By Guy Cheston (@guycheston)
People were worried about the way Jared was dealing with his mother’s death. Always the loner, he’d been pounding back booze and stuffing pizza down his throat when he wasn’t busy sleeping. It was his aunt that finally convinced him that he needed pet therapy, something soft and sweet to cuddle. She looked so much like his Mom, and so he’d caved. He pulled into his driveway and grabbed the pet kennel, in which his adopted little black kitten now resided, and walked into the house. He went straight to his man-cave and set her down in the corner and opened the crate.
The cat didn’t come out. Jared peered into the kennel to see that she had pressed herself against the back wall, an insane look in her eyes.
Well, whatever. He placed a bowl of food and water a few feet away from the crate, pulled a beer out of the fridge, poured himself a bowl of chips, then settled into his lazy boy. Leaning back in the recliner always made him tired. Come to think, now was as good a time as any to get some rest. He’d make friends with the cat in a little bit. His mind wandered in and out of sleep and he was vaguely aware of the sun setting.
His eyes snapped open to darkness. The air was thick, electrifying. He sat up in the recliner and the movement sent shivers and goosebumps up his arms, shoulders, neck.
The temperature in the room had changed. Instead of warm heat flowing from the vents, there was a chill. Where the room smelled of potato chips and beer before he fell asleep, now it smelled of earth and decay.
Was that a shadow in the corner? It was huge, as though it came from a giant. His heart thudded in his rib-cage, spiked his body with a flow of adrenaline. A single bead of sweat slid down the center of his forehead and he realized that, since waking, he hadn’t taken a breath.
He exhaled much too fast and fumigated the air with the ripe stench of bad breath. On the other side of the room, the shadow, darker than the night, took a step in his direction.
Jared’s hand shot into the pitch-black and felt for the lamp chain. He desperately wanted to pull it down and so free himself from the dark, but the bulb was out.
Pristine strands of white formed in the head of the shadow. Dozens of incisors smiled at him and four red eyes appeared, unblinking.
Jared stood and stumbled, crashing into a bookshelf on the other side of the man-cave. Books and trinkets clattered to the ground. For once he wished he hadn’t chosen to live his life alone. How much better to face whatever this was with someone else. Anyone else.
The shadow took another step toward him. Its form rested over the recliner.
The bookshelf, yes! It had a flashlight somewhere on it. He flailed his hands through the spillage on the floor, feeling for it. There!
He pushed the button and flashed the beam at the recliner, praying to deity he didn’t believe in that the light would dispel a shadow darker than darkness itself. But nothing was there. A noise gathered in his ears. A low, gentle hum. He rose to his knees and shined the light over every spot on the recliner. In a corner, curled into a shape as small as a softball, was the black kitten he’d brought home from the animal shelter that morning. As the light passed over its body, it lifted its head, gave a soft mew, then went back to sleep, purring contentedly.
The shadow had to have been a drunken hallucination. The doc kept saying to cut back on the booze, but damn. Jared stepped over to the lamp and switched it on, then turned the flashlight off and put it in his pocket. He sat next to the cat and fired up the TV and channel surfed until he came to HBO, then left it there and watched good ole Pacino get the job done in Carlitos Way. He sipped a room temperature bottled water and kept the seat up on the recliner, too filled with tension to kick back and close his eyes for more than a couple seconds.
The sight of that pulsing, undulating shadow kept reappearing in his mind’s eye all night. Morning finally came and his body and mind began to calm down. He pulled the window blinds open and let the early sun cast its rays into the room, then leaned back and let his mind drift. The kitten, christened KiKi by the animal shelter, lay on his lap as he slept, a little sentry to protect his troubled mind as it traversed a landscape of nightmares.
He awoke sweating, partly from the alcohol, partly from the room temperature, and partly from a slow drip of dread in the back of his mind that wouldn’t relent. His arm was draped over his head as though to shield his eyes from the light, face canted sideways so that his nose huffed armpit. He smelled ripe, a mixture of body odor and animal funk from the shelter. When had he showered last? At present, he couldn’t remember. KiKi was gone.
He stood and caught a whiff of ass and a brief flicker of self-consciousness sparked through his mind. Had it been so long since he’d washed that he could smell his own ass? He looked down at his long-sleeve flannel to find a skidmark from KiKi that slid like a line drive down the center of his shirt.
Damn cat. First he hallucinated that she was a shadow death-beast come to kill him, now this.
The cost of companionship.
He turned down the heat and contemplated calling the doctor to schedule an immediate appointment. He’d always known booze led to brain damage; alcohol’s a poison, after all. But he didn’t think it would lead to such an extreme bout of hallucination. Jared sighed, then shrugged the idea away. He’d skip the booze tonight, maybe tomorrow too. If the hallucinations still came, he’d go in next week.
