by Joseph A. Fitzpatrick
After nine months and nine battles, there are only four of us left in the house. I had thought that after nine deaths, perhaps the whole thing would be over. There is the old adage that cats only have nine lives and I had hoped that that old wives’ wisdom would have ended this whole ordeal, but it’s October, I’ve slain nine cats thus far, and there are still three more running around the house. One for each of the remaining months of the year.
I should qualify my survival here. They’re cats until the last day of the month. Then one of them, and I never know which until the transformation begins, changes into a huge hulking death creature that attacks me and destroys the house. We fight, I try my damnedest to win, and in the morning the dead beast-cat is gone and somehow the house reconstructs itself leaving no signs of our melee.
I honestly don’t remember how I came to inhabit this house of cats. I was on trial for animal cruelty charges. There’s my dirty past. Dogfights. I got in with the wrong crowd and the money was too tempting. It’s an all-too-common formula that turns guys like me into statistics. You can’t like me now that you know my secret; especially if you’re an animal sympathizer. You’d probably root for the cats at the end of each month. Hell, at the end of nine months even I’ve begun rooting for them, but as long as there’s a blade in my hand and they continue to strike first, then I can’t help but defend myself.
The first few months were easy, me being about as far away from what you’d call a cat lover as a person can get. I used to toss strays off the roof of the woodshed to see if they’d all land on their feet. They all did, if you’re wondering. Oh, please, stow your judgement. I know what you’re thinking, but believe me, you’ll never be as hard on me as I’ve already been on myself. I said that the first few months were easy, but that was before I started naming them.
Spend a few months locked in a house with a tribe of cats and you’ll come to appreciate them. Their grace and natural athleticism; the playful curiosity that turns the simplest objects into toys; their enjoyment of a long nap and a sunbeam. Let a few curl up in your lap and you’ll fall in love. They’re the most sensual animals I’ve ever seen, and I’m including Jayne Gilson in this list. A girl I knew in high school and when I say knew I mean knew, in the Biblical sense, but I’m not going into details here because nine months of being forced to kill my friends has changed me.
Mr. Clean sits in the window licking the back of his front paw. Next, his head jerks up and down as he curls his tongue trying to clean his chest. He’s the most meticulous cleaner of them all. I catch him giving baths to the rest of the family all the time.
Snow Boots, named for his white paws, walks around wide-eyed and curious. He embodies that characteristic for me. Always looking slightly confused, he camps out in boxes and shopping bags and just about any nook or cranny in the house. I’ve learned more about the attic and closets in this place from looking for him than I ever would have just living here in the old style. But without a TV, or a radio, or even a single book, these critters have become my entertainment. I’ve begun to miss the others, even the ones that I didn’t know very well and the three I never named.
Silly Girl is the youngest. Only a kitten when I first arrived, she’s grown into a little lady. She gets tossed around by the two boys, but she can hold her own. She was one of the first to visit me. Originally, I tried to separate myself from the vermin. That’s what I used to call them—vermin. If the combatants of January, February, and March had names at all they were: Vermin, Stinking Vermin, and Why do you Vermin keep attacking me? All uttered while avoiding the newly elongated claws and fangs at the end of each month.
So, being the subject of unprovoked attacks once a month, I was naturally wary of the felines. I locked myself in one bedroom and kicked any cat that came within shoe distance when I needed to journey to the bathroom or kitchen. I told you I wasn’t a nice guy. It’s important to remember this detail.
But cats will win anybody over given enough time, and Silly Girl was the ambassador employing the diplomacy of big eyes, little squeaks, and the uncoordinated cuteness that just worms right through any defense. I don’t know how she did it, my own carelessness or something else, but Silly Girl found her way into my room one night and without a care in the world curled up right next to my head on the pillow and went to sleep. I had to admire her courage because my reputation with the rest of the pride at that time must have been pretty rotten. Scared the shit out of me when I woke up, though. I leapt out of bed screaming bloody murder. Had all intentions of murder too; tossing the little three-pounder splat against the wall, but I didn’t do it. She hardly even seemed to notice my flight from bed. Just opened an eye, yawned, rolled over on her back, and stretched out two tiny paws to me. I stuck out my finger and she took that finger between her paws, sort of nibbled on the end for a second, and then fell back to sleep.
It wasn’t an overnight reconciliation for me, but after Silly Girl’s first visit I held back my outlashings and began to observe these creatures. In turn, they observed me, and then they explored me, sniffing and rubbing, a light paw flex on my leg, even left gifts on my pillow: moths, mice, a small pool of vomit. They’re forgiving creatures; I’ll give them that. Their love isn’t unconditional, but their conditions aren’t unreasonable either.
It’s the end of October now. I’m sitting in my favorite recliner, the one with the fluff hanging out the back from where Fluff Boy scratched away the fabric. He attacked in August and left a long scar down the left side of my face. I have scars on my body from all of the beasts and mementos in the house from all of the cats. January, February, and March respectively took a bite out of my thigh, left three gashes on my back, and broke a toe. January used to tear up the carpet. February used to chew cardboard. March always slept in the sink.
