"Where the Eighth Should Be" by Stacy Trautwein Burns
Stacy Trautwein Burns
Originally published in Hermeneutic Chaos (2016)
The cat walks circles in the morning. Shriveled on one side, like a stroke. Her mewls wake me.
Sarah, our oldest, is gone. It’s been over a month. I call from three hours away because the cat is mostly hers, bought when Sarah was an only child and purebred cats seemed reasonable. The phone rings into emptiness. Charlie says no college kid is up this time of day.
“It needs put down,” he says.
He shrugs and climbs the stairs to his office. The twins Mike and Gabe run outdoors in their pajamas and coats, stocking caps high on their heads. The screen bounces shut behind them. The house fills with piney smells. Leah, the unplanned one, climbs fridge shelves to reach a pudding cup and I lift her down, remembering the weight of a different child, different time. Sarah’s handprints are framed on the wall behind. I see them without needing to look.
I’m the one that taught her to read. The names and places of countries. Factor polynomials. When she came home last weekend for the first time, it was the cat she hugged first.
The sun has crept, finally, higher than the peaks outside. Aspens shimmer golden scales. The boys rush back in, a spider each in two jars. The screen bounces shut again. Mike's spider has a leg torn off—“an accident, I swear”—and we study the way it moves. How the other seven ripple like silk and only the barest collapse shows where the eighth should be.
The cat leaves the bed I made, walks circles trying to reach water. I lift it to my shoulder, set it down to drink. Bones like husks. Things to crumble and blow away.
I tell the others to say goodbye and they do, but briefly. Spiders are more interesting, and it isn’t their place after all. It isn’t their cat.
I carry her gently—oh, so gently—past the flapping screen into the brilliancy of day and the gold hurts our eyes. Sun warms our skin. The cat begins to purr.
The gun is in my pocket. The cat on the boulder that stretches in the sun. My arms heavy without her. A hawk circles overhead.
Stacy Trautwein Burns's fiction has been nominated for Best of the Net, shortlisted for the Master's Review anthology prize, and given honorable mention from Glimmer Train. It has yet, however, to actually win anything. Her most recent work can be found at (or is forthcoming from) Lost Balloon, jmww, Literary Orphans, New Flash Fiction Review, Jellyfish Review, and Smokelong Quarterly.