And so, driving down the parkway, George and Delilah talked to anyone but each other:
“I always think it’s crazy that we ended up with a blue sky,” said George.
“Eyes on the road, George,” said Delilah.
“And blue’s not even my favorite color, especially not this shade.”
“You don’t like my dress, George?”
“No! Yes! No, I do, because the blue complements the yellow, it’s a whole different thing. I just think, you know, when the plants are all September-dry and the sky gets more faded-airport blue, it just… I don’t know, an orange sky would be more fun, right? I don’t know.”
“You sound like you know, George.”
“Well, uh… I guess where I’m going with this is, like… the sky is blue because the atmosphere is, I don’t know, dense enough that it refracts the white sunlight and blocks everything down the rainbow up until blue—”
“No, no, everything with a higher wavelength than blue doesn’t bounce off all the molecules. It’s called Rayleigh scattering, George.”
“My name’s not Rayleigh, it’s—”
“I know, I know, Mr. Rayleigh was your father’s name, just call you George.”
“Well, uh… I guess where I’m going with this is, like… the sky’s only blue because of our exact atmosphere and its exact molecules, and it just has me thinking, I don’t know, we wouldn’t have evolved without all of those exact conditions, and if we did, we wouldn’t be the same George and Delilah, now would we? We’d have… lungs on our… brains, or. I don’t know.”
“Turn here, George.”
It went on like that; a trailing kite tail behind the car, winding up and down and around the asphalt anthill they call Humphrey Heights. Humphrey Heights, where sightings of spring chickens like George and Delilah were sparing at best. They call retirees who migrate south “snowbirds,” but there’s no ornithological designation for the more sessile types, like Delilah’s parents. Chickens, maybe, but certainly not the vernal variety. Their daughter may have flown the coop, but she wasn’t above a visit. Delilah owed her parents dinner; George owed Delilah a buffer. Say your prayers, George and Delilah.
“Alright. One more time. For practical reasons,” Delilah directed, copilot of her own car as George pulled it into the driveway. “I knock twice. You stand just behind me, but to the side— my left shoulder should be lined up with your right.”
“Margaret will open the door. Bob will lurk somewhere beyond the bannister.”
“Should I hold the scones, Delilah?”
“Mhm. Um. Yes. Okay, uhh… I’ll say, ‘we brought scones!’ Margaret will tell me it’s pronounced ‘scons,’ like ‘prawns,’ and she’ll say ‘but you don’t mix the two.’ That’s when we go ‘ha ha! hee hee!'”
“You can’t say that, George. You have to let her say it.”
She turned to him, grasping his right hand in both of hers, but drew back when he winced.
“I’m sorry! How’s the bite?”
“It’s alright, Delilah. Your hand sanitizer is making it—”
“Oh! Sorry. You’ve got tingly hands, I’ve got tingly hands…”
George and Delilah left their car, drawn to the yellow spotlight cast by the side door, less like moths and more like abductees ascending into the mothership. Just feet from the concrete steps, George shifted the Tupperware under his arm as he pulled Delilah close. Delilah’s shoulders simply locked in response, and she leaned back into the incandescent tractor beam. George tipped her hips towards him. Her face didn’t budge.
“Did I do something wrong, Delilah?”
“Not in front of my parents, George.”
“Please? For practical reasons, like you said.”
Delilah nudged George into the hedge’s shadow, barely bristling past as she planted a brisk kiss on his face. Her thin mouth grazed past like an unopened paper cut before she pulled them back into the light. Her periwinkle dress sunk into the evening sky, brightening its spotted sunflower patterning like it was the 60s again. George’s corduroy and sweater combo stayed a blotchy brown even when he emerged from the shadows, sideburns frizzy like he was a decade ahead. His right shoulder touched her left as she raised a thin, pale fist to knock twice on the side of the screen door.
There was a cat on Delilah’s dashboard, by the way— a subliminal contributor to George’s distracted driving. Most living things are best not left in hot cars, but Delilah’s cat was plastic, and built to last. In the waning light, the strip of solar panel on its stand made it twitch its tail back and forth: cat-gap, cat-gap. They say it’s a cat’s way of saying “piss off,” but like Inuit words for snow, cats have plenty of ways to express that, or so they say. They tell you a lot about skies, and birds, and interspecies words, but they’d never tell you where to find the cat rosetta stone; where to find the prophet cat and his stone tablets batted down from the mountain. Cite your sources, that’s what I say. I’d appreciate that.
