It was five minutes to midnight; Friday the Thirteenth, May, 1988. Sheila and I were lounging in the crack-plastered splendor of our moldy postage-stamp studio apartment, located in beeyootifull South Seattle. We were reclining on our bed cum sofa in our bedroom cum living room watching spooky movies and allowing the magic of superstition to expand our imaginations. “The Changeling” was on TBS and George C. Scott was watching goggle-eyed and craggy-faced as a dead child’s ball mysteriously bounced its way downstairs from an empty upper floor.
Sheila snuggled up next to me, and I felt the gooseflesh on the belly of her arm as I pulled her close. Her hair still smelled of the frozen pizza we’d burned in the oven.
She cringed at the action on the tv but I had missed it. Something was at the door. Scratching.
I rolled out from under her embrace and padded my way to the chain-latched hollow-core front door that was our only protection from the elements, both natural and criminal. Sheila whimpered from the bed.
“What are you doing? Get back here. This is the scariest part.”
“I thought I heard something,” I said, realizing how ridiculously cliché that would sound at almost midnight during a grade-B horror flick. But she heard the sincerity in my voice and, knowing that I was not nearly that good an actor, she performed one of her patented Lift-and-Spin maneuvers and ended up on her stomach, facing me and the door, a wide-eyed counterpoint to good old George C.
“What is it?” she asked me.
I shook my head. “Probably a leaf or branch or something. You know me.” She did. I was her Early Warning System. If there was a disturbance within five city blocks—from the bellowing of a besotted husband as his enraged wife cracked a Pyrex pie plate over his head, to the whisper of a peeper’s nylon parka outside our street-level window—if it was out there, I’d hear it.
There it was again. A light, quill-like scratching along the lower corner of our front door. I reached up and silently slid the chain from its resting place. The brass-plated links whispered amongst themselves as I gently let them hang from their nail in the door jamb. Behind me, just as I laid my hand on the dented knob of our door, George C. Scott began to demand information from the unseen entity in his home. I looked over my shoulder at Sheila in an attempt to reassure her that I was in complete control. Her face was all but hidden behind a barricade of pillows and blankets. My weak smile and the swelling of the movie’s music only served to drive her deeper into cover from the anticipated horror that lay on our doorstep.
I yanked the door open.
The shadows beyond our door exploded. Not in a blast of heat and light but in an intense expansion of darkness and sound. My gaze had been intent upon the crack between the door and the floor, and when I pulled the door open, all I saw was a long strip of blackness. This strip of blackness rose up to knee height, made the sound of air escaping a slashed tire and scared a piercing scream out of Sheila.
The thing coalesced into a writhing ball of shadow, hissed and spat and yowled its way off the stoop and down into the bushes. After a full thirty seconds of twig-cracking and foliage-thrashing, it finally came to rest. My hand trembling on the doorknob, the only sounds I heard were the pulsing of my blood through my poor, constricted veins, and a voice from the TV behind me.
“My God,” said George C.
“Oh, the poor things,” Sheila cooed, suddenly at my side. “You scared them!” She punctuated this last remark with a none-too-gentle punch to my ribs and then proceeded to make those inane sounds that many women (and some men) make upon encountering infants and small animals. “Hey puddypuddypuddy. Yeeess. It’s okay. Big bad man didn’t mean it. Noooo.” All of it in that slack-consonanted, sing-song voice that makes those of us who do not make such sounds cringe and scratch our scalps until they bleed.
I looked out over Sheila’s crouching form and, from beneath the lowest branches of the shaggy bushes that lined our sidewalk, I saw two pairs of eyes. Four golden orbs, floating in the leafy darkness.
Cats. I was not fond of cats
“Call to them, Honey,” Sheila pleaded.
“Why?” I inquired. With acid.
“Just look at them,” she sang, flipping back into her quasi-baby-talk. “They’re so scared! And they’re so hungry.”
They were hard to make out from where they cowered in the shadows, but I could see that they were small, black, bedraggled, scrawny and completely bonkers with fright and/or hunger.
“Aren’t they cute? Yes they are! Please, Honey,” she said to me over her shoulder. “Call them. Here, Puddypuddypuddy.”
I did not think it through. I did not say to myself, “If you call them, they may come.” I did not say to myself, “And if they come, they will stay, and your calm, simple life will be altered in ways you cannot imagine.”
No. These thoughts, these rational, insightful thoughts, did not race through my mind. Had they done so, I would have gone back to George C. and his phantom roommate and let Sheila “puddypuddypuddy” herself into an early grave out there on the porch. But, as I said, I did not think of these things. All I heard was that insipid voice. All I wanted to do was to make her stop and the only way I could knew to do that was to give her what she wanted.
I sped into our kitchen (delineated from the rest of the room/apartment only by the loudness of the carpeting), pulled open the ancient door of our HotPoint refrigerator and looked for the worst smelling item I could find.
