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Five days after Zak's disappearance, I'd learned nothing as to his whereabouts. People had called to wish me luck—but no one in the neighborhood had seen Zak. Not even Old Man Tony, who sat on his porch steps every day overseeing the comings and goings on the street. Eddie didn't know, either. Eddie was the developmentally disabled man who lived with his mother across the street. Middle-aged but spry, he used to put Zak in his bicycle basket and ride with him around the block. Zak liked it, but after I saw Eddie pedaling away from our street with my cat at the helm, I had to stop the carnival ride.
I knew that my best hope for finding Zak rested on the foottraffic flow of strangers who may or may not stop to read my lost-cat poster, my own plea for help. But what were the statistics on finding your missing cat? I had no idea, but I wanted to give Zak the best possible odds. So when I searched for him—and I searched every day—I carried extra posters and a staple gun. A previously unexplored street would soon have a set of posters with Zak's handsome face tacked to streetlights—on each side of the street. I wasn't leaving anything to chance.
During my search, I quickly discovered my psychological borders—what I considered my emotional-neighborhood turf. We all have these emotional maps, whether we realize it or not. We'll go to this convenience store, not that one. We'll buy our coffee here, not there. We won't cross at these lights, preferring instead the block ahead. It's simple, really. We feel more comfortable in some places than others. Surely that must be true for animals, too. I thought about that as I continued to search for Zak. If he has to be missing, I reasoned, then at least let me find him on a street that felt soothing, a friendly looking street. As crazy as it sounds, I wanted Zak to feel comforted. Maybe on a nice street he'd feel less lonely.
Yes, I anthropomorphized that Zak had human feelings—mine. I knew the difference between his core animal needs and my human ones, but intellect couldn't stop my worries. I wished I could send a message through mental telepathy. At least he'd know that I was frantically looking for him.
After five days of searching I understood the importance of the elements. Rain, in particular, posed a threat. Besides worrying that my posters would disintegrate, I worried that Zak was wet and cold. It had rained that morning, so I was out checking the telephone poles to see which posters had survived. Some were perfectly intact, while others were left dangling by a staple. A few had been so ravaged that Zak's likeness resembled an Impressionist painting gone soggy.
I had to get to work. The sun pushing through the clouds meant that people would soon be traveling on the sidewalks, and perhaps stopping to read my posters—a crayon drawing of an orange cat. SOS.
Nothing worked. The hours drummed by; days and nights passed of not knowing. Dread walked with me. Five days after his disappearance, I gave in. I picked up the phone.
"Hello, do you find lost pets? Could I hire you? My cat is missing."
I heard silence, followed by the click of a lighter and a long, breathy inhalation of smoke. Then the deep, raspy voice of an elderly woman who'd obviously downed some gin in her day replied: "He's alive!" She exhaled.
My nightmare was over?
"Really! Really? How do you know?" I was feeling the surge of relief, but I wasn't going to be totally taken in. I had my suspicions.
"He's a beautiful, big cat … orange." She took another drag from her cigarette. "Bushy tail." How did she get his coloring right? How did she know that he was handsome? Pride swooped in. Zak was alive and still good looking.
"He's been gone five days," I said.
"There's a neighborhood kid." Exhale. "A young boy. He knows."
My heart sank. "The strange kid next door," I said. "But they're away. Nobody's seen them for days."
"Very friendly, handsome."
"Yeah, that's Zaky. Did the boy do something to him?"
"The little boy knows."
"Is there something else I should know?"
"The boy knows." Inhale.
"Okay, okay. What do I owe you?"
I'd made the call after my vision cleared. I'd been at my desk crying when I saw the psychic's card lying on top of Zak's posters. I had to decide whether contacting the psychic was brilliant or insane. Brilliant meant that I had faith in my ability to think outside the box. Insane meant that I was desperate to believe in magic. It also made me vulnerable to a con job. It's not that I'm against creative solutions, but in this case it was the source of the suggestion—a client—who gave me pause.
Zak had been my sometimes co-therapist for ten years. I didn't encourage him to enter the field. He chose it himself. When he was a kitten, I spent as much quality time with him as I could, but when it was time to work, I closed my office door. Not one to be put off so easily he'd wander down the hall, sit right outside my door, and meow. A lot. I'd see his little paws under the crack of the door, but I never stopped the session, knowing he'd fall asleep soon enough. Until one day, at the end of a particularly intense exchange, a client burst into laughter. I followed her eyes and saw two little orange front paws—pad sides up—sticking out from under the office door. Apparently, Zak had fallen asleep on his back. And resting on the floor, in between his paws, were two upside down orange ear tips. "Can he come in?" my client asked.
He was a great therapy cat; even the cat-hating curmudgeons all thought Zak was "cool." They especially appreciated the way he'd escort them to their sessions. Springing onto the hood of a parked car, he would walk across the front windshield and stare at the driver with his big yellow eyes. He'd wait until the client opened the driver's side door and then accompany him or her up the porch stairs and into my home office. Then they'd both sit down—the client on the couch and Zak on the rug. Some of my shy clients would use Zak's presence as a conversational starting point to share how their childhood pets had saved them from feeling lonely. After one woman revealed that she couldn't trim her cat's nails, we had a touching session about the pervasive sense of inadequacy she carried with her. She counted her inability to carry out this task (a task that challenges a lot of cat owners), as just one more personal failing. And then there was the time when, over the course of one session, a young woman sobbed so deeply that she lost her breath and started to choke. Zak's ears went back. He made a high-pitched meow and jumped into her lap, covering her stomach with his body. Her breathing softened and she began to pet him. She smiled and said, "He's trying to help."
