I rise from my spot by the window in Room 126 of the Sunny Glades Home for Health and Rehabilitation. The sun set an hour ago, so it’s no great loss. My front paws extend, claws out, before I shift my weight forward and kick out each hind leg. I don’t have the range of motion I once did — everything creaks and clicks now — but since the moment I selected my first feline host, I found there is nothing quite so satisfying as a good stretch.
I jump down and land on the tiled floor, hard. I wish they’d carpet the rooms, but that’s hardly sanitary, is it? The hop up onto the bed is more difficult still. We’re in the hospice wing, of course, and these beds are tall. I’ve still got the ups to make it, but it’s a near thing.
Finding a replacement body should be on the top of my to-do list. This one is rather past its natural expiration date, and if I don’t find a new host before it gives out completely, I’ll be as rudderless as the souls I’m supposed to help. It’s only that I’m rather attached to the form I’m currently inhabiting. I’ve been Archimedes for so long now, I’m not sure I remember how to be anyone else.
Besides, given the decline in the stray cat population around here, finding a new body isn’t as easy as it used to be. A game show host told people to spay and neuter their pets, and apparently everyone in New England listened. But there aren’t any good alternatives. A squirrel? A chickadee? Hardly practical when you need access to a person’s deathbed.
Either way, I’m not going anywhere until I’ve helped Dolores.
She’s unconscious, whether due to medication or her condition, I don’t know. Either way, my time has arrived. I climb aboard, one thin, black leg at a time, loaf myself upon her chest, and begin to purr.
Not ten minutes later, she opens eyes as green as mine and brighter than they’ve been in a long, long time, then smiles in delight. “Archimedes!”
“Hello, Dolores,” I say with a slow blink.
Her eyes widen. “You can talk. How long have you been able to talk?”
“Since always. You simply haven’t been able to hear me before.”
“I don’t understand.” Her lower lip curls into a pout. “I feel wonderful.”
“Isn’t that a good thing?”
“Well, yes,” she says. “But…” She looks down and gasps.
They each realize it in their own time, and the moment they do, the transformation completes. No longer confined to bed nor body, Dolores is a literal vision in a tea-length swing dress of emerald-green taffeta, her hair curled into a perfect pageboy. I had always pictured her as a redhead, given the green eyes, but her hair is dark. A surprise, which I cherish, those being so rare for someone who’s been around as long as I have.
“I can’t be more than twenty.”
“You’re eighty-nine,” I tell her. “Just as you were a few minutes ago. It’s just that now you look as you wish to.”
“I never had a dress this nice. It reminds me of one, though, that I used to see in the window at Filene’s on my way to work. I ran the booth at—”
“The Opera House,” I finish for her. “That’s how you met Marty. He used to come on Saturdays, trying to get rush tickets.”
Her smile now is beatific, far warmer than even the sun I bathed in a short while ago. “You listened to me.”
I hop off the bed, forcing myself not to wince. “I listen to all of you.”
“What happens now?”
“I walk you home.”
“Will Marty be there?”
They always ask this, though the specifics change. For Dolores, it’s her husband, but for another it might be a parent, a sibling, a pet. Sometimes, it’s a child, which tears at even my well-calloused heart. I always give the same answer.
“I don’t know.”
“But surely you’ve taken others. You’ve lived here longer than I have!”
“Yes, to both. But still, I don’t know. If you come with me, though, you’re sure to find out.”
Not, perhaps, the most comforting response, but it’s the truth, and we’re on a schedule. Time moves differently for the dead — a second might pass in a year, a year might pass in an hour — but one rule is constant: the longer they stay, the less they want to leave.
I start out by her side but before long she’s lingering — waving at her favorite nurses, trying to show off her dress to Harridan Harrison in 132. (The old bat once kicked me when I was grooming myself in the middle of the hallway. She can take her damned self when the time comes.) I trot ahead, beckoning like a queen to her wayward kitten, but Dolores is moving slower and slower. I finally put my paw down when she tries to go into 187, Mr. Morse’s room. I will not chase her in there. Something’s off with that one, and everyone is allowed to have boundaries. “Dolores!” I growl, nipping at her ankle. “Come! Now!”
Thankfully, we arrive in time. I have yet to lose one in my nearly century-long tenure; I’d hate to break my record.
