by David J. Rank
Gwen sealed her hazmat suit, the county humane society’s blue-and-red logo on each shoulder. She slid a ventilator over nose and mouth, secured goggles across her eyes, and tightened the suit’s hood around her face.
“Can you hear me?”
“Luke, I am your … mother.” Chloe breathed heavily through her ventilator. “We sound like Darth’s spinster aunts.”
“Funny.” Gwen pulled on her gloves. “Ready or not, in we go.”
Chloe shuddered within her hazmat gear.
They stood on the sagging front porch of the arthritic little house, as gray and rotted as an exposed corpse. Chloe unlocked the weather-blistered front door, shoving the cranky-hinged thing inward with a grunt.
Gwen followed her assistant into the shadowy interior of the condemned home of the Richfield Cat Lady—the media’s name for the old woman who died there three weeks ago. Their entrance stirred the air, clotting it with swirling floaters, motes, dust, and other minute things that Gwen didn’t want to think about. Thank you, ventilator mask.
“Damn,” Chloe said. “It’s a landfill in here.”
“Last sweep, I promise. I just need to make sure we found them all.” Gwen shouldered the deformed door, which scraped against warped floor boards and growled in defiance as it closed. Gwen organized her thoughts and focused on her responsibility: making sure no animal suffered one more minute in this lost little house.
The miasma of mold, rot, cat-piss stains, feces, and vomited fur was nearly visible in the gray light and would have overwhelmed them without their protective gear. Bugs as fat as slugs crawled, climbed, and crept everywhere the women looked.
“Right there, on that davenport, they found her.” Cloe pointed to a slumped and torn couch in the junk-stuffed room. “Or what was left of her. Ugh.” Multicolored tufts of feline hair sprouted like discolored grass everywhere they looked. “Surrounded by a couple hundred well-fed cats. Gross.”
“That’s just what we’ve found so far,” Gwen said. “We have to be sure we rescue them all before they start tearing down the place.”
“That’s what you said last time and surprise, here we are again.”
It had taken an entire week to recover the 206 cats Rose Weiss had been keeping in her house, tiny as it was. Several of the nearly feral animals had managed to elude Gwen’s volunteers for most of that time, bounding from room to room, floor to floor, finding one hidey-hole after another. Despite the dedication of her staff and the thoroughness of their effort, Gwen could never shake the feeling that something else remained in the house. The thought that even one innocent creature might be left behind, to be terrorized and likely killed when the contractors demolished the house, gave Gwen nightmares. She would not let it happen.
“We’ll start in the basement and work our way up to the second floor.”
The power was off, so they needed flashlights to see in the basement, a cramped, dank place full of low-hanging pipes spidering from a decrepit furnace, glowering in the middle of the room like a demented Toltec head. Even the ventilators could not entirely mask the vinegary-sharp stench of the enclosed place.
Gwen and Chloe ducked beneath the soot-covered pipes and peered around stacks of cat-soiled boxes, old magazines, and disabled furniture. Everything was lacquered in dust as thick as sand.
Rose Weiss lived her 89 years exclusively in this house, as the local TV stations loved to repeat, isolated in the middle of six unkempt acres on the edge of the village. No one had ever fully realized the extent of the squalor she lived in.
Gwen was familiar with animal hoarders; she had read about the disorder. She’d dealt with them twice before, but never on such a large scale. It was as if Rose Weiss subsumed all that was human in her to serve her cats—literally to her last breath.
How do you explain something like that? Gwen shook her head.
They found no sign of anything alive amid the trash in the basement.
The first floor was worse. Darkness did not cloak the thick clumps of filth and clutter strewn throughout the three tiny rooms, or the bathroom, black with mold.
“How could she live in this?” Gwen asked.
“She was nuts,” Chloe said. “What’s more to know?”
The kitchen looked ransacked. The cupboard doors were spread like wings, exposing vacant maws. Dishes smeared with blackened shreds of past meals choked the sink. The door of the broken-down refrigerator hung open, revealing remnants of foodstuff, spoiled beyond rotten.
A bag of cheap cat food was sprawled on the floor beside the fridge, eviscerated, with crumbs of kibble scattered like pea gravel. The entrapped housecats had still found ways to feed themselves—even on the old woman’s dried out corpse. Or so they had heard.
Gwen shivered at the thought. She leaned over the torn bag of cat food.
“You okay?” Chloe asked.
“Fine.” Gwen studied the ripped bag. “Look.” She pointed at its innards. “Something’s been trying to eat out of it. Today, I think.”
Chloe bent over the bag, putting her gloved hands on her knees. “How can you tell?”
“From too many years feeding cats at the shelter, that’s how. See the broken bits, the way the food’s pushed around? There’s still at least one cat here.”