It was chili. I didn’t remember when we had made it. I didn’t even remember if it was us who had made it. It may have come with the apartment. But it had a smell that resembled old meat and that’s what I needed.
I bounded back to the front door where Sheila was keeping up a running pitter-patter of insane-sounding gibberish. I shouldered her aside and crouched down on the stoop, arm extended, offering the bounty of our larder. I remained there, waiting for time and the creeping odor emanating from the dishwasher-warped Tupperware to work.
“Here, Puddypuddypuddy,” yammered Sheila from my side.
“Shut up, Dear.”
It took less than a minute for the first paw to find its tentative way onto the walkway. Emboldened by the first cat’s move, the second one peeped out as well. Within three minutes they had one-upped each other to the step and, as I placed the container on the ground and slowly waddled my way back towards the door, they padded themselves up to the aromatic stew and began to partake, making little feral growlings in between gulps.
In the light that escaped from our doorway, we could see them clearly. Two tiny black kittens, probably not much more than a month old. You could hold each of them in the palm of your hand. They were shorthairs, both; one completely black, the other black with white gloves and spats and a white dickey. They had hugely innocent eyes and didn’t look like they could cause anyone the tiniest bit of trouble. From beside me Sheila asked the question that sealed their fate and changed my life.
“What do you want to name them?”
Sheila named the black-with-tuxedo-white cat, “Luciano,” and I named the all-black one “Agammemnon.” They grew with frightening rapidity. We found a vet—a Dr. Blood, D.V.M—who gave them their shots while asking their age for the third time.
“We’ve had them for four months.”
“Incredible,” he said. “Never seen anything like it.”
When they were six months old, we brought them back to Dr. Blood to be neutered. He shook his head again. They had reached full size, and weighed in at about eight pounds a piece.
“I would suggest that you keep them as indoor cats,” he told us. “It would reduce the risks of injury.” We agreed, assuming that he meant the risks to the cats. Now, I’m not so sure.
But time passed, and we learned the joys and trials of living with cats. Despite these inconveniences, I came to love them. They became our children, our family.
Life was good.
Then I got a promotion.
My promotion to Assistant Branch Manager came complete with a raise in salary, a hefty one by our standards. We made immediate plans to leave the Land of the Studio and enter the Realm of Bedroom Doors, Dining Areas and the ever-elusive Hallway. In August of 1989 the four of us removed ourselves from our 500 square foot hovel into an affordable 1250 square foot townhouse, complete with carpeting of one believable color, doors that shut, a deadbolt, two bedrooms, two baths, and, incredibly, stairs. We were happy. Aggie and Lucky were happy.
But then—subtly, slowly—something began to happen to “The Boys.”
Arriving home after a pleasant evening, Sheila and I were walking from up to our front door when we both saw a huge animal peeking out from between the drawn curtains. Sheila gasped and I felt my back go cold with sweat. A wild animal was in our house! Had we left a window open? What about The Boys?
We looked again and realized that the face belonged to Lucky, his big eyes and meowing whiskers looming forth from the shadows of the darkened apartment. We opened the door and there he was, hungry, as usual.
“When,” I asked Sheila, “did he get so damned big?” Sheila only shook her head. We spent the next two weeks watching them closely, weighing them, measuring them. Next week, we told ourselves, we’ll take them to the vet and find out what’s wrong with them. Probably just a glandular thing.
The Friday night of our third week in the house the doorbell rang. Sheila and I looked quickly around the crumpled newspaper-strewn second bedroom for the cats. Finding them there, we closed the door on them and went downstairs.
We opened the front door to find Karen, a work buddy of Sheila’s with her husband, Fred, standing on our doorstep, pizza boxes and wine bottles in hand.
“Surprise!” they said.
No shit, I thought.
Still, a night when neither of us had to cook couldn’t be considered a total loss. After dinner we were all in the sparsely furnished living room chatting. A friendly fire crackled in the fireplace and there were glasses of Chardonnay all ’round. It was a scene out of thirtysomething, until Fred stopped his story in mid-sentence and said, “My God.” Karen, always the model of propriety and example, gave up a “Holy Shit!” Their gazes were fixed on the stairwell. I turned to look.
It was Agammemnon.
I was too surprised, seeing Aggie on this side of a door I had closed myself, to come up with any brilliant explanation.
“My God,” Fred said again and then, looking from Sheila to me, he elaborated. “He’s huge!”
“Yeah,” I chuckled artfully, pretending nothing was amiss. “He’s grown since the last time you saw him, hasn’t he?” I moved over to Aggie and picked him up. I returned to my seat and placed him standing on my lap. Aggie rubbed his muzzle against my face and I scratched him under his chin. “He’s a little chunky, but neutered males get that way, right, Sheila?” Sheila, bless her heart I will love her forever, did not let her company smile fade. Rather, she pumped the wattage and nodded.
