Some say a baby will be crushed if it lies in bed with his mama, but the three of us often curl up together when it is cold at night since the landlord won’t fix the heat, ack deshevvy. Alexi sleeps on his back and, no, the blankets do not fall on his angelic face. Sergei, his older brother, sleeps at my feet or on my tummy. A few winters ago I lured him to me with a “Pst, pst, come here little one,” before scooping him in my arms and pressing him against my breast under my coat. I protected him from mean little boys throwing rocks and the cold wet snow.
Alexi arrived the usual way, sperm and egg, but his father is gone. He is scum. Though Alexi did get his beautiful dark eyes and long eyelashes. When Alexi squalls, Sergei perks up with a “Mrrp?” and licks his blonde hair with his rough pink tongue. I coo and snuggle both of my sons. The winters are cold here, but not nearly as biting as they were at home in Russia where we fought over mittens and coats even in line at the overcrowded stores.
We are not a traditional family, but we are happy.
I roll over in bed, inhaling deep, and expecting Alexi’s milk clean scent. But there is nothing. I open my eyes, and he isn’t next to me. Panicked, I wrench the blankets back and he is not there. I drop to the floor and scramble under the bed, fighting off the scream that is hiding underneath my tongue. He isn’t there. I call out his name. No sound. Sergei’s eyes are wide. It feels as though all of the air had been sucked from my lungs. Alexi’s father strangled me once, during an argument. I felt a similar sensation then. Black spots danced in my eyes as well. My son, my son, my son.
I dial 9-11. “It’ll be all right,” I gasp out at Sergei, my hands reaching towards his soft ears and elegant white eyebrows. “Shh, shh.” I think I might’ve been trying to comfort myself more than him. Sergei was always the most optimistic of us all.
“Ma’am, are you taking any medication?”
“The same as anyone. Please, you’re police—”
The stout officer looks over to the tall. “Can you verify what you mean by the ‘the same as everyone?” The tall officer scrawls something in his notebook.
I brush the tears out of my eyes. “Aspirin, cough syrup, why are you asking?”
“Any psychedelics? Stimulants?”
“What are you—”
“Ma’am, are you high?” he finally asks.
The stout officer notices Sergei and gets down on his knees, gesturing to him. “Ma’am, who’s child is this?”
“That’s my cat,” I snap in disbelief. “Please, can we get back to my son?”
The stout officer gives the tall one a concerned look. He scoops Sergei into his arms. “Ma’am, isn’t this your son? We saw him in the photographs.”
I hiss at this. A joke—and in poor taste. “That is NOT my son! That is Sergei and he is FELINE.”
Sergei, the traitor, starts to purr in the man’s arms.
The tall officer sighs and shakes his head. “Ma’am, we saw the photos on your dresser—we have reason to believe that this is your son. He isn’t missing.”
The other one prods at me once again. “Are you sure you didn’t take anything? Some unfamiliar pills or a new medication?”
“Stop making fun! Help me! It is your function!” Sergei recognizes my agonized tone and attempts to scramble out of the stout officer’s arms.
“Whoa, easy little man!” he cries. “Your Mom’s gotta trim your nails sometime!”
The tall officer’s cheeks flush as though he is sunburned. “We are police, ma’am. You best not shout at us like that again. We can have you investigated as a person of interest.”
“A person of interest, what does that mean?” I click my razor-sharp nails against the kitchen table. “What are you even saying? My child is missing. I love him. I would never hurt him. I’m a good mother. Why—”
“A good mother!” the tall officer shouts. “That baby isn’t even wearing a diaper.”
“He’s a cat, you fool. He shits in a box, see?” I wave my hand at the litter box in the corner of the room. The tall officer sucks air through his teeth and storms out of the room. I get up to follow after him, but the stout one makes a protesting sound.
I relent and collapse back into my seat. I stub out yet another barely lit cigarette. I continue to click my nails against the table’s scarred wood.
The stout officer smiles awkwardly at me and coos at Sergei; bouncing him in his arms much like I did to Alexi. Oh, my boy. Moy syn.
“Is there someone you can stay with or call?”
I chew my lip and shake my head though my little brother is in town. “No. Please, Sir. What is going on?”
