time, and the fourth time, he smacks the cat in the side to rush it back out the window. Both times, the cat lands a hit to Andrew’s arm. At least once, the beast catches him uncovered and leaves a bright red line across his fair skin. It stings for a while, but he has enough scars there though to not really care anymore about leaving a mark.

The fifth time he sees that damned cat, it’s in the afternoon and a voice floats across the space between the balconies.

“Come here, you little shit.” The voice is cracked but tender in its use. Andrew pauses with a cigarette perched between his lips and the lighter poised midair. “Stop your wandering around. If you fall and die, Matt loses the bet and I lose my free dinner, and Allison will never let me forget it.”

Andrew crinkles his nose at the thought of his faceless neighbor having friends and being social. What a concept. He flicks the lighter and savors the first taste of smoke as the tip catches flame on an inhale. He hears his neighbor pause, the slight hitch in his breath enough to tell Andrew that he’d been noticed. The cat starts to climb further out onto the neighboring balcony and hop onto Andrew’s side.

“Yeah, fine, fuck off then. Maybe you’ll stop eating these weird plants and throwing up on my rug.”

Footsteps tell Andrew the man isn’t close anymore, so he lets out an amused grunt. The cat slowly noses its way past Andrew’s smoking hand, whiskers grazing his skin. Andrew doesn’t mind so much, and silently hopes the cat eats an extra amount of plant later on.

That night he may or may not leave the window open, and may or may not pretend not to wake when soft paws pad their way to the corner end of the bed. The next day he sees a soft circular indent with black and white hairs imbedded in his comforter. He sighs and brushes them off before reaching for his morning smoke.

 

 

There’s a seventh and eighth time he sees the cat, but it’s the sounds that reach him first. Andrew was willing one slip up, but in an effort to establish that his apartment was officially a no-cats-invited zone, he’d left the window firmly shut for the night.

The howling, though. For fuck’s sake, the howling. Both nights Andrew found himself sweaty and frustrated because of that damned animal attempting to invade his personal space. While Andrew prides himself on his stubborn, cast-iron will, summers in the south are not the best places to sleep without circulating air. The seventh time he lasts 27 minutes before he can’t stop himself, glaring through the glass as he flings the window open.

The eighth time he only lasts 11 minutes. Andrew makes sure to sneer extra hard at the pest before it ambles its way closer to the center of the bed. Its glowing eyes simply say, “Gotcha.”

 

 

The ninth time involves another unwanted source of disruption. While Andrew has started to accommodate the pitter-pats of soft paws winding their way over and around his sleeping limbs—and to be fair, he tells himself it’s partially because he needs something positive to tell Betsy at their next meeting, as she’s been prodding him for months to try reaching out and, well, cats absolutely count, don’t they?—he won’t stand for the sounds of his neighbor clodding around at ass-o’clock in the morning. As Andrew screws his eyes up in annoyance, he sees the cat has curled its way under the comforter. Rolling his eyes, he grabs his phone from the floor and seethes when he sees 5:42 a.m. flash back at him.

He stares up at the water-stained ceiling and listens to the faint noises of his neighbor clonking about. After years of learning the sounds of other humans’ movements, Andrew discerns that the man is opening drawers and putting on shoes, jangling keys and leaving with a firm click of the door shutting and clack of its lock engaging. Andrew sighs and nudges the sleeping lump with his knee. When the bundle meows a low warning, Andrew turns to the window and reaches for his cigarettes. If he thought it would make any difference, he would ask the damn cat what the hell was wrong with his fucktard of an owner.

 

 

There’s a 10th and 11th time that follow, but Andrew’s not counting so it doesn’t matter. The 12th time, though, is harder to ignore because it involves an unsolicited visit from Andrew’s least favorite and only cousin.

“I mean, man, this place is fine and all for your first real apartment, but it’s empty!” Andrew doesn’t watch Nicky pace around the studio, rather finds his gaze focused on the roof across the street. There’s a set of patio furniture sitting up there and he’s never seen it used. Andrew imagines what it would look like if people sat up there. He wonders how quickly the rotted wood would burn.

“Andrew, at least put up some photos or a painting or something. Hell, I’ll even pitch in for you to get a bookcase, that way these things can go somewhere else other than this dirty box.” Nicky kicks said box of paperbacks with a dull thunk. Andrew’s too busy slowly draining the stick in his mouth to respond..

“You—are you okay here, though? Andrew?” He resolutely does not look at Nicky as the man sinks onto the bed next to him. “I know things are different now, and I get that you’re here to be closer to what you need, but you’re still family to me, man. I worry about you, and want to know you’re taking care of yourself. And, if you want, I can try to talk some sense into A—“

Andrew whips a glare at Nicky’s face. The smoke is holding its place in his lungs, and Andrew thinks that he could maybe keep it there forever, just let the dark clouds eat him away from the inside out. Nicky quiets his mouth with a frown and nods. The tension leaks out of Andrew’s body as he finally exhales, turning back to gaze out the window.

A tinny meow coming from the left catches his ear, and suddenly Andrew is face full of fuzzy-furred cat. The cigarette nearly slams into Andrew’s mouth, but he quickly tips the lit end up and away from the animal. In return, the cat purrs a brief hello before trying to walk right through Andrew’s chest and bounding onto the bed.

Impeccable timing, really, Andrew thinks.

Nicky’s knee presses into the mattress as he crawls over to get a closer look, his mood instantly lifted. “Andrew fucking Minyard, what is this I see? Since when do you have a cat?” Nicky cackles as he sticks a careful hand out for inspection. The cat hesitates for a few seconds, as if surprised to find another human in the room, but doesn’t wait long before rubbing its cheek against Nicky’s open palm.

