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Authors: Clara Ward

Out of Touch

BOOK: Out of Touch
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OUT OF TOUCH

 

By

 

Clara Ward

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

For Leslie and Allen, who showed me that unexpected people could become the closest friends.

 

For Erin, Ebeth, and Mike, who kept learning with me and who put up with me and my writing.

 

For my mother, aunt and cousins, who may not be quite as unusual as Sarah’s relatives, but deserve a great deal of credit anyway.

 

For Spooky, who jumped into this story and doesn’t mind being written about at all.

Chapter 1

February 2
– March 21, 2025 – Sacramento, USA

 

Sarah yanked a loose corner of carpet. The thin weave was stiff and shed a puff of acrid dust into her face. Some cats had objected to her mom’s laissez-faire attitude toward the litter box; so the carpet was disgusting. It was almost enough to make Sarah use her mind, not her hands. The temptation washed her like warm sudsy water, but left behind a residue of fear. No way to know the cost; no need to take the risk. She hauled the ripping chunk of carpet toward the door. It came off with a heavy jerk, a loud rasp, and of course, that stench.

The phone rang. Sarah tossed the carpet out and stopped to wash her hands. Then she enunciated carefully toward the ceiling, “Answer phone: hello?”

              “Is Molly there?”

             
“May I ask who’s calling?”

             
“Tabitha,” replied the sandy voice.

             
“Are you a friend of my mom’s or is this business?” Sarah wiped her hands and prepared to go off speaker.

             
“A friend, dear. I’m just calling to wish her a Happy Groundhog Day.”

             
Groundhog Day, what was it with old people? Her mother had received two Groundhog cards by snail mail. Hallmark must love these women. Sarah grabbed a flimsy headset, not wanting to say the rest across the room.

             
“I’m sorry to have to tell you but, well, my mom passed away last week.”

             
“Oh no, what happened?”

             
“Liver failure.”

             
There was a pause, and Sarah wondered if Tabitha knew her mother’s drinking habits. Hanging the dishtowel with one hand, Sarah reached for the pictures she’d dusted that morning. Nineteen cats had lived here over the years, each photographed and printed in ink. The frames made a mosaic of larger and smaller rectangles as Sarah slid them around the dining table, here a matronly calico in a large silver frame, there a white kitten hissing in a fuzzy pink border. A trick of light reflected Sarah’s face from the glassed in photos, wavering across the middle of her design. Above the calico floated a blue eye with a deeply creased lid, but the other eye was lost between frames. The strength of her nose and high cheekbones seemed to skew, split between two different squares of glass, and her mouth and eyebrows were gone, leaving the expression ambiguous. What was she doing here, tearing up the home she’d left seven years before? Reggie called it capital improvement, but for now it was mostly destruction.

             
“I’m so sorry. Was she at home?”

             
“Asleep in her own bed.” With the words, Sarah’s vision of herself warped to the frailer face of her mother, gone pale and bloated, a black fluid oozing from her mouth. She’d learned not to mentioning the details or that she’d found the body. Not mentioning things came easy. She started to bite at her fingernail, then pulled her hand away in disgust as she stared at the soiled patch of carpet she’d removed.

             
Tabitha said, “What about the cats?”

             
“Oh, they need homes. If you’d like one or know someone who would—”

             
“Spooky, I think she would want me to take Spooky.”

Sarah was at a loss. Giving away cats was going surprisingly well, but she hadn’t expected anyone to want Spooky. “You know he’s seventeen-years-old, and, well—”

“I have a few older cats of my own, dear. I live in Fresno; so I can’t come by right away. But if you’ll take care of Spooky for a few weeks, then I’ll drive up to get him.”

             
Did all old people celebrate Groundhog Day and assume responsibility for each others’ pets, or was this just another weirdness with her mother and her mother’s friends? How had her mom found friends who were weird like her and cared like that? Sarah concentrated on not saying too much and not sounding too childish. As soon as she was off the phone she closed all the curtains and crossed her arms tight.

A yearning like acid crept from her fingers and toes to her center. In that moment, she seemed ripped from the social fabric, separate, unraveling. She imagined the cat pictures, still spread before her, rising off the table in a kinetic patchwork, shifting and indecipherable.

But she didn’t make them move, even lost as she felt. What if someone could sense her difference, and what if something bad—her mind jumped past that worry, stitched her back into the house she had to clean, and the rules she’d made for seeming normal. She opened the curtains. They were older than she was and stained a nicotine yellow. Using her own hands, she took them down hook by hook.

 

              A month-and-a-half later, someone called to Sarah at the gym door, “Leaving early, coach?”

             
Torie was five foot seven now, mostly legs, with great lines on parallel bars and floor exercise, but pushing too tall for a gymnast. She looked all but grown up as she leaned by the concrete doorway of that plain concrete building with the extravagant reputation. The girls had seen Sarah leave early many times just before her mother died; maybe Torie was worried.

             
“There’s a cat who for once in his life needs to do what he’s told.”

             
“Just a cat? You’re sure it isn’t your rich boyfriend?”

             
Torie said it like she’d tease a girl on the team. Sarah shook her head, reminding herself that she was twenty-six, not sixteen, and refused to rise to the bait. She dashed through rain to her car while the level nine girls were still packing up. Her faded leotard and work-out sweats were damp with rain and sweat. Hair straggled down her face where it had slipped loose from a ponytail. It shouldn’t really count as dark for another hour, but with black clouds clogging the sky and rain plummeting down, Sarah felt worry creep up her spine. Spooky could be just stubborn enough to declare it dark early on the one night he really needed to stay home. Tabitha was coming tomorrow.