But after Zak disappeared, as each client arrived for his or her appointment, they'd ask, "Where's the cat?" I kept my cool at first, but eventually I'd stopped answering the question. I'd simply wave my lost-cat poster in the air, like it was my turn for show and tell.
Kate was the client who'd suggested that I call her psychic. An intelligent woman with a lot going for her, she was not, within the context of our therapy sessions, what I'd refer to as a "hard worker." Kate almost always took the easy way out, and when she didn't agree with what I had to say, she went to a psychic for a second opinion. I declined when she offered me her psychic's services, but at the end of the session, on her way out, she dropped the card on my desk anyway. I had no intention of calling, but a hard cry had washed away my resistance and I was willing to try anything. Besides I needed help, and the psychic's credibility had skyrocketed after I learned that we agreed on one fundamental truth—Kate's affair would break up her marriage. I dialed.
The psychic's promise—"He's alive!"—was still my only clue, and my new neighbors had been identified as material witnesses. They'd been gone for exactly five days. Zak had been missing exactly five days. Coincidence was on my side. So were my instincts. I never had a great feeling about these neighbors. The husband bulked up on steroids, but despite mountains of muscle he seemed incapable of pushing a lawn mower across his scrawny city yard. His wife chain-smoked and screamed at the kids. Even their son was suspect after he had impulsively chopped down—in my own yard—a small green tree.
"It was ugly," he told me.
Finding my cat had become a moral imperative. Now that the psychic had given me hope, I hatched a plan. Since there were probably clues inside the neighbors' house that would lead me to Zak, I'd wait until dark and break in. My role model, Nancy Drew, would have asked one of her chums to be the lookout, so I asked my friend Susan to help. When she said, "Yes," I assumed that she understood I was the lead detective and she was the chum. Chums follow their leader. But when the evening stars began to glow, Susan became anxious. She wanted to call the police and inform them of our plans, just to be on the safe side.
"Tell them what?" I asked. "We're planning a break-in?"
While we sat on the back stairs of the neighbor's house arguing, a sweet black cat with a bell on his collar appeared and climbed into my lap. It had to be a sign. Our mission had been blessed, but Susan couldn't shake her desire to call the cops. She went to get the cordless phone while the black kitty and I waited. Twenty minutes passed.
Finally, Susan returned, carrying the phone. The police dispatcher had put her on hold because her supervisor needed to be notified. My sarcasm trickled out. "The police might be looking up the rules on future break-in protocol, or they might be desperately wishing you'd hang up because it's hard for them to write up a report about a crime that hasn't happened yet." Susan laughed, but her conscience waited it out on the phone.
"You're killing the Nancy Drew thing," I growled. "The whole point is we're sneaking in." The black kitty trotted off.
After a few more minutes, my patience followed suit.
"Just hang up," I said. "They don't have our address, right?" Susan didn't respond. "Perfect. You called in a future felony, gave them our address, stayed on the phone hoping to get a message from the supervisor. ‘We're making an exception, 'cause you girls are so honest. In fact, we applaud the noble rescue of a cat by two respectable women with no criminal record. Break the law and have a nice day!' Look, they're freaking out. They'd prefer we zip it and not talk into their tape-recorded phone log. I'm going in, with or without you."
Susan put the phone down and followed me up the stairs to the neighbor's second-floor deck. "You are the lookout person," I told her. "Lean over the railings and scan the street for the neighbors, possible witnesses, and, let me add, a police cruiser." I sized up the bedroom windows. Which one would be the easiest to break? I had to get inside … though I don't know what I was expecting to find. One lame lead from a chain-smoking psychic and I had the energy of a mother lifting a piano to rescue her child. I shouted Zak's name and pointed my flashlight into the darkness behind the sliding glass doors. While jiggling the lock I continued to press my face up against the glass, but it was hard to make anything out. Then, for a fraction of a second, in a corner of the jet-black room … a blur of orange.
Was I hallucinating? Was this some sort of apparition?
Out of the darkness he strolled, as if in slow motion, toward the light. I crouched down and placed my palm on the sliding glass window. It was like a prison visit. His orange body rubbed up against the glass where my hand pressed from the visitor's side. "I'm gonna get you out!" I shouted. I saw his mouth move, but his little meow was silenced by the barrier between us. "Hold on butterscotch baby boy," I yelled at the glass.
Susan was equally thunderstruck at the sight of Zak. Here he was stuck in an abandoned house, without food or water, in the suffocating August heat. What if he was sick? We were morally outraged and highly motivated, but we'd forgotten the part where you bring actual burglary tools. Recovering from that tactical lapse, I summoned up my anger and smashed the cellar window with my flashlight. Susan slithered through the creepy spiderweb-covered basement and ran up to the second floor. Then she carried Zak down and, reaching through the window, placed him in my arms.
