Erin rolls her cat, tucked inside his stroller, onto the back patio. They sit together in the shade while she reads a book about how to conquer fear of flying. She has two weeks to overcome a lifelong flying phobia ahead of a trip. Erin reads that she should focus on an image, a real image and not the filmstrip in her head which has played at a low hum since childhood, to remain present while on the flight. She’s not to imagine disaster as she often does.

She realizes for the first time that she has always done this, not just on flights but in the everyday, aware on the bus to work that a bomb could go off under a seat with her thoughts already halfway through the imagined aftermath, or picturing her fall from an escalator before she can trip. Detailed, gruesome fates, all imagined. As if she can think her way in front of the disaster. The book suggests she use a physical photograph, a grounding object. She chooses a photograph of the cat, the image a few years old, when he was more solid and his eyes were clearer.

His eyes are a startling blue that stops pizza delivery people in their tracks to issue praises. What a gorgeous cat! Erin stopped going to church when she was sixteen, but she and her sister used to pray for rain and snow in the desert, a kind of faith and hope, a desire to see things that aren’t there. He sleeps against the backs of her knees at night and she can feel his irregular heartbeat through her skin, a message she can’t hear or read, only feel.



Her cat is sixteen and has both lymphoma and heart disease. When the vet told Erin over the phone that the cat has heart disease in addition to the ongoing lymphoma, Erin had sobbed, “how did this happen?” A ridiculous question.

“Some cats have a genetic predisposition for it,” the vet had said.

The chemo pills, kept in the refrigerator, have a label warning that they can be hazardous if touched. Erin plays a game of wills with the cat each day, convincing the cat to eat his pills, one of which is bitter. He spits out every other dose even when the pill is tucked into a square of cheese. She begins to find pills tucked under the lip of his food bowl or in the middle of the living room floor amassing dust.

Erin wasn’t always afraid of flying. When she was young, she thought of flying as adventurous instead of death-defying. She had pasted unused barf baggies into her scrapbook, saved every baggage claim stub. But her anxiety spread into other areas of life, bloomed from social anxiety to fear of flying and of driving. She ingests drugs pre-flight, but her anticipatory anxiety is almost worse than the actual event, so that she is sick for the weeks leading up to the flight. She doesn’t fly often but needs to board a plane to see her family in Colorado if she wishes to see them at all.

Her access to pre-flight anti-anxiety meds is inconsistent and she recalls the nurse’s warnings at her last visit, that they suggested finding other methods for managing anxiety, so she reads to try to think her way out of this. She’s never been able to read away her fears but she’s desperate, her armpits and the soles of her feet sweaty weeks out from her scheduled flight. She reads an online forum where people with fear of flying post their flight number as they board so that anyone reading the forum can track their flight status, a reassurance, a false-ringing acknowledgement that if someone is watching then you are safe.

Having an audience is an element of her anxiety. On prior flights, she had stared at the industrial carpet of the footwell, unable to meet anyone’s eyes yet wondering if anyone noticed she passed most of the flight in the brace position. She can never sit fully erect in the seat, as if accepting that she is a body on a flight is too bold a move, flaunting her bodily existence in the face of whatever forces might govern air travel safety.

She slips three printed photos of her cat into her carry-on along with her usual flying-support items: noise-cancelling headphones, a notebook she’ll never use on the trip, a book she won’t crack. Items packed while imagining how they’d look to the FAA investigators combing through the imagined wreckage of her plane. She remembers her second grade teacher telling the class after the Challenger shuttle exploded on the cart-strapped television that one of the astronauts had been a teacher, and that she had children. Erin’s teacher told a story that the astronaut’s child had given the mother a stuffed frog doll to carry onto the shuttle. The school kids were instructed to draw with crayons their own depiction or reflection of the event, anything they wished. Erin remembers drawing a green frog toy sucked into the floating wreckage.

