The notification popped up on Karen’s facebook feed, alongside a little cartoon heart:
John Roberts is now in a relationship with Rebecca Owen.
Karen’s stomach gave an all-too-familiar lurch, twisting itself into a knot and leaving a hollow, aching pit. Suddenly the dish of sliced apples which she’d carefully peanut-buttered and arranged on a plate didn’t look appetizing. She sat numbly, one clammy hand on the mouse, the other flat on the table.
She let out a jagged breath. There it was. John had moved on. Why couldn’t she?
Karen stood up and stumbled away from the computer. That low ache, the bitter melange of hurt, regret and jealousy, churned in her belly. She wanted to curl up on the floor and cry.
No, god-damn it. No more crying. She went out to the porch.
The back deck of her mom’s house had an amazing view. She leaned her elbows on the wooden railing and looked out over the oak-carpeted valley, down at the clusters of ranch buildings and tidy homes. The afternoon sun hung low in a cloudless sky. She closed her eyes, enjoying the warmth on her face.
Who the fuck is Rebecca Owen?
Her eyes stung. Again, she felt tears welling. Stop it. Just stop. It doesn’t matter.
Karen suddenly just wanted to be somewhere else. As far away as she could get from John and Rebecca Fucking Owen. She wandered back into the house, plopped down her mom’s big, comfy white couch, and picked up a book off the coffee table. The Lonely Planet Guide to Thailand. For the hundredth time she flipped through the dog-eared pages, past sticky notes and her own hand-written annotations. She paused, closed her eyes, and pictured herself alone, trekking to forgotten jungle temples, or sitting in a pleasant sidewalk café with her backpack slumped at her feet, sipping a cappuccino as she wrote her breakout novel on her laptop.
She opened her eyes and put down the book, then stood and went back to the computer. The screen had dimmed but not yet gone to screensaver. She wiggled the mouse and the screen brightened. It was still there. Rebecca Owen. Karen swallowed, clicked on John Roberts, then unfriend. It felt good. Damned good, in fact. She took a deep breath and let it out again.
“Fuck it,” she said. She deleted her entire facebook account. Next she opened the bookmarks menu and moved the cursor down to a bookmark she had titled five cats.
The page that loaded was an advertisement on worldhousesitters.com. She could recite it from memory, but she read through it again.
I’m a British expat, a batty old cat-lady living out my retirement in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Soon I’ll need to travel home to deal with some family affairs. I expect this will take several months. In the meantime, I’m seeking a responsible young lady who can house-sit, as well as take care of my five cats. Money to take care of the cats, as well as a small stipend, will be provided.
“Fuck it.” She clicked on reply.
Too tired to be awake, too wired to sleep, Karen craned her aching neck over and peered through the tiny window as the jetliner banked for its final approach to the Chiang Mai airport. Twelve hours across the ocean to Japan, another five to Bangkok, then two more to Chiang Mai. She was dirty, sticky and disheveled. Her cramped legs felt as swollen as stuffed sausages. Her knees ached. Her butt was numb. She pushed her feet against the metal bracing of the seat in front of her, trying to regain some circulation. The Asian gentleman wearing a suit in the seat next to her shifted in his sleep and his head lolled to one side. He snored quietly.
The airliner levelled out, the flaps whined into position, and the engines spooled down. A lightness in Karen’s stomach marked the descent, but it could have been butterflies. A checkerboard of green jungle and gray city rushed by outside the window, disappearing abruptly at the airport fence and replaced with a blur of cracked and patched tarmac. The wheels scuffed and touched down. The whole cabin rocked and the wings outside bounced, almost gracefully. The nose wheel settled down and the engines reversed full, rising again to a turbine howl. The passengers lurched forward against their seatbelts as the plane decelerated.
The airliner taxied to the terminal. Karen clutched her backpack—her only luggage—to her chest. The intercom pinged and the seatbelt sign went off, the captain thanked them in broken English, a smiling stewardess stood by the doorway and bowed in the Thai fashion to each passenger. Karen shuffled out with the rest of them.
Compared to the space-age bustle of the Bangkok airport, Chiang-Mai was almost quaint. Karen found a currency exchange outside the food court and received a ridiculous amount of Thai Baht for her dollars. She went through the glass doors of the terminal and into the blistering, saturated heat of Northern Thailand.
Immediately, her shirt was soaked in sweat. The air seemed thick, viscous, as if swimming might be more appropriate than walking. As she walked towards the taxis, a half-dozen drivers put down their phones and newspapers and called out, “Miss, were you go? Where you go? I take you, best cab.” A few of them chuckled and spoke in their own language as they glanced at her legs.
She approached the least creepy among them and pointed to Chiang Mai’s old town on her tourist map.
“Five hundred,” said the cabbie.
