The Cat’s Meow

A short story by LR Forgues

Chapter OneSmoke and Shadow

11:42 pm

Saturday

*Meow*

The girl, not yet into her 20’s, pulled the smouldering joint from her glossed lips and quickly brushed a blond dread away from her pretty soon-to-be-bloodshot eyes; sky blue eyes which scanned the bushes with an edge of oddly maternal panic. She looked accusingly over at the tall skate punk, just into his 20’s, currently taking up the rest of the worn and garishly tagged bench, all the while making stupid faces into his phone.

As he cycled through the newest crop of filters, she barked…

“See?! I told you I heard a cat!”

He lowered the iPhone just enough to meet her frown with heavily lidded eyes, blinking once…twice…before lazily muttering…

“OK…and?”

She broke her dagger-filled glare and looked back at the foliage…

“And you looked at me like I was fucking bonkers.”

He shrugged, raising the phone again to watch himself onscreen as some variation of an old school alien, all Area 51 n shit, as he answered…

“Well, you ARE fucking bonkers, lady. But, given your side of the clan…to be expected.”

Her retort came in the form of a sharp snap of her ringed knuckles across exposed shins, just above his scuffed Vans.

He lowered the phone completely this time, abruptly sitting up…

“What the hell?! That hurt!”

She scoffed…

“Pfft! You pussy!”

Then

*Meow*

Both heads snapped over, two sets of eyes flitting and peering into the deep shadows across the paved bike path. The nearby street lamp did very little at this hour, it’s nicotine-stained glow barely reaching them, something of a selling feature when it came to parking their asses for two shakes to blaze a torpedo, before continuing on to the house party. But now a cat, or more specifically, a kitten (from the mewling quality of the cry), was somewhere in the brush, close and meowing sadly for attention.

Without looking at her, he extended a hand…

“Score me.”

She didn’t look over in return, attention locked as she robotically extended her own hand, pinching the sticky half-doob over.

The cherry glowed a bright orange and a small smoke ring of near perfect proportions rose to disrupt the flight path of two moths quietly passing by overhead. After a moment of pondering, he nodded, exhaling an impressive cloud out one side of his mouth…

“Yep, yep…uh, it would seem you are correct, my dear relation. There does indeed seem to be a feline of some variant…somewhere in our close proximity. Which brings me to my question…why should I care? I don’t even like cats. Pussy, sure…*chuckles*…but not cats. Fucking things are evil…with a capital E-V-I-L.”

Ignoring the juvenile crassness, she stood defiantly and stepped across the path, saying…

“Obviously I care, dumbass! Mom n Dad never let me have a cat. So, maybe…”

Gesturing at the bushes, she continued…

“And c’mon, this little darling most definitely sounds lost and lonely.”

*Meow*

She dropped to a crouch, urgency invading her actions, a hand extended in a child-like pantomime of offering treats as she pursed her lips. She couldn’t whistle too well, had never really learned, and what came out sounded awkward and uncomfortable…but she kept trying.

The joint blazed and the boy leaned back, toking again, amused to watch her work what he was sure she thought was magic. Sounding smug, he reiterated…

” Evil creatures. Pure and simple. Mark my words.”

As the wispy tendrils of smoke drifted off into the shadows, he suddenly saw movement, past the girl, through the unkempt grasses and weeds lining the sidewalk. Just beneath the craggy branches marking the edge of the woods occupying the heart of Wood Grove Park. A flit of movement and what looked, for a second, like a glowing pair of eyes.

He sat up, vaguely invested…

“OK…if you NEED to know…I think I just saw this elusive beast of yours.”

She stood, whirling around, eyes wide with excitement…

“Whoa! Don’t mess with me on this! Weed’s kickin in.”

He lazily adjusted his cap, slung backward as usual, and stood, vaguely waving at the bushes to her left…

“Chill, lady. Down there. Behind those branches.”

She followed his directions, peering intently into the mess of shadows before her.

Sounding oddly somber, he continued…

“It looked at us.”

This sparked an idea. She fumbled to yank her phone from a pocket, poking impatiently at the screen as she scrolled through her apps…

FLASHLIGHT

Bingo!

“Then we…are going to have ourselves a little looksee.”

He flinched, not ready for the supernova that flared to life in her hand. Blinking spots away, he joined at her side, the smouldering roach still pinched between finger and thumb. Strange shadows swept and danced in the light as she raked it back and forth, again making her awkward whistling noise. 

Then…

*Meow*

There it was!

It was a small kitten, only a few weeks old and it peered around a fallen branch in the shadows, the pale eyes wide…and fixed on them as the light from the girl’s phone reached it.

She melted, going all gooey inside when she saw the baby cat staring at them, its small, fragile body masked by a thatch of dead grass. But that face! SO adorbs!

“Hey! Come here, baby. Are you lost? C’mon now.”

The small feline face didn’t budge, obviously content to stay parked where it was. It looked wet and sickly in what light did reach it, the brown hair across the tiny skull plastered down. The miniscule pink mouth lowered open and…

*Meow*

The boy cocked his head, something troubling him, instincts and self-preservation cutting swiftly through his stoned amusement. After a long, drawn-out moment, he realized what it was – the cat’s meow, this last one, sounded EXACTLY like the one before…and the one before that…and so on. Volume and all.

A squadron of butterflies suddenly danced through his innards and he found himself taking a nervous step back, without knowing why. She, naturally, did the opposite, shimmying forward off the path toward the small face, her Converse All Stars crunching dead grass and twigs. She ducked below a hanging branch and stopped in a crouch, trading in her silly attempt to whistle for the miming of a handful of cat treats, extended out toward the shadows, the light from her phone highlighting the extended appendage.

The kitten didn’t move. It only stared.

But something else did move. Or so he thought (damn you, Mary Jane!). Off to her right, he swore something low and unseen brushed the dead grasses aside, off the path, in the shadows not touched by the light. He even thought he heard it – a hint of slithering, moving weight on dead leaves, closing distance.

She chimed up again and he looked over…

“C’mon kitty. We don’t have all night.”

The small animal didn’t relent, rooted in place as it was, watching them unwaveringly in the bright light of her phone, the tiny eyes shining a dull faded green, fixed on her.

He blinked…and looked back to where that sound, that strangely malicious sound, had come from. All was still again, both on the path and off. He glanced around, seeing a flat, palm-sized stone lying next to the bench. She didn’t notice as he ducked back to pluck it up, hefting the weight in his hand to test the grip.

*rustling*

There!

He heard it again and whirled around. Still nothing to see.

This shit is getting creepy. For realz.

That sounded like it came from over there, under the foliage…not over there, among the clumps of summer-dead grass, like that first one. Through the sinsemilla murk in his mind, something was definitely feeling ‘off’ now. For a moment, he mentally drifted back to this gnarly Youtube vid he’d caught one day, way back whenever, about pet constrictors being clandestinely unleashed in the Florida ‘Glades and how they’re tearing the place a new anus. Did some dickhead let his bigger-than-expected serpents free in the park, irrationally thinking they would just fend for themselves, and on what…children and homeless people?

Damn, he hoped not.

That’s some nasty, irresponsible bullshit.

