The Cat and the Box

I awoke to the sound of scratching. It was still dark out and my room stunk of dried sweat. Still groggy, I reached out and groped in the dark for my glasses before shoving them onto my face. My mouth felt sore and dry as I got to my feet and headed to the door, glancing at the clock along the way. 4:30 in the damn morning.

The hallway was mostly dark, save for the light pouring through the crack in Peter's room. I walked unsteadily down it, feeling small crumbs and flecks of dirt between my bare feet and the hardwood floor. The scratching sound grew briefly more insistent and I caught a brief whiff of incense as I passed Peter's door, heading instead for the kitchen. The black and white tiling felt cool as I walked over towards the sink, grabbed an empty mason jar from the cupboard, and filled it with water from the tap. I drank, instantly relieving my throat. Feeling slightly more awake, I headed back down the hall towards Peter's room. I could hear soft snoring from Matt's closed door, and I felt briefly jealous. Lucky bastard.

I softly pushed Peter's door open. Peter was sitting on his bed staring at a brown cardboard box intently. The scratching I had heard had stopped. I glanced briefly at the small glass pipe and lighter on his bedside table, rolled my eyes, and asked, "What are you doing?"

He didn't look away, "I'm proving the theory of quantum superposition."

I blinked, then looked back at the box. The scratching had resumed. "You're actually doing it?"

He nodded.

"You know that's a cardboard box, right?"

"The experiment doesn't specify what kind of box, so I don't think it matters. I got it from behind the grocery store."

"Aren't you afraid of anything leaking?"

"The experiment doesn't mention leaking, I'll be fine."

My teeth clenched slightly. "You know, he made up the entire thing to prove how absurd superposition is?"

For the first time, Peter turned and looked at me with conviction. "Then I will prove him wrong." His eyes clouded briefly as he paused to think, then added, "...or right." The conviction returned as he concluded, "Whichever is more awesome."

I shook my head. "I have to leave in..." I trailed off, suddenly remembering the world outside the last few sleepy minutes. "I have to go to catch my plane in three hours, so try to keep it down, ok?"

He nodded, returning his attention to the box. I started to leave, then paused. "Don't forget to feed that thing, ok?"

He waved me off with a hand and I turned to leave. A soft meow followed me out.

I closed the door behind myself as I reentered the hallway. Everything was dark now, but I was familiar enough with the apartment to make my way around in the dark. Still feeling a bit clumsy, I made my way back to my room and collapsed onto my futon mattress. I wanted to sleep, but now my mind was racing, thoughts and images colliding and crashing in my brain.

A soft knock sounded at the door. I sat up in the dark. "Yeah?"

The door creaked open and I could hear Peter's smile through his voice. "Deb called, by the way."

"Yeah?" I responded.

"She said to tell you she'll meet you at the River Ganges."

My cheeks flushed in the dark. "Fuck you."

He laughed and slowly creaked the door shut. I turned over in my bed, and closed my eyes. It was a hopeless gesture, I knew. There was no way in hell I was getting any sleep.

"Where did this cat come from?" I examined the small, black, slightly ragged looking thing.

Peter poked his head into the living room. "What?"

"Why is there a cat here?" I pointed at it.

He looked at it and blinked. "I found it on the street and rescued it. Like a hero."

"It's a stray?" I leaned in closer to get a better look at it. It stared back at me just as cooly. "Did you take it to a vet for shots?"

"I would've," He grinned, "But cat's don't really like tequila. Whatup!" He raised his hand for a high five. I ignored him.

"The landlord probably won't be a huge fan of this."

"Do you know who's not a huge fan of your negativity, Jack? Jesus. That's who."

I sighed. "Fine. What's it's name?"

He shrugged. "I dunno."

"You didn't name it?"

"It's best not to get too attached. There's a 50 chance it'll die."

"What?"

He smiled. "Relax, I'm kidding. Things don't die."

I frowned at him. "Yes they do. all the time."

He paused, thinking. "No... I'm pretty sure you're thinking of something else.

My frown deepened. "Are you high?"

"No." He laughed. No no no. No." He paused. "Maybe."

"You should really cut that shit back." I picked up my controller and unpaused the game I was playing.

"What, they don't have pot in the south?"

"Kansas isn't the south."

"Oh yeah?" He walked over and sat on the couch next to me. "Biscuits and gravy: meal or side dish?"