“Aww, what a cute little love bug!” Andrew turns his back and tries not to scowl. He doesn’t care what Nicky has to say or what the cat thinks of his cousin. It’s a fucking cat with personal space issues, of course it likes the lumbering idiot. Andrew stubs the cigarette out and sets it aside for later.

“Andrew, Andrew, really though. Wait till I tell Aaron you got a cat, he’s gonna shit himself with shock. When did this happen? Why didn’t you tell me? I wish Erik wasn’t allergic, I’d have like five pets already.” Andrew rolls his eyes and twists his head to see Nicky cradling the cat in his arms like it’s a fucking baby or something. “The cat, Andrew. You do see it, right?”

“It’s my neighbor’s, idiot. What would I do with a cat?”

Nicky laughs and lifts the cat upward, thumbs digging into the poor thing’s armpits. “Love it, feed it, pet it, name it, cremate it when it dies and bury its remains in your casket? Normal pet-owner stuff. Should’ve known you didn’t belong to him, cutie pie! You’d be dead within a day if you were Andrew’s. What’s your name, pumpkin?”

Andrew can’t hold the scowl back now. “I’ve only ever heard it be called ‘little shit’. Maybe that’s its name.”

Nicky scoffs and lowers the cat enough to lay it on its back. The cat struggles of course, because Nicky is starting to look in places that he shouldn’t, and Andrew thought he’d already given the conversation about consent-is-always-required-you-imbecile.

“What the fuck, Nicky.”

“Congratulations, it’s a boy! Now think of a name better than Little Shit.”

“Not my cat, not my problem.”

“You’re the little shit here, if anything, Jesus. Okay. How about…” Nicky takes a moment to think, neck craning back as if the answer will drip down into his brain. The cat wrestles its way out of Nicky’s grasp, its fur sticking up in a show of irritation. It—he leaps over to Andrew and wraps his way around Andrew’s arm, paw pressing into the hand that lays spread out against the sheets.

“I’ve got it,” Nicky snaps, eyes glittering with excitement. “Sir Fat Cat McCatterson.”

Andrew stares at Nicky as if he can see the stupid seeping out of his pores. (He sort of can, to be honest.)

Nicky lifts his hands and sighs, “Ok, you got me. He’s not even fat. It sounds cool, though!” Andrew narrows his stare a little, his eyes slicing their way across Nicky’s face. “Fine, Christ. My second choice was King Fluffkins, on account of his fluffy widdle coat!”

He reaches across the bed to sift his fingers through the cat’s fur, but the cat has had just about the same amount of Nicky as Andrew has—and soon Nicky is screeching as fangs sink in and claws engage to keep Nicky stable enough for a few good pumps. Andrew watches with mild approval, pushing Nicky back when he finally frees his hand. As his cousin rushes off to the bathroom to “wash out the infected saliva from your evil, adorable vampire cat,” Andrew offers a hand to the newly crowned King.

“Nice one,” he murmurs as he lets his fingers scratch along the cat’s head. The resulting purr is as good of “thank you” he thinks.

 

 

Andrew tells himself it’s only because he saw it on the corner shelf by the aisle closest to the frozen foods, that it’s just an incentive for the cat to keep his claws sharp should Nicky come around again anytime soon. He considers it a pre-reward, and in turn buys three cartons of varying candy-type ice creams to balance the three sacks of treats that end up in his cart.

On visits 13 through 15, Andrew makes note that he prefers the store-brand Double Fudge Brownie over the Rocky Road, and that the Cat has a preference for the Tasty Beef over the “Real” Chicken.

But it doesn’t mean anything, really.

 

 

It’s Andrew’s fault for getting comfortable with the arrangement. He’s been living in the apartment for 3 weeks, and it’s not until cat-sighting number 16 that he remembers why he lives alone and far away from anyone he happens to know. It’s late afternoon on a Thursday, and Andrew has about 2 hours until he has to start moving towards Eden’s for a last-minute shift. He’s reaching toward his windowsill for the nearly empty pack that’s sitting on the wood when he hears it.

His neighbor—morning jaunts aside—is mostly quiet, beyond the incessant hum of televised sports and the occasional dropped item, so Andrew is still not used to the sound of his voice. But it’s not the sound that startles Andrew into nearly dropping an unlit cigarette out the window.

“King, come out! Fluffs, c’mon.” Andrew shoots himself away from the window, fingers almost crushing the filter. That asshole had heard Nicky from a week ago and Andrew is already planning how he can say in no words at all that whoever this fucker is should stay. Far. Away. He hears the man next door shuffling around, making noises that sound as if he’s rocking furniture about. “I have to go, and it’s supposed to rain. I’m not in the mood, Fluffkins.”

As he hears the man move further away from their adjoining wall, Andrew sees a black shadow land on his balcony with a graceful jump. The cat peers in at Andrew with one paw lifted, as if waiting for permission to enter. Andrew immediately stuffs his cigarette between his teeth and crawls to the window, his fingers gripping the edge of the wood a little too hard as he slams the frame down. The sound echoes up the thin walls and Andrew hopes that the cat—as well as his neighbor—gets the hint.

 

 

He holds out for sightings 17 through 21, because he’s a stubborn fuck. But even though everyone he knows—all 4 people who might be considered friends, if he had them—would call him soulless, Andrew isn’t strong enough to deny the sad scratches of the King. Plus, who would eat the remaining cat treats hidden between his wall and the mattress?

