The cat surpasses Ash in Instagram followers. She tells herself she doesn’t mind, but she does. Gone is that flighty ping of validation fluttering in her chest whenever her phone buzzes. Now, the likes, comments, and follows are almost never for her. Even the most recent post—just of the cat’s tail—is proving infuriatingly popular.
She sighs. Over on her personal account, there is an underwhelming response to her most recent upload. 38 likes. The cat could hock up that many for a photo of its furballs.
She types ‘Jenna’ into her search bar. As the profile loads, air jams in her chest. The same sight greets her: Blocked.
The cat enters the living groom. Ash reaches out a welcoming hand but its golden eyes narrow as it looks away. This is nothing new. The cat—unaware of its burgeoning celebrity status—has always had the ego and entitlement of a Kardashian. Then, the animal dumps its backside onto the ground, unfurls a leg like a pole dancer and, with a Barbie-pink tongue, begins licking its crotch.
Her phone buzzes with comments about the tail.
‘Swish swish bish.’
‘Feather boa fierceness.’
Ash scowls. She’s cultivated a charming online presence for the cat, but, like a stage-mother, lip curling as she clutches a vodka martini in the wings, she’s growing to resent her ungrateful offspring.
She bats one of the cat’s toys towards it. The animal watches as the ball travels towards, then beyond, its reach. It chirrups, twists onto its back and writhes shamelessly. Ash dutifully switches her phone’s camera on and starts snapping. She spends the next thirty minutes deciding which filter best accentuates the animal’s emerald-flecked eyes.
Then, something incredible happens. Dazed, she holds out her phone as if to show the cat her screen. She reads aloud what she can see.
‘Jenna has liked your image.’
It appears her ex has chosen to keep in contact with the cat.
Jenna likes five further pictures on the cat’s account over the next few days. Ash screen grabs everything and conducts hourly social media autopsies. She obsesses forensically over: the nature of the photos Jenna singles out; the times of day the interactions occur; the rate of liking. Ash’s uploads become more frequent. Captions more pointed. She plants objects in the background to send Jenna subliminal messages, reminders of happier, relationship-filled times. Posts such as: The cat in front of the television watching their favourite programme. The cat curled up on top of the jumper Jenna left behind. The cat snoozing in the sink, behind which Ash’s reflection, face fully made up, is clearly visible.
She posts a heartstring-plucking throwback to the day they brought the cat home, this wiry blip of a creature resting on Jenna’s lap. Her ex instantly adored the cat, cooing over its every paw stretch and nose twitch. Suddenly, Jenna—who considered being a ‘social media sceptic’ a core tenet of her personality—was now asking: ‘Can you hashtag Caturday if it’s not Saturday?’; ‘Which string chase video should I upload?’; ‘What’s a good caption for a cat wearing sunglasses?’.
Ash spends hours poring over pictures of the three of them that lay scattered in the depths of her account. Her finger hovers over, but cannot press down on, delete.
To distract herself, she tries to make plans with friends but every near-arrangement unravels. In a misguided attempt to remind people she exists, Ash uploads a photograph to her own account of her dinner and promptly loses 20 followers. Meanwhile, the cat receives an invitation to a ‘VIP pamper spa’ sponsored by a pet-food company. Faced with the horror of the cat’s social life eclipsing hers, she agrees to dinner with her mother.
It is there, three red wines deep, enduring lengthy updates about her father’s ear wax appointments, that her mother broaches her most pressing concern: namely, Ash’s abject loneliness and spiraling self-confidence.
‘You seem sad. What about meeting somebody at an evening class? Shiven met her husband on a spoon carving course.’
‘That’s not necessary, Mum.’ Ash pours herself a fourth wine.
‘What does that mean? Are you seeing someone?’
She feels her phone, sitting on her lap, glowing with secrets.
She takes a contemplative glug of wine. She knows her mother won’t understand the current situation and she’ll get stuck in another conversation about social media where she has to explain what a belfie is.
‘I don’t know… I guess, I think Jenna is… maybe… regretting how she handled things.’ She can’t quite tuck away the small smile forming.
‘She’s been in touch?’
