Escape Pod 275: Schrödinger’s Cat Lady

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Schrödinger’s Cat Lady by Marjorie James is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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Schrödinger’s Cat Lady

By Marjorie James

I got out of the car, smoothed my shirt down over my bulletproof vest, and contemplated the cats. They contemplated me right back. I sighed. I hated these jobs.

I opened the tiny gate to the front walk (no fence, just a gate) and made my way to the door. The house was small and tidy, a light blue bungalow with green trim and yellow curtains pulled across the windows, through which the cats were peering. It didn’t smell, which was a relief. And something of a surprise, considering the heat. It was one of those days when the world seemed to be actively rejecting human habitation, where the smog and the humidity made the air feel like warm mayonnaise. On a day like this, a cat overpopulation should be stinking to high heaven. Maybe this wasn’t for real, I hoped. It might just be some neighbor with a grudge. Couldn’t be more than a dozen cats here, max. Maybe this one wasn’t going to be that bad.

I have never been very good at predicting things.

I knocked, and waited. A few minutes later there was the sound of multiple locks being unfastened, then some more, then an abortive attempt to open the door, then one last, forgotten bolt sliding back.

The door opened and I was confronted by the smallest person I had ever met. The woman wouldn’t have cleared five feet without some impressive shoes and a generous hand with the measuring tape and her hands and face (the only parts of her that were visible from under the intricate layers of scarves and sweaters) were narrow and delicate. She looked up at me with what seemed to be genuine pleasure.

“Yes? How can I help you?”

“Good morning, ma’am. I’m Lieutenant Eleanor Ross from Animal Welfare. Can I talk with you for a moment?”

Sweat was pouring off me and pooling where my bulletproof vest squeezed against my back. I tried to subtly adjust the vest and the sweat streamed down my butt. I grimaced, and the woman noticed.

She smiled. “Are you afraid I’m going to shoot at you?”

I smiled back. “Department policy. Everyone has to wear them, at all times.”

“I think that’s wise. After all, you never know. I might have shot at you. Would you like to come in?”

I thanked her and followed her into the house. It was a modest bungalow, indistinguishable from every other house on the block, aside from the paint job and the total lack of flowers in the yard. Which is why the interior came as something of a surprise.

The door led to an ordinary entryway—a pair of wooden clogs on the tiled floor, a small table scattered with junk mail. But just beyond that the room opened up into something I could best describe as the bastard child of a hunting lodge and a picture I had seen once of an artist’s rendition of a Roman baths, only without the naked people.

There were no people at all, in fact, aside from myself and the woman, but there was a very large quantity of cats. They were everywhere, pouring out of alcoves and off of furniture—some even seemed to come straight out of the walls—and there seemed to be plenty of space for all of them. In fact, there was more than enough space, far more than was possible, given the apparent dimensions of the house.

It occurred to me that I might be suffering from heatstroke.

“I’m sorry to bother you Mrs. . . .” I looked down at my notes, which were nothing but an illegible scribble.

“Oh, call me Mrs. S. Everyone does. And it’s no bother, no bother at all. I get so few guests these days, and it does get lonely, you know, just me and the cats. And you seem like it would do you some good to get out of that heat.”

Now that she mentioned it, it was pleasantly cool inside. And not the hard, moisture-sucking coldness of summertime air-conditioning; it was cool like an afternoon breeze off the ocean.

I could feel my heat-tense muscles starting to relax in spite of myself.

Disconcerted, but grateful to not be sweating, I tried to get on with the matter at hand.

“I’m sorry to bother you, ma—Mrs. S.,” I repeated. “I’m afraid we’ve had some reports about a large number of cats living here.”

“Yes? Well, people will talk, won’t they? Can I get you something to drink?”

For some reason, I felt like the situation was getting away from me. “No thank you, ma’am. Are you aware the city has a limit on seven animals over five pounds allowed per household?” I glanced around a the cats, who were swarming benignly around the room. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to find new homes for some of these.”

