Stacie McCall Whitaker - Stone Coast, Maine

All the Girls Love Michael Stein

“I don’t know how much more of this I can take,” Michael Stein said.

“Indeed,” Pax sighed. “It breaks my heart. She just has to get through it, though. They always do, eventually.”

“But look at her!” Michael Stein said. “She’s…” He couldn’t think of the word. “She’s…”

“Inconsolable?” Pax offered.

The her was Lucy, and she did indeed look inconsolable.

She lay on her bed, crying. It had been three days since the incident, but she hadn’t gotten any better. Her parents tried to soothe her. They let her miss the last few days of middle school, saying the summer would just have to begin early. They even proposed getting a new kitten.

Michael Stein had been a bit put out by that, but he had nothing to worry about. Lucy wouldn’t hear of it. The very suggestion ripped a sob of grief out of her. She refused to leave her room. She refused to take her friends’ phone calls. She wouldn’t read any of her detective books. She wouldn’t even look at the shelves with the cat books, of which she had quite a collection. Usually, she spent hours each evening drawing feline forms in all their glory. Not anymore.

Looking up at her from the floor, Michael Stein said, “I’ve tried everything.”

He really had. Michael Stein had pulled out his full arsenal of techniques to cheer Lucy up. He had whipped himself back and forth across her ankles when she stood. He’d climbed onto the bed with her and kneaded the stuffed penguin she was attached to for some reason he couldn’t fathom. He’d curled up beside her and suckled on the edge of her old blanket. He’d even brushed his head on her chin and fired up the rumble of his full-on purr. Normally, that fixed just about any problem she had—even problems with boys.

“You’re having a classic grief reaction,” Pax said, licking his forearm. “You’ll get through it. You’ll be all the wiser for it. Like me.”

Michael Stein wished that Pax would quit with the old-and-wise act. He was annoying. But he was also right. Michael Stein couldn’t fix this. Even during the best days of his life, he had only been a medium-sized tabby cat. Now…well, now he was a dead medium-sized tabby cat. A ghost of his former self.

*

Before he died, Michael Stein had lots of opinions about the dead cats he’d met. He’d spoken to plenty of them. All cats did. They saw things that humans didn’t, including the ghosts of departed cats. Michael Stein had found the sulky way they moped through their humans’ homes kinda pathetic. They could go anywhere! Do anything! They weren’t bound to their humans. They didn’t need to coax food out of them or rely on them to change the litter. All of those physical needs were gone. Instead, they lingered on as pure vaporous energy. Considering that, why did they all stick around the same houses, watching the same lives of the same people they’d lived with before they died?

He used to argue about this with Pax, who was the ghost of an old cat that had belonged to Lucy’s mother when she was girl. He’d died, like, thirty years ago! But the old geezer was still hanging around. He seemed to think the afterlife should consist of nothing more than lying curled in a ball at Lucy’s mother’s feet. The woman didn’t even know he was there! What was the use of that?

Michael Stein had been sure that when he died he’d get up to all sorts of adventures. Once he was freed of any dependence on his humans, he’d just take off. See ya. Been nice. Thanks for the catnip. He’d explore the world.

But that was before he died. Now, he wasn’t so sure. A few days in the afterlife and Michael Stein was starting to think he had misjudged the virtues of being dead.

The whole ghost-body thing wasn’t as much fun as he’d expected. He didn’t have to worry about getting hurt or killed anymore, but he couldn’t feel or smell or touch the world the way he used to, either. The things he thought he’d so enjoy about being dead just didn’t live up to his expectations.

He’d always wanted to go right out onto the tiniest little tree branches in pursuit of the chickadees that seemed to think the entire garden belonged to them. When he was dead, he figured, he’d be light as a feather and could go anywhere they did. That was true. Problem was that when he got out on the really thin branches, his body would sink through them. He’d gotten right up beside a bird once, only to watch in frustration as the branch slipped through his body and he floated down to land in the bird pond.

