“What the hell is that?”
“You said we could get a cat, this poor guy was left at the shelter.” Mel cradled the grey cat in her arms; shiny skin covered half his head, and one ear appeared to be chewed off.
“No wonder, he looks half-dead,” Ryan wasn’t really surprised to see the cat; it was just uglier than he’d ever thought possible; the patchy coat reminded him of a worn shag carpet.
“The shelter staff said his time was up, he’d been there too long. They’re gonna put him down soon.” Mel’s lower lip trembled.
Ryan sighed. He didn’t want a cat, never mind a half-dead one. It was all Mel’s idea. He sniffed. The townhouse hallway reeked of rotting sardines, the oily odour of decay. “Whoa, what’s that smell? Is that the cat?”
She stroked his matted fur. “He just needs some TLC, that’s all.”
“You know, I don’t think cats are supposed to smell like that.” Ryan stretched a finger toward the cat, still cradled in Mel’s arms.
The cat’s ears flattened against his skull. Yellow eyes glared at him. Sizing him up.
Ryan pulled his hand back. Better safe than –
A small dog came bouncing down the hallway, yapping. “Down, Skipper! Down.” Mel struggled to hold the cat out of the dog’s reach. The tawny mutt jumped up on her for a better view.
The cat hissed.
“You leave poor Pluto alone.”
“Pluto?” Ryan smirked, “Like the planet? Or the Mickey Mouse dog?”
Mel shrugged, “That’s the name he came with.”
“OK Pluto, let’s see what you got.” Ryan shuffled backward, bent over and dragging Skipper away by the collar. The cat growled, low throaty rumble following them down the hallway.
“You know, there’s something up with that cat.” Ryan eyed it warily. The cat hunched over its food dish, crunching and purring. “It’s not normal.”
Skipper bounded past the kitchen. The cat arched its back, growled in low tones that rose to a high-pitched howl. Spat.
“It takes time to settle in, to get used to new things,” Mel opened a tin of cat food. The cat stopped growling, and wrapped itself around Mel’s legs, purring. “See, I just think the poor guy’s starved and neglected. Needs some extra care, that’s all.”
“I dunno about that.” Ryan reached toward the cat. Yellow eyes glared, and ears flattened against its skull. The cat hissed softly.
Ryan pulled his hand away. Yeah, that was some poor cat alright.
Mel glanced out the back window, “Hey, the birdfeeders need a top-up. Wanna take care of it for me?”
“Naw, I gotta get some work done first,” Ryan turned on his laptop, and sat at the dinner table. Papers were strewn across it. So much for a home office.
He watched as Mel stepped into the tiny yard, just big enough for a few patio stones and a patch of grass, privacy guaranteed by a wooden fence. Mel’s garden – a few brave potted plants added a splash of colour. She reached up to fill the feeders with sunflower seeds. Mel took care of everything, whether it needed it or not.
Ryan looked down. The cat stared out the sliding door, watching Mel at the birdfeeders, stock still, with only a slight flick of his tail.
He didn’t trust that cat.
“Oh, Ryan, that’s so sad. Look.” Mel pointed to the patio outside. “What do you think happened to them?”
“Probably hit the glass.” Ryan tapped the sliding door. “We should have put something on it, so the birds don’t hit it.”
“But they’ve seen it before, right? Why so many?”
“I dunno, maybe you got some new birds in when you filled the feeders.”
Mel’s lower lip trembled, and her eyes watered.
Ryan put his arms around her, “Hey, it’s OK. You meant well. And those were some well-fed birds, let me tell you.”
He smoothed her hair, “And you’re such a special person, you know that. Always taking care of everything.”
She snuffled against his chest.
Tipping her head up, he kissed her forehead. “Now, why don’t you run upstairs and grab a shower; we’re still going out today, right?”
Mel padded away, with Skipper following.
Ryan opened a kitchen drawer and pulled out a garbage bag. Time to dispose of the bodies while she was in the shower.
Stepping onto the patio, he’d never seen anything like it, there must be a dozen dead songbirds out there. Twisted necks and blood spatter dotted the patio stones.
Turning around, Ryan was startled to see the cat staring at him. Yellow eyes looking through him. As if somehow –
But that’s impossible, Ryan thought.