Not to mention, the howling. Andrew tells himself, as he gives in after five nights without enough sleep, it’s to stop the howling. He ignores the tug in his chest when the cat swipes an irate paw at Andrew’s face as he steps onto the bed.

(It’s something he should remember to tell Betsy about later, but instead he wants to bury it in the tiny pocket inside his head labeled safe, good, kind thoughts here. The few scattered memories that reside within could use some company, he thinks. And they should be left alone because—isn’t everything safer when left alone and away from all the other shit? It’s a good thing, he thinks. He doesn’t need more than one or two of those, he thinks.)

 

 

The 22nd time is the consequence of Andrew’s recurring hauntings. He doesn’t like to call them that, but it’s a term Betsy has been using for the past year, so it’s hard to not make the connection. If he could, he would pin-point what had triggered him earlier in the day—maybe it was the guy in an Army hat who pushed past him at the convenience store, or maybe it was the shrill woman he’d rung up who had called him a “disquieting young man” and looked as if she’d enjoy smacking him around just for a reaction, or maybe it was just the crowd of teenage morons on the street cutting into each other with the ever-witty, “Haha, you just got raped, bro! Fuckin’ take it, take it!”—just so he could tell Betsy he was doing it, making connections and trying to acknowledge, assess but—

What is life when you close your eyes and keep reliving the worst parts over and over?

The night terrors weren’t so frequent before moving here, but before he had other things to keep his mind locked up. Lots of things in bottles and pills that could keep himself from reliving what he couldn’t un-remember. But he’d been clean of each for too long now and the terrors are coming back in the form of glowering clouds, threatening a storm at any minute. And as they say: when it rains, it fucking pours.

The dream shocks him awake hard enough for his back to slam into the wall. Something is touching his face and it’s dark, he can’t see—he can’t see who or what—one hand goes flying toward the object and the other scrabbles against the wall for some kind of base—and he feels it, his fingers grip something soft and hair-like and Andrew just tightens.

The angry yowl is enough to bring Andrew into the moment, but he will think later that the claws were a bit unnecessary. They puncture him in the skin of his upper arm and Andrew can’t help but fling the cat across the room. The animal flails in the air, skids onto the floor and jolts toward the kitchen. Andrew gasps for a full breath, his heart beating a wild rhythm in his throat, as he takes in his surroundings.

Here. I am here. South Carolina. East coast. Alone. Apartment. 6th floor. My own. On my own. Safe.

Once he’s calm enough to leave the bed without every limb shaking, Andrew toes his way toward the kitchen and locks eyes with the Cat who has wedged himself in the scant space behind the fridge. It takes a few minutes of gentle coaxing, but Andrew feels he owes King that much after sending the animal flying. Once he’s got the Cat halfway out, he grabs him around the middle and hauls him up.

The trip next door only takes 6 steps. Normally Andrew wouldn’t care, would toss the cat out onto the balcony, but it’s 2 a.m. and he just wants King locked and out of his hair until tomorrow or perhaps for always. His neighbor reaches the door after 5 minutes of heavy knocking. Andrew steps back as he hears the lock turning, and he wasn’t expecting anything really—

and yet, of course, what Andrew finds is that his neighbor, the clodding cat-owning eavesdropping idiot, is—

Andrew shoves the cat into the arms of his neighbor and grits out, “Hey, asshole. Your cat. Not mine. Keep it yours in your apartment, else I’ll have it skinned and set as my doormat.” And then he storms back into his dark apartment and slams the door and resolutely does not consider the fact that his neighbor is an attractive, very attractive, man with very blue eyes and—

Andrew has a cigarette pressed between his lips before he can finish the self-destructive thought that creeps to the front of his mind and makes him feel itchy and much too real. He doesn’t even flinch when he hears the next door window slowly sink shut.

 

 

There are 4 days that pass until the 23rd time. Andrew is just leaving his apartment, cigarette tucked behind his ear and keys rattling between his fingers as he shuts the door. He sees movement out of the corner of his eye, but pretends not to notice and takes his time locking up. He considers how quickly he can flick out the knives tucked inside his armbands, how swiftly he could have the man on the ground and bleeding from at least two vital sources. Andrew needs to walk down the hallway to the right-side stairwell, but that would mean turning his back to this stranger. So he clutches his keys and considers his options until he hears the person clear his throat.

“Hey, uhm.” He turns enough to catch his neighbor’s face. The man stands with his arms crossed in what should be a comfortable stance, but radiates as a sign of defense. This man with his messy auburn hair and blue eyes darting around as if searching for the closest exists, Andrew notes that this man who stands a little over 6 steps away has a strange burn on his cheek and a downward turn to his lips—the sign of a man who spends most of his time frowning. Winding its way around the man’s bare feet is the cat, fur fuzzily sticking up in a fashion similar to its owner. “I just wanted to apologize for my cat. He kind of hates being alone, so that’s why he tries to spend 80% of his time by, or I guess apparently wandering in your window. Plus I think he likes you more than me, which isn’t hard to do. I’m not really the warm and friendly type. But I’ll keep him inside from now on, if you’d prefer.”

Andrew pauses long enough to drag his glare down the length of his neighbor’s torso and along the unkempt baggy pants that must’ve been found in a dusty dumpster. How distasteful.

“I’m Neil, by the way.”

He reaches for the cigarette behind his ear and clicks his tongue. “90%.”

Neil starts but then waits for Andrew to continue. “Your animal spends 90% of its time bothering me. It reflects how much of the time I want to kill it. And you.”

