This story is by Elizabeth Nettleton and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The alarm chimed in the other room, muffled by the half-closed door. I opened one eye, then the other. Morning light filtered through the curtains onto my face, and I enjoyed the warmth for a moment before rolling onto my back. Outside, I could hear the familiar calls of the butcherbirds, begging me to come and play.
You don’t have to ask twice, I thought with a grin. But first, breakfast.
Silence answered me.
“Mum?” I called again, louder this time.
There was no reply; no cheerful greeting or even the shuffling of footsteps. I threw my blanket down. The shrill, vibrating alarm was beginning to annoy me now. With a loud huff, I padded down the hallway and pushed Mum’s bedroom door open.
A small frown creased my forehead. The window had been left ajar, allowing a gust of wind to trace its way across the empty bed. Pale blue sheets, normally tucked under the mattress, pooled beside a pile of clothes on the floor. I crossed the room and touched one of the shirts. It was still warm and smelt faintly of Mum’s apricot body wash. Had she slept in this? I couldn’t remember.
Under the clothes was the screaming phone. I tried to turn the alarm off but had no idea how it worked. Frustrated, I left it where it was. The illuminated numbers seemed to glower at me as I retreated from the room.
Whiskers wandered through the hallway, the end of her tail flicking with each step. She stared up at me and meowed.
“Where’s Mum?” I asked, knowing full well she couldn’t understand me.
She hissed in response. Whiskers was exactly one year older than me and seemed to think she ruled the roost because of it. She was always strutting around the house or purring smugly on Mum’s lap, and would swipe at me if I even tried to touch her. Once, when I was younger, she scratched me so badly that I needed to see a doctor.
Well, boo to you too, Whiskers.
I made my way down the stairs, calling for my mother as I went. Whiskers followed at a distance, grumbling in her own feline way. As I reached the landing, I bellowed at the top of my lungs, causing Whiskers to dart beneath the couch.
A half-empty mug sat on the coffee table in the living room. I peered into it and took a sip, the lukewarm tea bitter on my tongue. Whiskers jumped on the chair and closed her eyes, refusing to acknowledge me any longer. I glared at her, then stalked into the kitchen.
A branch tapped against the window and waved a greeting to me in the breeze. It watched me as I peered around the room, in every nook and cranny I could find. I even went behind each door, as if this was a game of hide and seek that Mum had simply forgotten to tell me about.
She wasn’t there.
Some food lay discarded on the counter. I tried to raise myself up, my toes straining with the effort, but there were no clues left in the scattered toast crumbs. Unease pricked at my skin. Where was she? Mum never left me like this. In many ways, she still seemed to think of me as a baby. Sometimes while she watched TV, she would ask me to sit with her. We’d cuddle on the couch, my legs over hers, and ignore the fact that I was far too big to sit on her lap anymore.
Maybe she’d just gone to the letterbox?
I ran to the living room, sure that I was right. Of course Mum hadn’t left me alone. She was just getting the mail. I pressed my nose against the window, examining every tree and shrub that littered our front yard.
I did see the car, though.
Our blue hatchback sat upon the gravel, unaware that anything was amiss. Disappointed and confused, I turned away from the window and curled up on the lounge chair. Whiskers’ fur bristled.
My last suspicion had been that Mum went somewhere and didn’t want to wake me. It wasn’t like me to sleep through the creaking front door, but I supposed it was possible. If she had though, why hadn’t she taken the car? We lived in the suburbs, away from all the big shops that we liked to visit. And weren’t we still in lockdown? I wasn’t exactly sure what lockdown was, except that it meant not leaving the house very much.
I went to the back door and reached as far as I could. My nails scraped against the handle, but I was still too small to grasp it properly. I ground my teeth. Mum made this look so easy; she just grabbed and pulled. Nothing I did made the door budge.
There was a laugh outside. Still on my tiptoes, I could see our neighbour, Vincent, pruning the roses that separated our yard from his. He admired the flowers from each angle, before taking a pair of rusty scissors and snipping a few dead leaves away. I threw my weight against the glass.
The door shuddered under my weight but did not yield.
Vincent lifted his head, then reached into his pocket. His hand emerged with a set of white headphones that he plugged into his ears. I banged against the door, screaming his name, while Vincent bobbed his head along with the music.
I pulled away from the door. Mum’s phone chirped above me in an endless repetition. Could I use it to call Grandma? The thought bounced in my mind until I came to the same conclusion I had earlier: I simply had no idea how to use it.
A whimper burst through my lips. I glanced around me, desperate to find an explanation hidden amongst our things. The coats hanging along the wall appeared to be undisturbed, and I could see Mum’s handbag peeking out from behind a long red sleeve. Mum’s favourite shoes, a towering pair of black heels, sat neatly beneath it. When was the last time Mum had left without her phone, purse or those shoes?
The walls seemed to close around me with each panted breath I took. Images of Mum in danger or distress taunted me to the beat of my thundering heart. I ran through the house, calling her name, until the floorboards seemed to scream beneath me.
A siren wailed outside, somewhere beyond the rows of houses that made up our street. I tried to block the sound, but it would not relent, boring itself into my skull. I began to cry, calling out for anybody who might be able to help me.
Footsteps fell outside. My head jerked up, and I raced to the window. Mum’s familiar figure jogged along the path towards the house, her face flushed but calm. I jumped up and down at the sight of her, whimpering in relief.
The front door inched open. Mum stuck her hand in front of her as she entered, trying to contain my excitement.
“Oh, Shadow. You’d think I’d been gone forever,” she said with a laugh. Her body glistened with sweat, and I noticed a water bottle placed next to the pot plant by the door. I sniffed it, then returned to Mum for another scratch. My tail thumped against the wall as she pulled the sneakers from her feet.
“I think I’d rather keep the pounds than do that again,” she said.
Mum sat down on the couch and I hopped on top of her. She wrapped her arms around me, digging her fingers into my long black fur. I nestled my face into her elbow.
I didn’t know what pounds were, but if it meant she would never leave me again, I’d rather she kept them too.