A teeny voice of unearned scientific reason piped up in the back of his stoned noggin – dude, it’s too cold up here for big snakes. It offered him an irrational iota of comfort…but then the immortal words of ‘Dr. Ian Malcolm’ intruded, saying in that way that only Jeff Goldblum can – “Nature…um…finds a way.”

And so does rapidly accelerating catastrophic global climate change, which is known to be forcing warm weather creatures from around the Equator north into regions formerly hostile, but now cozy enough to sustain a newfound existence in an unprepared eco-system like, say, constrictors that might be able to adapt and even thrive in these northern regions as they warm too, for example.

Or so the InterWebs told him.

But…there was no further movement. IF there had been something there…it seemed to be gone now.

Not that he was about to check.

The notification popped up onscreen, yanking her attention away from the stubborn kitten lurking in the grass ahead. Lowering the phone, she opened the text. The light blinked off, plunging the kitten and surrounding woods back into darkness. Her features glowed an icy blue as the message yelled up at her…

‘Ho! Where da fuck U @?! Bluntz await, bitch!’

The text yanked her back and she remembered that Cassie was waiting for them at the party, probably with Angry Angela and The Lovers – Tim and Tony. Damn.

A quick jab at the screen fired the FLASHLIGHT back up and she re-lit the thatch of grass and gnarled branches, already cooing at the tiny creature again. She stopped cold.

The kitten was gone.

“Hey! Hey, kitty! Where’d you go?! Get back here!”

*Meow*

This time the cry was further back, muffled by vegetation. The kitten was moving away. But then…

*Meeeoow*

A new cry answered. There was another kitten back there! As she crouched beside the tree, weighing her options, she heard his phone chime behind her.

A moment later…

“Yo, we gotta go. Angry A just texted a most proctological threat, and now I’m disturbed. Let’s get the fuck on, cuz.”

She had a quick I-Told-You-So moment with herself, and made up her mind – The kitten(s) would have to wait.

She shut the FLASHLIGHT down and backed out of the bushes.

As the woods plunged back into darkness…something shifted in the grass again, something close, something with weight and purpose.  A twig snapped…then all fell still again.

She shimmied back out into the open and stood, turning to her cousin as he stuffed his phone back into a pocket. He still held the rock.

“There’s at least two of them in there. I heard another one.”

Before she could continue, he cut her off…

“Maybe more. Thought I heard something move over there…*gestures*…but then it stopped.”

Just as her features lit up again, he cut in…

“But we are expected elsewhere, and should now make a point to get elsewhere, yes? ‘Angry A’ will not tolerate any further dawdling. Or so she texted.”

She paused, glancing back into the shadows. Nothing moved. He continued impatiently, done with this ruckus now…

“Just come back tomorrow, take a look. I’m sure they’ll be fine.”

Resigning herself to that probability, she strode to the bench and grabbed her bag…

“They better be.”

He nodded, happy to be on their way. He hefted the rock and, without thinking, hurled it into the woods. She spun around…

“You asshole!”

His heart lurched as he realized and he strained to hear the rock’s impact, praying it missed hitting any potentially Orphaned Animals of the Adorable Variety lurking in the darkness…

*thud*

There was no meows or cries of pain or terror, just the flat smack of the stone impacting something unyielding among the trees.

He felt the relief physically and his shoulders sagged. With a sheepish grin, he said…

“Shit! Whoopsie n Daisy! My bad.”

Raising the joint, which had gone back out, he turned, reaching again for his small chrome hand-torch. It hissed for a moment, scorching plant and paper and robbing him of his night vision. He paused next to his board, left leaning against the bench when they first stopped, all worn grip tape and decals, and slipped the lighter back into a deep pocket.

She heard it the same moment he did – Something was happening in the forest.

Right around where that stone hit, an unseen tree was buffeted by sudden stormy winds, the thrashing and snapping of branches and the hiss of falling leaves rising and falling. Hints of jerky and swaying movement could be glimpsed up through, and in among, the branches before them.

HER mind – drifted to the hoodie squashed into her bag and she wondered if it would be enough if the winds were to rise. Was there rain in the forecast?  She couldn’t remember. And hopefully, those two (only two?) kitties will be ok if it does decide to get blustery.

HIS mind – drifted to darker, more suspicious thoughts, ignited when he pulled his gaze from the direction of the invisible commotion…and noted no other movement. The surrounding tree tops were still. No winds rustled the branches and leaves up there.

Except for that one tree.

Something’s not right.

Just as his fight or flight response was gearing up…the noise stopped. The woods fell quiet again as the ‘wind’ quickly died off. Whatever tree had been under assault fell in line with the others, still and silent in the gloom of night.

That’s our cue.

She looked pensive, but not for the same reason. He stole a quick hoot and pushed the smoking roach over to her as he sidled past, saying…

“Kill it.”

…as he headed toward the path junction and its weak pool of light. She drew in a last lungful of narcotic and dropped the roach at her feet, crushing it under the sole of her Converse. Exhaling, she quietly vowed…

“Hang in there, kitties…(her best / worst Schwarzenegger impression)…I’ll be back.”

… before pivoting gracefully and trotting off after her cousin. He dropped the board noisily to the pavement and lazily hopped on, rolling as she caught up. They disappeared around the corner and carried on to the house party, where Cassie, Angry A, and The Lovers impatiently awaited their arrival.

Something stirred in the underbrush, sliding out from cover onto the path, sniffing and sensing. As it examined the sooty remains of the roach, a whisper of smoke still rising, another emerged from the woods behind it, making its way to the bench. It scrutinized where the two kids had lounged minutes earlier, senses aflame. Hunger clawed at it, instinct pushing and emboldening. The third one watched from cover, an excited ripple coursing along a sinewy body masked by shadow. After a few moments of study and touch, all three slipped quietly back into the safety and darkness of the woods.

Chapter 2 – Clem

8:40 am

Sunday

Clem Colson was angry.

The gruff ex-trucker, retired 4 years now, was often found to be in some form of pissed-off, usually, and predictably, after swallowing a slimy load of whatever right-winger conspiracy theory du jour turned up on one of his many Conservative Fringe podcasts that week (it’s all true, evidence be damned!). Most of his co-workers at the shelter, where he grudgingly worked part-time as an ‘on call’ animal handler since fulfilling his court mandated community service with them a couple years ago, had learned to tune out his questionable rantings and ravings. Hell, he’d been written up twice this year already for getting a wee bit too…passionate, you could say, in the conveyance of his questionable convictions, especially where a certain client and a certain city official were concerned. He’d wanted them to wake up to The Truth…but nope. Libs win again.

Those fuckers.

But he didn’t care. They were all sheeple anyway. Probably just peachy with the commies and the faggots too. They should be ashamed. Disgraceful. But they were doomed, they just didn’t know it yet. He knew it, and knew it well, deep inside – Hell WILL deal with them accordingly. And Jesus will turn his back.

Amen

He rolled down the window and spat, the vile wad of smoker’s phlegm narrowly missing a track-suited woman in her 30’s walking with a little girl and a tiny dog on a leash, all of whom rightfully glared his way, the girl’s small features twisted up in disgust. He hoped Bitchy Soccer Mom didn’t see the blue shelter name emblazoned across the side of the old Chevy van, but then decided that he didn’t give a shit. As the judging trio receded in the mirror, he realized her mutt was about the right size for his steel toed work boot.