Andrew turns away and makes a steady pace toward the stairwell. He no longer considers this man a threat to his physical safety, but Andrew needs to get away regardless. He hears Neil call after him, “I can tell by how many pounds he’s put on since you moved in. What are you feeding him, by the way? You can stop with the treats.”

“91% for you, 89 for the animal.”

“Mathematically that doesn’t make sense.” Andrew reaches for the deadweight door that leads to the stairwell. “If I get to 100, would you stop slipping him extra food?”

“Feed your fucking cat,” Andrew throws over his shoulder. He doesn’t wait for another smart retort as his steps echo down concrete stairs and the metal door slams closed. He is only moving quickly because he needs to light the cigarette in his mouth, because he’s running late for work, because he’s absolutely not running away from the problematic neighbor named Neil.

 

 

The 24th time finds Andrew blowing ashes off the pages of the novel laying open on his windowsill. His eyes follow the words in swift movements, one hand holding his chin up and the other dangling a nearly-finished cigarette. The sound of his neighbor—Neil, probably leaving for another early-morning death run—closing and locking his door only distracts Andrew’s eyes for a brief moment. He finds his place again and continues following the shapes of letters.

When a white paw gingerly steps onto the upper corner of his book, Andrew glances up into the face of a curious King. His glossy black tail swishes back and forth as soft huffs of air breathe over Andrew’s forehead. He blows a smoky greeting over the Cat’s head and nearly grins at his twitching whiskers.

“He’s up later than normal.” Andrew stumbles the words out and immediately feels regret trying to burrow its way into his brain. He’s talking to a fucking animal, Betsy wanted him to try humans and here he is putting all his effort into communicating with the cat who lives next door. But it’s nearly the same as nothing, and nothing is all Andrew really wants.

He stubs the dying butt and tosses it out the window. “Your owner is an idiot and I’ll find a way to kill him very soon. You’ll probably starve shortly after that. And then your death will follow. Probably.” The cat doesn’t mind Andrew’s words, and instead darts his head in to nudge his cheek against Andrew’s nose. Andrew starts to pull back but he catches the smell of something fresh and earthy. He lets the cat continue its odd greeting, watching as he circles a few times before curling up atop the open book.

“Your stupid owner should learn to turn the volume down on his damn T.V. I can hear him talking to his exy games like some kind of obsessed freak. Terrible sport, exy. It only makes me hate him more. Anyone who finds enjoyment in such a waste of time is just asking to get killed. On top of that, I know the idiot only eats soup and fruit. He does a shitty job of tying up his garbage and recycling. You should tell him that it’s embarrassing, and it’s no wonder you’re always over here begging for treats.”

At the word ‘treats’, King peers up at Andrew and lets out a pleading mrrrow. Andrew mrrrow’s right back to mock the Cat’s desperate act, but reaches for the packet of Tasty Beef that sits wedged next to his set of knives and his spare book.

“Here, stupid. Eat as much as you want, as long as it pisses off your idiot owner.” King scarfs the treats off Andrew’s fingers and purrs his gratitude. “While you’re berating him, let him know I don’t appreciate being woken at 5 a.m. for when he feels like going for a jog. If he’s going to produce such unnecessary noise at all, the least he could do is make my coffee for me. I’m less likely to murder without reason when I’ve got caffeine in my system.”

King Fluffkins runs a rough tongue across Andrew’s finger and he shivers at the tingling sensation. It’s the first time in a while that he can recall feeling something against his skin. He wipes his damp fingers against the sheets. He pushes it down, down, focuses on here and now instead.

The Cat is already purring himself to sleep. Andrew considers slowly tugging his book out from underneath the Cat, but instead reaches for his spare. He drowns his mind with the printed words and doesn’t think about anything at all.

 

[The next morning, Andrew opens his front door to find a thermos sitting in front of his apartment. He looks around the empty hallway before picking it up. It’s made of that nice kind of metal that keeps heat in, and he’s not surprised to find that the coffee inside is still hot. Neil had left at 6 a.m. and it was already nearing 9:30. Andrew takes a tentative sip before sealing the thermos and locking his door.]

 

[The morning after that, he listens from his kitchen as Neil prepares to exit his own apartment, only to trip over the same thermos. Andrew knows he will find that the mug is cleaned, dried and containing an empty packet of Tasty Beef and a slip of paper that says “92% / 88% — get better coffee”. He hears Neil twist the container open, pause, take tentative steps toward Andrew’s door. Andrew doesn’t listen to Neil’s footsteps as he heads toward the stairwell, doesn’t wonder if Neil was going to knock, doesn’t wonder what the man would have said if he had knocked or consider if he would have answered. He doesn’t do anything but watch his kitchen sink slowly leak lonely drops of water.]

 

 

The 25th time finds Andrew dangling his feet out the window, arms wrapped around his shins. His upper body stays mostly indoors, his face resting on his knees. He’s following the pattern of brick that runs down the exterior of the building across the street. A swooping anxiety grows in his chest as his gaze slides closer to the sidewalk. It’s a good reminder, he tells himself. Betsy says it’s another good way to stay awake and grounded, to remind yourself you have control over a fear. Andrew is just hungry for the tingling that crawls up his legs.

A clatter draws his attention to the left. A hand is reaching out to set a second coffee mug onto the small balcony, nearly pushing one of the odd potted plants down. King leaps out as the hand draws back in. Andrew waits for the Cat to weave his way over.

“He’s lying to you, you know.” Andrew doesn’t look, just watches as King inspects his toes with curious sniffs. “He gets fed every morning and night. I do feed my cat, just so you know.”