‘No, not quite. Well… yes.’ To hide her gleaming eyes, Ash picks up her phone, flicks over to the cat’s account and auto-pilot types ‘Jenna.’
‘Be careful, my Asheni.’ Her mother’s lips purse in a fruitless effort to keep her opinions to herself, ‘That girl cut things off with you after all those years with no explanation or apology. Leaving you with that unsanitary, undisciplined animal to look after all on your own.’
She has never forgiven the cat for chewing through her best pair of sandals.
‘I’m just saying. Did Jenna offer to continue paying for vet bills?’
‘Or—’ She sticks her fork into her salad with as much micro-aggression as she can muster, ‘Pay for a new pair of shoes?’
Ash scrolls through her phone to discourage the brewing rant. Then, she sees something. Her eyes flick from screen to mother to screen again. Her smile tightens until her skin hurts. She excuses herself to the bathroom, sits down onto the toilet and stares, unblinking, at her phone.
She sees: Jenna, laughing in a bar, wearing her tight green halter top, her hair in messy waves. She’s not alone. There’s a woman next to her: a redhead whose eyes are confidently—no, confrontationally—fixed on the camera and whose smile is lopsided, satisfied, smug. Ash focuses on their hands, which rest casually side-by-side as Jenna’s index finger twists around the woman’s thumb. There’s no caption. No hashtag. Just a photo that, like that index finger, twists once, cleanly, into the wound.
Ash’s return interrupts the cat’s evening of solitude. She pours herself another drink then collapses onto the sofa, pulling the pet onto her lap.
‘Come here and need me.’
The animal relents to adoration as Ash refreshes her different accounts. Thoughts thump up against one another: the red-headed woman; cat photo after cat photo; liked, not liked; still blocked; the sight of their hands resting together with such ease. Her head feels heavier by the second, her strokes of the cat become robotic, like a conveyer belt of affection.
She scours Jenna’s online footprint: two new LinkedIn connections and she’s deleted her Iggy Azalea playlist on Spotify. But nothing indicates a change that would result in this. In the Jenna she knew twisting and morphing into this new Jenna. A Jenna capable of such a cold, clinical severing of two lives. Ash chews the side of her mouth and a tear, diluted with eyeliner, tracks down her face. She feels conned. The relationship Ash had been enjoying, Jenna had been enduring.
She wipes her face with her sleeve and downs the dregs of her drink. Flicking through pictures she took in the taxi home, she mistakes her glazed, drunken eyes for sultry and alluring. She toys with sharing an image on her account but doesn’t want to risk another depressive episode such as when a picture of the cat yawning got more likes than her birthday selfie.
Memories of Jenna fill up every space of her home. They linger, like phantoms, watching her cheerlessly, fascinated by her devotion to misery. Ash could have met a nice girl on that Tinder date she didn’t go on. Instead, she respected the relationship’s demise by wallowing. But not Jenna. She had the audacity to move on with her life.
Phone in hand, Ash now mistakes her indignity and anger for rationale and decisiveness. She uploads the pouting picture of herself to the cat’s account, captioning the photo: ‘Thinking about dying my hair red.’ Then, she sits smugly, her drunkenness soaking up any shame. Eventually, her phone vibrates.
‘You really need to grow up, Ash.’
Jenna’s message propels her upwards. She plants a hand on the cat, as if to steady its emotions, rather than her own.
‘Oops. Posted to the wrong account. How u?’ She types furiously, rushing into the kitchen to pour herself another drink, clamping the cat under her armpit. The icon flicks, showing that her message has been read. Three minutes pass. Her drink finished, she drills her fingers against the kitchen counter. She types again, ‘This is the cat asking btw lol.’
‘I don’t know what your message means, Jen. I’m just a bit drunk looool.’ A pause as she thinks, ‘Nice to hear from you though.’
Nothing. She fills her drink up again.
‘Wine emoji, smiley face emoji, hands in face emoji’
Nothing. She downs another. Catching her reflection in the curve of the kettle, she sees eye-makeup smeared across her entire face.
‘Only asking as a friend.’
Still silence. Ash fires off a series of messages without waiting for a response.
‘I don’t understand why you contact me and then don’t reply?’
‘So doooo you think I should dye my hair red?’
‘Are u out?’
‘I’m gonna do it!’
