Ralph and Sam had become obsessed with tracking and hunting the mountain lion, which had been a hot topic round these parts for some time. Ralph was my brother and Sam was our uncle, except that he wasn’t, he was sort of our stepdad, but Eileen—who was our mother—asked us to call him our uncle, because nothing was ever straightforward with her. As a result, people often thought that Sam was Eileen’s brother-in-law and that they’d married following the departure of our father, but it wasn’t that way at all. Anyway, the truth is they weren’t married because Eileen and our father didn’t divorce immediately; it took years for us to get away from him like that.

Ralph and Sam spent a lot of time in the garage where they’d mapped out sightings of the mountain lion on a sheet of parchment paper spread out across and pinned to a workbench that Sam had borrowed from a neighbour. My Collins Junior Dictionary defined borrowing as being temporary and with the owner’s knowledge, which didn’t seem to apply to Sam, like the time he borrowed his brother’s canoe, or a rake from a neighbour to draw gravel across the yard. He and Ralph sketched out an approximation of the town and it was Ralph’s job to decide which sightings were verified (a green X) and which were only rumoured (a red X) although the truth is that everything was hearsay. They spoke of tracking and hunting and I wanted no part in the hunting of an animal, but wouldn’t have minded so much if they’d included me in the tracking part.

Eileen wasn’t interested in anything other than her nascent dress-making business. She spoke of infrastructure and business plans in the same way that Ralph and Sam discussed tracking and hunting and she thought I should take as much interest in it too, shaking her head in despair whenever I declined to assist, which was always. Whenever Ralph and Sam were in the garage and Eileen was in the kitchen, I lay on my bed and read my Collins Junior Series. For all their planning, Ralph and Sam never went out to look for the mountain lion. Eileen didn’t even have a sewing machine.

Most years we’d take a vacation, but that year there was no money to go away with. Besides, Eileen didn’t want to take time off from her business and Sam was a caretaker for the local college, and so had hours to keep. In this way, the mountain lion became a kind of break to us, a respite from reality. Ralph and I didn’t have friends—school or otherwise—to hang out with; despite moving to Anarene over a year before, we were still new, yet to be accepted. For me, the southern air was too much. I was used to cool coastal breezes and wet seasons derived from an adjacent mountain climate. Anarenean air assaulted me, dried me out, and the summer months were relentless. After the third week of frustrated sleep, I started going out at night.

The first recorded sighting of the mountain lion was in January. Someone heard an intruder in their back yard and when they went out to investigate, they disturbed what they subsequently described to a reporter for the Sentinel as a ‘huge, panther-like thing. Six feet at least. Muscley [sic] too. Well fed. And unafraid’.

The report was reproduced and syndicated but the Sentinel remained the primary source of most reports, eventually running a ‘Cat Scratch Fever’ column after the seventh sighting in early March, which was also when the regional press and a few TV teams began to take an interest. My Collins Junior Encyclopedia said cat scratch fever was a bacterial disease, but I understood why the Sentinel misused the phrase because Sam often played the record.

Ralph and Sam scrapbooked the Sentinel and other newspapers obsessively, cataloguing sightings by date, but also sub-categorising them by reliability: whether they were first or second person accounts, visual or audio sightings. Most of what I learned came from conversations at dinner, or Ralph’s excitable elucidations in bed before he fell asleep: the heat had no impact on him. I barely read the papers and couldn’t concentrate on TV news for more than a few moments; my entire knowledge of current affairs that summer can be summarised as: many mountain cat sightings in Anarene; Rialto refurbishment overruns; women warned to stay away from North Capote Street after dark; Anarene’s oldest resident dies aged one-hundred and one; Wesson’s Woolworth celebrates its centenary with luncheons for one hundred lucky families.

We were one of the aforementioned lucky families and got to eat at the top of the Woolworth Tower, which revolved slowly, affording us a panoramic view of Anarene from the downtown zone where we ate to the suburban streets further afield, followed by the sporadically located duplex communities where we lived, and then the wide-open flats that became the horizon. There was nowhere, it occurred to me—teasing a fast-melting sundae apart to the background clink of other diners and the slow, wheezing strain of the restaurant’s mechanism—where a mountain lion might reasonably have come from. I brought this point up to the table but was met with a stony glare from Sam and a complex, condition-heavy explanation from Ralph that involved some sort of ecological shift and hypothetical dry seasons in the nearest mountains, which were a good hundred miles away at least. Eileen was in her own world, staring out the window, dreaming of all the dresses she would sell once her business was up and running.

