Clover

Answering the question asked by innumerable readers of the author’s novel All the Birds in the Sky: what happened to Patricia’s cat?

 

The day after Anwar and Joe got married, a man showed up on their doorstep, with a cat hunched in the cradle of his arms. The man was short and thin, almost child-size, with a pale, weathered face. The cat was black, with a white streak on his stomach and a white slash on his face. The man congratulated them on their nuptials, and held out the squirming cat. “This is Berkley,” he said. “If you take him into your home, you’ll have nine years of good luck.”

Before Anwar and Joe had a chance to debate the matter of adoption, Berkley was already hiding in their apartment somewhere. They found themselves Googling the closest place to get a cat bed, a litter box, and some grain-free, low-fat organic food for an indoor cat. It was a chilly day, with scattered clouds that turned the sunset into a broken yolk.

Berkley didn’t come out of hiding for a month. Food disappeared from his bowl, and his litter box filled up, when nobody was looking. But the cat himself was a no-show. Until one night, when Anwar had a nightmare that the tanks cracked and his precious, life-giving beer sprayed everywhere. He woke to find the cat perched on the side of the bed, eyes lit up, one leg outstretched. Anwar froze for a moment, then tentatively reached out an arm and touched the cat’s back so lightly the fur lifted. Then Berkley scooted in next to Anwar and fell asleep, thrumming slightly. From then on, Berkley slept on their bed at night.

Their luck didn’t become miraculous or anything, but things did go well for them. Anwar’s microbrews grew popular, especially Nubian Nut and Butch Goddess, and he even managed to open a small brewpub, an “airy cavern” in the trendy warehouse district between NC State and downtown, not far from where there used to be that leather bar. Joe documented a couple of major atrocities without becoming a statistic himself, and wrote a white paper about genocide that he really felt might could make genocides a bit less likely. Anwar and Joe stayed together, and Joe’s hand along Anwar’s lower ribs always made him feel safe and amazed. Everyone they knew was suffering—like Marie, whose restaurant went under because she couldn’t get half the ingredients she needed due to the drought, and then she went back to Ohio to care for an uncle who’d gotten the antibiotic-resistant meningitis, and wound up getting sick herself. But Anwar and Joe kept being good to each other, and when problems came, they muddled through.

They almost didn’t notice the upcoming ninth anniversary of Berkley’s arrival. By now, the cat was the defining feature of their home, the lodestone. Berkley’s moods were their household’s moods: his pleasure, their pleasure. They went across town to get him the exact food he wanted, and kept him well supplied with toys and cat grass, not to mention an enormous climbing tree. Anwar’s most popular stout was the Black Cat’s Tail.

Nine years after Berkley’s arrival, to the day, another man showed up at their door, with another cat. A female this time, a fluffy calico with an intense glare in her wide yellow eyes. This cat did not squirm or fidget, but instead had a wary stillness.

“This is Patricia,” the big bearded lumbersexual white dude said without introducing himself. “You won’t have any extra luck if you take her in, but she’ll be a good companion for Berkley.” He deposited her on their doorstep and skipped away before Anwar or Joe had a chance to ask any questions.

They decided “Patricia” was an odd name for a cat, and named her “Clover” instead, because of the pattern of the spots on her back.

 

Berkley had worked for years to get Anwar and Joe’s apartment under control, and this represented both a creative enterprise and a labor of love. He had carved out cozy beds atop the laundry hamper, inside the old wicker basket that contained extra brewing supplies, and in the hutch where Joe kept his beloved death-metal concert shirts. Berkley knew exactly where the sunbeam came through the slanty front windows in the mornings, and the best hiding places for when Anwar brought out the terrifying vacuum-cleaner monster, versus when Anwar and Joe started shouting after Joe came home from one of his trips. Berkley had trained both men to sleep in exactly the right positions for him to curl up between their legs.

And now this new cat, this jag-faced maniac, sprinted around the front room, the bedroom, the kitchenette, the bathrooms—even the laundry nook! She trampled everything with her wild feet. She put her scent everywhere. She slept on the sofa, where Joe sat and stroked her shiny fur with both hands. She was just all over everything.

