December 1, 2019

Nine Ways to Then

by Diana A. Hart

“Chaos spread from her touch, stirring my fur like a snake in the grass, but it refused to resolve.”

My paws pounded against the carpet, a furious thunder that matched the drumming of my heart. A meowl tore from my throat. I dropped flat, claws digging into the fiber, and lashed my tail as the visions hit me again. My pupils dilated. Nine versions of reality poured into my skull and smothered my senses, each a fluttering glimpse of what could be.

Clara, my master, stood in line at the student café. In each vision she wore her backpack and clutched a travel mug covered in prancing reindeer. Fingerless mittens—the ones that made her hands look like funny little paws—curled around the warm plastic as she waited for her order. I felt the ache in her belly. The way the aromas of fresh bread and cooking meat made her mouth water. My whiskers twitched in shared hunger. True, not as appetizing as freshly mangled pigeon, but at least she shared my love of bacon.

A man with dog-brown eyes smiled at her. My fur puffed. Something in his gaze was cold. Calculating. Like the neighbor’s calico when she stared at the bird feeder. Dog-Eyes stalked closer and complimented Clara’s pink scarf. Causality scattered like a flock of sparrows. My mind could only keep track of the nine most stable, tumbling through dinners that hadn’t yet happened, walks and talks and movies they hadn’t shared yet—some they wouldn’t, depending how chaos fluttered—but in the end they all settled in the same place: beatings. Crying. Silence. The kind my visions couldn’t pierce…

Anguish exploded from my throat. “No!” I tore into the darkened living room. Streetlight poured through frost-covered windows, casting fractal shadows across the floor. There has to be a way to stop it! “How?” I yowled and bounded over the couch, muscles screaming with the need to move, to do something, anything, to change the way the future fluttered. “How!?” The television remote clattered under my paws. Thumped to the floor.

“Dang it, Bixby,” Clara moaned from the bedroom. “It’s three in the morning.”

Three in the morning… I skidded to a halt. Morning! Yes! Whiskers thrumming, I sank into a crouch. Thoughts churned so fast my fur twitched. The visions always started close to the present. Whatever morning I’d seen, it’d happen soon. My ears flattened. I just had to figure out when it was and stop Clara from meeting Dog-Eyes.

Contemplative churrs rolled off my tongue as I picked through the visions, looking for clues. Clara grumped again from the bedroom. I tuned her out. Focused only on the future: her backpack and her coffee mug, how hungry she was for breakfast, the way her scarf—

I froze. It’s pink. Bile rose in my throat. She laid that one out tonight! My heart leapt to a gallop. I cried out and thundered to her door.

Closed. “No!” I reached up for the knob. Brass slid between my paws, too slick for me to accomplish more than a soft rattle of metal. I flopped on my side and stuck my legs beneath the door. Waved them about and called to Clara. Plaintive cries bore no fruit. Blankets rustled behind the faux wood panel and I caught the soft floomph of Clara pulling her pillow over her head.

I pressed my nose to the gap. Reached even further under the door. I will save you. My paws found only open air.

* * *

Somewhere around dawn Clara stumbled to the bathroom and left her bedroom door open. I waited until I heard the splash of water before slinking into her room, a dead mouse dangling from my jaws. Christmas lights winked along the ceiling, casting a dim but cheery glow, and the first blush of sun crept up her plank-and-milk-crate bookshelf. Tail cocked, I padded to the chair in the corner. Clara’s outfit—a long gray skirt, wool sweater, and a bunny-soft pink scarf—spilled over the seat. I hopped onto the cushion and proceeded to chew the mouse into pieces.

As I sprinkled meat and offal across her scarf I felt a small pang of guilt. Not for the mouse of course—this particular vermin would have pooped in the pancake mix next week–but rather for Clara. Whenever she found one of my kills she’d make a funny grunt and shake like somebody had dripped water on her nose. Still, it’s for your own good. I plopped the last chunk of leg down.

Causality shifted. Churned just past my whisker-tips. I couldn’t see where reality fluttered yet, but something had changed. Across the hall water flushed. I licked my lips, coppery blood sharp on my tongue, and hopped off the chair.

Clara padded back into the room, yawning. Her dark hair was mussed from sleep and she rubbed a palm against her eye. “Hey fuzz-butt.”

I chirped a good morning and twined about her legs. With a sleepy chuckle she slid back under the covers, no doubt trying to catch a bit more sleep before her alarm started screeching. She pulled the blankets up and scratched the comforter in invitation. I just stared. Agitation thrummed through me, made my tail twitch. My visions were still a vague hum that buzzed against my whiskers and until they cleared I didn’t know if Clara was safe. She scratched the blankets again, murmuring for me. A chill raced up my spine. I told myself it was just the cold and hopped onto the bed.

Fiberfill muffled my footsteps. Pressing against her hand, I enjoyed a few luxurious strokes before I curled my tail around my paws and sank into a puddle of fur. Clara smiled and drifted back to sleep. Her fingers splayed across the blankets, barely brushing my coat. Chaos spread from her touch, stirring my fur like a snake in the grass, but it refused to resolve.