Sarah remembered thinking Spooky was such a good name, when she was eight and the black kitten showed up in her yard. Back then they’d had only six cats, but Spooky had been a problem from the start. He scratched, bit, or avoided Sarah for the first two years. And if she didn’t get him in before dark, there was no telling when he’d come back or what cold, bleeding offering he might bring. Of the nineteen cats that had eventually lived with Sarah and her mom, Spooky was the least like a pet.  Now he was the last cat leaving the house, and if Sarah didn’t get there before dark, he might refuse to come back in time.

              Sarah hissed “pffft” as the car auto-increased its headlights. She didn’t much like cars.

The one ahead of her, hitting the centerline on each turn, was a stodgy forest green color that Sarah couldn’t stand. Her mom had driven a forest green station wagon when they moved to the suburbs of Sacramento in 2001. There was a picture in the photo album from the day they arrived: dirty green car, dirty Sarah wearing just her diaper and popsicle ooze, and the tan, ranch-style house with geraniums and juniper hiding the bottom of every wall. Mom wasn’t in the picture, of course. Who would have taken it?

              The green car skidded a bit on a muddy curve up ahead, and Sarah shook her head at the driver’s reaction times. Probably some distractible grandma or grandpa, even older than her mom, well, older than her mom would have been.

The steering wheel in Sarah’s indigo Honda chilled her fingers through, before she thought to turn up the heat. A pine needle stuck on the windshield just outside the wipers’ range. Somehow, the rain slamming into the car failed to move that pine needle. Was this some strange suction effect or something to do with fluid dynamics? No
wonder people had once believed in water gods or mischievous, tricksy sprites.

             
She turned on the radio. It came up with a news station blaring, “. . . President Davies said this grant will allow the Keenan Foundation to offer its AIDS vaccine worldwide. Outreach efforts will follow the malaria immunization model in underdeveloped countries, while wealthier nations will be asked . . .” Sarah auto-searched for the next clear station, jazz filled the car and she shivered as it meshed with the beat of rain on moving metal.

             
Still stuck behind the green sedan, Sarah followed the familiar curves of a road unimaginatively named Winding Way. This part of Winding Way was bracketed on the left by vertical dirt, held in place by roots, weeds, and not much else. In rain like this it seeped brick-red rivulets of slick mud. On the right was a pit filled with blackberry bushes that never gave up and a stream that frequently did. Sarah had once tumbled down there on her bike, and she’d never quite forgiven the road or the prickly, grabby bushes.

Tonight, rain was sloshing down her windshield hard enough to leave no streaks, not that her car was dirty or prone to streaking. Sarah took better care of things than her mother had. She was on her way to that no-longer-tan, ranch-style house, having removed most of the juniper bushes, trimmed the geraniums, and painted the outside a modern shade of lavender. As soon as she finished probate and had the inside fixed up, she could sell the place and get back to her real life, such as it was. But before she could deal with the inside, she had to get rid of the last cat, and to do that she had to get home before dark.

The driver in front of her should get home by dark, too. Sarah felt a twinge of worry under her ribs and slowed around a sharp turn. The other car had taken it a bit too fast, and for just a moment she’d seen its rear wheels glide before gripping the ground. It must be old, built before GPS. It wouldn’t be street legal in another three years. No voice told the driver the danger rating of upcoming curves. No buzzer signaled his velocity/reaction-speed mismatch.

Sarah hit personalized scan on the radio and it stopped at an old Indigo Girls tune, with a “Go, go, go,” that had nothing to do with
driving, but seemed to suit the moment anyway.

             
As she came to the curve just before the wooden bridge, Sarah saw the car in front sliding. It was too late to stop it.  She hit her anti-lock brakes, pushed her car’s 911 button, and pulled onto a patch of muddy shoulder. The old car was on its side, falling into the pit, wheels up. How many times had she seen cars caught in this blackberry-shrouded creek bed during her childhood? But that wasn’t supposed to happen anymore. Why put GPS and driver warning devices in cars now, if not to prevent this? Why did people still insist on driving old, unsafe cars?

             

Sarah sloshed through mud and thorny vines toward the overturned car. The sound of rain falling down and rushing with the creek pounded in her ears. Mud sucked into her sneakers, and her feet were instantly cold.
I should be shocked. A normal person would be shocked right now.
Oh well, she’d wait and be shocked later.

The green car balanced upside down. It pressed into the blackberries showing the pit was much deeper than it seemed from above. The roof of the car had not collapsed, but the driver’s side door was crinkled like foil. Water was seeping in somewhere from the edge of the creek.

              There was only one person in the car. He hung from his seat belt, unconscious and upside down, his wrinkled skin sagging toward his forehead. The side window was shattered. Jagged marbles of safety glass glistened in his rusty gray curls. Sarah listened for breathing, reached in to feel for pulse. She never found his pulse but heard a rattling breath. Where there was breathing there must be a pulse. Blood seeped through his plaid shirt. You’d think a year in pre-med would give her a better idea what was wrong. But there was a reason Sarah had left pre-med, and it wasn’t that she was squeamish around blood. She imagined broken ribs, but couldn’t be certain. More blood leached out onto the old man’s clothes. No part of Sarah doubted what she should do or that she had to hurry.

BOOK: Out of Touch
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