As the bitch, her brat and the four-legged subject of his briefly violent fantasy all vanished from sight, he sat back, inwardly wishing this had been some stray call, preferably a violent dog (easy to justify laying his fists into). Or maybe a rabies alert (raccoons were fun). Nothing like a good boot in the ribs to get the stubborn beasts moving… and to get his juices just a flowin’ (giddyup!). If they whimpered or cried…all the better. Shit’s more effective than any cuppa Joe out there. Not a popular opinion…but fuck em. It’s not like canines, felines and every other four-legged creature out there were going extinct anyhow.

After being rudely awakened by the sharp chirping of his phone, from a dream that would rival any Penthouse Forum submission, the taste of cigarettes and Pabst lingering sour on his breath, he was off to a bad start. What made it worse when he looked around his filthy shit-box trailer, first smoke of the day clamped in his thick lips and squinting in the piercing beams of morning sunlight that snuck through the cheap, Venetian blinds, was that he was alone.

Again.

He clawed back through the hazy and half-pissed memories of the night before, trying to retrace his steps from Patrice’s Sport Bar and Grill over to the Gold Run Saloon down on Fairmont.

Alice had been there…right?

By the time he’d sauntered in, he was 6 pints and 4 shots into his Saturday night and he set his sights on barfly Alice Rooker, once an aspiring catalogue model, but now a rode-hard-put-away-wet divorcee (like himself, only he was one up on her, with two failed marriages under his belt). In her late 40’s, she carried her habitual drinking around a mid-section once toned, taut and worth every cent. Still had some crack’n tits though, and from across the bar he’d zero’d in on the low V-neck like a thirsty infant. Seduction was the name of this game and he licked at his fingertips before smoothing his mostly grey and thinning hair back.  He’d soon parked his ass on the duct taped stool beside her and, without asking, ordered a round for both of them as the highlights from the earlier game flashed across the tall screen behind the bar.

Things got hazy after their second tequila shot and he suddenly remembered puking in a bush when he stumbled out back to hack a dart by the dumpsters, lit in the neon of a flashing beer sign. He thought she’d stepped out with him, had even lit his smoke when he fumbled to find his Bic, but now he vaguely remembered suddenly being completely alone as he’d righted himself, lazily wiping beer foam and bile with a leather sleeve from the wire-like stubble adorning his soft chin and then…he gotpissed off all over again. He’d had his sights on a sloppy BJ, or at least a hand-job (spit included, please), if he wouldn’t be able to get her somewhere to perform the carnal coup de gras (two Viagra were waiting and ready in a pocket but he’d forgotten rubbers. Aw well. That’s what pulling out or the good ole ‘back door’ were for. A man has to do…what a man has to do.). But all those deliciously sordid plans got flushed and went swirling. Apparently, vomit was a step too far for some broads.

From that point on, Clem had no idea how the hell he’d gotten back to the run-down trailer park he called home.

And there he sat on his old, stained sheets, a cigarette held loosely in yellowed, calloused fingers, the blue smoke snaking and curling toward the water stains marking the low ceiling, phone still in hand as he mentally lambasted himself.

It’d been the shelter.

It seemed like some little ditz had lost her precious kitty cat in a tree last night, or some such shit, and needed a real man to come save it from somewhere in Wood Grove Park, based on the two (drunken?) messages she’d left, one at 2:14am and the other at around 4. Maxine, the fat blob who worked the desk on weekends, had played them both when she’d opened the office up at 7am and had called the girl back to say that someone could probably meet her around 9, if she could be at the park by then. Despite sounding a little worse for wear, the girl who’d left the messages agreed to be there.

Knowing that Garry couldn’t take the call as he had his kids this weekend and Jennifer was off kayaking with her newest girlfriend, the lucky winner was Clem, who knew he’d agreed to be On Call (he needed the cash, and it kept the Parole Board off his back), but hated that Maxine The Manatee had still gone ahead and actually called him, that sickly shrill voice of hers cutting through his half asleep / half drunk mind like a shard of glass dipped in acid. He agreed to rouse himself and get to Wood Grove to save some goddamn cat, just to shut her the fuck up.

Turning the corner, he could see the entrance to the park ahead. It wasn’t a large park, its two-mile square oblong shape running parallel to the wide, muddy river that bisected the small city, but it did boast a dense and resilient slice of forest at its centre, the spires of the tall evergreens visible through the mish mash of dead bug splatter adorning the windshield.

Ignoring the large Drive Slow sign at the parking lot entrance, Clem turned in, roaring past a yuppie couple wrangling two leashed Huskies into a blue BMW while still clutching matching travel mugs. How cute. Mr. and Mrs. Asshole shot him their own judging glares (two sets in as many minutes – a new record!), the woman shaking her head disapprovingly. He chuckled as he caught a glimpse of one Husky yanking suddenly, spilling the silly twat’s hippy smoothy or whatever the fuck. He threw a middle finger at the mirror and aimed for the far end of the lot, at the first of several trailheads that dotted the park. There were very few vehicles but even if there had been, he still would’ve high-signed the van across two parking spaces. Because he could…and for no reason at all. It’s how he rolled, as The Kids say. The world can share in his dull, hung over, unlaid anger.

He revved the engine once, loud, the fan belt squealing, and shut it down, the sudden hush punctuated by the ticking of the cooling engine. Jamming a fresh smoke into his mouth, he pulled his phone from the large front pocket of his grimy coveralls and opened the last text The Manatee had sent. Not a lot of detail, as usual, just a name and a note about where in the park (bike path, just past Streetlamp WGP21, at the Reginald Garrett Memorial bench) this dippy chick would be. An engine started and he glanced over to see the BMW pulling out of its parking space and driving away, Mrs. Asshole’s narrowed eyes fixed on him in the sideview mirror. He mouthed the word ‘Bitch’ and reached for his lighter, chuckling.

Exiting the van in a cloud of cigarette smoke, Clem made his way around and popped open the rear door, angry all over again at the stiffness invading his bones – Goddamn this 63 year old bullshit!

Cue the slow-burning fury, yet again.

Morning sunlight fell across the scattered mess of Capture and Contain supplies that took up most of the back and he set about choosing his weapons of war. He took up a leash and a hand snare, followed by a grass-stained canvas ‘grab bag’ and his collapsible net. He toyed with the idea of the tranquilizer gun, itching to fire a high-speed dart full of out-of-date sedatives into…well, anything really, but he could already hear his boss Carter’s nasally voice giving him hell for traumatizing the cat’s owner, or some such shit, and the aggravation just wasn’t worth it. Instead, he pulled two sample-size tins of cat food from a banged-up cardboard box. The light-weight bolt action rifle stayed in its case, a skull-faced Punisher logo glaring up from the lid. The rest went into his work bag, cans included.

Noting a chill in the morning air, Clem fished around in one of the bag’s front pouches, finding something and emerging moments later. A gleam of crimson sunlight from low on the eastern horizon flashed off the dented face of the flask as he raised it, saliva glands tingling in anticipation.

Emergency rations. Gotta love em.

A good pull of bourbon sent liquid fire down his gullet but he savored the heat and the soft warmth that exploded inside as he slammed the van’s door shut, equipment bag bouncing at his side. After a furtive glance around, the flask vanished into another pocket, easy to get to when needed.

