No matter what the world said or chose to believe, the fact was that I was John’s killer. The eerie November wind rustled the leaves fallen around the gravestone that lined the cemetery where all the people who had loved John in his lifetime had come to say our final goodbyes. Trying to remember all the good times like everyone told me to, all I saw over and over were the flashes of the world violently exploding as the car hit the large oak off the side of the road, the tire screeches shredding the silence of my dark dreams, seeing John’s inanimate body, drenched in blood and pronounced dead on scene after the paramedics flooded the accident. Knowing deep down that I deserved to be in the casket that the ambiguous figures were lowering into the six foot abyss.
Instead it was someone else’s dreams that had shattered to a million pieces, a lifetime of happiness thrown away because of a decision I had made. Years will pass and the wood will disintegrate, along with the body of the best friend I didn’t deserve. Meanwhile, my life will continue with the burden of the guilt of getting behind the wheel when I knew I shouldn’t have, ultimately knowing that nothing good would come from driving inebriated. Many a time since the accident a week ago, I had thought about taking the coward’s way out. Death would have been too easy an escape from this haunting destiny.
The raging storm of thoughts abruptly quieted as someone nudged me from behind, gently pushing me towards the gaping hole where the motionless body of John rested. I froze. I couldn’t do it, be given the honor of dispatching the man that had died at my hands. A second, more firm, nudge propelled me forward involuntarily, dragging my injured body with a crutch. The only thought that played in my mind like a broken record was ‘It’s my fault.’ Standing at the edge of the grave and peering in made my head spin, numbing my body from head to toe. Unable to take my eyes off of the coffin in the deep hole, I clumsily reached down to grab a fistful of dirt. Shaking violently, my hand extended mechanically over his grave, releasing the soil upon the mahogany wood beneath.
Time froze as the first grain of earth hit, a burst of cold, dry air enveloping the space around me, isolating me from the world in an inexplicably warm embrace. In that moment, despite the goosebumps that had erupted all over my body, everything felt as if it was going to be alright, that maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to come back from this. And as quickly as the burst of icy warmth had come, it disappeared just as fast. My breath caught in my throat as tears cascaded down my cheeks unchecked, my heart finally accepting the truth. John was gone, and I was to blame.
Six Months After the Accident…
“You need someone to be with you, Derek. A companion. Someone who will love you unconditionally, will teach you to love yourself once again,” said the man sitting across the room from me, a pencil tucked neatly behind his right ear, brushing gently against his salt and pepper every time he said something. His grey eyes observed me as they had for the past six months of therapy. And as per usual, they lacked any telling emotions. I had found that weird at first, but understood that they weren’t unkind; he just didn’t want what he was feeling to lead my emotions. But this, out of nowhere, confused and alarmed me.
“Hmm? A companion? Doc Benson, you know you’re the only person I can connect with, even remotely. How can I find a companion, just out of the blue,”I said, sweat starting to bead on my forehead at the thought of mingling with other people.
“I know the greatest obstacle in front of you is to start forming human bonds. You’ve shut yourself away from the world, working from home and online shopping to avoid contact with people. I’ve been letting you have your way in this matter because you weren’t mentally or physically in any condition to take steps to combat this. But I think you are ready now,” he broke his steady gaze to scribble something in the notepad that lay precariously upon his crossed legs. “I recommend that you get a pet. A cat or a dog. I say that specifically because even though all animals would be dependent on you, only a cat or a dog will give you the unconditional love that you need at the moment. The only way you can come to terms with the self-loathing that you have drowned yourself in is by having someone love you regardless of what you’ve done in the past, of you are right now, and who you will be months and years down the line. Visit a kennel. Give a home to an animal that has none.”
My heartbeat sounded in my ears as I sat there, taking in his words.
“You can do this, Derek. You have made great progress since the day that I have met you. You are ready for this.”
“Thanks Doc. I’ll get right to it. See you next Friday, Doc,” I said after a second, getting up from the comfy leather recliner the Doc had situated by the window for his patients. Sighing deeply, I made my way out of the office. I guess I was getting a pet then, I thought, pulling out my phone from my back pocket. It would take a bit for me to actually get the animal, as per kennel rules, so I decided that there was no time like the present to set the ball in motion. The phone let out a ding as the Maps app located the nearest kennel, which was surprisingly a ten minute walk from my current location, down some sort of side street.
Well, let’s get this started, then, I thought. My legs carried me forward in an almost zombified state, putting one step in front of the other, just carrying on. People only saw me as the shell of my thirty-year old self, a husk that drifted wherever the wind blew, not thinking, not caring. According to Doc Brown, the fear of losing anyone dearest to me had settled hard in my heart, leaving me incapable of forming any new bonds with people around me and abandoning all my old ones, leaving me empty and hollow. A life without a purpose.