Erin holds one of the photos, the one where the cat is looking up from his perch on the couch with bright eyes, in her clammy hand just inches from her face as the plane rumbles through the air. Erin asks her boyfriend, “Did you hear that sound? Was that considered severe turbulence?” She whips her head around, making herself dizzy as the plane banks.

Her boyfriend works for an airplane manufacturer. Models of 787s and 747s descend from the ceiling above his desk in their home. He always says, “No,” he didn’t feel that, or hear that, and no, it was “mild at best.”

Still, she stares at her cat’s image in the photo, asking him to not let her die today. She stares into the photographed version of his eyes, the intensity still present even after being captured and translated to paper. She stares into the possibility of them, of him, and she’s still terrified, her heart still races and her palms drip to the point of leaving dark pools on her pants, but he’s guiding her and keeping her present. Keeping her alive. She feels that she’s still alive, still there on that tube, holding that photo. If they can both stick around, everything will be fine. She must survive these flights because he needs her. She has a reason to live.


The cat was born on October fifteenth per the shelter adoption papers she’s kept since absorbing him from a former roommate. He dies at 10:15 in the morning one day that autumn. She reads somewhere that the most common time for people to die is around eleven in the morning, and this makes sense to her, that creatures might give up before noon, that they may decide to not rise after all, before the hint of afternoon can shine through the windows with its yellow-orange light, oppressive in its certainty. She’s there to watch his last breath, which is not a gasp but a huff, a heavy surrender. The numbers mean something to her, ten and fifteen, their repetition, and she looks for these numbers but they don’t reappear in the days following his passing.

A pineapple-shaped light on the back patio winks at her in the blue-black twilight. The pineapple is solar-powered, and doesn’t receive the light it needs to stay bright in fall and winter. It takes her a moment to decide where the irregularly blinking light is located. Is it inside the kitchen with her and its reflection is what she sees in the window, or is it located outside in the darkness?

It is outside. Its pattern of flashes is like a code, maybe morse code. She counts: seven blinks, then one. She pictures herself searching morse code online later. The flashes are a message for which she doesn’t have a decoder. She stares out the window and accepts that she might not be ready for the message but feels comforted by its existence, the flash of yellow light in the dark. If the message exists, there’s someone on the other end to send it. Someone is at the controls.

She looks for messages or signs or evidence that the cat remains part of the universe in a different form. Nothing overt, like the cat’s spirit has arranged sticks in the backyard to spell out hello or a doppelganger cat appears at the back door with eyes less blue than his, but she reads the landscape for evidence of him. She looks too long at shadows in case he’s there at the edges.

Snow blankets his backyard grave and she looks for him on the sugared surface. He’s covered, but she can see the tips of the pebbles they gathered for his headstone pressing through the surface. There are no prints in the snow but she looks at his photo every night before bed in case he’s trying to tell her something with his eyes.

She finds a well-preserved Japanese maple leaf in the dirt of his backyard grave. This becomes a gift from him. “He gave this to me,” she says to her boyfriend, his eyes in response a mixture of sadness and maybe pity. She presses the leaf in a notebook and can’t bear to check that it hasn’t crumbled to brittle pieces, reduced from its original form so that she can no longer hold it.

While sitting at her desk, a stuffed musical star she had as a baby plays “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” from a high shelf, unprompted. She leaps from her chair and yells for her boyfriend. At least ten notes play, slowly, each punctuating the air, the gear mechanism spinning itself. She says thank you aloud in case the cat can hear. She feels him in that moment. She’s not sure. She wants to. She looks up information about music boxes playing out of nowhere, hoping to find ghost stories, but instead learns their gears are worn after years of disuse and can release energy. The star is forty-one years old. She’s compelled to ruin the experience for herself, a rollercoaster of belief and disbelief. She keeps the star on the bed in case it speaks again.

She has two dreams after he dies that feature orange light. One is not even a dream but a burst of color. The light is orange, like the best stripe in sherbet or a desert sunset. She looks this up, hoping to find that orange light symbolizes something akin to your cat is still here, you just can’t see him, or you’ll be together again someday. She’s disappointed to discover it signifies creativity or passion or success.

