Cheryl lay in the dark of her room, in a heap of stuffed animals, thinking of her missing friend. The thought of him out there, alone, scared, maybe hunted, brought a mix of cold dread and hot tears back, and she fought them down again. She thought about the MISSING LOST CAT poster she had earlier, following a checklist she found online for printable flyers. “Bright and Eye-Catching Colors and Design!” Check. “Attention Grabbing to Make People Stop, Look & Read!” Check. She wished she had a picture of her friend, but thought the stock photo she’d found was close enough—a brown tabby is a brown tabby to most people. The eyes were right, though, green glass so pale they seemed to glow.
She had printed off a half-dozen flyers to begin, and spent the rest of the evening decorating with gel pens and glitter, underlining and circling the important information, drawing emojis to show how much she cared. She tried with her art to get other people to care and look for her friend, too, and hoped her friend would feel the love she was putting into the poster, and feel her loneliness, and come back.
She did not know the cat’s real name, or the family’s name, but she knew where they lived in the next apartment building over. Just a while ago, as it got full dark outside her window, she saw the family patrolling in a line, calling out, waving flashlights. She saw them as dark shapes, peering across the chain link fence between the neat apartment lawn and the wild jungle next door, the Slough, like everyone did when their pet went missing here.
She had done everything she could, she thought. Too dark to put posters up now, and anyway she was in bed. Tomorrow she would put the posters up around the apartments. She would probably print and decorate more. She had done everything she could.
A new thought occurred to her: what would her own missing poster look like? Who would make it? Would have to be Mom. If she had time. The headline would read: MISSING LOST CHERYL. There would be a picture, probably one she hated that Mom had made her pose for, probably with the forced smile she always had in pictures, the smile never reaching her eyes. She imagined the picture would be fuzzy from the ink bleeding into the cheap printer paper, rippled from the colors saturating the page. What else would the MISSING LOST CHERYL poster say? Collar? No. Microchipped? No. Her smile flickered briefly at those answers. Age: 12. Height: 5’1”. Weight: 85 lbs. Eyes: Chocolate Chip. Hair: Mocha. Always people describing her in terms of chocolate. She added “Wavy and I hate it” to Hair. Clothes: Goodwill, but not a Goodwill around here, in case someone else at school would point and announce, “Hey, that’s my old shirt!” Mannerisms: Bored, Lonely, possibly Reading, sometimes Astronomy.
She imagined some text from the template earlier: “We love Cheryl so much and miss her dearly!” Sure, I guess, she thought, but ‘We’ is just Mom. Reward: not likely. Phone or Text: Mom’s number. She was one of the weird kids who had memorized a parent’s phone number, because she didn’t have a smartphone of her own yet, so Mom was not a Contact. She wondered if Mom would care enough to use the gel pens and glitter, then sleep took her.
The next day she woke up late and rushed and was still late to school, so she didn’t have a chance to put up the posters. It was late afternoon when she got home, and she immediately set off with rolls of painter’s tape and duct tape in hand, putting up flyers at the community mailboxes, in the laundry rooms, at the leasing office, at the empty playground. She left one on the mat outside the cat family’s door, as she wanted them to know someone else was looking and cared. Then she was out of flyers, out of places she could think of putting them, and out of ideas.
Scuffing her worn Converses on the way home, she walked along the fence and looked at the green wall that was the Slough held back by the chain links. All the kids knew the Slough was a place where things go and don’t come back: soccer balls, baseballs, Frisbees, and sometimes cats and dogs. Friends. Things came out of the Slough at night. Cheryl saw raccoons nightly, skulking from gaps in the fence to the dumpsters and back. They were scary when she had to take the trash out at night, and she would sometimes find them perched there, staring, as she tossed the bag from a distance and ran home. Just last week, she had seen a troop of three black cats moving together across the lawn from the Slough. The moonlight caught the white stripes down their backs, and she realized what the sharp smell was drifting through her window screen.
