New Fiction Friday!

Posted: April 1, 2016 in Fiction, Flash Fiction Friday
Tags: , ,

This month’s fare is a heart-warming story of family togetherness and perseverance through hard times. A real Chicken Soup for the Soul kind of thing, you know? I gotta say that lately I haven’t been feeling the draw to horror or fantasy anymore, finding a lot more inspiration in the kinds of books that are hanging in the rack near the pharmacy in your local convenience/drug store. Stuff like Putting on the Armor of the LORDHow to Tell if God Loves You (Hint: HE DOES!),  and 30 New Stories of Christ’s Wisdom. Deep, moving spiritual stuff. So, without further ado, I present “Benjamin’s Buttons”:

 

Nah, I’m joking.

This month’s story was actually inspired by a recent episode where one of our cats – our bratty Flame-Point Siamese, Titus Pullo – slipped out of the house for a nice, three-week RumspringaLuckily, he’s back home and safe, so I don’t feel bad presenting “Missing Cat: Orange Tabby, Male, Long and Lanky”:

 

 

       It was the second time that Georgie had slipped out of the house and gone AWOL.

    The first time the little brat had slipped out the back door in the middle of summer while my wife had been in the backyard tending to her herb garden. The storm door in back sometimes doesn’t latch unless it’s firmly closed and Georgie…Georgie was the kind of cat who was always begging and conniving to get outside, no matter the time of year. Winter, spring, summer, or fall, he always wanted to get out of the house. And he wasn’t a bolter, either. He didn’t slip out sneakily and make a run for it like a convict trying to get passed the last wall of chain-link and razor-wire before the guards shot him down. No, Georgie had an imperious sense of entitlement to his desire to have his “constitutionals”: strutting about the front or back porch, sniffing as he would at his leisure.

    It was almost a full twenty-four hours before we realized that Georgie was gone. He was what we called “an Olympic-level sleeper” since he could curl up somewhere – on our bed, in one of his small cat beds, on in a corner near one of the house’s radiators – and not stir until it was time for us to dole out the wet-food come evening. So it was no surprise that I hadn’t seen him at all that day, even though I work from home. But, when time for wet-food came the day after he slipped out, his three other adopted siblings all showed up, but not Georgie. That’s when I realized that something was up. I searched the house, tearing it apart, beginning to make flyers before my wife even got home.

    We were lucky that he was found within thirty-six hours from his initial escape, a neighbor half a block down our street calling us just before we threw in the towel and went to bed slightly before midnight. Especially since missing pets are almost as common as feral animals in our neighborhood, judging by the flyers that can be regularly seen.

    The second time we weren’t nearly as lucky.

    The second time we were just getting ready to head to my parents in Cleveland for Easter weekend when the wife did one last “closet check” as she liked to call it: making sure that none of our four little fur-children had somehow slipped into a confined space where they might be trapped for the long weekend that we would be out of town. We found the other three, but Georgie was nowhere to be seen. He was in none of his little hibernation corners nor was he inexplicably locked away somewhere.

     With a combination of worry and annoyance, we called my parents and told them that we would be late at best. Instead, we spent our Easter that year making flyers and putting them up, searching through alleys and under the porches of whichever neighbors would allow us to do so. A friend of ours who does animal rescue and adoption even gave us a pair of humane traps to use and recommended getting a trail camera for surveillance.

     Nearly a week passed before we got our first lead on the little, orange brat. Just before my wife was about to go to work, we got a call from a neighbor saying they thought they had seen him outside a vacant house three-quarters of the way down the block from us once or twice during the preceding days. I raced down to the building while my wife, reluctantly, went into the office. I didn’t expect to find him then, I didn’t expect our luck to run that strongly, but maybe I’d see some evidence of his passing. There was nothing there, but some of the neighbors in that area of the street informed me that they regularly saw a number of the various, half-domesticated feral cats that made the neighborhood home in and around the vacant property. So, with that in mind, I set about jerry-rigging an automatic feeding station out of some beverage containers, a cheap food and water dish, and a lot of duct-tape. I set it up on the side of the house that seemed the least exposed, figuring the cats would prefer the safety potentially provided and hung up the trail camera we’d purchased to capture evidence of anything that might take advantage of the opportunity afforded by the feeding station.

    The next morning my wife worriedly related a dream she’d had just before waking as we lay in bed, enjoying the extra time provided by the weekend. “I was down by the abandoned house,” she told me, her gaze on the ceiling of our bedroom as she dredged through her hazy memories. “Back in the alley that runs between our street and Clarendon, you know?”

    I nodded and grunted my understanding as she continued. “And there was…something. I don’t know. I just felt so much…not fear, exactly. But…dread? I guess? A nameless, formless apprehension that something out in the darkness was there. Watching. Waiting. Hungry. And then I saw Georgie pad quickly across the asphalt into the house’s yard, heading for the feeding station.” She choked up a little and dabbed at the corner of one eye with her fingertips. “I’m probably just being silly: so worried about my little Georgie Boy that it’s seeping into my dreams now, you know? But, God…I was so scared for him.”

    I held her for a long moment or two, comforting her and assuring her that our little buddy – whom we always joked about having nine cat’s worth of dumb luck at his disposal – was probably fine and well, that we’d have him back in no time. She sniffed back a few more tears and agreed before rolling out of bed to get started with our day.

