They Didn’t Mean To

by Carleton Whaley

The Old Man had a perpetual hunch to his shoulders, which was only accentuated as he chuckled at the cat sitting across from him. His shoulders rose and fell quickly, and at their height they nearly touched his bat-like ears, the same ears that the cat would swat at late at night while the Old Man sat on the couch and watched cable.

But it was only morning now, so the tortoiseshell cat sat on the small table and pawed at the Old Man’s coffee cup as if trying to push it toward him.

“Ah, good beastie, helping an old man you know, but I think I can take it from here,” the Old Man winked at the cat before continuing, “Or maybe it ain’t manners, but you waitin’ for something, eh?” The cat’s eyes followed as the man lifted his donut up from its napkin. It pawed in place on the wooden table, watching as the Old Man dipped his donut into the black coffee, broke off a piece of the moist cake, and held it above the steaming mug.

“Ah, you see? I think you care more about food than you do me, girl. You know most folks wouldn’t spoil you like this, or if they did you’d run off to ‘em as soon as I was-” the Old man stopped and gave a coughing laugh. He shook his head and set the piece of donut in front of the cat who immediately began to gnaw on it. “Ah, forgive me, beastie. I meant nothing by it, sure it’s just what we do every morning, and should I-should I, um. Don’t know where I was going with that. Alice always did say I read into things. Or was it that I don’t?” He let loose another laugh, startling the cat and nearly knocking the table and coffee over.

“Oh that’s the good thing about being old I guess. Who cares? No one really knows you all your life, then by the end even you don’t! Oh beastie, that’s a nice thought. Sure there’s them memories we push away, but there’s them that just slip by on their own, so what’s the matter?”

Several quick, pounding taps sounded from the door, and the cat leaped from the table and darted under the sofa in the other corner of the small apartment.

“Hold on, hold on!” the Old Man grabbed his cane and hobbled toward the door, then looked back at the dank, dim apartment. Everything had an amber tinge to it, whether it was from the incandescent light or simply the patina of old age, the Old Man didn’t know.

“Aren’t you going to greet our guest, you little urchin?” His eyes flashed between the couch and table, and he realized that the piece of cake the cat hadn’t finished was no longer there. She must’ve jumped with it, he thought. He imagined the cat flying through the air, donut clutched in her fangs, eyes wide with panic at the sound of an intruder, someone who might take her prize from her.

He started to laugh as he unlocked the door and pulled it open. A woman with short red hair stood in the doorway, scowling as she peeked around a bag of cat food almost as big as her. She strained as it rested in her hands, her palms up like an offering, her arms each weighed down with bulging plastic bags.

“Sweetie, you gotta see, you shoulda seen, jeezus it was-”

“You gonna let me in, Dad? I don’t have a lot of time today.” Had she dyed her hair? There had been spots of gray in it before.

“Oh, here, let me help with-”

“I got it, Dad, just let me get around you, ok?” She had definitely dyed her hair. She looked just like Alice now, strange how time works.

“Alright, alright, don’t trust my old bones, but while you’re doin’ that, you gotta hear, the cat was just on the table, you know how we always-”

“Dad, my arms are about to fall the fuck off. Ok?”

The Old Man shuffled to the side and said, “Watch your mouth.”

The Daughter stomped past him. It had been snowing outside, and her boots left a layer of slush that the Old Man tried to ignore.

She heaved the cat food onto the couch, then gingerly set the plastic bags onto the floor. Her hands were red from the constriction, and she rubbed her forearms to pump some life back into them.

“Now,” she said, unzipping her long green coat and hanging it on a chair back, “what were you trying to tell me?”

“’S not important.”

“Dad, you just-” she stopped and pinched the bridge of her nose, just like her father did when he was holding back from saying something, then said, “Let’s start over. How are you?”

“Oh, I’m good. You know, I mean, you know how it is,” the Old Man said, trying to smile. She was probably having a bad day, he thought. Not that her fat husband made things easier.

