A few years ago, I was living in Somerville and freelancing. The work was uneven: I would spend weeks doing nothing, and then three jobs would come in at once. I was exhausted by boredom, and then I was exhausted by work.
It was the first week of January—dark and dry and freezing. A cold front had come in, but there was no snow, and the sun set at four in the afternoon. I had no work, and I needed work. I spent my days emailing clients, asking them for new projects or reminding them for the second or third or fourth time that I still needed to be paid. I received tens of out-of-office messages telling me that my contacts were in Florida or Colorado or Spain for the holidays and would get back to me as soon as they returned. I imagined them with their families, sitting on thebeach or skiing or drinking wine, and I found myself scrolling through row after row of Google Image results for Florida and Colorado and Spain.
When I couldn’t look at the computer anymore, I put on my coat and wrapped myself up to the eyes and walked through Somerville and Medford. I went up and down the rows of identical vinyl-sided houses, and stepped over the dead Christmas trees that littered the curbs and the dog turds that had frozen into the pavement. One evening, I slipped on the ice in Powder House Square and landed on my hip. The bruise was there for weeks.
Even before my fall, I wasn’t well. I had headaches and tightness in my chest, and once or twice a day, I found myself, for no real reason, in tears. A thin line of pain ran down my left temple—a sort of invisible thread that seemed to be bearing the increasing weight of my awful brain, a thread that with a little extra stress or even a sudden movement might snap and spill me out into the world.
This was, in other words, not the happiest period of my life.
I needed a change. One morning, I was looking through my old emails, hoping I had somehow missed an offer of work, when I saw a months-old exchange with a former roommate who had recently moved to Vermont. He had inherited a cabin there from his uncle and decided to live in in it. (He was a wedding photographer and could drive into the city for work on the weekends.) He had invited me to the cabin whenever I liked; I had told him that I was excited to see it, and then immediately forgot the whole thing.
Now, however, the cabin offered everything I needed—fresh air! snow! a fire! a friendly face! I texted my former roommate; he said that he would be happy to have me. I put a few things in a backpack, rented a car (very expensive on short notice, but I would deal with that when I got my credit card bill), and by the afternoon, I was on my way to Vermont.
My former roommate’s cabin was at the northern edge of the state. As I approached, my car’s radio started to pick up French stations from across the border. It had snowed the day before, the moon was full, and the whole landscape glowed. The weight on the thread in my temple began to dissolve.
I passed a wide, frozen lake, turned onto a little lane, and came to the cabin. Icicles hung from its frame, and smoke rose from a metal pipe in the roof. There were no other houses in sight—just hills and trees and snow. I parked next to my former roommate’s car, gathered my things, and walked up the snowy path. There were lights in all three windows, and for a moment, I felt like I was coming home. (I had never been here before, of course. I had never even been to this part of Vermont.)
My former roommate opened the door. One of us tried to shake hands, the other to hug. We ended up somewhere between. I took off my boots and my coat, and he showed me around the cabin—the bedroom, the bathroom, the kitchen, and the “office” with a pullout couch. It was small, but warm. The walls and floor and ceiling were all made of the same dark wood, and I felt a little like I was on a ship, safe below deck in a storm.
He opened some beers, and we sat at the kitchen table, drinking and talking. He told me how cheap everything was in Vermont, and we reminisced about our apartment on Highland Ave. It was good to see him again. He had grown a beard, and there were streaks of gray in it. But other than that, he was the same as he’d always been.
I started to tell him about my freelancing problems, but he was distracted by something behind me. In the doorway was a cat—a beautiful animal, thin and sleek, with bright, bluish gray fur and pale green eyes. I tried to pet it, but the cat darted away and hid under my former roommate’s chair.
“He came with the cabin,” said my former roommate. “He’s usually not so shy.” We watched the cat for a bit. It watched us back.
“What is its name?” I asked.
“What?” said my former roommate.
“It just seems like a strange name. For a cat, I mean.”
“I don’t know. It’s just not a cat’s name.”
My former roommate shrugged. “It seems normal to me. We’ve had him for years.”
I knew I should let it go. But I didn’t. I could understand, I told my former roommate, if they had named it Matt. “Matt the Cat” made sense. But not Matthew. Some names could work for both cats and people, and some couldn’t. You couldn’t call a person Whiskers, and you couldn’t call a cat Matthew.
