Sunday, May 25, 2008

Short Story - Drifters

Fiction with a bit of humor, romance, silliness, spirit possession and cats.

This picture originally inspired a totally different story about the female protagonist of this story. But as I was fleshing out her character in my mind she happened to meet a boy, and this is a piece of romance and character exposition that came from her baring herself to him.

“Well,” said Ella to her prospective beau, David, “the thing to know about me is that I am stark raving mad. That really explains a lot about me.”

David gave a short laugh at that. He had always enjoyed a girl with a sense of humor and he felt that it was a good joke, in his kind of bad taste. He also felt that there was no way that she might actually be crazy. Sure, they had known each other for less than a week, but they had spent several hours a day during that time in the same café, talking over overpriced hot beverages and getting to know each other, and he felt confident that he knew at least that much about her.

In fact, David felt that she might very well be his dream woman. She was brilliantly intelligent, very sweet and caring, and she had the most comforting smile he had ever seen. Of course, none of those qualities excluded the possibility of her being nutty as a fruit cake, and in fact he was well aware that she was a bit quirky by anyone's standard. But she seemed to be quirky in an endearing and strictly non-crazy way.

He smiled at her and took a sip of his coffee.

“Okay,” he said, "I'll bite. Tell me, why do you believe that you are mad? I'm warning you though; you'd better give me a good reason if I am to believe you. You have already more or less disproved any crazy qualities to yourself in my eyes. Crazy people would very rarely say that they are crazy; if they knew that they were having delusions they wouldn't be much of delusions, would they?"

“True enough,” she said, smiling a nervous smile, “but I still don't think I am entirely sane. You see, I talk to my cats.”

He looked at her. He sipped his coffee and made a show of thinking the statement over.

“You do, do you? Well," he said, having anticipated the traditional exchange of dialogue that would come at moments like this, "I'm guessing that I'm supposed to say that's not crazy at all; tell you that a lot of people talk to their pets. Then you're going to interject that the difference is that your cats actually respond, leaving me to figure out if you are acting crazy to be amusing, acting crazy to scare me away after finally having realized that you are too good for me, or if you actually believe that your cats speak to you.

“For my money I would guess that you are joking around. That would seem most like you, and besides, I would very much prefer it to the alternatives.”

He smiled again, a broad smile. Her smile was beautiful as ever, but it was starting to look more strained. This completely failed to deter the self-confident smile he wore secure in his belief that she was merely kidding around.

“Well, you are right and you are wrong,” she said slowly. “I mean, I was going to say that I have actual conversations with my cats. I am however not joking, nor do I want to get rid of you. It's merely a statement of fact. I talk to my cats and they answer.”

She said it in such a deadpan way that his smile actually weakened a bit. She seemed to believe what she was saying. Which was disturbing, and not disturbing in a good way as most of her little quirks seemed to be.

“It's not something that started recently,” she continued. “I've been talking to cats for most of my life. At first I was certain I was crazy; as a little girl I spent a lot of time trying to convince my mother that I was actually hearing our cat speak to me. Mom was certain that I was just trying to get out of school. It seems like she thought that I would find psychiatric sessions preferable to class.

“In reality, I was genuinely worried that I was losing my mind. Being that young and feeling that your elevator no longer goes all the way to the top floor was distressing to say the least. In time I managed to convince myself that I in fact wasn't crazy though, and I soon learned that it is better not to share my experiences with anyone. Now I keep quiet about it and most of the time I actually believe that my experiences are real. There are just a couple of things that makes me lapse back into disbelief in my own experiences at times.”

David was scratching the back of his neck, quietly assessing the situation. His smile had long since faltered and he didn't seem as sure of himself any longer.

“Oh?” he said, desperately trying to sound casually interested rather than deeply disturbed by the conversation. He failed miserably, of course, cleared his throat and tried again.

“Oh? So… What are these things that make you feel as if you might be wrong?”

She toyed with her tea mug, looking almost intolerably cute to David. He did not wish her inadvertent cute wiles to trick him into accepting anything he shouldn't accept.

“There are two things,” she said, holding up two fingers. “First of all, my cats have told me, in detail, how it is that they can speak to me. This might seem like a good thing if I am to believe that it is reality, but think about it. If I tell you 'Yes, my cats speak to me, but it's ok, they've told me how it works' it just makes me sound more crazy. Therefore I choose to take their explanations as evidence that I have in fact lost the majority of my proverbial marbles.

“Secondly, I take great comfort in being mad as a hatter. I much prefer it to the alternative.”

