Enjoy an excerpt from Michael J. Moore’s “Popcorn” featured in our new anthology ON TIME.
The sky was baby blue the day Tommy’s Grandfather died. He never called him Grandfather to his face because he preferred Grandpa. He tried not to call him that either. Even at eight, the titles used to refer to family members by WHAT, rather than WHO, didn’t feel natural rolling off his tongue.
He was in the field in the middle of his neighborhood when his dad approached. His first fear was that he discovered Tommy had been looking at his Playboy magazines while he was at work. He tried his best to leave them the way he found them, but his Father knew anyway. Tommy hadn’t meant to keep doing it after he first noticed them, but he didn’t seem to have control over his curiosities.
He just froze, while all the other kids ran around and laughed, yelling at one another as they kicked a soccer ball. When his dad was close enough for Tommy to read his face, he knew he wasn’t in trouble. He was more relieved to learn that his Grandfather had suffered a heart attack than he could ever remember being.
The funeral was four days later. Tommy had never seen a dead body before, and he stood by the coffin on his tiptoes while a sad, slow country song echoed around him mixed with the sniffs and cries of people he had never met. The lip of the coffin came up to the top of his neck, allowing him to stare in at the man who used to babysit him when his mom still worked. The man who had started drinking beers just before noon every day. The man who had taught Tommy to play games that he wasn’t allowed to talk about.
“Come on, buddy.” His dad’s heavy hand landed on his shoulder, moving him along. “Let’s go.”
His mom cried in the car. His dad didn’t speak. They pulled up to a house Tommy didn’t recognize, and his dad left them waiting as he went inside with a newspaper. When he returned, it was gone, replaced by a tiny gray hairball. He opened Tommy’s door, dropped to one knee, and looked into his eyes.
“I know you miss your grandpa, buddy. Here.” He set a kitten in Tommy’s lap. “Take good care of her.”
Tommy opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. He peered down at the bundle of fur resting between his legs. She cowered and trembled, staring down bashfully at Tommy’s jeans. His dad shut the door and drove them home.
That night, Tommy sat on the couch, watching television and absently scooping handfuls of popcorn from a bowl, which sat on the cushion next to him, into his mouth. The kitten tried to climb in, tipping the bowl and spilling kernels all over herself. She examined her paw, confused. Her name became Popcorn.
Popcorn didn’t seem to mind being around him most of the time, but at night, she cried in his bed. Until night three, Tommy woke up, and she was gone. He searched for close to an hour, only finding traces of her fur in his sheets, before finally turning out the light and crawling back into them.
Her squeaky cry came from under the bed. He climbed down and got on his hands and knees.
“What? Popcorn. Here kitty, kitty.”
“Come on.” He scratched at the carpet.
He reached in and abruptly pulled his hand back out.
Sitting on his knees, he looked toward the door where the switch was.
That was it. Tommy leaned back down and stuck his whole head in.
“Popcorn. Come on kitty.” He made clicking noises.
What was she doing? Had she been there this whole time? Tommy slid onto his belly and crawled in.
“Come on, you cat. Where are you?” He felt around with both hands, nothing but soft carpet catching his nails.
Under the bed was dark. Much darker than he would have expected or was comfortable with. He thought again of the light switch and began to retreat the way he had come.
Okay. He stopped and crawled once again toward her. It somehow grew darker. Her cry rang out again from further away. It seemed to echo. Something was terribly wrong. Behind him, the darkness shot panic through his bones.
Hot tears built up beneath his eyes, and Dad’s voice pinged in his head.
You want me to give you something to cry about?
Sniffing, Tommy shook his head and blinked them back. The cat called to him from so far away that he almost couldn’t hear her. He faced the darkness, which shouldn’t have been there. Then turned toward Popcorn. Making up his mind, he scuttled on.
He didn’t hear her again. The darkness seemed to go on forever before a tiny, red dot appeared. Somehow, it filled Tommy with hope. As he crawled toward it, it grew bigger and brighter. Soon, it was easily recognizable as a glowing red heart right in front of him. Salty sweat poured down his face, dripping over his lips and into his mouth.
Tommy reached out and touched the heart, then his eyes snapped open, revealing the ceiling in his bedroom. Relieved that it had only been a dream, he attempted to fall back to sleep.
“You found me,” a soft voice appeared by his bed.
Michael J Moore lives in Washington state. His books include the bestselling novel After the Change, which is used as curriculum at the University of Washington, Highway Twenty, which appeared on the Preliminary Ballot for the 2019 Bram Stoker Award and the psychological thriller Secret Harbor. His work has won awards, has appeared in various magazines, television, newspapers (including The HuffPost), anthologies and literary journals and has been adapted for theater produced in Seattle. Follow him at twitter.com/MichaelJMoore20 or instagram.com/michaeljmoorewriting.