Making his way over to the large map mounted at the trailhead on two 4×4 posts, several recent MISSING PERSONS flyers stapled to the wood around it, he traced his finger from You Are HERE along one of the many criss-crossing bike paths till he saw RGM bench, right near a trail junction. Noting that he was about a quarter mile away, he grumbled…

“This is bullshit. I’m 63 goddamn years old. I don’t have time for this walking fuckery.”

…as he started walking, pain and stiffness already flaring in many unexercised parts of his body. There was no vehicle access on this side of the park that would take him to where this little cooze was supposed to be waiting. If all goes well, he reasoned, this stupid cat will have come out by the time he gets there and he can just about-face and come on back.

He was already wondering what the breakfast special at the Raven’s Ridge Truck Stop and Café up by the highway would be today.

But first…this goddamn cat.

Chapter ThreeMixed Emotions

It took Clem 15 minutes to get to Lamp Post 21. He probably could’ve been faster but he ducked off the path to take a piss partway along, downing another healthy swig from the flask as he did so, dribbling dick in hand. He followed up with yet another smoke; the wafting cloud he left in his path irritating an elderly couple he passed.

Thinking back to the map (and for a split second, those MISSING PERSONS flyers), he figured there should be a turn-off just up ahead.

Yep. There it is.

He flicked the still smoking butt into the brush, no fucks given.

She heard the scuffing of heavy boots before she actually saw the big, old guy in the ill-fitting coverall shamble around the corner, an equipment bag bouncing at his side. Seated on the bench in the same spot she’d occupied earlier, she leaned forward, lowering her huge Jackie O sunglasses down her pert nose and squinting beyond the frayed brim of the mesh-back cap containing her mess of blond dreadlocks. He looked over and fixed his pale, watery gaze her way…and she instantly got chills.

Not the good kind either.

Already, his scrutiny had held too long and she unconsciously pulled her striped hoodie a little tighter.

Damn! Things are looking up. That’s gotta be her – he thought. Even with the chick parked on the bench, knees hiked up, he could tell The Goods were Good…probably 5’6, 120 something pounds of athletic little body, probably earned dancing that sexy ass off, or maybe sports, or some such shit. For a split second, he tried to picture her in a gym.

Hmmm…high school girl?  

His aging, booze-addled mind pondered the legal ramifications but then again…that hadn’t stopped him before. He snickered inside, and made his way over, mentally willing her to stand, as there definitely had to be more to this little package.

She wasn’t going to stand up. Something told her it was a bad idea and that something came in the form of his piggy little eyes sweeping her up and down, just for that second…that extra second too long. The quick lizard-like licking of his thick lips hadn’t helped either. Pushing the shades back up, she looked from the greasy and thinning gray hair…to the doughy jowls softening the once-hard jaw… down to the faded blue logo on the left breast of the stained coverall as he got closer.

Shit!

This dude was from the shelter she’d called…then called again, in the wee and trashed hours of the morning – once during a smoke circle at the house party, the pounding thump of techno in the background, and the other as she paced unsteadily in the backyard beneath the icy gleam of the Milky Way, a half-bottle of Dos Equis clenched in a fist, shoes soaked with dew, concern for those lost kittens overriding the happy head-fuck all the weed and booze had planted over the last several hours of partying.

She’d eventually passed out spooning with Cassie in the house’s unfinished basement bathroom after another of their drunken, bi-curious fondling sessions. Her phone had chimed and she awoke suddenly, not realizing she’d passed out with a hand still in Cassie’s classic Van Halen t-shirt, the underwire of C’s bra cutting off the circulation to her fingers. Pulling the tingling digits free, she reached for the vibrating phone in her open hoodie’s pocket, which she found tangled in her sports bra. She couldn’t remember if it was her or Cass that got it off (or maybe both?), but she did know it happened while they were both still vertical.

Through squinting eyes and the first pangs of a headache, she saw that the animal shelter was calling her back. Then she remembered the kittens and that strange maternal instinct kicked in all over again, prompting her to awkwardly drag herself out of the tub, buzzing phone in hand, jostling Cassie’s passed out form but only triggering a soft, boozy belch.

She’d answered the call.

And here she was, fighting exhaustion and what was promising to be a wicked hangover way too early on a dim Sunday morning, alone in the park with Chester the Molester here, trying to find a litter of lost kittens that may or may not still cower in the dense underbrush.

Sometimes even she questioned the mechanics of her own decision-making processes.

Reaching beside her, she picked up the lukewarm cup of over-sugared 7-11 coffee, noting about half left, and held it before her in both hands, her arms wrapped around raised knees. There would be no friendly How Do handshake with this not-so-fine older gentleman, no sir. Those large, calloused dick-skinners needed to stay as far away from her as possible.

Clem stopped beside the bench, looking down at her. She made no move to stand, instead just looking back through those opaque, bug-like shades from under the brim of a Whistlin’ Dixie Truck Stop N Go mesh-back. Even this close, he couldn’t judge the shape of her ass, but it didn’t look like she was about to show it off either. Damn. At least what he could see of her face was cute enough to start giving him ideas.

He pulled out his phone and opened The Manatee‘s last message again. Finding what he was looking for, Clem read the name out loud, the hint of a question bending the last syllable upwards. The girl nodded, quietly responding…

“That’s me. I called.”

He stifled the first frames of the porno reel starring This Possibly-Underage-But-Who Cares Chick that was firing up in his head and remembered that, at the end of it all, he just wanted to get the hell on to more important things – like a hot truck stop breakfast, a cold beer and a nap. Naw, fuck the nap…he wanted some action, since living out some XXX fantasy here and now with this not-likely-to-be consenting young thing seemed unlikely, though he did wonder how sturdy that bench would be. He glanced around, eyes looking about for witnesses as he mumbled…

“Twice, apparently.”

She just nodded, a sour expression at the edge of her pretty features.

Thinking ahead with almost predatory precision, he calculated that there was still a half-flap of cola in his night stand, next to a crusty bottle of Pepto-Bismal and two dried out rubbers. A couple of rails of the ole Peruvian Marching Powder would do him some good, keep im upright (in more ways than one, ya know what I mean?). Especially if he opted to try his luck back at the Gold Run again tonight, maybe take another shot at Ms. Alice Rooker and FINALLY close escrow…but not before he got in on Steak Night (that’s still on Sundays, ain’t it?). A man does have to have priorities, and he knew his.

But, in the meantime

“So, lost a kitty cat, did we, sweetie?”

Inside, something went rotten the moment he spat the word ‘sweetie’ at her, his tone unnaturally raised a couple octaves, and she stifled the urge to say ‘to hell with this’, and walk (run?) away. But the plaintive cry of the kitten rang in her mind and after a glance at the work bag at his side, she decided that this Clem guy (going by his faded name tag) was currently her (and their) best bet…or so she hoped. As worried as she was about the plight of the poor, wee kittens, she didn’t intend to be traipsing through the underbrush trying to catch them herself.

That was this douchebag’s job.

She nodded, lowering her feet to the pavement and gesturing with her coffee cup as she answered…

“No. Didn’t lose a cat. Found one instead. Maybe more. And they were just kittens. Saw one right over there.”

She pointed to the tree trunk and nearby thatch of yellowed grass the small cat had pushed through earlier, before abruptly disappearing, and said…

“We saw it right there, and it saw us.”