“I thought he’d settle in by now.” Ryan sprawled on the sofa, flipping through TV channels.
Hissing and low growls erupted from beneath the sofa. Skipper’s head was shoved under, back-end still visible, tail wagging furiously. Spitting, and a blood curdling yowl, Skipper leaped back, and three red stripes appeared on his nose.
“Poor puppy.” Ryan cradled the dog’s head, baby-talking, “Did the mean kitty get you?”
“These things take time,” Mel stood up and walked into the kitchen. “C’mon Pluto, dinner.”
A shot of grey flew out from under the sofa. The cat meowed from the kitchen.
“He doesn’t miss a meal, that’s for sure,” Ryan muttered. He patted the sofa beside him, “C’mon up buddy, I’ll save you from the mean kitty.”
“Skipper, Skipper! Come here, boy,” Mel called from the patio door. The yard was empty, except for the birdfeeders and flowers.
“Ryan, have you seen Skipper?”
“What?” Ryan looked up from his laptop. “No, you let him out.”
“I know, he’s not in the yard. Do you think he got under the fence?” Mel stepped outside, calling, “Skipper, come here pup!” Loud kissy noises followed.
She ducked her head back inside, “What if something happened?”
“He’ll be fine.” Ryan turned back to his laptop and shuffled papers across the table.
A knock from the front door echoed down the hallway. Ryan stood up, “See, I’ll bet he got into the neighbour’s yard again.” The knocking got louder. More urgent.
“Hold on, I’m coming,” he called.
Ryan opened the door, then sagged against the frame. There stood their neighbour, white shirt wildly patterned with maroon streaks. Blood.
He held out a bundle wrapped in a suit jacket. “Oh my god, I hit ‘em. Just pulling into the driveway and he darted out.” Crimson splotches slowly appeared in the grey wool jacket; bleeding through.
Ryan wrapped his arms around the dog; Skipper was panting, tongue hanging out, whites of his eyes showing. “Hey buddy, we’re gonna take you to the vet, OK? Doctor gonna fix you up.”
He called behind him, “Mel, we gotta go. Now. It’s an emergency.”
Mel walked down the hallway, and stood frozen. “Oh my God.”
Ryan raced out the front door, the neighbour still following, talking about paying the vet bill, and apologising.
He looked over his shoulder. Mel still stood in the doorway, grey cat beside her.
“Mel, let’s go. Now.”
Standing beside the car, Ryan fumbled for his keys while cradling his dog. Skipper’s breathing got heavier; a wet rattling sound shook his chest; tongue lolling, he licked Ryan’s hand.
Then he stopped. Light faded from his eyes.
Ryan stared at his dog, now suddenly lighter; eyes fixed in an unseeing glaze.
From the front step, the cat meowed.
Fluted wine glasses clinked. Mel raised her glass, tilting it as bubbles floated in amber, “To you honey, happy anniversary.”
Ryan sniffed the glass. Sparkling grape juice. He raised his glass, “To you sweetie.” Sipped and grimaced. “Interesting beverage choice.” Non-alcoholic. He’d kill for a real drink.
“I thought it was a good choice, considering the circumstances.” Mel waved her glass.
He sipped the drink again, ignoring the fruity bubbles; and tried block out drunken arguments, stupid fights that were about nothing and left her crying alone. “Yeah, well, I couldn’t do it without you honey,” awkwardly holding the glass in the air, he leaned in to kiss her.
“Aw, thanks, you’re so sweet.” Mel set her glass on the table, and walked to the stove. The cat circled around her ankles. “Dinner’s ready, let’s eat while it’s still hot.” She slid sizzling steaks onto a platter, a fresh salad stood on standby.
Mel handed him a plate with steak and a potato.
He sliced off a piece of steak. Blood oozed across the dinner plate. “Uh, honey, do you have anything a little more done?”
She looked at him, puzzled. “I thought you liked rare.”
“Um, I don’t really feel like it.” Ryan pushed the plate away and helped himself to salad. Tried not to think about maroon streaks on his neighbour’s shirt, red blossoms growing on the suit jacket; his dog bleeding to death in his arms.
The cat looked up at him, yellow eyes narrowed.
“Uh, you know what, I’m not so hungry right now. Maybe I’m coming down with something.”
