stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance
The pitter-patter woke Sheila the first night. A rush of footsteps tumbled through her apartment, back-and-forth past her bedroom door – a staccato like fat drops of rain hitting a tin roof. She sat up and pulled the sheets over her knees, up to her chest. She tucked her ratty t-shirt tight to her body, hugging herself. The alarm clock on her bedside table placed the time at just past three in the morning. She looked at the ceiling; maybe the tenants above her were awake? What the hell were they doing up so late on a Sunday, (or so early on a Monday?) But, it didn’t sound like the stomps of someone stumbling home drunk after the bars closed. The sound didn’t shake down from the ceiling, but arched up and down the hallway in sonic cycles. Loud, then quiet. Closer, then farther away. Sheila swung her legs out of bed and sat on the edge of the mattress.
What if someone had broken into the apartment? Living alone, enjoying her own space had seemed liked a luxury, but in the moment she felt foolish and vulnerable. She gripped the edge of the mattress. She knuckled up the nerve to investigate. Her bare feet slapped the floor.
The noise stopped. She opened the bedroom door and peeked into the hall. It gaped empty and quiet.
She hadn’t been there at the end. She booked a week off work when her mother called and said her grandmother suffered another stroke. Grandma moved from the hospital to the hospice house for her final days. Sheila bussed down on the Grayhound, spending the nine hours from Vancouver to Oyama fading in and out of consciousness. Coniferous trees and blue mountain peaks flashed past the window. The bus glided along the highway. Sheila wondered if she would get home in time.
In Hope, her heart seized. The bus parked at a PetroCan for a half hour rest break. She foxed out a liquor store. Back at the gas station, she ducked into the bathroom – cracked and chugged a tall can of lager. Calmer, she crushed the can and crammed it in the garbage. The rest of the trip buzzed by. Her mother picked her up from the depot.
That night, in her old bed, she clutched her musty childhood sheets and stared at the ceiling. She pictured her grandmother prone on her back, arms slack at her sides, the flesh drooping away from the bone. In her mind, her grandmother watched the empty doorway of her room in the hospice house: when are they coming? when are they coming? when are they coming?
Sheila got out of bed and prepped for the day. Anticipating the chaos of moving, she took a few days off work. She admired her new apartment: hardwood floors, big bright windows, ceiling tiles printed with fancy moldings, a bedroom and a living room with attached kitchenette. A dream suite,. A steal.
The morning brightened into afternoon. Every window in the apartment hung open. The building lacked air conditioning and the muggy coastal air embraced her body and stifled her lungs. Her shirt stuck to the small of her back. The crevice between her breasts slicked with sweat. Cooler air, tinged with a light reek of garbage, drifted in from the shaded alleyway – a two-faced refreshment. Even with the circulation of apartment heat and alley breezes, inhalation brought the faint sting of chemicals. It was like someone had coated the walls of her apartment in bleach or ammonia to strip off every scent from the last tenant.
She pushed furniture around and sifted through boxes. So preoccupied with unpacking, she forgot to eat. Afternoon lengthened into evening, her muscles weakened, and she felt faint. She slipped out to pick up dinner. A green awning hung over Jade Dynasty, one of the several Chinese restaurants tucked onto each block in the downtown eastside. Whole roast ducks pierced by skewers shone red-gold in the window. On the takeout menu, the names of dishes were printed in Mandarin, then English. She ordered mushroom chow mein and steamed gai lan with almonds. Behind her, patrons hunched over cream-and-red ceramic bowls of noodles, skewering narrow green vegetables with plastic chopsticks.
Outside, takeout in tow, the sun eased below the line of skyscrapers. She picked up a six-pack of beer. A pack of urban raccoons hunched on the sidewalk, between her and the front steps. Their bulk always surprised her. They turned and looked her over like a gang looking to stomp someone. It must have been raccoons on the roof that woke her last night. She stepped off the sidewalk, giving the caustic rodents a wide berth. They glared until she entered the building, letting the glass door drift shut behind her.
The windows stayed open overnight to dissipate the lingering chemical smell. She drifted in and out of a light sleep on a wave of the city’s sounds: coughing exhaust pipes, the lone growl of a truck’s engine, the bring-bring of a bicycle bell, and a drunken fight between two men that ended with a burst of broken glass.
Awake, again. She lay on her back, hands folded over her stomach. Claws scratched the floor outside her bedroom. She thought of urban raccoons scaling the brick walls of apartment buildings and heaving themselves through windows. The raccoons opened kitchen cupboards and tore through cereal boxes.