David couldn't help but to laugh again. He still wasn't sure if she was just taking a joke too far or if she genuinely believed what she told him, but that statement was amusing either way.

“You prefer it to the alternative? What, you prefer it to being sane?” he asked, somewhat incredulous.

“Yes,” she said in an asserting voice, “I really do. I mean, the world is obviously crazy, just look around us. Crazy wars, weird religions, reality shows, Fox News… It is all more than a little bewildering to me and it just feels better if I think that I'm deranged. Then I can imagine that if I wasn't off my rocker it would all make sense to me, or at least take some comfort in that even if the world is crazy I might be able to out-crazy at least large parts of it.”

A slight pause passed by, unnoticed by the universe at large, but very noticeable at that particular table, in that particular café. David looked at his coffee with such interest that he looked as if he was watching a movie playing in his cup.

Finally he raised his eyes and looked at her, flashing her an uncertain but disarming smile.

"Fair enough," he said, laughing softly again, "I guess you are right about that."

From there they shifted the conversation in totally other directions and had their usual good time until it was time for them to go their separate ways for the night. They agreed to meet back there the next day, as usual.

As they parted, David had almost no thoughts of the weird conversational interlude about talking cats. He was smiling as much as he always was after having been in her presence and looked strongly forward to the next day's meeting. A small voice in the back of his head tried to remind him of the exchange, but he was good at ignoring such voices and his walk had an actual skip to his step as he sauntered happily towards his home.


The next day, as he walked into the café as usual after work, he saw Ella already sitting there. Normally this would be the cause for further silly, content smiles to spread across his face, but this time the strange conversation from the day before came screaming back to him.

On her shoulder a cat sat perched, observing its surroundings with obvious disinterest.

It was a beautiful cat, a Persian Blue as far as David could tell, and it seemed quite comfortable in its position on his favorite girl's shoulder. In fact, they both seemed so relaxed with the situation that it all looked almost completely natural. David did however not feel relaxed; he felt that the foreboded too much strangeness.

As he walked towards her he tried to keep his smile steady, despite his bad feelings about it all. He couldn't help but notice that there was almost no one in the room who seemed to take much notice of the cat on her shoulder. Not even the personnel seemed to care, even though he felt convinced that pets weren't really allowed in there. As he sat down he had started to wonder if the world was indeed as crazy as Ella seemed to think that it was.

“Hi,” she said, giving him a happy smile, completely disarming his confusion and effectively dispersing the feelings of foreboding, “how are you today?”

“Oh, fine, fine, just dandy. I'm feeling good today; I'm just perfect actually, all is good… Although, I do apparantly seem to have a tendency to ramble a bit more than usual.”

She laughed a short sweet laugh.

“That's nice. Here, let me introduce you to one of my cats; Carl. Or lord Fluffypaws, as he prefers to be called nowadays. He is a bit silly.”

The cat looked up slowly and looked David straight in the eyes for a moment, then yawned slowly.

“Eh hehe… Good day, milord,” David said, and flashed Ella a bright smile, trying to reassure them both that he found nothing wrong in the situation.

“So,” he said inquiringly, “does he understand me? Or are you the cat-whisperer, the only one who can talk to them?”

“He can understand you alright,” she answered, giving lord Fluffypaws a pat on the head.

“In time he might even trust you enough to answer you.”

Her response sounded so honest and level-headed that he couldn't bear to assert his disbelief in that possibility. For the time being he decided to accept this as another endearing quirk in her personality and not let it bother him. A beautiful cat on her shoulder was after all better than many of the quirks his previous love interests had had.

“But,” she said, “actually it isn't the cat who would be answering you. I told you before that the cats have told me about how this whole thing works. Would you care to hear about it, even though it might further emphasize my marble deficiency?”

He thought about it. He felt insanely curious about the whole thing, but also a little bit scared about what he might find out about her mind. If this was a joke she was definitely taking it too far, and if it wasn't he didn't know what to think.

“Yes,” he said anyway, “please tell me the wondrous tales about your cat communications.”

He smiled and she smiled back, taking a long drink of her tea before starting to speak.

“Well,” she said, “the thing is that I can't talk to any cat. Cats are intelligent animals, but not intelligent enough to understand more than a few words at most and they lack the physical ability to form the sounds of human language. Sadly, they could never speak to us.

“No, the ones I've been speaking to are actually possessed, for lack of a better term.

“There are old souls out there. Drifters, they call themselves, because they drift almost randomly around the earth, unable to direct their movement much or affect anything physical. They have lived for centuries that way, maybe even millennia. Maybe forever; no one knows. When they drift around they are barely self-aware and they slowly forget their past.