As Clem turned to follow her directions, half interested, he asked…

“‘We’? Who’s ‘Us’?”

She paused, wondering what the point of the question was, before simply shrugging…

“My cousin and I. We stopped here last night…for a smoke.”

Clem looked down and saw the smudged remains of what looked (and smelled) like the filthy butt end of a marijuana cigarette beside his foot, a hint of unburned green still visible among the ash and scorched paper.

Goddamn hippies.

Clem hated liberals (among many, many others) and he’d always equated the smoking of grass to the foppish hippy movement that made progressives so insufferable. So weak. He even hated the smell (“Like skunk piss!”). Seeing those crushed and smudged remains told him everything he needed to know about this dirty little skeezer girl. He didn’t care anymore about how tight everything might be under that cute skate Betty get-up of hers – he didn’t like her or her kind and the porno reel from before now had nasty flashes of violence cut in. Something twitched and swelled obscenely below his heavy belt-buckle, no Viagra needed.

He looked back up, not seeing the thick foliage before him as fresh coils of anger heated within. Along with something else…something raw, on edge. A want, a longing, a desire to dominate and humiliate. Something dark and oily.

The girl looked at him questioningly and asked…

“So, what’s the plan, or procedure, or whatever?”

He snapped out of it, for a moment confusing her question with his briefly fantasized plans for her, before the tiny rational part of his mind kicked in and reasoned that, the sooner he gets this call over with, the sooner he can get back to treating himself to some grub, some gear and some gash.

A hand played over the flask in his pocket and as fingers brushed metal, Clem stopped, feeling the girl’s eyes on him. Goddamn, he wanted a drink! What the hell would she care?! Just look at her. But, from the deeper recesses of his mind, he heard the nasally twang of Carter’s voice laying into him for another round, the threatened Third Strike coming down like an anvil if he fucks up again.

Gotta play nice. Gotta get this Mickey Mouse bullshit over with.

Placing the work bag at his feet, he stepped forward, hands on his hips, carefully keeping his back to her as the surprising bulge low in his coveralls subsided. Dick under control, Clem now focused on the spaces between the branches and grasses, imagining the sight picture of a .308 rifle sweeping to and fro, looking for a small, furry skull to reduce to a pink mist and red chunks on a tree trunk, *meow* or no *meow*. This thought also threatened re-engorgement so he crouched down, fighting the pain and stiffness that shot through his hunched, worn body, and reached for the bag.

‘Clem’ (she found herself adding an insultingly hard C to the pronunciation in her head) began pulling out gear, laying it on the path. She could make out a net, a thick bag (maybe canvas?) with a draw string, and some kind of noose on an extendable rod, that actually looked a little cruel.

She couldn’t help herself…

“They ARE just kittens. I swear.”

No response, aside from a low grunt, as Clem tested the extension on the snare, not bothering to look her way.

She continued, starting to feel bitchy…

“You know, as in, small cats, some people even call them small BABY cats. You need all that?”

He wanted to hit her. Who the hell was this lil tramp to critique his methods?! His mind again drifted to nastier thoughts before he reined them back in and, through gritted teeth and a phony tone, said…

“There’s a lot of different wildlife in this park, lil missy. You and I don’t know what’s on the other side of those bushes (*points*), so I’m going in ready*.”

(*ready to kick some ass!)

Before she could retort, he cut her off, condescendingly waving a hand in her direction…

“Just let me do my job, sweet thing, and we’ll get those precious kitty cats of yours out here, all safe and sound.”

For a second in his mind, he saw the image of a yowling kitten disappearing beneath his work-boot, the tiny cry choked off with a crunch. He nearly laughed out loud.

‘Sweet thing?! What the fuck?!’ – lanced through her mind. Who the hell did this geriatric asshole think he was?! For a second, her tingling Spidey Senses about ole ‘Clem’ over here were drop-kicked into the dirt by a lightning flash of anger. The coffee cup trembled in her hand and she strongly considered heaving it at him. But on the other hand, getting up and quickly leaving was also a tempting option.

Her mind was made up a moment later when ‘Clem’, crouched over the tools on the asphalt, looked back and with a yellow-stained grin that hinted at lechery, winked.

Oh hell no.

She stood, hangover forgotten and rage pulsing, mouth open to spit venomous curses when…

*Meow*

Everything froze, including the caustic words she had loaded and ready. Clem’s large head swivelled over, the sneering grin fading as he appraised the nearby vegetation, the girl’s abrupt rise forgotten…

“Well, well…little ears must’ve been burning.”

At least one of the kittens was close, beyond the tough, unkempt grasses that lined the path, just behind the curtain of bushes, from the sounds of it. Something in the back of her mind triggered a hazy memory – cousin…last night…something he’d said later about the cat’s meow as they rolled out of the park…how it always sounded the same to him. Exactly the same. Every time.

He’d also used the word eerie.

And he was right. Now that she too had noticed the unusual pattern, the recurring similarities, that word took on new relevance…and she felt it too. Some instinct, a primal fight or flight urge, tickled at her insides…and she suddenly realized that she needed to pee.

But…it was still a kitten. She’d seen it with her own eyes, before the darkness had reclaimed it last night. It all boiled down to this – Wood Grove Park is no place for baby orphaned animals. They don’t stand a chance. Too young, too helpless, from what she could tell. Some bird of prey, or maybe one of the coyotes spotted in here from time to time, would have no qualms snatching them up for a warm meal.

Wouldn’t even think twice.

She sucked it up, and accepted her fate, turning her attention back to this dirt-bag dog-catcher who probably thought she hadn’t noticed the smell of booze on his breath.

(Not that hers was any major improvement.)

Clem was preparing to head in. Satisfied with the state of his gear, he rummaged around and plucked up a tin of cat food, peeling the lid off and tossing it aside, no fucks given.

Behind him, she just shook her head.

‘This dude is an asshole, through and through’ – the words rang through her mind, clear as a bell, watching as he rose and took his first tentative step off the path, in among the dead and dying patches of grass, the open tin held forward temptingly. Each of his tools had its own lanyard and he tossed the net and the snare over a wide shoulder as he picked his way along, searching for a way through.

Had he been scanning the spaces between the thick clumps of grass and the carpet of dead leaves at his feet…he would’ve seen it.

Instead, Clem continued on, tin in hand, making grotesque squelching noises through pursed lips as some bizarre form of enticement. Seeing an opening, he leaned in, parting the bushes with the extended arm, spilling cat food in the process.

“Here Kitty, Kitty.”

His gruff voice sounded loud in the morning calm and behind him, she flinched, not expecting the barking call. The tone suggested nothing gentle.

The underbrush gave way on the other side and Clem paused, staring out into the depths of Wood Grove Park’s signature forest, seeing the tall trees clustered tightly further in, long, inky shadows masking detail, the morning sunlight unable to penetrate the thick upper canopy with any seriousness. Thick ferns dotted the gloomy forest floor and rich green mosses clung everywhere, further dimmed by a hanging curtain of silky mist spread thinly among the pillar-like tree trunks.

Then he saw the cave. Or at least, that was his first impression.

Not far in, a wide opening jutted from the forest floor, as though pushed up from beneath, large enough to accommodate two grown men, head to feet, across the opening. When he focused on it, it reminded Clem of the ass end of a felled tree, and the typical view one gets of the exposed root system after it’s been wrenched from the soil with some degree of force.

