When Harold found Grace for the first time after the death of the Machine—and… John—he expected there to be anger. He anticipated Rage. Disgust. Horror. At the very least disbelief. But no; all he was met with was quiet, amazed shock, followed by a wide smile, a choked back laugh, and Grace throwing herself into his arms.
This, he remembered suddenly, was why he had fallen in love with her in the first place.
He told her everything; everything he had done, everything he had lied about. After everything that had happened in his life, all the barriers he had put up, breaking them down, he found, was the most difficult thing he’d had to do. But Grace sat through him with it, listened diligently, held him when he cried, stroked his hair while his head lay in her lap, in moments when he was too wracked with grief to continue his tale. By the end he was spent, half broken but more put together than he had been in a long while, and after a long, soothing silence Grace spoke.
“Does this mean you’re going to stay here, with me?”
Harold sat up, wiping his eyes and face and reaching out to take Grace’s hands.
“I am never going to leave you again.”
When John came back into consciousness there was darkness, and screaming—or more accurately, crying.
He could barely move, blind to the world, wet and surrounded by heat. He tried to remember what had happened, after—after the—
It was difficult to remember much of anything. He grasped in confusion at memories as they fluttered by, blurry and meaningless. A box, being lowered into the ground as rain poured down from the sky. A green uniform. A beautiful woman smiling at him, then buildings, falling, far away. Then the feeling of fear, of loss. Guns, loud banging, bodies falling, blood. Endless dead eyes staring at him. Pain. The idea of a bridge, with a bottle in his hand.
Then, a sudden shift. Tall towers of books, an abandoned subway station. A small, deer-eyed man in a dapper bespoke suit, with a briefcase.
Harold. He sunk himself into the name and held onto it like a live saver. Harold. Harold. Harold.
A computer screen. Weapons firing. But this time… was different than all the other times. Everything had changed, and he could see him in the distance—Harold Harold Harold—and he could feel it, he was doing what needed to be done, protecting Harold, the only thing that had ever mattered. And he was so happy.
And then pain. Sharp, unforgiving pain throughout his body, searing, wet, excruciating. But still, he was happy.
Then, a flash of white. Then a long, quiet whiteness.
Then this. What was this? He was still blind, surrounded by darkness, with soft, mewling cries from all around him. Weakly, John opened his mouth, to try to speak, to call out to the screaming above him, to try and understand what was happening, where he was.
He mewled softly.
Life with Grace was exactly as Harold remembered, and somehow better. Her apartment was cramped but it had a small balcony where she would paint in the summer, Harold planted a small garden in a woodbox. In the late afternoon sun shone through the glass balcony doors and into the kitchen, sparkling and dancing on flowered plates and saucers. Harold slowly, slowly began letting himself adjust to the new peace in his life. He began going without a tie, except to dinner and on special occasions. He rarely wore shoes in the house, and wandered barefoot on the hardwood floors with a book in his hand, reading mysteries in Italian and Spanish, contemplating what he and Grace should make for dinner.
He became a substitute English professor at the nearby college, and spent three days out of the week tutoring young, fresh-faced and eager learners. The other four days he slept in, wrapping his arms around Grace and pressing soft, reverent kisses on her shoulders, and wondered if he would ever wake up from this perfect dream.
There were few bad days, and Grace always helped him through them without a fuss. She found a picture, one day, of John in Harold’s small collection of things he had brought with him to Italy. Six months after Harold had returned from the dead, she painted John’s picture for him. When she showed it to Harold, he broke down, and fell against the wall, sobbing. They hung it in the living room, above Harold’s desk, and Harold never stopped falling in love with Grace.
John grew up strong, well-built but lithe. His fur was speckled gray, with a white belly and paws, and a white tip at the end of his tail. He was larger than most of his siblings but still growing into his paws, and he spent most of his days in the green yard that the young woman—her name Adelina—who kept his mother owned, sunning himself on the rocks and dipping his paw into the fish pond when she wasn’t looking.
John was a cat. This was a development in his existence that… to be honest, he’d never really considered. Of all the things he had wondered that may have waited for him after death, reincarnation as a house cat hadn’t even made it on the ‘Impossibly Unlikely’ list. And yet, there he was.
