~5000 words, approx 30 min reading time
A pocket watch, broken
At the top of the world, staring down at the endless clouds, loneliness swamped me.
I set aside my broom and hugged my elbows, though it was warm enough inside the lounge, separated from the cold by ceiling-high windows. At the altitude of our research station the morning was bright, with sky a perfect blue and air crisp enough to cut, but below, it’d be a dreary day. We occupied a snowy island in a sea of puffy white, broken only by a few other mountains tall enough to peek through.
The rest of the world might be gone, and I wouldn’t even know.
The solitude hadn’t felt so brutal until these past few months, since the avalanche blocked the train tracks up the mountain. That railway had been not only a major tourist attraction, but our main link to the world, and it would take ages to repair. I used to wish the gawking flocks of tourists would leave us in peace up here amid the alpine beauty. Now that they were gone, I wished they’d come back.
A squawk made me jump, and I turned toward the observation terrace, away from the absence of view. The crows were gathering again, and that cry had started up a lively debate. The feeling of wrongness receded.
I shook my head at them. “Filling up the tourists’ absence, are we? Nice try.?”
“Christine? Are you quite well, duckling?” asked Leora, coming over to join me. She often watched the view here on her breaks.
“I was lost in thought, and the birds startled me.” I made an effort to sound less melancholy. “Look, that one’s got something. Can’t tell what…”
I pointed at the crow who’d hopped right up to the window and looked at me with bright, curious eyes. At his feet, something glimmered in the aggressive sunlight.
“Corbies love their shiny things. I do wonder how long they’ll keep on hanging around with no tourists left to feed them. It’d make an interesting study.”
Leora—properly Dr. Darrow, though I had called her Leora since I was a girl—was director of the research station. With her white hair and a knitted shawl around her shoulders, visitors often assumed she was the custodian and I, young and energetic, was one of the scientists, instead of the other way around.
“Maybe they’re keeping us company,” I said, then felt silly. “Probably not.”
“Interesting hypothesis. Maybe you should study them.”
“Oh, stop. You know I’ve got no training.”
“Why should that keep you from giving it a go? It’s a shame, this notion that you can’t do science without a decade at university. Anyone can study a thing systematically, and you’ve been around scientists since you were a wee one. You’ve picked up more than you know.”
She turned to go, and the panic surged again. I blurted: “Do you ever worry…? When the clouds are in, like today, do you feel cut off?”
The old scientist studied me as if gathering evidence, analyzing for cause and effect. “This isn’t the first time the train’s been shut down. Hans will keep flying up weekly with supplies, and in a pinch, we’ve got enough stockpiled to keep us for a good while.”
“That’s a scientist’s answer. Don’t you ever feel it?”
“Of course I do.” Leora cupped my cheek in her cool, dry hand. “We’re all here together, dear. You’re not alone.”
After she left, I stood a while, watching the crows. They were fouling up the terrace again, and I’d have to mop up their mess when the temperature rose above freezing, but there was something heartening about their presence.
“If you can wait for more tourists to come feed you,” I told the nearest, “then I can wait, too.”
He opened his wings—one was ragged, missing a couple larger feathers—and prodded his shiny rubbish again.
“All right, what have you found, then?”
He fled to the nearest railing as I opened the door.
Not rubbish at all, but an old-fashioned pocket-watch, beautifully etched with a scene of sailing ships. A bit scuffed, but a work of art. Inside, instead of numbers and hands, it had three circles in different sizes. Moons, I thought, because they seemed to fall into orbits.
It was broken, though. When I tried to wind it, the gears ground, and grit fell out when I shook it. What a shame. It must have been someone’s treasure.
“Where did you get this?” I asked the crow. He preened, playing coy. “If you stole this from one of the researchers, you’ll be in trouble.”
I turned to go, but he cawed a protest. His beak gaped, expectant.
“All right, all right.” I hunted my apron pockets for something to give him in exchange. Coins, paper-clips, a couple wrapped chocolates…
He snatched a chocolate from my hand. “Hey!” I cried, but the cheeky thing flapped away. I hoped he wouldn’t try to eat it. Maybe he just liked the wrapper; it was the shiniest thing I’d had…
“Fine, thief, but only this once.”