But Fred’s face had not changed. He shook his head and pointed the index finger of his wineglass-holding hand at Aggie. “No,” he instructed us. “That cat is fucking huge.” He turned to Karen as if to gauge his own senses by her reaction. She could only gape.
I began to feel the prick of Agammemnon’s claws digging into my leg. Not the kneading “happy paws” that torture and delight all felinophiles—this was a steady, meaningful application of pressure, a preparation for mayhem. Aggie was facing away from me at this point, sighting down the long pointing digit of Fred’s outstretched arm, settling into a crouch and getting ready to lunge at the gawking face before him.
Gently, I stroked Agammemnon’s coat and coaxed him from his pre-pounce stance into a less aggressive, albeit very alert, lie-down. Still, the claws remained out. And in my leg. But it was an improvement.
As for Fred, it was time to put him in his place. I slammed my banker/bean-counter brain into high gear and crunched out an obfuscation of gee-whiz figures.
“Fred,” I said, trying to look as serious as I could considering the fact that I now had a Aggie’s tail swishing me in the face. “I assure you, he’s not that big. This boy’s only 12 kilos. He’s about fifty centimeters tall and eighty cm’s nose-to-tail. He’s well within the normal range for a cat his age.
It didn’t work.
Fred knitted his brow in concentration and began muttering about metric equivalencies. God help me. Fred worked for the City for Chrissakes. Who would have figured that he actually knew anything?
I heard a thump on the stairs. Luciano, sensing that his brother was being paid some attention, was descending. Unable to move with Aggie on my lap, I put all of my mental energy into one huge, telepathic “shoo” and sent it to Luciano. But he kept coming, heedless of His Master’s Mental Voice. Thump. Thump.
Fred, having finished his mental conversions, opened his eyes and looked at me, his eyebrows now trying to meet with his hairline. “Do you know what that is in pounds and inches?”
Thump Thump Thump. Yes, I knew.
I closed my eyes as Luciano came around the stairwell corner and down the last few steps. All 22 inches of height, 34 inches of length (not including the tail), and 30-plus pounds of him.
For those of you who work better with a less prosaic description, Luciano’s shoulders came up to my knee. He was as long head-to-butt as from my extended fingertips to my nose, and I couldn’t pick him up without grunting. He was lean and well-muscled with only a small dewlap hanging from his neutered belly. Agammemnon was a bit smaller, but not much. I thought they were both fine-looking animals.
Fred giggled. “My God,” he said. I could hear hysteria beneath the patina of civilization. “They’re like carp. They just keep growing.”
The sound that came out of the thing on my lap was unlike anything I had ever heard. It started high and soft, but quickly dropped in pitch as it rose in intensity. It was a siren, a warning, and it was telling Fred to knock it off. Its message was unmistakable.
Fred, however, first runner-up in the Twonk of the Year competition, continued to giggle and pointed at Luciano. Karen, at his side, lightly tugged on his sleeve. “Honey,” she pleaded in a quavering whisper. But Fred blithely cackled on.
“That’s not a cat!” he sputtered at last. “It’s an experiment gone bad. It’s a genetic throwback!” He turned his face to me and I could see the glaze forming across his eyes as his legume-sized brain searched for the proper metaphor. “It’s a goddamned sabre-tooth!”
Interpret it as coincidence, if you wish, but at Fred’s final word Luciano crouched and put on his flat-eared owl hat. His eyes were wide and fixed on the goon before him, his back curved and fluffed. He hissed. It was a long, deliberate escaping of air. A thousand vipers would not have made a more evil sound.
Fred got the hint. Too late.
Faced and flanked by two spitting Econo-Panthers, it looked like, unless somebody did something, Fred would be leaving a little something of himself with us that night. I was completely trapped. One of the creatures that had substituted itself for our little kittens was on my lap, tensed like a coiled spring. One wrong move and certain parts of my anatomy were in real peril.
Sheila stood, unaffected by the paralysis that had gripped the rest of us. “Hey!” she shouted, striding over and interposing herself between Lucky and Fred. “Hey! she shouted again and clapped her hands.
Lucky looked up at her sharply and hissed again. I said a mental goodbye to my lovely wife. I was sure she was a goner. And then she did something that amazed me. She leaned over, looked the wild-eyed beast in the face and yelled “Hey!” a third time. Then she swatted him on the nose.
Stunned at her audacity, Luciano drew back.
“Get upstairs,” said Sheila, Queen of the Jungle, toeing him with her stockinged foot. He did. Turning, she took a step toward Aggie and me. “You, too,” she said and hooked a thumb toward the stairs. Agammemnon slid off my lap and slunk up to the bedroom without further comment.
“Gotta let them know who’s in charge once in a while,” Sheila explained to our stunned dinner guests.
It was only a very few moments before Fred and Karen politely but hurriedly bid us adieu.