I oozed closer. Pressed my nose up next to hers and breathed in her spent air. Traces of last night’s dinner, butter and pasta with a bit of pepper, still clung to her breath. My throat tightened. Please, let it have worked. I pulled in a deeper breath. Sniffed at her eye. All that came of it was a sleepy grimace.

I settled back onto the blanket. Maybe this was a good sign. Perhaps the visions had stopped because Dog-Eyes wouldn’t notice her now. Satisfaction lured me into a slow blink. Minutes slipped by as I watched Clara sleep, her round, soft features free of bruises. Warm as the day she’d found me shivering under a shopping cart. And nobody will take that away. I closed my eyes and began to purr.

Sharp squeals split the air. I jerked, popping out of dreams I hadn’t realized I’d fallen into. Clara groaned and slapped the clock. Shivered as she kicked off the blankets and headed for her clothes. I dropped to the floor, chirping. Everything was normal. I wouldn’t have been able to sleep if—

A familiar grunt hit my ears. Causality began to churn.

I stopped, tail-tip twitching.

“Really?” Clara said. She picked up her scarf by the ends, shuddered, and held it at arm’s length as she headed for the trashcan. The nebulous churn turned to nine points of pressure. I stiffened. Mouse-bits tumbled into the can as the future crashed over me. Causality battered my vision like a flock of sparrows, then and now a fluttering, chaotic mess.

My pupils went wide. Same café, same backpack, same mug… Now-Clara flicked her pink scarf into the laundry. Shivers raced up my spine, arching my body. In my visions Dog-Eyes walked up to then-Clara and commented on her blue, tasseled scarf. Now-Clara pulled matching fabric out of her dresser. My throat squeezed too tight to screech.

I burst into motion, thundering down the hallway.

* * *

“Ugh, I should have printed this off last night,” Clara said from the living room. I paused, mouth full of food, and flicked an ear her direction. Brewing coffee and fresh ink reached my nose. There was a smack of palm-on-plastic. “Come on, work!” Paper crumpled as the printer ate another page of Clara’s essay. She made a noise somewhere between a whimper and a growl.

In the bathroom I sighed and crunched down more tuna-scented kibble, hoping it would quiet my stomach. Trying to save Clara had left me with sore muscles and a belly full of acid. She was trickier than the red dot, foiling every attempt to keep her from meeting with Dog-Eyes. Laying in the sink so she couldn’t brush her teeth? Countered with a scoop and a plop. Hair ball in the kitchen? Paper towels and Windex. Sitting on her cell phone so she couldn’t find it? Clara just called it from the land-line. My tail twitched. Granted, the butt-massage had been fantastic, but my visions remained unchanged.

A whoop burst from the living room. “Finally!”

My fur puffed. You’re almost out of time! I choked down the last bit of breakfast–leaving a ring of garnish behind, of course–and hurried for Clara.

“Late, late, late,” she chanted, shoving her essay into her bookbag. The computer gave a good-bye ding and went black. She snatched up her bag, halfway zipped, and hurried for the kitchen. I followed after, hounded by the flutter of what would soon be.

Clara tossed her bag on the floor by the coffeemaker and trotted to the dishwasher. Oozing around the door frame, I rubbed my cheek against the stove and gave my tail a little jiggle. Did my best to act calm. Inside I was yowling. Think! The dish-rack clattered. My whiskers twitched, heavy with fast-approaching reality. Clara cursed and pushed the dishwasher shut. Her feet slapped softly against the linoleum as she bounded for the cabinets. I perked, a new plan flash-forming.

While Clara dug her travel mug out of the cupboard I tossed myself on the floor behind her. She turned around, kicking me in the side as I rolled onto my back. Pain lanced my ribs.

“Augh, Bixby!” she yelped, breaking into an awkward stagger. Her other foot thumped down near my head. My pulse spiked. She gaped at me, eyes wide. “You okay?”

Not really, but I just pulled my paws up under my chin. Curled into a C-shape that fluffed my belly fur. “Now?” I chirped.

She frowned. Reached down and rubbed under my chin. “Sorry, buddy,” she said and began to straighten.

“No!” I rolled forward, pawing after her bare hand. Clara headed for the coffee pot. Claws scrabbling at the linoleum, I got in front of her again and flopped across her path, rolling about and purring a loud as I could. “Now?” Please, let it work. “N-n-now?” Clara pursed her lips. I chirped.

Clicking her tongue, she crouched down and started rubbing the fur on my belly. Pure joy rang through me, a bell-toll of warmth that flooded my blood and bones. My purrs went from rumble to ear-rattling-quake.