The noise in the hallway swelled from a pitter-patter to a gallop. Hundreds of paws chased each other through the apartment. Her heart beat to the frantic tempo. A tinny chorus of meowing raced up the hall, quick like the long-legged spiders that scaled the bathtub drain. She gripped the edge of the mattress.
She rose from bed and held the doorknob leading to the hallway with a sweaty hand. Breath sucked in, she held it and prepared to meet the beady gazes of raccoon eyes.
The door groaned open. She flicked on the hall light, the illumination simultaneous with silence. The hallway was dusty, but empty. Floorboards creaked. She checked the bathroom. Nothing there either. She crept to the living room.
The streetlamp outside the room window blinked on and off, shuddering light in time with the jerks of her heart. Each burst revealed solid shadows standing around the room, like ink blots on a blank sheet of paper.
At first, Sheila only saw the darkness and that it was different from the darkness lurking in the corners of the rooms and under the furniture. Translucent cats draped themselves on the back of the couch. They huddled in groups on the half-unpacked cardboard boxes. Spectral cats twined around the legs of her coffee table. Absent of color, they retained a memory of their physical features: stripes that shivered down a misty coat, a broken tooth won in a fight with another tom, a crooked tail run over by a bicycle, and a tortoiseshell pattern that blipped in and out of sight, like a mark on a radar. Bare ribs peeked through scraggly fur. An ear fell off and puffed out of existence as it hit the hardwood. Legs stood crooked, no longer sleek pillars of fur, but thin bones connecting wrists to shoulders.
Beneath the muffled nighttime sounds from outside, a unified thrum rose, getting louder. The ghost cats purred together. Sheila flicked the light on and off, on and off, and willed herself to wake up.
Guilt trawled her stomach, dredging up a host of negative emotions: selfishness, anger, loneliness, et cetera. She hadn’t seen her grandmother in the last few months of her decline. She convinced herself her life bustled too busy to book a weekend off work to visit her grandmother at Paddington Place, the British-themed care home. For years, she spent time with Grandma during the holidays: Easter, Thanksgiving, birthdays, and Christmas. Then, as she grew older, inched into her twenties, she visited Grandma on her birthday and Christmas. Then, the last two years, just Christmas.
Sheila visited the day after her mother picked her up from the Greyhound station. The bedding Grandma lay on consumed her thin body. She wilted into the sheets. Her usual springy perm drooped, pillow-flattened. Her eyes, once the bright blue of hydrangeas, wilted.
She woke up late the next morning. A headache throbbed behind her temples. Her tongue rubbed against the cottony roof of her mouth. Maybe the landlord or his cleaning company went overboard, sending Sheila into an ammonium coma. The place did stink like chemicals, still. She should call him about that.
She unpacked. Heavy wide books on painting the human figure lined the bookcase. She adorned the closet with a button-up blouses and cardigans. Her collection of loafers lined the wall next to the door. Tubes of anti-frizz spray and detangling solution cluttered the bathroom counter. By the time evening eased in through the windows – an orange-y sunset splotching the hardwood – unpacking neared completion. She swept up bits of debris, broke down the empty boxes, and tossed them into a stack.
Sheila set her hands on her hips and blew out a long breath, jutting out her lower lip. A couple beers hunkered at the back of the fridge, but dinner would have to be out again tonight. She grabbed a hamburger on her way down East Pender Street. She found a bench in the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden and ate her burger while the last shafts of the sunset played over the plumage of a still heron, standing on one leg in the koi pond.
Back at the apartment, she plugged some old Seinfeld episodes into the television and sprawled on the couch, tipping the beer can almost vertical to sip without lifting her head. During the second episode, the screen flickered. Black and white lines crawled up from the bottom of the picture. The lines split Jerry, lamenting with open arms. Static bisected Kramer’s shaking mountain of hair. The scene disintegrated into white noise.
Sheila rose from the couch and checked the connections at the back of the television. The cords seemed screwed in tight. The show resumed without the irritating hitches in the picture. She sprawled back on the couch and cracked another beer. Elaine complained. The picture flickered again. Worse this time. She squatted before the television, the tip of her nose inches from the screen. This close the figures on screen were divided from complete beings into thousands of colored dots. Chaos, except for the familiar New York twang of the actors’ voices.
The narrative lost itself in an angry sea of black and white specks. Images shifted within the white noise: the suggestion of a figure, a face, two dark dents of eyes, and a mewling mouth.
She couldn’t get away from the television fast enough.
Backwards, on her palms and heels, she recoiled until she hit the wall so hard it sent the floor lamp next to her spinning on its base. The light swung over the room in crazy arcs as the first head broke the membrane of the screen. The glass bubbled, like the goosebumps puckering her flesh.
