TW: Death, grief processing, food.
Cats and I had a difficult relationship as it was, and I stared up at the tortoiseshell cat in the tree with a feeling that that wasn’t going to change. “What’s her name again?” I asked the ten year old next to me.
“…As in tortoise?”
She stuck her tongue out at me, turning a little pink. “I’m from Ohio. Nobody spoke French there!”
I snickered. “It’s questionable how many people speak it here.” Then I put my hands on my hips, staring back up at Tortue. There was nothing for it. I was going to have to climb the damn tree.
I rolled up my sleeves, reached up and latched onto the first knot onto the oak tree. “So, kid, how’d you – oof – get from Ohio to Ontario?”
“My dad’s work,” she grumbled, then glanced up at me with obvious concern. “Uh, are you okay?”
“Me?” I hoisted myself onto the lowest branch, staring down at the ground with a mix of nausea and regret. Heights weren’t the problem. Heights were fine. “Yeah, I’m good.”
“Should I get an adult-?”
“I am an adult,” I shot back. I braced myself against the trunk and got to my feet, boots scraping a bit against the bark. “I have an apartment and everything.”
“My big sister’s older than you.”
“You don’t know how old I am.”
“Well, she’s taller.”
I tried not to roll my eyes too hard. “Listen. Listen. Good things come in small packa-”
There was a plaintive meow from above me, and I lifted my head, staring straight into Tortue’s eyes. “Agh!” I stumbled backwards, then very suddenly found myself hitting the ground, a very loud oof propelling from my mouth. I barely felt it when Tortue jumped down onto my stomach, meowing plaintively.
“Tortue!” The girl ran over and reached out her arms to her cat, who jumped up happily into the embrace. That was a lie. Cats didn’t feel happiness. The demon was probably gloating over my defeat.
“I’m sorry you fell,” she said ruefully. “Are you alright?”
“Never better,” I managed to gasp out.
She leaned over me, squinting at me through her freckles and thin glasses. “Well, okay. Here’s your ten bucks.”
I opened my mouth to tell her to keep it, and then groaned in pain instead. “…Alright.” I grabbed it from her hand, then threw my arms over my face. “I’m just gonna lie here for a bit.”
“Do you wanna hold Tor-”
“Nope. No, I’m good.” I could hear her boots against the leaves as she started to make her way home. “Hey, kid.”
“Let me know if she gets lost again.”
I didn’t lift my arm to see if she’d heard me or not. I supposed it didn’t matter. At least I could buy some more food now.
Speaking of which…
I sat up and stared across the street at my apartment, batting away the distinct feeling of foreboding. It wasn’t so much foreboding as… what, afterboding? During-boding? English was stupid. The kitchen window was open, and Nathan and Mrs. Chaudhury’s voices drifted towards me. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it was bad enough that she was still here. Two weeks. For two weeks she’d taken every excuse she could to show up and monopolize my kitchen, or unpack my boxes, or scrub at the wax stains the previous tenant had left on the walls.
Moreover, I couldn’t find the courage to tell her to leave. If she’d been my age, I would’ve just smacked her and told her to get out.
Such was my luck.
A tousled head appeared out the window, and Johara flashed me a toothy grin before clambering out of the window and dropping to the ground with all the weight of a feather. It didn’t matter that she could float all she wanted – old habits died hard. “Did you get the cat down?”
“More or less. Are they still wrecking my kitchen?”
“They’re making food, Jamal. It’s an important part of staying alive.”
“Bold of you to assume I want t-”
“We had a deal!”
“Fine, fine, no suicide jokes.” I got to my feet, wincing and rubbing the small of my back. “Goddamn devilspawn cats,” I grumbled, and then my eyes returned to the window.
“Give her some more time,” Johara sighed.
“I have to find Kiera, Jo. I don’t really have time for this.”
“You know you don’t have to watch her, right? You can go be all detective-y and leave her there.”
“In my house.”
“No he’s n-” She paused, then chewed on her lip. “Okay, he is a little bit. I’ll be there!”
“No offense, Jo, but as much as you are an amazing set of eyes and ears, you can’t exactly stop impending disaster. No, I gotta stick around.”
“Then use your office.”
“But there’s people in there!”
Johara buried her head in her hands. “I am going to kill you one day,” she moaned into her hands – then held up a finger. “Don’t you dare.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You were thinking it.”
I lost the battle against myself, and a cheeky smile spread across my face. “You are so fun to annoy.”
“I will haunt your dreams.”
I stuck my hands into my pockets and wandered back towards my apartment. “Hey, you two done feeding the army?” I called out as I opened the door, and was hit with the strong smell of ginger and coconut.
“Almost,” Nathan’s voice came down the stairs, and a moment later, he poked his head over the railing. I’d gotten used to his face, sad to say – the slightly-too-sharp nose, the long eyelashes, the rash of blackheads over his nose that he kept trying to scrub off. “Uh, do you like garbanzo beans?”
“Oh. Yeah, they’re good. I have like five cans of them.”
“Congrats! Now you only have one.” He gave me two thumbs up. “Efficiency, yo.”
I stared helplessly up at Nathan, then bonked my head gently against the doorframe. “Just remember,” I mumbled to myself, or maybe it was to Johara, “you invited her in. You told her she was always welcome.”
“You’re also the one who told her you didn’t know how to cook,” Johara suggested helpfully.
“I did not say I didn’t know how to cook. I said I mostly ate ramen. She extrapolated.”
“See, I don’t understand how you didn’t finish high school and you still use words like that.”
