It was, as it always is, the cat who first noticed that the number of ghosts squeezing themselves into the apartment was increasing.
The cat shared the apartment with a man, two young cats named Mimi and Sisi, and the usual variety of things that made their crawling lives in the walls and dark corners of a home. The cat was called Boots for the black fur that covered his feet and ankles; the rest of him was white, and he was deaf. Like all of the world’s small creatures, the cat had many small jobs; the most important was to monitor the flow of dead in and out of his home, and to hurry them along when it became necessary. He did this and his other housework proudly. There were no hairballs left on blankets or biting from him, but also no untoward affection, no rolling on his back like a dog as Mimi and Sisi did. He put things in their proper places: his urine kept the mice away and his stare moved the shades along.
Ghosts in a home moved like ants: in a steady column along an invisible line, from portal to portal, into and out of seams in outer walls and jambs. At great volumes they begin to spread, peeling to make for closet corners and floorboards, and Boots’ job began. He would flank them, cut them off, and begin to thrum just below the place where he purred. He didn’t know how the ghosts felt him do what he did, but if he watched them and vibrated at them for long enough, they would rejoin the line. Sometimes, if a nearby stand of trees had just been cleared or a flood had hit the area, they would enter a house by clinging to the ankles and wrists of a human.
Usually, the procession was of tiny animals for whom the rate of life and death was very fast—jerboas, scorpions, moths—with the rare appearance of a human or a dog. Boots had never seen the ghost of a cat.
Boots did his ghost-hunting around the younger cats. The man found Mimi and Sisi a year ago, huddled in a plastic crate, just old enough to feed themselves but too young to know how.
As the flow of ghosts increased from the width of one floor tile to the width of three, Mimi and Sisi behaved as they normally did. They did not seem afraid of the ghosts, though they saw them: they would avoid the parade line they made from the front door to the balcony, and would slow down to a gummy lope as they moved through a larger clump of shades.
Just as it wasn’t possible to keep a home truly clean of bugs, Boots believed that it was not possible to keep a home truly clean of shades. When the man first brought him home, Boots was so grateful that he tried, and was exhausted for days. By observing the man and his moods Boots determined his own limits and determined that with a few hours of work he could keep the number of ghosts lost in odd corners of the apartment at a manageable level, and have time to rest. But at their new volume they were keeping him busy whenever he was awake. Untenable. Mimi and Sisi would have to learn. It was well known that a cat who doesn’t learn how to focus will only ever see a warping smoke at the edges of things, or catch the scents of spirits—burnt marrow, wet fur, drying blood. Left untrained, they become senseless to them altogether, and are useless to a human companion.
Boots assumed that Mimi and Sisi must communicate with one another through chatters and their voices, but much of their purring seemed coded to him, too. He was nervous to approach them. He didn’t know what he would do if they ignored him. They sat on the kitchen windowsill, patterned in the same stripes, Sisi in orange and Mimi in brown.
Neither turned around. Boots saw Sisi’s sides convulse in a chirp. Mimi spoke in vibrations.
He can’t hear you, idiot. What’s up, old dude?
Sorry! Sisi said. I not knowing how to do much chat chat.
Mimi’s tail twitched, and both kittens turned to Boots. Mimi hopped off the windowsill, and looked over her shoulder at her sister, who began studiously cleaning the spot between her shoulder blades. She’s really bad at this kind of talking. Sorry.
That’s all right, said Boots. Have you two noticed the ghosts?
What? Oh, those bug things? Aren’t they always here?
They are, but have you noticed that there are many, many more of them?
Not really. Don’t you take care of that?
I do, but I need some help. It’s getting to be too much for me alone. It’s not difficult.
Mimi walked away, disinterested. Sisi jumped down from the sill, and headbutted Boots hard, in the nose.
Help! she vibrated.
The next day, they began. Boots warned Mimi and Sisi of the smell of the ghosts, burnt dirt and prey-animal musk, and how it settled into your fur if they got too close to you. He told them that the talent of human beings to live happily in imbalance was useful but limited. It was unnatural among animals to exist on turned ankles or blurry vision for long; most either healed or broke with dignity.
A jerboa-spirit walked across Mimi’s feet. She shuddered, repositioned her paws, and looked at the wall.
Sisi was more promising. She watched closely, and over the course of the day it seemed that her eyes were sitting more steadily in her head, and she was losing the kitteny skitter in her walk. As evening fell she drew to her the family of voles that clung to the man’s leg when he got home and sent them on without assistance.
Boots slept happily that evening for the first time in more than a week. So did the man, though he wasn’t sure why, and could not reconcile it with the things he’d seen at the hospital that day.
A few days after the initial surge of ghosts, Boots awoke from a nap on his perch by the window. The man had taped it over with newspaper when he heard rumors of shelling coming closer but had left a little peephole in the corner for Boots’ benefit, so he could look at his balcony.
The apartment was soft and dark, layered with so many scents of cleaners and perfumes that it could be hard to sleep or think. The balcony was full of droning human smells and pipping bird smells and the deep, wriggling odors of plants and lizards. Boots used to sit beside the man and lay his paws along his legs, as the heat and the odors of the world below became stronger in the morning hours.
Boots felt a deep urge to go outside. He stretched and waited by the balcony door. The man wasn’t home yet. He began keeping odd hours around the same time the woman stopped visiting the apartment. Boots liked her very much. She would rub his cheeks at the same time and coo to him, holding him so he could feel the vibration of her voice in her ribcage. Sometimes the scent of her would lift from the bed when the man laid down, or would creep out of the closet where he still kept a change of clothes for her, and Boots would remember, and cry out despite himself.