• • •
Two evenings prior, George was bitten between his thumb and his index by a medium-sized, piebald, European shorthair— in other words, it was completely nonlethal, thank you kindly. The shorthair spilled out of an open pipe next to George’s bed, no wider than a mug in diameter and encrusted with lumpy, white paint. Well, they say cats aren’t exactly known for knocking, and this I can verify; 20-something humans, meanwhile, are not known for being prepared when company arrives, and this, too, is perfectly verifiable. To doe-eyed George’s credit, he wasn’t paying enough rent for a welcoming abode, but even exposed plumbing isn’t prone to cat spillage on the best of days. Nevertheless, company had indeed arrived. Eager to help in his own way, George sought to return the cat to its rightful hands— after all, despite his good moments, he was weak to the fallacious notion that interspecies ownership means anything at all. After astutely realizing that one can’t simply shove a cat back up a pipe, he instead called the cat over to a cardboard box— an undignified vessel at best were it not for the Patagonia logo printed on the side— tickling the air like a struggling rodent all the way. Blamelessly, the shorthair was either too overstimulated by the fingers in its face or too hungry to humor them, and so sunk its fangs into the meatiest visible morsel. By the time George had shaken it away, it had already vanished into another ill-camouflaged pipe imbedded in the top shelf of the closet, tail fluffed like a puff of smoke.
Good thing it didn’t bite Delilah. Delilah is allergic to cats.
• • •
George and Delilah guffawed like ducks when Margaret corrected Delilah on the pronunciation of “scone,” flourishing the Queen’s English with royal bravado. Margaret was Delilah’s mother, or stepmother, or was she either? George’s brain could not recall, nor could his stomach, which lurched like an anniversary had been forgotten. The resemblance certainly wasn’t there— where Delilah stood like a dandelion stalk with a short smile and similarly cropped hair, Margaret was stretched, wide-smiling, eye-bulging, and distinctly pear shaped, though George, not the best of scientists, would never think to vocalize any of these observations. He decided to make no mention of it, instead itching the bite.
“And this must be George! Oh darling, come in!” Margaret doted, summoning him into the kitchen with a one-armed hug. “I’ve heard so many things, darling, so many things.”
And as Margaret and Delilah babbled on, George realized he’d heard nothing— nothing at all. Nothing of behavior, of even parentage, just Delilah’s dos and don’ts. Instead, he took his seat on a barstool beneath the cupped, hanging lights and filled his mouth with tortilla chips. Across from him, the unidentified father figure known to locals as Bob leaned an elbow on the teal, granite countertop, face angled down towards the garbage disposal. In the yellow light, his smooth scalp broke forth from his linty, grey mop like an egg yolk. Though it had certainly long since ceded Bob’s bald head to time, the hair that populated the sides of his ears could’ve wrapped around his entire skull’s circumference. With his eyes turned away, it might as well have done just that.
“Chips’re yours,” Bob murmured, which was a relief to George, who was on his fifth.
“Did you know George loves movies, too?” Delilah’s words surfaced as her hand squeezed George’s shoulder.
He hastily swallowed the mouthful of chip shards, perhaps still too sharp to descend his throat. There was no need, however— Margaret was already speaking.
“Oh, darling, you’ll have to come with us on our next outing! In this house, we’re such avid connoisseurs of the musical theater!” she sang in a croaky vibrato.
“Oh, so you’re the only one living here now?” Delilah laughed. She hadn’t mentioned any of this. And George had met her parents, anyways— he had met all four, and not one had made so much as a peep at her Jazz band shows. George surmised there must’ve been a big difference between jazz and theater, and that he’d probably be needing something to wash down all of these chips.
“Take a look at this one— see if it piques your interest,” Margaret continued, tucking back one of many wiry hairs as she passed George a Playbill, thumb tucked somewhere near the beginning. George carefully peeled the plastic pages before Margaret impatiently swooped in, swiping to the correct section with a licked fingertip. Delilah’s face wrinkled almost imperceptibly. Almost.