“Anyway, um. The store ran out of the cat food you like, so I got something different, but it’s just as good, I read reviews and-”

“Oh! Oh, I forgot to tell you, that Russian woman grabbed some for me the other day.”

“Who?”

“You know, that old Russian Jew who lives in the next complex over. The one whose husband kicked it last year. Her name’s Katya or something, so I call her Kat.”

The Daughter stared at him, so the Old Man continued.

“They’re all named Katya or something. Kinda funny, Kat getting cat food.” He gestured with his cane at the slightly open closet where the litter box was kept, then said, “I forgot to call you, I didn’t know when you’d be coming over.”

The Daughter stared at the Old Man, then furrowed her brows and pinched the bridge of her nose again, before saying loudly, “That’s fine! Now you have extra! I gotta go, Dad, I have to pick up the boys.”

“Oh, of course. Do you want any coffee before you go?”

“No thanks, but- Dad, how much coffee do you drink? You know Jim says-”

“Oh, well if Jim says-”

“Yes, Dad, he cares about you. He actually likes you for some reason.”

“Well I don’t know why, since I don’t come around to fix the pipes or the roof anymore! He must have to do things around the house now.”

“Dad!”

The cat sprang out from under the couch and hopped onto the peak of the Old Man’s back before he could say anything, and the Daughter just stared at the two of them. After a minute, she pulled her coat off the chair and put her arms through it.

“I’m sorry Dad,” she said, “but I don’t have time for this right now. Enjoy your coffee.”

“I will.”

A corner of her mouth curled upward as she looked at her father, then she turned and picked up mug from the table. Steam rolled up from the black liquid as she breathed in deeply, then sighed. She sounded tired.

“What was that about?” the Old Man asked as she put the mug down and walked around him.

“Just checking.”

“What? I’m old, what do you care if I take a drop in my coffee?”

“I didn’t say anything, Dad.”

“I know that look!”

“You don’t need to yell.”

“And you don’t need to bring groceries anymore! Don’t you worry about me. I’ll find someone else, or I’ll just die and make things easier for you. Here, this will help, won’t it?” He had lurched over to the table and grabbed his mug as he talked. His eyes glared wide at his daughter as he gulped the coffee down, steam wafting past his face and clinging to his eyelashes, the bitter smell tinged with the sour notes of whiskey.

She looked from him, gasping as he finished the cup, to the cat, who had leaped from his back to the table. Her hand rose up as if she was about to grip the bridge of her nose, but instead it brushed through her hair. She looked at the both of them again, the Old Man and the cat, and turned away.

“I don’t know how you’re still alive,” the Daughter said as she closed the door behind her.

‘Was she talking about me or the cat,’ the Old Man wondered.

As the quiet crept into the room, it was easier for the Old Man to hear all of the small sounds around him. The creaking of the apartment, the wind outside, the hum off the refrigerator, the soft breathing of the cat.

He went to make another cup of coffee and glowered at the sleek machine. He had always liked the time it took for a full pot to boil, to listen to the hisses and bubbling for a few minutes as he waited eagerly, but when his Daughter had moved him in, she got this single cup, automatic monstrosity. He pulled a small plastic cartridge out of the drawer and popped it into the machine.

‘What did she mean?’ he wondered. ‘What’s wrong with some coffee, damnit?’ Smirking, he opened a cabinet and reached into the back for his bottle of Walker. He had drank this same whiskey for years. Since before his Daughter was born, jeezus. There was that one time that- well, maybe she meant the cat. Maybe she meant him though. Would that have been better? She shouldn’t still worry about that, shouldn’t be worried about the cat, the Old Man thought, and remembered.

She was only six, do they still remember things from that young? Well, maybe eight. Maybe older. Whatever it was, it wasn’t that big a deal. They had lived on a farm. She had been around animals all her life.

They had sat at the table together, the Old Man and the Daughter, back when neither of them were so old. Alice was in the hospital that night, but someone had to feed the Daughter. Someone couldn’t leave her and all the other animals to themselves on the farm.