He found KiKi resting atop the kitchen table, little body splayed out over home designs he’d been working on for the contractor. Jared gave her a pat on the head then took a shower, scrubbing hard, as though rubbing his skin raw would work two-fold to rid the stank from his flesh and the angst from his mind.
A tiny mew came from somewhere in the bathroom. He peeled the curtain back to see KiKi sitting on the tile floor, head between her legs, cleaning herself with her tongue. At the sound of the shower curtain moving, KiKi looked up from her grooming, then shot up on all fours and hissed, staring at Jared. A low growl sounded from the base of the kitten’s throat as her tail stood up and her ears peeled back. She hissed again, then turned and slid through the crack in the bathroom door. Confused as all hell but feeling clean, Jared closed the curtain and turned off the water.
Hadn’t he closed the bathroom door? He was sure of it, had pinched the lock between index finger and thumb and rotated it clockwise to the sound of a click. He lived alone, but the neighborhood wasn’t the best. Better to lock everything, all the time, even when going to the bathroom. There was no way he forgot.
But whatever. Everything about him seemed off. Maybe he should quit the drink cold turkey. Just deal with a week or two of hellish withdrawal and so preserve his liver and mind in the interest of living into his eighties or nineties where he wouldn’t be as self-conscious about catching a whiff of his own ass.
Drying off in front of the mirror, he avoided looking at his face. He didn’t want to be reminded of how his emerald-green eyes, which used to line the ladies up in high school and college, were now puffy and jaundiced. No need to look at the horseshoe hairdo at the top of his head, either. Fucking bald head. Why couldn’t Rogaine just work?
He let his eyes traipse down to the cross necklace he’d been wearing since he was a teenager. Always hidden under his clothes, it was his last vestige of faith. He’d have torn it off a decade ago if not for the fact that his mother had bought it for him and insisted he always wore it. With no idea who his father was, mom had been it. The theology that everything happened for a reason was lost on him at the sight of her brittle body, wasting-away day after day until it was nothing more than a comatose hunk of flesh with sunken eyes atop a hospital bed. He’d never felt his own mortality more than by watching Mom lose hers.
Dried off and boxers on, he jerked open the bathroom door and bounded into the kitchen to see KiKi shredding the housing designs he’d spent a hundred hours working on. Designs worth thousands. Torn paper floated to the ground like soft strings of snow. The kitten stopped upon seeing him and her hair sprouted like she’d just been the recipient of a static shock. She stared at him with feral eyes and hissed.
Then the cat lunged at his chest. Her claws scraped into his flesh, latching onto him like hooks. Hot pain flared on his torso. Feline teeth pierced his nipple. Jared felt the snap of his necklace as the cat looped a paw through it before he flung her across the room with a backhanded swat. The cross fell to the ground next to KiKi, who jumped three feet into the air like the tile floor had spikes. She landed on the kitchen counter then flailed at a cabinet doorknob above her, nudging it open enough to slide in among the plates and bowls. The cabinet door shut. A steady growl emanated from behind the barrier.
His chest radiated pain and steady streams of blood flowed from half a dozen punctures.
Damn cat. What the hell?
He went back into the bathroom and pressed a towel to his chest and heard the cabinet door bang open. Paws pattered up the stairs to the second floor.
Good grief. A crazy cat was one thing, but this? No, sir. Back to the animal shelter tomorrow. Today, he’d have to salvage what he could of his designs.
But first, the cat.
He picked his necklace off the floor, reconnected the links and put it back around his neck, then grabbed the broom out of the pantry. Jared stalked up the stairs and felt a little ridiculous over an irrational fear of an animal so small. Halfway up, the cat appeared at the bedroom doorway, hissing and growling. He brandished the bottom of the broom and poked at her like she was a lump of hot coals that needed to be stirred.
The cat clamped its front paws and teeth over the bristles and tore at them as Jared shoved her and the broom into the bedroom and slammed the door shut.
He stood in the hall, panting in fear and exertion. His mind could not expunge a phrase that taunted him from some mocking corner of his brain: ass kicked by a cat, ass kicked by a cat, ass kicked by a cat.
The mantra continued as he went back downstairs, dick dangling through the open flap of his boxers as though it wanted to come out so as to see what all the hubbub was about.
Above, paws scratched at the bedroom door, followed by a series of thuds. Was the cat banging its head against the door?
Thud, thud, thud, scratch-scratch-scratch, scratch-scratch-scratch.
The damn pussy could stay in the bedroom for a whole day and night. Drink its own piss and eat its own shit. He’d figure out how to catch and kennel her tomorrow, even if it meant going next door to get the neighbor’s help.