Berkley made no secret of his feelings on the subject of this invasion. His oratorio spanned two octaves and had an infinite number of movements. But his pleas and remonstrations went unheeded, as if his companionship were a faded, shredded old toy that had lost all its scent. Berkley should have known. This was the way of things: You get a sweet deal for a while, but just when you get comfortable, someone always comes and rips it away.

This lesson, Berkley had learned as a kitten. His first proper human had been a young girl, who had sworn to protect him, and Berkley had promised to watch over her in turn. Somehow, they had struck this deal in the language of cats, which made it much larger than the usual declarations that cats and people always make to each other. And then, she had disappeared.

Berkley never knew what had happened, only that he’d had a friend, and then she was gone. He was left alone in this giant wooden house, where every smell was a doorway. He’d searched for her over and over, his tail down and his head upcast. He had cried much too loud for his own good. There were still people in that house, but they didn’t love Berkley, or even wish him well. Their angry shouts and stomping boots echoed off the ancient walls, ever since Berkley’s friend disappeared. Every time he emerged from hiding to call out to his lost friend, he risked getting plucked off his feet by grabby hands.

He kept thinking he heard her or smelled her, but no. This always set off the wailing again.

Quick quick quick sleep.

Quick quick quick sleep.

Sometimes the grabby hands caught him, and then his hard-gotten dignity was all undone. His body bent into shapes where it didn’t want to go.

They heard Berkley cry, the angry people, and they shouted, they pounded the walls. He didn’t have a way to stop crying.

Friend didn’t mean to Berkley the same thing it would to a dog, or a human. But this girl had been the shoulder he slept on, the hand that scritched his ear, the voice that sang to him. Even the cozy old attic felt colder and darker, and the wooden house smelled like nothing but mildew.

Berkley was just letting go of the last of his kittenhood when another pair of hands had lifted him, gently, and brought him to this new house, where the scents were different (yeast, flowers, nuts) but the people were kind. Berkley forgot almost everything in life, but he never entirely forgot the girl, his original disappointment.

And just like the girl had been taken away from Berkley with zero warning or goodbye, now this new cat was going to steal all his comfort from him. Clover tried to talk to him a few times, but he was having exactly none of that. Berkley hissed at her like she was made of poison.

 

The thing was, Anwar really believed, deep down, in the “nine years of good luck.” He always referred to Berkley as their maneki neko, like one of those Japanese cat statues that waves a paw in the window and brings in good fortune. When the second guy showed up exactly nine years later, with another cat, and he knew so much, that clinched it.

Anwar had a sick feeling: Our luck just ran out.

Raleigh was an okay friendly city, mostly, but lately when he found himself downtown at night, he felt like he was going to get jumped any minute. Big scary dudes had followed him out to his truck from the bar once or twice, but Anwar had always gotten away. The mosque in Durham had gotten graffitied, and the gay bar off I-40, bricked. Inside his own bar, Anwar was getting more ignorant tipsy people up in his face, asking why he was brewing alcoholic drinks anyway—when, hello, the Egyptians invented beer, thank you very much. The barback, a large Hungarian named Vinnie, had needed to eject more and more abusive drunks recently. Anwar didn’t want to live in fear, so instead, he lived in the sweet spot between paranoia and rage.

The one-bedroom apartment, with its scuffed hardwood floors, crimson drapes, and shelves sagging with ancient books, seemed like a refuge. Locking the door from the inside, Anwar always took a deep breath, like his lungs were expanding to the size of the stucco walls. He felt ten years older outdoors than indoors.

But lately, Joe woke up angry, because funding cuts, and he was constantly having to haul ass up to D.C. for crisis strategy meetings. When Joe was home, and not crashing at Roddy’s place near Adams Morgan, he was a piece of driftwood in the bed, rigid and spiky. Joe talked to a point somewhere to the left of Anwar, instead of looking straight at him. The cats had gone to ground, as if sensing a high-pressure front: Berkley in one of his thousand hiding places, Clover under the sofa. Anwar screwed up his hamstring and limped around the apartment, and when he ventured outside it was with a what now feeling—maybe this time, his truck wouldn’t start, or the neighbors would have a campaign sign for that guy who insisted North Carolina would never accept refugees from any of the places where Joe kept track of atrocities.

