Ashleigh struggles to find her way when she enters the gloom of the closed park, but for Luna’s sake she’s got to push on. The amenities block appears ahead, faintly lit by nearby streetlights. Reaching the structure, she peers round the corner, her heart beating fast. Its entrances are shut. Ashleigh ventures to the back of the block and straight into near-darkness. She tries rubbing her tearful eyes, and briefly sees shades of black and grainy white. Luna’s never run away from home. Until now.
Ashleigh calls out, her voice carrying across the park grounds: “Luna, Luna. It’s Mummy.”
There’s no reply.
Earlier that evening Liam had left the front door wide open while he unloaded their car. Luna. Ashleigh checked her room and the rest of the house—she’d gone. With Luna nowhere to be found outside and at the neighbours, Ashleigh got Liam to drive and search down the street while she’d rushed off in the opposite direction. Hearing the police helicopter overhead, she’d run faster, fearing Luna had been snatched. Past the dog walker who’d said he hadn’t seen her. Past the house party where guests were drinking and laughing on the front deck. She’d glanced back down the road, out of breath. How could Luna have travelled so far? Ashleigh hoped she might have wandered to the park, and had called Liam—who’d also had no luck—to ask him to join her there.
Ashleigh remembers her phone’s got a light. She switches it on to guide her across the playing field. Deeper into the park she approaches an open drain at the edge of a steep bank and holds her breath as she examines it, dreading to see Luna’s dead body. It’s empty. She climbs the steps to the higher grounds, and almost loses her footing. There’s a noise. Ashleigh points her phone towards the bushes. “Luna?” She enters the undergrowth, trying to keep her balance along the slope.
“Hello? … Ash?”
Looking behind her, she raises her hand to protect her eyes from a blinding light.
“There you are.” Liam lowers his torch. “Come back to the car. There’s nothing more we can do tonight.”
“No, I’m staying. She’s got to be here somewhere.”
“It’s too dark. We’ll try again in the morning.”
“The police, Liam. We’ve got to call the police.”
“No, Ash—we can’t. You know they won’t help.”
“Because she’s a house cat.”
“Well, they should. Everyone should.” She’ll search heaven and earth to find her Luna.
Although it’s been two days since Luna had disappeared, it feels like a week. Ashleigh turns on her side and glances at the bedside clock. Liam’s up already. Since that first evening she’s kept checking the time, counting each hour.
Still tired, Ashleigh rolls onto her back, tempted to snooze. She hadn’t really slept again—about to nod off last night, she’d heard a shrill wail outside and darted downstairs and out the kitchen door, calling for Luna. Staring at the darkness, she’d felt her legs begin to waver and reluctantly went back inside.
Ashleigh gets out of bed and heads for Luna’s room, hoping by some miracle she’s home. She isn’t. From the window Ashleigh surveys the neighbourhood. Her poor baby. There’s no way Luna can survive out there—they’d raised her indoors since she was a kitten. Ashleigh thinks of the news she’d read about some sick bastard planting poisoned bait in the local parks. Thankfully she hasn’t seen any in her searches.
She misses rubbing Luna’s soft belly and hearing her purrs. In the bathroom, Ashleigh gazes at her reflection in the mirror. A huge part of her life is gone—she can feel it in the pit of her stomach. A terrible emptiness deep down.
Liam’s having his breakfast when she enters the kitchen. Ashleigh sighs, seeing he’s dressed for work.
He studies her. “Rough night?”
“What do you think?” She goes to the benchtop and takes her pills.
“You need to eat, hon—you didn’t have dinner again.”
“I’m not hungry.” She puts her medication away. “Liam, can’t you pull another sickie? We could post more leaflets this morning.”
He shakes his head. “I’m sorry, I can’t. But I’ll try to leave work early.”
“Fine. I’ll just have to find her by myself then.” Almost knocking over Luna’s water bowl, Ashleigh storms out of the kitchen.
A tiny body lies sprawled in her arms, showing no glint of life.
Ashleigh wakes up with a jolt. “Luna!” She sits upright in bed, her eyes barely open. The room’s pitch-black.
“Please, Ash.” Liam reaches over and touches her arm. “Go to sleep.”
She slumps back, fighting to keep awake and listen out for the slightest cry.
Giving up pacing the lounge, Ashleigh finally sinks down on the sofa to wait. Liam had told her to be patient while he’s away mountain-biking—he’s promised they’ll search the park again when he gets back—but she’s raring to go. She checks her phone and scrolls through the community posts of lost pets. There are photos of a golden retriever lying on some grass, tongue flapping, and a ragdoll in a sink.
