By John Miller
On Thanksgiving I walked to the gas station because dad’s car blocked mine in the driveway. Everyone was either talking religion and politics or sleeping off the turkey. My kids were in the fenced backyard playing with my brother’s step-children, and it seemed safe to slink off alone. I wondered why I was a loner while I walked to buy a pack of cigarettes. I thought about asking my brother if he wanted to go with me, but I remembered he’d quit smoking two years ago… supposedly. Sometimes when I drove him to his third-shift job—they only had one car—he borrowed cigarettes from me or bought a pack himself. I couldn’t ask if he wanted to buy smokes in front of the family.
Two blocks down and two lefts later I saw an old woman on her hands and knees in her backyard. I was in an alley, a shortcut meant to quicken the nicotine into my bloodstream. How I wished for a cigarette when I saw an old man lying next to her, and I wondered what I should do. I frowned and approached her, and I wondered whether that old man had died. “I’ll bet that’s her husband,” I muttered to myself. I wasn’t about to do CPR on him, and not just because I didn’t know how to perform it.
“Problems?” I asked as I stepped into her backyard with a sigh.
She looked up at me with blood-red eyes, and I jolted when I saw black cat-eye pupils that ached with intense need… sort of like hunger. To stall for time and to get a grip on myself—surely I had gone insane—I reached into my coat pocket and took out an empty pack of cigarettes.
“You look like you could use a smoke,” I told her holding the empty pack before me.
She reached out as I dropped the empty pack and muttered, “Oh, sorry!” The shadow of a plane from the nearby airport swept over us when the empty pack struck the yard. I intended to run as soon as her eyes left mine to reach for the pack, perhaps to hand it back to me, common courtesy and all that. Her eyes never left mine, and I realized the rumbling I heard wasn’t the jet passing overhead, but came from her own lips. The savage growl grew louder as she rose, and I saw blood drip from her long and ragged claws. I was closer now, had a better view of the old man in the grass. Something purple had been ripped from his body, torn away like a chunk of meat from a thick slab of sirloin. The torn hole in his side faced opposite the way I had approached them, and now I saw the purple clump next to his body. From anatomy class in college I knew it was a kidney.
It’s funny how the mind reacts to stress and fear. Shock entered my system and it cloaked my mind somewhat from the terror that threatened to overcome my facilities. A part of my brain screamed in desperate panic for me to run screaming, but another part filled with grotesque fascination as to what sort of creature the old woman was. Logic told me the old woman had the power to bring me down since she was strong enough to overpower the old man—although old, he was quite large. If she could pull a chunk of flesh out of his body like a grizzly bear, what could she do to me?
When she took a precarious step toward me and looked down around the area of my own kidneys, the screaming and panicked portion of my brain overrode the analytical part.
I ran like hell.
Do you remember when you were a child running from an adult, the sound of heavy footfalls behind you and the realization that no matter how fast you were, no matter how quick your little legs moved, the adult behind you was faster? You knew you had it. That is what it felt like as the old woman chased me and her shoes slammed against the earth just behind me. I heard her footfalls that fell faster than my own long strides, and my skin crawled in anticipation of her bloody touch.
At the alley I dodged left, and she skirted past me like a ravenous wolf that had just missed its prey. I saw sharp canines in her elongated mouth, her jaw mutated, and her blood-red eyes filled with unholy need to rend my flesh and suck the meaty pulp from my kidneys. I barked a laugh of relief to have escaped death—if only momentarily—and I also laughed at the thought of how smoking kills people, and how my desire to buy cigarettes had brought me face-to-face with death.
Make no mistake: smoking kills!
I don’t know what other people would have thought in that situation, but panic did something to my brain, filled it with chemicals and stress and possibly endorphins—shit, I don’t know. Any logical response I would have had lost out to maniacal laughter and a bout of giddiness. Until the old woman’s shoes found traction in the alley’s loose gravel, and she loped after me again.
Somehow I made it to the street. The loose gravel of the alley offset the traction of the old woman’s shoes, but my sneakers had no problem and I never slid once. In the street, however, I heard something scratch on the concrete. When I turned right to head back home—as if that were possible—I sneaked a look back and saw the old woman had discarded her shoes, and her calves had elongated to something that resembled the lower legs of a wolf’s hindquarters. Long, dangerous claws raked the pavement. Scratchity, scrathity, thump-thump! Scratchity-scratchity, thump-thump! Her claws scratched and paws struck the pavement. Her shadow slid up beside my own as I ran, then her shadow enveloped mine. I felt her hot breath on my neck like some rancid beast from hell, Cerberus or something.
In novels authors tell how fear goads people into almost superhuman feats of speed, bouts of fury for survival, or something of the sort. In real life fear thickens movement and makes it sluggish, like a deer caught in the headlong glare of a car’s headlights at night. I’m not talking about normal fear or even a bout of terror, but primal horrific horror that clamped down on the muscles of my legs and constricted my lungs and throat. I felt my face turn red and I knew I was dead. I wondered if my kidney would look like the old man’s with a slightly different hue.