It seemed out of place.

Opaque darkness loomed behind the mess of dead branches, creeping vines and the stringers of roots from the tall sapling growing above, curiously devoid of leaves, hanging down over what one might see as the entrance. Several branches had also recently been snapped off and the young tree looked like it was already dying. Something had shaken the hell out of it. Recently too. One way or another, that looked like potential shelter.

Clem had a target.

He fired off a short, sharp whistle, looking for a response.

Surprisingly, an answer came a few moments later…

*Meow*

From the shadows of the ‘cave’, a kitten sauntered out, followed by a second. The third one emerged as the lead kitten stepped daintily into a thin band of sunlight stretched across the forest floor and sat, staring back at him. The next one followed suit, sitting next to its litter-mate, also staring. Neither kitten moved as the third one took its place beside them, also locking eyes with the large human that watched them from the bushes.

Clem allowed himself a grin. This was going to be easy. Feeling bold, he backed out of the bushes and looked at the chick watching from the bike path, her arms crossed across the front of her hoodie.

First, Business…

“Ok. We’ve got three wee kitty cats. Looks like they were hunkered down in a cave or something over there *gestures up and over the bushes*. They just came out and are sitting there. This should be over quickly.”

He looked back, feeling overly confident now, daring to picture maybe actually getting her back to his place after all this hoopla for, you know…the whole gratitude thing.

Now, the Pleasure…

“So…what are you up to after this? Wanna maybe get fucked up, or something?”

Her mouth dropped open, stunned again. Is he serious?! This can’t be happening. Holy shit! What had she gotten herself into?! In that moment, with startling clarity…she knew he would try…something, given the chance. Still might. The word ‘rape’ came to mind with almost no effort. There was no rhyme or reason…she just knew alarm bells were now ringing and she instinctively took a step back.

*Meow*

All three kittens cried out at once. In perfect unison, identical volume, as though a concerted effort to draw attention.

It worked.

Again, dismissively waving an open hand at the mortified girl, he continued…

“Never mind, never mind. Kittens first, right?”

Let’s get this shit over with.

Chapter Four – Breakfast

As Clem pushed back through the bushes, unheard, he muttered…

“Pussy before the pussy.”

Congratulating himself on his own caustic wit, he snickered, using the dense underbrush and the bulk of his large, hunched body to hide the flask as he drew it out and stole another hit. As the bourbon cascaded down his throat, his pant leg was suddenly snagged from behind, a nettle or maybe a bramble of some sort hidden among the dead grasses and tough weeds. Latching onto his calf and stabbing into the fabric, whatever-it-was‘s needle-like spur raked along the hairy calf, drawing blood as he dragged it along.

The toxin was introduced quickly.

She glimpsed the thick green vine (was it just a vine?!) through the grass and weeds, it’s hide mottled with brown and grey specks, for a second thinking it was a snake or eel of some kind. Not sure of how it happened (unseen branch, maybe?), but Clem (that hard C again) clearly had to have hit something hidden from view that caused it to quickly launch from the grass, latching itself up the back of the dog-catcher’s left leg, thorns or something else dimpling the fabric. It was the only realistic explanation.

The delivery of the toxin and the tasting of the flesh happened simultaneously, the highly sensitive spines lying back flush along the tentacles long, sinewy body, their task complete. A tremor of excitement rippled along, back through the ferns and mosses to the host in among the trees. A decision was made. It tightened its grip, glands priming for another dose.

Clem felt it in his elbows first, a numbing tingle that quickly moved to his hands. The flask and can of cat food dropped in unison, loosened by a spastic tremble through the fingers to lie discarded at his feet, the last of the amber liquid spilling into the dirt. He lost track of his lower body and would never know that he pissed himself a little in that moment. The tingle next rippled up to his skull, joined by an icy coldness that hugged the backs of his eyes and crept along his spine, filling him. Euphoria, startling and abrupt, lanced through, and he grinned lazily, a string of drool glistening off his slack lower lip. His eyes felt heavy and his head felt light…it was wonderful.

It was going to be a great day. Clem could just feel it in the air. Again, he drifted back to the breakfast special at the Raven’s Ridge, wondering – Waffles? Or pancakes? Or…he could always just decide when he got there.

There was sudden movement off to the side…but he didn’t care.

The other tentacle snaked rapidly out of the bushes, slapping unhesitatingly up the human’s other lower appendage, its spines striking again, another dose of toxin administered.

No way I just saw that. No goddamn way. Not realizing, she shook her head in immediate denial. Even though most of her view of this dog-catcher dipshit was now obscured, there simply is no way another of those thick-ass vines just magically, with no obvious help from (hard C, for the hat trick) Clem this time, strike from the bushes, wrapping up his right leg, quickly starting up the calf just like its neighbor. Clem’s drunken half-hearted attempts to knock it away with his free hand had no effect.

Then…

Clem went rigid, yanked upright suddenly as a massive spasm clenched every muscle in his body. Some of them tore, shredding under the toxin’s lightning assault, but he didn’t notice the pain through the blissful numbness that clouded body and soul. As the muscles relaxed, the toxin immediately began breaking tissues down, liquifying them, the first step in the host’s ancient digestive process.

Tracers formed as light sources took on strange spectral auras among the trees. It was beautiful and Clem wondered how he’d gotten so lucky. The girl and the kittens were forgotten, despite the three small sets of eyes locked on him as he stumbled toward them. Then…the tree tops opened to unleash a kaleidoscope of sweeping colors and lights that danced and swayed above.

Clem’s large head angled back as he took it all in, his eyes glassy and dilated, drool hanging from his chin. The net and snare fell from his shoulder with hardly a sound as he stepped forward, a step that he didn’t command. Didn’t and couldn’t control. Other steps followed, leading him further among the trees. The open mouth of the ‘cave’ beckoned. With a heavy robotic cadence, Clem clumped among the ferns and grasses, one awkward step after another, head abruptly tilting down heavily. His chin came to rest on his chest, drool darkening the front of the coveralls.

The tentacles dug in, tearing through fabric and flesh as they fought to control the leg muscles, to urge the human forward, closer and closer.

The taste was blissful.

Clem’s legs, from the backs of the knees down, glistened red. Blood seeped and spurted with every forced step, the tentacles pulsing and digging in, fighting to keep the prey moving, oblivious to the damage they were causing. It all tasted the same. A tear in the fabric let go and a purple flap of severed muscle, still twitching, sagged out to drape over the snake-like appendage, a crimson smear marking the green hide.

Clem didn’t feel anything. He suddenly saw three strange kittens, all sitting in a line up ahead and, in his mind, he softly floated back, back to the warmth of his childhood, back to that first kitten that disappeared below the surface of the family rain barrel, held under with a bucket. The middle one, up ahead, looked just like that one and he smiled dreamily, overlooking the disappointment he’d felt when it had seemed to be over so quickly, his mind’s eye focusing on those last few pathetic bubbles the broke the surface that morning so long ago. But…as with anything in this world, there would always be others. That had become especially apparent as his prey grew in size over the years.

And they, the so called authorities, never found out.