“I think that you might be a bit confused and maybe sick. We’re concerned for your child’s well-being, that you might not be able to take proper care of him.”
“What are you—?”
“It isn’t your fault,” he explains. “Mental illness isn’t as stigmatized these days. It’s probably post-partum something or another, maybe. Hysteria. Anxiety.”
The tall officer bumbles back into the room, says “Aaha,” and puts the photograph in front of me. It’s a framed photo that my brother took of my little family—Sergei, Alexi, and me.
“You see?” The officer taps the photograph proudly. I want to tell him to stop poking at me—but I think wisely, and keep nice and quiet. “That’s your son, isn’t it?”
In horror, I realize that he is not pointing at Alexi, who is nestled in my arms in the picture, but at Sergei—who sits handsomely at my feet. “Odd to have the child on the floor, eh?”
I don’t know what to say to this. I gape at him like a fish, and then don’t remember much of our interaction after this.
They come swiftly, like fat pigeons blown in by the squall; the social workers, the nurses, the doctors. They’re all dressed in white. They stick me with needles and strap me to a board. I wake up, not to Alexi’s clean milk smell or the fresh earth on Sergei’s paws, but to that of illness. Antiseptic, medicine, and underneath it all, that sickly sweet malt of impending death.
I know what I must do if I want to see either of my sons. I smile. I ask the nurses about their own babies and boyfriends. Many of them have a cat or two. One has a snake, aiieee. I sip the lukewarm carrot and potato soup. I drink their weak tea. I smile. I swallow their pills, though sometimes I pouch them inside my cheek. They keep me there for two weeks.
I am “cured” and given to my little brother, Pavel, who blinks at me nervously behind his thick prescription lenses. He has perfect white teeth. Squeaky clean, has made something of himself in this country. He must know that I resent this. We haven’t spoken since Christmas.
I comforted him and changed the sheets so that Mother wouldn’t whip him if he wet the bed when we were children. We ran away together. He has no pets. I think he might still be a virgin. He allows Sergei to perch in Alexi’s chair. The cat eats better than we both do.
One day, after Pavel forces me to shower, he brings me into the living room and points at Sergei’s toys which were also Alexi’s; the wool mice and little plastic bells sitting in a nest of ragged teddy bears and rubber zoo animals. My sons knew how to share. I feel my heart clench.
“Will you put up missing posters for Sergei?” my brother toes at a piece of green ribbon that Sergei often tugged along the room by his teeth. Alexi used to crawl after him, cooing and squealing. He’d bat at the string and his fur sibling’s tail and hind legs.
I balk at Pavel, near offended that he has interrupted such a fond memory. “Sergei is FINE. See! He is on the couch—his belly is full of fancy butter and fish.”
“I miss the little fellow—remember how he and Alexi played?”
“Mhmm, I do.”
My brother chuckles; he thinks that he’s found an in. “I remember when you first got Sergei. You’d rock him back and forth in that little doll cradle. It was sweet—”
“Brother, I think you should leave.”
My brother looks relieved. “You do?”
I force a grin. “Yes. You’ve been here for days. Work must miss you. Your apartment must be cold. You have Chinese takeout in your fridge and cable television.”
He collects his coat from on top of the violet vacuum cleaner which he brought to me as a WELCOME HOME GIFT. “Yes. You’re right. I do. You’ll be okay, yes?”
“Need I remind you of the letter that the doctors wrote for me? It’s posted on the fridge next to the number for the poison control centre. I’m taking my meds, you know.”
Pavel looks unsure, but I can see his jaw start to unclench. “Well, all right then. Doctor knows best, he certainly knows better than you and me.” I give him a kiss on his cheek and he leans in, trying to reach my mouth instead! Ugh!
“Yes, yes,” I clap him on the shoulder. “You’re a good brother to me. And a nice uncle to Sergei too.”
“Alexi,” my brother corrects.
“Yes, yes. Now shoo!”
I breathe a sigh of relief once my brother is gone.
Then I set my sights on Sergei, who is delicately washing his face and paws. I used to find the action adorable. And it made my Alexi laugh. Now I find it crass and inconsiderate. Can’t he see that his little brother is gone? Who is he trying to impress?