It seemed imperative now that we take The Boys in and get a professional opinion of their condition. Sometime in the next ten or fifteen years we were bound to have people over for dinner. We couldn’t always count on handling their reactions to The Boys as well as we had handled Fred and Karen. So we crammed Aggie into a large-size dog-carrier and carted him off to the neighborhood cat clinic.
At the clinic, we checked in with Aggie wailing like I had removed his liver with a wooden spatula. At his call, a woman in a white coat — a Dr. Vaughn — appeared from behind one of the examination room doors. She looked from the snarling dog carrier to our silent selves and asked a question by lifting an eyebrow.
“He doesn’t travel well,” Sheila apologized.
“It’s our only carrier,” I explained.
“They’re your 3:30,” announced the receptionist.
We rolled the carrier into the examination room, closed the door, and I let Aggie loose. Vaughn did what I had come to call the Standard George C. Reaction: a wide-eyed “My God.”
“He’s remarkable,” she told us. “An amazing animal!” She tried, to her credit, to follow through with the standard exam. She weighed him, she measured him, she asked after his intake and elimination. But between each question she would shake her head a bit and step back, as if she needed the extra distance to fit the whole cat into her field of vision.
“So, how come he’s still growing?” I asked.
She didn’t hear me. “What were his parents like?” she asked.
“What? Like was one of them a Great Dane?”
“They were strays,” Sheila said, glaring at me.
“They?” said Vaughn.
“Yes,” said Sheila. “Aggie and Lucky. They were strays.”
“Lucky,” said the doctor. “Is he this big, too?”
Oh God, I thought.
“Oh, no,” Sheila said, unaware of having awakened the Beast of Scientific Inquiry. “Lucky’s bigger.”
That was it. Before my eyes the nice vet in the white coat was transformed into the Great Researcher. Her gaze drifted off into space and I could see all those dreams that she’d had as a vet intern—dreams of discovering the key to feline leukemia, dreams of walking the jungles of Peru in search of some lost species, dreams that had died as she had performed her twelve-hundredth spay operation—they were all resurrected, springing full-grown from the head of Aggie.
And I knew what that meant for us. Signing forms, signing checks, and watching as bits and pieces of our cats were removed and studied. I wanted an answer to why The Boys were still growing, but I hadn’t bargained for this.
I had to move quickly. No time to explain. I scooped Aggie up off table like a sack of cement and practically flung him into the carrier, latching the door before he could get his bearings.
“But, I haven’t finished,” the vet told me. “The fact that both cats are this large effectively eliminates the possibility of this being a spontaneous genetic mutation. There must be some environmental cause for their size. There are still a great many tests I want to run on Aggie.”
No doubt, I thought. I began to wheel the carrier out the door. Sheila, who knew I was severely bugged about something, went with the flow and followed me out. Vaughn met us at the desk.
“Please,” she said, trying in vain for another glimpse of the feline in question. “I can’t tell how serious their condition is, yet.”
“How much we owe?” I asked the receptionist.
“There’s all sorts of things it could be,” Vaughn pleaded.
“Twenty-two dollars,” said the receptionist. Sheila began writing a check. I stopped her. Color me paranoid. I did not want them to have our address.
I pulled a twenty from my wallet, and hoped Sheila had some cash on her as well.
“It could be life-threatening,” tried the vet. Sheila stopped at that, but I knew what the doctor was doing.
“Ever seen anything like this before?” I asked.
“No,” admitted Vaughn.
“Ever even heard of anything like it?”
“Do you even know where to start looking?”
“Size aside, is the cat healthy?”
“Thanks, Doc. You’ve taken a load off our minds.” I took the five from a thoroughly-confused Sheila, slapped it and my twenty on the counter, smiled, and wheeled Aggie out the door.
On the way back home, Sheila didn’t say a word. Finally, after Aggie was back home and out of the box, she cornered me.
“What the hell was that all about?”
“Didn’t you see the look in her eyes?” She hadn’t. “All she wanted was to make Aggie and Lucky the focus of some study into abnormal growth patterns.”
“You’re crazy,” she shouted.
The phone rang. Sheila answered it. “Yes, this is she.” Pause. Sheila looked my way. I was not surprised. I had known who it was known before she had answered it. It was Vaughn.
“No. We don’t want to participate in a study…. No…. No, I think we’ll be getting a second opinion on that. Goodbye.” I could still hear Vaughn’s voice rattling on as Sheila hung up the phone.
“Our number’s unlisted. How’d she get it?” I asked.
“I had to leave it when I made the appointment.”
The phone rang again. Sheila picked it up and I could hear a tiny voice pleading as she returned it to the hook. It rang again, and Sheila unplugged the phone.
I sighed. We’d only been here a month and already we’d have to change our number. Hell, I’d only just memorized the old one.