Worse still, he couldn’t actually touch the birds. He’d stalked a few his first day as a ghost. It was great, right up until that last moment when his vaporous form crashed down upon the unsuspecting birds without having the slightest impact. Sometimes, when he’d really splattered them good, the bird might feel just enough to get a little nervous and fly away. It was terribly unsatisfying.

More importantly, there was Lucy and all of her crying. If he could step back in time and change things, he would. He wouldn’t sneak out that fateful night. He wouldn’t focus all of his attention on that rabbit den. He’d have kept his wits about him, and the beast—he was never sure what exactly it was—wouldn’t have pounced on him. One moment he was about to sink his claws into a juicy rabbit. The next, something had caught him in its jaws. End of story.

He was philosophical about it. Every cat had to go at some time. His time had just come. At least it happened so fast he didn’t feel any pain. And he had died a hunter’s death. Live by the claw, die by the jaw, he’d always said.

Still, it seemed very, very important that Lucy not be so sad. He’d always liked her, even if he never took her declarations of love for him too seriously. She had called him “the best cat ever” hundreds of times. He’d thought nothing of it. Now he realized just how much he’d meant to her, and how much she meant to him.

The situation was insufferable. Michael Stein decided to do something about it.

*

“You’re going to do what?” Pax asked. He lifted his head from its resting place on Lucy’s mother’s foot. She was sorting through bills on the kitchen table, completely oblivious to the ghost cat’s affections.

“I’m going to see the Catfather,” Michael Stein said. “Lots of cats do it. That’s what he’s there for—to hear our grievances and help us out.”

“You won’t find it’s as easy as that. Catfathers are movers and shakers when they’re alive, but… You do understand that you can’t go to a living catfather, don’t you?”

Michael Stein hadn’t thought of that. “You sure?”

“Trust me, I’ve been dead a lot longer than you. You’re not part of their constituency anymore. It’s a catfather ghost for you. And those…” Pax lifted one of his white paws, licked it, and ran the paw over one of his black ears. He couldn’t actually touch it, but old habits were hard to break. “They’re really rather useless.”

Michael Stein doubted that. He almost told Pax what he was going to ask the Catfather for, but he didn’t want Pax to laugh at it. Instead, he just said, “Still, I’m going to try.”

Pax shrugged. “Suit yourself, but you should accept the way things are. Act like the rest of us do.”

“You mean sit around at your human’s feet?”

“You always have to have the last word, don’t you?”

Michael Stein didn’t think that was fair. “Lounging around invisibly doesn’t do anybody any good.”

“You’d be surprised,” Pax said, with an air of import that annoyed Michael Stein.

Before Michael Stein could try again to have the last word, Lucy’s father trod down the stairs, having just come from Lucy’s room.

“She any better?” Lucy’s mother asked.

“Not really. She cried herself to sleep. She’s going to have puffy eyes in the morning.” Sighing, he added, “She really loved that cat.”

Lucy’s mother looked up from her bills and stared wistfully out the open window. She said, “All the girls loved Michael Stein.”

“Good grief!” Lucy’s father said. “If I’d known it would be this bad, I wouldn’t have agreed to keep him in the first place.”

“With Michael Stein, it’s better to have known love and lost it than to never have loved at all,” Lucy’s mother said. “I was miserable when my old cat, Pax, died, but that was only because I loved him. I still do. Sometimes I think of him, and it almost feels like he’s in the room with me. You know that feeling?”

“Nope. I can’t say that I do.” Lucy’s father grabbed the trash bag from the bin and stomped outside with it.

Pax purred and looked pleased with himself. “See? Didn’t I tell you? Why don’t you just curl up beside Lucy and do what you can to comfort her?”

“That might be fine for other cats,” Michael Stein said, “but I say there can be more to death than that.”