All the tourist books said to haggle. She countered, “Two hundred,” and was pleasantly surprised when he shrugged and nodded. She climbed into the cab.
As the streets rushed by, a glowing sense of accomplishment battled her fatigue. You’re doing it, Karen. You’re actually here. You’re ten thousand miles away from John. You even haggled for a cab ride. She smiled and looked out the window. The streets were an enchanting mix of ancient and modern. Ornate, crumbling brickwork stood next to shiny new motor scooters, orange-robed monks walked down the street while texting on smartphones, ancient temples stood next door to seedy massage parlors.
Lack of sleep tugged at her like a physical thing, but Karen was too excited to succumb. The air all around her was filled with strange sounds and smells, the nasal jabbering of the locals, the heady smells of spices, fish, and ripe garbage. The cabbie let her out near the east gate of the old city wall, a crumbling, medieval-looking brick structure. She found a nearby sidewalk café and got a cappuccino and a muffin. Karen connected her laptop to the café wifi and sent an email to her mom while she sipped at her drink. With that obligation out of the way, she clicked on the email saved in her inbox and read through it one more time.
Thank you so much for responding! You sound like just the sort of person I’m looking for. I’m so pleased you have accepted! I’ve received the itinerary you forwarded, and I look forward to your arrival on March 14. I’ll be home all day, so just stop by when you arrive. The address is 1272 Muen Dam Pla Kot Road 7, north of the old city. Don’t let the cab drivers overcharge you!
The day waned into afternoon. Knots of tourists mingled with the locals, crowding the uneven sidewalks and spilling over onto the street, flowing in a jumble around food carts and parked motor scooters. In the street, traffic didn’t flow as much as it swarmed, scooters and cars and three wheeled tuk-tuks jumbled together like debris in a stream. Horns and music and the babble of a dozen different languages suffused the air.
Karen wandered in a sleep-deprived haze, past restaurants and bars, massage parlours and bookstores. It was everything she had dreamed. It was magical; she didn’t want it to end. She had to take a moment and remind herself that she had plenty of time.
It was time, she decided, to go meet Gertrude Miller and her five cats. She raised her hand and flagged down a passing tuk-tuk. The motorized rickshaw swerved across two lanes of traffic and came to a stop at the curb in front of Karen.
The driver was ancient, brown and weathered like a dried apple. He hunched over the handlebars of his tuk-tuk, his one good eye staring at her while the other, white and clouded, peered blindly ahead. Three coarse gray whiskers jutted from his chin. His cart was festooned in orange and white bunting, cluttered with Buddha statues and prayer medallions. A little fake bird perched on his handlebar. The cart’s engine idled spastically. The driver grinned, his few remaining teeth the color of old ivory. “Tuk-tuk?” he asked. Karen nodded. “Where you go?”
Karen took out her laptop and pointed to the address on the screen.
Like the curling legs of a dying spider, the old man’s grin shriveled into a scowl. His eyes narrowed. He tapped the screen, hard, with his gnarled old finger. “You no go,” he rasped. His hazy white eye fixed on her. “You no go there.”
Taken aback, Karen smiled, confused. “No, it’s okay. Here. I have money. Go here.” Karen again pointed to the address.
With a start, she realized it was a real bird on the handlebars. The little songbird hopped from its perch to the man’s arm, then bounced up to his shoulder. It let out a peep, and it’s black eyes seemed to bore into her.
The driver made a chopping gesture. “No money. No go. You no go there.”
“But I have money.”
The old man seized her wrist and pulled her close. His fingers were gnarled, arthritic claws that dug into Karen’s wrist. His breath smelled like stale coffee and cigarettes. “Bad place. No go.”
Fear hit Karen like an electric shock. She shrieked and twisted her arm loose, almost dropping her laptop, then stumbled down the street, away from the crazy old man. The tuk-tuk followed behind her, the man screaming, “You no go! You no go!” Only when a group of Australian backpackers surrounded her did the old man speed away.
Shaken, Karen sat down at a plastic chair outside a restaurant. The Australians bought her a beer and sat with her until she calmed down. They were a hilarious, rowdy group, and soon Karen was pleasantly buzzed. The incident with the driver slipped quietly into memory.
The sun crept lower. Outside a bar across the street, a band began setting up their equipment. Vendors put up their booths and laid out wares for the night market. Lack of sleep, amplified by alcohol, again weighed down Karen’s eyelids. She nodded off, coming abruptly awake when her chin touched her chest. A moment later, it happened again. She stood up. “Sorry, guys,” she said to her new friends, “If I don’t get some sleep I’m going to pass out in the street.” She promised to come find them again, and then went on her way.