At dinner, I passed the pocket-watch around the table. The researchers admired its beauty, but none recognized it, and no one seemed curious about where it came from. They were more interested in debating some odd results that Ranjit, the climatologist, was getting from his atmospheric studies, something about fluctuating carbon dioxide levels and an unexplained spike in particulate matter. I gathered there might be a problem with his sensors, and I offered to help clean them.
I half-listened, fiddling with the watch in my lap. It was too strange and wonderful not to have a story.
That was my imagination running wild, though. When I was little, I’d explored every crevice of the research station, convinced that if only I looked hard enough, I’d find a cave or secret passage or magical door like in stories. I’d opened every cabinet, and got in trouble for it, but never found anything.
When the meal ended, I said, “I suppose I’ll put the watch in the lost and found…”
“I think it’s yours now, Christine,” said Ranjit.
“Indeed. Finders keepers,” said Leora. “Maybe you can repair it.”
So I kept it, feeling like I’d been given a gift. I toyed with it during idle moments between restocking soap in the bathrooms and placing supply orders. Each time I started to wallow in loneliness, I noticed some new detail to distract me, like the three faded moons etched in three spots above the ships—or one moon, moving across the sky, which made more sense.
It became my moon,always tugging at my thoughts.
The next morning, I trudged along the ridge with Ranjit to check his sensors, wipe them down, and replace their filters. When we returned, the crows were out, including the one I’d begun thinking of as Pirate, for his scruffy look and his habit of stealing things. He flapped over and pecked at a bright buckle on my rucksack.
He’d brought me another gift.
This one was a palm-sized contraption of metal and a flat bit of blue-white stone, scratched black in spots. Not pretty, but no less mysterious than the watch.
“Wow!” Ranjit looked over my shoulder. “I haven’t seen one of those since I was a boy.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a firestarter, the old-fashioned kind. My uncle used one when he took us camping. You strike the steel arm against the flint—or whatever stone, I don’t recognize this one—to make sparks. This one won’t be starting any fires, though.” I saw what he meant: the metal arm was bent, useless.
How odd. Where would a crow find such a thing?
Pirate looked up at me, head tilting this way and that, giving an impression of irrepressible curiosity.
“Hold on,” I told him. I tossed a handful of sunflower seeds, hoping that would keep him for a minute, and hurried inside.
He was still waiting when I got back. I set down a small matchbox and stepped back. “Here you go. Fire for fire, a fair trade.”
I didn’t quite know why I was doing this; it was illogical at best, even unhealthy if he tried to eat it. The chocolate had done no harm, though, and it felt right to replace the broken thing with a working alternative.
Pirate pecked at it, shot me a look that I would have sworn was skepticism (fair enough, for it was neither shiny nor tasty), and flew off with it.
I returned to my work with a smile.
A portrait in charcoal
On delivery day, the station was an alpine island again, but clouds wouldn’t stop Hans and his heli. I’d arranged my schedule so I’d be cleaning the observation lounge around mid-day, when he arrived. I loved hearing those blades, beating the air like the wings of angels.
It wasn’t easy being the caretaker in such an isolated spot—harder than I’d expected when I took over the job. Growing up, I’d been the darling of the station, a princess in my own magic kingdom, doted on by scientists from all over the world. Not until I went away for secondary school did I realize how strange my upbringing was.
I’d planned to settle down there (even at the time, I’d thought of it as down there, which should have been a sign), maybe open an inn. But then my parents got sick, one after the other, so I came back to help. It was natural to slip into their roles, natural to accept when the board offered me a permanent position. As natural as giving in to destiny.
Yet I felt out of place here as an adult, the only non-scientist among so many brilliant scientific minds. The research station was my home more than any place else, but it felt smaller now that I was grown, and smaller still with the tourists gone.
That’s why I gravitated toward the sunlight and life of the observation terrace, and especially to Hans’s visits. It felt silly to get so excited over the grocery delivery, but this had become the steady heartbeat of my weeks.
The crows were out in force today, perched on the railing and chattering, and I watched them as I worked. A caw drew my attention closer, and I found Pirate right by the window at my feet. He’d dropped a long, light-colored object that I couldn’t make out through the soapy glass. I wrung out the rag and made myself finish washing the window before escaping outside.
On the terrace, I sucked in the chill air, which smelled like wildness and joy and not at all of citrus cleaner, and basked in the crows’ cacophony before stooping to retrieve Pirate’s latest gift. He watched me, black eyes agleam.