Andrew darts a glance over to Neil. He’s got his head stuck out, arms resting across the sill. Andrew wishes for a moment that he was on the other side of the adjoining wall, if only so he could shove the man out and down to the asphalt below.

“Would you like some?” Neil points to the second mug of coffee. Steam is billowing and Andrew knows he’d heard the gurgling of a coffee pot just minutes ago. Even though it’s almost 5 o’clock and the sun is setting, a fresh cup of coffee doesn’t sound bad at all. Andrew bends down and reaches a blind hand out for the mug. He doesn’t think about how Neil’s careful with the reach so as to not spill a drop or touch a centimeter of Andrew’s skin.

He pulls the mug through the window and to his face so he can sniff a little before sipping. He can hear the sounds of Neil lighting his cigarette and drinking from his own mug. The coffee is a sweeter blend from the first kind. Andrew has less trouble choking it down. The sun is glowing a soft, somber goodbye as the sky trades away its reds and oranges for the dusky blues of night.

“So am I still at 92%?”

Andrew drains the last of the coffee before pulling his feet back in. His leg hairs are alive with goosebumps brought on from the light breeze. King watches his movements with careful eyes. He sets the mug on the inside ledge of the sill.

“93,” he says before he climbs up to get dressed. He needs something stronger than coffee, he thinks.

 

 

Visits 26 through 34 happen over the next two weeks. A few mornings, multiple afternoons and a handful of nights find Andrew and Neil gravitating to their respective windows, and King alternating between both sides. Their schedules aren’t exactly synched, but they find a rhythm that suits them. Sometimes their communal visits are silent, Andrew lighting cigarettes and poking at the Cat’s tiny paws while Neil lets his smoke float up, up and away. Some of their visits start with Neil’s words as he slowly works on tugging Andrew’s out into the open.

 

On the 27th:

It’s nearing 2 p.m. on Andrew’s free day. He’s holding a book in front of his face as he sits pretzel style with his back against the wall, cigarette hanging over the empty coffee mug that continues to live on Andrew’s sill. King is purring in the pocket between his legs and—

“He came from my friend. The cat. My friend said I needed to have something living with me, or else I’d leave one day and never come back. I couldn’t say no, not after he unloaded all this cat shit in my apartment, so now I’m kind of stuck.”

“Sounds like you’re just kind of stupid.”

“I mean, I did almost drop out of college.”

“College is for privileged morons who think they’re gonna be something more.”

“Maybe. I thought I’d play exy, but my shoulder got screwed up before my second year.”

“Good, exy’s fucking stupid.”

“Maybe. It was the only thing I actually liked.”

“Oh. Neil. Your life sounds pretty boring.”

“Says the man who talks to his neighbor’s cat.”

Andrew pauses. King is still curled up in his lap, head burrowed under his calf. He reaches over to shut the window, closing out Neil but keeping the cat.

 

On the 28th:

It’s early in the morning and Neil’s just back from a run. King is waiting on the balcony, ears perked as Neil shuffles his upper body out to hang over the ledge. Andrew stretches over an offer of a cigarette and confesses—

“My therapist says I need to learn to vocalize my thoughts more. Apparently I’m too...closed off.” He doesn’t say, I get stuck in my own head a lot and forget that there’s other people. He doesn’t say, I’ve not needed to speak with anyone new for a long time that I might not remember how to. He doesn’t say, I usually don’t like exchanging words with any person, but you make me want to try.

“So is this how you start? By stealing your neighbor’s cat and then saying you’d like to murder them both 93% of the time?”

“You have an annoyingly suspicious ability to listen in on private conversations. And it’s 94 now.”

Neil nods as if that’s a fair raise. He lights the cigarette and watches the smoke plume up. “I’ve seen a few shrinks once or twice. They always ended up being self-professed savants trying to fix me though.”

“You sound like an impossible mess, no wonder it didn’t work.”

“It didn’t, it’s true. Some parts are too broken to put back together. Some parts just don’t work anymore.”

“Is that why you never bring anyone around for illicit tours of your decadent quarters?”

Neil hesitates as if he wasn’t expecting this follow up to such an obvious self-set up.

“I don’t really do that. Those kinds of things.”

“What, date? Or have sex?”

“Either. Neither. I don’t...swing. I’ve never really found anyone interesting enough to try. I’m not too bothered by it. I do fine on my own.”

Andrew licks his lips. He doesn’t say, if you’re so fine, why are you talking to me?

“You know, about that 94%, I don’t know if I should believe you at this point.”

“Believe what you want, you’ll know it’s true when I’m standing over you with a knife in each hand.”

“Are you always this charming with your neighbors?”

“You could ask but I’ve killed them all.”

He hears Neil chuckle as he leaves the window. He catches the sound of Neil moving sheets around, opening drawers, changing clothes. He listens to the brief rattles that signal Neil exiting his apartment. Andrew is receiving this information like a passive audience member. He isn’t waiting for anything. He needs nothing.

 

The 31st:

It’s just before noon and Andrew is eating pieces of a shredded sandwich before he has to head out. He slips King a few scraps of the ham. Neil has been silently within view but—

“So since you’ve named my cat, does that mean I get to name you?”

Andrew doesn’t offer any response to such a ridiculous request.

“Or should I admit that I also heard your friend when he was here, and that I already know your name? I didn’t mean to steal his idea, by the way. It just fit and it is better than ‘Little Shit.’”

“Cousin. Nicky’s my cousin. I don’t have friends.”

“I would say I’m surprised, but I also want to guess whether or not you draw the line at killing family.”

“I don’t. Family doesn’t mean shit.”

