Alley Cats

Alley Cats

Tracy heard cats mewling out her apartment window. The radiator was broken, so Tracy had bundled under a thick comforter to keep from freezing at 1AM, when the cold stung strongest. Wrapped to the neck in the blanket, Tracy squirmed to get back in the right position. Going to work was no longer an early-morning commitment. Tracy had unwittingly made sure of that.

She heard the mewling again. It sounded like one cat at first, but then Tracy clearly heard a few tiny meows. A mother and her litter, Tracy imagined. When Tracy thought about being in the cold, and how warm it was inside, the blanket felt much, much heavier.

Poor babies… Tracy thought. Someone should give them a home.

But who can take in stray cats? You can’t. A whole family?

Then what about calling animal control?

Then they’d get euthanized!

Wouldn’t that be better than freezing to death?

We should do nothing, then, Tracy thought. It would be irresponsible otherwise.

Tracy’s stomach rumbled under the covers. To get food from the fridge or not—but it was so cold! Why had she decided to wear a t-shirt to bed?

After deliberating for ten minutes on the pros and cons of relinquishing her heat all for the sake of sating her crying stomach, Tracy resigned to flip the comforter. When she did, she shot out of bed, instantly plagued with goose pimples. She wished she’d had cold feet about the whole thing—but she already did.

Hopping in front of the fridge, she opened the door and imagined the Chinese takeout in the center shelf, right where she’d left it.

But it wasn’t there. In fact, nothing was in there.

Did I eat that already and just completely forget? Tracy wondered. Ugh.

She’d just order online, then. No problem. Back to the refuge of the comforter!

Snuggled back in bed, Tracy opened her laptop and pulled up FoodMood. Logging in, she found her saved order from Great House and went to select the easy-order option.

But then she thought of how the delivery guy would feel in the snow. That orange vest and bulky helmet couldn’t have made riding a bicycle simple, let alone in a blizzard!

How could Tracy be so cruel!

But, she thought, they deliver in storms all the time…

So when Tracy again heard the poor cats mewling outside, she knew she’d be putting her boots and coat on for an adventure to the corner deli.

***

Tracy was in line at the lunchmeat counter, where she waited for a tuna melt in a whole wheat wrap. And distracted by the thought of warm fish and cheese in her mouth, she couldn’t even prepare for the man who barged through the door, yelling:

“Darest thou mortal weep?”

Tracy knocked back into the display of seaweed chips. The cook making the melt turned around, the cashier grimaced, and the tuna sizzled.

The man wore a long, green coat, a ski mask, and aviators. In his right arm, he carried a magazine-size volume that fluttered as he walked.

Holy shit, Tracy thought. Those aviators are so cool.

“Weep… at my interesting collection of fine tales, songs, and… other works—”

“Stop coming in here!” yelled the cashier.

“But, dear mortal…”

“No lighters,” the cashier continued, “no loiterers—”

“But—”

“No sales of print paraphernalia!” The cashier slammed the till of his register and pointed at Aviators. “You hear me? I tell you every time…”

As the cashier ranted, Tracy smelled the grotesque char of something burning—

The tuna!

“Were they to have a look, they would buy,” Aviators said, “but I have wandered for a thousand years—”

Tracy tapped on the glass of the deli counter. The associate was still looking on as Aviators made his pitch.

“Sir!” Tracy yelled. “The tuna melt is burning!”

The associate looked at Tracy.

“No, the tuna! Look—”

“But were they to actually look,” Aviators said, as the cashier got out from behind the counter, “they would find something greater than tales!”

“Get out!

As the cook turned away and looked back at the tuna, scrambling to flip the charred mass from the spittling grill, Aviators walked to Tracy’s side with the book in tow.

“Were you, madam,” Aviators said, distracting Tracy a moment from her tuna plight, “to look within this tome…”

“I’m calling the cops!” the cashier said, passing by a fellow with a seltzer who had been waiting at the counter.

The cook wrapped the melt just as Tracy asked, handing it to her. But she couldn’t stop staring into Aviators’… aviators. Darkness grabbed her by the eyes—there was no reflection—

“Your melt?” the cook said.

Without turning, Tracy took the tuna melt. When she did, Aviators opened the magazine to a page with long and flowing script, some of which she hadn’t ever seen before. The quality of the paper was far superior than Tracy had expected from a Metro-Daily lookalike. The letters were illuminated in gold, and the paper looked like rich vellum. Tracy had spent too many nights on DIY printing press blogs to not spot premier vellum when she saw it.

Aviators pointed to the marginalia, to an illustration of a large and menacing cat standing on its hind legs. In its right eye was a dagger, and in its chest was an axe.

“What the hell?” Tracy asked. “Who would do something like that?”

Aviators snickered. “Who do you think?”

Holy shit, Tracy thought. He’s going to kill me.

Tracy quickly stepped away, grabbed into her clutch for a fiver to give the cashier. When she pulled out a twenty, she panicked and put it down anyway.

“Wait!” Aviators yelled. But Tracy was already down the block.