*

The Catfather’s headquarters was in the same backyard that it had been in when the Catfather was still alive. Michael Stein had never called on him before, but he knew where the Catfather lived. Every cat did. Still, he was surprised at how many cats were already there when he arrived. Seemed like half the town had crammed into the yard, between the lawn furniture and the shed and all around the raised garden beds. All of them had problems they were hoping the Catfather could solve.

When Michael Stein gave his name at the back gate, the Catfather’s secretary looked up from his notepad, one eyebrow cocked. “What kind of name is that? For a cat, I mean.”

“Oh,” Michael Stein said awkwardly, “I don’t know. I was only a kitten when my humans chose it.”

The secretary raised his other eyebrow.

Truth was, Michael Stein knew exactly where his name came from. Humans thought it was a pretty strange name for a cat, too, and Lucy’s mother had had to tell the story of how she came up with it on more than one occasion.

Michael Stein was a guy Lucy’s mom had a crush on in high school. He was half-Filipino and half-Jewish. “A crazy mix,” Lucy’s mom had said, “but the result was dreamy.” She claimed that all the girls at school had a thing for him. Because of all the attention he got, Lucy’s mother only admired him from afar. In her junior year science class, she got paired with him for a series of projects. They worked well together, but she didn’t let on for a minute about how she felt. And that was that. Unrequited love. Life moves on.

Or so she’d thought, until the night of her twentieth high school reunion. Michael Stein was there, looking as dreamy as ever. He ran a successful software design firm with offices in Boston and Munich. He was married with three kids, a dog, two cats. He liked foreign films, ran 10Ks, and had handbuilt a wood-fired pizza oven in his backyard. He drove a Prius. He was everything Lucy’s mother had dreamed he’d become.

Much to her surprise, he confessed to having had a crush on her in high school. He’d never said anything because she’d seemed so indifferent to him. Leaving the reunion, Lucy’s mother cursed her younger self as a fool.

About a week after that, two things happened on the same fateful day. One, Lucy’s mother had a fight with Lucy’s father, and two, she found a kitten. Mad at her husband, she brought the kitten home for Lucy, announcing that his name was Michael Stein, the one that got away. And that was that. Michael Stein had always felt a little weird about it. When Lucy’s mother called him in at night, he was never sure if she was calling for him, or for her long-lost high school love.

“Michael Stein! Where are you, Michael Stein?”

So that was the story. It all seemed like too much personal information to give the secretary. Michael Stein tried, “Humans… What’s a cat to do?”

This seemed to sit well with the secretary. He let both eyebrows drop and motioned in the air with his paw—the cat equivalent of saying Amen, brother! “Humans are mad, true enough. So, what do you want to see the Catfather about?”

One awkward question right to another.

“It’s policy,” the secretary said. “I have to screen out the nuts.”

Michael Stein had the sudden fear that maybe that would include him. He didn’t see any choice, though, so he revealed the situation that had brought him here.

The secretary didn’t look moved. “Sorry, but there’s nothing—”

Michael Stein didn’t want to hear the end of that sentence. “If the Catfather would just give her the gift, everything would be all right!” It was a lot to ask, but the Catfather had the power to do it—the power to allow Lucy to see ghost cats.

“That’s what you’re going to ask him to do?” the secretary said. “In the whole history of the human/cat relationship, only a handful of humans have ever been given the gift. Ghandi had it. That whole nonviolent resistance thing? A cat idea. Eleanor Roosevelt had it, too. Talked her husband through the Great Depression with a ghost-cat council. Bet you didn’t know that.” The secretary squinted.

No, Michael Stein hadn’t known that. “So, humans having the gift is a good thing, right?”

“It can be, but Napoleon had it, too. Conquered most of Europe before a double-agent ghost cat convinced him that invading Russia in the winter was a good idea.”

“There are ghost-cat spies?”

“Don’t say you heard it from me,” the secretary said. “Anyway, your Lucy’s circumstances don’t merit this sort of intervention. It needs to be for the greater good, not just to get a girl to stop crying. And you don’t want to waste the Catfather’s time. If you annoy him, you could get banished from his district.”