"Meal." My controller shook as a bullet hit my character onscreen.

He clapped me on the shoulder. "You're from the south."

The cat jumped in front of the tv and started batting at the enemy soldiers. Peter laughed and I stopped playing briefly to watch it. My controller jumped in my hands again and the screen turned red as my character dropped to the ground. The cat watched the screen a little longer before losing interest and walking away.

"Do you have a litter box?" I asked.

"I have all sorts of boxes." Peter smiled.

"Seriously, if you can't take care of this thing, I'm taking it to a shelter."

"Sure." He got up and started to walk out of the room.

"Have you seen Matt around?" I asked.

"He's at class." He called from around the corner.

My phone rang. I glanced at it briefly before answering. "Hey, Deb."

"Hey, John. How are you?"

I hit the continue button and started playing again. "I'm fine. How was your day?"

"It was ok. Your mom was over last night, we played scrabble."

"Oh?" Bullets flew past me onscreen as I ducked behind a car for cover.

"Yeah, then we made dinner for my dad."

I paused the game and set the controller down. "How's he doing?"

"Um, he's about the same." Her voice seemed tighter. "The chemo's been pretty rough on him, but he's still kicking."

"Well, that's something I suppose." The cat leapt up onto my lap and sat, looking at me. "We got a cat."

"What?"

"Peter picked it up."

"Peter?" She sounded skeptical.

"Yeah, it seems nice. Hasn't bitten me or anything."

"Well what's its name?"

"We… haven't chosen one yet."

"Name it something cute. Like Thomas."

"Thomas is a cute name?"

"Cats with people names are always cute."

I picked up the controller and started playing again. "I'm sure we'll think of something."

The phone went quiet for a bit as I played my game.

"Hey, I love you." She said. It sounded like a supplication.

A grenade landed at my character's feet. I picked it up and tried to throw it back, but it went off in my hands. "I love you too."

A week later, I returned home from class to find a note from Matt. I gave it a brief read-through before knocking on Peter's door.

"Hold on!" His voice seemed muffled. The doorknob turned and he very quickly slipped through the door, closing it behind him. I stared at him. His entire head was encased in what looked like a world war two era gas mask. He removed it and nonchalantly tucked it under his arm. "What's up?"

I was temporarily at a loss for words. "What-"

"Don't worry about it." He interrupted. "What do you need?"

I held up the note. "Did you see this?"

He shook his head. "What's it say?"

"Matt's going back to his mom's house for a bit to help with his sister, so he won't be around."

Peter nodded, "What's up with his sister again?"

The back of my throat started to itch. "I don't remember. I think she's depressed or autistic or something.

Peter started to sniff the air, not really paying attention. "Is she hot?"

I tried to catch his eye, the itching was getting worse. "Yeah, for a twelve-year-old."

"Shame." Peter coughed. I needed to cough too and began to eye his gas mask suspiciously. "What are you doing?

"Nothing," His eyes were moving all over the place. Then they fixed on the crack at the bottom of his door. "Oh! That." He waved his finger in the air. "Raid. I'm spraying for bugs."

I frowned at him. "Isn't that more a job for the landlord?"

"Yes…" He bit his lip, clearly thinking. "But… I didn't want him to see the cat, so I'm doing it."

I nodded. "And where is the cat?"

He pointed to the closed bathroom door. "Locked him in there. Didn't want him to get poisoned."

I mulled that over for a bit until, very slowly, something clicked in my head. I looked at him. "You're not…"

"Maybe!" Quickly as he could, he slid the gas mask over his head and ducked back into his room. I looked down to the crack in the door. The light coming from it grew dark as Peter stuffed what seemed to be socks into the crack.

My pants vibrated. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my cell phone and glanced it. Deb's face looked back at me. I paused, staring at it, before putting the phone back into my pocket. I went to the bathroom door and opened it up. The cat slunk out, purring, and began to rub itself on my leg. I reached down and picked it up. It seemed to purr louder at this. I wanted to say something to it, but how do you comfort a cat?

Three days passed. I was sitting on the couch playing video games with the cat in my lap when Peter burst into the room. "Put this on."

He thrust a lead apron at me. I stared at it. "Where did you get this?

"Swiped a couple from a dentist's office. Put it on."

I stared at him. "No?"