Ding! The loud notification yanked me out of the hurricane of thoughts raging through my mind. I cursed, realizing that I had walked passed the kennel. Backtracking, I found myself facing a large window with the words ‘Pet Haven’ painted across in periwinkle blue. A complementary awning shaded the friendly doorway. I took a deep breath and entered to soft jingles from the door. It was a brightly lit premise with snow white tiles and the walls a lighter tint of the periwinkle that bedazzled the front.
A quaint desk was situated in the lobby of the kennel, where a bright young woman sat, engrossed in a phone conversation with a potential client. She looked up with a smile and gestured towards one of the seats that lined the wall and held up five fingers to indicate that she’ll be with me in five minutes. I nervously took a seat, beads of sweat already forming on my forehead. Barking and meowing filled the kennel, along with squeals of joy from pet owners, ready to shower their animal with all the love in the world.
“I am so sorry to keep you waiting, sir. How may I help you today?” the lady addressed me, beaming brighter than the sun itself. Cue the palm sweat.
“Hi. Sorry. I’m just here to find out about the process of adopting a pet.” I said, trying to keep my voice level.
“Oh it’s not that bad. First, you will have to complete a paper questionnaire, which we will collect from you to assess. If you pass the assessment, you will be called in for a face-to-face interview, in which we will …” As she rambled on, my throat became constricted, prohibiting any oxygen from getting into my body. The more she talked in her bubbly way, the more burdensome it became to breathe. Sweat now drenched my face, falling to the floor as all the strength flew out from my body. The world that stood still at first, swirled out of control, everything multiplying, crowding me. Clutching at my throat, I stumbled up and pushed my way past the concerned woman, charging out the front door. Blindly half-running, half-stumbling on the pathway, muttering fast apologies to the baffled people passing by, I finally found myself slumped on a bench on the outskirt of a nearby park. Recalling what Doc Benson had said to do if I found myself in the current situation, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, holding it in for five seconds before releasing it. A calm began to set in as I repeated this process a few more times. Heartbeat settling back into its slow and steady beat, warmth returning and the downpour of sweat ceasing at last, I dared to open my eyes.
To my surprise, the sun was on its way out, leaving a blanket of darkness in its wake. The crowd of people that marched to the beat of the world had thinned to a few stragglers enjoying the slight breeze on an unseasonably warm day. I let out an exasperated cry, startling the nearest stranger. How in the world am I supposed to get a pet when I can’t even talk to another human? Tears welled up in my already tired eyes, the idea of quitting following close behind.
At that moment, I felt a familiar feeling of an unnatural icy warmth accompanied by a soft meow. Sitting ever so calmly on the right of me was a short-haired Bombay cat. It’s charcoal fur shimmered in the dull light of the nearest street lamp. Its almond-shaped eyes intently watched me, bright blue orbs glimmering brightly like stars in a midnight sky. As much as its calm demeanor frightened me, it intrigued me far more. Not wanting to startle it away, I slowly extended my hand forward, a sign of truce, its nose meeting me halfway, sniffing with what appeared to be satisfaction. Without a warning, it propelled its tiny body onto my lap, settling there comfortably. I couldn’t help but smile as I leaned back into the bench. This was serenity.
One Month After Adopting Salem…
A yowl cut across the air as I saw Salem’s body flying across the room of the cottage where we were staying for the weekend and landing hard with a loud thump.
“Salem!” I dashed to where he had touched down and came to a halt at the feet of a smug Salem. He jerked his head to a place behind him. It may have seemed weird to anyone looking in, but I had come to know Salem on a whole new level, understanding that his every movement had a purpose. Anyone else in my spot would have dismissed his head-jerk as a tick or random movement, but I knew better.
A snake lay listless upon the ground where Salem had pointed. I gasped, taking a step back. Seeing this, Salem took a step back towards the reptile, pawing it to show me that I had nothing to worry about. Still shocked, I scooped up Salem in my arms and held him close to my heart. Naming him after the cat from Sabrina, the Teenage Witch may have been a lazy decision stemming from a lack of creativity on my part, but day-by-day the name was nothing but a perfect fit.
“You’re crazy, you know that, right?” I whispered, holding him firmly. “I should be the one protecting you, not the other way around.” Loud purring filled my heart with happiness. I loved him so much, never able to put into words how much his presence in my life meant to me. I was starting to see my old self peeking out more and more as days passed with this creature by myself. I was smiling more, talking more, and caring more — not just about myself but about Salem, a being independent of me. Maybe there was a way for me to come back from my past.