“What’s wrong with her, Daddy?”

“Ain’t nothing wrong with her, sweetie. She’ll be better soon, and that’s all that matters, so no need to worry what’s wrong if it’s not permanent, eh?” The Man always tried to explain things like this. Don’t make her worry. She’s been free of worry for so long, and there’s plenty in life to worry about later. Don’t let her see the scans that the doctors can read, the black and whites that paint a picture of how hard a life could be.

He threw back the rest of his whiskey, then reached for the bottle to pour while the Daughter stirred the food on her plate. Alice didn’t like when the Man drank at dinner, but she wasn’t here right now.

“Why aren’t you eating?” he asked.

“Not hungry.”

“Did I ask if you were hungry? You know how lucky you are to have food in front of you?”

“Yeah.” She continued to prod at the venison with her fork.

“Then what’s the problem? You think I’m rich? That I can just pay all of these bills and then run to the store when you’re hungry? Fine, that’s fine!” He tore the plate from her and set it on the counter. “We’ll just salt it, how about that? That’s what my father did, he hunted just like me, only he didn’t pay electric bills for a damn fridge, for a damn freezer, damn hospital bills and property taxes and-”

“Daddy I-”

“Don’t interrupt me! You’ve got it good and don’t even know it, just push your food around not knowing a damn thing about the world and how it works, and that’s fine, that’s fine, that’s fine, that’s fine,” he repeated over and over, turning away from his Daughter and clutching his face. There was just too much to say. There had always been too much to say. The Daughter got up and walked out of the dining room.

“Excuse me!” the Man spun around, eyes red, “Where do you think you’re going?”

“My room.”

His boots thudded behind her in fury. She sprinted away, ran from him to slam her bedroom door behind her as he slammed his fist into it.

“Ya kidding me? I’ve taken it eashy on you, gave ya too much rope! Ya know what my Pap woulda done to me if I wouldn’t eat, if I left the table, holed myself up in my room like a brat? I spoiled you good, didn’t I, that’s where thish coming from. Open thish goddamn door! I. Said. Open it!”

He pulled his leg back and kicked the door, snapping the wood near the door handle and sending it swinging into the Daughter’s room. She was huddle on her bed in the corner, arms around her calico cat, eyes wide as the Man stomped into her room and swung his head blearily side to side. He pointed a finger at her then, and tried to speak slow past the slurs.

“You should be so grateful. We give you everything, and you don’t even know it. Shelfish, that’s. That’s. And this damn cat.” He stood towering over her now, pointing from her to the cat bundled in her embrace.

“I bought thish goddamn cat, and all it ever does is sit in your room. The damn thing isn’t any good, it won’t come near me, it doesn’t act like a grateful animal is s’posed to.”

The Daughter screamed as the Man wrenched the cat from her arms. He held it by the scruff of its orange neck and muttered to himself as the cat twisted to get a claw into his skin. ‘Teach you a lesson,’ he thought, ‘teach you a lesson. Don’t worry about anything, don’t want her to worry, but if she doesn’t worry then she’ll get selfish, won’t she? Teach her a lesson.’

His footsteps echoed with the weight of dread. His Daughter tore at him, screaming something now and pounding the small of his back with her tiny fists, but nothing slowed him as he went to his workshop. The room was cold, with a concrete floor and a single light hanging from the ceiling.

“Dad!” Her scream echoed off the walls as he pushed her away from him. The cat might have bit him a few times now, but he didn’t care. He reached for a wrench, found the heaviest and pulled it from its hook on the wall.

In his apartment, all alone, the Old Man remembered his Daughter’s screams as he held the cat under his boot and brought the wrench down. Again. And again. And again.

The coffee had finished bubbling, and the Old Man reached for it with his thick, clumsy knuckles. He pushed the bottle of whiskey away. He stood there for a while, staring into his black pool of coffee as all the quiet sounds around him grew in volume. He always joked that his ears worked better than his memory, which is why Alice needed to repeat herself so much. He had hoped, at least.