We stand together before the doorway. It’s narrow and dark inside, but it’s a soothing dark, a velvet one. That of a mother’s voice telling you it’s time to sleep, or a brother’s hand waking you from a scary dream.
“I’m still here.”
“What if Marty isn’t there?”
“What if he is?”
“Will you come with me?”
They all ask this, too. “I can’t. You have to take this last step on your own.”
Her smile is gone. Her height, too, as she’s now just a prepubescent girl in a pale pink nightgown, with messy hair and worried eyes. “Lie to me, then? Promise me Marty’s there?”
I won’t. Instead, I head butt her gently in the calf. “Be brave now. This isn’t how you want to be seen, is it?”
The dress is back, as is the Dolores of her heart. The one downside to this form is my lack of facial muscles; I would like to smile at them. I wind myself around her legs instead.
She’s nearly through now, seeing things I can’t. I can only see her: her radiant face and laughing green eyes, joyful with knowledge. She favors me with one last smile. “Silly Archie. How can you not know what’s waiting for us?”
For her, not for me.
I step back, and she steps through.
“That cat’s on the bed again.”
Dee. Sunny Glades’ newest nurse and my nemesis. She arrived the day after I helped Dolores embark. I had intended to leave and search for a replacement body, I really had, but now that she’s here, me staying has become a matter of principle.
She’s currently standing in the doorway of the now patient-less Room 126, watching me with narrowed eyes. I watch right back, the hair along my narrow spine as upright as any shark fin.
I do not blink.
“Oh, leave him alone, Dee,” Kathy says as she passes by. My favorite nurse, as she occasionally shares her chicken at lunch, and this body certainly likes its chicken. “He’s not bothering anyone.”
“He’s bothering me. What if he bites someone?”
“The residents all love him.”
“What if we get someone with an allergy?”
“We’ll keep him out of the room.”
A final glare and she follows Kathy down the hall. I tuck my head back under my tail, but keep one eye open.
For a little while, anyway. I’ve had a busy day.
Consequently, when my adversary returns, alone, I am startled, though not surprised. She’s staring again. Studying me. Pondering how to address the problem I present to her.
“It’s about time for you to be moving on, isn’t it?” she finally says.
I pick my head up and yawn, though I do not uncurl my body. I’m not giving her an inch. “I think I’m the best one to decide that.”
She sucks her teeth, hands on her hips. “How old’s this one, anyway? Gotta be at least eighteen years. Cat body’s not much good past twelve for this kind of work.”
This body is, in fact, twenty-five years old and feels every minute of it. But if that’s not information she already has, then she doesn’t need it. “It’s perfectly fine for what I have to do. If you better understood how I work – how we all should work – then you’d know that.”
“Oh, I dunno.” She fans out her arms, displaying a petite but fierce physique, clad in a noxiously patterned set of pastel floral scrubs. “I think I embody the platonic ideal of my role!” She chuckles at her own paltry joke.
Although this is largely a one-person (or cat) job, she’s not the first I’ve met of our shared profession. Humans are a popular choice for hosts, which I’ve never understood — seems a bit rude, if you ask me, possessing a person. I’m not one for water cooler chitchat, though, so I’ve never asked my colleagues about their choices. I’m certainly not starting with Dee. “There’s really only enough work for one of us here. Sunny Glades takes excellent care of its residents.”
“Like Mr. Morse?”
The skin of my back ripples and I feel the hairs of my tail begin to puff. “It’s not his time.”
“Agreed,” Dee says. “But how would you know? You’ve never been in his room, have you?” She tsks at me, shaking her head. “Falling down on the job. Understandable, given how long you’ve been doing it. But avoiding the inevitable isn’t going to change it.”
“Listen,” I growl, rising to my paws. “You’re obviously new to this, so let me make it clear: Sunny Glades is not open territory. It’s mine, and I’m not giving it up any time soon.” I lift my tail, send an arcing stream of pungent urine to spray across the pillow, then hop off the bed, gritting the teeth I have left when my joints shudder on impact.
Rather than be angry, however, she laughs again. “You sure know how to get your point across, Archibald.”
“I’m Archimedes here,” I reply as I saunter into the hallway, tail up. “You’d do well to remember that.”
“Oh, I know exactly who you are.”