The cats spilled from the screen with hollow calls, echoing like cries drifting up from the bottom of a well. The cats moved together, a chimeric creature with multiple mouths, ears, and tails. The conjoined ghost poured out of the television, tails breaking the surface of its broad back in angry lashes. Legs lifted in uncoordinated steps. A cluster of cat faces peeked from a conjoined neck. Their whiskers flexed towards her. Eye-sockets empty, they angled blunt snouts towards Sheila. Together, they cried: meow meow meow meow.
Sheila grabbed one of the empty beers cans from the floor beside the couch and lobbed it at the monster.
“Get out of here!” she screamed.
The can struck the body and passed through it. But, as the can penetrated the vaporous form, the conjunction of cats shattered. Three popped free, shaking off black mist like rain water. They danced on dainty paws, as if stepping out of a puddle. One raced up the wall and disappeared into the ceiling in a puff of black soot. The split creature wobbled, the two halves unsure of which was backwards or forwards or where they were going.
“Get out of here!”
Sheila hoisted herself off the floor.
She planted her foot through the monster. It burst. Cats sprayed in all directions. Howling rose from the offended ghosts, as if she stepped on all their tails at once. Sheila covered her ears with her hands. The cats raced in circles around the living room, swarming over her feet, aiming bites and scratches at her shins that needled like icicle tips.
Her grandmother had dropped religion like a bag of mealy spring apples and tossed god out of her life like her second husband. Still, her children staged her funeral service in a narrow white Presbyterian church, crammed between houses on the highway leading out of town.
Diluted through the dirty windows, light seeped in with the consistency of buckwheat honey. Sheila crossed her ankles. Aunt Georgia clutched the printed sheets of her speech. Her fingers shook. Sheila dripped her fingers in the honeyed light spread on the blue velvet of the bench pillow.
She remembered spending afternoons sprawled on her belly in her grandmother’s living room, coloring. Glass prisms hung on fishing line in all the windows, casting geometric rainbows of light on the white carpet. Her grandmother’s clowder of cats stepped on dainty feet through the light, tails twitching, moving just out of reach of Sheila’s small fingers. At the podium, her aunt covered her mouth with one hand and spoke through her fingers. Her husband set his arm around her shoulders. Tears blotted the paper of the speech, bled, and blurred the printed text.
Sheila slept with every light in the apartment blaring. She twitched through sleep cycles – never fully asleep or awake. Dark circles bruised her eyes. When twilight reddened the living room, she bustled from light switch to light switch. She snapped the head-high floor lamp on, adjusting its bulb until it penetrated the highest shadowed corner of the ceiling. From her position in bed, tucked in tight, something wormed its body through the spaces between the drywall. The rustling of rats or raccoons, she told herself. In the corner of the ceiling, a fluid darkness with the texture of velvet pushed against the blare of light. A paw appeared, then receded. She second-guessed herself. Tiny feet pattered across the ceiling above her bed. A second set followed the first, then another, unless the footprints sounded like the soft rhythm of rain. Bits of fiberboard tile floated down to settle on Sheila like a white coat of ash.
It’s the chemicals, Sheila murmured to herself, clutching the sheets. I’m high. I’m hallucinating.
At work, she sipped espresso until her fingers shook. The cafe overflowed with antique charm. Mismatched oak chairs with padded seats lined scarred wooden tables. Brass teapots, chipped bone china, and gold-edged decorative plates patterned the walls.
Why did she rent the first apartment she viewed? When the landlord showed her the suite, two sticks of bright taffy stuck out of his shirt pocket. She thought that whimsical, fun. The whole complex would be full of quirky-young-people she would fall in love with. Make love with. Drink with. Dance with. Spin records, paint together, split up, and stumble home down a hallway.
She took her break at just before the lunch rush.
Outside, she crouched on the curb. Sunlight slanted off red-brick apartment buildings and dull glass skyscrapers. Her hand shielded her eyes as she flipped out her cellphone. She dialed the landlord, then scrubbed at a smear of avocado on her jeans with the corner of the apron, waiting for him to pick up.
“Hello?” He sounded half-asleep.
“Hi,” she said, “Yeah, hi. I’m Sheila. I live in apartment 306 at 595 Keefer Street.”
“Oh,” said the landlord. “Bedbugs?”
He voice lifted at the end of the word, plaintive.
“No,” said Sheila.
An awkward pause stretched over the phone line.
“My apartment reeks of chemicals. I think it’s making me sick.”