“No worries,” Mel swept up the plate, and dropped the steak into the cat dish. The cat leaped at it, growling while tearing off chunks. Throaty purr as it swallowed.
Ryan looked away. “Um, and do you think we could do something about the cat?”
“What?” Mel asked, fork halfway to her mouth.
“I dunno. He’s around a lot. Always under your feet.” Ryan glanced at the cat. It stopped eating, and seemed to be listening. He caught himself – cats don’t listen to conversations. They’re cats. The meow and eat kibble and use the litter box. But this one was different.
He continued slowly, “I mean, he’s eating right beside us while we’re eating dinner.”
Mel pointed her fork at him, “You used to feed Skipper at the table. Off your plate.” She grinned.
“I know, but that’s different.” He couldn’t say how. Or that the cat gave him the creeps.
“Look, it’s like he’s finally bonded to us. We’re part of his pack.” Mel smiled at the cat, who had resumed chewing noisily. “He likes us. It’s a good thing.”
Ryan didn’t say that cats don’t have packs. And the cat liked Mel. Not him.
Ryan unlocked the front door, trying to be quiet. Stepping inside, he tripped over something soft. Hissing. Stupid cat.
The cat glared at him, then raced to the living room. The TV flickered. Great, she was still up.
“Ryan, is that you?”
“Yeah,” he leaned against the wall to take off his shoes. Shoes were giving him a hard time. He couldn’t have had that much to drink.
“You said you’d be home hours ago. Just one beer.” TV’s off, Mel stood in the hallway, and tightened her bathrobe around her body.
Ryan reeled, “I jush ad one.” He didn’t just slur, did he?
“More than one.” Mel’s arms were folded across her chest. “You promised.”
Mel launched into a familiar tirade, “We’ve worked hard on this. Together. And you said you’d just have one drink. And now –”
“I’m fiiiine. Leaf me alone.” He was slurring. Shit.
“No, it’s a problem. We can solve it.”
“I’m fiiine. Just a drink, s’all.”
The cat circled, meowing.
Hit by sudden clarity, Ryan pointed at it. “It’s that stupid cat. He’s not normal – he’s doing stuff. To the birds. To the dog – he killed my dog. He killed him.” Ryan waved at the cat, thought about grabbing it. Put it in a box and take it away.
“Ryan, be reasonable. Skipper got hit by a car, it was an accident. The cat didn’t –”
Ryan kicked the cat. Hard. Grey form bounced against the wall, and lay limp on the floor.
Mel screamed, “You killed him. What’s wrong with you?”
“He’s – I’m sorry.” Ryan shook his head, “But –”
The cat got up, shook himself, and darted behind Mel. Glared at him.
Mel was crying now, how dare you. Bastard. After all we’ve been through. She scooped up cat, and ran upstairs, locking the bedroom door behind her.
Ryan stumbled into the living room and stretched out on the sofa; turned on the TV, and fell asleep instantly.
It was dark when he woke up. TV was still on. The sofa was uncomfortable, he tried stretching. Couldn’t move his arms. An ache grew in his chest, spreading throughout his limbs; dissolving into burning pain.
He tried twisting his body. No. Must be a dream. That sleep thing, when you can’t move.
Heavy weight on his chest. Can’t breathe.
The stench of rotting fish blasted his face. Low rumble. He opened his eyes. The cat was on top of him. Purring. Whiskers tickled his face.
Yellow eyes stared right through him.
Morning sunlight streaked across the carpet. Mel walked into the living room, “Honey, about last night –”
TV on, Ryan was still lying on the sofa. She shook his shoulder.
He fell back limp.
Mel’s eyes widened. She shook him harder.
Stared at him. No rhythmic fall of his chest – not breathing. Panicking, she pulled him toward her.
His head rolled sideways, his mouth sagging open. Covering her face, she choked over the stench, rotting fish.
Hand shaking, she fumbled for her phone and dialled 911. “I think I have an emergency –”
The paramedics pronounced him dead at the scene. Mel sobbed as they loaded him on the stretcher. They offered weak condolences. I’m sorry miss, Freak accident, Looks like he choked on vomit, at least he didn’t feel any pain.
From behind the sofa the cat watched as they wheeled his body away. Yellow eyes looked up at Mel, staring. Meowed softly.