The kids also talked about the Slough as an old place, maybe the last wild place remaining on the Point Loma peninsula. It might have been here when the Spanish came, a teacher had said. Cheryl had imagined, somewhere in the depths of the Slough, one of the curved chrome helmets the Conquistadors were always pictured with, sinking into the mold and mud next to rotting tennis balls and lost toys. Some kids said the Slough was home to cavemen, that they’d seen Neanderthals building fires just over the fence, but Cheryl thought it was pretty clear they were 21st Century homeless people, if anything. Still, it took very little imagination to look at that green sea, knowing how far it was to the other shore where a 7-11 and Shell gas station stood, and imagine there could be a dinosaur left over and on the prowl in there.
There was something primeval about the Slough, and Cheryl thought it called to the birds and the cats and the dogs as much as the genuinely wild animals. Maybe it reminded them of their original nature, of what they’d been. Certainly, she remembered the times she’d seen her cat friend approaching one of the gaps to cross over, how his body language was all business, taut and careful and keeping his distance from her. The last time she’d seen the cat, days ago, he had looked back at her call and there was something hard and intent in his eyes, no sign of recognition. A glance to see if she was predator or prey, then dismissal, as the cat flicked its tail once and went down a tunnel of branches. And gone.
She was at that same place. She stopped and considered the wall of bamboo, the tangle of trees and branches and bushes, the deep gloom just feet away. She listened to the wind, the rustling leaves and stalks, the whole green mass swaying and whispering. She thought she heard something else, faintly: a cry. A cat? She called out, “Kitty?” and made pss-pss noises that always brought her friend trotting to her, meowing greetings. No response, but then she thought she saw something move from dappled sunlight into shade, just far enough back that she couldn’t be sure. She had an impression of mottled black and tan, sun and moving shadow, and it could be him.
She had not done everything she could. She imagines another distant meow as she moves to the fence at one of the points where the animals come and go, where she last saw her friend go across. The ground was eroded by many small feet, the chain links above were burnished bright silver by many furry backs. The gap was just large enough for Cheryl to crawl under, getting mud and sand on her clothes but not snagging anything on the fence, so no damage done. Mom won’t be too angry. She crawled ahead into the tunnel of dead wood, tipped downward, and was gone like the cat.
It was instantly hours later and unnaturally quiet. Leaves and deadfall formed a low ceiling overhead. Cheryl was surrounded by a dull green murk, like being underwater, and dry twigs and roots grasping at her from all directions. The trail was more hinted at than clear as she crawled ahead, down a slope, the dirt crumbling away into sand under her hands and knees. Winding down and around, picking her way through snags of dead sticks, she came to a place where she could crouch, if not stand. The sand was soft but her shoes didn’t sink far, though there was water welling up in her footprints. The dead underbrush was gone, replaced by fresh green stalks that rose out of sight. Overhead, she could see flashes of sky when the breeze parted the broad leaves and tall grasses. There was a path, actually several paths she saw, trampled mud and leaves branching off in different directions. Like signs of things having been dragged past, maybe. Cheryl thought of jungles at night, then thought of Where the Wild Things Are, and was afraid in the shadow for a moment. Listening carefully, eyes wide, she waited. Nothing happened. She peered at the ground, hoping to see cat tracks. Nothing.
She had a sense of where the meow earlier had come from, what direction and distance, and thought she was about there. “Kitty!” she called again, and the sound was muffled by all the green and carried away by the breeze. She heard no response. As she moved slowly down a path, the light slanting green and gold through dark spaces, something rustled ahead. Not a cat from the sound, more like something with wings maybe. Then there was stillness again. Cheryl flashed on a memory of the raccoons from the dumpsters, and their clever little black hands, and imagined rounding a corner to find a tea service with cartoon raccoon waiters nimbly setting out china cups and silverware and scones, pulling back a chair to welcome her at their table. Ridiculous and too Disney, she thought, but the kind of thing she would have believed possible when she was younger.