“You got the right idea, staying home all the time,” Anwar told Berkley, who grudgingly offered his white tummy.

So one day, Anwar got done showering, and all the real towels were dirty. So he dried off using a hand towel. He emerged from the bathroom, cupping himself in that small woolen square, and saw Joe staring at him, gray eyes wide and unwavering. Anwar felt himself blush, was about to say something flirtatious to his husband, but Joe was turning to close the half-open front curtain, where anybody could see in from the front stoop.

“You might want to do a lot more crunches before you pose in front of an open window like that.”

Anwar bit his own tongue so hard his mouth filled up with blood. He just backed away—first into the bathroom, but there was nothing to cover him there, so he took a hard left into the bedroom. Still limping, he nearly stepped on Clover, who ran to get out of his way. Joe might as well have broken that window instead of covering it.

“Hey, I didn’t mean . . .” Joe came in just as Anwar was pulling on his baggiest pants. “You know I think you’re beautiful. I just meant, the neighbors. I was just teasing. That came out all wrong. I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Don’t you have a meeting in D.C. to get to?”

Once Joe was gone, Anwar fell onto the sofa, wearing just his big sweatpants. He felt gross. All of Joe’s previous relationships had ended with some combination of sarcasm and distraction, but Anwar always thought he’d be different. Anwar looked at his forearms, which at least were buff, thanks to pouring so much beer. He had to be there in a few hours, unless he called in sick.

Clover had jumped on the sofa when Anwar wasn’t looking, and had scrunched next to him with her head resting on his thigh. He scritched her head with one hand and she purred, while Berkley glared from the opposite end of the room. “Hey, it’s not your fault our luck went south when you showed up,” he told her. “I’m sorry you had to see us like this. We were a lot cooler when everything was going our way.”

The cat looked up at him with her eyes perfect yellow spheres, except for tiny black slits, and said, “Oh, shit.”

Then she sprang upright. “Shit! I’m a cat. WTF. I didn’t mean for this to . . . how long have I been a cat? This is really bad. You have to help me, or I’m going to get stuck like this. Listen, do you have a phone? I need you to dial for me, because I have no freaking opposable digits. Listen, it’s—”

Then Clover stopped talking, abruptly. She sat down, looked up at him, and let out a long, high chirp, like the sound a cat makes when it’s sitting at an open window and trying to communicate with passing birds.

 

Berkley’s life was ruined, and it felt worse than the first time. He was a lot older this time, and, too, he couldn’t run and hide from this.

Joe was gone. As in, just not at home anymore—he had been around less and less, lately, but now days had passed without his scent or his voice. Anwar was still there, but he wasn’t acting like Anwar. No gentle pats, no tug-of-war with the catnip banana. No silly noises. The only cat that Anwar paid attention to was Clover, and he acted as if Clover had quit in the middle of playing a game that Anwar really wanted to continue.

It was way past time someone sent Clover to The Vet.

Berkley was a fierce, crafty hunter. He found the perfect bookshelf from which to watch for Clover emerging from under the sofa. She usually came out when the mail rained down from the slot in the front door, because that was like a daily miracle: paper from the skies! Berkley had a claw, ready to swipe.

He almost got her. She ducked out of the way, just as the claw came down, and he caught some dust mites instead. She ran, back toward the sofa, and he followed.

“New cat!” he hissed at her. “You ruined it all!”

“I didn’t mean to!”

As Berkley stalked her, he found himself telling her the story of his original disappointment: how he’d lived in an old wooden house with a cruel girl and a strange girl. And Berkley had made the strange girl his own, until she was taken away, and he was left worse than before. That “worse than before” was where Berkley was, now, and he had nothing left but to share that feeling with Clover.

“But,” Clover said from under the sofa, “that was me. I was the weird girl. I remember now. I promised to protect you. I kept my promise! That’s how you got here. I kept my promise. And now I need you to help me in return.”

And just like that, Clover lost her fear of Berkley. She talked her wild talk at him, out in the open, and no amount of claw-swipes could scare her off. As mad as she was acting, it was almost like she wanted to go to The Vet.