My former roommate was not very interested in this argument. I could tell that I was annoying him. But that didn’t stop me. I knew it wasn’t normal to name a cat Matthew. I was having a hard time in my life, but I knew that basic fact, and I wasn’t going to give it up.
“You can really say, with a straight face, ‘Matthew made a mess in his litterbox?’” I said. “That doesn’t sound absurd to you?”
My former roommate stood up. “I think I should start cooking,” he said.
He took things out of the refrigerator. The cat slunk away. It was just a stupid cat.
“Let me help you,” I said to my former roommate.
I chopped vegetables, and he prepared the meat and cooked a stir-fry on the little stove. The kitchen got smoky, so I opened a window and held my face up to it and felt the cold air on my skin. As we ate, my former roommate described a wedding he’d photographed in December, and we reminisced about our old apartment again.
After I washed the dishes, I told my former roommate I was tired. He moved some of his photo equipment out of the office and pulled out the couch. “I hope it’s not too hard,” he said. “I keep meaning to get a mattress pad.”
I told him it would be fine. I really was tired. But when I lay down, I realized that it was going to be one of those nights. My body was tired—my brain wasn’t.
I was still thinking about the cat. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe Matthew was a perfectly normal name to give a cat. Maybe people had been calling their cats Matthew all along, and I was the only one who didn’t know. But if I didn’t know about that, what else didn’t I know?
It was such a stupid thing to get annoyed about, and I knew that, but I was annoyed about it anyway, and then I was annoyed that I was annoyed about it.
As I lay on the pullout couch and replayed the evening in my head again and again, I heard every movement that my former roommate made—clicking on his laptop, rummaging in his closet, feeding the cat, brushing his teeth. Finally, he shut off his light and went to sleep, but the sounds didn’t stop. The boards of the cabin shifted and settled, and outside, the dry branches shook in the wind. All of this seemed to be happening right next to my ear.
A hot wave ran over me, and I kicked off the quilt. My legs tingled in the cool air, and I felt a little better. I shut my eyes, and the sound of the wind began to die away.
Someone pounded at the front door of the cabin—three heavy knocks.
I jolted awake. I had been asleep, I supposed, but now my heart was pounding. Who would knock at the door of the cabin in the middle of the night? My former roommate didn’t seem to have any neighbors. I waited for him to get up and answer it, but everything was still.
The person pounded again—three more knocks. But now I realized that they were not coming from the front door. Someone was knocking at the door to my room.
I pawed at the floor and found my glasses. The light of the full moon came in through the space between the curtains, throwing a long thin line onto the door. I stood up and walked slowly toward it.
I put my hand on the knob and paused. I knew that it must be my former roommate on the other side, but why hadn’t I heard him get up? I called out his name, but no one answered. The wind picked up for a moment, and a shudder ran through the cabin. I opened the door and saw—nothing. The line of moonlight lit an empty hallway. I squinted out into the darkness and said my former roommate’s name a few times. Nothing. His door was shut. I thought about knocking on it and asking him what was up, but decided to wait until the morning. It was late, and if I got back to bed now, I might fall asleep again quickly.
When I started to close the door, however, I saw something move at my feet. It was the cat. I squatted and stared at it. “You want to come in?” I said. “You didn’t like me earlier. What changed?” I reached out to pet its head, but it batted away my hand. “Hey,” I said. “Not nice.”
We sat there for a moment, and then the cat swiped my foot. I hissed in pain. I stood and tried to shut the door, but the cat pushed itself halfway into the room. I pushed back with my foot, and the cat swatted and scratched. Finally, I bent over and tried to pick it up—the cat hissed and bit me on the soft place between my thumb and forefinger. I shouted. The cat had drawn blood. I put my hand to my mouth, sucking at where I’d been bit. The cat hopped over my foot and into the room.
I was furious now. I grabbed the cat around its stomach and flung it as hard as I could through the door. It hit the wall of the hallway, landed on its feet, and ran back toward my room. I slammed the door. The cat pounded against it, again and again. How was it making such a heavy sound? It must have been throwing itself against the door. I held the knob, and thepounding vibrated through every one of my nerves.