The cat meowed and shattered the still air, and the Old Man yelled and dropped his mug, which shattered at his feet and splashed boiling coffee onto him. Reeling around, he tried to steady himself on his cane, but slipped suddenly on the puddle and he fell with a crunch.

“Sons’a bitches!” he yelled before his lungs overtook him with coughing. He hacked and wheezed on the tile, inhaling coffee as he gasped face down in the mess. It felt like his ribs were curling into bony, broken fists, wringing his lungs out like a soaking rag. ‘Dear Lord jeezus that hurt,’ he thought, tears flowing down over his bulbous nose and wrinkled cheeks.

His clothes were soaked by the time the Old Man could calm down and roll onto his back. His shoulder hurt like hell, and it hurt his chest to breathe.

He stared at a brown stain on the ceiling that he had never noticed before. For a second he wondered if coffee had splashed all the way up there, after all that stain couldn’t be old, could it? Then again, it had been a while since he could look up, what with the hunch in his shoulders.

From a far corner, a small mewling sound crept into the Old Man’s ears.

“Betrayal, eh beastie?” the Old Man forced a laugh out from his ragged throat. No, can’t make the cat feel bad, it didn’t mean a thing now. “Never mind, never mind. It was a good trick. No TV tonight, I’m afraid. Just stay close, eh beastie?”

The cat nuzzled with the Old Man, and the two of them waited while the coffee cooled and the sun went down, and the groceries stayed unopened.

Invisible

by Máiréad Loschi

I don’t know all the technical jargon and stuff, but I can tell you what happened to me. I guess if you need to know all those medical details it’s in the chart. I mean you guys can read those charts, right? Maybe those regular doctors don’t put down the relevant brain information, I dunno. My sister’s a doctor. Well, I say a doctor—she’s still got three years of med school left. I guess you might wanna hear about the rest of my family, all that nature-nurture stuff. I don’t really know how to describe them other than saying, normal. My mom’s pretty depressed, about the way life turned out and all that. Everyone thinks they’re gonna be special, you know? My dad’s on a health kick. He eats yogurt and canned sardines and spends around four hours at the gym, walking like twelve miles a day. I visit them every couple of months, sitting in the living room while Mom knits and Dad reads Men’s Fitness. They haven’t seen me in years. The first psychologist I talked to said my family might have exacerbated the condition, but I dunno about all that stuff. I guess that’s your department.

The brain’s a funny thing. You know all about this, I’m sure. My last psychologist explained that it represses memories and tricks itself. It’s a protective mechanism. That’s what happened to me in my family’s minds. They can’t see me. No one can. “Out of sight, out of mind,” the saying goes. The last psychologist said that their brains corrected for them. In photos where I used to be, their senses changed them, interpreted them so the background blended out the space I had filled. Baby pictures of me sitting on my parent’s knees just look like a smiling couple to them. Sans baby. Photos of my sister and I arm-in-arm are just of her. The basketball team is missing a fifth player, the sailboat is uncaptained, and the soccer trophies don’t specify a name anymore. I’m slipping from their memories so they don’t go crazy. I don’t blame them. Their child is gone, unseen, invisible. If they saw pictures of me everywhere they’d go insane. Sometimes I think they might remember me, a shining moment when Dad might say, “I could’ve sworn there was someone else with us on that trip.”

I don’t think it was ever a single moment of epiphany. I think it was more of a dawning. The furthest I can trace it back is to my grandma. I guess it makes sense, the doctors said it’s hardest on the elderly, diminished eyesight and mental capacities and all that. The first thing to go was my name. Not too shocking, Gram was garbage at names in general. She called me my sister’s name, then my aunt’s. I could see her struggling, recognizing that those names weren’t right, recognizing that they weren’t mine. The trouble was, she wasn’t recognizing me. She’d call me Blarney or Shultz, names of past dogs she’d owned. My sister and I’d roll our eyes. It’s fine she’s old. She’s just going senile. Then she started introducing her “beautiful grandchild.” I’d tug on her sleeve, “No Gram, two.” “Two what?” “Two grandchildren.” “Yeah, yeah.” She’d brush me off. I’d chalk it up to another senior moment. I told Mom about it once. “Does Gram have Alzheimer’s?” “Why would you say that? She’s sharp as a tack.” Gram wasn’t sick, I was.