Those trucking years had been good, crisscrossing the continent for weeks on end. He knew North America well, and so did his…appetites. His smile widened and he swam in the wash of joy that enveloped him.

The tentacles, in their blind devotion to the host, failed to consider the obstacle of wind-fallen branches, all jagged and protruding, that lay across the human’s path.

She’d lost track of Clem when he’d lurched forward as though propelled, lower legs still clamped in the grip of those vines (or whatever) as he stumbled away. He quickly vanished from sight.

But now she heard a commotion, the snapping of branches and a frenzied rustling sound. There was also a low grunt, then a wet cough. She stood rooted in place, unease gaining traction inside. Something was wrong. Again.

Beams of whimsical luminescence burned before Clem’s eyes, streaking past him as his head lolled back and forth with each puppet-like step. He could even feel the heat of their passage, lost in the lightshow that came at him. Then…all forward motion ceased with a jarring impact, and a flare of pain rose, clarity cutting through the fog in his mind. His eyes widened when he looked down and saw the two recently dislodged branches piercing his body; one, about as round as his thumb, had punched through the leg of his coverall and sliced into his thigh, where it was stuck fast, a maroon stain forming. The other, roughly the diameter of a rake handle, had torn into his side, rupturing organs and spilling dark blood down the inside of his uniform. A moment of lucid terror intruded and a voice that didn’t sound like his (but was) shouted ‘Oh my god! Mama! I’ve been pin-cushioned!’.

Resistance. The prey was caught on something. A new flood of adrenaline was detected in the human, signalling a chemical return to clarity, and the host responded accordingly. A fresh dose of toxin was dredged up from sticky glands and squirted into the prey’s body.

‘That shade of red is utterly gorgeous!’ – Pinned in the mess of ragged branches, Clem stared at the blood, his blood, smeared across his fingers, enraptured as another wave of euphoric bliss settled on him like a comfortable blanket. Looking up, he nodded heavily, thinking that he really should make a point of walking in the woods more. You know…it would be good for his health. Everything just felt so much better out here.

He was beginning to drip on his boots.

The bushes made little sound as she parted them, morbid curiosity having gotten the better of her when the first sounds of what sounded like a struggle echoed back. Through the branches ahead, she could make out the lifeless shade of Clem’s coveralls and she could see there was no movement, he appeared frozen in place, poised with his back to her. What the hell was going on?! She couldn’t see any kittens.

But…was that blood?!

The freshly spilled juices excited the host, the warm liquid spilling down and leaking over the tough surface of the tentacle churning its way into the meat of the human’s extremity, the sodden fabric sloughing away like wet tissue as it sought to control, to guide.

But the prey held in place, hung up on something that stubbornly resisted.

That would not do.

So, it tugged. Hard.

Something gurgled inside and Clem coughed hoarsely, his breath tasting like dull iron. The string of drool dangling from his chin thickened, turning red, but his dazed smile never faltered, lazily twisting up those thick lips into an arrogant sneer. More curious than hurt, Clem was gingerly reaching forward to touch the moss-coated shaft of wood that was jammed into his flabby midsection, to probe its reality, when long, tightly wound tracts of muscle suddenly flexed and retracted on command.

Both tentacles yanked abruptly, in perfect unison.

Clem felt the dull thud of an impact far off in his psyche, a tearing explosion of pain (that somehow also didn’t hurt) and then the world spun away, lost in a chaotic blur of motion.

Yes, she quickly convinced herself, that dark spot WAS blood oozing from the back of the oddly inert dog-catcher’s coveralls, spreading quickly too. Her hand stole to her phone, 911 on her mind, but before her finger hit the screen, something else happened

With no hint nor preview, Clem was violently wrenched off his feet, slamming to earth with a jarring impact. The sharp double snap of the impaling branches shearing off was loud, the jagged remains still protruding, one side of his uniform now dark and stained as he hit the ground with a gasp and was then dragged away through the ferns. He didn’t scream.

Holy shit!

Clem was dying now…he just didn’t know it yet. His broken, bleeding form was being hauled feet first across the forest floor, carving a path in the dirt and leaves, but it really didn’t seem to be his problem anymore. The glowing lights and patterns filling the sky above held him mesmerized, not even noticing a knee being pulled free and crushed by an unwieldly obstacle in the tentacles’ path, another violent yank yielding splintered bone that showed above the surface of the coveralls in rivulets of crimson, adding to the gory, filthy mess Clem Colson had recently been reduced to. 

A tentacle repositioned, pushing into the ugly rend at the knee, spearing into fabric and flesh for a better grip.

And taste.

Clem didn’t feel any of it.

Then he noticed the cats. Three of them. Little buggers, just sitting there, staring at him as he was dragged passed (which seemed pretty rude), a trail of blood marking his passage. The milky eyes followed him, but the heads didn’t, still fixed forward. There was a dull flash, deep in his mind, a memory maybe? Something about cats. Or…smaller? Kittens maybe? Kittens feels right. But, what about them?!

The wispy yellow tendrils snaked from the scabby wounds maiming the back of each dead kitten’s skull, emerging like clusters of fine yarn, glowing brightly and wonderfully along with the other colors that danced in the peripherals of his fading vision. These gossamer-thin conduits trailed out behind the three baby cats, who had been dead for about a week now, stretching along beside him, leading into…the cave, or whatever that was that loomed over him now.

Amused, Clem snickered, raising his head from where it dragged along, looking down the length of his thick body, absently noting that two broken tree branches seem to have gotten stuck in his coveralls somehow, and were staining them red (was that sap?!).

Damn it…he didn’t have another pair!

Focusing past, he saw legs, one knee not looking so good (looks like an ultra rare steak he once ate), extending away, held aloft by thick vines or tentacles, or some such shit. It dawned on to him that those might be his own stems, wrapped up in these weeds or whatever, which tugged playfully, pulling him along. And look at that! More goddamn stains! And rips! He could make out tears marring the legs, which were soaked crimson, steadily dripping into the soil.

Yes, he’d definitely get chewed out if he tried forcing a dry-cleaning bill on Carter for this.

The cave quivered. A shudder rippled through it, spilling dead leaves and branches and it seemed to close, to narrow, just a little bit, the jutting angle of the sapling above shifting. Something glistened along the top of the ‘entrance’ and more loose foliage dropped, followed by thick strings of clear slime that seemed to come out of nowhere, speckled with dirt and moss.

Clem hoped he didn’t get any in his mouth. That would be just too gay.

He was dragged over the threshold, his legs disappearing into the shadows. A warm breath of foul, moist air washed over him from within, the funk of rotting flesh tickling his nostrils and there was a burbling sound from within. Then…things began to move.

Pancakes. Clem settled on pancakes for breakfast and wondered what time he could get to the Raven’s Ridge by, if he left now…as he coughed up dark blood…and the mouth of the cave started at the knees.

This new predator’s long, sharp teeth were normally clear, like crystal, and were folded up along the inside of the monstrous creature’s wide, powerful mouth. It wasn’t worried about hiding anymore, as it had been since it had burrowed into the park from beneath the river, where it had landed many moons ago. Driven by hunger it was, and the teeth, shiny with slime, sprang into view in a powerful tremor of strange muscles. From the pine needle-strewn ground beneath Clem, the dagger-like teeth from the lower jaw burst through what remained of his pants in an explosion of blood, effortlessly cutting through the already shredded tissue and bone.