Three Months After Salem Killed the Snake…
“Hi, again,” said a friendly voice from behind me. I looked over my shoulder from my place at the bench by the park, to spot a beautiful woman waving at me. Her face was shiny from the perspiration from what appeared to be a long run, her green eyes glimmering with excitement. I smiled slightly and waved back. My heart fluttered as she made her way towards us, her strawberry blonde hair pulled tightly in a ponytail that bounced with every step she took. Salem, who was curled up for a siesta on my lap, opened one lazy eye to see what the commotion was all about. He sprung up, jumping up and down, showing off for our lady friend.
“Hahaha, Salem, you really are something else, aren’t you?” she said, she settled down next to us on the bench, Salem jumping onto her lap. “Hi Derek, we really have to stop meeting like this. I’m always so gross whenever we do.”
“Hey Lily! Haha, we really do. What do you say we get together for dinner at my place. I can cook well. And, I’ll be honest with you, I find that more comfortable.”
“That’s no problem,” she said, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear, “Let’s see, I’m good for tonight if you are. And don’t worry about making food. Let’s just order in. It’ll be just good to chill without any stress, no? Give me your number so I can text you when I’m on my way. Also text me your address.” She took out her phone to note down my number. Getting up, Lily smiled, the crisp breeze adding a red tint to her porcelain skin . “Good I’m looking forward to it. I’ve really liked getting to know you little by little on this bench. I’m going to head home now. The weather is getting colder. You should also head back and I’ll see you tonight” With that, she turned and jogged away down a path blanketed with an autumnal quilt of orange and red leaves. I looked down at Salem, who had a mischievous glimmer in his eye.
“Oh, shush. She just wants to meet up as friends. Let’s go, the place is a mess.”
The clean-up process didn’t take that long, as it’s just Salem and I sharing the apartment and I have a tidy disposition, often getting me branded as a neat freak by people who knew me best. When all was done, I plopped down on the couch. My ability to communicate with others had definitely gotten better since Salem had entered my life, but it was still not at its best. That made me nervous but after five minutes of breathing exercises calmed me down again, so much so I fell asleep without realizing it.
The knock on the door shook me out of my unplanned nap, confused as to where I was. I looked down to see Salem curled up on my lap, also enjoying a warm nap on this chilly afternoon. Nudging him awake and gently off of my lap. Needless to say, he looked a little annoyed.
“That’ll be Lily.” To say I was nervous was a bit of an understatement. Making small talk with people at the park or the doctor’s office was one thing but to be in an enclosed space with any human for a long period of time was still a perturbing thought for me. I glanced at the mirror in by the front door, trying to tame my short mousy brown hair that was sticking up oddly in places. Wiping the dried eye gunk from the inner crevice and the nap drool from the corner of my mouth, I took a deep, calming breath and opened the door.
My nose was greeted by a melting scents of cheese, pepperoni and jalapeno peppers emanating from the large Papa Tony’s box carried by Lily.
“Hey! I thought I would just grab some food on my way over to save us the wait. I’m starving!” she said as she blew into the apartment like a force of nature. “Hi Salem! How’re you doing, boy?” Salem wrapped himself around her ankles, purring loudly. Chuckling, she looked back at my frozen self.
“Well, are you going to stand there all night? Let’s eat!” I walked over slowly, still a little taken aback by her overpowering kindness. I grabbed a couple of plates from the kitchen and met her back on the couch. She grabbed them from my hands and began the serving process.
“You have got to try this pizza. Honestly, it’s the best pizza in town, completely overlooked due to the big franchise pizzerias,” she raved, plopping a piece on each plate, “Oh, and you have to put this seasoning that they give. It completely enhances the flavor of the pizza.” She pulled a couple of small white packets from her purse and went on to open one to pour over my slice.
Like lightning, a black ball of fur flew across the couch, knocking the seasoning packet out from her hand. She gasped in surprise.
“Salem, what the hell?!” I exclaimed, jumping forward to see if she was hurt. A small red scratch shone brightly on her pale skin. Salem stood firmly across from the both of us, glaring unblinkingly and unashamedly at Lily.
“It’s okay, Derek. I’m alright,” Lily said, hurriedly.
“No. I don’t know what’s gotten into him. He is never like that.”
“It’s okay, really. You know what, I think I’ll just head out now. I don’t want things to be uncomfortable. How about we continue this at a restaurant sometime this week? I’ll call you and let you know when I’m available.” She grabbed her purse and rushed out. “See you.”
A Year After Salem’s First Attack…
“Okay Salem, behave yourself. Don’t know what has gotten into you over the past year,” I warned the little ball of angry fluff curled up in his carrier in the backseat of the car. Lily had called me over to see to some logistical things for our wedding, which was approaching fast. “Every time I give you a chance to be around Lily, you always let me down. Like how you destroyed the food she prepared or spill the drinks she serves me. Please, please behave. Don’t make me regret my decisions today.” The cat stared at me with what seemed like … pity? Confusion raged through me. Why was he being like this? Right when we were so close to having our very own family, he kicked in double time.