We learned to live with their size. We learned to sidle past them in the halls and not to trip over them in the dark. We learned to close and latch them in the office when company came. They became our secret shame. But we loved them and they, in their fashion, loved us. So we forgot about their size and went on with our lives.
Sheila wanted a house. A house with spare rooms for guests, a den for reading, a basement for storage, and a yard for gardening. Those were her needs. As for the payments, our income could now handle it. We stood on the brink of true adulthood. A lifetime of debt. Wouldn’t Mom and Dad be proud?
We found a lovely three-bedroom-two-bath-large-kitchen-daylight-basement-fenced-yard affair in a somnolent neighborhood outside of the Seattle city limits. It was close enough to the city to drive in on a whim, far enough away from the overpriced city proper to be affordable and give a feeling of “country”. We settled in but, before you could say “housewarming,” we knew that something was wrong.
They were growing.
By the end of our second month in the house, Aggie’s head was at hip-height. Toward the middle of the third, Lucky could see over the dining room table without standing, and when he did stand he could nuzzle my shoulder. The fold-out futon in the guest bedroom quickly became the folded-out bed in the cats’ room, complete with customized indentations in the mattress.
They just kept growing. “They’re like carp,” I remembered Fred saying that wintry night so many months ago. It seemed he was right.
We had to do something. They were growing daily. We decided to let them outside.
The neighborhood was fairly rural and our yard was big. The fence that enclosed it was high enough that (a) they couldn’t get their lumbering bulks over it and (b) the neighbor’s couldn’t see any more than vague dark shapes through the cracks in the boards. We’d tell them we were raising Irish wolfhounds. It was the ideal solution: it would give us the house to ramble around in during the day and keep them safe when we brought them in at night.
Soon, Aggie and Lucky took their first trip outside, chaperoned, of course. The Boys cavorted like calves in the sunshine, chasing birds and squirrels, while Sheila and I sat on the deck, sipping chablis spritzers, discussing how we might budget in a chest-style deep freeze and a side of beef. They quickly proved themselves to be quite at home in the yard’s environs. They made no attempts at escape, and were happy to laze in the unfettered light of the summer sun.
That weekend, we installed a large-sized doggie door in the pantry and erected a pre-fab toolshed that we furnished with their futon and an oak half-barrel filled with water. We pulled up the lawn and plantings in one large, distant corner of the yard and turned all the soil, hoping they’d use it as a supplement to the industrial-sized trays of kitty litter in the basement.
On Monday morning, exhausted but hopeful, we patted The Boys on their massive heads, released the catch on the doggie door, and went off to work. As we pulled away, Sheila looked back at the dark shapes just barely visible through the cracks in the fence.
“Do you think they’ll be all right?” she wondered.
“What could happen that they can’t handle or sleep through?”
Arriving home that evening, the first thing I noticed was the flapping, twisting yellow tape across the Acton’s driveway. The breeze tugged at the tape, but the words were clear: POLICE LINE – DO NOT CROSS.
The second thing I noticed was the piece of paper taped to our door. We got out of our old Honda and walked quickly to the house. I tried not to look furtive, but I’m pretty sure I failed.
I snatched the note from the door as Sheila let us in. I turned on the news and scanned the note—a hastily-typed and -xeroxed memo from the Department of Wildlife on the subject of cougar attacks—while Sheila went towards the back door to see if Aggie and Lucky were all right. Her scream brought me streaking after her.
She was standing in the pantry doorway looking at the floor. Bloody paw prints graced the linoleum from the doggie door to the bowl of beef-fortified kibble. We stepped through to the back door, unlocked it and pulled it open. I put a hand over Sheila’s face to muffle her second scream.
Agammemnon and Luciano lay beneath the red-barked limbs of the madrona tree. In a crook of the tree hung the body of the next door neighbor’s Weimeraner. They had grown during the day. A lot. Now the size of small lions, they rested in the shade. Lucky was on his back, his belly obscenely full and rounded. Aggie lay nearby, still gnawing on something.
It was not a dog.
I caught Sheila before she hit the floor.
I carried her back to the living room and laid her on the couch. She moaned and opened her eyes. I went to the kitchen for some water. When I came back, she was sitting up, looking at the tv, her face a slowly constricting mask of disbelief and horror.
The stiff-haired reporter on the tube was telling us about a cougar attack within the city limits. The scene cut to a tape of our street. A reporter asked a question of Alice, our Baptist fundamentalist neighbor.
“I was sweeping off the porch when I heard little Billy scream,” Alice said. “I came running around the hedge, and there he was, lying on his back, kicking and screaming, with this huge cat holding him down, playing with him like he was a mouse or something.”
“What did you do?” inquired the reporter.
“Well,” said Alice, choosing that moment to begin to cry, which made her face all red so that it clashed with her blue hair. “I ran in and tried to beat that monster off with my broom but it picked Billy up by the head and — My God! There it goes!”