    The following day yielded our next slim lead on the little brat. I didn’t get a chance to check the trail cam until around noon, and as I was sitting on the back steps of the abandoned house, scrolling through the black and white night-vision pictures on my laptop, I noticed one of the midnight visitors to the feeding station looked enough like Georgie – same size and build, even though I couldn’t actually make out any coloration – that I felt certain that it was our boy. When I got back home, I told my wife that I’d set up traps down there later in the afternoon and should they not catch anything after full dark had fallen, I’d get up before dawn to stake out the place and see what I could observe.

    Needless to say, I found myself turning off my alarm at four the next morning and dragging myself out of bed. I warmed some coffee up and transferred it into a travel cup before shuffling down our steps to the car and circling the block to park into front of the abandoned house. My position in the car gave me a good view of the trap I’d set up in the house’s untended front yard, which was just as empty as it had been when I’d left it earlier in the evening. Wanting to be thorough, I hopped out briefly to check the trap I’d set up in the backyard that was open to the alley – and found it empty, as well – before settling back into the car for the stakeout.

    I slowly sipped my coffee and occasionally flipped through the news on my phone, before setting the device down and positioning myself in the driver’s seat to more comfortably watch the trap in front. Ten boring minutes passed before I found myself getting kind of stiff and uncomfortable, forcing me to shift position and crack my neck. The motion with my head allowed me to glimpse the rearview mirror in my peripheral vision and a telltale sign of movement drew my attention. Thinking it might be one of the neighborhood ferals at the very least – if not our Georgie Boy himself – I grabbed the mirror and adjusted it so that I could see the amber-lit street behind me better.

    Ice ran down my spine and gripped my muscles in a paralyzing seizure as I inspected the street.

    Instead of a feral cat or even some kind of wild animal – our area is known for being home to all sorts: deer, turkey, raccoons, opossum; even coyotes and foxes aren’t unheard of – I saw a human-like shape slowly weaving its way up the asphalt, body and face low to the ground while its limbs were splayed out to facilitate movement.

    What the fuck…? I thought to myself, unable to transmute thought into vocalization as I stared at the oddity down the street from me. It moved sinuously up the street, its head weaving back and forth in a gesture that I could only identify as “smelling”. Like it was sniffing out a trail the way a blood hound would. As it moved underneath one of the streetlights I saw that it was nude and very pale, its skin almost approaching the translucence of a cave-dwelling animal. When it briefly stopped, lifting its face from the ground and sniffing at the air, my eyes widened in fear and horror as I got a look at its face: smooth and eyeless, with only slits for nostrils and a forked, serpentine tongue that flicked out to taste the air from a shark-like maw that was lined with jagged and razor-sharp teeth.

    “Jesus Christ…” I whispered, the words breathless and barely audible even in the utter silence of my car as I watched the creature’s face descend back to the pavement as it continued its scuttling up the street, moving closer and closer to where I sat.

    Movement to my left made me twitch apprehensively in the driver’s seat, drawing my terrified gaze from the rearview mirror. On the fence post outside – an obsolete relic that remained from a time when a waist high, picket fence had enclosed the vacant house’s front yard – sat Georgie, his gaze going from me within the car to further down the street. I sat frozen inside the car, two sides of myself warring with one another. I knew that I had to get out and grab Georgie firstly and instinctively because I’d finally laid eyes on him – here he was, after all, imperiously presenting himself after more than a week of slumming it on the streets – but secondly because there was some kind of monstrous creature skittering up our street at that very moment, and I doubted that it would kindly pet and rub my beloved cat should it realize that he was there.

    I also knew, though, that the scuttling thing was unlikely to be frightened off by me or treat me with kindness should it realize that I was even present, much less out in the open where it could get to me.

    I watched Georgie for what seemed like a stressful aeon, unable to move but unable to forgive myself as precious seconds to rescue my little boy slipped away from me. And then the molasses-like passage of time was done as the orange tabby hissed loudly and jumped from the fence post, quickly making for the backyard of the vacant house. My car rocked – literally swayed briefly – as the scuttling, snuffling thing brushed by it in a maddened rush to chase after the cat.

    “Georgie!” I cried out in instinctive horror and despair, before one of my hands automatically clapped itself over my mouth.

    I heard the agonized yowl of a cat echo from the darkness beyond the abandoned house and squeezed my eyes shut in fear and heart-wrenching pain. I sat there, eyes shut, until I began to see the predawn light of the morning sky filter through my eyelids, not wanting to risk seeing the thing slink its way out from behind the house and back to wherever it dwelled. It took me a long time to open my eyes and what felt like even longer to move my hands, which clutched each other in a rictus-like grip in my lap, to the steering wheel and the ignition. Part of me wanted to get out of the car, to check the back of the vacant house for any sign that Georgie might have escaped the creature or, at the very least, confirmation of the orange tabby’s passing.

    But, even before the idea was fully formed in my head, a memory of that thing’s eyeless, monstrous face flashed through my mind and my body almost seized in paralyzing remembered terror once more. I swallowed and focused on my breath, trying to slow my heart rate so that I could actually function. There was no way that I could ever tell my wife about what I saw — even if she believed me, what would it accomplish?

    No, Georgie would just have to be one of the other countless beloved pets that were likely never seen again after slipping out of their comfortable homes, tempted by the call of the glorious and dangerous wild. With a shuddering breath, my fingers gripped the key in the ignition and turned the engine on. I took one last glance toward the vacant house, sorrow and terror and mind-numbing horror threatening to overwhelm me once again, before I pulled away from the curb and drove home.

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