“I was a person. I lived with you,” Clover kept saying. “I went away to learn more tricks. I could speak cat, sometimes, but I wanted to do more. But when I left, I thought about you all the time. I had bad dreams about you. Scary dreams. I imagined you all alone in that old house, with my family, and I had to save you. But my teachers wouldn’t let me leave the school. So I asked them to save you.”

Berkley growled. “So then you just told a man to come and take me away? That was all you did?”

“They said they found you the perfect home, the best family for you. They said I could repay them later. I didn’t understand what they meant. But now! I have to turn back into a person soon, or I will just lose myself. I don’t know how. I think this is a test, and I’m failing it. You have to help me. Please!”

Berkley considered this for a moment. “So. You say you are the girl who abandoned me as a kitten, and spoiled my good thing. And now you’ve come back as a cat, to spoil my good thing a second time. And you want me to help you?” Berkley let out the most disdainful, vengeful hiss that he possibly could, then turned and walked away without looking back.

 

Anwar had met Joe at this death-metal concert that his friends had dragged him to, in a beer-slick dark club that resembled the inside of a giant van. When he saw Joe in his torn denim and tank top waiting at the bar, his heart had just flipped, and he’d stood next to Joe for ten minutes before he got up the nerve to say hi. Their first three dates, Anwar lied his ass off and pretended to be a death-metal fan, to the point where he had to keep sneaking away to text his friends with questions about Finnish musicians. Joe had this mane of red hair and permanent five-o’clock shadow flecked with white, and a way of talking about guitar solos that was way better than listening to music.

When Joe had found out that Anwar actually loathed metal, he’d nearly wept. “Nobody’s ever done anything like that for me. That is so . . . beautiful.” He kissed Anwar so hard, Anwar tasted whiskey and felt Joe’s stubble on the corners of his mouth. That’s when Anwar knew this was the man he wanted to marry.

Joe was Anwar’s first real, proper love. But Joe was more than a decade older, and had already lived through a string of two-year and three-year relationships. Joe had experienced enough relationship failure to be inured. When they’d first hooked up, Joe had prized Anwar’s twenty-something body, his lean golden frame, and seeing that covetous look in the eyes of this slightly grizzled rocker dude had punched a button Anwar didn’t even know he had.

Anwar prized Joe’s independence, the way he always said, Live like the fuckers don’t own you, even after they went all domestic together. His gentleness, even when he was pissed off, and the warm sound of his voice when he checked in. Joe had not checked in in ages—they had barely even talked on the phone—because the emergency in D.C. had given birth to other emergencies, and now there was a whole emergency extended family.

Meanwhile, Anwar’s truck kept not starting, there was a weird stain on the bathroom wall, and, well, Anwar was losing his mind and imagining that his cat had talked to him. Clover hadn’t spoken since that one time, but she’d been on a tear: chasing Berkley around, making weird noises, knocking things over. Both cats were upset, since Joe was gone and Anwar wasn’t himself. Anwar kept trying to pull himself together and at least be there for these two fur-balls, but he only stayed together for a minute or two at a time, no matter how hard he tried.

Then another one of those men showed up at his door: this one pale and thin, with elaborate tattoos on his hands, and a dark suit with a thin tie. “Don’t mind me,” the man said. “I just want to talk to your cat.” Anwar stepped aside and let the man come in.

“How was the good luck, by the way?” The man peered under various pieces of furniture, looking for Clover. “Were you happy with how it turned out?”

“Um, it was okay, I guess,” Anwar said. “I’m still trying to decide, to be honest.” He wanted to say more—like maybe he and Joe had never been tested, as a couple, because everything had gone so smoothly for them until now. Maybe they’d have been stronger if they hadn’t had training wheels. Maybe they were just fair-weather lovers.

“Okeydoke,” the man said. “I could get you another dose of luck, but it would cost a lot more this time.” He squatted in front of the sofa, where Clover eyed him. “Has she talked to you?”

“Um,” Anwar said. “I guess so. Yes.”

“Don’t believe anything she says.” The man reached out a hand gently, and Clover let him pet her, fingers under the chin. “She’s the worst combination of congenital liar and delusional. Even she doesn’t always know if she’s telling the truth.”