Suddenly, my whole body jerked, and I was lying on the pullout couch. I waited for the next knock, but it didn’t come. I was awake.
I knew this, but for a minute or two, I didn’t move. Finally, the echo of the pounding faded. I wiped the sweat from my face and stretched. My phone said it was 2:19AM. I checked my hands and feet—no scratches, no bites.
I went to the window, opened the curtains, and stared out at the trees and the hills. It had started to snow, and everything was very quiet. I put my cheek against the cold glass. I’d had a bad dream. That was all. It was funny, in a way: I’d had a nightmare about a cat named Matthew. I lay down and wrapped the quilt around myself, and in a few minutes, I was asleep.
When I woke, the room was full of sunlight. I smelled eggs. I put on my pants and went into the kitchen. My former roommate was at the stove. “Sleep well?” he asked.
“Like a rock.” I scanned the room—no sign of the cat.
We ate eggs and drank coffee and talked about the third roommate in our old apartment, who we both hated. Things were normal again. Why had I been so focused on his stupid cat? It was just the kind of thing I would do. But that was why I’d come out here—to be different. And I was. I was starting to feel better. I decided to tell my former roommate about my dream. I wanted to laugh about it with someone.
“You know how we were talking about your cat yesterday?” I said. “Well, I had—”
“Is that your phone?”
It was my phone, vibrating in the other room. I ran across the cabin and answered it. It was one of my clients, calling to confirm that we were still on for our meeting tomorrow.
“Tomorrow?” I said.
“I have us down for January 7.”
I checked my calendar. He was right. I didn’t remember agreeing to this project, but there it was.
“Will that be a problem?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “Of course not! I’ll have the deliverables for you then.”
I had to leave immediately. I apologized to my former roommate. “I don’t know how I forgot about this,” I said. “Lately, I’ve been sort of—off my game.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Come back anytime.”
We shook hands at the front door. “And goodbye to the cat too,” I said. “To Matthew.” I glanced down the hallway—still no sign of him.
“I haven’t seen him all morning,” said my former roommate. “But I’ll give him your best.” He looked up at the sky. “Big snowstorm coming in. Hope you stay ahead of it.”
I drove very fast and was back in Somerville by the afternoon. I stayed up all night, working on the project, and somehow, I stumbled into Darwin’s the next morning for my meeting, only fifteen minutes late, with the deliverables in hand. I drank a cup of tea and listened to my client complain about Cambridge property taxes, and then I went back to my apartment and slept until midnight.
I woke to a text from my former roommate. “Matthew is missing,” he said. “When was the last time you saw him?”
I checked my hands and feet again. No bites, no scratches.
I lay there for a while, trying to figure out what to feel. I wasn’t guilty, in any reasonable sense of the word. But that didn’t stop me from feeling guilty. It was only a dream—but why that dream, on that night? Had the invisible thread snapped without me noticing and spilled my dream out into reality?
By the morning, I had convinced myself that I was being stupid. Everything would be fine: my former roommate would find his cat, because there was no good reason for the cat to be gone. I texted him and asked for an update. “No sign,” he said. I told him to keep me posted.
Over the next few days, my contacts started to reply my emails. I had steady work again, and I forgot about the cat.
I didn’t talk to my former roommate again until the end of June. I was attending an ex-girlfriend’s wedding in Brookline. It was an uncomfortable event: I think I was only sent an invitation out of politeness, but I decided to go anyway. At dinner, I was seated at a half-empty table with the groom’s cousins.
My former roommate was the photographer at the wedding, and at the end of the evening, I went up to him and said hello. His beard was a little grayer than it had been in January, but he seemed well.
“And how’s Matthew?” I asked.
His lips tightened. Matthew had never come back, he told me. “I still don’t know how he got out,” he said. “I can’t explain it.”
The cat had disappeared right before the big snowstorm, and there was no sign of it for months. But in May, the snow melted, and my former roommate found Matthew, frozen, a few yards from the cabin.
Ryan Napier is the author of Four Stories about the Human Face (Bull City Press, 2018). His stories have appeared in Entropy, Queen Mob's Tea House, minor literature[s], and others. He lives in Massachusetts. Twitter: @ryanlnapier