He’d brought a flat piece of wood, larger than anything I’d seen him carry before. Its surface was satiny smooth. Driftwood? How would driftwood get onto a mountain? None of his gifts made sense.
On it was a sketch in rough charcoal: a woman’s round face, strong nose, a puff of curly hair. Those few dark lines created eyes that seemed to look straight out from the lifeless wood and capture mine. There was something pleading about her expression, something sad. She’s alone, too, I thought.
A gust sent snowflakes swirling around me, and I shivered. I set my treasure inside to keep it dry, then donned my heavy coat before going back out to sit with my crows.
At Leora’s urging, I’d started taking notes on the birds’ behavior, as well as the things Pirate brought me. Just a journal, really, not science—it held as many fancies as observations—but it gave me an excuse to watch the crows regularly. I scattered a handful of seeds (see, no real scientist would bias her research by feeding her wild subjects) and took notes while they ate.
I started sketching Pirate, who looked dashing perched on the railing, and I fancied I’d captured his mischievousness. Just for fun, I added an eye-patch, then tore the page from my notebook and held it up. “What do you think?”
To my surprise, Pirate flapped over and inspected the picture, studying it from different angles like an art critic. Then he snatched it in his beak and took off, disappearing against the sun’s brightness.
Apparently he liked it. I felt oddly touched.
A great whoosh filled the air as all the remaining crows took off at once. A moment later, I heard what had disturbed them: a rhythmic sound, unmistakable and getting louder.
Hans! I hadn’t realized how anxious I’d been, how I always harbored a deep worry that this time he might forget us, but the sudden relief set me floating. I took shelter inside and waited. The helicopter kicked up waves of snow and dirt as it touched down, then its roar subsided, and I hurried back out.
Hans greeted me with a grin. “How is my guardian spirit of the mountain today?”
“Waiting for her tribute. I hope you’ve brought something good,” I answered, as always.
“Oh? Seeing me isn’t enough? You want gifts, too?”
I laughed at his fake indignation. It made a surprising difference, knowing that someone from down there looked forward to seeing me.
I peeked in the topmost boxes. Hans always sneaked something extra into our grocery order, whatever was special that week. Sure enough… “Oh, my heart! Bananas!” I swooned dramatically.
He chuckled. “I don’t understand you getting so excited over fruit, when you have all this.” He swept his arm across the view.
“Well, I’ll never understand why you think living in a cold concrete box is more exciting than flying a helicopter.”
“Maybe someday, I’ll fly you away from here and we’ll have a wild adventure together.”
“Maybe we should,” I said, then blinked. I hadn’t meant to say that.
I was happy here. Really. The idea of someone carrying me away on a shining airborne steed shouldn’t fill me with longing.
He cocked his head. “You okay?”
“I’m fine.” I smiled unconvincingly.
We chatted while he unloaded boxes and I carried them inside, where I could sort through them at my leisure.
“You’ve brought a lot this week.”
“There’s extra, in case this storm is worse than we think.”
I’d seen the storm in the forecast, but had told myself it wouldn’t hit us. Realizing it was real enough to require extra supplies felt like a giant hand squeezing my chest. How could I feel so trapped, up here in the most open spot in the world?
“Hey. You’ll be fine.” Hans touched my shoulder, breaking my spiral of quiet panic. “What’s this, now?” He picked up the driftwood portrait and shot me a sidelong glance. “You have a secret girlfriend hiding somewhere?”
“I wish.” To my surprise, I found myself blushing.
“Oh no, you do! Who is she? When’s the wedding?”
“You’re so funny.” I swatted him. “I don’t know who she is, actually. I found it this morning. There’s this crow that brings me presents…”
“So now you’re making friends with birds. Cool, cool. Does he bring you better stuff than me?”
“Hey, he’s a smart bird!”
“Smart devil. Crows are terrible thieves. Be careful he doesn’t steal from you!” He looked around. “Okay, this is all the boxes. See you in a week, weather permitting.”
He gave me a hug, and I squeezed him extra tightly.
I watched through the windows as he took off, helicopter blades pulsing in my breastbone. The heli got smaller and smaller, and by the time it disappeared into the clouds below, that awful emptiness was back. With a storm coming, it would only get worse.