“Oh, but I do. It’s just that there’s so many to save, especially during exams season.” Mrs. S leaned down and picked up a white tabby that had been untying my shoelaces. “And honestly, how can you expect me to know how much they weigh from one minute to the next?”

For what was approximately the ten thousandth time that day, I cursed the budget cuts that had made it necessary for officers in “non-hazardous situations” to work without a partner. I could really have used someone to turn to and mouth “What the hell?” right about now. But that wasn’t an option, so all I could do was to try and get all of the questions that were bouncing around my head to form an orderly line so I could ask them without sounding as stupid as I suddenly felt.

“Why don’t we go into the kitchen so we can chat?” Mrs. S said.

“I’m afraid there aren’t a lot of places to sit out here.”

I agreed, started to follow her, and promptly tripped over my shoelaces.

It’s all wrong, I thought. And I didn’t mean the fact that I was sitting in the woman’s kitchen, with a pink compress on my forehead and a glass of exceptionally bitter iced tea in front of me. Those were just the symptoms of the wrongness, the results. The place was wrong. I had done plenty of these jobs before—dozens, at least—and I thought by now I knew what to expect. Cats, of course, and there were plenty of those here, and the Smell, which wasn’t. The Smell was dander and ammonia and overflowing litterboxes and tomcat musk and sometimes, in the worst cases, a decomposing animal. But there was none of that here; the air smelled of nothing, aside from the occasional faint whiff of sulfur. There was none of the noise, either, and one other thing. . .

“Do you have any kittens here?” I asked, the question butting to the front of the line without so much as an ‘excuse me.’

“Kittens? No, thank goodness. Most people aren’t quite that cruel.”

Five more questions took their place in the queue. I took a deep breath, set my notebook on the table and started calling numbers.

“How many cats do you have?” I asked, and silently prayed for a simple answer.

“Well, that’s hard to say, what with the uncertainty factor. Quite a few, I should think.”

There were points to question there, too, but I was on track now. ‘Not sure how many cats,’ I wrote. A fat, glossy calico chose that moment to hop up on the table and sit down on my notebook. After Mrs. S shooed it off, I added, ‘Appear to be well cared-for.’

“You said you rescued these cats?” I asked. “Is there an organization you’re working with?”

“No, there’s just me. I don’t mind it; these days I don’t have much else to do.”

“Where do you rescue them from?”

“Oh, from the boxes.”

“Boxes? You mean you set out traps?” There were worse things than trapping strays and finding them homes, I thought, even if you weren’t doing it totally in compliance with city ordinances.

“No, I don’t put them in the boxes. The people do. I just get them out before something happens.”

“I’m sorry?”

Mrs. S stopped and looked at me thoughtfully. “Perhaps I had better explain it so you can understand.”

“Please,” I said.

“Well, you see, some time ago there was this man—well, actually there were many iterations of this man across multiple dimensions, but that isn’t really important right now, is it?”

“Of course not,” I agreed, absolutely lost.

“Exactly. What is important is that, to make a point, this man, or men, posed a problem. He suggested that people imagine a box, which nothing could get into or out of, with a cat in it. And then he told them to put in this box a vial of poison gas and a piece of radioactive material, and whether or not the poison gas is released depends on whether the material emits a particle over the course of an hour. There’s a fifty-fifty chance of that, you see, and the person doesn’t know if the cat is alive or dead until they open the box. He was making a point about uncertainty, of course, but to my mind, that’s no reason to go killing cats.”

“So, wait, people are killing cats in boxes, with radiation? Because some guy told them to? Is this some sort of cult thing?” I had dealt with plenty of crazy people in my time, but this was a new one. I hoped I wasn’t in any danger; the bit about the poison gas was a little unnerving.

“It’s students mostly, these days, and the occasional bored physicist. There’s one who runs through it every Friday night, eleven-thirty his time. Always the cutest little tortoiseshells.”

“I don’t think I follow you,” I said, in what may have been the greatest understatement of my life. “Where are they getting the cats? And the boxes and all the other stuff?”