“That’s impossible. We swept this house a dozen times. We caught them all.”
“There are plenty of places a determined cat can hide.”
“And it takes a determined animal-rescuer like you to find it, right, Gwen?”
Gwen chose to ignore Chloe’s comment. “I’ll get the box trap and a can of food from the truck. You keep looking around. Don’t touch it if you find it.”
“I’ve done this before, Obi-Wan.”
After Gwen returned from the truck, they searched every crevasse within the mounds of junk. They moved furniture, tumbled towers of trash, and found nothing.
“Upstairs,” Gwen said, “has to be.” She wished she could remove the hazmat gear to mop off the sweat dripping down her body.
“There has to be more to it,” she said as they trudged up the stairs, her gear feeling bulkier with each step. Gwen was carrying the box trap and cat food.
“More to what?”
“Rose Weiss, this place. It’s not just craziness. What makes a woman hoard 200 cats? She was a slave to these cats; she wasn’t even taking care of herself. Isolating herself like that? That’s more than crazy.”
“Crazy is good enough for me,” Chloe said. “Let’s find that cat you think is still here and leave. I need a shower—a long, hot, very long shower. Bleach, too.”
The second floor was a narrow hall, flanked by three doorless bedrooms and an enclosed stairwell to the claustrophobic crawlspace above. Except for the dust, this floor was almost pristine. Each room was layered with pillows, blankets, cat climbers, toys, and boxes, all so the cats could sleep in comfort while Rose Weiss lived in their filth below.
It did not take long to search the bedrooms. There was no cat.
Standing in the hallway, Gwen looked at the ceiling. “Hear that?”
“In the attic, something’s moving.”
“You have ears like a cat. I don’t hear anything. Anyway, I’ve been up there; it’s empty.”
The stairs to the attic were steep and narrow, and Gwen’s hazmat suit scraped against the bare wooden walls as she climbed. The heat thickened like soup with each step, until Gwen’s every breath filled her mouth with a grit-seasoned broth. Panting, she stopped, her gloved hands bracing her against the steps.
Behind her, Chloe touched the back of Gwen’s boot. “You alright?”
“I’m okay.” Gwen took a deep breath. The heated air stung her throat. Even with the ventilator, she could taste the chalky filth of the house. She forced the disgusting thought from her mind and focused on her search. “Stay there. There’s no room for both of us up here. I’ll look around.”
Gwen rallied her strength. Sweat stung her eyes, but she forced herself to climb.
Holding the flashlight at eye level, she raised her head into the crawlspace beneath the wood-beamed slope of the roof. Dark and stifling, there was no room to stand, and hardly enough space for three people to lie head to foot across its entire length.
Gwen stood on the stairs and slowly swept the flashlight’s beam north to south. “Whoa!” Startled, she almost slipped down the stairs.
“Found the cat.”
In the flashlight’s beam, eyes shimmered like gold coins, surrounded by a shapeless gloom.
“You need the trap?” Chloe shouted.
“Don’t think so.”
Slowly, Gwen’s eyes defined the outline of the large cat. A deep, smoky gray, its shaggy shape blended into the darkness as the flashlight beam bobbed in her hand. Calmly, the cat sat and stared at her, its large eyes glowing. It was barely six feet from her face.
Got to be over 20 pounds, Gwen thought.
The cat did not move. Its sides softly rose and fell with each slow breath. Even through the hazmat hood, Gwen could hear its stuttered purr, deep and resonant.
Gwen kept the flashlight pointing at the cat, wondering what to do next. Calm and unafraid, it made no effort to threaten her or shy away. As big as it was, Gwen knew the animal could inflict considerable pain if it wanted to.
“What’s going on, Gwen?”
Its eyes were like gold pools, the irises, black slits in the flashlight’s beam. Yet it never turned away.
Years of experience capturing feral animals told her to tell Chloe to get the long-poled live snare that she could loop around the cat’s neck to safely drag it downstairs and into a cage.
But those lovely eyes …
Slowly, she reached out her gloved hand. One hiss and I get the live snare. The purr stopped, and so did Gwen’s outstretched hand. The cat looked down, then slowly walked toward her, head lowered, nostrils flaring as it sniffed. The closer it got, the bigger it looked. Thirty pounds, maybe.
Gwen’s heart thumped. She did not move. Those eyes, those marvelously beautiful, warm, gold eyes were like jewels. The cat stopped inches from her open palm. It sniffed her fingers and took another step. Gwen could see patterns within the shaggy, gray fur, subdued hues in roaming bands and hieroglyphic swirls that seemed to move by themselves.