As soon as she was alone, the memory of the crazy old tuk-tuk driver returned to her. She suddenly couldn’t bring herself to raise her hand and flag down another ride. She examined the laminated tourist map she had picked up at the airport. It was only a mile. She decided to walk instead. She set off north, vaguely following the river. Soon she was deep in a residential area, walking along cracked and buckled sidewalks, shaded by ancient trees. The greenness of the place was a shock after having lived in dry, arid California. Verdant green life writhed from every crack in the cement, colonized every scrap of bare earth. Hedges and trees ran riot, mocking attempts to restrain them, making yards and empty lots into dense, sinister jungles. The houses all around were ramshackle, run-down. High walls blocked yards from view.
Karen felt another wave of fatigue wash over her. Almost there.
As she walked, a noise gradually intruded into her thoughts. Before her conscious mind even recognized it, a jolt of terror ran like a trickle of ice water down her spine. The noise grew louder, and finally Karen placed it. It was a Tuk-Tuk engine. Her logical mind dismissed the possibility. There were thousands of the little cabs in the city. They were everywhere. What were the odds? And yet, some ancient corner of her brain took over, commandeering her legs. Without fully understanding why, she sprinted for a nearby alleyway and crouched behind a row of trash cans.
The engine noise increased as the tuk-tuk grew closer. Karen risked a peek over the top of the trash cans. She didn’t want to believe it, but there he was. The same old man. He drove slowly down the street, scanning left and right with his single good eye.
Karen bit back her scream and ducked back behind the trash cans. Her heart hammered frantically. She bit her knuckle and closed her eyes. He knows I’m here. She thought to herself, her brain spinning out one crazy scenario after another, Somehow he knows. He smells me. He’s going to climb out of his seat and grab me, and then… And then, she didn’t know what. It didn’t make any sense. He could hardly hope to kidnap her by himself, driving a glorified motorcycle. What could he possibly want from her?
The tuk-tuk didn’t stop. She heard the sound of it’s engine receding, fading away into nothing as it rounded the corner at the end of the block. Karen sat crouched behind the trash cans for what felt like hours. When at last she stood up and brushed the dirt off of her aching knees, she felt completely stupid. She looked both ways down the street and saw no sign of the driver. She took a deep breath, and continued walking.
Another block passed without incident, though Karen couldn’t stop glancing over her shoulder, or straining to hear the sound of a tuk-tuk motor. When she reached number 1272, she breathed a sigh of relief.
The house was the picture of decayed grandeur, nestled away behind high walls. The sea-foam paint on the proud stucco walls flaked and peeled, the stucco itself crumbling to reveal the metal lath beneath. A sun-bleached mailbox stood next to a rust-spotted iron gate and a worn call-box. Karen pushed the button. A timid British accented voice answered from the tinny speaker. “Hello?”
“Hello, Mrs. Miller?”
The voice was sweet as marmalade. “Why Karen, is that you? Come in, dear, come in. The gate is unlocked.”
Karen pushed open the rusted metal gate and stepped inside. The click of the gate closing behind her somehow seemed to shut out the dangers of the street outside. She breathed a sigh of relief. The yard within the wall was a riot of foliage, crowding up against the narrow brick pathway, creating a green tunnel that led to the house. Somewhere she could hear water falling and birds chirping. She followed the path through the jungle that was Mrs. Miller’s front yard. Near the house the greenery opened up onto a broad front porch with a few ancient pieces of patio furniture. The deck was warped and twisted by the oppressive wet heat, gradually tearing itself apart.
The metal screen door opened, and an old woman in a high-necked blouse and a full length skirt stepped out. She had a sweet old face, and her silver hair was done up in a tight bun. She stood ramrod-straight. For a moment Karen was reminded of the old lady from the Tweety Bird cartoons.
“Welcome!” said the old woman, with a bright smile. She hobbled down the three front steps to meet Karen, and grasped both her hands. “Thank you ever so much for coming. It’s so nice to meet you in person. You’re just the sort of young lady I’m looking for.”
“Thank you for having me,” said Karen. She smiled back warmly. “I’m so excited about my stay. What a beautiful country.”
“Oh, indeed it is. Lovely place. The humidity helps my arthritis, you know. And I must say a pound goes further here than it does back home.” She turned and led Karen up the steps. “Come in, come in, you must have a cup of tea.”
The old woman led Karen into a blissfully cool living room, cluttered with time-worn
Edwardian decor and the brick-a-brac that elderly women seem to accumulate. Ornate knitted rugs lay on wooden floors. Dark wood crown moulding over white walls. Pictures of white, smiling faces dotted the walls in square or oval frames. Vases of flowers. Doilies. A glass case full of ceramic cats. Somewhere an air conditioner steadily chugged along.
The old lady gestured towards a claw-footed kitchen table. “Sit down, dear. Put your things down. I’ll make us a pot of tea.” She disappeared around the corner, and Karen heard the rattle of china and the squeak of cabinet doors.