Alice pointed to the side, and the camera’s view tumbled and swerved until it was focused down the street. We saw Audrey Chamberlain’s car come to a screeching halt. In front of it, looking at the driver over the car’s grill, was Agammemnon.
“That’s it!” cried Alice and “Jesus!” said the reporter. The camera zoomed in on our kitty. Audrey hit the horn and threw the vehicle into reverse. Aggie took a swipe at a headlamp and skulked off to the sidewalk. The camera’s view followed him as he loped up our next door neighbor’s driveway and in one giant leap sent his huge bulk to the top of the fence and disappeared over it. The Weimeraner did not bark.
I couldn’t listen any more. I leapt off the couch and headed toward the back door. I had my hand on the latch, but stopped when I saw the stranger standing at the base of the madrona.
Well, not really a stranger.
It was Dr. Vaughn.
The good Doctor Vaughn was standing over the motionless mounds of The Boys, a large pistol in her hand. Red, fabric-tailed trank darts dangled from the cats’ glossy black haunches. They had hardly moved from the last time I had seen them. The doctor must have given them a good dosing.
Sheila came in from the front of the house, took a look out of the window at the trespasser and swore fervently.
“What are you going to do,” Sheila asked, turning to, of all people, me.
“Me?” I laughed. “I don’t know. When did I get put in charge?”
She turned and looked out the window again. “We’ve got to do something. She’ll call in the cops just to get back at us and then the cops’ll find The Boys and kill them and then they’ll come for us and we’ll lose everything.”
“What are you blathering about?”
“Don’t you see?”
“We’re responsible,” she explained. “We’ve got wild animals within the city limits. We let them run loose in the neighborhood. They’ve destroyed property. They’ve created a civic disturbance. They’ve killed a boy. If they’re discovered you and I are going to jail.”
She was right. The civil suits alone would ruin us. Everything we’d struggled for would vanish in the blink of a litigious eye.
I trotted back to the living room, Sheila right behind. “I don’t know what to do about The Boys, yet, but I don’t want to go to jail, and I don’t want to lose everything we’ve worked for.” I nodded toward the backyard. “We’ve got to get rid of her.”
From its ceremonial place above the mantle I pulled down Great-Grandad’s musket. It was a long and imposing thing, heavy to hold, and must have been a bitch to pack around.
“What are you planning to do?” she asked me.
And it hit me. What was I doing? Was I actually contemplating murder? Jesus, yes, I was actually contemplating murder. I don’t know what it was—the threat to my home, sheer territoriality, or some primal drive to conquer—but the skinny kid who played in the high school band and couldn’t get a date till college was about to go out and calmly take a human life. What was I thinking? And yet, could I turn my back, could I let this vet stomp across my life, steal my privacy and destroy my home? I looked at Sheila and imagined my life without her. I realized that, no, I couldn’t just stand by.
Well, I thought, hefting the weapon. It’s us quiet ones you gotta watch out for.
I went back to the pantry door, opened it, and walked to the edge of the deck. I stepped off the deck just as Vaughn pulled out a syringe and bottle and began measuring out a dose. I raised the weapon dramatically, tilted down its four-foot barrel until it was aimed right at the doctor’s head.
The needle squeaked in the bottle as she looked up at me. Then she obligingly raised her hands without my having to request she do so.
“Hello again, Doctor Vaughn,” I said, doing my best tough-guy imitation.
“Is that thing loaded?” she asked.
Ah, the scientific mind at work. Such a wonder. Of course the musket was… oh, shit.
The musket, of course, was not loaded. Even if I had had the black powder and a miniball with which to load it (providing, of course, I knew how), I would only have had one shot. Assuming for the sake of realism that my first shot would be a clean miss, in the time it would have taken me to reload, the doctor would have been able to go to her car, drive to the nearest police station and bring the cops back here personally, stopping for crullers on the way. Hopefully, Vaughn wasn’t up on her Civil War weaponry.
“Of course it’s loaded.”
The doctor smiled. “I don’t believe you,” she said. Maybe she was up on her Civil War weaponry.
She dropped her hands and slipped one into her coat pocket. The pocket without the trank gun. She withdrew a slim pistol, silver and sleek, and definitely one designed for use with bullets. She pointed it at me.
“All I want is the cats.”
“Tough,” I said, trying to describe my demeanor. “They’re with us.”
“Put down the blunderbuss.”
I knew then that she had me. I wasn’t sure that I could have killed her had the rifle been loaded, but now, with her clear and present pistol up against my glorified piece of plumber’s piping, it was over.
Her attention was on me and the musket. It kept her from seeing what I saw. Agammemnon was moving. Vaughn must have misjudged her initial dart dosage. But when an animal that large moves, it is not a silent thing.