“Oh, they don’t get them, they invent them.”

“I’m sorry?”

“They invent them,” Mrs. S repeated slowly. “They create them with their minds.”

“So, this is all imaginary? The cats aren’t real?” That would explain the lack of smell, I thought wildly. Though not the warm thing that had fallen asleep on my foot.

“Yes and no, in that order.” Mrs. S smiled as though I was a particularly slow student who was starting to come along. “The things we create in our minds have existence. Like Santa Claus. And I just can’t stand the thought of all those poor cats trapped in those boxes. You know,” she leaned in closer and spoke with urgency. “If I didn’t get to them, half of them would die. Just like that! It’s shameful.”

“And it’s always cats?” I asked without really thinking. I was wondering if I needed to call Social Services, for all the good that ever did. I could hardly just leave the woman here like this.

“Almost always. Though there have been a few dogs. And llamas, that one time. That one was interesting. Did you know that they spit? Very smart animals, but big spitters. The only one I didn’t do was the alligators. Anyone who uses alligators deserves what’s coming to them, in my opinion.”

“What’s coming to them? You mean, something happens?”

Mrs. S looked mildly shocked. “Well, you can’t just go on killing cats indefinitely.”

At that moment two of the cats, who had been charging around in some sort of complex chase, raced through the kitchen, bounded off my lap and went straight through the opposite wall. I stared after them, open-mouthed. Mrs. S shook her head.

“Oh, those two,” she said. “They just will not acknowledge solid states when they get going. Would you like some more tea?”

I left the house and drove myself straight to the hospital. I realized I probably should have called for a ride, but I didn’t want to try and explain myself to any more people than was absolutely necessary. I filled out the paperwork and handed it over to the nurse on duty.

“I hit my head,” I explained. “I think I may have a concussion.”

The nurse was supremely uninterested. “Have someone check on you every thirty minutes to make sure you don’t go into a coma,” she advised. “Have you lost consciousness?”

“No—I mean, I don’t think so.” I was uncertain enough about the events of the last hour that I wasn’t about to rule anything out. “I’d really like to get a CAT—a brain scan. To be sure.”

Three hours of waiting and seventeen minutes of medical procedure later, I left the hospital with a clean bill of health.

‘Minor bruising’ according to the doctor, who made it clear he thought I was wasting both our time. I decided not to explain about the cats that weren’t there. It didn’t seem like the moment.

A week later, the whole thing seemed distant and silly. In fact, the more time passed, the less sure I was that I hadn’t dreamed the whole thing. I lied on the report, said no one was home when I visited (for all I knew, that might have been the truth), but that just meant I had to go back and finish the job. This time, for once, I was glad to have no one to come with me. Things might have gotten awkward, otherwise.

The house was exactly like I had remembered it. I rang the bell and took a deep breath. ‘I am normal,’ I told myself. ‘This is normal. There is nothing here but a normal old lady and a bunch of normal cats.’

It was a few minutes before the door opened and Mrs. S (I had tried to look up her name in the property records, but all of the accounts had been illegible) smiled up at me. She was wearing long leather gauntlets and a pith helmet.

“Why, hello! It’s Eleanor, right? Please, do come in.”

The interior of the house was no less bizarre than I remembered it, except that now there was the addition of a large, leafless tree in the middle of the room, surrounded by chicken wire. Which did not, in my opinion, do much to decrease the strangeness.

“I’m sorry about the mess,” Mrs. S was saying. “I wasn’t expecting anyone to be by. I’m afraid we’re having something of a Day.”

“What sort of day?” I asked, even though I knew better.

“Well, there’s been an iteration. And somehow, they ended up with falcons. Falcons! Honestly, who even thinks of falcons, I ask you?”

“I can’t imagine,” I replied, with absolute honesty.

“Oh, but you aren’t interested in that. You’re here about the cats, right? Do you have to weigh them?”

“Weigh. . . what? I’m sorry, did you say you have falcons here?”