Not that it was so bad. It was actually quite pleasant. He was fed well, and cared for, and he had other cats to play with—he couldn’t determine whether or not any of the other cats were reincarnations, due to a lack of adequate verbal communication. But he was content with his new lot, no responsibilities, no threats against his life, complete freedom from his past.
Complete, as in, he didn’t remember most of it. As new memories from this next life developed, the old ones had begun to… fall away. He couldn’t remember the names of his parents, or what branch of the military he served in. He remembered the name ‘Jessica’, but it no longer held any meaning for him.
But he remembered Harold. He remembered Harold more vividly than any other memory. The spiked, dark hair, the pursed lips, the thick frames of his glasses. His passion, his hidden ferocity, his determination to protect those he loved, even at the cost of his own life. It reminded John of his former self. When John thought about Harold, he almost felt… human, again.
He had decided that being human was neither better nor worse than being a cat and, since he was now the latter, his capacity for large strains of internal monologue and psychological evaluation had decreased immensely, so he wandered into the house in search of somewhere soft to nap.
John never expected to see Harold again. It wasn’t because he didn’t want to—though nothing else from his past life ever crossed his mind with enough regularity to warrant attachment to the subject matter—but because he didn’t know where to start. He was a cat, not even fully grown: just barely larger than a kitten, going on a year old now. Running off into the streets of whatever city he was in would almost certainly end in a painful death via car, starvation or dog attack. And besides, he didn’t even know where he was, much less where he could begin to search for Harold.
John had resigned himself to only having memories of the man, and of only ever hearing his soft, crisp voice again in his deepest dreams. But, just as he had awoken from death to find himself reborn as a house pet, John was surprised with the most unexpected occurrences of chance.
His ears perked at the sound of the voice—that voice, The Voice of his dreams—speaking on the other side of the fence. His instincts took over; he belonged on the other side of that fence. With a running jump from the picnic table John managed to launch himself headlong over the fence—the other cats in the yard watching his ascent into the sky with mild disinterest—and land with a squawk on the stony alleyway. He looked around fervently for the source of the voice; finally he saw the familiar, jolting stride of a man he had known not so long ago, hand in hand with a red headed woman, strolling away down the street and completely engrossed in their conversation.
John went dashing after them, mewling frantically.
Harold! Harold! I missed you! I missed you, Harold! Turn around and see me! It’s me, Harold!
He ran headlong into Harold’s legs, rubbing against the soft fabric of his pants frantically. He was purring loudly, and weaving between Harold’s legs, and mewing for attention.
“Oh my! What on earth…” A pair of hands—too small to be Harold’s, John knew with immediate disappointment—lifted him from the ground, and he was turned over and found himself looking up into the face of the red haired woman. She smiled down at him and stroked his belly, and he was immediately besotted with her.
“Where on earth did he come from?” Harold inquired, peering down at John, and John gazed up at him with large eyes. It’s me, Harold. It’s me. I’m back. I came back to you, Harold. I came back to thank you.
“He’s very pretty,” The woman cooed, and Harold laughed gently, such a free, unencumbered sound that John felt vindicated and content. He had made the right choice—he had died for Harold, to save Harold, and now, Harold was happy. Happy, and alive, and safe, and free.
“Oh, Grace… I’m sure he belongs to someone around here. He’s too healthy to be a stray.”
Gazing sadly down at John, Grace had to concede. “I suppose you’re right. Should we knock around?”
The cat had appeared very suddenly and unexpectedly during his midmorning walk with Grace. She was right, the cat was quite handsome, with long, gangly legs and piercing blue eyes. There was something… odd about the cat as well. It seemed more… intent than most cats Harold had seen. More focused, as if it were on a mission.
They wandered around the neighborhood, Grace cradling the more than content animal in her arms, and knocked at several doors, until they eventually found the right house.
The owner was a very pleasant young woman named Adeline, who was thrilled to have her cat returned, and insisted on inviting Harold and Grace into the house for breakfast.
“You certainly have quite a number of cats,” Harold observed, as a long haired black cat jumped onto a desk already occupied by two spotted tabbies.