We were experiencing a heatwave and the tourists, whose numbers had increased following a feature about the mountain lion on the national news, had beaten a retreat. Until then, Ralph and Sam had been offering guided tours of mountain-lion hotspots which they’d identified from extrapolation of their data. Ralph had made a foldable map and sold them for a dollar, taking advantage of his picture-book cute. Then Sam would lead small groups around town, pointing out the back yards and dumpster areas the mountain lion had been seen in, as well as other places of interest, which were mostly the downtown stores. Not once did the tour groups see anything beyond the everyday and so even though Sam had Ralph go round with an actual cap in his hand, no one ever ponied up because they’d already paid a dollar each for the map and the whole thing—I’d heard someone say at the lunch counter, later—seemed like a cheap trick to drum up trade for local business.

But so it was hot. Like I said, I’d taken to walking into town and back during the night to take advantage of the marginally cooler air. These excursions had the added bonus of tiring me to the extent that I had no choice but to sleep until late morning. Eileen attributed my lethargy to adolescence; no one, not even Ralph, knew what I was doing. Anarene’s nightlife was non-existent after midnight and the roads into town and the suburbs they passed through were dead. The town remained lit up though, even the underfurbished Rialto, and it looked for all the world like an abandoned fairground.

The night after the luncheon at the Woolworth Tower, I went out with one of Ralph’s maps and the old Halina that Sam had borrowed from the college. I didn’t believe there was a mountain lion because my Collins Junior Encyclopedia said reports of big cats in unexpected locales were often explainable as coyotes or unreliable and/or fallible sightings. But no one in our family was living up to their potential and I wanted one of us to be able to show for something.

I went out, again and again, paying attention to the conversations that Ralph and Sam had, making a mental note of the location of the most recent sightings and visiting those areas at night. During these excursions I became familiar with the layout of downtown Anarene in a way that would have been impossible in the daylight, when my bearings would be confused by people. I learned where the winos went at night and knew to avoid those areas, although their tendency to eat and discard their food in the same places suggested a prime scavenging hotspot for the feral. I walked all the way across town and back again, circumnavigated it, zigzagged through its streets, learned its cul-de-sacs and shortcuts and began to understand the vague boundaries between downtown and suburban Anarene and its outlier zones. I chased shadows and took spontaneous photos of foxes and skunks in dumpsters, clusters of birds disturbed from sleep by the click-flash-whirr of the Halina and, on North Capote, a tall man in a coat and hat who exposed himself, and I was halfway down Penton and Pike before he realised what I’d done. Later, I told Ralph I’d seen the mountain lion lurking around town, but he didn’t believe me.

The heat wave abated, and it became easier to sleep, just as I’d taken to staying awake. I fought fatigue as Ralph talked about everything he and Sam had worked on each day: they’d calculated the route the mountain lion took as it stalked the streets; they’d postulated that it lived in the desert and made its way into Anarene at night; they strongly suspected that our house was on its path and were planning on setting a baited trap, or digging a pit. I didn’t care and I cared. I didn’t want to hear about the mountain lion and I did.

Ralph kept talking up the reward they’d get for capturing it. No one had offered one, although the Sentinel was prepared to pay out fifty dollars for a verified photo. In that sense, I’d come closer than anyone, but the Halina was hidden in my desk and wasn’t going anywhere. Every so often I had to remind myself that there was no mountain lion, but that this wasn’t a notion to disabuse Ralph of. So I said nothing and—inevitably, uncontrollably—fell asleep most nights to his excited hypotheses, and if he ever noticed, then he didn’t care.

One night I woke up around two a.m. There was a scuffling in the yard; the garbage cans had been disturbed and there existed the air of something trying to remain perfectly still. Ralph had left the lamp on and I turned it off, quickly. There was more movement, the sound of something creeping across the same gravel Sam said would be cheaper than an intruder alarm, but no one got out of bed to check.