The doctors said it starts at the edges, just a blurring, like if the wall behind you is blue, then your edges are kind of blue too. They said it works its way in, something about peripheral melanin and the condition being like ALS, slowly paralyzing you from extremity to core, except I was slowly disappearing. In high school it took a trained eye to spot me, you had to know I was there, had to want to see me. At first it was fun, a relief. I could sneak into any movie theater I wanted to. If I walked very quietly and held my breath, I’d get past the ticket collector. My friends and I used this to our advantage. We’d cheap out, splitting three tickets four ways, with me walking clear as day right past the collector. If they’d been paying any attention they’d have heard four “thank yous” after directing us to the proper theater. I only got caught once. I must’ve hit the light funny or the red vested collector had spotted me out of the corner of his eye. Once he knew to look for me, there I was. “Ticket,” he said extending a hand to me, and I wanted to kiss him full on the mouth, but sheepishly turned back to the ticket booth and payed the seven dollars. The last movie I saw, I left a $50 bill on the ticket counter and tucked $5 into the collector’s pocket as I passed. You’ve gotta make up for what you get. Free movies for the past six years… you’ve gotta pay it back, you know.

I snuck into an estate sale once. The woman who had lived there had died at 102. I saw the certificate of congratulations signed by the President. I took it, a testament to life. She’d outlived her husband, watched her children age and die. There had only been distant grandnieces in the end and helpful neighbors who had taken her for weekly manicures and baked her lemon bars. She’d been alone. I got this feeling that she would have seen me. Eyes creamed over with cataracts, hearing almost gone, trapped in a failing body, but she’d have seen me. I bid on the house and moved in a month later. It felt like she’d bequeathed it to me.

The diagnosis was the easiest part. I found the specialist after a three-minute online search. The nurse popped her head into the waiting room and said the doctor could see me now. I damn near lost it right there. He could see me, yeah right! Suppressing my laughter the whole way down the hall and into the sterile examination room. I was still laughing when the doctors entered, even if they couldn’t see me maybe they’d still see the humor in the situation. Their gravity disproved that. The doctors told me that it’s an extremely extraordinary diagnosis. “A singularly rare melanin disorder,” they called it. Basically, where normal people lose melanin in their hair and it greys, I’m losing melanin in my whole body and I’m going invisible. Apparently only 1 in 300 million cases get reported. If you think about that, there are 2,500 people in the world right now who have this disorder—maybe more, but you just can’t see them. I looked into the odds. Everyone’s always getting hung up on the chances of being killed by a shark: 1 in 3,748,067. You’re more likely to be killed by fireworks, lightning, drowning, a car accident, a stroke, or heart disease than be killed by a shark. I avoided all of these, but I’m the sucker who gets “a singularly rare melanin disorder.”

The symptoms start with the peripheral blurring that works its way in. Once it reaches your core it’s just a constant feeling of being insubstantial. It’s like that lightheaded feeling you get from only eating an apple all day. And you think maybe if I eat something solid, four glasses of milk and a beefy burrito it’ll reverse itself. Maybe I’ll gain visibility. Sometimes I think if I ate all that, you’d be able to see it sitting in my stomach, through my invisible skin, but then I remember that’s not how it works.

