“The cat?” Willem sputtered. “That’s what he left me?”
“Settle down, Will.” Gunther pursed his lips and pointed to the stool beside his desk. “Yes, and three hundred dollars. Wasn’t much to divide between us.”
“But he left you the whole brewery!” Willem flung his arms in the air. Dear old Dad’s parting shot from the grave. “And at least he left Kurt the truck!”
“What would you do with a truck and no license?” Kurt drawled from where he leaned in the doorway.
“Could’ve sold it!”
Gunther ran a hand back through his hair. “Will, it’s not like I’d kick you out on the street. You’re welcome to stay with Linda and me as long as you need. You can always work on the line, or the loading dock.” He glanced up at Willem, his eyes tired. “It’s not like Dad left me a lot either. A floundering brewery and a hell of a lot of debt.”
Shame flushed Willem’s face. “I’m sorry, Gun. I know.”
Five years, it had been five years since he had spoken to their father, and it had been a shouting match about Willem being a ‘sissy fag’. When his father had called him the week before, it had been a surprise. He hadn’t been able to get hold of Gunther and Kurt was out of town, he’d said. Someone needed to help him get to the hospital. The shock of seeing his strong, blustering father gaunt and unsteady had shaken Willem to the core.
In the ambulance Willem had thought he and his father had mended fences, and now this.
“I appreciate the offer.” Willem blew out a slow breath. “But I can’t mooch off you. And working at the brewery would be too much like charity.”
“It’s not charity, Will. We’re family.”
“Hate to break up this love fest, but I’m out. Have to get back to Pittsburgh tonight.” Kurt pushed off from the wall and gave them an unenthusiastic wave. “Later, bros. Have fun with your cat, Will.”
Gunther snorted when he walked out of sight. “Such a warm, caring person.”
“Yeah, well, Dad made us all what we are,” Willem muttered.
A long hesitation hung between them.
“Did he make you gay, Will?” Gunther asked softly.
From anyone else, the question would have made him furious, but Gunther, solid, backwater Gunther, really wanted to know. “No, Gun. Either you are or you aren’t. Dad made me crazy, but he didn’t make me gay.”
Gunther nodded, tapping a pencil on the desk. “So what’re you going to do? No job, no place to stay. Will, I worry about you.”
“I’ll manage.” Jaw tight, the backs of his eyes burning, Willem had no idea how he would.
Three months prior, he’d had a good job as a welder at the auto plant, a live-in boyfriend, and a decent apartment. Now the plant had shut down, the aforementioned boyfriend had ditched him for some damn hairstylist, and cheating boyfriend and said hairstylist now inhabited the apartment. The drunken binge after finding Joey in bed with his new lover had been the final blow. He didn’t recall driving drunk, but since that night had cost him his license, he must have. Not such a terrible thing, he supposed, since the week after, the bank had repossessed his car.
Joey… He wished he could recall good moments. There had been happy times, when they’d had fun together, when it had felt like Joey loved him. The only image that would come, the one seared into his brain, was Joey on his knees, head and shoulders on the mattress, ass in the air, crying out while hair-boy pounded into him with wild abandon. God. How long had it been going on, right in his own bed?
He heaved a sigh and glanced down at the black tomcat sleeping on his cushion in the corner of the office. “It was a good joke. About the cat. But I can’t take poor Puss out of here. He’s comfortable where he is.”
“Don’t mind keeping him for you,” Gunther said. “He keeps the mice from the grain. You just let me know if you ever want him.”
“Thanks, Gun.” He rose and shook his brother’s hand. “Really. I know it’s—” He broke off when something butted against his ankle. Puss wound his way around Willem’s legs, purring.
Gunther chuckled. “He doesn’t want you to go.”
“You stay with, Gun, Puss.” Willem reached down to scratch the tom behind his ears. “Stay here where you’ve got your food dish and your pillow.”
Puss looked up at him with bright green eyes and mewed. Willem hoped that was agreement.