I understood what it meant to have a thumping heart, suppressed the urge to yell, ‘Villain! Dissemble no more!’ I stood behind the threadbare curtains, convinced that even in the dark I’d be seen. Maybe it was the same for the creature outside. The window was open and I tried to detect the scent of a wild, pheromonic animal, heavy breathing or a low growl. There was nothing. But, in time, there came a growing awareness of the no-silence of the night: crickets rustling, occasional owls, a smothered cough, the dopplered engine of a truck reaching us like the light from a dying star…

A vague shape adjusted itself and I perceived layers to the darkness: the window ledge became visible, the low-shimmer of the glass too, and the dimensions of the yard emerged. Slowly, the shape attained definition. It was long and slender, too upright for a mountain lion. The yard contained a laundry pole that folded when not in use and the borrowed canoe. In the dark, a thing could be all things, shapeshifting and mergeish. Some nights I’d mistake the chair on which I hung clothes for a circus ringmaster, a pareidolic mountain stack, or the boogie man. A canoe might be a wildcat; a laundry pole might be a man. Without illumination, nothing was certain. The sky was briefly pierced by a sliver of moon, just as quickly extinguished by cloud, and the night returned to its dimensionless form. Darkness. Nothing. Sometimes a yard is just a yard.

I overslept and had to be woken by Eileen. Ralph and Sam had gone to the hardware store; she needed to work on her business plan. I slipped into the garage and marked a green X on the map, just inside our yard.

I marked a red X across the road from our house, then two more green ones following further wakeful nights at the window, each mark overlaying the one before it. No one noticed these additions: Ralph and Sam’s interest in the mountain lion was waning, just as mine was picking up. Sam kept asking if I had been messing around in the yard, because the gravel was always askew. He didn’t believe me when I told him no. The nights approached like a predator. Sleep became my nemesis. I obsessed over closed doors and windows.

The weather turned. Ralph and Sam spent less time in the garage, so I spent more time there. It felt good to be unbothered, alone. I took the key for myself, put it on a string that I wore around my neck, tucked under my shirt. Its sharp touch became a comfort.

We returned to school no longer new. Ralph and I were in separate classes now. We stopped eating lunch together. I walked home alone. He’d become popular since the summer, whereas nothing had changed in respect of myself. Increasingly, Ralph spent the weekends with friends and our shared bedroom became my own. I lay entire evenings there: reading, writing, always with a secured window and the curtains drawn.

On school mornings, after breakfast, I’d wait for Sam to go out, Ralph to be picked up (a friend’s parent collected him; there wasn’t room for me) and for Eileen to work on her business plan. Once the kitchen was clear, I slipped into the garage, added the relevant number of Xs in the appropriate colours, then walked to school, looking behind me all the way.

Things changed. I was consistently late, my grades consistently bad. That which had once been important was no longer. Eventually, Eileen was summoned. The principal said he’d received reports that I didn’t pay attention in class and frequently failed to complete assignments. He asked if there were problems at home, in an accusative way that led to a confrontation. Eileen rarely lost her temper, but when she did it was spectacular. She drove home like a banshee (I’d saved up my pocket money and invested in a Collins Junior Folklore Companion), riding the wind, running a red light that later resulted in a ticket. I was grounded and Eileen received a letter from the school. A social worker came the following week.

They said it was a routine visit, but everyone had to be present. Ralph missed school. Sam lost a day’s pay. I was glad the blame was ascribed to the principal’s interference. Ralph and I were asked questions in front of Eileen and Sam, then later, alone. I conferred with Ralph afterward, but he didn’t say anything about being asked about his relationship with Sam, whether he was appropriate or inappropriate, which was what the social worker had asked me.

Sam was always appropriate with me, but I’d never thought to consider the same in respect of Ralph. I began to wonder about the time they spent together in the garage but couldn’t think such a thing of Sam. Anyway, the social worker was mostly interested in our living conditions, which (I read from their notes, upside-down) were satisfactory, and our diets, which were acceptable. They gave us a bunch of pamphlets on healthy home cooking and that was that.

Except that it wasn’t, because I threw a chair at my homeroom teacher, who said, when I eventually turned up for class, that it looked like I’d spent the night in a bordello. I’d never heard this word before and it wasn’t in my Collins Junior Dictionary, but I knew it wasn’t a compliment. Some things don’t require definition.

I got suspended and spent most of the period in my room, eating little and ignoring Eileen’s requests that I run errands, or stand for her as a model. She’d progressed to making designs on the same parchment paper that Ralph and Sam had used to map out the town, but still didn’t own a sewing machine.