Sighing, I pulled into her driveway and got out, grabbing Salem from the back. Closing my eyes and taking a great calming breath, I moved towards. Doc Benson says that one day I’ll get out of this habit, when I had too much to focus on that my worries will seem so insignificant. I really hope he’s right.
Lily, who’d been keeping an ear out for the car, had the front door open before I could ring the doorbell.
“There you are!! Thank goodness you’re here. We need to do something about the venue. The banquet hall called, they said that time slot went to another couple. What are we to do?” She was frazzled, her normally kept out of sorts, her eyes wide as saucers.
“Hey hey hey,” I said, grabbing her in an embrace, “Close your eyes and take a deep breath. It’ll all be okay. I’m here now. Let’s see what we can do.” I led her inside, closing the door behind us. I deposited Salem’s carrier in the main hall, quickly releasing the catch on its door so he could let himself out, and followed her to the T.V room. The coffee table was taken over by papers and forms and two crystal glasses full of drinks. Plopping myself down next to her on the couch, I draped my arm across her shoulder.
“Okay, now let’s see what we can do to fix this mess,” I said rifling through the all the documents. I reached for the drink that sat closest to me, thirsty from the drive here. It had barely reached my lips when all of a sudden, Salem struck again. The glass crashed loudly on the hardwood floor, shattering to a million unmendable pieces. A scream escaped from Lily’s lips, her face white in anger.
“SALEM!” I roared, “WHAT IS YOUR DEAL?!” Salem stared coldly at Lily, who in turn was shoot daggers with her eyes. Letting out an exasperated sigh, I go to grab a bit of the glass, only to cut myself in the process. “Ugh. Honey, can I get a bandaid?” Lily got up from her perch, as if possessed. She walked over to the kitchen drawer.
“I’m really sorry, hon. I really don’t understand. He used to love you so much. I just, I don’t get…” I trailed off. Thinking back to all the moments that Salem has overreacted, the one thing in common is Lily. Lily, in all those situations, served me some food or drink that I never even tasted before it was knocked out of my hand and dropped to the floor. And then I remembered the snake, the poison of which Salem had sensed, leading him to pounce. Poison that he smelt. I looked over at Salem, who simultaneously had relief and exhaustion written on his little ebony face. He knew that I knew … finally. I looked over at Lily, who had gone unnaturally still all of a sudden.
“Lil… what’s going on, Lil? Who are you? Why are you trying to poison me?” I moved closer towards her, caution setting in. That’s when I spotted it, a picture of a happy couple. Lily and John. All the pieces fell in place in an instant.
“You’re that Lily? John’s fiancee?” My voice was but a whisper.
“YES I’M THAT LILY,” she screeched, spinning around with a revolver in her hand. Madness shown in her eyes, tears pouring down her cheeks unchecked. Her hands quaking in anger that she was holding back for about two years. “I am THAT Lily, who lost the love of her life because some drunken friend of John’s decided to get behind the wheel! The one who lost her best friend and life partner! The one who was left all alone! Why would you do that?! WHY?! Why did you get to live and not John?!”
I was speechless. All this time, it had felt unreal, but I just didn’t realize how true that feeling was. A heaviness set on my heart. All the oxygen had been siphoned out of room, just like the breath from my lungs. The room started spinning, and I collapsed to the ground.
“I wanted you to feel that. Feel the pain of having love in your life and then losing it. I wanted to make you feel pain. The pain I felt BECAUSE OF YOU!!” She walked towards me, the gun pointed to my head. I couldn’t move. At that moment, Salem walked forward and stood between Lily and I. This infuriated Lily even more. “Get out of my way, stupid cat. All my effort. If you weren’t there, I would’ve finished him off the first time with the pizza!”
As if out of a dream, Salem started to glow, lightly at first, but intensifying with every passing second. The more the he glowed, the fainter his form appeared, until Salem was gone. In his stead stood John, faintly blue and translucent. The gun fell out of Lily’s hand as she stood there, thunderstruck. He walked towards her and smiled slightly.
“Hi Lil,” John said, his voice soft as if coming from a distance. “I’ve been here the whole time next to you and Derek. I was so happy when I thought you were showing kindness to him, but it was all ill intent, wasn’t it? Please forgive him. Killing him won’t make you happy even if you think it will. It’ll leave you with a whole in your heart bigger than the one that you have right now. I know deep in your heart, you have some feelings for Derek and that’s okay. I want you to take care of him for me, please. Can you do that?”
Without waiting for an answer from her, he turned towards me. “And you Derek, please forgive her. She only acted this way out of misguided feelings. She does love you, or you would be dead by now. I know my Lily.” He stood up and looked at the both of us. “Take care of each other. We will meet again one day” With that, he faded, leaving both of us paralyzed. He was really gone for good.