He had walked out onto the street, long strides eating up half a block in no time, before he stumbled on something and nearly fell. The damn cat had run right between his feet.
“Go home, Puss.”
Puss just stared at him with those shining, enigmatic eyes. Not like you can tell a cat where to go. When he started walking again, Puss padded right beside him. Willem went on to the memorial park in the center of town and sat on one of the creaky benches with the fewest slats missing. He pulled his jacket closer against the late autumn chill, set his backpack by his feet, and tried to jumpstart his tired brain.
What was there really left to do? Here he was, in a town where the recession had begun long before Dubya had taken office. The coal companies, having ripped the hearts from the hills and left their mess behind, had long moved on. The last factories had shut down. Half the stores on Market Street were empty or boarded up. He had no prospects, no transportation, just enough money to get him in trouble, and no dreams that hadn’t died. What was the point—?
“Are you going to sit there feeling sorry for yourself all night?”
Willem looked around to find the velvet-smooth voice. “What? Who said that?”
“Down here, nitwit.”
But there was no one, just Puss sitting beside him on the bench with his thick, black tail twitching.
“For Raiju’s sake, Willem, open your eyes.”
They were open all right, but that didn’t guarantee his sanity. He could have sworn the damn cat had spoken.
“Yes. And while I have your attention, what sort of stupid name is Puss, anyway? Couldn’t you and your halfwit brothers have come up with something slightly more imaginative? You may as well have called me Cat.”
“Close your mouth. You waste precious heat that way.”
Willem snapped his mouth shut. Wonderful. I’ve been under so much stress I’m losing my marbles.
“I’ve shocked you. Can’t be helped.” Puss butted his head against Willem’s arm. “I don’t normally speak to regular, garden-variety humans, but you need some serious help pulling your head out of your ass.”
“Did you…? Are you…?” Words no longer seemed adequate for all the things he wanted to ask. In a strangled squeak, he forced out, “Have you always talked?”
“That, my dear Willem, would imply I’ve been talking nonstop for a number of years. I think you meant to ask, ‘Could you always talk?’ Yes.”
“But…did you talk to Dad?”
“Toward the end, yes. I tried to help. Your pater was stubborn, though. Convinced I was part of the disease process.” Puss lifted a white-socked paw to clean, his pink tongue rasping against his fur.
“Why didn’t you ever talk to me?” A little ball of hurt lodged in Willem’s gut. The old tom had been around for as long as he could recall. He would have given almost anything as a lonely, miserable child to have had someone to talk to.
“You never asked.”
“Oh.” Willem batted this around his tired brain a moment. “What do you want me to call you?”
Puss lifted a shoulder in what could only be a shrug. “I suppose you could call me Kasha.”
“Isn’t that a cereal?”
“No, you ignorant hick.” Puss…Kasha snorted. “Now, focus. It’s getting cold out here. Where have you been sleeping?”
“I was sleeping on a friend’s couch.” Willem shivered, still staring at his cat. He supposed if he had to hallucinate, at least it was a sensible one. “But her sister’s coming for a long visit and she asked me, nicely, to get out.”
“So your intention was to freeze to death on a park bench.”
“Yeah… I mean, no! I didn’t, that’s…” he trailed off, at a loss. The huge lump in his throat wasn’t helping. He had been thinking about hiking to the old train station in the next town to the south, even though it was a long haul and he was dead tired.
“Willem, my boy.” Kasha patted his thigh with a paw. “These situations are rarely as hopeless as they first appear. Turn off the bitter emotions. Keep your head. There are always opportunities. Are all your necessities in that bag?”
Willem stared down at his backpack and nodded. “Yeah. I…didn’t keep much. The rest is in storage.”
Kasha jumped down from the bench and tugged at Willem’s jeans with his claws. “Come. We’re going for a walk. I know a place.”
* * * *
Two hours later, Willem swayed on his feet, teeth clenched against his shivers. They stood in front of a dark hunting cabin, nestled in the hills outside of town.
“We can’t just go in. It doesn’t belong to us.”