I grab Sergei and give him a quick shake, “Where is Alexi, did you eat him?”
Sergei growls and gives me a hard nip. I cry out and drop him. He scrambles under the couch, muttering. I feel like such a wretched woman. I climb down on my knees to Sergei’s level. He backs away and hisses at me. It nearly breaks my heart, the way he looks at me.
I do still consider him my child after all.
I coo at him. I sing him gentle songs in our Native tongue. He crawls out eventually and we curl up together on the couch, mother and fur son.
I tell him about my plan after I sense that he is on my side. He looks at me, and I ask him “Now Sergei, my love—do you understand?”
He blinks once at me for “yes.”
I nod and set him back down on the carpet. “Alright, you will scan the streets for our little one—you can get into places that I cannot and you’re far more charming than your mama.”
I give him a sliver of cheese for inspiration and put on the ridiculous sweater that my brother had actually knit for him. It is a hideous shade of swamp green and Sergei doesn’t fuss when I pull it over his head. Such a well-behaved little man. I draw a quick sketch of Alexi—our photos had all disappeared—I know it was the police—and hold it out to Sergei, who takes it between his teeth. His tail swishes in determination.
I opened the door to our apartment and check for our neighbours. I have no idea whose side they are on. Then I lead Sergei down the hall and into the stairwell. We pause when we hear someone open a door in the foyer. We wait a minute and then carry on. When there is no other sign of other humans, I open the door and shoo Sergei out into the crisp April morning.
“See what you can find, my eldest son.” I creep back into my suite and fall asleep. I dream of us all reunited once more.
I wake up to persistent pounding on my apartment door. I groan as I pull myself up from the carpet in the living room. I’d been sleeping there more and more.
Grief does strange things to a woman.
“Yes, yes. I’m coming!” I swing open the door and am greeted by the dour face of the widow who lives in apartment 501. She smells of onions and her dead husband’s musk-scented aftershave.
She furrows her brow. “Your son was in the lobby.”
I almost hug her but then I recall that I am living in very strange times, so I say instead “Oh, which one?”
“He’s a talented little hunter, this one.” The widow clicks her tongue and steps aside. There Sergei stands with the limp corpse of a songbird dangling from his mouth. “Obedient too, despite his wild look—came right over after I said pssp, pssp.”
I feel the bile rise in my throat. Still, sticky sweet I manage to say “I’m sorry ma’am, it won’t happen again. Sergei, come.” Sergei pads obediently back into our apartment.
“You have other children?” the widow asks.
“Hmm, I’ve never seen it then—”
“I have two sons,” I grimace. “This is the eldest. They are “him’s,” not “it’s”.”
“Hmm well. Take care of them. Make sure the other gets some sun.”
“I will, thank you.”
I make actions to close the door but the widow sticks her fat foot in. I can’t be bothered with any more insincerities so I give her a tight grin instead.
We stare at each other for a bit. The hag thought she could beat me in a staring contest, ha! Finally, she sniffs and pulls her foot out from the jamb. “Mind yourself, then.”
“Yes, I will.”
Then she is gone. I slam the door closed and wince as Sergei as he tears a wing off of the bird. “Yes, yes it is a fine gift. Come though, it’s a mess.”
Against my better judgment, I choose to call Alexi’s father under the pretext of mending our relationship. He arrives wearing a thick rope-like chain of gold around his neck and beat-up Nike sneakers on his feet. He pairs this with an ill-fitting suit jacket and a wife beater underneath his dusty leather coat. He thrusts a bouquet of pussy willow and baby’s breath into my hands before slinking past me into my apartment.
I greet the bastard through gritted teeth. “Hello, Phillip.’
“Ehh,” is all Phillip says before shrugging off his coat and clambering up onto the sofa, his wet sneakers leaving dark smears on the fabric. “Do you have any beer?”
“Yes, but would like to see your son first?”
“He’s a baby, how much can he have changed? Woman, fetch me my drink.”
I hum a “yes dear” before stepping into the kitchen to catch my breath. I pull a Pilsner from the fridge and scoop Sergei under my other arm.
“I see you still have that mangy thing,” Phillip nods at me to place the beer in front of him. “Ahh, there’s a good girl—my little barmaid.”