“See? Star Wars on the Prairie. How peculiar, how queer!”
“Margaret, please—” Delilah scolded, but Margaret’s attention was more drawn to George’s quizzical expression.
“Star Wars? Have you kids not heard of that? George?”
“Well, ma’am, not on the prairie—”
“But certainly you have! The prairie planet of Dantooine, no? The original cut put far more focus on it for budgetary reasons, but it’s quite exquisitely captured given the financial constraints, and oh-so-quaint. This production is showing that original Lucas cut, George Lucas, darling!”
“Margaret, it’s George Rayleigh—” Delilah scolded, but Margaret’s attention was more drawn to George’s even further furrowed brow.
“But— sorry, ma’am, I just— I don’t know, that was made in the 70s! You can’t have a cut of a play… a, uh, production, you’re saying?”
“No, it’s called a mooovie, I’m saying, darling! Held at this wonderful independent institution called The Movie Theater. How peculiar, how queer!”
George strained to commit this word to memory. He looked down to his lap, brushed salt and chip crumbs into his cupped hand. The Movie Theater. Movie. Was that name French? But of course, George, of all people, would have to know— after all, George loves movies.
“You’reum… cool cats only, uh huh?” came a mumble to George’s left. “I dig it. I dig, dig, dig. I dig, dig, dig.”
He swiveled to find that bio-step-father Bob had finally looked up from the stains in the sink. He looked, and looked, and looked, one eye at a time. And then another. And then another. George could only watch as a halo of eyes phased through Bob’s hairline and encircled his yolk scalp, brushed like grass on the prairie by his dusty fluff of hair. It can’t have been real, but as Bob’s head swiveled, only the back of his head could be seen, save for the loop of intangible eyes, eye after eye after eye. Orbiting in sequence, they simultaneously dripped dew, sizzling in the pork roast marinade that stung the air. George’s hand stung, too. It stung a lot.
“Let me translate from beatnik for you,” Margaret said between hearty chortles, as though she had transformed into a frog by the full moon.
When George frantically snapped back to Bob, his head had already returned to its downcast slump. If he had any eyes at all, they were fixed on the whiskey swirled in his glass with a gnarled hand.
“He’s saying he approves! Ah!” continued Margaret. “We’re so happy for you two. Come here, darlings, come here both of you!”
George and Delilah were enveloped by a group hug, though neither felt the other, as is the curse of all sandwich bread. Delilah felt her freckles sink into the burning red of her cheeks. George felt his hand sear against a chafing, stiff blouse. When the hug didn’t let up, George made himself small, and whispered as decently as he could into Margaret’s exposed ear:
“Excuse me, where is your restroom, ma’am?”
• • •
Here’s something else verifiable: this is undeniably the good part. Sit down, perverts, nobody’s pants are coming unzipped— I just like my entrance. Be patient. It’s almost here.
George hissed to himself as he leaned over Delilah’s sink, gripping his palm the way one might a bruise— putting pressure on the pain, as though it can be pushed away. The swollen fang-holes only retaliated with pizza-patterned leakage— first an oily orange translucence, followed by a pastier, creamier white that spat forward in bacon-grease bursts. Finally, as George bit his tongue, the red finale streaked out, mapping his fortune in the topography of his palm as the river kept running. George’s teeth were only unclenched by the shock of a fourth something shoving through his skin— sharp, fibrous, yellow, inked. It jutted forth suddenly, unfurling like a crusty flag as it fell into the sink with a subtle splash.
George didn’t look at the scroll for a long time— didn’t pick it up for even longer. For a while, he rocked on his heels, clenching his open palm even harder now than ever, trying not to let an agonized sound escape. He thought back to the cat on the dashboard of Delilah’s car, tail twitching back and forth— cat-gap, cat-gap. He wished he was still in the car with Delilah. They used to never leave the car, sometimes for hours and hours, late for dinners and appointments and bedtimes because their quiet conversation somehow amplified above all of that. When Delilah wasn’t talking, laughing through a hidden smile tucked into her shoulder, she was reading— about physics, about fantasy, about trains, about brains. George and Delilah would trade books sometimes when they weren’t trading words or touches. To George, that felt like a very long time ago.