“So she was lying when she told me that she used to be a person?”

“No, that was true. She wanted me to do her a favor, and this was the result.” The man snapped his fingers in front of Clover’s face. “Come on, then. What do you have to say for yourself?” Snap, snap. “How’s the food?” Snap. “Are you enjoying your accommodations?”

Clover just stared at him and grumbled a little. She twitched whenever he snapped his fingers, but she didn’t try to run away.

“Either she’s unable to speak, because she just hasn’t gotten it under control, or she’s just being pissy. Either way, disappointing.” The man stood up. “Please let me know if she speaks to you again.” He handed Anwar a business card that just had a Meeyu handle. “And if you decide you need another lucky break, just @ me.”

“What exactly would I have to do to get more good luck?”

“It really depends. Some of it might be stuff where you wouldn’t really be you by the end of it. But I tell you what, if you can get that cat speaking English again, that would go a long way.”

The man spun on one heel, almost like one of Joe’s old dance moves, and walked out the door without saying goodbye or closing the door behind him. Anwar hated when anyone left the door open, even for a second, because he never wanted the cats to get any ideas.

Joe called when Anwar was in the middle of trying to coax words out of Clover with cat treats and recitations of Sufi poetry. (No dice.) “Things are beyond crazy, you have no idea. I’m trying to come back to you but every time I think I’m going to get out of here, there’s another fucking drama eruption. The auditors are maniacs.” In the background, Anwar could hear guitar heroics and laughing voices. “I am going to make it up to you, I swear. I still have to apologize properly for being such an ass before. I gotta go.” Joe hung up before Anwar could even say anything.

Anwar had sort of wanted to ask Joe if he felt like they’d been lucky, these past nine years, and whether the luck would be worth going to extremes to get back. But he couldn’t think of a way to ask such a thing.

 

Berkley took a wild skittering run from one end of the apartment to the other, and just as he hit peak speed, he reached the front door, where Clover was sitting waiting for the mail to rain down. He vaulted over her, paws passing almost within shredding distance, and landed at the front door, so hard the mail slot rattled.

Clover just looked at him, eyes partway hooded.

Berkley pulled into a crouch, ready to spring, claws out, ready to tear the new cat apart. But that bored look in her eyes made him stop before he jumped. He was a cunning hunter. He could wait for his moment. She hadn’t talked any more nonsense to Berkley since that one time, but she still didn’t seem scared of him. He didn’t know what he was dealing with.

“New cat,” Berkley said in a low voice. “I’m going to send you to The Vet.”

Clover didn’t reply. The mail fell, but it was just a single envelope with red shapes on it.

Some time later, Anwar cried into his knees on the couch. He smelled wrong—pungent and kind of rotten, instead of like nice soap and hops. He was all shrunk inward, in the opposite of the ready-to-pounce stance that Berkley had pulled his whole body into when he’d been preparing to jump on Clover. Anwar didn’t look coiled or ready to strike, at all. He was making these pitiful sounds, like he couldn’t even draw enough breath to sob properly.

Berkley saw the new cat creeping across the floor towards Anwar, and he ran across the room, reaching the sofa first.

“No,” he told Clover. “You don’t do this. This is mine. You’re not even a real cat. Go away!”

Berkley climbed up on the sofa without even waiting to see if the new cat went away. He rubbed his forehead against Anwar’s hand, holding his knee, and licked the web between his fingers a little bit. Anwar let his knees down and made a lap for Berkley. Anwar’s hand felt good on his neck, and he let out a deep satisfied purr. But then he heard Anwar say something, in a deep, mournful voice. He sounded hopeless. Berkley looked up at him, and struggled with his urges.

Then Berkley looked over at the new cat, who was watching the whole thing from on top of the bookcase. Berkley narrowed his eyes and told her, “I want to hurt you. But I want to bring back the other human more. If I help you, can you bring the humans back together? Yes or no?”

Clover looked down at him and said, “I think so. I’ll do what I can.”

A few hours later, Anwar had stumbled out of the house and the cats were alone again. “I keep forgetting who I am,” Clover said. “It’s hard to hold on to. But I remember, I begged the teachers to help me save you from my family, and I talked about how you were suffering. They said if I understood cats so much, why didn’t I try being one? I was like, ‘Fine.’ I didn’t realize what I had signed up for until years later.”