I picked up the portrait again, trailing my fingers over the smooth wood and studying the gaze of that sad, lovely stranger. I knew, with a certainty, she would understand how I felt. “I would help you, if I knew how,” I murmured. “But in that case, I’d probably know how to help myself, too.”
The blizzard rolled in. The world outside the observation windows became a wash of white and a ceaseless soft hiss, like the gentlest static muffling all else.
The crows disappeared to wherever crows go in bad weather. I missed Pirate dearly, and hoped he was safe.
I missed the gifts, too, selfish as that was. Despite what Hans said, I did think of these strange deliveries as gifts, not thefts. Pirate was obviously giving them to me, waiting for me to accept each one. It added a bit of brightness to my days, one shiny thing to look forward to. Without that, I felt lonelier than ever.
The storm got to all of us, not just me. The scientists lingered at meals, debating endlessly about Ranjit’s still-unexplained atmospheric readings, which had persisted after we cleaned the sensors. He analyzed the data again and again, but still had no good theories.
I had less work than usual to keep me busy. I couldn’t watch the crows, and didn’t feel like drawing. I tried to read, but my mind kept wandering to the mysterious woman who must be mutual friends with my crow.
At night, I dreamed of snow piling up and up, collapsing the thick concrete walls. Burying us so completely that even Hans couldn’t find us.
To distract myself, I decided to fix the pocket-watch. Carefully, I cleaned the insides and cataloged the bits that seemed damaged. Sand in the works had ground down the tiny gears. Knowing nothing about clockwork, there was plenty of research to occupy me, and Leora set me on the right track to learn modeling software and print my own replacement parts.
The charcoal woman watched my progress from her place on my desk. I hoped she’d be pleased to see her pocket-watch working again. There was no reason to assume the watch belonged to the woman in the picture, or that any of Pirate’s gifts came from the same person, but I couldn’t help thinking it. Were my gifts to Pirate making their way to her, wherever she was?
A ripe fruit
The storm passed, as storms always do. The hiss of snowfall gave way to an impenetrable quiet that suffused the station.
The valley was snowed in. By radio, Hans reported that he’d be grounded for days. Just as well: it would take me that long to clear the landing pad. Until then, hearing his voice was reassurance that, though I might be trapped here above the world, this wasn’t the end of the world. The world was still there.
The drifts came up to my neck in places, and making a path outside was daunting. Someone had to dig out the instruments, though, so I bundled up, grabbed a shovel, and got to work.
The evening sun stained the landscape pink, and I’d utterly worn myself out, when Pirate squawked behind me. I jumped. For hours, I’d heard nothing but the sound of my own breath.
This time, he dropped a lumpy, misshapen… fruit? It was blue-purple, as large as my fist, with a three-lobed body. The flesh felt soft and smelled like heaven.
On my way to find a gift for him—could he carry a banana?—I ran into Alisha, the botanist. “Do you know what this is? I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
She’d never seen one either, and the fruit got passed around like a challenge. We had people from all over the world, and no one could identify it, neither from personal experience or from searching online.
“Where did you get this?” Alisha asked, and I brought her and Leora outside to meet my crow.
Pirate flapped his ragged wings as we emerged, squawking loudly. Was it my imagination, or was he looking even more ragged of late? Before I could approach, he flew away.
He flapped up, up, a black silhouette against the vivid blue sky. I shaded my eyes, watching him swoop and turn, and then he…
He disappeared. Not fading into the clouds, because there were none, nor shrinking to a distant speck. One moment I saw him clearly. The next, he was gone.
“Did you see that?” I glanced at the others, afraid they’d give me an embarrassingly obvious explanation, but they were staring, too, at the spot where he’d vanished.
“What just happened?” said Alisha.
“I’ve got no notion,” said Leora. “But I want to find out.”
A piece of fabric, torn
If you want to solve a mystery fast, get a group of bored scientists involved. Between the unknown fruit and the vanishing bird (confirmed by three witnesses), everyone mobilized to find an explanation.
The terrace became a mess of tools: cameras and infrared monitors, directional microphones, telescopes with various filters, and more. There was nothing to see with human eyes, but Ranjit pulled up an infrared display. Against a black background, our bodies formed warm red shapes in the foreground, with the corner of the building a yellow-blue triangle behind us. And above, where I saw cloudless blue sky, the sensors showed a red-and-yellow gash filled half the frame, fluttering like a tear across the heavens.