Aggie woofed and rolled. Vaughn heard it and turned, pistol in hand. The doctor pointed her weapon at Aggie who, barely awake, was having trouble keeping his feet. Seeing my little kitty boy about to get plugged by a fame-lusted vet flipped my pacifist lever the other way, and the danger of getting shot no longer mattered.
I stepped forward and swung the musket, hitting Vaughn in the back. She grunted and staggered forward, off-balance. Her small gun went off with a pop and the grass between Aggie’s legs puffed and flew, waking him up thoroughly.
Aggie lashed out. Claws caught in fabric and flesh. Vaughn cried out as Aggie pulled her down, pulled himself up. His second swipe smashed into the side of her head, paw covering her face, and I heard her neck snap.
Vaughn crumpled and Aggie backed off.
“Oh, shit,” said Sheila from the edge of the deck. I was too stunned to move. My “little kitty boy” had just kacked a vet with one blow. Aggie, still dopey, shook his head and lay back down.
Sheila knelt down beside the doctor and touched her wrist. The doctor’s eyes were open and staring. Her ear was resting against her shoulder. Her right ear. Her left shoulder.
I doubted Sheila would be able to find a pulse.
“Grab her feet,” she told me.
“And do what?”
“And hide the body, stupid! Grab her feet.”
“Hide it? Where?”
“In the basement. Christ, what had you planned to do after you killed her? Grab her feet.”
“But I didn’t kill…”
“GRAB HER FEET!”
“Mmph,” I said as I picked up my end of the deceased Doctor Vaughn. We carted Vaughn over to the basement door, opened it, and carried the body inside. I winced as the vet’s pendant skull clump-clomped on each stair during our descent. We dumped her between the old ratty recliner and the furnace.
“Now, The Boys,” my wife said.
After two minutes I could see that I was quickly losing my position as Alpha Male in our little pride. The Boys, still a bit sloppy from the drugs, discovered that if they didn’t want to move, they didn’t have to. And they didn’t want to move. I could no longer pick them up, and our attempts at dragging their boneless leonine forms soon became a game. They batted at us playfully with huge paws. They hooked onto our clothes with long translucent claws. They rolled over, taking us down and holding us close, giving us friendly little rabbit kicks with their hind feet.
Exasperated, I went to the carport and got the pruning hook. I crossed the yard to the madrona and emptied their arboreal larder. The dog’s corpse came down with a heavy thud. I moved in and grabbed it by the fore and hind paws and picked it up. Now they were standing. Now they were moving. They began to close in on me. I swear I could see them grow as they came on, shifting mass from distended bellies to muscle and bone.
Somehow, from somewhere, I found the intestinal solidity to step forward. Taking a page from Sheila’s manual on cat training, I swung the canine corpse and smacked them across their big black noses.
“Hey!” I shouted. “Knock it off.” Confused at my having turned their carefully-hung trophy into a bludgeon (Man: the tool-maker), The Boys backed off. I toted the mangled body towardthe basement. The Boys followed. I elbowed open the door, went down the steps and chucked my burden onto the cold, concrete floor next to the cooling vet. The Boys and I passed each other on the stairs.
I exited the basement and locked it. Then, with Sheila standing guard at the basement door, I went about destroying evidence.
What was left of Little Billy Acton—and there wasn’t much—fit neatly in a Hefty Cinch-Sack. I was surprised at my composure. Here I was, running about our suburban manse searching for odd pieces of human remains and stuffing them, quite coolly, into a trash bag. I couldn’t believe it of myself. And yet, I could feel the cord of my sanity humming under the strain. I was close to the edge.
I returned to the madrona, cinched up the Sack o’ Billy, and grabbed Vaughn’s purse. At the basement entrance, Sheila and I looked at each other in silence. What could we say to one another? We had to finish the job.
I opened the door and was hit by the smell.
Cats to the end, Aggie and Lucky had played with their food. The smell of opened bowels was heavy in the air, the color of blood was puddled thickly on the floor. Innards were strewn about like a tangled skein of yarn. The carnage was absolute, and, in either corner, looking cramped in an uncrowded basement that ran the full length and breadth of the house, crouched two black smilodon-sized housecats. The Boys.
Aggie looked at me and growled from around the doctor’s left thigh. I could almost see the wheels turning in his blood-lusted brain. Whatever my previous status in his eyes, I had been demoted.
I was prey.
I slammed the door as he lunged, shot the latch home as he crashed into the other side. The door held. I looked to Sheila and saw her standing, feet apart, weapon to her shoulder, sighting down the long, long barrel to where Aggie had almost just emerged. She was an avatar, a feminist Hemingway, facing down the onrushing beast, little wispies of hair tasting the breeze.
“What were you going to do?” I asked as I fought down my hysteria. “Yell ‘Bang?'”
After some discussion, we came to the conclusion that we were incapable of killing The Boys outright. So, like the Princes of Old, we opted for banishment. The Boys would be repatriated.