The sparrow-flutter of causality twanged my whiskers. Rolled across my senses. Two of the nine visions replaced the café and Dog-Eyes with Clara’s car, chuggy engine rumbling as she sped for college. My eyes closed in rapture. It’s working! A third vision began to blur away from Dog-Eyes, twisting slowly into icy highway. Just a few minutes more…

In my skull a semi’s horn blared. Then-Clara whipped her head around. All she saw was chrome. Glass exploded. Steel squealed. Pain and silence followed.

My eyes snapped open. Oh hairballs no! Desperate, I sunk claws and teeth into flesh. The new visions flapped in my head, twisting steel and the scream of angry jays, as Clara yelped and pulled back. Blood beaded from several scratches. I leapt onto the kitchen counter, ribs throbbing and fur twitching with stress. Great sweeps of my tail betrayed my agitation. I stared off into nothing and tracked the visions. Don’t be locked in. Reality beat at me. Battered me as the three altered threads flailed about, seeking the strongest path. Don’t come true.

Clara shook her hand. Hissed over her wrist and shot me a glare. I hardly noticed. Mangled steel and burnt rubber morphed back to crisping bacon and predatory brown eyes. A shiver started in my belly and shot up my back, traveling into my paw. I gave it a few quick flicks. Licked it, as much to quiet my nerves as to wipe away the tang of Clara’s blood.

Grumbling, Clara popped the lid off her travel mug and filled it with steaming coffee. Prancing cartoon reindeer grinned up at me, beaming at my ineptitude. Shame made my neck smolder. I stared out the frosty window. Watched a cardinal toss millet out of the feeder to get at the sunflower seeds. It only made me think of Dog-Eyes. I chirped a curse.

“Dang it,” Clara said looking at her wrist again. She replaced the coffee pot, snapped the lid on her mug, and set it on the edge of the counter. “Nice work, fuzz-butt.” She tried to stroke my shoulders as she breezed towards the bathroom. Ashamed, I ducked under her touch. I didn’t deserve her if I couldn’t save her. A few moments later the medicine cabinet clinked shut. Paper ripped as Clara put on a few Band-Aids.

My nose wrinkled. What else can I do? Clara tromped to the front door. I snuck a glance over my shoulder. She pulled on a pair of orange and pink socks, followed by puffy snow boots. The fingerless mittens were next. I gulped. There had to be something left. Get hit by a car? It could work, but was I willing to do that? Dash out the door when she opened it, mangle myself and maybe die so that she wouldn’t meet Dog-Eyes? And what if that just makes things worse…

Clara wrapped the blue scarf around her neck. Nine times over I heard Dog-Eyes compliment it. Then the tumbling flutter of their intertwined lives, followed by crying, pain, and silence. Nine hollow futures roared in my skull. My stomach knotted. Clara cast about for her keys. It wouldn’t take her long to figure out I’d knocked them behind the couch this morning. Ears flat, I took a fortifying breath and turned to face the door.

Out of the corner of my eye prancing reindeer grinned at me. My breath caught. Her coffee. Spider-hunting slow, I glanced at the mug. Peered over the counter. She’d dropped her bag next to the coffee pot, gaping half-open where she’d left it. Her essay peeked out from between a pair of textbooks.

Clara oofed. Keys jingled.

My head snapped up. Clara strode for the kitchen. What could be surged around me like wing-beats, unrelenting. Blood pounded in my ears. I sidled closer to her reindeer mug. Lifted my paw. Something in the way I moved caught Clara’s attention. Her eyes went wide.

She sucked in a breath. “Don’t you da—”

I slapped a reindeer right in his shiny red nose. The travel mug flopped over, glugging merrily, and rolled off the counter into her bag. Clara yowled and broke into a run. I just stared over the edge of the counter, head cocked. Brown liquid poured over her belongings. Dog-Eyes and the café burst away like terrified finches. I wasn’t quite sure where they were headed, but I could feel the distance growing, leaving Dog-Eyes far behind. I sat up straighter, smirking as only a cat could.

Clara dragged the sopping remains of her essay out of her bag. She glared up at me. “You’re an asshole.”

I just chirped and tossed my head.

Cussing, she yanked her books out of her bag, shook the worst of the coffee off over the sink, and tossed them on the counter before stomping into the living room. A happy little chime told me she’d turned on her computer.

Sparrow wings brushed across my senses. My pupils widened. Each vision settled to roost. Three then-Claras got breakfast after lecture, two fell asleep in class. Another three skipped out and went their separate ways around town. The last then-Clara slapped the printer, gave up on her essay, and crawled back in bed. Then-me joined her not long after.

I blinked in slow contentment. There was no telling which then-Clara now-Clara would become, but for now they were safe. I hope she picks the last one. Either way, I closed my eyes and purred.


* * *

About the Author

Diana A. Hart lives in Washington State, speaks fluent dog, and escapes whenever somebody leaves the gate open—if lost, she can be found rolling dice at her friendly local game store. Her passion for storytelling stems from a well-used library card and years immersed in the oral traditions of the Navajo. She was previously published in Writers of the Future, Vol. 34.

Follow her on Twitter: @ DianaAHart


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