"Fine." He tossed the apron onto the couch. The cat jumped up in annoyance. "If you want cancer, be my guest." He rounded the corner of the living room and vanished into the hallway. I paused, looking at the vest before grabbing it and sliding it over my head, feeling the weight of it settle on my shoulders. I grabbed the cat and held him underneath the apron.

Peter came back wearing his own lead apron, along with a pair of goggles and oven mitts. He glanced at me briefly before going to the front door of the apartment and vanishing out of it. He returned a second later holding what looked like a stainless steel

"What the hell?" I asked, looking at the pan.

"There was an accident, and a huge number of this brand got contaminated with Carbon-60. There was a recall, but nuts to that. I got uses for this."

He carried the pan down the hallway, but I paused before standing up and following him. This confirmed my suspicions. I walked into his room after him and watched as he laid the pan next to what looked like a vial. Very quickly, he removed his lead apron and covered the pan with it. "Ok," He turned to me. "We're safe now. You can take off the apron."

I didn't move. "You're going to perform Schrödinger's Cat."

He grinned at me. "It'll be pretty intense."

I shook my head to clear it. "That's probably one of the stupidest things I've ever heard."

He shrugged. "History often laughs at genius."

"What does that even mean?" My pants vibrated. I stuck my hand into my pocket and pulled out my cell phone. Deb. Glad for an excuse to stop talking to Peter, I picked it up. "Hey, Deb. What's up?"

She was crying. "It's my dad."

A feeling of grim certainty settled on me, just as heavy as the lead apron. The cat squirmed out of my arms and dashed out of the room. "Is everything ok?"

She didn't respond, although I could almost see her shaking her head on the other end of the line. "Tell me what happened."

"He died."

"What happened?" Peter asked.

I moved the receiver away from my mouth. "Deb's dad died."

"Hurns." Peter nodded his head sympathetically.

My face twisted in confusion. "What?"

"Hurns. It's the sound of failure. I'm trying to make it catch on. What do you think?"

"I-" Deb's broken sobs cut me off and I immediately turned my attention back to her. "Are you ok?"

"No." I detected something else in her voice besides sorrow. Something harder. "Why haven't you been returning my calls?"

This caught me off-guard. "What? I-"

"Are you avoiding me?" Accusation was in her voice and I could tell she was really angry.

"No, I'm not. Look, don't you want to… talk about your dad?"

"No I don't. We've hardly talked at all this week. I needed to talk to you and you weren't there. What the hell?"

I glanced at Peter, who was staring at me confused. "I just…" I needed to think of a lie, quickly.

"Have you been cheating?"

That really caught me off-guard. "No! I haven't been cheating on you."

"Then what's been going on?"

"I've been bored!" It escaped from me before I could stop it. There was dead silence on the phone, so I pushed on. "We've been talking every day since I left Kansas, and at some point, people run out of shit to say. I love you, I really do, but I don't want to just sit on a phone saying nothing for hours on end."

Peter waved his arms to get my attention and whispered across the room, "Shut the fuck up. Her dad just died." His raised his eyebrows as if to signify the importance of that.

I stopped talking. The silence on the other end of the line was brutal. "So, I'm boring." There was no crying now, just cold rage.

"No, you're not boring, just sometimes the things we talk about."

Peter slapped his forehead and turned away, washing his hands of me.

"What?" Her voice shook. "I'm sorry that you think my dad dying is boring."

"No, I didn't mean that. Look." I took a deep breath. "I'm upset, you're upset. Let's just let things go for now. After the funeral, we can go somewhere and talk and be together. Let's…" I tried to think back to movies and plays I had seen for a romantic line or location. "Let's run away to the River Ganges."

I heard a click as she hung up. I looked at my phone briefly before putting it back in my pocket.

"You do know that people shit in that river, right?" Peter looked at me curiously.

"Shut up." I left his room and went to my computer in the living room. I could hear him following me. "I'm catching the first flight I can get on, tomorrow morning if I can help it."

"How long will you be gone?"

I shrugged. "Probably a week or so. I don't get to go home often, and hopefully I can patch things up with Deb."

"Yeah," He agreed. "You hurnsed."

I ignored him, and started checking flights online.

"7:30 AM"

He shrugged. "Sounds good."

I packed my bags and went to bed early that night. Just as I closed my bedroom door, I heard the front door open and Peter's voice, "Hey, Matt."