“Banished from his district?”

“You know what that would mean, don’t you?”

Michael Stein did. If he got banished from the district, he wouldn’t get to stay with Lucy anymore.

*

“So, what are you here for?” the ghost cat ahead of Michael Stein asked. She was a ginger kitten with large, expressive eyes.

Michael Stein looked through the kitten at the queue of cats strung out along the cement path up toward the back porch, where the Catfather held court. He was trying to work out the speech he was going to deliver. It had to be a good one, something that would set him and Lucy apart from whatever the other cats were asking for.

The kitten blinked and waited.

“It’s personal,” Michael Stein said.

The ginger kitten didn’t take offense. She also didn’t take the hint. “I’m here about Fiona. She’s the kitten that lives in the apartment I used to live in. Her humans are going to get her declawed.”

Michael Stein hissed.

“It’s a crime against nature, right?” the kitten asked. “They tried to do it to me. I scratched them up and jumped out the window. That was a mistake. Our apartment is on the seventh floor. It’s why I’m like this now.” She waved a paw, indicating her translucent body. “They got a new kitten, and I heard them talking about taking her to the vet for the procedure. That’s what they call it. The procedure. Fiona doesn’t believe me. She’s too innocent. Can’t even conceive of being clawless.”

Michael Stein had a hard time conceiving of it himself. Nothing could be worse for a cat.

“I tried to get her out of there,” the ginger kitten said, “but they keep her locked up in the apartment. No easy way in or out.”

“What do you think the Catfather can do about it?” Michael Stein asked.

“I don’t know. He couldn’t do anything last time, but he said to come back.”

“You’ve spoken to him already?”

“Yep. Fifteen times.”

Michael Stein felt his hopes take a dive. “You’ve been here fifteen times, but he hasn’t helped you yet?”

“Not yet.”

A voice behind them said, “He hasn’t helped any cat, really. Not since he died.” The speaker was a dark gray longhair. “I knew the Catfather when he was alive. He was a serious dude. Cats listened to him. He got things done. That all changed when he died. He’s pretty depressed, really.”

“None of us have figured this afterlife stuff out,” a flame-tipped Siamese in line behind the longhair said. “We’re all return customers. This your first visit?”

Michael Stein nodded.

“Wow,” the Siamese said, “a first-timer. Sorry, kid. Get used to disappointment.”

*

By the time his turn to address the Catfather came, Michael Stein had heard more hard-luck stories than he cared to remember. Everyone had their own tale, and Michael Stein couldn’t claim that Lucy’s happiness mattered more than any of the others. His paws trembled with nervousness as he realized he wasn’t at all sure what he was about to say.

“This one calls himself Michael Stein,” the secretary said, checking his clipboard. “Wait until you hear what he wants from you. Crazy kid.”

“Michael Stein,” a low, deep voice said, “my secretary says you’re a bit mad. I do hope that’s not the case.”

The Catfather. In life, he’d been a mythic cat. Not only was he a bulky Maine Coon, one of the largest breeds of domestic cats, but he’d been born with six toes on each of his front paws. He was famed as a hunter. Mice, rabbits, rats, squirrels: you name it; he’d caught it. He used to stalk the deer that came onto the high school fields at night. In his youth, he’d fought epic battles with other powerful cats. Even the local dogs granted him a grudging respect after a story went around town that he’d chased a Doberman up a tree. Michael Stein found that hard to believe. But, regardless of the exact facts, the Catfather had certainly been impressive.

He still was. He reclined in his basket, one enormous paw draped over the rim, claws just slightly visible. Even though they couldn’t do damage anymore, those claws made Michael Stein nervous. The Catfather stared at Michael Stein through his one good eye. The other eye was milky white, a battle wound.

“What brings you before me today?” he asked.

Michael Stein realized he’d been staring, open-mouthed. He had to do better than that. He was Michael Stein, after all, and he was doing this for Lucy. He said something he hadn’t expected to. “Catfather, most impressive of cats, I come to you with a humble proposal.”