‘I’m running the shower, about to dye it unless you say no.’
‘Guess you must prefer me as a redhead then WONDER why.’
‘Always hard to tell if jokes come across on text.’
‘Do you think the red hair dye would work on cat hair haha?’
Her phone finally buzzes.
‘I can’t believe I’m actually having to message you this, but just in case you’re serious… don’t dye the cat.’
The last thing Ash remembers is dancing around the kitchen, holding tightly to her phone. The cat sitting on the counter, paws tucked under its body, watches her with golden eyes lasering judgement.
The next morning she lays, head pounding, in her bed as the cat purrs at her feet. She can’t stop rereading her exchange with Jenna.
‘Sorry, I’ve not been myself these last few days after some bad news,’ a message from Ash to Jenna at 11:58 P.M. reads.
‘The cat’s sick.’
She shakes her head but is half-impressed. She’s basically invented moggy Munchausen. Her drunken, desperate brain realised the key to keeping her ex’s attention: The cat was what Jenna missed the most.
‘Been to endless vet appointments—it’s the kidneys. They are doing everything they can. It’s been really tough. I hadn’t planned on saying anything, you seemed determined to cut communication… but you’ve caught me at an emotional moment. Sorry.’
‘Oh my god, Ash. I’m so sorry you’ve had to go through this. I love that little fur-goblin. Stay positive x’
Jenna’s ‘x’ provides a small reprieve from the toxic cocktail of anxiety, guilt and horror sludging through Ash’s hungover body. It makes her smile to imagine Jenna pressing down on that phone key, imbuing it with her compassion, support and love.
But, then, five days pass and no further communication is initiated. Ash feels the weight of her empty flat, lonely evenings and quiet phone all the more. Paranoid that Jenna has rumbled her lies, she stops letting the animal out unsupervised, beckons it away from sunbathing by the window and considers buying a cat-sized neck cone. Anything to keep up the ruse.
Things get worse when she hunts for information about Jenna’s mystery red-headed woman. She discovers: her name is Imogen; she’s a lacrosse player with infuriatingly nice thighs; a brands manager; an aunty; a dog owner. Imogen has a worrying amount of Jenna content on her profiles, though the captions and hashtags never explicitly clarify their relationship. This frustrates Ash, who is so willing to fully unravel, if only the world would give a full-strength tug. Then, she finds a post revealing Imogen is currently attending a birthday party in a pub twenty minutes away. Surely, Jenna must be there with her.
Before Ash knows it, she’s walking down the street, unable to explain what is propelling her forward, other than a desire to be hurt, to be wronged, to replace the emptiness with something tangible—if that has to be pain and worthlessness, then so be it.
At the pub, she sees her—Imogen, not Jenna—outside in the garden with friends. Her whole body braces. She stands there, petrified, listening to snatches of their conversation. They laugh about nights out, work mix-ups, things they’ve seen on telly. For a moment Ash forgets about Jenna. Instead, she imagines sliding through the gaps in their bodies and letting the easiness of their conversation, their togetherness, fill her up until she floats.
‘Excuse me, do you have a light?’
Ash snaps to attention to find the woman next to Imogen is looking at her. She fumbles around in her jacket for a long time—too long—before remembering she doesn’t smoke.
‘Uh, sorry… no.’
For a second she catches Imogen’s face: bemused, sceptical, assured. Somebody laughs and Ash flushes pink, trying to blink away the guilt carved into her face. She turns away, walks back out into the street.
By the time she gets to the end of the road, she is already checking her phone. ‘Jenna was last online two hours ago.’ She looks at her Instagram account—down three followers today. The cat has twenty-seven new followers. Plus, countless likes and comments. She rereads her messages to Jenna. ‘The cat is sick.’ Thinking about the possibility of Imogen recognising her makes her chest screw unbearably tight. She thinks about how those women looked at her as she stood there, alone and uncertain. She starts typing Jenna a message then stops herself and tries to be calm and still. Breathe deeply. Before she knows it, she’s flicking through potential cat photos to post.
Slumping down onto a ledge, she smacks the palms of her hands against her temple. If she is capable of stalking, of lying, of obsessing, then, perhaps, she needs to use those skills to help herself for once. She sits in silence for a long time, looking out into the dark, empty night. The buzz of voices from the pub grows more distant, as if she’s quashing and sealing them away.