***

Tracy considered how delicious her melt would be once it settled in the bottom of her stomach. She shivered and, like a dear friend, held the melt closer to her heart. But then she realized she still had the vellum magazine.

No! she thought. I don’t want this at all!

But, Tracy countered, are you going to go back to the deli to find this nut and give him his arcane spellbook, possibly resulting in your face getting ripped off by dark, sacred candlelight?

No! Tracy thought. I really don’t want that!

You really want the melt.

It is my sacred rite.

Yet as Tracy passed the alley behind her apartment building, the state of her rite came into contention with an particularly riled meow. A fierce cataclysm struck at Tracy’s heart, epitomizing a century’s worth of guilt in the span of a second.

Poor kitties!

Then Tracy considered her options. She had spared the delivery person the pain of cycling through the snow, compromising with a melt—was she simply going to give the melt to the kitties?

I’m so hungry, Tracy thought. I’m literally going to die. Ugh.

“Meow?”

That was it. I am a cat, I need food! had become I am a cat: would you feed me?

“I’m coming, kitties!” Tracy said.

Tracy stepped into the alley, unwrapping the melt with twitching fingers. Trashcans lined the walls like squat guards. While it was bright and snowy on the street, the alley was dark and metallic, insulating Tracy in its quiet solitude. She listened again for the cats as she came closer to the alley’s end.

“You here, kitties?” Tracy said. “I’m ready to feed you—”

A clatter from one of the cans. Tracy turned around, holding the melt like a gun.

“Don’t startle me, kitties,” Tracy said. “Please?”

But how could they? Tracy thought. They’re so sweet. A mother and her young, holding out in the cold—though Tracy realized she’d only assumed what they looked like.

Then one of the lids opened, and through the crack Tracy saw the face of a little furball. Its eyes glowed in the shadow of the lid.

“Hi, little guy! Precious little prince!” Tracy said. “You want some fishy fishy?” Tracy asked, nudging the melt towards the lid. “Fishy for my precious prince—”

The lid rose up further, and Tracy gasped , dropping the tuna melt when she saw that the cat wasn’t a cat at all. It was an ornate headpiece atop greasy long hair, above a face with yellow eyes and a mustache that resembled shoots of whiskers. A white furry parka, covered in gray grime, adorned the rest of the figure’s long body. Tracy then noticed his claws.

“Meow,” the cat chief said. Tracy thought he had his cat meow impression dead-on. Other trashcan lids began falling off their cans, as Tracy found herself surrounded by a troupe of dirty cat-hat, white-parka wearers, all meowing, staring at Tracy.

“So,” Tracy began, “there aren’t any cats here, are there?”

“There are,” the cat chief said. “We are Cats, and we explore the Continents looking for our own.” The cat chief then licked his right hand, never dropping his eyes from Tracy. “Cats are noble yet cursed with infinite curiosity for the universe. We seek others who are like us to promote the cause of Fel, our patron.”

“Fel! Seeker of the Unities!” the other Cats said.

“Um,” Tracy said, teeth chattering and stomach roaring, “I have to go home.”

“That’s no longer an option, fair Human,” the chief said. “We send out vocal beacons to the caring folk across the Continents.” The chief took long steps around Tracy, sharpening his nails. “Unity provides a new Cat for Fel to claim, may He rise again.”

The Cats lowered their heads.

“But, if you are not a new Cat, you are still Human,” the chief said, “and Humans must never know about us.”

What if, Tracy thought, I don’t want to be a Cat?

“Then, Tracy,” the chief said, whispering into Tracy’s ear, “we will offer you to Fel on a crudely hewn altar back home.”

“Huh,” Tracy said. Then she threw up.

“You have a choice,” the chief said, walking back to his trashcan.

“I’m sorry,” Tracy said, wiping her mouth, looking at the tuna melt on the ground, next to the vomit, wondering why she had to be so nice, “I’m an atheist. I was raised Catholic, but—”

“Given the very clear circumstances,” the chief asked, “would you like to worship Fel?”

Maybe there’s an upside to this, Tracy thought.

“I recently got laid off,” Tracy said, “so this might be a good… opportunity for me. Mom would probably say this isn’t, but… she’s also never been threatened by a murderous cat cult…”

“Then,” the chief said, “you have decided?”

Tracy began humming the lyrics to a well-known song from the Aristocats. That, coinciding with the image of being strewn across an altar to a giant cat god, was a good case to nod and shut up.

“Excellent!” the chief said, giving out a great meow. The others followed suit, and began a chant to Fel. Tracy sighed as the Cats began circling her, swaying their claws in the air. A Cat with a buzz-cut pulled out a headband, aiming the rim towards the crown of Tracy’s head—

But before the headband took on Tracy’s head, Tracy opened her palms, dropping the magazine aside the melt and the vomit. It opened to the vellum page with the drawing of the marred cat humanoid.

The buzz-cut Cat dropped the headband, and the entire circle disbanded to the edges of the alley. The chief slowly advanced on Tracy.