“Is that so?” the Catfather asked. “I thought you were going to ask for something.”

“Well, yes…but I’m also offering something!” Michael Stein hadn’t known he was going to say that, but once he did, he knew what he was going to propose. To make it work, though, he had to spell out a few things first.

Pacing in a slow circle, Michael Stein tried to sound confident, a cat older than his years. “I haven’t been dead a long time,” he said, “but I’ve learned some things already. For one, it’s not fun being dead.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” the Catfather said, crossing his paws.

“But the reason it’s not fun is different than I thought at first. The sad thing isn’t not having a body and claws and teeth. I mean, that’s a bummer, but that stuff just doesn’t matter quite the same way anymore. Something else matters.”

“Yeah, and what’s that?”

“The living people we care about. Living humans. Living cats. Everyone who comes here is asking for something for somebody else. Somebody living.” Michael Stein pointed at the ginger kitten. “You came because of a kitten you’re worried is going to get declawed. You’re not here about what happened to you. That’s history. You came here because life goes on, and it’s filled with dangers for the ones you still care about. And you…” He found the longhair. “You’re here because the nurse looking after your old human isn’t taking care of her properly.”

The longhair looked positively dejected. “It’s a tragedy.”

“Of course it is,” Michael Stein said. “And you,” Michael Stein looked to the Siamese, “you’re tired of seeing your human boy get picked on by bullies.”

The Siamese agreed. “They take his lunch money every day, but he never complains. He’s a brave little trooper.”

“So, what I’m saying is that the gift of death is also the tragedy of it. The gift is that we come to care about others more than we ever used to. The tragedy is that we can’t do anything to help them. We’re powerless to do anything but just linger, watching.”

“You’re depressing me, kid,” the Catfather said.

Michael Stein turned back to him and said, with great gravity, “Yes, but what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if there was a way to solve all our problems?”

*

“See,” Michael Stein said, “look at all those detective books.”

He and the Catfather stood side by side, having just walked through the wall into Lucy’s room.

The Catfather let his good eye roam over the shelves. “She’s read all of those?”

“Each and every one. She knows all about sorting out problems and solving crimes. And she’s read those, too.” He pointed a paw at another shelf. “Those are all books about cats.”

“All about cats, huh?” The Catfather sounded impressed.

“And the cat drawings and posters,” Michael Stein prompted.

“Yeah, I see them.” It would’ve been hard for the Catfather not to, plastered over every inch of the walls like they were. He hopped up onto Lucy’s bed and walked up the sleeping girl’s side. After studying her face, he concluded, “Puffy eyes.”

“From crying.” Michael Stein sat on his haunches. “So, it’s like I said, Lucy knows two things—cats and detective stuff. What more could you ask for?”

The Catfather nodded grudgingly. “You sure it won’t make her crazy? Most humans wouldn’t want to have their minds blown this way. Remember, it’s irreversible. It will be with her for life. The gift could be too much for her.”

“Lucy is the sanest human I know. If you do this for her, you won’t regret it.”

“I better not,” the Catfather said. “You’re sure she’ll keep her part of the bargain?”

“Absolutely,” Michael Stein said, looking at Lucy’s sleeping face. “I’m sure of it.”

“If this doesn’t go the way you claim it’s gonna…”

“It will,” Michael Stein said. “You’ve got my word on it.”

“The word of a dead cat?” the Catfather asked.

Michael Stein smiled. “There’s nothing more sacred.”

*

After the Catfather left, Michael Stein curled up beside Lucy and waited for her to wake. The Catfather hadn’t done much. He’d just placed a kiss on each of Lucy’s puffy eyelids and mumbled some words that Michael Stein hadn’t quite heard. Would it really be enough?

Michael Stein tried to be patient, but the waiting got to be too much for him. “Lucy,” he said. “Hey, Lucy, can you hear me?”