Finally, George gingerly nicked the paper from the blood, which slunk away like water off a duck’s back— or a cat’s back, if you ask the right one. The edges that had felt almost serrated on exit were actually scalloped— the deckle edges of a ticket, ochre and engraved in cursive.
CAT GAP: CONSCIOUSNESS TRANSFERENCE CONFIRMATION
Further down, a list of hollow circles, the final one punched out:
○ Exploratory Venture (One-Time)
○ Emergency Exodus (One-Time)
● Erroneous Rescue (Valid Through Nine Uses)
Beyond that, scabbed-over fine print too extensive for George’s current, pained state. He bore a hollow gaze into the mirror and rubbed his eyes, only to realize he’d smeared himself with half-dry blood. But George had no time for ceremonial initiations tonight— tonight, he was just supposed to meet the parents. It was while washing his face in the sink, eyes shut, that a grotesque groan squelched its way into the boxy, basement bathroom. Eyes still closed, George imagined himself beneath a great, falling sequoia, and then, more accurately, slipping into a lifeboat deployed from the hole-punched hull of a cargo ship. His eyes opened to none of these things— just the raw ceiling above him, crisscrossed by hydraulics and pipes as rusty as his sweater. The last thing George wanted to see was something swirling out from the only pipe pointing down towards him, gathering into a globular, gooey drop. What fell forth instead was bag of meat and bones, bug-eyed as its feet narrowly missed his face. George, of course, had seen this before: a dislocated fur ball spilling out of a hole too small to conceivably fit back in and reassembling itself joint by joint, even down to the segments of its skull. George’s eyes were not so doughy this time around as he backed himself onto the toilet seat, meaty hands spread defensively. Quickly, he withdrew his injured hand, wrapping it in layer after layer of toilet paper before reaching for the toilet lid. Perhaps he thought he’d trap the cat inside if it jumped for him— flush away the allergens before Delilah was even alerted. Poor thing was still thinking of a Delilah who hadn’t driven with him here. George turned panic into plan in that moment. Little did he know he was in unfamiliar territory— I’d like to see a European shorthair try what happened next.
“Ticket, please?” came a wet voice from within the cat’s closed cheeks. It was a sable Burmese, almost black— one whose mouth should’ve opened like a flare against the night sky. Cats can’t talk, obviously— not this one, at least, and certainly not here— and the voice hadn’t come from its vocal cords. The Burmese finally yawned, tongue rolling out to reveal the pilot at the wheel: bald, malformed, no bigger than a jelly bean, and flashing green from the implant inside. Ladies and gentlemen, yours truly.
George didn’t extend a handshake, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt— once bitten, always afraid, though I’d like to firmly establish here and now that fetal cyborg kittens derive all of their nutrition from their hosts through an umbilical grapple. I have no taste for blood, nor do I have a fully formed buccal cavity, but I’d like a damn ticket for my services. Still, George stayed stunned, hand still spread as though to smother me. Use the force, George.
“Ticket, please?” I repeated, and George blinked back into a responsive state. He fumbled over his ticket, which had been accidentally mummified within his toilet-papered hand, and slumped down onto the toilet seat.
“Crazy. Just crazy. Uh… tell me about yourself. Please?” he said, and I had already reached my limit with this conversation.
“You don’t remember, do you? Cat Gap! Snap out of it, George! I’m C-447-N, and this is Muffin. You have two questions left.”
“You have a question limit?”
“You butthole. Uuuuh, oh wow, I don’t know… Cat Gap?”
“Good question. A lot of powerful people asked that before you. They knew there had to be a crawlspace between dimensions— where else could cats possibly be going all day?— but they all say that, don’t they? They’ve all got a lot to say, but a Cat Gap’s no good for you people if only cats can access it. Mind you, not probes, not cat-cams… even cat-trackers don’t cat-track in that realm. So they split some lab cats into mittens and kittens— one to walk the walk, one to talk the talk. I’m the pilot and the people-person, and Muffin is my flesh glove, my trusty steed. You, on the other hand, are George Rayleigh, but you’re not the George that belongs here.”
“That’s too cryptic to not warrant another question, but, if, uh… most importantly, will you tell me if this is refundable?”