“So you climbed into a place that you cannot get out of again,” Berkley suggested. “Because there is not enough room to turn around.”

“Sort of, yeah.”

“So,” said Berkley, tail curled and ears pointed. “Don’t turn around.”

 

Anwar’s ankle was kind of swollen and he had no money for a doctor visit, and the stain on the bathroom wall had gotten bigger. The Olde Tyme Pub had gotten a totally bullshit citation from the North Carolina Department of Alcohol Law Enforcement, which had the hilarious acronym of ALE. His truck still kept not starting. Anwar longed to rest his head on Joe’s shoulder, breathing in that reassuring scent, so Joe could say, Fuck ’em, it’ll all be good. On his lonesome, Anwar only knew how to spiral.

Clover came up to him as he sat on the bed, getting laboriously dressed, and perched on the edge. She made noises that usually meant “feed me” or “throw my fuzzy ball.” Anwar just shrugged, because he’d wasted three days trying to get her to talk.

Just as Anwar finally got his good shirt buttoned and stood up, Clover said, “Hey.”

“Well,” Anwar said. “Hey.”

“Oh thank god. I finally did it. I’m back,” Clover said. “Oh thank goodness. I need your help. I think this is a test, and I’m failing it. One time before, I became a bird, but I needed help to turn back into a person. And now I feel totally stuck in cat form.”

Anwar was already reaching for his phone to go on Meeyu and @ that guy, to let him know the cat finally started talking again. He no longer cared if he was being a crazy person. What had sanity done for him lately?

“The longer I go without turning back into a person, the harder it’s going to be,” Clover said, jumping on the bed. “You look like shit, by the way. Berkley is worried about you. We both are.”

“Hey, it’s fine. You’re okay.” Anwar picked her up and looked into her twitchy little face. “I already told those guys, the ones who dropped you off here. They know you’re talking again. They’re probably on their way. They’ll help you out, and maybe they’ll give Joe and me some more luck.”

Clover squirmed, partly involuntarily. “You really shouldn’t take any luck from those guys. It’ll come with huge strings attached.”

“Well, they told me that you’re a liar. And you know, I have nothing to lose.” But Anwar had a sudden memory of the man saying, You wouldn’t really be you any more.

“Please! You have to help me change back to a person before they get here,” Clover said.

“I don’t know how to do that.”

And anyway, it was too late. The door opened, without a knock or Anwar having to unlock it, and a man entered. He had dark skin pitted with acne scars, and long braids, and a purple turtleneck and matching corduroys. “So,” the man said, “what does she have to say for herself?”

“You wasted a trip,” Clover told him. “I’m still working on changing myself back. I only just got my human voice working. I’ve got a ways to go before I’m in my own body again.”

The man shrugged and picked Clover up with one hand. “You already did what we needed you to do. Just think what we’ll be able to do with a cat who talks like a person and knows how to do magic. You’ll be way more useful to us in this form.” Clover started squirming and shouting, and tried to claw the man, but he had her in a tight grip. He turned to Anwar. “Thanks for whatever you did. We’ll consider this a down payment, if you decide you want more luck.”

“No!” Clover sounded terrified, on an existential level. “This is messed up. I don’t want to be stuck as a cat forever. I have a boyfriend. I have friends. You have to help me!” She looked right at Anwar, her yellow eyes fixed on him, and said, “You can’t let them take me.”

Anwar thought about how things had been before, with just the one cat, and Joe there, and everything peaceful. He wanted nothing more than to bring back that version of his life. But he looked at Clover, her whole body contorted with terror—claws out, eyes huge and round, mouth full of teeth. And he knew what Joe would say if he was here: You gotta live like the fuckers don’t own you.

The words came out before Anwar had even thought them through: “You can’t take my cat.”

“I beg your pardon?” the man said. His stare was impossible to meet.

“You can’t,” Anwar swallowed. “That’s my cat. You can’t take her.”

“Thank you thank you,” Clover whispered.

“This isn’t a cat. She’s a whole other thing. And whatever she told you, she was lying. That’s what she does.”