The relief doesn’t wash over me, more so it begins to drip down onto my head, like thick globs of grease. I have to test him. “Oh, Phillip, you’re so silly! That is your son.”
Phillip takes a hearty swig of his drink. “Sure, whatever you say.” He winks.
“So you see that isn’t him then?”
Phillip narrows his eyes and leans forward. How he looks like a snake then! Ready to strike out at me. “What sort of little game are you playing?”
I bite my lip. Do I dare to tell the truth? “Phillip, Alexi is missing.”
Phillip is dangerously quiet.
“Phillip, did you hear what I—”
“Do you think this is funny?”
“No, I don’t. I—”
“When did you report him, or did you even bother, you silly bitch?”
“I did, but no one—”
With that, the snake finally strikes. Phillip roars and kicks over the coffee table. Beer starts to soak into the carpet. The bouquet is crushed under his feet.
Sergei howls in my arms as I start to back away. “Phillip, listen,” I start to plead. “The police came here, but they didn’t listen.”
Phillip doesn’t bother to listen to an explanation. He towers over me and starts to scream. “WHAT DO YOU MEAN THEY DIDN’T LISTEN?”
“Why are you upset, you don’t even visit him—”
“He is my flesh! My blood! He carries my last name,” Phillip hisses. He raises his hand and I duck away for what I believe to be a blow, but he leaves his hand suspended in the air my head. “You’re not lying, are you, my pet?”
“No,” I reply calm as ever, though sweat is trickling down the back of my neck and Sergei is now shivering and hissing in my arms. “I wouldn’t. But no one believes me.”
Phillip drops his hand and roughly smooths back his hair. “Right, okay then. I’ll go out and fix this.”
“How will you—”
He makes a move to grab at my face but Sergei, my eldest screams and swipes at him. Phillip scoffs and flings open the door instead. He is greeted is by Pavel’s wide-eyed terror.
Phillip swears, and then storms past him. “I’ll call!”
Pavel trembles in the hall, and waits until he hears the bang of the lobby door before scampering into the living room. “Terrorizivorat,” he rasps.
I whimper and slump down to the floor, pressing my face into Sergei’s fur. “Mm, svoloch,” I agree. Sergei begins to purr and lick the side of my head.
I sniff. He smells like Alexi.
“What was all of that about? I thought you were done with him, yeah?”
“I had to be sure that Alexi is missing.”
“Sister, we’ve been other this. He’s in your arms, I can’t believe such a sweet child is that man’s son.”
I look up wearily. “But doesn’t he look different, brother?”
Pavel groans and joins me on the floor. “I suppose his ears are maybe pointier than they were before, and his breath is stinky.”
“He doesn’t look like Sergei to you?”
Pavel squints at my boy. “I can see the resemblance, but he’s your son. I swear of it.”
Phillip continues to lambast me with promises and threats as the months wear on. He leaves messages on my answering machine. I wake up to WE CAN BE A FAMILY ONCE MORE PLEASE and then I WILL BASH IN YOUR SKULL moments later. It becomes dizzying. I block his number, but then there are the notes taped to the lobby door. Then calls made from payphones that sound like demons being exorcised from mortal forms. It is unpleasant and gauche. I pray for release. I pray for my little boys.
My apartment becomes my grave. Sergei accepts this. He brings me a matter of things to keep me entertained. Mittens, more carcasses, five dollar bills, and one day even a shiny stone and a bottle cap. Sometimes we get complaints from the leasing agents; rumours of a toddler prowling about the courtyard. So, Sergei starts to sneak about at night instead. We set up a doggy door of sorts in my bedroom window. Sergei learns how to scale the bricks with his claws.
My clever little boy. My brother asks when I’m signing Sergei up for Kindergarten. I used to play along, but now I am keen on my firstborn getting the right start to his education. We are discussing which of the city’s schools to send him to as we carry groceries and bags upon bags of Sergei’s new school clothes up the flight of stairs.
He still prefers running around in the nude but is at least adjusting to the idea of shirts. We hope the public would accept his tail and allow him to go without pants for a bit. It’s bushy and beautiful, but it really does in the way of everything. We’ll have to alter all of his shorts, and can’t afford a tailor this time.
