All things lost are taken. Lost people are taken from our lives, lost places taken from our memories, lost time taken for granted. My neighbor Mattie, was what people liked to refer to as a lost cause.
I remember the first time I saw her, with thick long strands of curly gray frizz flying wildly in the gusts of a summer breeze. She was standing barefoot in the courtyard between our two houses, wearing an emerald hued nightgown, and staring up at a Picasso-esque statue of the Virgin Mary. It dangled from the rooftop, swaddled in wire that was originally intended for a television antenna that never got set up.
She was mumbling “green air… green hair…”
Her cat Sammy. She loved that green cat. If you asked her if she’d dyed him, she’d tell you that the “green air at Mitchell Park was responsible for the color change.” But everybody knew she had an extensive set of art supplies. And nobody knew what green air was.
She had a million different supposed careers. She’d once been a great fashion designer at fashion week, a fantastic muralist, a Broadway star, a principal ballet dancer—
someone even told me she was elected president of a political party in a foreign country.
But I guess political dominance doesn’t matter much when you’ve become the town lunatic.
It all began last November. Or perhaps I should say, that’s when it all ended.
In November, she started having dreams. Dreams where the sky turned red and completely split open, dreams where the polar icecaps melted into the sea. Dreams about the end of the world. At first people were tired of hearing about the dreams, but they eventually just got tired of her. And though the world as we know it kept on turning, Mattie Harman’s world was stuck in the past.
She stood like a statue in her courtyard. The wind blew her gown in all directions. When she noticed me staring at her, she waved for me to come over. I cautiously approached.
“Have you seen Sammy?” she asked with a wild-eyed gaze.
“Sammy the cat?” I asked, while taking a quick glance at the house.
I’d never been that close to it before. I knew it had an interesting color scheme, since she’d painted it herself. From up close I could really get accustomed to the artwork.
The wall was covered in detailed depictions of human bodies and faces, clothed in a variety of wardrobe styles; women in scarlet and jasmine colored dresses, what appeared to be the face of a gray haired bearded man, a few children – one running, one sitting in the grass. Many of the people depicted were still in draft form. Faces weren’t completely finished; arms were only partially sketched.
It was clear she had a lot of talent. I was starting to think maybe she actually had been a muralist.
“Yes, Sammy the cat. Poor thing’s been lost all morning.”
“Well I sometimes see him sleeping outside… Down at—you know Mitchell Park?”
“Oh yes, yes, the green air,” she said.
I offered a polite smile.
When she didn’t say anything else for a while, I decided it might be best if I head on my way. She seemed to notice my desire to escape the conversation.
“Wait.” She said plainly.
Her eyes wandered off as if she were considering something of significant importance. Her mouth stretched out, forming a wide childlike smile.
“Have you ever sat a cat?”
I felt my eyebrows furrow. “Have I ever… cat sat?”
“Yes” she laughed. She had a full hearty laugh. “Can you watch my Sammy at the park?”
“I don’t think I’d be—"
“I can pay you generously. All you’d need to do is watch him, and you said he sleeps, anyway right?”
It’s true, that’s really all he did. After a moment of consideration, I decided to take her up on the offer. After all, I was always at Mitchell Park and at the time I didn’t have a job.
Watching Sammy became a ritual of sorts. Every Saturday morning I’d head over to the front steps of Mattie Harman’s house and get the green ball of fur handed off to me in a small pet kennel. I’d take him to Mitchell Park and let him loose for a few hours.
The first time I watched him, he sprinted out of the kennel unexpectedly, scampering off into the distance. I thought he’d gotten lost. In a panic, I wandered around the park for hours.
By the end of the afternoon I found him napping under a large willow tree. I soon realized he had a tendency to sleep underneath the same willow tree every Saturday. Since he had a good sense of direction, I figured I wouldn’t have to worry about him getting lost again.
Before I knew it, five Saturdays of cat sitting had passed. Sometimes, while waiting for Sammy to return from his weekly excursion, I would play this game I made up. It was akin to traditional people watching, but instead of making up stories about what I think the random park peoples’ lives might be like, I imagine their lives don’t match anything about the way they look.