Ashleigh revisits her own posting for Luna and reads the new messages, some people leaving sad emoji faces. Everyone’s been so supportive. Her friends, the next-door neighbours, even the girls at the local supermarket. Earlier in the week her mother visited and told her not to worry. That Luna would come home. That Ashleigh has been through much worse.
She puts her phone away. What does her mother know about losing a loved one? She’s never had a pet herself.
Ashleigh touches the armrest that Luna damaged before they got her a scratching post. On weekends while Liam was out training Ashleigh would curl up with a book at this end of the sofa while Luna tiptoed along the tops of the back cushions then wrapped herself around Ashleigh’s neck, snuggling on her chest.
The clock on the side table seems to be ticking louder. Ashleigh checks the time. She feels like she’s stuck in a hospital waiting room, not knowing when she’ll be called.
The doorbell rings.
Ashleigh dashes to the door, hoping someone has brought Luna back.
It’s the elderly neighbour from a few houses away who keeps to herself. She’s empty-handed. “Hi. I saw your leaflet in my letterbox the other day and I wanted to know if you’ve found your cat yet.”
“No, not yet. Come in.”
The old woman hovers at the entrance. “Does your cat have a nametag?”
“She doesn’t. Luna’s a house cat, but she’s been microchipped.”
“Good, that will help. I have two cats myself—Jack and Gracie. They’re my little angels.” Her eyes light up. “Anyway, Jack once ran off for two weeks.”
Two weeks—an eternity.
“And then one day he came back. He looked a bit thin but he was fine. Have you had a cat before?”
“No, Luna’s my first one.” She remembers the day they brought the kitten home from the breeder’s. Cross-legged on the floor, Ashleigh had played with her for hours, dangling a toy mouse and watching Luna swipe at it with her paw.
Liam had placed his hand on her shoulder, saying how happy he was for her. He’d said she had made the right decision, and that Luna would help her get through things.
“Hello?” The neighbour tries to catch her attention.
“I said I’d best be going.”
“Right, of course.”
“And don’t worry.” Smiling, the old woman edges closer to Ashleigh. “She’ll turn up.”
Ashleigh’s exhausted. They spent the remainder of the weekend following up on reported sightings of Luna. Searching several parks and reserves, the bins along the back of the local shops, the creek behind the retirement village, the beach area and down dead-end streets. When they finally drive home Liam says they must’ve covered the entire suburb by now, pointing out, “Either Luna’s been busy exploring or there’s a host of missing white cats.”
She collapses on the sofa, not sure how much more she can take. She glances at the photograph of Luna on the side table.
Liam says, “You must be tired, Ash. Go and get some rest. I’ll call you when I’ve cooked dinner.”
“Yes, you’re right. Thanks, honey.”
Taking her phone upstairs, Ashleigh decides to visit Luna’s room before heading to her bed. She looks at the ramps and ledges on the cat tree. Liam had joked they could open their own cattery with the amount of apparatus she’d bought. After checking for messages, Ashleigh places her phone on the windowsill.
Liam has also said their home now seemed more like a cat hotel. Liam wasn’t wrong—besides the tree there’s the tunnel in the lounge and the cube in their bedroom. Still, Luna didn’t need expensive things to keep her occupied. Ashleigh remembers her hunting a cricket on the kitchen floor, stalking her prey before pouncing, then releasing it to play again. Another time Ashleigh was in hysterics watching Luna box with a dangling blind cord. And then there were the moments she’d been surprised, discovering Luna hiding in a nook or shelf, her fur all fluffed up.
Ashleigh stares at the shelf on top of the post where Luna often perched, grooming herself, licking her paws with her tongue. It’s empty now—like the cat bed in the room. Her legs aching, Ashleigh sinks down on the floor beside the padded cushion. She would often come here and lie down then rub Luna’s chin, her cat closing her eyes and purring in delight.
Picking up Luna’s blanket, Ashleigh smells it. She misses caring for her baby—feeding her, brushing her coat, pampering her. Her heart drops as she visualises Luna lost somewhere, starving, cold. Afraid. Oh, God. Ashleigh grips the blanket, not wanting to let go. She’s had this feeling before—only then it lasted for days, with her fearing the worst. And then she had the check at the hospital, Liam holding her hand, Ashleigh already knowing something was wrong.
The phone beeps on the windowsill. Ashleigh checks the message, her thumbs lit by the screen. Good news!
She bounds down the stairs. “Get the car keys, Liam—we’ve got another lead.”