The terrace exploded, everyone talking at once, grasping for any explanation but the obvious one. Someone started disassembling the infrared camera and cleaning it, because surely their instruments must be wrong. Ranjit was electrified, theorizing about connections between this and the airborne particulates he’d been measuring. Leora stood there agape, and as the commotion died down, she quietly spoke aloud what I felt in my heart.
Perhaps, she said, impossible though it seemed, this was something new and wonderful. It would be wrong to rationalize it away.
I leaned on the railing, gazing up into the sky. Up there was a passageway to another place, and in that place was…
On my mobile, I pulled up a photo of the charcoal portrait. The rawness of it made me think it was a self-portrait. If Pirate’s gifts had come through that portal, then this woman was on the other side, and she was alone. At first, I’d returned these gifts with things Pirate might like, but gradually, I’d started sending presents to this stranger instead. A foolish leap of intuition, maybe, but without even knowing her, I felt I understood her.
“Hello out there,” I murmured. “I’m thinking of you.”
Was she lost? In trouble? The damaged watch and firestarter suddenly felt ominous.
A dot appeared in the sky, flying out from the tear and heading straight for us. Pirate landed in a flurry of feathers, beak clutching a red-and-white cloth.
No, not red cloth. A white cloth drenched with crimson, staining the snow.
I didn’t realize I was shaking until Leora touched my shoulder.
I whispered, “She needs our help.”
“Please, Hans. I know we joke a lot, and I know it sounds insane, but this is real. I’ve never asked you for anything…”
“That’s not the problem.” His voice, grainy over the radio, sounded impossibly far away. “I’m iced in. I can’t take off.” There was a long silence. “I would help if I could, but it’s impossible. I’m sorry.”
I closed the line, sick to my stomach. How long could the charcoal woman wait? There was a lot of blood on that rag.
I’d sent Pirate back with bandages, plus a photo of myself. A silly gift to send someone who probably needed urgent medical care. But I thought of the loneliness in her portrait and considered that maybe she also needed to know she had a friend.
She needed more than Pirate could carry, though. Nobody argued when I brought out the surveying drone and rigged a net beneath it to carry supplies.
More accurately, there was considerable argument about what would happen when we sent the drone through, but no one argued against the attempt. I loaded it with antiseptic, painkillers, energy bars, and bottled water. Alisha piloted it, and we gathered round the screen to watch its cameras as it neared the tear.
At first there was only white snow and blue sky. The whiteness turned fuzzy, then gave way to a textured darkness. It wasn’t until someone murmured “Ocean!” that I understood what I was seeing. Those were waves, and there, an island. Alisha steered the drone toward it…
The picture went to static, then nothing.
“Was it destroyed? Maybe it can’t exist in a parallel dimension…” Words like portal and parallel dimension, spoken sarcastically a mere hour ago, were now fully serious.
“We lost the signal, that’s all. It got too far away,” said Alisha.
“We can try again,” I said. “We can set up a… a signal booster, that’s a thing, isn’t it? Or, or…”
I trailed off, helpless.
“Not with the equipment we’ve got. I’m sorry, duckling.” Leora put an arm around my shoulders, but I shook it off. It felt too much like comforting someone grieving, and damn it, I was not grieving yet.
But I didn’t know what else to do.
The others went inside. I stared at the sky as if I could shorten the distance between me and the charcoal woman through willpower alone. As if by caring enough, I could grow wings and fly after Pirate.
“Come, Christine. You’re not coming up with any new plans if you freeze to death out here.”
My heart throbbed so hard it hurt. “In a minute. I just need…”
It wasn’t just my heart throbbing. The pulsing of the air resolved into the steady beat of propellers.
It felt like hours, waiting for him to land. I raced over, crouched, before the blades had fully stopped. “I thought you were grounded!”
“I called in favors. Told them it was urgent, got moved to the front of the queue for deicing.” His grin was like the sunshine after the storm.
“I didn’t think you’d take me seriously. Not enough to risk your heli. We don’t know what will happen…”
“You’re not the type to make something of nothing. And hey, I talk plenty about wanting adventure. How can I turn down the chance to see another world?” He punched my arm. “Let’s go find your friend.”