I stop. Her voice is different now. Soft. Familiar? I turn to face her but say nothing. Why would she call me by that name?
“I get it now,” she says in the same gentle voice. “You don’t remember our last meeting, do you?”
My heart thumps a bit wildly, like a bird fluttering to get out of a cage. “I’ve been doing this a long time. I can’t be expected to remember everyone.”
“But you should remember Mr. Morse, Archibald. I bet he remembers you.”
I hiss, then flee down the hallway.
“Cats are so weird,” Kathy says as I gallop past her station.
The urine marked not only the bed, but the beginning of an all-out war.
As her first volley, the impertinent interloper doubled-down on her strategy of “hygiene concerns,” stupidly thinking a single episode of inappropriate elimination would counter nearly two decades of comforted residents, charmed family members, and feel-good profiles on the local news. Amateur.
“It’s not like that’s the first time that mattress has had a little pee on it,” Kathy said when Dee complained to her.
I went viral last year, for God’s sake. Did she really believe one pissy bed sheet would negate all the good will I’d earned the place?
But even a failed salvo deserves a counter attack. Nothing too terrible. Just a well-timed “affectionate” rub against her legs right as she handed Harridan Harrison a cup of cranberry juice to ward off another UTI. Harridan was wearing her favorite white sweater, too. As a cat, I enjoy my bird-themed sayings, and this took care of the proverbial two.
A lull followed, but I knew it was only so Dee could plot out a change in tactics. I’m far too experienced a campaigner to think victory would come so easily. When I hear she’s asked for a meeting with Meredith, Sunny Glades’ executive director, I make sure I slip into the office well beforehand.
“I’m an animal lover, too, Meredith,” I hear Dee say from my hiding spot behind the ficus. “It’s just that I’m worried about him, you know? His quality of life.”
I have to give her some (minimal) credit — this new strategy holds merit. Meredith is a nursing home director; the phrase “quality of life” is Pavlov’s bell to her very concerned dog. I’ll need to plot a counter-strike immediately.
“You have a point.” Meredith says. “Archimedes is a very old cat. He’s been here longer than I have.”
“He has a vet, right? He must have a vet.”
I do have a vet, but I am the epitome of the “bad patient.” There are several bright orange warning stickers on my chart, of which I am inordinately proud. Meredith ensures I get a physical each year, given how she worships at the altar of the Mass Department of Health, but I don’t make it easy on anyone.
“He had a check-up only five or six months ago,” Meredith says. “None of us really enjoy taking him, but if you’re volunteering—”
“I’d be happy to take him,” my rival says. “But not for a check-up. I was thinking more…” She falls silent, but I can see the slashing movement she makes at her throat.
If I had a different body, I’d laugh. This is a serious miscalculation.
“Ms. Reyes,” Meredith says, her voice chilling until it matches the frigid temps of the New England midwinter lurking outside, “your callous disregard for the solemnity of such a decision makes me question your motives, and even your appropriateness for this position.”
“Meredith, I didn’t mean—”
But Meredith has no time for her protestations, because, devotion to the health department aside, she’s a Catholic. And not just any Catholic, but, an old school, thinks-Vatican-II-went-too-far Catholic. The pope might not object to the humane euthanasia of non-humans, but Meredith prefers to play it safe. “It’s quite clear what you meant, Ms. Reyes. But let me make myself clear: there will be no end-of-life decisions made for Archimedes that do not involve me, and I am confident we still have options beyond… that.”
She is summarily dismissed. I emerge from behind the planter, purring, to jump onto the lap of my unwitting accomplice. “Sweet Archimedes,” Meredith coos at me. “Better stay out of that one’s way to be safe.”
A fair piece of advice, though not one I plan on taking.
Later that evening, as my purported successor puts on her “going home shoes,” the overnight staff will stare at the break room cork board, wondering who stole all the thumb tacks, then will startle at Dee’s piercing scream when she discovers, in the most painful way possible, exactly where I left them.
The following day begins in a perfectly ordinary fashion. I eat my breakfast in the break room, vomit discreetly outside the janitor’s closet, then start my daily rounds. I don’t have anyone on my radar today, but it takes time to patrol the whole facility and I like to stay on top of things. Health changes quickly here.
Dee strikes as I pass the elevators.
“The tacks were the last straw, Archie,” she says, scooping me up from under my chest. “We’re dealing with this today.”