I wish I could say that Zak licked my face and snuggled like a bunny, but no, he just squirmed about in my arms. He liked his newfound freedom and didn't appreciate my smothering of affection, so I let him jump down and the three of us stumbled down the neighbor's unpaved driveway.
I kicked a stone and tried to make sense of what had happened. A psychic had said that Zak was alive and the boy next door knew something. But he'd disappeared five days ago, just like Zak. From that tip, I intuited that there would be some type of information in the house that would help me find Zak, and ignored any hesitation that I may have had about breaking in. My cat needed me more than social convention needed another minion.
In my kitchen, Zak devoured a freedom-celebration tuna dinner but then made his way toward the front door, as if he'd lost all memory of his incarceration. Susan and I followed him outside. He rubbed up against our legs and meowed. He sat on the porch stairs with us. Then we decided we should cover our crime of passion. We tacked a board over the neighbor's broken window and wiped off our fingerprints. The cops never showed up.
Susan worried that the neighbors would eventually see the lost-cat posters and then it would be apparent that we were the ones who had rescued Zak so she ripped down all of the posters. Afterward I told her the poster wouldn't send us to the Big House. "What are they going to do? Call the cops, and say, ‘The cat we kidnapped is missing?'"
But this wouldn't be the last chapter—eventually the neighbors would return. I needed a strategy and a personal checkup, so I summoned my inner therapist. Were the neighbors the type to retaliate? You can never be sure, but I didn't think so. They drank a lot, but I'd never seen them hit their children or even heard them fight as a couple. Mainly, they seemed irresponsible and immature but I was mad, a little scared, and feeling resentful. I didn't want to live next to them, even if they were nonviolent. After they returned, what would life be like for Zak, if I let him outside? What if the boy had an obsession with Zak? I knew I had to speak with his parents.
A week later, the neighbors pulled into their driveway and began unpacking the car. I gritted my teeth and said hello from the front porch. Zak was napping on the sidewalk in front of their house. I went over to him and suggested that he sleep in front of our house, but he clearly wanted to gloat about his get-out-of-jail-free card. No one said a negative word. In fact, the father and son were friendly. I looked for signs of distress in their presentation. I watched the boy dart around the front yard doing nothing in particular, but talking incessantly, mostly uttering fantastic stories. When he went over to pet Zak he lost his balance. It was then that I realized he had motor-coordination problems. If I hadn't been so annoyed with him for cutting down my tree, I would have put it together sooner—he had attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity. His symptoms were in motion: excessive talking, impulsivity, frustration, and distractibility. Forgetfulness is another key symptom of ADHD. I'll bet that he took Zak inside the house and simply forgot about him. Then the parents locked the doors and the family went on vacation.
It was only a theory, but it was win-win. Zak would be safe, and I no longer had to fret about my neighbors or worry about the boy.
But days later, the ordeal continued to replay itself over and over in my head. I saw Zak trapped behind the glass. I saw myself breaking the window. What if I hadn't called the psychic? Maybe I'd never have found Zak. What if I hadn't broken in but, instead, discovered much later that he'd been locked inside all along? I would never have been able to forgive myself. How did I feel about the risks I took? I loved him so much that if I got into trouble, I'd live with the consequences.
A month later, the fury and drama had ebbed. Routines were resumed. While walking around the neighborhood, stop and start became the new norm; at telephone poles I skimmed past the posters for rock bands, tag sales, volunteers needed, and computer help. I was looking for lost-cat posters. I found them, too.
Vary wary Middie, may be hiding.
Spidey is black and has three legs. Gets around well.
A cat named Itchy had a brother named Ritchie who wasn't missing.
The experience with Zak had triggered something in me. I wanted to pass along the support that I'd been surprised to receive, mostly from strangers, who'd left messages of concern after discovering Zak's posters. Those calls—so many from people I didn't know and would never meet—had left me feeling a little more hopeful, a little less alone. Most of us have asked ourselves, more than once: Who will be there for me? Who cares about my problems? Will loved ones and strangers help me or will they add to my troubles? When our pets disappear we feel scared. For other lost-cat owners I wanted to offer my tiny flame of goodness for their foggy trek.
People were friendly, but surprised to hear from me. "What's your name again?"
I discovered a black-and-white sketch of a cat, which had a big head, spots on his nose, and a bouncy tail. The caption said, Of course, in person he looks more like a cat. The father of the owner, an elderly Italian man had learned more nouns than verbs. "Thunder, boom, lightning, she a gone," he said, referring to their twenty-two-year-old cat who had run away. "Neighbor lady find, laundry basket."
Then one day I discovered a poster that included a figure of a heart, with an arrow drawn through it. The owner told me a very long, haunting story. She'd been on a journey. Like the devoted wife of a sea captain who would climb the stairs to the widow walk—at dawn and at dusk—she would scan the horizon searching for a hint of a tiny ship in the distance, her gaze exuding a prayer and a question: When is he coming home?
Copyright © 2013 by Dr. Nancy Davidson