The channel of ghosts was several floorboards wide today, and it split around Boots as he sat by the balcony door. The ghosts were keeping themselves in good enough order, at least.
As though to answer his wishes about going outside, the back door rattled in its frame. Mimi and Sisi fled to the top of the bookcase.
Help? Sisi asked.
Stay there. Boots returned.
The little pane of glass in the back door shattered, and a breath of dust came into the house. A booming began, so constant that it felt to the cats it was coming from their own bones. All three pinballed through the apartment before huddling under the bed together. Boots shot the scent that meant Run and had to sit in it until the vibrations and the booms stopped.
They crept out again. In the living room the evening sun cut through the settling dust, and the ghosts had spread to make a carpet on the floor, swelling with every passing second.
Mimi’s eyes were fully dilated. What do we do?
Boots did not know what to do. He fought the desires to run back to the bed, to chew his own fur, to pace.
Let’s get them in line again.
Boots felt the front door slam in the pads of the feet. The cats, being unable to put the ghosts roaming the house in any kind of order, and upset further by the constant booming, had retreated to the bedroom.
The man ran the full half-mile home from the café through the same dust that choked the apartment. When he saw the blown-out windows throughout the building and opened the balcony door he was sure the cats had already escaped.
The balcony opened onto a pile of rubble so high that you could walk to street level from the second floor. He thought he saw blood beneath the rocks, but his eyes were full of grit, and he couldn’t be sure of anything anymore. He called for the cats. Mimi and Sisi crept out of the bedroom and saw the man and the open door.
Boots tried to call to them from under the bed, but the loose stitch that held the kittens to the man, and that holds so many pets to their owners, had already broken against the panic and the smells of the world outside. Before the man could stop them, Mimi and Sisi ran out of the back door and flowed over the broken balcony wall like eels.
The man stood at the rubble for a long time, wailing, and Boots watched him from just inside the doorway. When the man was done he closed and locked the door to the balcony. He moved the litterbox to the kitchen before locking the door to the living room as well, wondering at how slowly he was moving, how everything in the world seemd to wave in heat. He cried on the kitchen floor until he couldn’t stand the feeling of dried blood caking behind his knees and between his toes.
Somehow the apartment still had water; the shower steam carried the smell of blood above its usual coppery mildew. The ghosts now covered the apartment’s floor and walls, but the bathroom was still somewhat clean, for now. Boots allowed himself to be angry at Mimi and Sisi. How could they run? They knew how difficult this would be to do alone. Why would they leave, go towards the booming sounds? Were they alive, and would he even know if they weren’t? Of all the ghosts in the apartment, there were still no cats.
When the man opened the shower curtain he was shaking, bleeding, his face twisted in pain. Boots was startled by the number of ghosts that clung to his legs and spilled over the edge of the tub—rather than falling off of him as he walked in from outside, they seemed to be collecting on him. Hamsters and mole rats and voles, jirds and shrews, a bat, two baby weasels, little sand-colored lacertae and an orange-splotched salamander, and waves of insects. His hands were covered in red and black dragonflies; cicadas chattered around his head. A grey Apollo moth sat on his shoulder, slowly flapping its owl-eyed wings. The mass disturbed the air around it like faraway lightning.
Boots followed the man into the bedroom, and patiently allowed himself to be held as the man cried some more. Somehow, they both fell asleep this way.
When the man finally woke up, the ghosts had covered the room in a scrim, hazing the air and light. Still, the man could not see them; he found instead that a joint need to leave the city and a leaden exhaustion had entered him and bloomed like spores while he slept.
The man thought of the children and the elderly people from the neighborhoods that were attacked a few months ago, at the beginning: they went into rigors, and then became still, unable to either flee or to go on voluntarily in the world in which they found themselves. Dozens of them were carried to the hospital and then to the basement clinic that was used for overflow.
The man moved slowly through the apartment, deciding what to take with him. Boots followed him, patting his ankles like he was trying to kill a roach. The man’s legs were covered in a glue of death, and larger shades wandered into the apartment through the broken windows and doors. An elephant marched into the kitchen, and knelt, the creature’s face resting against the stove. The importance of keeping a place clean of them was to prevent this: once they reached a certain mass the ghosts would sit, and freeze, and wait to dissolve over the course of years. In that place the living would become slow, dissolving creatures as well.
The elephant drew other shades to it: men and and gazelles and women and pale oryxes and children and dogs all sat at the center of the apartment under a jeweled crust of dead moths and dragonflies.
The man put two changes of clothes and a few photos in a suitcase and filled the rest with protein bars and cans of cat food. He wrapped Boots in a coat and carried him into the hall where his neighbors were whispering about whether they should stay or go. As the door closed, Boots realized the enormous creature would be there if the girls came back, but he wouldn’t. He began to wail.
The man’s crossed fingers were rewarded by his car, dusty but whole in the parking garage. He drove through his new neighborhood, and then his old one, moving an oily sea of ghosts aside as he went. He kept the air off to avoid piping the smell of death into the car, but ghosts spilled in through the fan anyway, and Boots would never really get the smell off of him for.
The man spoke aloud, as though the cat could understand: “This is where I went to primary school. This is where I went to mosque. This is where my parents were married. This is the shelter where I found you.” Boots cried as they drove, his loud, strange voice excluding all else from the car, pulling the dead to them.
Honor Vincent’s poetry and stories are published or forthcoming in Yes Poetry, Strange Horizons, The Ekphrastic Review, Entropy, Neologism, Eunoia, and Nowhere. She’s currently writing a comic series about Boudicca and her daughters. She’s a third generation New Yorker who lives in Brooklyn.