I yowl in protest. Even if I were an actual cat, I would not be the sort who enjoyed being hauled around like an overloved comfort object.
“Don’t bother,” she says, tucking me firmly under her right arm. “I’ve paused time. No one can hear you.”
“You’ve paused what?” I say, trying to catch her bare flesh with one of my thickened, yellow claws. “You can pause time?”
“Yes, you silly boy, because despite what you think I have been doing this for a very, very long time. And, unlike some others I could name, I was properly trained. Here we are!”
Room 187. Mr. Morse’s room. What is she plotting? “Kathy!” I scream, though she can’t hear my cries even in normal time. “Meredith!”
“Face facts, Archie,” Dee says, plopping me onto the bed. “It’s time for you to go. You never should have stayed this long, and Mr. Morse is going to help you remember why.” Then, before I can even regain my paws, she darts out the door and slams it shut.
The air vents whir into life.
The bedside clock begins to tick.
The man in the bed takes a breath.
Time has re-started.
I’m not wasting any of it. I leap off the bed like a much younger cat and land hard on my chin. Doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is getting out. I bolt for the door, my claws skittering across the shiny tile, and launch myself at the handle. Sometimes, if I jump just high enough, I can hook my paws around the handle, and…
“Who’s there? Mother? Is that you?”
Mr. Morse. He’s been here, in this room, for a month now. Arrived a week or so before Dee showed up, actually. Ninety-eight years old and dying, per his family and the staff doctors, but I know better. He’s not going anywhere. Not today, anyway.
His mind left some time ago — chased away by the liver cancer that’s sent him to end his life at Sunny Glades. Although perhaps it would be more accurate to say his mind got lost — like misplaced keys or that button you meant to sew back on when you got a chance, or maybe a beloved toy left behind. Trapped in the darkest wood, the deepest labyrinth, just waiting for someone to help it find its way home.
I can’t imagine what Dee believes this poor man can do to me, but I’m not interested in finding out. I scratch at the door and meow, hoping Kathy or one of the other nurses will hear me and come to my aid.
But the only person who responds is Mr. Morse.
I lower my paws back to the floor. Dee was right — I’ve never been in here. The moment Mr. Morse arrived, Room 187 took on an ominous air, one of bad dreams and grief. An air I had no interest in sharing with him. How would he know my name?
“Archie?” he says again. “Did you come back for Patches? I’m so sorry. I think he’s gone.”
Patches. The name conjures up an image of a white body with grey spots and blue eyes. But why? My first body was a brown tabby with the uninspired name of Tom, then there was the seal point Siamese Mehitabel, orange Pusskin, and, finally, right before this one, a calico named Buttercup. I creep towards the bed.
“I didn’t mean to lose him,” Mr. Morse says. “I left him at the park. Mother was so sad when I told her.”
Though I question the wisdom of this decision — is this part of Dee’s plan? — I jump onto the bed, not quite making it and scrabbling with my back claws to gain those last few inches. Mr. Morse’s skin is yellowed with jaundice and stretched tight by the fluid that collects where fat and muscle used to be. I slip into the narrow space between his distended abdomen and his left arm. I only sit on their chests at the end.
A tremulous hand raises and strokes my own, bony trunk.
“Oh!” Mr. Morse says. “You found him! I’m so glad. I’m so sorry I lost him, Archie.”
“Who’s Patches?” I ask, because I know the answer but it’s a flicker of light on the wall and I cannot catch it.
“Mother will be so glad to see you again. She’s missed you, Archie.”
My heart, which has been irregular for some months now, beats a little faster. “Please. Tell me who Patches is.”
“Your cat, of course. Mother was going to bury him with you, but I begged and begged. I wanted him to remember you by.”
Patches was a toy, covered in white and grey mohair and stuffed full of wool, with eyes made of blue glass. I should not know this. What use would someone like me have of a toy?
I have another question.
“Was your mother always sad… after?”
“Not always. But forever. Until the very end. She said part of her was glad she was going. Part of her was happy because she’d get to see you again, Archie. I’m glad you’re together now.”
