War Rooms

In 21 minutes, a young couple from New Jersey would officially own the house that our mother had lived in for almost 50 years, and we could not find the cats.

The U-Hauls were packed, the house was spotless, and the couple waited patiently in their Subaru for their new life to begin. Our mother’s decision to move into a senior living facility was abrupt. She sold her house with little warning, leaving us only one week to sort through all the years of her life, which she did not want to be present for. She decided instead, to coach us over the phone, as we sorted through boxes of letters and photos, shelves full of crystals, and printed out news articles- meticulously highlighted, outlined, and lined along the walls as if they were stuck in traffic.

Our mother is a psychic, and a writer, and over the years her house became one giant war room dedicated to conspiracy theories. Although when this thought was presented to her she scoffed at it. “I am not a paranoid schizophrenic,” she would tell us. “There’s a difference.”

But my sister, Hazel, believed that she was. She believed it because if our mother had a real condition, it would all make sense. The peculiarities, and the sporadic blowups.

Hazel moved away at an early age. She met Lawrence when she was 17 and looking for an escape from our aggressively imaginative mother. They moved to Maine and started a lawn care business and never looked back. I only live down the block, but I rarely leave my home. Our mother gave up on me years ago, but she never gave up on Hazel.

Two days after we started the monumental sorting process, our mother reminded us to feed the cats.

“Cats? What cats?” I let Hazel howl into the phone, while I sifted through a box of papers about a French assassin from the 1970s, trying to decide if it was a real person, or the beginnings of another unfinished novel our mother had tried to write.

I did recall my mother mentioning cats here and there throughout the years. But they must have been woven so seamlessly into her stories about presidents and movie stars, that I couldn’t keep it all straight. If she had really cared about her cats, wouldn’t we have heard more about them?

Or maybe a better question is, if we had really cared more about her, wouldn’t we have bothered to come see them?

Our mother begged Hazel to remember the cats, so she agreed.

Sure enough, there were two empty porcelain dishes in the mudroom, and a bag of generic cat food in a hall closet, so we fed them, but the dishes remained full.

“They’re stressed out.” Hazel decided. And we put them to the back of our mind, assuming that they would appear sooner or later. But they never did.

The walk through of our mother’s empty house was to begin at 9:30am, so we split up. Hazel started in the basement, and I went up to the top floor. Hopefully by the time we met in the middle we would have each produced a cat.

“Don’t forget to check the walls,” she instructed. “They’re probably scared.”

The house had always been bright and dusty, but without any ancient piles of junk to block the windows, the morning light was nearly angelic. If I were a cat, I would surely want to bathe in it.

It was now 9:17. I tapped my feet on the wooden floors, and made kissing noises and shook a bag of treats, but nothing seemed to work. A car door slammed. Out the window I could see the woman, leaning against the door of the Subaru, casually snapping photos. The man was talking to the inspector.

So I banged on the walls. At first I slapped them with the palm of my hand. And then I turned my hands into fists, and I pounded a bit harder. Eventually I put my feet into it, and I kicked the walls as well. It felt good. So I slammed around even harder. I began to stomp. I stomped and I kicked and I banged.

Eventually I stopped to catch my breath. And then I heard downstairs, ever so slightly, Hazel was banging too. I listened to Hazel stomp and bang and kick from room to room. She was getting louder and louder, so I started to rattle floors again, so she could hear that I was stomping too.

At 9:27 my sister started to yell. She was banging and yelping and kicking and howling. So I yelled too. I stomped in and out of rooms, and wailed down the hallway, and roared down the stairs to meet Hazel and to see if she had found the cats.

But Hazel did not have any cats. She had a hammer. The walls were full of holes. The floor was covered in plaster.

I had to ask her, for our mother:

“Did you find the cats?”

“There are no cats.”

The door opened and the couple entered. They didn’t have to knock. It was their home now.

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