We met in the online support group. Goldenboy398 was his username, a Paris native, so I called him Louis. He told me what it is to be in the most crowded part of the city and not be seen, never bump into another person, never meet the eyes of strangers. I told him about the feeling of driving late at night on rural roads and there’s nothing but turns ahead of you and no headlights behind you and you feel like you’re the only person in the world. I didn’t book a ticket, snuck past security, and boarded with priority passengers. It’s an unwritten rule that one first class seat is always open. Treat myself to reclining, top shelf liquor, leg space. He met me at the airport and we wandered the city. Didn’t stand in line at the Louvre, climbed the Eiffel Tower after hours, and walked the streets, along the Seine. We became nocturnal, claiming the midnight streets as our own and walking endlessly. The witching hour and we felt like magic. I couldn’t see him, but I knew him. My mind created his features, solid and brassy. Golden. We visited Versailles and hopped the barriers in the king’s chamber. Careful not to ruffle the bedding we sat, facing the crowd, unseen and holding court over our adoring subjects. In the fabric I was so small, drowning in a sea of opulence and extravagance with Louis beside me, the heirs to the Sun King wanting to be part of the splendor. Wanting to be remembered. I left the next day and back home I couldn’t remember if it was real.

The Discovery Channel heard about my case, so did TLC and all the other science channels. I started talks with the producers of a show called, Diagnose Me: Medical Mysteries Revealed. These guys were supposedly really good, they’d revealed the woman who was pregnant for 50 years to the world (the fetus was calcified, it was actually pretty cool). The talks were getting serious. But, I didn’t want to clean the house, didn’t like the time commitment, and didn’t see how they could reenact the vanishing. Was this vanity, a desperate cry for recognition? What made my story any more important than the other people who had faded? How can you capture losing yourself in a one-hour special feature?  I turned it down.

People are always asking me how it feels. It’s a favorite of your psychoanalyst, headshrinker sort. “And how does that make you feel?” Are there words? The best I can do is analogy. It’s like that moment when your leg seizes up in bed and it’s paralyzing. You can’t move because your trapped in sleep, but your mind is raging against your body, screaming for your calf to release. You’re helpless and all you can do is to take a measured breath and relax from your chest through your pelvis down the length of your tensed leg until it eases. When your leg cramps up you can fix it, but when you’re invisible it’s irreversible. Your body is screaming for recognition but no one will acknowledge you, your very essence is questioned. It’s a slipping of sorts, slipping from family, from memory, from reality. At first you get complacent, it’s a relief, you can hide easily, can sneak around, but now it’s a horror. No one touches you, sees you, hears you. You might not exist at all.

That’s why I’m here, really. I mean the answer to that question put me here. Sometimes your mind plays tricks on you. It protects you but it also deludes you. What if I wasn’t real? What if I were a ghost? Am I dead and just clinging to a shadow of a life here? Do I even exist? It’s a whirling and a spiraling and a slipping. That’s how it feels and there’s no clarity, no voice of reason because no one can see you.  That’s where I was mentally, I guess. I tried a tattoo first, something permanent. It looked like the rainbow light that comes through prisms or reflects off watch faces onto the wall. A stamp on my skin, punched onto my collarbone. Visibility guaranteed. I’m here. But am I? The feel of my body is real to me, but did my consciousness construct it? What proof of physicality is there? I wasn’t gonna do anything stupid, I just needed to see. Pulling the plastic head off the razor, bending the blade out at a crude angle. It wasn’t a death wish. I just cut into my arm, not even near my veins, like on the side of my arm, not life threatening at all. And there it was just spilling out of me and there was clarity and I was alive. I existed and I saw myself for the first time in years. Really saw me. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but when there’s nothing to behold, how do you know? I’ll tell you this, that crimson trickle was beautiful. Garnet and rubies falling to the floor from my veins, surety was beauty. And now I’m talking to you, and you’re trying to see if I’m suicidal or crazy, but I’m not, I just needed to be sure.

I don’t know what else I can say, and maybe at this point it doesn’t matter because you’ve already sized me up and come to your conclusions. I’ve only ever had three fears in this world. The first is jellyfish, the second being alone, and the third, being forgotten. I haven’t left anywhere or anyone behind, I’m still here, I’m alive and I’m slipping from their hearts. I am alone and forgotten and afraid and invisible. I haven’t told a lot of people these fears.

Sometimes it seems if you voice them, they’re more real.