Karen set her backpack down and sat, twisted in her seat to look at the room. There was a hallway with several closed doors, an antique-looking couch, and a glass back door leading to a screened-in back porch. “Oh, you’ll have so much fun here,” said Mrs. Miller, as she rattled around in the kitchen. “How exciting! It makes me want to be young again. Once you get settled, you’ll want to go exploring, I expect. Most of the youngsters tend to be around the Thae Pae gate.”
“That’s what I’ve heard.”
“Plenty of good looking fellows around, eh? Once I’ve gone, I suppose I couldn’t stop you if you decided to bring one home.” The woman smiled suggestively, rounding the corner with a tray holding a tea pot and two cups. She set the tray down and filled the cups before sitting down herself, daintily tucking her skirt as she did. “Tea or sugar?”
“No, thank you. This is fine.” Karen blew on the tea and took a sip.
Mrs. Miller leaned forward. “So, tell me about yourself. What brings you all the way to Chiang Mai?”
Karen took another sip of the tea. “Just looking for a change, I guess. You know? I just wanted to get away. Try something different.”
The old woman smiled gently. “Broken heart?”
Karen laughed. “Is it that obvious?”
“Oh, dear, I’ve been around a while. I know the signs. Don’t you worry, you’re doing the right thing. And time heals. In a few weeks, you won’t even remember his name.”
“I hope so.” The tea had cooled a bit. She took a bigger drink. There was some grit on her tongue, and a bit of something at the bottom of the cup. And a subtle, bitter aftertaste. Karen politely ignored it.
“Myself, I’ve had enough of that sort of thing for this lifetime,” said Mrs. Miller. “That’s why I just stick to cats. Cats won’t break your heart, or run off with some other woman.”
“So where are your cats? I’d like to meet them.”
“Oh, I’ve got them closed up in the back room. They can be a bit overwhelming, you know. They have a way of competing for my attention. I wanted a chance to sit you down and chat for a bit first.”
Something occurred to Karen. The woman’s black skirt. It didn’t have a single cat hair. She looked around the room. No cat toys, no cat perches, no food dishes.
Karen heard a muffled thump and a crash from the back of the house. Mrs. Miller stood up. “Oh, now what are those little devils up to?”
Another thump, louder now, and Karen heard a piteous mewl. “Is everything alright? She asked. She tried to stand up and her head swam. She sat down again. She was more tired than she realized.
The cat screeched again, louder. Something thumped against the closed door, rattling it in its frame. “What is that?” Karen asked, her brows furrowed.
“Don’t you worry, sweetie.” Mrs. Miller patted Karen on the hand. “Just finish your tea.”
The room spun. Karen gripped the table. Her gorge rose. She stared, unfocused, at her teacup.
Another crash, and a door burst open.
Something fell into the room.
Once, it had been a girl. Her arms ended at the elbows, legs at the knees. She wriggled along on clubbed stumps, naked, a twisted mockery, a madwoman’s imagining of a cat. Scarred, deformed, cut and sewn, cruelly warped by old scars and new stitches. Shiny white welts across her back and down her thighs formed a tiger stripe pattern. From the tiny inverted Y that had once been her mouth, she screamed. All that emerged was a pitiful whine.
She almost sounded like a cat.
The thing—the girl—hobbled forward, fixing Karen with wide open, panicked eyes, thumping and squirming towards her on the wooden floor. She howled again and Karen made out a single word: “Ruuun!”
Karen screamed and jumped to her feet. She bolted for the door but her legs failed her. She stumbled and fell. Her teacup shattered on the floor. The room spun. Suddenly her head weighed a thousand pounds. Her vision tunneled and darkened. Her limbs were leaden, useless. The last thing she saw was the girl, scrabbling towards her on the hardwood floor, tears streaming from her eyes.
Then everything went dark.
Even as she faded into unconsciousness, Karen heard Mrs. Miller screaming, “Oh, you naughty, naughty kitty! Back in your cage! Bad kitty! Bad bad kitty!”
Rachael sat in her dorm room, surrounded by stacks of packed boxes. She twirled her brand new tassel on the end of her finger. Her mortarboard and robe lay on the bed to one side of her, her open laptop on the other. “So, what now?” She muttered, to no one in particular.
Adventure, that’s what. After four years of grinding away at papers and exams, four years of deadlines and stress and playing catch-up, finally she was finished. Time for some fun. She clicked on the post she had noticed earlier on worldhousesitter.com:
I’m a British expat, a batty old cat-lady living out my retirement in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Soon I’ll need to travel home to deal with some family affairs. I expect this will take several months. In the meantime, I’m seeking a responsible young lady who can house-sit, as well as take care of my six cats.