She makes her decision. She taps away at her keys then presses upload.
The post shows: A close-up picture of her cat, its yellow eyes quizzical, its black fur framing its face like a lion’s mane. Underneath, Ash’s words: ‘RIP to my furry love. 2016 – 2020.’
Ash pulls the skin on her face downwards into a sombre, serious expression. She slaps her cheeks as if to relax them but is unhappy with the result in the mirror’s reflection. She still looks more guilty than grief stricken.
She tried to stop this from happening but Jenna has been insistent. ‘I want to be there for the burial.’ The burial of a cat that, a few hours ago, was deposited—very much alive—at Ash’s dismayed mother’s house.
Her phone has not stopped vibrating with grief since she posted the message. While navigating the constant waves of shame, Ash spends most of her time reading heartfelt tributes from strangers to the cat. Her own friends just sent banal condolences. One of them offered to sell Ash their guinea pig.
Her buzzer goes. Before letting Jenna in, she walks gravely to the hallway cupboard, tips her hoover upside down and empties the vacuum dust into an old shoebox. She sighs. It’s a sorry end, not for the cat, but for the last speck of dignity Ash had left.
She waits in the hallway, holding the box rigidly. When Jenna walks through the open door, there is a long silence. Ash notices the half-filled cat food bowl is still out and nudges it casually out of sight with her foot. Jenna walks past her, into the living room filled with vast arrays of flowers sent by various online pet companies. Jenna sinks into an armchair, hugging her knees with a distant, tortured look in her eyes. Ash hovers by the door, too nauseous to appreciate the sight of Jenna back in their home. She waits for her ex to speak.
‘The place seems… different.’
‘You’ve not done something?’
‘It seems more… airy and light.’
‘That painting’s new?’
‘Oh. Yeah, that’s new.’
‘Feels weird without…’
Jenna’s eyes fill with water so Ash tries to change the topic.
‘What’s your new place like?’
‘I don’t think we should talk about things like that.’
They endure further silence.
‘What do you want to—’
An explosion of noise bursts out of Jenna, making Ash—and her box of vacuum dust—jump. She continues to weep, loudly, so Ash sits down and reaches out to pat her ex’s back. It feels uncomfortable, as if her muscles are moving in a way they don’t know how to. There, they sit, Jenna letting out undignified honks of sadness as Ash self-consciously comforts her with one hand, the other keeping the box steady on her lap.
‘I didn’t want—I didn’t know—I feel so…’ Jenna gulps down air in between words. Then, suddenly, the tears stop, and Ash’s hand feels even more cumbersome resting on her back. Jenna places her own hand on top of the makeshift casket.
‘Thank you for loving her until the end.’ Her eyes bulge with sincerity as she takes Ash’s hand, which stiffens further at her touch, ‘Let’s go say goodbye.’
Ash just about twitches back a smile as they walk, hand in sweaty hand, out into the garden.
There they solemnly dig a hole in the ground with the only vaguely appropriate tools Ash can find: a spatula and a pizza cutter. Jenna talks about memories of the cat, but every time Ash is touched or amused by a story, she remembers the outraged look on the pet’s face as she stuffed it into its loathed travel carrier earlier. Catching glimpses of Jenna’s face, contorted with pain, makes the knot in her stomach tighten. If only Jenna had been this distressed when mourning the end of their relationship. She feels distanced not only from Jenna’s grief but also from Jenna herself and her own obsessive, compulsive desire for them to reconnect.
Jenna tells a story about how Ash once locked herself and the cat out of the house whilst in the back garden.
‘I came home to see two noses pressed against the glass,’ she smiles, ‘Of course, even though you were starving and shivering, I was instructed to take a picture before letting you back in. Every moment had to be captured for social media on pain of death, of course.’
Ash scrunches up her nose but she stays quiet. She’s pretty sure she remembers Jenna instructing Ash and the animal to move so she could compose the ‘perfect’ shot. And she’s certain it was Jenna who immediately posted the image, not her.