The helicopter lurched, and my stomach with it. I’d never liked flying, but I’d fly through a blizzard today if I had to.
Leora squeezed my hand. “Christine. Look.”
Straight ahead, a shimmering broke up the crisp blue sky, like heat rising off concrete. Two worlds, holding hands.
Everything went hazy, then the brightness of sunshine returned. Not the same sun, though: this light was redder, the sky pale indigo. Below, tiny islands dotted a wine-dark sea.
Hans whooped. “Wow, wow, wow! We did it!”
Leora and I could only stare in silent awe.
“Which one?” I said. There were so many islands.
Leora peered through her binoculars and pointed. “I imagine we should follow the crows.”
“Super.” Hans headed toward the crescent-shaped island with birds circling above it.
As we flew over (much higher than the crows, he was careful about that), I spotted what looked like a sailboat on its side. Wrecked.
The moment he landed, I was out and running, shielding my eyes from the stinging sand thrown up by the heli’s blades, my feet slipping on the beach. I was out of breath by the time I drew near the overturned boat.
From its shelter, someone watched me.
I slowed, feeling… Shy? Nervous? Afraid? I called out in greeting, trying to sound friendly.
The woman rose gingerly, in obvious pain. Her self-portrait had captured her round, expressive face, her dark-yet-bright eyes. It hadn’t shown her deep golden-brown skin, or the disarray of her curly hair, or the bandage across her temple—our bandages. Pirate must have gotten them to her, and thank goodness, because there was no sign of the drone we lost contact with. She stared at me, eyes wide, as if I might not be real.
A raucous caw startled us. Pirate sat on the tilted mast of the sailboat, looking rightfully smug. We both laughed, and the tension melted away.
She held up my photograph. She pointed from it to me, eyes full of hope, and said something.
“Yes, that’s me.” I pointed to myself. “Christine.”
“Yboa.” She pointed to herself with a goofy grin. Then she took two steps and fell into my arms.
I shouted for help, terrified she was dying, until her arms came around me. Oh. A hug. We held onto each other, rocking gently, and I basked in the warm, soft solidity of her. She smelled like salt water and earthy musk, a world away from the research station with its fake citrus smell.
Yboa held onto my arm while Leora examined her, and I broke off bits of energy bar for her to eat, urged her to sip water. Under the bandage, her head wound looked swollen and awful, but wasn’t bleeding much, which seemed to reassure Leora.
While Leora stepped away to prepare fresh bandages, Yboa gestured around her shelter. All my gifts were neatly arranged: my sketch of Pirate, the matchbox, even the candy wrapper. She spoke again. I couldn’t understand her language, but I could guess her meaning easily enough.
“I see. I’m glad.” The concept must have carried across our cultures: these gifts meant something to her, the way hers did to me. They’d helped her.
I’d helped her.
“You helped me, too.” I took out the watch and showed her how it ticked, no longer broken. Yboa seized it eagerly, looked skyward, and turned the crank to wind it. Following her gaze, I saw three moons in the sky, just like the watch. She handed it back and closed my fingers around it. That meaning was clear, too.
“Thank you, so much.” I said, then turned to Pirate, petting his feathers. “Thank you, too, little thief.”
“She’ll recover, though she’s lost quite a bit of blood,” Leora said, gently applying antibiotic and a fresh bandage. “She’ll need rest, and hydration, and someone to look after her.”
“That won’t be a problem.”
“I thought not.” Leora exchanged a sidelong look with Hans. They were both smiling.
My future had been a snowfield, a vast and unchanging blankness, and I felt in my bones that Yboa was the avalanche come to shake me up. I’d just be nursing her back to health, I told myself. Once she recovered, there was nothing to stop her from going her own way. I didn’t know her, couldn’t even speak with her. But I wanted to.
My world had just doubled, and barely understood what that meant, but I wouldn’t let it shrink again.
She seemed to feel the same. Even now, she held onto me, as if to say: You’re here now, and I’m not letting go of you. Pirate settled on her arm, and together, we walked forward into something new.
Jo Miles writes optimistic science fiction and fantasy, and has stories in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and more. You can find them online at www.jomiles.com. Jo lives in Maryland, where they help nonprofits use the internet to save the world, but mostly serve the whims of their two cats.