Anwar drew courage from the fact that the weird man was arguing with him, instead of just taking the cat and leaving. “You gave this cat to me. You didn’t say it was a loan. She’s mine. I have all the records to prove it.”

And now the man did turn to leave, but Clover leapt out of his arms. She landed on three feet, nearly tumbled head over tail, and then got her balance fast enough to run back into the apartment. She headed for one of the hundred hiding places that she’d gotten to know, but the man was right behind her. Anwar just stood and watched as the man ran through the apartment, knocking over Joe’s guitar. He was right on top of Clover, leaning to scoop her up.

There was another cat between the man and Clover. As he bent down to grab the cat who was still shouting in English, his hand connected instead with Berkley. Who bit his thumb, hard enough to draw blood.

Berkley growled at the man, in a pose Anwar had never seen before. Standing his ground, snarling, bloody teeth bared. Roaring. Like a tiny lion. This would have been the most ridiculous sight ever, if it weren’t so heroic.

Clover stopped and looked at Berkley, defending her. Her jaw dropped open; her ears were all the way up. “Berkley, shit,” she said. “You just bit the thumb of the most powerful man on Earth. I can’t believe you. Whatever happens now, I want you to know I regret leaving you behind. And no matter what price I end up paying, I’m glad I rescued you. I’m sorry, and I understand what you went through.”

That last phrase was like a string breaking, or a knot being undone after hours of pulling and worrying. As soon as Clover said understand, the cat was gone. A naked woman stood in Anwar’s hallway, holding Berkley in her arms. He looked up at her and seemed to recognize her. He put his head on her shoulder and purred.

The woman looked at the man, who was nursing his thumb. “I know you’re still pissed about Siberia. I get it. But jeez. This was mean, even for you.”

The man rolled his eyes, then turned to look at Anwar. “I hope you enjoy not having any luck ever again.” Then he stomped out of the apartment, leaving the door open.

As soon as the man was gone, Anwar fell onto the couch, hands on his face. He felt weird having a naked stranger in his home, and even weirder that this girl had seen so much of him at his worst, and he’d had his hand on her face so many times. The whole thing was weird. And he felt a huge letdown in his gut, because he’d convinced himself somehow that he and Joe would get more luck and it would be fine.

“So that’s it,” Anwar muttered, mostly to himself. “We’re screwed.”

“Hey, can I borrow some clothes?”

While the girl—Clover—was getting dressed, she tried to talk him down. “Joe is coming back. He loves you; he just sucks at expressing it sometimes. I’ve seen how you guys are.” Somehow, she managed to put clothes on without letting go of Berkley. “So listen. I suck at giving advice. But the absence of good luck is not bad luck. It’s just . . . life.”

“I guess that sort of makes sense,” Anwar said.

“That would be a first for me.” Clover looked twitchy, like she was still ready to chase a ball around, or eat a treat out of Anwar’s hand. Anwar wondered if she was going to be stuck having cat thoughts forever. “I can fix your injured ankle, no problem. And also I think I know how to get rid of that stain on your bathroom wall. I’ll have a look at the truck; I’m pretty good with engines. And I’ll leave you my Meeyu info, if you ever have another problem you need help with. I’ll be around if you need me, okay?”

Anwar nodded. He was starting to think having this magical girl on speed dial could be better than good luck anyway.

Joe came home an hour later, after Clover had already left. “Hey,” Joe said. “I lost my job. But I think we’re better off, and I already have a line on something—I’ll never have to leave town again. I just wanted to say I’m really sorry about being a jackass, and leaving for so long, and I love you. You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

Anwar just stared at his husband for a moment. He had a case of highway sunburn on one arm and part of his neck, and his hair was a mess, and he looked like a rock star. Anwar threw his arms around Joe and whispered, “The cats missed you.” Then he realized there was only cat, and he was going to have to explain somehow. But he was too busy kissing the man he loved, and there would be time for that later.

Watching the two men from the top of his fuzzy climbing tree, Berkley looked immensely self-satisfied.

 

“Clover” copyright © 2016 by Charlie Jane Anders

Art copyright © 2016 by Victo Ngai

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