I got knocked up when Mercury was in retrograde. I think-slash-assume. The retrograde lasted for at least the whole month, since I’d last seen Carter, and now here the two lines stood like little incisors. When Zoe had told me the retrograde was finally ending, I bought the pregnancy test.  

There was no real sign other than the retrograde and the nausea. It had been at least a decade since I’d gotten my period in a real way, when I was still a teenager and the preferred ripeness for pregnancy if I had lived in the Middle Ages and my life expectancy was something like twenty-three. And when I was twenty-three and still serious with Carter, I used to detail for him horror stories about maternal deaths from that era—hands manually turning breech babies, endless hemorrhaging, primitive cesarean sections with unsterilized knives—just to make sure he didn’t get any ideas about the future. He was so squeamish about bodily fluids that he would blanche and have to put his head between his knees before he could even get angry with me.

Well, I thought when the lines appeared, no point in telling him about this. Carter had to be sedated for dental work; the thought of him accompanying me to an abortion would be laughable even if he hadn’t also just gotten engaged to someone else.

From the kitchen windowsill, Alien meowed at me, pawing at the dried-out succulent I’d decided would revive itself someday. “Hello, yes, this is the complaint department,” I said to her, and she meowed again. So our conversations went. She was only eight months old, but she had done some hard time in the outside world in her first few months of life. She had opinions, and she rejected the superstition that her black fur made her unlucky. She was unlucky all on her own, without the help of her fur, she told me.

I suspected that her real damage was that she knew that before I found her, Teddy had died of cancer in an abrupt and unforgiving way, and she felt she’d be a vessel for the love I had for him that had nowhere else to go. She turned up her nose at the Taco Bell that I used to let Teddy eat—small shreds of chicken from tacos, not-so-small globs of cheese overflowing from quesadillas, crumbling beef from a Crunchwrap Supreme. He still ate it all in his final weeks when he was refusing any other food.

He had developed a taste for it when he was two years old and I was twenty-six, the year I lost my job and a semester of graduate school and my cousin. I was said to have survived. I was broke and Taco Bell was down the block from my apartment, a necessary distance for the duration of time when I could not even think about getting into a car again. My mother wanted me to move home, or to at least give Teddy to someone else so I’d be spared the expense of taking care of him. But it was unthinkable. He cleaned my hair with his tongue, he sat at the edge of the tub when I showered, and he hardly left my lap as I spent my days on the couch, save to crinkle the greasy paper bags the food came in and to bat packets of hot sauce around the hardwood floor. Even down to the last dollar in my bank account, Teddy always ate before me, and he would until the day he curled into the closet and dreamed himself into whatever suburban mall food court he may have imagined as heaven. I didn’t take out the trash for weeks after that, letting the smell of grease and processed cheese and chemical meat soak the house. Even now there are still hot sauce packets from the Teddy Era that I haven’t used.

Alien made it clear a few hangovers into her residency with me that she was a Popeye’s kind of girl. On that occasion she stole a nub of a French fry that had fallen from my bed to the floor and ran away with it in her mouth as though it was a mouse she’d caught. Well, well, well, I had said. A Southern lady. And she purred, satisfied with her kill.

Now she meowed again, directing me back to the twin lines on the stick in my hand.

I wasn’t sure what the protocol was other than Googling numbers and calling. I called the first number that came up and realized my mistake almost immediately. A syrupy voice answered the phone and something about it rang through my head as distinctly Christian, distinctly white-lady-Christian. Distinctly unironic BLESSED decor from TJ Maxx-Christian. As their website loaded and confirmed my suspicion, I said oh, to hell with you assholes as I hung up.

I decided to text Zoe instead. She’d had at least two and probably even had some witchy tea situation that would make this go away. Just call your regular gyno, she said. How far along? They can probably just give you the pills.

Dunno, I said.

Don’t tell me you saw Carter again. Is it his?

I never answered, because that was when I realized that the screen of the open kitchen window was hanging delicately from the upper corner of the pane, swaying back and forth, interrupting the light of the spring sun. The dried-out succulent was overturned. Alien was gone.