From where he lay, Clem looked up in time to see the top of the cave entrance abruptly slam down, rows of what looked like sharpened teeth visible in the morning light just before it eclipsed everything from his knees down in a wet burst of leaves and mud, the impact jarring. He saw the prettiest shade of red spatter the ferns all around him but he didn’t worry.

He never felt it when both appendages came apart in the beast’s mouth, blood spurting from ragged stumps made slick with its foul saliva. The tentacles yanked again as the mouth opened a few inches, the teeth parting to free it’s still living prey, which was unceremoniously hauled further in.

He still didn’t scream.

The light was fading from Clem’s watery eyes, but he still felt great. As he sleepily glanced around for the source of the red drizzle, he saw the eyes. There were lots of them, spread in a haphazard line above the cave mouth, hidden from casual observation by ferns and moss. He could see the deep, copper red of the round pupils, the shining curve of the lenses, and he suddenly realized that several of them were looking at him, appraising and studying him lying there below, half in and half out of this silly cave. Feeling neighbourly, Clem raised a blood and mud smeared hand from among the ferns and waved weakly. The eyes didn’t react, and Clem noticed that one of them was damaged, a leaking splash pattern showing a recent impact of some kind, the copper lens spotted with black streaks of damage. His hand fell back heavily.

*Meow*

The three kittens had moved and were seated in a semi-circle around Clem’s pale, blood-spattered face, staring down at him. His tired eyes looked from tiny skull to tiny skull, again noting the sickly yellow lines, like tiny hoses, emerging still from the perforated backs of the heads. At this range, it was obvious to see that it wasn’t Life animating these small animal remains…it was something else. Something…alien. At this range, if he hadn’t been fading away, he would’ve smelled that they’d been dead a little while now. Something dawned on him, and he murmured…

“Hey, I’m supposed to catch you guys…for some chick…right?”

Most of what came out was a gurgle, with the odd word escaping unscathed. But if any more were to follow, it never got the chance.

The creature bit down again as the tentacles yanked the prey in further, catching it midway, carving and crushing the pudgy human’s innards into pulp. It could taste living guts suddenly unspooling into its mouth and it rejoiced at the taste.

More blood poured from Clem’s mouth and nose, abruptly forced up by the crushing impact of the bite and he felt something fleshy forced against his lower throat, choking him inside. The pressure clamped across his belly didn’t hurt, but he sensed that he was all wet and tingly below the waist. He’d probably need a long shower after this, but that was all right though.…he hadn’t felt this goddamn good in ages!

She pushed further through the bushes and caught sight of Clem splayed out on the ground ahead, half his hefty body hidden from view by something large protruding from the forest floor, something rounded…and she instinctively knew it was alive. She’d once seen a documentary that had this fucked up, scary-ass deep-sea monster called a monk fish featured…and that’s instantly where her mind went when she focused on the large, rounded shape looming before her.

It looked like a huge version of one of those already huge, godawful things, the monk fish, all vicious mouth and a wide armored body almost completely buried in dirt and ferns, with a sapling seemingly growing out of its wide skull at a jaunty angle. As terror prickled her skin, she caught sight of three kittens poised around Clem’s motionless head, sitting before the giant alien face that grasped the dog-catcher in its maw, tendrils of blood spilling through the clamped teeth. She stepped forward, phone raised and switched to Camera, thumb poised over Record. She ducked past a branch, and a twig snapped underfoot.

The creature froze at the sound, the multiple eyes flinching away from its meal to settle on the interloper, the young human female who emerged from the bushes several yards away, a stricken expression contorting her features as she took in the macabre sight, a small rectangular object held before her.

Clem also heard the twig break, and weakly craned his head back, arms thrown out lifelessly. He blinked and his vision returned, just for a moment, but it was long enough for him to recognize the upside down girl and for him to then smile that lecherous smile, again wondering what her girl parts must taste like…

With a convulsive lunge, the large creature threw open it’s gaping maw and launched the human back into the shadows beyond the long rows of teeth, but not before slamming down again, this time across the prey’s head and shoulders.

Clem’s skull abruptly burst with a startling wet crunch, ragged pieces of debris splatting down in the underbrush several feet away, a splash of red slime marking its passage through the vegetation, misting the nearby kittens. There was no reaction. The splayed-out arms still dangled limply from between the teeth, the knuckles dragging in the bloody, churned up dirt as the creature chewed again, grinding its meal up. Dangling wisps of grey hair, visible clamped in among the grill of long, crystalline teeth, suddenly soaked crimson and a dark viscous puddle leaked into the dirt below.

Having nothing to do with her impending hangover, she felt puke rising, startled into existence by the sudden, shocking movement from what had only been a large, exposed hole in the ground moments earlier. It ate Clem, the fucking dog-catcher! It had gulped quickly and just chucked the guy back, like a gigantic friggin Pac Man Frog, chomping on his body with gusto, splashing the blood and viscera everywhere.

As the pink mist drifted through a lucky beam of sunlight among the ferns, she saw the three kittens, now spattered red, as they turned away from the ruined pulp the prey had been reduced to in the host’s unforgiving teeth and jaws. Unconcerned, they padded along, tracking through the warm puddles and drops that vandalized the area around the creature, their eyes locked on her as they came. Once beyond the range of the splashed bodily fluids, they stopped, sitting in unison, three abreast, the stare never faltering.

*Meow*

Something fractured in her mind, just a little bit, and her nerve broke along with it. She lowered the phone, having never hit Record, and backed slowly away, such as one might do with a cougar or a bear. As she did, the beast’s wide mouth yawned open a couple feet, pieces of cleaved flesh dangling wetly from the smeared teeth, and the two tentacles re-emerged. Just before the bushes reclaimed her field of view, she glimpsed the tentacles yanking Clem’s severed arms from where both were impaled in the curving teeth and dragging them back into the darkness beyond, to be pulverized and digested with the rest as the mouth resealed, another wet burbling heard faintly from within.

She didn’t see the third tentacle approaching on her left flank, hidden in the shadows of the low foliage, snaking cautiously toward what could be its second meal of the day. Several of the copper-colored eyes tracked the human female’s retreat as its innards went to work breaking down the 255 lbs of ground human male it had just swallowed.

She pushed backwards, forcing her way through the brush, instincts screaming as she ignored the pricks of the branches as they scraped at the exposed skin of her neck and face. The phone was shoved into a pocket, escape now her sole course of action, her sole train of thought.

She emerged, stumbling away, never turning her back on the woods, eyes wide, hands held before her defensively, as if to not just ward off the physical threat, but also the mental.

She was fraying inside.

She reached the bike path without tripping, absently noting solid asphalt suddenly beneath her Converse All Stars, but blind to all else, save the bleak images stuck on Repeat in her screaming mind. They were horrible and would haunt her for the rest of her days.

Echoing through the fear, she heard her cousin’s voice, the smart-ass tone distinctive – “Cat’s are evil, mark my words.”

She was starting to see his point. She also realized that she didn’t need to pee anymore. Damn.

But even as she stood rigid with fear in the middle of the empty bike path, in the cold chill of morning, waiting for something threatening to slither out of the underbrush while trying to decide which way to run and who to tell, it occurred to her…

maybe a dog would be better.

The End


 [lF1]