The little house was silent and dim, the sunlight held at bay by the thick curtains and a certain palpable stubbornness rubbed off from its inhabitants. Coco stepped over to the fraying black cushion in the hall and nudged Pierre with her snout.
“Husband,” she said, settling back onto her haunches.
Pierre opened his eyes slightly, the inner lids sliding back. He studied Coco for a moment. “I am not your husband,” he said with a sigh, settling himself and closing his eyes.
Coco blinked her eyes slowly, twitching her whiskers. “We are common-law. We have lived together for many years.”
Pierre didn’t open his eyes. “Along with your preening brother, and The Beast, and The Phantom, and our people,” he agreed. “It does not mean we are married.”
Coco seemed to consider this, shifting her weight and lifting one paw for inspection, splaying the claws. Then she settled again.
“Husband,” she repeated.
Pierre snorted lightly, nostrils flaring. “Yes?”
“There is a dog in the garden.”
Pierre opened his eyes and lifted his head from his snowy paws. “What? A dog! In the garden!”
Coco nodded peacefully. “It is dead.”
Pierre sat up and stretched his body magnificently. His black and white fur resembled formal wear, and one reason Coco was proud to be his spouse was how elegant he looked. She was all black, except for her gold eyes and a certain chocolate coloring on the pads of her paws.
Pierre sat up and rubbed at his eyes and pink nose with his paws. He was no longer a young cat, and jumping had recently become very difficult for him, resulting in a few embarrassing incidents. But he was still an imposing figure, and he still commanded the respect of everyone in the house, even The Beast.
When his toilet was completed, he ran his tongue over his nose. “Show me.”
Coco padded off, and Pierre lumbered after her, walking with a slight stiffness. He was perhaps twice as large as Coco, who minced along with a creeping gait. At the back door of the cottage a pet door had been installed, with a plastic flap held closed by a magnet. Next to the door was a large picture window affording a grand view of the garden, where a padded shelf had been attached to the sill. Coco leaped up onto the shelf and wrapped her tail around herself.
“I cannot go out there,” she said. “I am too afraid.” She closed her eyes and slowly opened them again. “Yesterday they kept ringing the doorbell. The people. And the children would shout when our people opened the door. And the children were dressed so strangely! It was terrifying, every time. I spent most of the day hiding in the dryer.”
Pierre snorted again. Using his head, he pushed the plastic flap out and passed through the tight pet door into the garden.
It was chilly, late fall, the air filled with cold and leaves. The garden was small but tidy, bordered by a low stone wall on the right, a taller wood stockade fence on the right, and a higher stone wall in the back. The end result was a space that felt private and remote, filled with familiar, comforting smells: Damp, plants, catnip growing in the sunny patch to the left, bugs, a frog, flowers and bees and dirt and a million other things he had not as yet had the time to catalog and remember. And something else, something that raised the hairs on his back just slightly, something that brought his ears forward: Death.
The dog was a mutt, its white fur matted and dirty. It was face down in the dirt, its legs splayed out from its body. There was no scent of blood, no scent of another animal on it. Pierre didn’t approach it; he lifted his snout and sniffed the air, eyes slitted, gathering all the information he needed. He recognized the animal; he’d watched it slinking through the garden some nights, a ghostly figure creeping along the edges.
Movement made Pierre startle into an instinctive defense pose, ears flat, back arched. A second dog’s head appeared above the low stone wall on the right that separated the small garden from the neighboring yard. It disappeared immediately, but a moment later the dog itself scrambled up on top of the wall, then leaped down into the garden as if this was the most natural thing in the world. The dog collected itself and settled back on its haunches, tongue lolling out.