“Twelve,” Adeline said, scooping a tiny white cat off of the counter and placing it on the floor. “I only had seven, but then Baffo and Soffice had kittens and… well, now I have extra.” She laughed, the sound twinkling.
“They’re all beautiful,” Grace said, petting a blondie that was rubbing contentedly against her leg. The gray cat that had approached them outside was sitting on the table, at attention, staring at Harold openly. It hadn’t left his side since their arrival, maintaining a maximum five-foot distance from him; his place on the table was directly in front of Harold’s chair.
Harold put his hand out slowly for the cat to sniff. Immediately it dipped its head to nuzzle Harold’s hand, licking his palm and fingers fervently, all affection.
“Wow, Gatto is usually much more… ah, standoffish, than he has been with the two of you,” Adeline said, admiring the cat. “He must have known you in a past life.”
Harold blinked, then looked away from the cat to Adeline. “You named your cat Cat?” Harold asked.
“Well, I couldn’t think of any good names for him. Nothing seems to really fit him. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to keep all Soffice’s kittens, really, but they are almost a year old now… I don’t know if anyone will want them.”
Harold looked over at Grace. Grace gazed back at him. An unspoken agreement. Cat had grown very still, nose still touching Harold’s pointer finger. His eyes flicked between Harold and Grace once, before returning to watch Harold. Harold looked at Cat, the corner of his mouth quirking up into a slight smile, and he turned to Adeline.
“We’d be more than happy to take this one off of your hands.”
Harold took Cat home after breakfast, while Grace went to the store to buy supplies. The moment they entered the apartment, Cat was out of Harold’s arms, exploring every inch of the new territory, sniffing foreign items and checking around corners.
“Scoping out the place, I see,” Harold said, and the cat turned to look at him balefully, and meowed, almost as if to say that his investigation of the premises was a necessary precaution. Harold smiled softly.
“You know, it’s really quite strange,” Harold continued, removing his shoes and approaching the cat’s position. “Thoroughly bizarre, actually. You remind me of… a very good friend of mine. Someone I once loved, very much.”
The cat stopped its exploring, turning to look at Harold.
“He sacrificed himself to save me, a long time ago. He… he was so giving. So protective. Hm, he had the same eyes, too,” Harold said thoughtfully. The cat’s ear flicked, and it resumed its tour of the apartment.
Harold smiled. “Yes, he wasn’t particularly suited for idle conversation, either.”
“You can tell he’s intelligent just by looking at him,” Grace said, as they sat on the balcony that evening, overlooking the city. “I know that’s something silly people say about pets, but, really—he seems to really understand what’s going on.”
“He does indeed,” Harold agreed, preoccupied from the view below by the feline inside. The cat was pacing back and forth just inside the building, flicking his tail from side to side and peering out at them every time he passed the open door. If Harold didn’t know better, he’d say it almost seemed as though… as though the cat was patrolling the apartment.
“What do you think we should name him?” Grace asked, and Harold looked away from the cat to meet her eyes. “Unless you think we should just keep calling him Gatto.”
“No, I—” Harold paused. “I’d like to give him a name. A real name.”
Grace smiled. “Me too. Any thoughts?”
Harold wavered. Grace reached over, took his hand, squeezed gently. “Harold?”
“… I was thinking maybe John,” Harold said finally. “I know it’s a rather odd name for a cat but I think that perhaps—”
“It’s perfect, Harold,” Grace assured him. “And I think John likes it too.”
Startled, Harold turned to look into the apartment—John had come out onto the balcony and was gazing up at Harold, approaching his chair. He put his paws onto Harold’s lap, and looked at him with pleading eyes. Smiling, Harold patted his lap, and John jumped onto him, settling into a small ball and purring gently.
“Yes, I think so,” Harold murmured, stroking the cat’s soft fur. “John…”
John fell asleep in Harold’s lap almost every evening after that. There was something natural about being so close to him, being held by him. He would drift off with the feeling of Harold’s hands caressing the length of his furred body, and feel safe, warm and loved. Loved. He loved Harold.
I love you Harold. I love you, Harold. Harold. I love you. I love you so much. Thank you.
Thank you. Harold.