“I read webcomics, doesn’t mean I can pass an exam.” I glared up at Nathan again, but he was giving me a dopey, half-apologetic look that I already knew was impossible to say no to. “…Fine. I will come try the chickpeas.”
I shucked off my boots at the top of the stairs, looking warily over at the kitchen. Mrs. Chaudhury looked… well, fine. She had a wooden spoon in one hand, gesturing as she talked with the other, occasionally adjusting the way her scarf sat on her hair. Today’s scarf was a soft orange, edged with yellow, and sheer enough that I could see the shadow of her bun behind it when she turned her head against the window. Otherwise, she was dressed pretty casually, which was odd for her – long-sleeved t-shirt, and a pair of black ‘mom jeans’.
“Jamal, Jamal, come in here. Open your mouth.”
“Do I have t-” I started to complain, and Mrs. Chaudhury stuck a mouthful of curry in my mouth. “Ermph!”
“I saw your fridge,” she said, jabbing her wooden spoon at me once she’d taken it from my mouth. “Hot dogs, ramen and eggs are not meals!”
“They are if you have no money,” I said between chews. “Besides, I have ketchup.”
“Ketchup? Ketchup?” She threw her hands up in mock disgust. “That’s it. I’m going back to Punjab.”
I swallowed the chickpea curry. It really was tasty – spicier than I was used to, but that wasn’t a bad thing. “What is this?”
“Chana masala. It’s good for you.”
“I helped!” Nathan said cheerfully from behind me.
“Yes you did,” she chuckled, “and there’s plenty to go round. I’m also making some cupcakes with the gluten-free flour, so we’ll see how that goes.” She turned towards Nathan, and her elbow pushed back against the saucepan full of curry, sending it toppling off of the stove. I waited for the sound of it hitting the ground.
Instead, it hovered in mid-air, bobbing up and down slightly. Like the air was water, like Johara, like the knife that Lila had threatened somebody with just one room over.
I glanced nervously up at Nathan, who wasn’t looking that direction at all – whether on purpose or accident, I couldn’t tell. I quietly crossed the room and took hold of the saucepan, gently lifting it back up onto the stove. She still hadn’t noticed.
“Nathan, you have work, right?”
“In an hour, why?”
I mouthed please at him over Mrs. Chaudhury’s shoulder. He blinked for a moment – then with a silent ‘oh’ stammered out, “But my boss loves it when people come in early. Loves it. Uh, nice to see you again, Chandra – Imma go.”
He made a quick exit. Johara glanced after him, then whipped her head back at me, tight ringlets haloing around her head. “Jamal,” she seethed. “Say something.”
I swallowed, searching for what to say. There wasn’t anything else to add. She’d gotten the same speech I had. She just refused to hear it.
“Don’t gape like that, Jamal,” she chided gently. I raised my hand, whether to put on her shoulder or something else I didn’t know –
The pan lifted again, this time sideways between us. I filed that away in my head with a quiet appreciation; the knife was right next to it on the stove, but hadn’t so much as twitched. She still didn’t look at it.
“Shouldn’t you go home?” I asked.
“I will. First I need to let this cool and freeze it – I doubt you’ll eat it all at once. Then, hmm, I can probably get some more of those boxes unpacked-”
“Yes, well, you haven’t gotten to them -”
“Chandra.” I hated using her first name. It felt wrong the moment it came out, especially since she was old enough to be my mother. I didn’t know how Nathan managed it so casually.
She fell silent, chewing a hole into her bottom lip. Then she moved over to the sink, turning on the hot water. I stuck my hands into my pockets and let the sound of the flowing water and bubbling soap fill the empty space. Johara sat down on the butcher’s block on the other side of the room, feet swinging back and forth above the linoleum and leaving little ripples of mist behind.
“I refuse to set a bad example for my children,” she said, finally.
“A bad example? How?” I tried not to sound incredulous.
“I don’t -” She closed her eyes. “There is nothing unnatural about death. Certain – ends, yes, but death itself isn’t… something to mourn. We all have to face it in the end.” She opened her eyes and turned her gaze back to the sink, twisting the taps off and piling the dishes into the hot water. “But this…”
I felt myself tense. I was ready for her to call our powers unnatural – god knows I’d said bad enough things back before I’d met the others. I didn’t like that word – unnatural. I heard it aimed at me enough, one way or another.
“I am so angry,” she admitted. “I’m angry, all the time, and I can’t stop. And I don’t want my children to see it. I don’t want them to think it’s healthy to wish somebody else dead, or want revenge so desperately…” She scrubbed at the plate so hard I thought it might break. “That’s all.”
“I’ll find her.”
“That’s not what I want,” she said, voice flagging on the last few words. She did – she just didn’t want to admit to it.
“I’ll find her for my own sake, then.”
She nodded stiffly. I decided to give her some privacy. The rest of what I was supposed to say was nagging at me, but my chest felt like it was collapsing. I left her in the kitchen and turned towards my room, hands turning into my fists in my pockets.
“Jamal? Are you okay?” Jo asked.
I ignored her, and the stab of guilt came again – how often have you been doing that lately – but if I turned to look at her, I knew all I would see would be her broken body again. Most of the time, I couldn’t summon it from memory other than a few flashes. But sometimes, sometimes, I turned around and it was like she’d died five minutes ago, and the blood hadn’t had time to dry.
Maybe Mrs. Chaudhury had a point, but I wasn’t brave enough to do anything about it myself. Instead, I pulled out my pad, closed my eyes and tried to fit the pieces I had together. Nobody else was going to die if I had anything to say about it.