Mrs. S pulled off her gloves and waved them towards the back of the house. “Eleven so far, but who knows how many there will end up being. I think the term must have just started. But no worries, I have them well-contained. They aren’t going to get anywhere near the cats.”

I did not know the regulations for keeping birds of prey in a private residence off the top of my head, but I suspected there was another violation here. Which, technically I ought to be pursuing. But I had been here for five minutes and I was already at the limits of my powers of comprehension and, frankly, until someone called in a complaint about falcons I was just going to pretend I hadn’t heard that part.

“Yes, well, I’m sorry to be bothering you again,” I said. “But I really need to talk to you about the cats. I’m afraid you just can’t keep so many of them here with you.”

As I spoke, the room seemed to grow even bigger, like it was mocking my words. And the truth was, even as I said it, and knew I was right, I felt ridiculous standing in this huge space, saying it wasn’t big enough. (Part of my brain was trying to ask how this was possible, and I was telling it to shut up, I had enough problems already.)

“I understand,” Mrs. S said. “You have to do your job. But I have a job too, you know. And it’s not like they can just go somewhere else. I do try and find them homes, but it takes some time.”

“These homes you find for them; where are they, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Oh all sorts of places. Paintings, poems, greeting cards. But nothing where they would have to wear clothing. I really think that’s beneath their dignity, don’t you?”

“Of course.” In fact, I had always hated pictures of cats wearing clothes, for just that reason, though I never would have expressed it.

At that moment a streak of gray fur bounded through the room, knocked over an end table, ricocheted off my head, scaled the chicken wire around the tree and was gone again. Mrs. S sighed and smiled.

“That was Heisenberg—You just can never know where he is and how fast he’s going. But he’s a good boy, really. Would you like some tea?”

So, for the second week in a row, I found myself sitting in the cozy kitchen, drinking tea so strong I thought I could hear my tooth enamel begging for mercy, trying to reconcile the things around me with what I knew of reality. When three cats wandered through, merged into one cat (a calico) and tried to climb my leg, I gave up. “Please think about what I told you,” I said to Mrs. S as I left. “And let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”

“Thank you.” Mrs. S patted my arm. “You really do try, don’t you? To take care of the animals.”

“Someone has to, ma’am.”

I thought about going in for a drug test when I got back to the station, but I decided against it. Either way, it would be too much to explain.

It was two weeks before I went back to the house. I was in my civilian clothes, having found myself with some unexpected off-duty time. I didn’t have any particular purpose for this visit—I had already written up the case as a false report, and let them do what they liked with that. If somebody had been in a position to ask me why I was there, I might have said something like “Three time’s a charm,” but the truth was, there was something about the cool house and the bitter tea that felt very welcome right about now. I guess some kinds of confusion are better than others. I rang the bell.

“Why, hello!” Mrs. S greeted me warmly, then stopped as she noticed my arm in its sling. “Oh, my dear, what happened?”

I smiled wanly. “Bad judgment call on my part. I hope I’m not bothering you. I just came by to check up on the cats.”

“Oh no, not at all. Please come in. Would you like some tea?”

In what seemed like an unreasonably short time, I was settled in the kitchen, with iced tea etching the glass in front of me and a cat sleeping lightly on the back of my chair. (I had to admit, real or not, they were some of the most contented cats I had ever encountered.)

“So. What was this bad judgment of yours?” Mrs. S asked, before I had a chance to send the conversation somewhere else. “Was it a man?”

“What? Oh, no. Well, yes, but not like that. It was just work.”

I sighed. “Dog fighting. We had a tip about a house where they were keeping and training the dogs, so my department put together a team to take it out. We had the SWAT team and the regular PD with us, and they went through and cleared the scene, and then we went in to look after the dogs.” I shook my head. “It was—God, those poor animals. Wounded and chained up, crammed into tiny cages, just terrible. They had a few smaller dogs there they used for training, like little punching bags, torn up all over. So terrified, just cowering there and whimpering every time you got close.”