A wrack of pain spiked through his nipple and he looked down to find that wrestling the cat with the broom had done nothing to ease the wounds she’d inflicted. Blood streamed down his midsection and sopped into the rim of his boxers. He took a clean towel from the linen closet and dapped at the wounds, cringing. Would the cuts get infected?
Thud, thud, thud, scratch-scratch-scratch, scratch-scratch-scratch.
Several smears of ointment, painkillers, and half a dozen Band-Aids later, he was in jeans and a t-shirt at the kitchen table and doing what he could to recover the remains of his designs. The thuds and scratches became a kind of white noise in the back of Jared’s mind. At some point, it stopped. Even insane cats needed rest.
Hours passed as he collected the scraps of a couple months’ worth of work and consolidated it into a huge three-ring binder. He stopped once to stuff cold pizza, beer, and nachos down his throat. By the time he was done, the sun was going down and he realized he had to pee so bad it hurt. In front of the toilet, the urine shot out like a firehose and Jared moaned his approval. Relinquishing the contents of a full bladder felt almost orgasmic, just without the messy squirt.
Upstairs, a door creaked open. Hadn’t he shut them all, tight? As he walked through the kitchen, living room, and over to the stairwell, he saw the last rays of sunlight had descended below the tree line. He glanced upstairs and, sure enough, the bedroom door was open slightly, darkness beyond. He flipped the switch on the wall to turn on the light that hung over the stairwell.
Guttural noises greeted the light. Noises neither feral, nor feline, but sounds that were vaguely human and brimmed with hostility.
His pulse quickened, his stomach churned.
What the hell was wrong with this cat? He’d have to go up the stairs and shut the door. He grabbed another flashlight out of the coat closet, long and heavy and black, and pressed his thumb to the switch.
With each step, the noise coming from the room increased and his feet felt like anchors sinking to an ocean floor. A small patch of sweat began to collect between his shoulder blades.
Two-thirds of the way up, fingers coiled around the edges of the door. But they weren’t human fingers, no. These were three times as long with half a dozen knuckles each. Neither were they straight, but rather curved in different directions like they’d been broken several times.
Disbelieving what he saw, he panned the flashlight beam at the hand, only to see it vanish. The light pierced the crevice between the door and the wall to shine upon a murky haze, as though a malignant black presence floated beyond the opening.
Each step up was met with a deep growl from the room. He would get to the top, pull the door shut, and lock it from the outside. Maybe the damn cat was rabid. If that was the case, he needed a hospital and pronto. His hand grabbed hold of the doorknob, but at his touch the door was yanked inward and he tumbled into the room. He fell face first onto the carpet and the flashlight flew from his hand and spilled its light onto the back wall.
Clawed hands slashed at his back and he screamed, turned, flailed. Some kind of presence, a being that defied the known laws of man, picked him up by his shirt and hoisted him into the air. Jared beat at its form only to hear something like a laugh sound within the creature as it opened its mouth and smiled.
Those pristine white incisors again, same as last night. Four red eyes popped open and the pupils spun in circles. Jared started praying and crying simultaneously, which silenced the being’s laughter.
With renewed rage, it yanked its claws to the side and tore open Jared’s shirt and he dropped to the ground. The cross necklace hung beneath his throat.
A dark, smoldering hand cupped under his jaw and lifted him high. Jared scraped and beat at its forearm, but it didn’t budge.
One of the swirling red eyes caught sight of the cross and the creature dropped him and stumbled back.
Stupefied but finally understanding the force against which he wrestled, he yanked the cross from around his neck and pressed it into the palm of his hand and charged the demon. It reeled away and crashed against the wall. Jared slapped his cross-imbued palm onto the shadow’s forehead to the ungodly cacophony of a hundred different voices screaming in agony. Jared howled as blisters sprouted on the back of his hand and he felt the cross burning into the grotesquely shrinking demonic form. It fell to its knees, dragging his melting hand with it, and curled into the fetal position as its howls quieted to loud sobs, then stopped.
He peeled his hand away from the tiny form and stumbled over to the desk light, switched it on, and felt his gorge rise.
In front of him were the remnants of the kitten: a pool of guts and blood and a few remaining hairs. He knelt and picked the cross out of a small coil of viscera, then aimed his head to the side and vomited. He dialed 911 from the phone on the wall and rambled incoherently about a home invasion gone bad. How could they possibly believe the truth?
He let the phone hang by the cord while the operator kept asking for more information. Jared sat against the wall, grasped the cross in his good hand, sobbed, and let his mind wander off to thoughts of his mother, the cross, and a future without booze.