“A follower of Draum!” the chief said. “You’re not a Cat!”

“What?” Tracy didn’t understand why she was suddenly disqualified for a thing she didn’t want in the first place.

“That book, Draumite!” the chief said. “The book of Fel’s undoing!

While Tracy wondered if it was a book or a magazine, the chief’s ears began to grow. Mangy fur sprouted through his parka, out of his neck, his face, and his teeth lengthened into white chisels hanging over his bottom lip. As the other Cats started to transform, Tracy turned to exit out the alley, but she still had no exit.

Jagged altar, here I come! Tracy thought. Sorry, Mom...

The chief readied himself to pounce on Tracy, claws extended and brought behind each shoulder blade.

“Die, Draumite!”

A piercing gust filled the alley, rattling the cans. Tracy saw her melt fly away, the vomit too—but the book (or magazine) remained. The Cats cowered once more, crouching with wide, unblinking eyes. Then, as if pulled up by steady fingers, the Draumite tome rose into the air. The vellum pages began to flip.

“Get away from it!” the chief screamed. But once the tome flipped to the page with the image of the gored Fel, red beams shot out from the inner fold of the spine, and at once the Cats evaporated into dust, leaving only their clothes behind.

Then the alley was still.

Catching her breath, Tracy realized she was still alive. She bunched her hands and fell to her knees. The cold ground froze her knees, and she shivered. Tearing up in the frigid air, she wondered how would she convince her Twitter followers that she’d been attacked by ancient cat worshippers who were destroyed by a free magazine—

Wait.

Tracy looked up to see a dark figure in a green coat emerge at the alley’s mouth.

“I’ve been trying to find you,” Aviators said, adjusting his glasses. “For the copy of the Draumite Codex you stole.”

Tracy looked at the magazine, which lay prone on the ground. She forgot that she’d even had it until it fell out of her hands and… killed everyone.

“I didn’t mean to take it,” Tracy said.

“I know,” Aviators said, approaching the vellum magazine. “The Codex told me. It also told me the good work you did back there against the Fellites. Nasty beasts…” Aviators picked up the magazine and brushed off some alley gunk.

“Did you kill Fel?” Tracy asked.

“Me? Nope. But Draum did. Pretty cool fellow.”

Tracy assessed if Draum was cool or not. Considering she had almost joined a cat cult with the threat of being sacrificed, she wondered if Draum was any better.

“Can you believe,” Aviators started, “that in all the years I’ve peddled the Codex, you’re the first other than me to hold it?”

“I mean,” Tracy said, “I like books. I took a do-it-yourself book-making class online—”

“The Codex told me you’re looking for a job,” Aviators said, “and I’m looking for an assistant.”

Tracy paused. Her first thought was how well-polished her resume was. Then she remembered she was in a cold and nightmarish urban fantasy talking to a man in aviator sunglasses who professed the word of Draum.

“To do what?”

“What you did today!” Aviators said, extending his arms and spinning. “Destroying the non-believers. There’s more than Fellites out there, you know.” Aviators locked in on Tracy. “And Draumite riches could be yours—and I don’t mean gold or whatever minerals Humans cast as valuable. More important things no one in the universe can buy.”

A new radiator?

“But,” Aviators said, “you’d have to travel.”

Tracy stood up and wiped her eyes.

“Where?”

Aviators chuckled. “Everywhere.”

“When?”

“When is irrelevant. It’s forever—and never. But whatever your decisions,” Aviators said, “I’m not going to sacrifice you to Draum.” Aviators laughed. “We did that a while ago, but we’re a bit more, uh, sophisticated now.”

Tracy nodded. She missed the cold of her comforter. She’d probably spend the day watching cat videos—or not. Maybe puppy videos.

Is my life just going to be watching videos of cute animals?

Wait, I’m a competent woman, I’m just in a slump. I’ll get back on the job circuit and it’ll be smooth-living… as a Human.

Nice, quiet life as a Human.

Nothing better than… being a Human.

“Am I seriously the only one who’s ever held that book?”

“There was one guy in China,” Aviators said, “but he combusted into flame on the spot.”

Tracy thought for a moment. Then she shook her head.

“I’m—sorry,” Tracy said, heading towards the mouth of the alley. Then she turned to Aviators. “No, I’m not sorry. I’m cold, and I’d like to live my adult life as a Human. I have a mom, and family. I’m not leaving.”

“You sure?” Aviators asked. “The Universe is quite an interesting place.”

“Yes,” Tracy said. Her stomach rumbled. “I’m going to go and order another tuna melt, and that’s that.”

“If that’s so, then it’s so,” Aviators said. “Anyone who can hold onto the Codex without dying from its power deserves my respect.”

And before Tracy walked another step, the Codex opened a pocket of ether in a red burst and Aviators slipped through.

“Oh, Draum,” Aviators said, taking off the ski mask, “she’ll come around. I know her better than anyone else does.” In the portal, she reminisced about the old days of cat videos and broken radiators. “You know, that second tuna melt was really good.”

 

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