I absently took a swig of my tea and cringed. “Anyway, I was going through, tallying up the animals and taking pictures for evidence, when I hear something moving behind one of the crates. And, like an idiot, I go to see what it is, thinking it must be another dog or something.”

“And it wasn’t?”

“Nope. Perp with a nine millimeter handgun. He got off a few shots on me and tried to make a break for it, until a couple of the SWAT guys convinced him otherwise.”

“Oh dear. But you were all right? Except for your arm?”

“That, and a bruise from where he hit the vest. But yeah, I’m fine.”

“Well, that’s good. And the dogs?”

“They all had to be put down. Once a dog’s been trained to fight,” I shook my head. “There’s just no hope for them.”

Mrs. S looked aghast. “That’s terrible. But at least you got the people who were doing it.”

“Yes and no. I mean, we got these guys, and they’ll probably do some time. But there’s a lot of money in dog fighting, and the people who run it stay well out of our way. I doubt we’ll ever be able to bring them down. Not without a lot more people and money than we’re ever going to get, anyway.”

“I see.” Mrs. S looked thoughtful for a minute or so, during which Heisenberg streaked around the room a couple of times, then vanished.

“Excuse me for a moment,” Mrs. S said and got up and left the room, deftly picking up a tabby that was playing with the toaster as she passed.

While I waited, my eyes wandered to the living room, where several cats appeared to be practicing the cha cha.

The wonderful thing about this place, I decided, was that there was so much strangeness competing for your attention, that your brain had no choice but to just give up and go with it. It was, in an odd way, relaxing.

Mrs. S came back in with a large tapestry bag (I barely had to look to know it was decorated with cats) over her arm.

“All right,” she said. “I think I have them.”

She stopped and considered me for a moment.

“I think you should come along. It will do you good.”

“Come where?” I asked, but we were already there.

It was an oversized suburban house, the kind they made in blocks of five hundred and sold as the ultimate in luxury living. The living room was full of overstuffed leather furniture and several men (also overstuffed and covered in leather). I blanched when I saw them, or more specifically, when I saw the guns they had casually and imprudently stuck in their pants, but none of the men seemed to have noticed us.

I watched, transfixed, as Mrs. S walked unobserved around the room, locking every door and window (even some I could have sworn hadn’t had locks a moment before). Then she came to the center of the room and took from her bag a sealed glass bottle and an apparatus with a hammer connected to a metal box. She placed the bottle on the table and set the apparatus up next to it, so that the hammer was positioned directly over the bottle. Then she reached back into her bag and took out a small amount of dull grey metal, which she set on a dish on the apparatus. Then she turned to me and smiled.

“How’s that?”

“But. . . Wait—Are they going to die?” I stared from the bottle to the men, who seemed to be flickering between their positions in the chairs and lying on the floor.

“Well, we can’t know for sure. I suppose we’ll find out when someone opens the door.”

About the Author

Marjorie James

Marjorie James is a writer, biotech researcher and native Californian who lives in the Bay Area because she couldn’t deal with the weather anywhere else. She is currently working on her first novel and maintains a blog that has nothing to do with any of these things.

Find more by Marjorie James


About the Narrator

Mur Lafferty

Mur Lafferty

Mur Lafferty is the co-editor and sometime-host of Escape Pod.

She is an American podcaster and writer based in Durham, North Carolina. She is the host and creator of the podcasts I Should Be Writing and Ditch Diggers. Her books have been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Philip K. Dick, and Scribe Awards. In the past decade she has been the co-founder/co-editor of PseudoPod, founding editor of Mothership Zeta, and the editor or co-editor of Escape Pod (where she is currently).

She is fond of Escape Artists, in other words.

Mur won the 2013 Astounding Award for Best New Writer (formerly the John W. Campbell Award), and the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Fancast for Ditch Diggers. She’s been nominated for numerous other awards and is always doing new things, so check her website for the latest.

Find more by Mur Lafferty

Mur Lafferty