He sees Neil shrug in agreement.

“I’ve been told that family is what you make it. Not always sure I believe that, but. I don’t have any family left to really compare it to, I guess. So I’ll take them if they’ll have me.”

“They’d be better off with you dead, I’m sure. I’d be doing them a favor.”

Neil’s face breaks out in a wry smile, and Andrew suddenly wants to reach across the distance to smack it off. Just seeing it makes a part inside of him twist in odd ways. He doesn’t know what to do about the itch clawing its way up his chest and spreading across his sternum.

“Nice talking, Andrew. Thanks for fattening my cat against my wishes.”

He dips back into his own room and Andrew rolls his eyes at King. The glitter in King’s eyes says, “Yeah, fuck that guy, feed me whatever you want.” So Andrew does.

 

The 33rd:

It’s nearing 1 in the morning and Andrew is clumsy with anger. He doesn’t care that the plaster separating the apartments is thin—he hopes everyone can hear the clunk of his shoe thrown into the corner and the smack of his phone sliding across the bed to meet the wall. His arm bands are yanked off and tossed on the floor. He’s swift with the lighter and is inhaling fast when—

“You sound louder than usual tonight. Everything ok?”

Andrew clenches his jaw and takes a moment to breathe. He’s torn between too much too soon and distract, take me away, make it nothing.

“You’re a real fucking creep, you know that?”

“Just making an observation.”

A pause long and heavy. He keeps his eyes open and focused on something off in the distance. It might be a smokestack. Andrew’s eyes are starting to blur so he can’t tell.

“Shitty night at work.” He can’t help but stare at the way his hand shakes. He wills it to stop, demands that of himself, the semblance of control. You are here. Here. This is now. You are talking. You are 6 stories up. This is safe.

“…wanna talk about it?”

No response. Here. Now.

“I think you’ll have a visitor soon.”

The Cat makes his graceful leap to perch on the balcony. Andrew can’t help but gently run a finger from nose to forehead. King doesn’t seem to mind the tremor in Andrew’s hand. The silky patch of fur behind the Cat’s ear is soothing in unexpected ways.

I am here.

“I have a thing…about touching. Don’t like it when others do it without me saying it’s ok. A guy got a little handsy tonight at work, so I decked him.”

It’s the tipping point—Neil could either pry or take the conversation in another direction. Andrew doesn’t have any expectations, so he is neither let down or encouraged by Neil’s response.

“Where do you work?”

“A bar, a few nights a week every so often when they need a shift covered. Although my boss told me to take a little vacation to cool off. Apparently hitting the customers isn’t good for business.”

Andrew considers the fact that he hasn’t felt let down or encouraged in a very long time, and doesn’t know what to do with it. Acknowledge and assess, that’s what Betsy always says.

I am here. This is now.

“You ok on money?”

“I have a day job.”

Silence until—

“Good, it’d be a shame for you to get evicted. And I’d hate to have a neighbor who actually likes me and doesn’t overfeed my cat.”

The finished cigarette tumbles from Andrew’s fingers and down toward the dark street below.

I am safe.

“95.”

“Does that mean King Fluff is at 85 now? Or does he not actually go down every time I go up? I’m having trouble keeping track of the mathematical formula you’re using.”

“Go to sleep, stupid.”

“Goodnight, Andrew.”

He isn’t let down or encouraged when Neil closes his window. Andrew’s just a man with a borrowed cat in his bed. He’s just nothing at all.

(Usually this thought is enough to calm him, but tonight it settles into his skin. He scratches at his forearms, eyes locked on a spotty piece of wall until he’s too exhausted to keep them open.)

 

 

The 35th visit is a consequence of Neil’s own ignorance and Andrew’s inability to ignore his reluctant yet slowly growing emotions regarding a fucking cat. He comes home from his afternoon shift at the bookstore to find a listless lump sprawled across the foot of his bed. Multiple piles of green, wet vomit trail from the windowsill to the center of the mattress, as if the stupid thing had paused to puke before moving a few inches only to puke yet again.

Andrew runs a hand down King’s back, ready to chide the cat with mocking words, but—

There’s no reaction, no sound or movement. Heat radiates off the animal’s body, but the breaths feel shallow as Andrew gently presses down. The Cat’s eyes are sealed shut and when Andrew runs his finger past its nose, he notes the dryness with a severe jolt that rushes down his spine.

It takes Andrew five minutes of angry banging to realize Neil isn’t home. He isn’t coming to the door and he isn’t around to retrieve his potentially dying cat and now it’s on Andrew’s bed.

And now it’s on Andrew.

He calls Renee to explain their change of plans. She meets him at the clinic closest to his apartment. The evaluation takes over an hour, but Andrew only stops spinning the front desk’s pen when he sees the vet carrying King to him. The woman explains to Andrew that he shouldn’t let King Fluffkins nibble on anymore plants, and Andrew doesn’t even begin explaining how much this isn’t his fault. Instead he nods a brief thanks and carries King out to his car.

Renee tries to ask a few questions, but he’s revving the engine as he tells her they’ll reschedule their training session later before he speeds the whole ride home on autopilot. Andrew’s already planning all the places he’d like to slice into that moron next door, starting with the unmarked cheek and slowly working his way down that awful, firm chest.

All plans halt when he finds Neil sitting in front of his door. His head is hung, hands gripping the back of his neck, every inch of him trembling with panic. At the sound of the stairwell door slamming, Neil looks up and his face is a mess of emotions that Andrew doesn’t have the tools to decipher.

“Andrew. I—what happened?”

