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Diane Payne

Except for the Cats

She never questioned what she was doing. Never planned it out. Never thought about it. She simply finished her morning coffee and walked next-door wearing her slippers and fuzzy bathrobe. For years she has watched their friends lift the flowerpot and pull out the key so they could feed their cats while the neighbors were on vacation. In some ways she was relieved they never asked her to walk over and feed the cats. Every now and then she's knocked on their door for this or that, and the minute the door opens, she could smell the litter boxes. She couldn't tolerate having a litter box in her home.

Reaching beneath the flowerpot seemed like the most natural activity. The key fit in the lock and turned easily. She replaced the key and walked in the house. She knew Margot wouldn't be home until lunch and Jim never returned home until four. They had been neighbors for six years. Neighbors who socialized with neighbors seemed like something that happened only in a fantasy world. The last time she truly socialized with neighbors was back when she was a college student and she lived next door to other college students. That was so long ago she can hardly believe she was that girl with all that friendly energy. In hindsight, she realized some of that friendly energy may have been a bit too friendly, especially with the men.

Margot and Jim were like strangers to her. They knew the basics of each other. Jim taught at an elementary school. Margot worked at a bank. They were still in their twenties. No children. Big garden. Not church goers.

All three cats waited by the door until she entered the kitchen. Then they took off running to hide beneath a bed.

She stood in the kitchen a moment, taking notice of the empty bowls in the sink, the unfinished coffee in the pot, the newspaper strewn on the table. There was no reason for her to be inside this home. If another neighbor saw her unlocking the door, they'd assume she was checking on the cats or doing the neighbors a favor.

She hadn't stepped inside this house in three years, and then she used their front door and only stood inside the living room for a few minutes, just long enough to ask Jim if he could help her light the water heater pilot.

She walked into their office and sat by the desk. She opened the drawers and looked at the unpaid bills, the address book, and then decided to read an old letter. She didn't know her neighbors were trying to have a baby. The aunt wrote a long letter telling about her three miscarriages, her sense of loss, but then, as they knew, she had two beautiful children, Margot's cousins.

The cats hovered beneath the bed. She never looked under the bed. Instead, she opened the drawer next to the bed and looked through their things. KY jelly. Massage oil. Nasal spray. Ink pens. A notebook. She opened it. Jim's dream journal. Childhood toys. Drawings of faces. Sloppy handwriting, as if he were still asleep while writing. Dead babies. People from his school.

The sound of thunder off in a distance. She closed the drawer and opened the bedroom closet. Felt the clothes. The cats watched her from beneath the bed.

She walked down the hallway into another room. The cat room. The smell of ammonia. The cat toys.

Lightning filled the dark morning sky.

She pushed the door handle into lock position and closed the door.

No one will ever know she entered the house.

Except for the cats.

Diane teaches creative writing at University of Arkansas-Monticello, where is is also faculty advisor of Foliate Oak Literary Magazine,  She is the author of two novels: Burning Tulips and  A New Kind of Music.  She has been published in hundreds of literary magazines, which most recently include:  Fiction International, The Rambler, Tea Party, and Arkansas Literary Forum.

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