It raised a paw nearly as big as her hand and Gwen sucked in a breath. Claws sheathed, the cat touched her hand twice, gentle as an infant. Then it lowered its head once more. A pink tongue flicked at her gloved fingers and the purr returned, loud and soothing.
“Gwen, what’s going on?”
Gwen placed the flashlight on the crawlspace floor and reached out both hands to the purring cat. She picked up the massive beast, as heavy as an overfed toddler, and cradled it against her chest.
“Gwen, I’m coming up—”
“Got it. I’m fine. It’s very friendly. I’m coming down.” She began descending the stairs.
“Wow, call the zoo!” Chloe grinned. “How the hell did we miss that one? She’s enormous!”
The cat’s motorous purr vibrated through Gwen’s arms and filled her chest with a languorous rhythm that seeped down to her thighs.
“How heavy is she, you think?”
“It’s male,” Gwen answered, stroking the cat’s wide head. He licked her gloved hand.
Downstairs, Chloe scolded her for breaking procedure and directly handling an unfamiliar animal. Gwen did not care. She made up an excuse, saying that things happened fast, that she saw an opportunity and took it.
“I just reacted, over and done. Let’s move on and save this victim.” Those gorgeous eyes—she couldn’t get them out of her head.
Gwen hesitated. “This cat, he—all of the cats we found, they’re victims, too, of Rose Weiss’s sickness.”
“A true animal lover. You’ll be a PETA crusader before long.”
They left the house, squinting in the bright late-afternoon sun, and headed to the back of the humane society’s white rescue van. Gwen cradled the purring cat in her arms, scratching his neck.
Chloe flung open the back doors of the van, then stepped aside and removed her hood, ventilator, and goggles. Sweat streaked her face. Her blonde hair was stringy and soaked, as if she had been caught in a downpour.
Gwen gently placed the cat into the largest cage they had in the back of the van. He offered no resistance and circled the cramped space a few times before lying down. He faced Gwen through the open doors. His eyes locked on hers.
Chloe gasped. The sound jarred Gwen and she turned to her assistant. Chloe was stripping off her hazmat suit, sucking in air as if she had just surfaced from a 90-meter free immersion dive.
“Hot! Hot! Hot! I feel like a melted Popsicle, all sticky and gooey. And I stink!” The society’s blue-and-white shirt and her khaki slacks were matted to Chloe’s slim body. “Gwen, get out of that suit before you die of heatstroke.”
“Yeah.” Gwen removed her headgear and felt the coolness of the summer breeze stroke her cheek and soggy hair. She glanced at the cat. He watched her strip off the rest of the hazmat suit. Gwen enjoyed the unfettered freedom as the breeze touched her sweaty body.
They mopped themselves off with towels from the van. Chloe hopped into the driver’s seat while Gwen went back to close the van doors.
“Are you going to stand there all day, or are you going to secure the van and ride back to the shelter?”
“What?” Gwen reluctantly tore her gaze from the cat’s placid face.
“You’re just standing there, Gwen. Close the doors and let’s go. I’ve had enough of this stinkhole. Let’s call it a day, huh?”
Gwen barely heard her. His calm gold eyes, the gentle sea-like rise and fall of his purr, they called to her. She realized her knuckles were pressed against the cage mesh. His pink tongue flicked out and touched her skin. She smiled. Before she could react, he struck her hand with a clawed paw, including one infected-looking black claw. It was a quick touch that stung like a needle prick.
“Ow!” Gwen pulled her hand away and spun into the late-afternoon light. Three red welts rose across her middle knuckle, but the skin barely creased. One tiny pinprick of bright-red blood welled from a welt. Instinctively, Gwen raised her hand to her mouth and sucked at the wound.
Chloe was beside her. “Let me see that.” She grabbed Gwen’s hand and examined it. The blood was gone. “What’s wrong with you today? First you handle a wild cat, now you let it scratch you like this without wearing gloves. You forget the manual? Oh, sorry, Gwen, you wrote the manual. Good thing the cat didn’t break the skin. Still …”
Closing the doors, Chloe led Gwen to the front of the van where she pulled out the first-aid kit, scrubbed the scratches with an antiseptic wipe, and stretched a bandage across them as best she could.
“There, that should take care of it. But you should see a doctor, just in case. There’s always the potential for cat-scratch disease.”
Gwen laughed. She felt lightheaded. “I don’t think it’s anything, but I’ll get it looked at. Promise. Okay with you, Doc?”
Her scratched knuckle throbbed, but in a good way, Gwen decided. Mellowing warmth seemed to flow up her arm.
Chloe smiled. “Let’s go. This place creeps me out.”
In the back parking lot at the humane society shelter, Gwen told Chloe she would take the feral cat to the quarantine building. “It’s late. I’ll arrange the exam and contact a vet for tomorrow.” She smiled. “You look beat. It’s been a long day. Go home. Take that hot shower you’ve been whining about. And thanks for your help.”