“When they come across organic life forms however, they can share the mind of that form. They need a structured brain to give their thoughts form, to be able to think and act consciously.

“Cats' brains seem particularly well-suited to their needs. Carl tells me that it might be that cat personalities are so well in sync with the typical Drifter personality; they are lazy, self-involved, vain (which is so weird for an incorporeal being), pranksters and incredibly affectionate when it suits them. They are possibly all trying to hatch some evil plan to take over the world too, although that's mostly my own speculation.

“Either way, these spirits often possesses cats. Have you ever had the feeling that at times a cat understands every word you say, acting as if it responds to what you're telling it, but then in the next moment it acts as if it understands nothing? In such occurrences it is most likely a Drifter messing with you. They love pulling stunts like that, making us silly humans believe that cats are smarter than they are.

“They usually don't confirm their presence though. I don't know why they started talking to me. They answer very vaguely to that; they just say that I am special. I'm guessing that they were really just bored and decided to mess with my mind by making me try to figure out why I am so special. Again that's just my own speculation though.”

She smiled and shook her head.

“Really,” she continued, "sometimes I feel that all my experiences during all these years have been colored by the fact that they like to mess with my mind. Either that, or that I really am crazy. Maybe both.

“Anyway. What I was trying to say is that the cats are not talking to me. These spirits are, through some sort of telepathy. As I understand it they can, since they are not corporeal or bound to the bodies of the cats, reach out and touch a piece of their minds to mine and transfer their thoughts, as if speaking to me.”

She fell into a thoughtful silence, looking at him, seemingly pondering how he was taking the revelations so far.

“So…” David said slowly, “How come you're telling me this? I mean, you told me yesterday that you had learned to conceal this from people. I'm not trying to sound insensitive, or as if I agree with the crazy-assessment, but that does sound like it might be a good idea. I would think people in general would take this information rather badly…”

“Well, that's actually the reason why this particular kitty came with me today.” she said, giving another short laugh. “He likes you. He's actually the reason that we are talking at all.

“You don't know this, but I actually saw you the day before the day when we first spoke. Carl was out on a walk with me that day, and he told me that he had noticed that same special quality that the Drifters seem to like about my mind in yours. He told me that I should talk to you.

“I'm not good at initiating contact though, and I felt that if I started accosting you with a cat perched on my shoulder you would directly deem me a crazy cat lady and not be all that susceptible to my awkward flirting. So I came back the next day, sans cat, hoping that you would be here.

“And now… Well… Now I've fallen head over heels in love with you, to be perfectly frank, and I felt that there was no way for me to go on pretending to be sane. If you want to break of all contact with me because of my feline conversations, I felt that I'd be better off knowing that now rather than later.

“So… Do you think that you can continue seeing me?”

She flashed him an uncertain smile that disarmed whatever little rational thought that David had left in him after the words "in love with" had knocked most of it clear out of him.

He still needed a few seconds to think it over, but in the end he smiled at her, smiled at the cat and continued the conversation as if nothing weirder than usual had been said. They sat immersed in idle conversation in hours as usual, though with the addition of a feline observer, who actually didn't seem to mind the situation at all.

This went well for Ella and David from there on. Their daily dates progressed into more and more closeness and they fell deeper and deeper in love. Rarely were Ella's kitty conversations mentioned more than in passing and David felt that he could fully accept them, even if he still didn't really believe that they were real.

That May they got married, in a beautiful springtime ceremony amongst the trees. They bought a small house and moved in together, David, Ella and her five cats. David had never been happier.

Two weeks after the wedding, Ella's cats started talking to him.

Despite having been told so many times that sooner or later they would start talking to him, he never really believed it, so it all came as quite a shock for him.

Even after they started talking to him he wasn't very sure that it was actually happening. He felt as if he might as well just be making himself believe that he heard them talking to him; he felt that maybe the intense love he felt for Ella made him share her psychosis rather than admitting that she is actually crazy.

He pondered this long and well after his first serious conversation with lord Fluffypaws. He couldn't decide if he actually believed that he had been talking with the cat for an hour that afternoon; somehow it felt more reassuring to imagine that it was all in his head.

After a lot of thought and introspection he came to the conclusion that it didn't matter either way.

Either he was now living with cats possessed by roaming spirits, or he was clinically insane. He quickly came to realize that either was preferable to living without Ella in his life. So from that day on he pledged to act as if he believed it all too; if it was all a dream he had no wish to wake up.