She gives up looking for the numbers and for synchronicities. She tries half-heartedly to play a game with herself, like seeing a word seen earlier in the day repeated as the name on a baseball jersey and knowing that player will hit the only run and win the televised game, but then he doesn’t, and she feels like a fool for hoping. Grass and moss poke up through the dirt of his backyard grave. Sometimes she remembers to pause and stare at it, the temporary pile of rocks collected from the yard and left as a marker which became permanent.

She frames and hangs his pictures in almost every room of the house – he is art. In the bedroom, his framed photograph looks down from a position high on the wall, so that she must look up to meet his eyes. Out of habit, she pauses and looks up, and he is like the framed blue-eyed Jesus from her neighbor’s house in childhood, the one that scared her. The neighbor, who was younger than she was, once tucked a tiny plastic doll into a doll-sized baby stroller with care, and whispered, “That’s the Baby Jesus.” Erin had been terrified that this character had infiltrated their play. Why was this man looking down on her as she played with her dolls? She didn’t like this element of being watched. But the cat is like a god to her now, looking down over all she does in benevolence. She meets his eyes and thinks, please bless and keep me, forever and ever amen, though normally she only prays while in flight or when otherwise terrified, while in between, a holdover from youth. She carries around these lines as she does lines of the Lord’s Prayer which still come to her at random, just as etchings will remain on a second page of paper in a notebook after writing a note in pen with too much force.

Soon, she must fly again, this time for work, without her cat as an anchor. She’s briefly untethered to the earth without his presence in every room of the house, his greeting upon returning from elsewhere, his cries. She watches videos of him, though these have a creepy reanimated quality, like she shouldn’t be able to see him walking around only in pixels. Upon hearing the cries, her throat aches. Her boyfriend gives her a silver locket decorated with a cat curled in sleep. She pastes two images cut into small circles inside and wears it to the airport.

“I don’t know if it’ll still work the same way,” Erin says to her boyfriend, “using his picture to focus on if he’s not here anymore.”

On the plane, Erin grips the same photo or tugs on the locket, her eyes closed, praying to the cat for time to pass. While hunched into the fetal position, a shredded napkin disintegrating in her palm, she looks across the aisle to the feet and bags littering the underneath of the seats. She realizes there’s a soft-sided pet duffle bag filling one of the footwells. She forces herself to keep from retreating into her eyes-shut world so she can stare and determine if it’s a cat or dog.

Erin manages to twist enough to have a view of the carrier’s mesh windows. She searches for the shine of a wet eye or bright teeth, a tuft of fur against the black material of the carrier. She hopes for a connection in those eyes, to find someone looking back at her, but no matter how she contorts, she can’t see anything moving in there.

On the return flight, a TSA agent in Omaha gestures for Erin to step out of line for a pat-down. “Are you experiencing pain?” the agent asks.

Erin is confused. “You mean, in general? Like as a state?”

The woman disregards her confusion. “I’m going to pat you down, then,” she says. She pauses a hand near Erin’s neck. “What’s this?”

“A…locket?” What could she have in a locket, a tiny bomb? “It’s my dead cat.”

“Open it for me.”

Erin unclasps the locket with some difficulty to reveal the two little circles, her fingers slipping on the locket’s clasp three times before she can get a strong enough grip to click it open. She holds the opened piece up closer to the agent’s face. The agent shakes her head, and Erin is free to go home. She returns the locket to its closed shape. Whole again.

She finds that memories of him are pushed out by images from his final day. The sigh, the tongue. But her body still recalls the weight of his. She hangs the wind-up musical star above her side of the bed. The gear on the back causes it to sit away from the wall as it dangles, heavy at the end of a faded yellow ribbon. When she turns the crank to play the music, always at bedtime, the star dances and waves as the metal key pushes against the wall. She understands it’s not him waving but she hopes he can hear the music.