“You’re all out of questions, George, and you’re out of options, too. Your universe collapsed just after your people discovered how to traverse the Cat Gap, whoop-de-do, and they used it to jump their consciousnesses to a more stable universe. You, unfortunately, got lost along the way. So now you’re a strange George in a strange body. Your George particles don’t match the George you’re inhabiting here, and neither of you can take the dissonance much longer. Come with me.”
George slumped ever further now as he attempted to close his agape mouth, only for it to fall open again as he lost himself in thought. Muffin scratched her ear, jostling me up and down like a rag doll. I closed my eyes and remembered that disciplinary action would be administered in all due time.
“Now, okay, here’s a thought…” George announced, and I did not disguise my sigh. “I can’t remember where I came from. It’s just— logically speaking here, Mister and Missus— it would be much easier to learn who I am in this universe. I’ll just be him.”
“George, you can’t stay—”
“Why not? The sky is blue.”
His toilet-papered hand was clenched again, now, and the red had begun to soak through. He applied another strip as I spoke.
“Listen. Take Muffin here. She stayed because there were always table scraps to be had. They were making her poop in a box, George, and she stayed. Are we copacetic?”
“I’ve never had to poop in a box…”
“For the love of— just give me your ticket. We’re going home, George.”
But George shook his head, folded the ticket in his toilet-papered hand. He scratched between Muffin’s ears, frazzling our neural link in little waves.
“Nice meeting you, C-447-N. Good kitty, Muffin. I’m going to have dinner with my girlfriend’s parents now.”
He sighed as he stood, murmuring to himself, “crazy, just crazy,” as he unlatched the bathroom door. I should’ve left then and there, but I didn’t. I stuck around for the same reason you did. You and I stuck around for George and Delilah.
• • •
The two bumped noses in the basement as soon as the bathroom door was shut:
“George! I was just about to knock!”
“Sorry, Delilah, I’m so sorry. Did I hide too long?”
Delilah looked sweatier from either the heat of the kitchen or the conversation within it, but none of it glistened in the dusky basement. With the lights out, Delilah’s dress looked like scuba footage, its blues curling out like wisps of fog from beneath the greying yellow flowers. Only the moonlit window across the room cut through the shadows, turning the pair into cubist facsimiles. George was brought back to the first night they spent together, walking home from one of Delilah’s jazz band shows. He was too entranced to remember how sketchy alleyways could be, and she looked just as pretty monochrome, so he told her as much.
“What are you talking about?” she asked in the here and now, and he shook his head.
“Can I kiss you, Delilah?”
And so, George and Delilah kissed in the dark, only one of them knowing they were in defiance of existence, coming together across unknowable universes. Outside, the squirrels kept on gossiping; the wooden wind chime outside the window wishing it sounded more symphonic.
Delilah pulled away, the ticket now in her hand.
“That was nice,” said George.
“You’re not my George,” said Delilah. “Don’t you feel it?”
George licked his lips, clenched his palm.
“And you’re not my Delilah.”
She waved the ticket, letting it snap back and forth; cat-gap, cat-gap. The slowing, paper metronome kept the silence in time, but ultimately only drew it out longer.
“Did I do something wrong, Delilah?” George said.
Delilah fidgeted in her dress, kneading it with her thumbs.
“Nothing is wrong. It’s just un-right. Everything feels pickled, gingery… maybe balsamic. You’ve got tingly hands, I’ve got tingly hands…”
She put her palm to her mouth like she was clutching chloroform, smushing her cheeks as she panic-pondered.
“I thought it was me. You don’t have to go. You don’t have to pretend to be happy, either, but let’s just get through this dinner. We can—”
“Okay, Delilah,” said George, and Delilah realized that her brain had not been speaking for many sentences now. What she knew from the start had a finality to it— like someone had forgotten her anniversary.
George extended his bare hand, and Delilah set the ticket in it, careful to keep the Delilah-particles at her fingertips from disturbing the George-particles beneath them.
“Will you at least say grace with us, George?”
He shook his head, but still said “okay, Delilah.”
As he strode out of the Humphrey Heights moonlight to follow her up the stairs, he glanced one last time back at the bathroom to meet Muffin’s shining eyes. They glinted orange— the winding, scattered wavelength that painted the sky where George was from.
The Cat Gap will return in The Sword of Fire, being book 1 of 5 in the Elements United Series.