Mrs. Rosario addressed her first text, in early April, to the all-tenant distribution list. “To many on elevator,” she wrote. “!Back off!”
“A bit cranky,” Mark said to his wife as they strolled through a small park. Mark and Jen escaped their apartment every other evening. They craved distance from the ambulances dashing to the hospital across the street and the crooked green line of hospital workers on break, their masks pulled down, smoking six feet apart outside its doors. It took creativity to map sufficiently solitary walks; many New Yorkers had the same idea.
“She’s not wrong,” Jen said. “Everyone’s impatient nowadays. They crowd into that tiny space and breathe all over each other.”
They had met Mrs. Rosario when they moved in, her wiry hair and lined face peeking out from the apartment down the hall. She called Mark “Marco” and Jen “Henny.” Her smile revealed two profound gaps where teeth had once lived. She gifted them with tostones they devoured and stale candies they threw away. Once Mark brought up a package for her, and she welcomed him into her apartment. It was clean and dark, with splashes of primary color brightening her chairs and sofa. A cat hissed at him. Another hid under his chair.
“You like cats, Marco?” she’d asked.
“Sure,” he’d said. “but they make Jen wheezy.”
“I don’t know,” she said dismissively. He inferred that she did not understand the word “wheezy,” and was embarrassed that he had used it. “Alessandro and Valentina,” she said. “Boy and girl.” In later hallway encounters, Mark never failed to ask after Alessandro and Valentina, always eliciting her broad, cavernous smile.
Her second text came only to Mark. “I have corona,” it said. “Go hospital. Feed cats pleas.” Mark arranged to get a key from the super.
“Did she seem sick to you?” the super asked him.
“I don’t see her enough to know,” Mark admitted. “But if tests were more available, I’d get one.”
Jen called around; Mrs. Rosario hadn’t been admitted across the street. She was on a ventilator by the time they located her in a Midtown hospital. Mark checked on Alessandro and Valentina every other day, wearing a mask and gloves and carrying disinfectant wipes for the first two weeks, abandoning them after the city’s wipe supply dried up. The cats, unfriendly, usually hid under furniture. Neither Mark nor Jen developed symptoms.
Forbidden to visit under hospital protocols, Mark phoned the floor nurses to pass Mrs. Rosario occasional messages about the cats, uncertain whether in the hectic ICU they shared his reports. One evening when he phoned, they told him she had died earlier that day.
“Why is this so hard? We barely knew her,” Jen said, lifting a tear-stained cheek to gaze at Mark. “I don’t know how I feel. Sad, angry, vulnerable. That’s a start.”
Something shifted in Mark’s chest as he looked at his wife. “It’s real now,” he said. “It wasn’t real before.”
“Will you call me Henny once in a while, just to show we remember her?” Jen asked.
Mark notified the super. “Does she have family members who can take the cats?” he asked.
“A sister lives in the Dominican Republic,” the super said. “I’ll contact her later today. I’ll have to clear out that apartment pretty soon. I’ll ask her about the cats, but I think they’re yours.”
At first Mark left the cats in her apartment, feeding them, changing the litter. When the weather warmed, he splurged on an automatic water dispenser. Eventually the super said he needed to empty the place, and the cats would have to go. Mark texted the all-tenant distribution list: Could anyone adopt two beautiful cats? No one volunteered.
“What do you think?” Mark asked Jen. “Should we try it?”
“I can’t, honey,” Jen said. “I’m too allergic.”
They contacted the Humane Society. Low staffing levels meant a wait of at least two weeks. Mark checked with the super and the other tenants about allowing the cats to roam the building temporarily, with their food, water, and litter stations on his floor.
But the cats were confused and hostile. They defecated and urinated in hallway nooks and crannies, mewling hideously at unexpected moments. They clawed at doors and pawed at mice, leaving them half-dead on doorsteps. They scratched Mark and the super. Some residents seemed afraid of them. It didn’t help that everyone stayed home all day, every day. It felt as if furry monsters roamed the halls in partnership with the virus, imprisoning tenants in their cramped living spaces.
“They’re grieving,” Mark said of the cats.
“The whole city is grieving,” Jen said. “They don’t get a special pass.”
“I know it’s only been a week,” the super said, “but this isn’t working. You have twenty-four hours.”
That evening, Mark and Jen left the building for their walk as another couple entered, arms full of bags from a local market. In the confusion at the door, as everyone jumped back to create six feet of distance from one another, a bag tipped over, spilling a thin wedge of cheese out of its waxed-paper wrapping and onto the vestibule floor. In the next instant, Alessandro the cat emerged from nowhere, grabbed the cheese in his teeth, and dashed out the front door of the building. Before anyone could react, Valentina raced after him. No one chased them.
“They’re not going to last long,” Mark said. “They have no idea what to do out there.”
“Neither do we,” Jen said. “But at least they’re free.”
practiced law for over thirty years before writing short and flash fiction. She has nearly always lived in the Midwest, and currently is at home in Saugatuck, Michigan, where she writes overlooking the Kalamazoo River. Her work has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, Blue River Review, and the UK’s Vamp Cat Magazine, among others. She was a 2017 finalist for a fellowship for emerging writers over 50 from The Forge Literary Magazine, and a 2019 fiction finalist in the Michigan Writers Cooperative Press chapbook competition.