The Slough drew thick and close around her again as she came to an intersection of paths. A soft animal sound came from a low tunnel just ahead to one side. It sounded like a question, the kind of question a cat can ask. Cheryl clicked her tongue and started with the pss-pss sound and the green around her exploded with hunched black shapes, screaming, hissing, laughing hysterically, all flashing button eyes and (she swears) yellow teeth in the dark. Cheryl’s high-pitched shriek made them hop backward for a moment, then they turned and moved menacingly sideways toward her, spitting angrily, biting at the air.
Blind with panic, Cheryl threw herself back the way she thought she had come, more falling forward than running. Her sneakers slapped at the mud and leaves as she darted left, left, right, then lost track of the turns, only thinking of escaping and not getting caught from behind by whatever those black things were. She had run like this, terrified, only once before: at the Farmer’s Market, walking with Mom and enjoying a tamale, she passed in front of a speaker stack just as the drummer erupted to life. Out of nowhere, all she knew was instant, overwhelming sound, too loud to hear, beating against her skin. She covered her ears, dropping her dinner, and ran two blocks before coming to her senses again, breathing hard and showing the whites around her eyes as she looked for Mom.
The Slough was the opposite experience: she found herself in a quiet as oppressive as the drums. The hammering of her heart, the only sound, faded. Cheryl turned slowly in the gloom, finding only unfamiliar waves of dark green wetland rising on all sides. It felt much later, suddenly. Cheryl realized she had no sense of how long she had run, or how she had come to be in this place. The light turned weak, milky pale; above, Cheryl could see that the marine layer had rolled in, what the neighbors called June Gloom, turning the sky a featureless, formless grey.
She had no idea where she was, or which direction was home, or which direction to go. Then, through the hush and the mist, there came a distant roar, rising in volume until it boomed overhead. Looking directly up, Cheryl saw a plane silhouetted sharply against the whiteout sky. Hundreds of people right up there, she thought, heading out from the San Diego Airport to Hawaii or Japan or somewhere. Every one of those lights is a lit window with a person looking out. And none of them can see me here. The comforting idea of people left her. She had never felt so isolated.
The noise of the plane engines faded. She heard another sound, something rushing all about her, like the breeze again. Like something had been holding its breath and now exhaled. Cheryl realized her feet were wet and looked down to see water seeping in from all directions. The tide coming in, she thought. I must be at the bottom of the Slough. The sand and the water pulsed slowly, calmly, with her steps. She squelched through the shallow water that smelled of salt and green and old, old things, headed toward a rise nearby. She found a broken-off tree stump. As she got closer, she saw that it had a concrete footer, and the tree was rectangular—a piling? Part of a wooden bridge at some point? There was a line of them stretching into the shadows, but this one seemed highest. She stood on the concrete and watched the water rise, listened to the wind pick up as it grew darker, and thought of home. Of Mom. What she could see of the sky was a blackboard of cloud. No moon, no stars, no Summer Triangle from her astronomy studies that she could navigate home by.
Full dark. Then a new line of stars appeared off to her right. The streetlights along the highway came on, and while Cheryl can’t see them directly, she can see the glow of them well enough to recognize what they are, and where they point. Navigating by new stars, she moved off toward the overpass and higher ground.
To her surprise, she realizes she is at peace. She is not scared. It’s dark, but she’s still here, and she knows where she generally is. More important, she knows where she’s going. The Slough is quiet, breathing steadily around her in the wind and the water. She slows her breathing to match and trudges on, leaning forward into the greenery that parts when she reaches it.
She senses the water falling away and the ground firming and rising under her feet. It becomes a steep slope with a tangle of branches she picks and bends her way through. Above, ahead, there is a doorway framed by branches. The roots seem to offer her handholds, stirrups for her feet, boosting her as she climbs.
Cheryl reaches the fence, moves along it to a tree stump, climbs that and falls over the chain link onto the lawn like a mass of wet leaves. She sees a flashlight bobbing toward her, a dark shape moving along the fence line, moving faster now. Someone looking for a lost pet, a loved one. Cheryl realizes it’s Mom, and she’s been out looking for me.
The girl thought the mother looked more beautiful than ever. The mother thought the same.