The worst nightmares were memories and the worst dreams were a little bit true. She dreamed of living a life away from her family, just her and her cat. She dreamed of sun beams and Charlie, stroking his fur and never feeling afraid. The nightmare-memories came from every time her father hit her, except in them she was denied the mercy of blacking out. She was five.
Charlie went missing on Thursday, and her world nearly ended. Without him, the screaming and the tears, were so much worse. She tried hard to be good, but it was easier to avoid doing something wrong when you could come home from school and hide in your room with a white cat. Charlie’s body wasn’t really big enough to hide her, but he was big, and she imagined he could. With Charlie in front of her father wouldn’t see what she did wrong. He wouldn’t get angry, and she wouldn’t have a new nightmare-memory.
Except that Charlie wasn’t found until Sunday morning. His soft fur hadn’t changed, but his body was cold and stiff. Her mother was dressing for church, too busy to offer an explanation. Father only said “It’s dead.” with a shrug. She knew what dead meant, gone forever, but Charlie couldn’t be gone forever. She needed him too much. She thought she knew how much she could cry, how much she could hurt. Holding him in her arms without the hum of his purr, she felt a new depth of pain. It tore out of her, and something came with it, grief or maturity, or maybe something else.
She wouldn’t let Charlie go. Father slapped hard against her head but she wouldn’t let him go. Finally her mother intervened and supplied a box. They would bury Charlie in the churchyard and one day he would rise again with Jesus and live forever. But when her mother said it, her eyes looked the same way they did when she said your father isn’t angry anymore, he’s sorry he hit you.
She knew the people of the church loved her. Sometimes she dreamed that she and Charlie left to live with them. The family with three teenage boys who held her up to the basketball hoop so she could slam dunk. The old woman who always had candy in her purse. A hundred of them, maybe more, she couldn’t count so high, that all loved her and never hit her, and still they didn’t add up to one Charlie. Every time she peeked under the box lid he hadn’t moved. She cried, but after a hard look from Father she did it silently.
After church there was a potluck supper, but the thought of food made her sick. How could she eat when Charlie never would? Father insisted she get a plate. Her fingers couldn’t quite hold it though, and it splattered on the ground, splashing macaroni and cheese on top of green bean casserole. Father shouted, grabbing her arm. She broke away, peeling from his grasp for the first time, her mind fixed not on the inevitable but on Charlie. Two steps later she realized her mistake, and knowing the beating would be worse because of it, cowered on the floor.
The beating didn’t come. When she opened her eyes in tiny slits, everyone, all the people who loved her, were watching. They looked from her to Father, and his face changed from red rage to embarrassment. It would go worse for her later, but now she felt their love. She scrambled from the floor and ran to her chair. She took Charlie’s box on her lap, and while she basked in that love, she felt the box move.
Under the lid Charlie stayed stiff, but his back paw jumped. Was it the love? Was it that other thing, the thing that felt hard in the back of her throat, the thing that welled up inside her when she thought about Charlie never playing with a feather or curling up beside her. Maybe it was both, love and the other thing, and she reached into the box to pet her only friend.
Father grabbed her hand but she peeled away again, turning her wrist. The box lid fell to the floor and her fingers rested on soft fur. A second passed, and then another, Father’s eyes going wide with fear. In the box, Charlie purred.