"The cat was in the closet."
That's how the story starts, any time someone asks me.
"She'd been restless for about a week before," I'd tell people. I could see that the pain in my eyes radiated out to them--my listeners could feel the heaviness and old hurt that never really healed. The air would grow more somber around us, the listener's face more grave.
"We didn't know why. We thought maybe she was sick, but a trip to the vet ruled that out." And I'd pause there, every time, sucking in a bracing breath before continuing my tale. "She skulked around the house, a black shadow leery of everything and anything. We couldn't comfort her, couldn't make her feel safe. And then, that day, she refused to come out of the closet."
And that's where my throat always chokes with sobs I try to keep suppressed, but they always seem to bubble over despite my efforts. My eyes fill with tears, and if I'm lucky, I'm taking a drag off a cigarette someone's found. Of all the horrible things that had happened, my cat still invoked the most despair.
Because after that day, I never saw her again. Never had a chance to feel her soft, black fur under my fingers; no chance to hear her gentle, rumbling purr; never again have the chance to feel her sweet kisses on my forehead in the mornings.
When that day came, we had no choice. Consumed with our own survival, we forgot about the one innocent life, the one that depended wholly and completely on us to keep her safe. We each thought the other had gotten her, but neither of us had. A poor excuse, I scold myself. I should have checked.
But no, we fled for our lives like billions of other humans on the planet, running as far and as fast as our cars--and later, our legs--could take us. We were full of thoughts about supplies, weapons, shelter, and safety, and spared no thought for our precious furbaby.
A lapse I will never forgive myself for.
I tried to tell myself she would have been unsuited to this new world we found ourselves in. Her gentle nature couldn't have withstood the running, the fighting, the scraping survival we all now found ourselves in. She would have likely died from the stress...or maybe I underestimated her. Maybe she could have adapted, like we are all doing now, to live this life. But she'll never get the chance, and I'll never get to see her step up to the challenge.
All I have of her now is the knowledge that she's gone, like so many others. Gone, and never coming back.
"She wouldn't come out of the closet," I'd say, turning haunted eyes to my listener. "And then we found out why."