We found the doctor’s van up the street and, using the keys from Vaughn’s purse, pulled it around the house and up to the basement door. Then, with as much sweetness as she could put into her nervous voice, Sheila began to call them.
“Hey, Puddypuddypuddy,” she warbled. “Are you in there?” Of course they were. But the content of her words didn’t matter. It was the magic of her song that counted, and within a few minutes we heard from beyond the door not the roar of the MGM lion, but a meek and surprisingly high-pitched “Brrow?”
Gingerly, Sheila unbolted the door, all the while singing and twittering the patterns that our cats had long ago come to associate with brushings, scratches under the chin, and, most tellingly, food. I stood by with a six-pound sledge should either of them still be confused about what (or who) constituted “food.”
Sheila pulled open the door. In her free hand was a sirloin-tip roast laced the dose of the drug that Vaughn had measured out. A similar dose was inside the second roast that lay at her feet. When Lucky’s white whiskers appeared out of the gloom, I got ready, but he came forward, sniffed the meat (could he still be hungry), and followed it as Sheila tossed it into the back of the van. Aggie came close on his heels and the van creaked as the now almost pony-sized cats plonked themselves down to gnaw on their meaty tidbits. We slowly closed the van’s door.
While we waited for the drugs to take effect, I went down in the basement for a repeat of my matinee performance in the yard. This time I needed two bags. The Boys had taken care of most of the fleshy parts while we were getting the van. But there was still a good bit of clothing, some entrails, and an assortment of surprisingly clean bones left to collect.
Sheila peeked into the back of the van, and reported that The Boys were rumbling in peaceful, narcotized sleep. We hefted the Hefties into the back with them and headed for the hills.
I drove the van, Sheila followed in our car. We had no idea how much time Vaughn’s dosage would give us, so we drove out on Highway 522, headed for Sultan, our fastest route to the Cascades. We passed quickly through moonlit farmland and up into the foothills. Trees crowded close to the highway and stars shimmered through the clean mountain air. I heard the rythm of feline breathing change, and took a right onto a local road.
In a very few minutes, we found ourselves driving through a valley forested with dark evergreens from rim to shaggy rim. A crisp clean creek of trout-filled snowmelt lay across a meadow, and I could imagine a doe or buck hiding behind every other tree. The Boys could do a lot worse. We turned off onto an unused forestry road and stopped just as I heard a deep “Mau” from behind me.
I exited the van swiftly. A flashlight through the window showed the two soporific cats beginning to stumble about, nictitating membranes masking half of their eyes.
Sheila brought our car up close to the van and opened the passenger door. I slid open the van door and dove for the relative safety of our Honda. Then we waited.
It was deja vu. Suddenly I was back on the porch of our tiny studio apartment, a bowl of stinking chili on the stoop, watching the first tentative steps of two wild animals towards captivity and domestication. Now, I was watching the final steps of those same animals back towards wildness. I found myself shaking with the stress of the day, the burden of our choices, and the sudden change in our lives.
When Lucky poked his head out of the van, silently sniffing the forest air, and when Aggie took the first step down from the van onto the mat of needles and swordleaf ferns, I found my eyes filled with tears. This was my family. And we were breaking up.
They hung around the edge of the clearing in the dim glow cast by the van’s dome light until I couldn’t take it anymore. I reached over in front of Sheila and hit the horn. They turned and hissed, then slunk off into the night.
A few minutes later I got out and went up to the van. I picked up the squelching bags and emptied them—vet and Billy—into a pile nearby. Hopefully that would tide them over until they got their bearings. I was gathering up the bags when I heard the crash of brush and the thump of massive paws in the mulch. I turned and saw Agammemnon and Luciano padding in from the forest, heading for me, drawn by the scent of blood.
They came in close, slowed, and began to pace around me. Sheila was in the van, wiping it down. She saw what was happening and hit the horn. It did not phase the beasts before me.
I could run, but how far? I could bat at them, but to what end? I could not match these creatures, not any more, not the way they were now. Again, I recalled the kittens we had taken in so unsuspectingly. Could these huge lions be the same creatures?
I extended my hand. “Hey, Boys,” I said in a quiet voice. “Hey, Aggie. Hey, Lucky.” They both stopped their pacing. “Come on,” I told them, patting my thigh. “It’s okay.” And they came.
They spooked when Sheila came out of the van, but all she had to do was say a few words and they went to her, too. We said our goodbyes then, patted their heads and scritched the bases of their tails one final time. Then, the van hidden in the brush, the cats sitting in the clearing, we drove off, leaving them to fend for themselves. Tearfully, we went back to our house, and prayed to God.
The Boys have not been sighted since. There has, however, been a dramatic increase in cattle mutilations in the Eastern Cascades. It seems our two furry kittens are heading for the Canadian border. Caribou Country. Fine. The Mounties will have their hands full, though.
Good luck, Boys.