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“Welcome to Auntie Agony’s” by Nancy Thorne

“So, all of it was just a lie?” Nora’s voice distorts against the screech of damp brakes. Rows of buses rumble behind us in designated lanes, recently arrived or soon departing.

We release our hug and I look her over: red sandals with stacked heels, layers of clothing that cover all but a tasteful exposure of cleavage, Gatsbyesque bob of blue-black hair – all the familiarities that dispel the anxiety stuck to me scab-like during my trip from Montreal.

“Thanks for helping me out, again.” I grab my luggage, freshly plucked from the underbelly of the bus.

“No problem.” she says. She doesn’t say I told you so even though I hear it clearly in my head. “Both boys are home. But the couch in the sunroom is all yours, for as long as you want.”

“Thanks.” She doesn’t say just like the last time even though I’m sure I hear that too. Or I don’t always understand you, but I’m here for you like she’d said three years ago when I left everything to move to Montreal with Maurice so he could be near his kids.

“Christ, I’m forty.” I yank the handle of my suitcase and feel the casters connect with the pavement. “What the hell’s wrong with me?”

“Nothing that wine won’t help, at least tonight. But promise me you’ll let me pick out the next guy, will you?”

“There won’t be a next guy.”

She gives me that look, that you feel shitty right now, but eventually it’ll turn out okay look. I wish I believe her.

Nothing much has changed in Nora’s house except for the increase in her rescue population. “Watch your head,” she says as I pass by the art deco light globe held by a bronze naked girl. I wheel my suitcase over the ceramic floor of the galley kitchen. “The new cat has a thing for perching on door frames and dive-bombing onto shoulders.”

“Oh, okay.” I gaze up.

“And one of the dogs has gone blind. Try not to move the chairs around too much.”

“Sure. How many in your menagerie now?” Not including me.

“Four right now. A border collie, a shih tzu, and two cats. Just be careful of the shih tzu. He’s a biter.”

How inconsequential would a bite be right now? Maybe it would even feel good. Here’s a punishment for being so stupid all your life. “So, you’re obviously still getting your visions considering you called me last week before I even had the chance to tell you what happened.”

Nora passes me a glass of red wine and we sit on the couch that sooner or later will be my bed. I give it a pat. If only I could find the sleep that’s evaded me for weeks. It’s like I’ve been on perpetual uppers.

“Yeah, my intuition’s been the same since I was a kid. Last week I went to the museum to see an exhibit about the ruins of Pompeii. One of the rooms had these casts of the bodies, you know, solidified from the eruptions, basically indestructible. I swear I could hear them screaming. I had to leave.”

I can’t imagine that being a good thing, hearing everyone’s screams, considering how many people must be silently screaming these days buried deep in their own piles of rubble.

“That’s why I went into nursing − to relieve the pain I perceive. You know, a vocation.”

“Makes sense.”

“My nieces out west call me Auntie Agony.”

I laugh. I haven’t laughed in a long time. “Auntie Agony?”

“I know it sounds strange, but it fits. They know I’m here if there’s some way I can help. Some problem I might have a feel for. Neat, right?”

Neat if you have a gift and are as strong and decisive as you are. Neat if you’ve been preserved in indestructible ash and a solid twenty-year marriage.

“Right.”

“What about Maurice? Is he staying in Montreal with his kids or will he be showing up at my door like your last husband?”

“You tell me.” I’m trying to be funny. A sob escapes. Nora places an arm around my shoulder.

“You deserve so much better.” She gives me a squeeze. Her bracelets jangle as she grabs the bottle off the table. Two teardrops glide down my cheek and plunk into the last bit of wine; miniature ripples gradually flatten.

“I never had kids. And now I’m too old.”

“You hate kids.”

“Yes, but that’s beside the point. I hate a lot of things, but it doesn’t mean I don’t want to have them.”

Nora shakes her head and sighs. Deep claret colors my glass as she pours.

“No, I mean it. Take Maurice for example. I hated that smug look on his face whenever he got a haircut that covered his bald spot. I hated that he flirted with his employees in front of me. I hated that he let his kids make fun of me. But I still wanted him…until a few days ago when I found out he’s been cheating on me for years. Our entire relationship was a lie.”

“And the reason you even wanted someone like him in the first place? I think it’s time to redefine yourself.”

A black cat materializes from behind the television. It skulks across the room toward me with puffed up fur, its belly almost touches the floor.

“You know I also hate cats.”

 Nora sits calmly while I recline into the cushions of the couch.

“Black cats are the last ones to be rescued,” she says. She savors a swallow. “All the stigma attached to them. And because no one wants them, they get euthanized pretty fast.”

Somehow that sounds appealing.

“So if I don’t take in the strays, who will?”

A slight growl emanates through the sunroom, either from my stomach digesting the cheap pizza we’d stopped for on the road, or from the cat eyeing me through vertical pupils like it’s deciding how to deal with larger than normal prey. I bring my knees to my chest.

“He won’t hurt you.” Nora dismisses the cat with a wave of her hand. It scuttles along the floor and out of sight. “The other one I’m not so sure about. We’ve only had her a couple of days. She’s hiding in the basement. We were told she can be aggressive.”

A she-devil feline hiding in the basement, just what I don’t need to hear.

A knock raps the front door. I keep an eye out for anything not human while Nora goes to answer it.

“What a surprise, Maurice,” comes from the foyer. “Laura? No, Laura’s not here. No, I haven’t heard from her.”

A quick patter of paws sound, coming up the basement stairs. I see the flash of pitch-black fur as it tears down the hall toward the entrance as if sent from the fires of hell. A yowl. A high-pitched squeal.

It’s coming from Maurice.

I peek around the corner. Maurice is on his knees on the front porch like he’s submitted to a higher power. His shirt is torn along both sleeves and his hands are covered in scratches.

The creature suddenly changes direction and zips past me. With a quick whip of its tail around the doorframe, it flees down to the basement’s underworld.

“Cats are very intuitive, Maurice,” Nora says with not a touch of sympathy in her voice.

Maurice stands and steadies himself. He pauses for the longest time, still and silent with a blank look on his face. I wonder if Nora can hear him screaming.

I settle myself back on the couch feeling more comfortable than I have in years.

Nora enters, picks up our glasses from the table, and hands me mine.

I splay my legs in front of me and let my heels skim over the sunroom’s slate tiles.

“Indestructible,” I say.

Nora clinks her glass against mine. “Welcome to Auntie Agony’s.”

*** 

About the Author: Nancy Thorne is an award-winning writer living just outside of Toronto. Her short fiction has most recently appeared in The First Line Literary Journal. Her debut novel, Victorian Town, a young adult paranormal romance, was released in 2018.  Visit her at:  nancythorne.com

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