An investigation exonerated the homeroom teacher, who’d denied saying anything at all, and no one else seemed to have heard. While I was at home, another social worker came, this time to speak only with me.

They were concerned about the amount of time I spent in my bedroom. They asked if they could look through my books, and did so, one by one, including my Collins Junior Series. They picked up my journal and asked if they could read it, which I didn’t mind at all because the real one was more than well-hidden. They sat on the bed, asked if we could talk and left the door open, which I minded a lot.

The social worker asked why I’d thrown a chair at the homeroom teacher and I repeated what he’d said, but the social worker told me that matter was closed. They asked if I was an angry person, a sad person, if I ever hurt or thought of hurting myself in some way. Even when they were being explicit, I found that adults spoke with innuendo.

I knew what they meant. I said that I never hurt or thought about hurting myself in some way, was neither an angry person, nor a sad one. I’d learned it was often best to reflect a person’s exact language at them. They asked if I had many friends, if I went out much, what my interests were outside of reading. They asked about the key around my neck, which had fallen outside of my shirt. I tucked it back in, said that reading was pretty much all I wanted to do, that it was too cold to go out and I didn’t care if I had friends or not.

They asked again about the key.

I said nothing and they left. I heard them talking to Eileen, who said she didn’t know anything about a key. I tore the string from my neck—it burned—ran to the garage and locked myself in. I was in there most mornings and had added to the map substantially. There had been many sightings since the summer. I had seen him all over town: in a blue car several times, in Woolworth’s at least twice, outside my school on one occasion, often on the road to our home and always, always in the yard, at night. The map was a maelstrom of Xs, and I saw that the greens outnumbered the reds, whereupon I experienced a sick and fiery fear.

The social worker was knocking on the door and Eileen was griping that she didn’t have time for this. The Halina was on a chair and when had Sam even taken it back? I hung it round my neck, the leather strap digging in, exacerbating the burn from the string. The social worker was trying the handle of the door. I didn’t know if there was another key. Sam kept all containers that were marked either flammable or inflammable on a high shelf that could easily be reached with the aid of the chair. I poured the contents of a metal can over the map. The green and red ink merged with something called Baxter’s Hypergrade; it spilled onto the cement floor and pooled in spectral puddles. The social worker could smell the fluid through the door, and there was a note of panic in their voice that had previously been so calm. Sam kept the safety matches in easy reach of anyone. I couldn’t even say why I was doing all this.

The bench lit up with a comforting floof. The social worker was throwing themselves at the door and Eileen was wailing in the background: she was no good in a crisis; it would never have occurred to her to call anyone. I sat at the far end of the garage, against the roller-door that was never used. Black smoke coiled across the ceiling and curled towards the floor. Some of it seeped through the inch-gap of the roller-door. I began to regret any number of decisions previously made.

It seemed an appropriate time for resolutions and I determined to put more effort in at school, become a little less insular. But I thought we could all stand to be doing our own things a little less, or even change things around altogether. I imagined Eileen using my Collins Junior Atlas to memorise the names of all the countries and their flags, while Ralph and Sam made dresses, and I no longer used compasses and black felt pens to connect sightings of the mountain lion (testing my hypothesis that they only appeared across ley lines, about which I had read in the Oxford Book of Knowledge) but made friends, and arrived at school on time, and slept well behind unlocked doors because there was no mountain lion at all.

I lay down and wrapped myself around the Halina; proof for when I needed it, facts being as weapons. I closed my eyes against the black smoke sting and saw possible futures: a sleep-deprived Ralph with children; Sam returning all the things he’d ever borrowed; Eileen’s business failing, but at least getting off the ground; the mountain lion in human form, lost in the desert; the solitary death of the Woolworth building; the homeroom teacher apologising for his behaviour; the re-opening of the Rialto and Anarene’s oldest resident defying expectations, living forever.

My skin was itching as the smoke descended. In a year—less than that, even—this might be a bad memory, repeatedly recalled and repressed within the same instant, prime fodder for the school counsellor, but for the moment it was all that there was and could ever be. Everything became dimensionless, animal-like shapes formed and dissipated in the smoke, in which I saw the mountain lion for real, the words heavy and light began to mean the same and the whooze of the fire filled my ears as I helplessly inhaled, Eileen screamed, the social worker threw themselves at the garage door and, in the near distance, a siren wailed.