Chloe agreed and headed into the shelter to collect her things and fill out her time card. Gwen watched her go inside.
Opening the van’s rear doors, Gwen gasped as she again saw the beauty in the cat’s gold eyes. He remained prone in the cage, legs hidden beneath the swirls of colorful long fur. His lovely eyes followed her. Somehow, it seemed comforting.
Gwen lifted the cage from the van, both hands holding the handle. Heavy as he was in the clumsily large cage, she appreciated that it would be a short walk to the quarantine building. It would only take a few minutes to transfer him into a holding cage, isolated from the other animals to make sure he wouldn’t spread some infection.
It surprised Gwen when she found herself at the back of her car, lifting the hatchback and sliding the cage inside, then covering it with a blanket. It surprised her even more when she found herself driving home with him in the back, listening to his soothing purr as if it were music.
Gwen was renting the second-floor apartment of a large, old house owned by an elderly woman named Connie, who lived on the first floor. Connie loved birds and owned a few, but did not care for cats. It was a condition of the lease that Gwen could not have a predatory pet in the house, so the humane society animal rescue coordinator had settled for an aquarium filled with tropical fish and a terrarium filled with a lethargic, vegetarian lizard.
For the past three years, that had been enough animal life for her. Not anymore.
Gwen opened the cage, and the cat walked out of it into her arms. Covering him with the blanket, Gwen hurried up the back stairs to her apartment, the thrill of smuggling contraband electrifying her spine.
Lowering him to the floor, Gwen filled one of her good soup bowls with water. On a plate, she diced up some leftover roast chicken from the fridge. She slid the dishes into a corner of the kitchen. The cat ate heartily, occasionally granting Gwen a glance of his wonderful eyes.
A cardboard box became a makeshift litter box. Gwen yanked plants out of the pots on the windowsill and dumped the dirt into it.
Tomorrow, she’d take a day off from work and find proper food and litter for him.
Gwen grinned as she watched him patrol her apartment, seeming to approve. He jumped onto her tidily-made bed, curled into a ball in the middle of her white, flowered comforter, and immediately fell asleep as if he’d lived there all his life.
Gwen could hear Connie moving around downstairs. She’d probably just returned from a shopping trip and was putting away groceries.
Gwen frowned. She’d have to find a way to convince Connie that he would not be a danger to Connie’s pet birds. She’d promise to keep him in the apartment, and not let him roam or stalk the wild things that flitted about Connie’s meticulously kept, bird-friendly garden in the back yard. For now, she’d keep him secret and find a way to reveal him to Connie at the right time in a few days. Once she saw the cat, how could Connie not fall in love with him, just like she had?
Tired but exhilarated, Gwen went to bed at midnight while the cat made another perimeter patrol of his new realm. She lay beneath the sheets, letting sleep nibble at her consciousness, the darkness of the room thick and warm like an extra blanket.
Gwen considered how best to approach Connie about him. She touched her bandaged hand.
Gwen opened her eyes, letting darkness seep into her. She tensed. He was in the bedroom. There had been no noise, yet she sensed the cat’s presence, could feel him pause inside the bedroom door for a moment, then slowly walk to the foot of her bed. She trembled, expectation almost too much to bear. The mattress moved as the weight of the cat landed. Gwen could feel each step as he approached her. The room was too dark to actually see him, but in a moment, she felt his breath on her cheek, the wet touch of his sandpaper tongue, and she heard his melodic purr begin.
The cat settled next to her. Gwen enjoyed the warmth of his bulk pressing against her shoulder. She smiled and felt herself slip into sleep.
She opened her eyes at the touch of his fangs on her throat. There was enough jaw pressure for Gwen to feel a needlelike sharpness pressing against her windpipe, but not enough to actually break the skin. He held her throat for what seemed like minutes, then released her. He backed away and sat next to her hip. Even in the dark, his eyes glowed warmly.
Gwen touched her throat, felt the slickness of saliva coating it. She smiled.
Cats were solitary predators with limited ability to communicate their feelings. It was a cat’s nature to express its relationships to others with a simple “I could kill you if I want to, but I didn’t” gesture. He had just told her he loved her.
“I love you, too.”
Tomorrow, she would invite Connie upstairs for tea. Gwen would let her see him, and let him touch Connie. She was sure he would convince her landlady how harmless he really was, how beautiful he was, and how he needed them to take care of him.
Yes, he would have a good home here for a very long time.
Gwen knew she would do everything to make sure this would be a safe home for him. She smiled at the thought. It was the least she could do: care for him as long as she and Connie still lived.
Copyright © 2014 David J. Rank