The little girl with the balloons in her hand could be a serial murderer, a woman in a wheelchair might be a track star, maybe the peppy golden retriever has a dental practice.
I can really crack myself up. I sometimes even catch myself laughing at the random people at the park, and then they start giving me weird looks. Like the kind of looks people always give Mattie Harman when she goes to the supermarket to buy beet juice. And it makes me think me and Harman aren’t actually that different. She’s probably no crazier than the rest of us, just doesn’t pretend to be sane.
At about 3:30 on my fifth Saturday of cat sitting, I noticed Sammy had not returned. At first it was hard to consider he might actually be lost; he had a habit of scampering off. But after thirty minutes evolved into five hours, I felt a sinking panic form in my chest. I went to the willow tree he usually napped under, but he wasn’t there.
The evening sky had turned dark. This darkness left me enveloped with anxiety—sealing itself off like a letter I didn’t want to read.
Mattie Harman didn’t have a phone number, so I didn’t know how to get in contact with her. Normally, I’d just return Sammy to Harman’s house and he’d go back in through the cat door.
This time, I knew I would have to go back and let her know what happened.
“He’s gone?” She spoke with a kind of soberness that I didn’t know she was capable of. Her eyes seemed darker somehow, her voice sounded flat and expressionless.
We stood outside of her house. Shrouded in shadows, the Virgin Mary statue hovered over the street like an ominous being.
That was all Mattie Harman said.
At 3:30 the next morning, I learned that Mattie Harman was admitted into St. Johnson’s hospital for cardiac arrest. Over the phone, a nurse told me I’d been listed as an emergency contact. Apparently, she’d been experiencing “abnormally high levels of stress.”
I went to visit her at the hospital, even brought a bouquet of yellow roses. In a moment, I became one of those people from my “least likely to” people watching game. I looked like an ordinary teenage girl, but realized somberly, that I might soon be the cause of something horrible. The thought was too intense to fully process.
Every Saturday, I started visiting Harman at the hospital. She would lie in bed with eyes like static. Other times she slept. The nurses told me that over the period of three weeks since she’d been hospitalized, she’d been refusing solid food. I tried asking her questions about anything I thought would stir up a conversation, but it seemed nothing was getting through to her.
One day, quite abruptly, she said she wanted to tell me about Sammy. The real Sammy. She told me that Sammy the cat was a boy, but at one point there was another Sammy, a girl. Her sister Samantha had a lung condition that forced their family to move out of the city and into the mountains. They were very close. As little girls, they affectionately referred to the mountain air as “green air” because of the elm trees and also because it had magical powers that could heal lungs and turn people green.
“We had so much green paint in the shared bedroom.” She stated. “We’d spread it on our faces and eyebrows.” She recalled the memory with fondness, but her laugh seemed laced with spite.
When Sammy and Mattie grew up, they got into a huge fight. Sammy swore she’d never speak to Mattie. And she didn’t. Sammy the cat was almost Sammy the sister, but not quite.
There’s a saying: Often we don’t really lose anything. We just notice things that were never there to begin with.
Mattie Harman’s health declined. The doctors said she could go any day. It was impossible not to feel responsible for what was happening. So, when I was not at the hospital, I continued searching for Sammy the cat. I put up signs and loitered around the willow tree at Mitchell Park. Sammy never came back.
One afternoon, while sitting on the guest bench outside of Harman’s hospital room, and staring at the pink flowers on the ugly hospital wallpaper, I hear what sounds like a muffled gasp. I stand up to peer inside the hospital room window.
There’s a figure looming over the bed. A woman. She’s wearing a gray pantsuit. Her hair is just as curly and gray as Mattie Harman’s, though less wind-blown, and clipped away with a butterfly clip. From the window, I can see the two stare at each other. The woman says something, but I can’t quite hear it through the door. There’s silence, then laughter. They have the same hearty laugh.
Ashley Whitley is an emerging writer from Georgia. She earned her B.A in English Literature from Cornell University. She is an assistant editor for the Lovepost, and runs a blog called The Satya Archives.