With steady steps, Andrew reaches Neil and bends down enough to transfer the sedated King into Neil’s outstretched arms. He tugs a bottle of medicine from his pocket and chucks it at Neil’s forehead.

“Get rid of the fucking plants, you idiot.”

“Ok, yeah. Of course, but—

Unable to stomach the collision of thoughts crashing in his head, Andrew looks away from Neil’s face. Instead, he twists his gaze to watch his shoe kick at Neil’s knee. “Move. I have sheets to clean.”

Neil hauls himself up and shifts aside enough for Andrew to shove his keys into the lock. He waits until the door is open before he extends a hand.

“Can I, just—is this ok? Can I?”

Andrew’s gaze locks with Neil’s. He doesn’t move an inch. He tries to read the meaning behind his blue eyes, behind the hovering hand, behind the question loaded with intent yet requesting permission. Andrew nods slowly, his lips moving around the word, “Yes.”

Neil presses his hand into Andrew’s shoulder and leans in closer.

“Thank you. For helping King.”

He has a joke at the ready—“I still plan on killing you both myself”—as well as a knife a fingertip away, and yet he can’t. The weight of Neil’s hand on his shoulder is heavy and all-consuming and making him itch. He does nothing.

When the moment passes and he sees Neil isn’t going to let go soon enough, Andrew pushes Neil’s arm away and slips into his apartment. He watches Neil’s unchanging face as the door closes. He doesn’t react to anything. He walks into his bedroom to rip the sheets off his bed. He piles them into the corner and thinks about nothing at all.

 

 

[He lets Renee get three questions in before he snaps. They’re “How are your nightmares?”, “Are you really thinking about going back on the meds?” and “Have you thought about trusting him?”

He’s not focused enough to plant the hits where they should land. Renee doesn’t notice at first, just keeps trying to talk at him as usual while continuing her routine. Andrew makes sloppy attempts to move around her but he hasn’t been sleeping well, he hasn’t been in his body as much as he probably should, and keeps getting stuck in his head.

Trust him with what? There’s nothing for you to give, nothing for you to gain. You’re nothing. And you can’t do a thing to change that. Born nothing, die nothing.

Renee is able to slam him down without half her usual effort. She’s got a look of concern on her face and it only infuriates Andrew even more. He feels the emotion well up inside of him until he just snaps

You’re back there, you’re 8 and you’re hungry and alone and afraid and something inside you hurts very badly. You’re 12 and you’re bleeding all over your pants and crying into your arms and no one asks if you’re okay. You’re 17 and the car is sailing down the road so fast, so fast and there’s screaming and you’ve never been so angry in your life. You’re 20 and you’re flying high, high in the colors all around and nobody cares. You’re nothing then, you’re nothing now.

He doesn’t realize he’s been murmuring until Renee taps the mat by his head.

“Andrew, you’re not nothing. You’re not nothing.”

Nothing. Nothing.

“I’m here, Andrew.”

Here. You’re here. I’m here. Now. Safe.

It takes him 20 minutes to realize he’s been staring up at the pipes that run along the gym ceiling. Renee has been sitting next to him, quiet and waiting.

He curls into himself when he sits up. Renee offers him some water and he takes it. He thinks about how hard it was to start taking things from her when they first met. Andrew remembers how he’d internally melted down the first time the two of them had been alone together for more than an hour. He thinks of the small pocket inside him that now houses a piece of Renee, a tiny but warm piece.

It’s not much, but it’s not nothing.]

 

 

It’s the 37th visit and Andrew doesn’t know anything anymore. His eyes are focused on an invisible hole inside the book he’s holding with one hand. The other holds an unlit cigarette. He’s not waiting.

Neil slides his window open and King jumps out as spry as ever, and Andrew notes with satisfaction that the neighboring balcony is now devoid of any plants. King makes a beeline for Andrew, darting across the two-feet distance to Andrew’s balcony and swiftly crawling beneath his book. Andrew presses a silent hello to the cat’s head with his chin before looking to the left.

Neil’s eyes are already focused on him. Andrew sighs and shuts the paperback. Without checking for Neil’s reaction, he tosses the book toward Neil’s chest and hears it connect with fumbling hands. He hears the sound of pages flipping before Neil asks, “This is for me?”

“I’ve already read it. Borrow it. Read it, if you know how to.”

“I don’t usually enjoy reading.”

Andrew reaches for his lighter, shaking it firmly before flicking it on. “Fine. I was right, you are illiterate. Toss it back so I can return it then.”

“You go to the library?”

“Return it to work.”

“You work at a library?”

“A bookstore, asshole. Give it back then, if you’re so ungrateful as well as illiterate.”

Neil turns the book around to study the back. King pushes past Andrew to creep his way into the bedroom, as if he needs to inspect Andrew’s new set of sheets. As if he’s saying, “Oh yes, good. This is exactly why I puked green shit all over your bed last week. Nice choice.”

“I’ll try it,” Neil answers. “Wouldn’t want your thievery to go to waste.”

“Borrowing.”

“Same thing, really.”

“The owner lets me, so shut the fuck up about it.”

“Does this mean you hate me a little less?”

Andrew ashes in Neil’s direction. “I always hate you. But now I don’t want to kill you 4% of the time.”

Neil raises an eyebrow but also manages a small grin. He doesn’t say anything else, but Andrew can see from the corner of his eye that Neil starts to read. Andrew thinks to himself, it’s nothing, it’s nothing.

 

 

The 38th time is not really a time at all, because it doesn’t actually involve King in person. Andrew’s blood boils at the sight of Neil walking through the front door. He doesn’t say anything until he’s standing next to Andrew’s counter.