“He’s gone until next year,” Kasha said with a push at Willem’s legs. “We won’t do any harm and you need somewhere warm and dry. Rain’s on the way.”
Willem glanced up at the cloudless sky. “It’s probably locked. I’m not breaking in.”
Kasha let out a little growl, apparently growing short on patience. “The key’s underneath the stone turtle by the door.”
Sure enough, it was. “How do you know all this?”
“I visit sometimes. The hunters give me deer entrails, still warm from the kill.”
“Sorry I asked.”
Exhausted and out of options now that the sun had set, Willem unlocked the door with his heart slamming against his ribs. No vehicles sat beside the cabin. No lights shone inside. Still, someone might come.
“I’m going to bite you if you don’t go inside.”
Evening blanketed the interior, but enough light remained to make out a table and two wooden chairs, a cot by the wall, a kerosene heater and a gray stone fireplace. “Okay, I’ll be there in a minute. Just need to get some wood.” He was about to stoop to squatting on someone else’s property, but he’d be damned if he was going to steal the man’s kerosene as well.
Kasha sat on the cot, tail curled around his feet, eyes closed, while Willem schlepped logs and branches in from the woodpile. Though his hands were shaking from cold and exhaustion, he managed to get a respectable fire going. The cheerful snap and crackle lifted a thin layer of shadow from his heart and Kasha, now that the hearth was warm, padded over to join him.
“Are you hungry?” Willem dug in his backpack. “I have a tin of sardines in here somewhere we could share.”
“You always were a thoughtful boy,” Kasha said as he curled up beside Willem’s thigh, his front paws tucked under his body. His ears pricked forward at a delicate metallic clatter against the stones as Willem rifled through his pack. “What would that be?”
Willem peered over his leg and picked up the little wire-and-scrap-metal sandhill crane. “Oh, that. Nothing.”
“If it’s nothing, you wouldn’t keep it. Did someone give it to you?”
“No.” Heat crept up his face. Why he felt embarrassed in front of a cat, he couldn’t imagine, especially a cat he had known all his life. “I, um, made it.”
“Did you now? Huh.” Kasha rubbed his head against Willem’s knee. “I believe you said something about sardines.”
“Right. Sorry.” Willem turned the key to open the can, the sudden, sharp fishy scent mingling with wood smoke in an oddly comforting way. Warmth and food, I suppose. His hands still shook as he divided the contents in half and placed Kasha’s portion in front of him on the lid.
Feline eyes stared up at him. “Are you ill?”
“No. I mean, I don’t think so.” He wolfed down his sardines—barely enough to fool his stomach into thinking it had been fed. With his arms wrapped around his ribs, he scooted closer to the fire. “Just can’t get warm.”
Kasha rose with a languid stretch and a sharp-toothed yawn. He trotted over to a cabinet by the cot and hooked a claw under the door’s bottom corner to pop it open. With his teeth, he snagged a wool blanket and pulled it out, the cloth unfolding behind him to three times his length as he dragged it across the floor to Willem. When he tried to repeat the process with the down comforter from the cot, Willem finally snapped out of his shocked stupor.
“Hey, um, maybe we should just sleep on the cot.”
“Warmer by the fire,” Kasha muttered with his teeth still closed on the comforter.
Can’t argue that. Willem rose on shaking legs and made them a nest of blankets on the hearth. He curled up with Kasha snuggled in his arms, the gradual spread of warmth calming his jangled nerves.
His father was dead and he wasn’t certain how he was supposed to feel. Numb, definitely numb. It was all so inconceivable, that Horst Aufderheide, larger-than-life, never satisfied, never still Horst, could be gone. Not that he had ever been close to his father. His contempt for Willem’s ‘doodling’ and his constant irritation about his lack of ‘drive’ and ‘initiative’, had built a Kinzua Dam-sized wall between them.
Kasha began to purr, soothing vibrations rippling through his chest. “Go to sleep, Willem. You need to rest.”
Between fire crackle and purr, Willem drifted off.