Sergei dawdles behind us, swiping at a spider on the wall, when we bump into the widow. We had finally progressed to nodding at one another in the hall but this time she spoke to me. “Dear, I hope it’s alright but I let your husband into the building.”
I’m confused at first but feel sick upon realization. “Thank you. How kind.”
The widow claps my back and I cough at the friendly attack upon my body. “He’s a handsome fellow. Looks a bit like my Michael. Back when he enlisted in the war.”
“Ahh, yes. That’s nice.”
“You should come over for cordial sometime. I’ll show you the photos.” She stares affectionately at Sergei who is now wrapping himself around my ankles. “I could probably find some bits and bobs for your son to play with as we chat, the little lad.”
“Well, I’ll see you around,” the widow chirps, patting Sergei on his furry head as she finally passes us on the stairs. “Be a good boy for your mum.”
“Oh. He always is.”
My brother waits until he hears the front door open and then snap shut, announcing the widow’s departure, before he finally grasps my hand and asks: “sister, what’s wrong?”
“We need to go,” I drop the bags and swoop Sergei into my arms. “Please, right now.”
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost—”
It’s Phillip. His black hair is unkept and there is stubble on his chin. He looks like he is wearing yesterday’s clothes; his pants are creased and there are stains on his shirt. His generous mouth twists into a snarl. He still has beautiful eyelashes, just like his son.
His quivering hand holds a gun. The barrel is aimed at my head.
My brother screams and throws himself down the stairs. “Police! Police!”
I knew that I should move or scream, but my knees—they feel so weak. My son. My secondborn was gone. His father, somehow he knows.
“Hello sweetheart, where is my son?”
“I… I don’t know what you’re talking about, he’s right here.”
“Bitch, don’t lie to me,” he growls more like a dog than a man. “You told me that he was gone, but now the police are saying the whole thing was wrong—what, are you sleeping with one of them? Did you do something to our son and are now hiding it from me?”
“Please, listen. Put down the gun—”
“MY SON! WHERE IS HE, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?”
What happened next jarred me and has stuck with me ever since. My second-born son, my Sergei, launches himself out of my arms and throws himself screaming and hissing at Phillip’s face. My ex-lover shrieks and drops the gun as my boy tears chunks of skin from his face with his beautiful sharp claws which I believe he got from my side of the family.
I lunge for the gun. After Phillip wrenches Sergei off of him and sends him scrambling down the stairs, I shoot Phillip squarely in the face. He deserves it, I think. He was going to interfere with our new lives. Sergei is my son. My eldest. My little one.
We’re on the news for a bit. A brief investigation that heralds me a victim of domestic abuse and my dear Sergei a hero. He becomes a little celebrity. There are flashbulbs and interviews. Flowers and money. New pants, with a hole specially made to accommodate his tail, or as the public calls it, his “disability.” Little boys aren’t supposed to have tails after all, but Sergei’s zest for life and desire to keep his tail inspired those who might normally consider him a freak. My beautiful boy, my world. My heart and soul.
We choose to stay in the building though my brother begs for us to join him on the Southside of the city in his pretty little building on top of the hill, overlooking the river. Our current lifestyle suits us well though. We enjoy the nearby grocery store and it was a quick walk to Sergei’s school. We’ve been very happy here, but the other day we see something strange.
We’ve lived here for three years and we’ve never seen such a thing. It made my blood run cold and, among that fear, I felt a strange and unfamiliar longing.
We see an animal rummaging through the dumpster by the grocery store. I thought it was a little boy at first, but now I’m not entirely sure. It is naked and pale with long blonde hair hanging limply in its face. Covered in scratches and bruises. Empty black eyes framed by the loveliest eyelashes I have ever seen. Sergei, my sweet kind boy puts a foot forward and tries to timidly approach before I hiss a quiet reprimand.
Cindy Pereira is a chronically ill writer of short fiction and a recent graduate of the MFA Creative Writing program offered at the University of British Columbia. Her work can also be found in ‘The Yard: Crime Blog,’ ‘Sad Girls Club Literary Blog,’ and ‘The Maynard.’ She currently lives in Edmonton, AB.