Everything’s wrong. My chest is tight, my throat is closed. I’m not supposed to be in this room, with this man. I have to leave. But, when I rise, I catch the claws of my right forepaw in the thin weave of his blanket. I yank and yowl, twisting this way and that. Reaching out a desperate paw for any purchase, my back legs dig into the tissue-thin flesh of his arm and rip out his IV line. Alarms start to blare. The door rattles.
“Mr. Morse? Are you all right?”
“Who locked this door? Someone get the master!”
The two minutes it takes for someone to open the lock feels like twenty, but at least it’s time enough for me to free myself of the cheap cotton-poly blend and launch myself onto the floor, shooting straight through Kathy’s legs. I run like I haven’t in five years, like I’m being chased, like my time is running out, and I don’t stop until I reach the janitor’s closet. I drop, chest heaving and mouth open, behind a yellow mop bucket and let the world go dark.
It’s a kind voice. A known voice. Like a mother.
But not my Mother.
“Archie, wake up.”
“Yes, Archie,” the voice says, though I didn’t answer aloud. “It’s past time. Long past.”
I open my eyes. Dee is kneeling with me on the floor of the closet amongst the industrial cleaners and spare mop heads. “Excuse me,” I say, though this body is no longer obeying my commands. “I have to go. Get a replacement.”
“Yes, Dee! As you can see, I don’t have a lot of time left! I need a replacement.”
“You don’t have any time left.”
She’s right. I’ve waited too long. The sturdy body that carried me loyally for so many years has given out. The strain, I suppose, of that last sprint from Mr. Morse’s room.
“Or the shock,” Dee suggests. “I think it was probably the shock.”
“It’s time to remember who you are, Archie. You were never meant to stay.”
“How would you know?” My voice has taken on a sulky note. High. Almost whiny.
“Because I was there. The day the pneumonia took you. I was the one who was supposed to guide you home. But I failed you, and lost you, and it took me ninety-one years to find you again.”
She’s radiant. She’s tenderness, and hope, and sympathy. Hot cocoa after a day of sledding. Cool water in the heat of summer. Do I look like this to mine? I hope so.
“It was because of Patches,” and her laugh is like a sprinkle of wind chimes. “Ironic, right? You didn’t want to leave Patches behind. My first and only failure, all because of a toy cat.”
“Mr. Morse,” I say, though it tastes bad on my tongue.
“When you were a boy, you called him Harry.”
I nod. Yes. Better. Right. “Harry. My little brother.”
“Can he come, too?”
“No. He’s not quite ready yet. Soon. But not today.” She raises an eyebrow. “The fact of which I think you are well aware. You’re a quick study, Archie. Not many could have learned how to do this on-the-job.” She rises to her feet. “It really is time to go.”
She offers me her hand, and I take it.
I have hands.
I’m maybe twelve or thirteen. Older than I was the day I died. Strong legs and arms, solid and sturdy. The clothes are a mishmash — serge knickers and a brown newsboy cap, with a royal blue cotton hoodie and red high tops. “Huh.”
Dee laughs again. “I guess this is what happens when you spend your formative years ferrying the dead. Come on. Let’s go home.”
It’s the longest walk and the shortest one.
Her hand is higher than it was a moment before. I have to stretch my arm to keep hold of it.
“You promise it won’t hurt?”
“You know it won’t.”
“What if no one’s there?”
“You know they will be.”
“But I don’t!” I pull backwards, but she won’t get let go. Not this time. “I don’t know what’s over there, who’s over there. I want to stay. Why can’t I stay?”
She gets down on one knee so we’re at eye level, clasping my small, cold hand between her two warm ones. “Your mother’s been waiting to see you for a very long time, Archie. Don’t make her wait any longer.”
“Can you go with me? Please?”
“I’m sorry, but you know the rules. Sort of.” She purses her lips for a moment, then beams at me. “But I do know someone who can help.”
A white cat with patches of grey fur and bright blue eyes emerges from behind her back and greets me with a soft meow.
“Is that…? But it can’t be!”
“Sure it can.” She picks up Patches-come-to-life (or death, really) and deposits him in my arms. “Be brave now, Archie. Everyone’s waiting for you.”
She steps back, and I step through.
K.M. Veohongs is a mixed race Thai-American speculative fiction writer from New England. Her alter ego is a veterinarian who once fought with a mandrill over a broom. You can find her on Twitter @kmveohongs posting photos of her pets and cheerfully complaining about writing.