“Ah, yes.” A rustling – a stack of papers shuffled or bedsheets kicked off. “The apartment was cleaned with industrial grade chemicals… for health purposes.”
“Health purposes?” She stopped scrubbed the avocado smear. “What health purposes? They’re affecting my health.”
“It’s fine,” said the landlord, “they’ll dissipate in a few weeks.”
The phone felt hot. She switched ears.
“Look, I have a right to know what happened in that apartment to require cleaning with industrial-grade chemicals,” she said. “I’ll report you to… the city.”
The threat satisfied.
“Unfortunately… unfortunately the last tenant passed away in the apartment. Elderly, didn’t have any friends left. Family didn’t check on her for a couple weeks.” A ragged breath. “She owned a lot of cats. There was… partial consumption of the body before they passed away with her. The whole thing was a huge mess.”
Sheila couldn’t breathe.
“A huge mess,” the landlord repeated.
She thought, I can imagine, with a sardonic cut, but the words wouldn’t come.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Just a few weeks and it’ll be like she was never there.”
Her mother had whispered through Aunt Georgia’s eulogy.
Kept the window open so the air in the room would circulate. Her silver-shot chestnut hair hung over her face in waves. She had another heart-attack. Seemed afraid. I held her hand. It shook. I squeezed her fingers together, I crushed them – her bones were so brittle by then. But, I wanted her to know,
Sheila’s aunt gave up and folded the speech into quarters. Her husband led her away from the podium, his arm slung over her bowed shoulders.
that I was there –
The minister, modern, dressed in a tapered suit with a white band cuffing his throat, took her aunt’s place at the podium. He coughed. The sound ground through the microphone. Everyone flinched.
because she was afraid. Sweat beaded her forehead and I put my palm there to cool her. She stared at the ceiling with her mouth open. I asked what she saw, but it was like she didn’t hear me. I told her it’s okay, shhh, it’s okay. She died like that, watching that point on the ceiling. I don’t know what she saw.
Sheila gave up and tucked herself into bed with the lights off.
She dreamed, cradling a white cat. It lay on its back in her arms. She looked down at its face: fur sloughed off, dropping away to reveal a wrinkled human face. Watery-blue sunken eyes stare into her own. The gaze beseeched, but the cat-being stayed silent: a flat human mouth sculpted over its bare feline muzzle. Two arms hung limp from its shoulders, the wrists ending in knobby curled hands. White fur dropped away in clumps, sliding down its body like fat raindrops running down a windowpane.
Sheila didn’t know what it wanted.
Naked, cupped in her embrace, it waited for her to respond. Are you afraid? Sheila felt nothing – not the weight of the emaciated body in her arms, not the pressure of her feet on the floor, no heat or chill from the pale skin mottled with blue veins. Does it hurt? The cat-being didn’t move, its gaze fixed on her own, the tension unbroken. Sheila couldn’t look away from those eyes – the lashes faded in old age, the layers of fine pink wrinkles wavering out from the tear duct, iris the blue of hydrangeas.
It rained the next morning. A lump of cloud covered the city. Light seeped in from the window, the gray of old dishwater. She sagged, her body sore from sleeping in one position too long. The blanket bunched over her head.
Fumbling for her phone, she called in sick to work. Shutting her eyes, she pressed her ears shut with her index fingers, sucked in a breath, and shut herself in immaculate silence.
In the stillness, a cold spot pressed on her sternum like a coin on bare skin. She opened her eyes and took her fingers out of her ears: above her, two cats balanced on her headboard. More cold spots settled on her body, each frigid enough to prick. She pushed her curls out of her face and twisted her neck. They filled her room: curled nose to tail on the windowsill, pacing in loops that ran beneath the bed and out again, and poised on her dresser with posture held rigid as the Egyptian statues built in their likeness. They stared, tails arranged in a neat loop over front paws or tucked to their haunches. She met their sightless gazes, but they were empty: undemanding and un-answering.
They swelled into visibility, walking across her torso. The cold soaked her bones. Cats hopped from their posts around her room and leapt onto the bed. They curled at her sides, lining her with their bodies. They massed on the quilt, lying down so close they blended together again. The low thrum began in their empty throats and worked to a wheezing purr that matched her breath for breath.
Violetta Leigh studied creative writing at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. She has been published by Geist, Minola Review, In Shades magazine, Situate magazine, and Active Fiction Project. She coordinates literary events with the Real Vancouver Writers’ Series in Vancouver. Perfection is ugly and in the things humans make she wants to see scars, failure, disorder, distortion. Find her online at: www.violettaleigh.com