In the morning, I got the pills at the pharmacy and then began posting pictures of Alien in lost pet groups online until they kicked in. I got caught up in reading the previous posts, none of which seemed to arrive at happy endings. Highways and hawks and rat poison. I told myself she knew what she was doing, that she’d lived on the street before, but then I’d be seized by the panic: she’s just a baby. I had never hated myself more for the Middle Ages childbirth stories I’d told Carter.

Eventually my stomach began wrenching, folding over itself, wringing like anxious hands. The pain evoked the distant memory of my teenage cramps, of my mother bringing me a heating pad and ibuprofen and ice cream. This is what it means to be a woman, she’d tell me, in a tone that would sometimes be salty and wry but other times melancholy. Only when I moved out for college did I think of her saying this and respond back in my mind, that can’t be all there is.

I fell asleep and into a dream about my cousin, Mira, bringing me the heating pad, which became a dream about Teddy, how he’d lay on his back in the crook of my arm when I was sleeping, his soft gray body stretched out to match mine. Sometimes I would wake up struggling to breathe because he had piled all of his thirteen pounds onto my chest. Alien, though, never settled in my arms for longer than a minute and—always wanting to live up to her name—had been in a phase of throwing herself across the table and leaping off walls as though she wanted to launch herself into space. No doubt she knew more about the movement of Mercury than I did.

I woke up around seven in the evening, almost instinctively, knowing that she would be expecting dinner. As I had the night before, I opened two cans of her human-grade salmon food and put them at the front door, willing myself not to vomit and not to mourn her absence, not yet. I fell asleep on the couch again, feeling like years were draining out of me rather than blood and tissue.

When I woke again just before midnight, the pregnant-not-pregnant hormones demanded sodium and cheese. I wandered into the warm darkness in my sweatpants and Mira’s oversize No Doubt t-shirt. She’d bought it for me at their concert when my own mother deemed me too young to accompany her, me being in seventh grade and her being miles away in tenth. It held that musty hand-me-down scent that’s impossible to wash out, the scent of lotion and baking flour and pillows.

I like to walk through the drive-through window for fun, sometimes. They know me so it got to be a thing. Funny, I hoped, but maybe just depressing. I ordered a Crunchwrap and Teddy’s quesadilla. Plain cheese, like ordering for a little kid who is tentative around new foods. I thought of my own mother again, tempting me to try it, swearing it was just like a grilled cheese but with a different sort of bread. It was all we could afford in the sense of both money and time when my father had run off. We had it so often I went years without touching it. Not until I had Teddy.

At home I left the quesadilla on the kitchen counter before going back out to the front steps. I figured I should wait for Alien there, even though there was no real use in looking for a black cat in the dark. I blocked out the mental images of the highways and hawks and shoveled the Crunchwrap into my mouth, not caring about getting sauce stains on the No Doubt shirt. I used to be so precious about Mira’s clothing, preserving it and honoring it. But now it felt more like how little I cared about cat claws ripping my couch arms open: these were things that were meant to be lived in.

When I was done, I turned the porch light on for Alien. The food I’d put out for her was attracting flies and would likely be eaten by rats before morning, but I left it in case. If it was Teddy, I’d have known how to get him back. The calls he’d come for, the toys and treats. But Teddy never would have escaped. Alien was so young that she wasn’t even mine yet. I had taken her in and fed her and taken her to the vet to get her shots and otherwise kept her alive, but still she belonged to no one. I could hardly deny her that.

I went inside, ignoring the vibrations of my phone, the cramping of my stomach, the blood coming through my sweatpants. The apartment seemed so empty: I was accustomed to rustling, to padded feet, to the chirping bird cat toys. I was, maybe, not meant to take care of anything, even myself. I walked toward the bathroom to find something to put me to sleep when I heard a rustle from the kitchen.

There was Alien, perched below the kitchen window, the moon resting on her shoulder. She was licking the cheese at the edge of the quesadilla I’d left out. “It’s not even your favorite,” I said to her. She paused and looked at me, knowing she could choose to be wherever she wanted. For a while I left the window open, leaving it to her to create a home.

© Laura Marshall
[This piece was selected by Katrin Gibb. Read Laura’s interview]