“Yup, that’s the cat I saw.” The elderly man hands the leaflet back to Ashleigh, his daughter standing behind him at his front door. “It was over there, near my old workshop. You’re welcome to search it and the rest of my garden.”
“That would be great, thank you.”
“Yes, thanks.” Liam smiles at Ashleigh as they start down the side of the house.
They approach the rundown building, Ashleigh pausing to scour between some adjacent bins.
Liam asks, “You don’t think Luna managed to sneak inside, do you?”
“She could’ve got in through that open window.” Ashleigh thinks about how effortlessly Luna could leap onto the tallboy in their bedroom.
With Liam’s help she pushes open the stiff door. There’s a faint odour of petrol in the air. She flips the nearby switch, causing the nearest fluorescent light to flicker, but the one at the back isn’t working. Advancing a few steps, Ashleigh tries to stay clear of the cobwebs and dust. The home owner probably hasn’t been in here for years. She wipes her sweaty palms on her hips—she’s forgotten to take her pills the last few days.
She navigates past rusted paint pots stacked up on the floor. “What’s that smell?” Her stomach churns. Now she’s further into the room she’s assailed by the reek of rotting flesh.
There’s a hiss.
Ashleigh freezes, peering towards the back wall. In the darkness eyes glare at her. A glint of teeth, then nothing.
She grabs Liam’s arm. “Did you see that?”
“You check, Liam. There’s no way in hell I’m going over there.”
Liam steps forward, picking up a screwdriver off the benchtop. Something scampers off behind some boxes. A rat’s tail.
Over his shoulder, Ashleigh can see a heap on the floor. The fluorescent bulb madly flickers.
“Is it her, Liam?” Tears well up. “Liam?” She rubs her eyes and can see only that black-and-white image again. The one ingrained deep into her mind. Her baby’s head. Her lips, nose, arms. There’s no heartbeat. The sonographer racing off to find the doctor.
Ashleigh remember lying back on the examination table, staring intently at the monitor, now dark as night—imagining her insides like the pockmarked craters of a barren moon. Liam weeping quietly beside her, her exposed belly ice-cold.
Oh, God, please don’t let it be true.
Liam sighs in relief. “No, it’s a dead possum.”
Her world spinning, she runs out, screaming with all her might.
When they return home Ashleigh locks herself in Luna’s room and stares at the boxed-up cot behind the cat tree.
The door handle turns. “Ash, open up. We need to talk about what happened.”
She calls out, “No, I want to be on my own for a while.”
“Go away, Liam.”
Hearing him leave, Ashleigh reaches down and grabs the blanket from Luna’s bed. She smells it again. It’s the same one her baby girl was wrapped in when the nurse handed her over in hospital. She was perfect, with delicate fingers, and tiny, wrinkled feet. And although her eyes had remained closed while Ashleigh held her, she’d looked like she could wake at any moment.
Still clutching the blanket, Ashleigh touches the mobile dangling from the ceiling above the cat tree. It was a baby-shower gift from her mother. She was glad she’d still got Liam to hang it. Luna loves reaching up with her paw and swiping at the stars and moon.
Luna. Ashleigh can’t believe she’s gone. I wish it wasn’t true. You mustn’t give up, her mother had said. Liam had hugged her for hours. Ashleigh groans. Her fur baby. She loves her more than life itself.
Tired, Ashleigh closes her eyes. The room is still.
There’s a faint scratching. It comes again.
Ashleigh pulls back the curtain, and sees a white, furry face peering at her through the glass. Hears a meow.
“Luna!” She drops the blanket and opens the window.
The cat lands on the floor.
“Oh, Luna, you’ve come back to me.” Ashleigh bends down and hugs her, smelling the night air on her thinner coat.
Another meow. She must be hungry.
Carrying Luna, Ashleigh stands up to unlock the door. “Liam! Liam, come quickly. She’s here. Luna’s back.”
Liam rushes into the room. “I knew it, I knew it.” He strokes the cat. “But how did she get up here?”
“She must’ve found a way to get onto the lower roof.” Ashleigh smothers Luna with kisses, her heart beating fast. “You clever thing.”
“You see, Ash—everything’s fine. She’s home now.”
Not wanting to let her go, Ashleigh squeezes Luna tighter against her bosom, fearful of losing her baby again.
Andrew Stiggers is a short fiction writer from Auckland, New Zealand. His work has appeared in Meniscus, STORGY and Gravel among others, and his awards include being the winner of the 2017 Global Ebook Awards (Short Stories category) and the winner of the Trisha Ashley Award 2017 for best humorous story. See his work at www.andrewstiggers.com.