Lucy’s eyes opened. She blinked and sat up. She stared at Michael Stein for a long moment, looking confused. She brought her fists to her eyes and rubbed them, and then looked at him again. “Michael Stein?”

She looked surprised—amazed even—but she didn’t look like she was at risk of losing her mind. Michael Stein decided it was safe to take things a step further. “The one and only,” he said.

“You can talk! You sound just like I thought you would.” Lucy lunged forward and flung her arms around him. She couldn’t embrace him like in the old days, but since she could see him it was different than before. Her arms cradled him as they had in life. He did his best to fit perfectly within them. “You’re the ghost of Michael Stein,” she said.

He fired up his purr.

Lucy inhaled a surprised breath, and Michael Stein knew that she could hear him purr. That made him very happy.

“I know this is just a dream,” Lucy said. “I love it anyway. I don’t want to wake up.”

“It’s no dream, Lucy,” Michael Stein said.

She drew back and stared at him, and he told her the whole story.

Well, almost the whole story…

“There’s one catch,” Michael Stein said, when he couldn’t avoid the topic any longer.

Lucy frowned. “What’s that?”

“I should probably show you. Let’s go outside.”

The porch and the porch steps and the sidewalk all the way down the street were filled with ghost cats. Big ones. Little ones. Gingers and tabbies. Black cats and Siamese and longhairs and mixes of every variety. Even one hairless Sphynx. And a one-eyed Maine Coon, who looked both distinguished and grave.

“Do you see them?” Michael Stein asked.

“Do I ever! Are they all…well, I mean…are they all like you?”

“Yes,” Michael Stein said, “they’re all ghosts. But for cats, being dead doesn’t mean we disappear or go anyplace or anything like that. We stick around near the ones we love.” He felt a little guilty for ever thinking that he wouldn’t stick around, but Lucy didn’t need to know that. “And that’s the thing…”

Lucy looked like she wanted to rush out into the throng of cats, but she held back. “What’s the thing?”

“The problem is that we ghost cats can’t help the living. Humans don’t even know we’re around. Living cats know about us, but they don’t exactly listen.” Michael Stein realized he was talking about himself just a week ago, but he kept going. “So, in return for allowing you to see me, I said that you would hear ghost cats’ problems and help them. Sometimes a crime has been done. Sometimes one is going to be done. Sometimes it’s just an injustice that needs a living human to deal with it.” Michael Stein swallowed. “I said that you would be that person.”

“You mean…” Lucy said, “that I’m a detective for dead cats?”

“You could think of that way, I guess.”

“Awesome!” Lucy whispered. “This is, like, the best job imaginable! And I’ve got all summer…”

She stepped through the door and fell right into conversation with the ginger kitten. Michael Stein felt a great deal of relief, though he also knew that he had changed more than just what she was going to do with the summer. The gift would be with her for life. He’d have to talk about that with her sometime. But today, he was just pleased to have her back.

Lucy turned around and mouthed the words, “I love you, Michael Stein.”

Michael Stein couldn’t help it. He started to purr. He realized that his relationship with Lucy hadn’t ended with his death. Instead, it was just beginning.

A voice beside him startled him. It was Pax. He had a way of sneaking up, all silent-like. “So,” he said, “I reckon this means you’ll be staying around. Told ya.”

For once, Michael Stein didn’t try to have the last word.

About the Author

David Anthony Durham is the author of seven novels: The Risen, The Sacred Band, The Other Lands, AcaciaPride of CarthageWalk Through Darkness, and Gabriel’s Story. His stories have appeared in three of George R. R. Martin’s Wild Cards novels: Fort FreakLowball, and High Stakes, with another forthcoming in Texas Hold ‘Em. Other short fiction has been anthologized in UnboundUnfetteredIt’s All Love, and Gumbo: A Celebration of African American Writing. He’s currently on the faculty of the Stonecoast MFA Program of the University of Southern Maine and the MFA program of the University of Nevada, Reno.