I considered going out to say hi, but decided against it. I needed sleep. I stripped off my clothes and crawled into bed, lying awake for a long time before gently drifting off. Then, I awoke to the sound of scratching.

My flight landed in Kansas City where my mom picked me up and drove me to Wichita. After a day of getting acclimated, I put on my black suit I had last worn at prom and went with my mom to the funeral.

I walked into the funeral parlor and felt immediately out of place. Everything seemed muted, from the colors to the soft carpet to the quiet sounds of mourning. As if drawn by magnets, my eyes fell upon the casket. It was closed. I stared at it a long while, imagining what might be inside.

"Hi,"

I turned. Deb was standing behind me, her long blonde hair contrasted by the black skirt she was wearing. "Thanks for coming.

"Yeah, well…" I trailed off. "I'm sorry."

She shrugged. "It's not like it's a surprise."

"No I mean," I tried to collect myself. "I'm sorry about the phone and-"

"Don't worry about it." She interrupted. "We knew this was going to be hard."

"Yeah."

Neither of us talked. Deb looked at the coffin and I followed her gaze.

"Closed coffin." I remarked.

"He didn't want people 'gawking at him like a bunch of rubbernecks.'" She smiled.

"I suppose it adds an air of dignity, mystery." I smiled.

"Mystery?" She asked.

"Well, if we can't see him, how do we know he's dead?"

She looked at me, confused. "What are you talking about?"

I thought about Peter and took a deep breath. "Have you ever heard of Schrödinger's Cat?"

She shook her head. "No?"

"Schrödinger was a theorist who had this hypothetical experiment that illustrated why quantum superposition was a stupid idea."

"What's quantum superposition?" She interrupted.

"I… don't really know. That's not the point. Here's how the experiment worked. You take a radioactive material, a vial of poison, and a cat, and put them all in a box. Then you set up the experiment so that there's a fifty percent chance that the radioactive material will break down, breaking open the vial and killing the cat. He stated that, while the experiment was in progress, the waveforms of the cat that's alive and the cat that's dead would, according to quantum superposition, coexist within the box. The cat would be simultaneously alive and dead. When you open the box, one of the waveforms breaks down and the cat is either alive or dead."

"If the cat dies or lives when you look in the box, then how can you tell if it's both when you're not?"

"You can't. That's why it's hypothetical. And there's all sorts of math that goes into it and stuff, but personally, I think it's about contemplating the mystery of a closed box."

She frowned. "What do you mean?"

I shrugged, "Well, no one can see into a closed box. Who knows what's happening where no one can see? It's about uncertainty."

She moved closer to me and took my hand. "I'm not a huge fan of uncertainty."

I nodded. "Me neither. But sometimes you just have to wait and see."

We stood holding each other for a long time before the eulogy began. The whole time I kept glancing back at the closed coffin, wondering what kinds of universes lay within.

I returned to the apartment a week later. A note from Matt was taped to the door. I grabbed it, dropped my bags in the front hall, and walked over to Peter's room. I opened the door to find him bent over a potted plant, pouring Robitussin into the soil.

"Plan on killing that plant?" I asked.

"Or, making it stronger." He stood and grinned at me. "How was the south? Get your fill of grits?

"People don't really eat grits in Kansas, because it's not the south."

He waved my words away. "Everything ok with the lady friend?"

I shrugged. "For now. How'd the experiment go?"

He frowned at me. "What experiment?"

"Schrödinger's Cat." I studied his face, which seemed blank.

Suddenly, realization dawned. "Oh…" He turned and looked into the far corner of the room. There, tucked away, was the cardboard box. I could tell just by looking that it hadn't been touched at all since I had left.

"Jesus." Something heavy settled in the pit of my stomach. "Will you get rid of that thing? It's going to start smelling."

"You know, it could still be ok." Peter continued to stare at the box. "I mean, if it's stuck in some sort of Escher space between life and death, then life is still in the mix. If we can somehow affect the experiment without observing the results, the cat could live and everything would be ok."

I shook my head, feeling sick. "It's not ok." I turned to leave. "Matt left another note."

"What's it say?" Peter asked.

I crumpled it up and dropped it on his floor. "Read it yourself."

I walked out and down the hallway. My pants vibrated and I pulled out my phone. Deb again. I paused, deciding what to do. Finally, I slipped the phone back into my pocket and headed back to my room. I didn't know what was going to happen, all I knew was right then, I needed a little uncertainty.