‘I wasted hours of my life retaking photographs because a whisker was out of a place or a bit of litter was stuck to that furry arse,’ Jenna continues with a roll of her eyes.
Ash remembers how Jenna would make fun of her in public for following the Hadids on Instagram but failed to mention she spent her evenings watching them on Real Housewives.
‘Why are you so sad, then?’ She cuts Jenna off mid-sentence and shrugs, ‘It’s just a box of dust. You left. It wasn’t your cat anymore. And… well… the cat is dead. It doesn’t care what you say about it now. It’s too late.’
Jenna’s mouth hangs open as Ash kneels down, putting the box into the hole they created. She starts to heap dirt on top of it.
‘We had some wonderful times, Ash. But I…’ Jenna speaks nervously and with care, ‘I felt I didn’t exist anymore. I felt I was just for you and that my edges… they weren’t sharp anymore, you know? I didn’t know where I stopped and you began. I didn’t think I could be me again if even a part of you was left hanging around. Do you understand, even a little, of what I’m trying to say?’
Ash nods, crouched in front of the fake cat grave.
‘Although, that’s something I always admired about you,’ Jenna continues, ‘You’re independent. You’ve always been your own person, you don’t care what other people think.’
Ash drops her head to suppress an exhalation of disbelief.
‘I feel…’ Jenna swallows as her voice starts to waver, ‘I feel like I did this. In wishing for my own life, I felt I couldn’t have any ties to you anymore, I couldn’t have the cat… and… now the thing I loved in this world as much as you. It’s gone.’
As Jenna starts to cry again, Ash runs her hands across her own face. She feels her forehead sweat mix with dirt from the ground and the vacuum dust stuck to her fingertips. She pushes her face deeper into her palms as a small bubble of laughter starts to rise up her body. It is not just the faux-funeral that is ridiculous. Everything is ridiculous. She is ridiculous. Jenna is ridiculous. And her cat, with its acid-trip wide eyes and penchant for sleeping on top of door frames, is especially ridiculous.
Jenna, seeing Ash’s shoulders going up and down, assumes she is crying. She gently rests her hands on them. They stay this way for some time until Ash, composing herself, stands up and looks her ex in the eye. She considers telling her the truth, which makes her face soften. Jenna smiles.
‘So… are you seeing anybody?’ Jenna asks. This time Ash’s laugh is open and sharp. She looks up at the sky. Jenna gives her a nudge. ‘I’m trying to do the whole being friends thing. Don’t you want to know if I’m seeing somebody?’
Ash shakes her head, not at the question, but at where she has wound up. If only she could post about this. Although, she’s sure Jenna would have something snooty to say about livestreaming a fake cat funeral.
So, instead, Ash does the only thing she can think of. She clamps her hands together and the Lord’s Prayer tumbles out her mouth. Jenna’s eyes widen in surprise. But Ash continues to power on, so, finally, Jenna joins suit, echoing her words. Together they stand, two atheists, heads bowed, saying a prayer for the soul of a cat who is half-way across town, shedding cat hairs on her mother’s best cashmere jumper.
‘Wait,’ Jenna starts fiddling with her ear lobes. She holds out two long, dangling silver earrings, an expensive graduation gift from her parents, ‘remember how often these would get batted by fluffy paws? They were more fun than any cat toy.’ She drops them into the grave before Ash can’t think of a way to stop her.
‘Amen,’ Ash says flatly.
‘Amen,’ Jenna repeats.
When Ash picks the cat up later that evening, she burrows her face into its soft black fur. She wonders if the cat will miss its high-profile status in the cut-throat, fast-paced world of Petstagram. She feels guilty about not crying at its fake funeral but knows eventually, one day, the cat will really die and she will grieve, spectacularly, for the animal on her own, no Jenna and no world to mourn alongside her. The cat gently headbutts her forehead as its soft purr motors on. It reaches a paw out and bats at one of the long silver earrings dangling from her ears.
Emma Grace is a journalist turned teacher from Glasgow, Scotland. She currently lives in London with, yes, a black cat. She recently graduated with a Masters in Creative Writing and Education from Goldsmiths. Her work can be found in places such as XRAY Literary Magazine, Maudlin House, Drunk Monkeys and more. You can find her on Twitter by contacting @emmanya