In April, Yowler, nipped off the top of my right ear. The scratches on the bottom of the bathroom door are his. Simpson tore open my cheek in May. He drank water straight out of the faucet. Toby attacked in June swallowing two fingers from my left hand. He had been the largest, always knocking plates and glasses off the counters. Tabasco, a truly feisty minx, broke three of my rips at the end of July. She was the sun queen; chasing away all contenders from a warm spot. In September, Lady Jane surprised me with a wicked head wound. Left me in bed for a week, staring at the spot on the headboard where she used to lay and bat at the curtains.
Paints a pretty picture of me, doesn’t it? But you can’t feel sorry for me. Remember that. I was on trial for animal cruelty. I wouldn’t be able to walk down the street today without enduring a sea of pitied looks of disgust. I broke all the mirrors in the house so that I wouldn’t have to look at myself anymore. Silly Girl doesn’t care what I look like, however, and I leave a space for her on my pillow every night.
The window is open. A breeze flows into the house and I think I need a heavier sweater. The cord for the blinds taps against the wall, a steady and annoying click, but I’m lacking the motivation to cross the room and tie it off. Besides, my companions are fascinated by it, sitting on the arms of the sofa watching it sway back and forth. We’d all like to jump through the window and run around the grass and trees that we can see out there. We’ve all tried, but the screens won’t budge and you can’t cut them either. None of the doors to the outside will open. We’re all trapped inside the house until whatever put us here decides to let us out.
I’ve begun to wonder if perhaps there will never be an escape, however. Around the sixth month, after the monthly transformation and attack had been solidified as a recurring pattern, I began to hope that twelve original cats meant twelve months of captivity. If I can simply survive twelve consecutive attacks then I’ll be free. This thinking is the only thing that’s allowed me to get through the last three combats. The longer I’m here, the harder it gets.
The clicking of the cord continues. Silly Girl and Mr. Clean have lost interest, disappearing from the room, but Snow Boots continues to follow the wind-blown pendulum with his eyes as if studying it, counting the strikes, waiting for some deviation in the rhythm.
I wonder which of my friends will be next. I go through a moment where I think perhaps this time it won’t happen. Maybe this month none of them will transform and we won’t have to fight anymore. I experience this same moment every month now. Always on the last day, but I don’t know how I got here, why I’m here, or how to end this imprisonment. All I know is that I’ll stay up as long as I can tonight trying to delay the inevitable and come January it’s going to get very lonely in this house.
Eventually I tire when my legs cramp from sitting in the same position too long. I get up, eat a bowl of macaroni and cheese, and go to bed. I still want to remain awake, the transformation only comes after I fall asleep, but I know I’ll need my strength if I expect to see November.
I don’t dream anymore, so there’s nothing to interrupt when I’m awoken by the growl outside my bedroom door. All of my scars throb at this moment. I turn my head to both sides looking for Silly Girl, but I don’t see her or even an indentation in the pillow. Rolling off the mattress, I glance under the bed, but don’t find her in her back-up location either. I tell myself that she’s hiding. The cats who don’t transform always hide the night of the battle.
I slide into a T-shirt and a pair of jeans while the growling gets louder outside the door. The walls shake and the floor vibrates. The beast grows impatient, as always, but it never enters the bedroom. It always waits for me in the living room. I grab the sword and shield that has appeared during the night on the chest at the foot of the bed. The weight is familiar by now. After nine months, I almost feel like a pro. Ready as I can ever be, I kick open the door and charge out preparing to say good-bye to what was once Snow Boots or Mr. Clean.
The cat inside the beast is never recognizable until it lies dead at my feet. That is one detail for which I have been grateful these past several months. October is different, however. For the first time in one of these encounters I look up at the twelve-foot beast with the gaping maw and razor-sharp talons and recognize the cat from which it has spawned. To my utter horror, I stare into the eyes of Silly Girl. She shakes her immense face and snorts. I lose her inside the beast with the flattened black nose, the ears that have curled down closer to the head, the stubbed tail. Her body has shifted, becoming broader at the shoulders, shortening the neck, rippling now with muscles, turning this sweet little animal into what looks like a giant mutated pitbull terrier. The same type of dogs I used to raise. The same type I’d shoot in the head when they lost a fight. Putting them out of their misery, I used to say.
The beast steps closer and sniffs me. I lower my sword, hoping for some sense of recognition, some piece of my friend inside the beast that will end this nightmare right now. But the beast growls and rears back, brandishing a claw. A deep red light glows from behind its eyes and catches me, draws me in to a flash of memories and a flood of emotion that I can’t explain. In an instant the past nine months rip through me, a reenactment of every single combat, but this time I feel the pain of my own thrusts and stabs into the different beasts. Then I’m back in front of the judge. I’m in handcuffs in a police car, asking for a lawyer. I’m at the last dogfight, cheering for my fighter, already counting the money in my head. I watch him tear the throat out of another dog and I shake hands with my partner. I feel it more than hear it, but I understand the question completely: Why would you do this to us? It feels like a squeak. It feels like Silly Girl.
I drop my sword and shield and fall to my knees feeling the beast press in on me. When it strikes, I know I will not defend myself. To the judge I only wish to say, I’m guilty, I’m sorry, and I’m the first man to get what he deserves.