“You work here?”

“No.” Neil glances at the register that sits six inches away from Andrew. The snort that escapes his mouth makes Andrew want to snap his nose with a tight fist. Instead, he says, “Why are you here?”

Neil reaches for his back pocket to pull out two objects. He slides Andrew’s book across the counter first, then flips open his phone. “I wanted to show you two things: one, I finished the book. It was good, but the ending was confusing. Second: I wanted to show you this.” Neil presses a few buttons to pull up his phone’s photo album. He pauses on the first picture that pops up and holds it out for Andrew to see. The photograph was taken in such a blurry fashion that Andrew is forced to snatch the device and analyze at a closer range.

It’s a grainy shot of King, wrapped inside the hood of a garish orange sweatshirt, his ugly cat butt planted on what appears to be Andrew’s loaned paperback.

“I had thrown the book on the floor next to my sweater so I wouldn’t forget it before leaving this morning, and there he was. I think he dragged it in there, because it wasn’t that close last night.”

Andrew considers his actions for two seconds before not thinking at all. He attaches the photo to a text and zips himself a copy. “Next time you take a shitty photo of your shitty cat, send it to me instead of stalking me at work.”

“Ok, but be warned, I promised my friend I would send him weekly updates. There’s a bet going on how long I can keep the cat alive. That’s why I take the pictures.”

Andrew closes the phone and sets it on the counter. “Your friends have so little faith in you that they’re hoping you’ll kill an animal.”

Neil shrugs. “They’re weird. Although to be fair, they bet on everything. Matt promised me free dinner though if the cat makes it past six months.”

“From what I can tell by your garbage, you need the free dinner.”

“Which is probably healthier than the amount of sugar you consume throughout the month. Tell me, does Hershey’s deliver their chocolate straight to your door, or do you have a Sam’s Club membership?”

“CostCo, obviously.”

They stand like that for the rest of Andrew’s shift just talking. Neil admits that he enjoyed the reading. Since summer training hasn’t started up yet—and suddenly knowing that Neil is an assistant coach for a college exy team makes every bit of sense to Andrew—he’s been a little more bored than usual. Andrew immediately walks away from the counter and into the depths of the empty store. He finds his shelf, the one he uses to set aside copies to “borrow”, and plucks a dark cover at random. Neil catches the book with an eager sort of hunger in his eyes. Andrew tries not to think about it at all.

They talk for the rest of the hour until a co-worker arrives to relieve Andrew. And when Andrew wordlessly leads Neil to his car, the man follows without hesitation. It should feel weird, Andrew thinks, that it happens so easily. But if he pulls that thread, who the fuck knows what would unravel. Andrew isn’t a knitter or a tailor. He’s a destroyer, and what he destroys can’t be put back together.

So he pushes the thought aside, because the sight of Neil in his passenger seat seems like more than nothing. For once, the voice screaming in his head is silent. For once he feels the kind of panic that seems normal and doesn’t require a here and now mantra.

For once the thought of something has Andrew feeling lighter than ever. Like he could float instead of fall.

 

 

The 40th ‘visit’ happens in the middle of Andrew’s weekly appointment with Betsy. He’s exhausted from digging out the words to explain that through his usual numbness there’s this itch that’s been growing in his skin. He can’t explain where it’s coming from and he can’t determine how to make it stop. Instead, he can feel it spread like a slow-growing rash. He’s letting it bleed into the back of his mind and down his arms.

(He doesn’t show her the fading marks from the few times he’s let his nails dig in, but there’s only so much he can give Bee. There are some dark parts he still needs to keep to himself, parts nobody needs to know about.)

It’s Wednesday and Andrew is chewing on the inside of his cheek while Betsy tries to decode Andrew’s messy thoughts.

“When you call it an itch, do you mean it in a negative way? Or is this an itch that motivates you?”

He doesn’t want to admit that he’s unsure, that he hasn’t felt anything close to motivation in a while. “Would you like to hear my thoughts, Andrew?”

He sighs. “Whether I want you to or not, you’ll end up telling me, Bee.”

She smiles into her mug of cocoa and takes a quick sip. “You spent many years surviving, Andrew. You did it because it is human instinct. Sometimes you survived out of spite. At some point you hit a wall and shifted away from surviving for yourself. Aaron, Nicky—you spent years of your life living so they would survive. But now they’re good, they’re alive and safe and living without you. Now you only have yourself. How do you feel after all that?”

Andrew grips the lukewarm mug in his hands. “Empty. I feel empty.”

“You get up every morning, Andrew. You work. You eat. You’re not dependent on medication anymore. You’re acknowledging the triggers to your nightmares and starting to sift through all the times you’ve had to survive. You’re not drowning anymore, but do you have something to swim for? What are you living for?”

His eyes gaze up from the dusty dregs of his drink to find Betsy’s. “I’m here and I’m breathing. You don’t have to be anything or want anything to live.”

“Perhaps. But if you wanted to be anything, what would you be?”

Andrew lets the question settle into his skin. A sudden buzz against his thigh distracts him from the thought of Betsy’s words worming their way into his bones. He checks his phone to find the most ungraceful photo of a cat perched atop a fridge, the shredded remains of napkins in disarray around his twisted form. Betsy taps her fingers against the ceramic mug.

When she is allowed to lean forward and see for herself, she coos softly and offers Andrew a knowing smile. “I think that maybe instead of trying to decide whether you’re nothing or anything, you should just be. Acknowledge and asses, Andrew. You have an itch. Will you ignore it and will it away? Or will you scratch at it?”