That was when I saw Jimmy Johnson, the town drunk.
Jimmy never drove a car anywhere because of the countless DUI citations. He rode his ten-speed bike everywhere he went, usually just to the grocery store and local bars. Jimmy burst around the corner with a plastic sack of alcohol suspended from the handlebars, and his face frowned when he saw me. I don’t think he saw the old woman behind me because my body blocked his view, but it registered on his face that collision was inevitable. I leapt high, but at that speed I barely jumped and his handlebars rammed my hip. Shock gelled everything in slow-motion, and I saw his expression’s slow turn to sheer terror when he saw her. As my body turned upside-down, I saw the old woman’s body and realized I was wrong—she hadn’t the legs of a wolf at all, but the legs of a big cat, a lion to be exact. “Don’t lions have round eyes?” the thought floated in my head as my body hovered in space, somersaulted, and plummeted to the ground.
I landed on my ass in a splatter-pattern of red, and I skidded eight feet. Before I quit sliding, I leapt up and sprinted. I felt my buttocks and realized it wasn’t my blood I had landed in, and I risked a glance back. Jimmy still pedaled his bike, but without a head. I saw dark fluid in the plastic sack suspended from his handlebars, and the bulge of the sack seemed the right size for a human head. A broken bottle of vodka littered the street, the acid smell strong enough to reach me from that distance.
The old woman had her back to me, and she had a furry tan-colored head and pointed cat-ears now. A long tail looped from beneath her dress—I hadn’t even realized she’d been wearing a dress in my panic. She turned and charged me again, her body now a large lioness whose dress impeded her movement.
I made it to the corner and sprinted right. The dress she wore bound her hindquarters, and it allowed me to remain in front of her by a good twenty feet. She swiped at her dress with her paw-like hands and snarled in frustration, and her crimson cat-eyes met mine again as I rounded the corner. Distracted, I slammed into a car in the middle of the street, and I slid up its hood. I tried to keep going but two car doors opened and four strong arms held my own. I saw the lights of a squad car.
“Help me, please!” I screamed. “She’s after me!”
“Who’s after you?” the policeman to my right demanded. “I think you scratched the hood of my car, buddy.”
“Probably drunk or hallucinating on drugs,” the red-haired officer retorted.
“What?” I asked, perplexed. I shook my head in confusion and pointed with my thumb over my back. “The cat-woman!”
“Oh, the cat-woman,” the dark-haired officer retorted. “We know all about her.”
“You do?” I said, overjoyed.
The intersection I had just sprinted from was empty. No cat-woman. “She must smell the cops,” I thought. I thought of Jimmy Johnson’s headless body, and I wondered if he still rode his bike on his way home. I began to laugh when they helped me into the back of the car, and the laughter soon became maniacal once again.
“Sure we know all about her,” the officer said. “She believes she can turn into a giant cat with red eyes.”
“She’s a real nut-case,” the red headed officer said.
“But it’s true!” I exclaimed as he shut the door on my face.
They’d locked me inside the squad car with no way out—the doors had no handles, and wire mesh kept me from climbing into the front seat. At least I wasn’t handcuffed, but that wouldn’t do me much good if the old woman—the cat-woman—came back for me. She could break the glass of the windows and… a scream filled the air. My hackles rose along my neck and gooseflesh bulged on my skin. What scared me the most was the scream was my own, and I saw the whites of my eyes in the rearview mirror.
Fifteen minutes later the fire department showed up. “What are they doing here?” The large fire engine rounded the corner, and I saw firemen get out a hose. The house and bushes on the corner blocked half the fire engine, and I couldn’t see what the firemen did. “They can’t be washing away Jimmy’s blood! Don’t they need forensic evidence or something?” I had watched enough CSI Miami to know the importance of maintaining a crime scene. The way the firemen looked at me as they ambled by, secretive expressions, the way their lips hinted at smiles, brought the realization that something was very wrong.
An hour later the police officers came back. I looked up through the glass at “Red” who opened the door for me.
“Everything’s back to normal,” he told me with a feral smile. “Old Lady Jenkins doesn’t have much going for her upstairs, but she’s harmless.”
“But she really did turn into a jungle-cat!” I blurted.
He eyed me with suspicious narrowed eyes, and that’s when I saw them: cat-eyes that starred back at me from Red’s smiling face. Red’s feral smile broadened and he placed a heavy hand upon my shoulder as he pulled me out. I slumped over the trunk of the squad car away from him. Firemen laughed at me. My head swam. He leaned over my listless body, looked at me with those cat-eyes—those fucking vertical slits of nightmare—and I felt myself in a game of cat-and-mouse beneath his scrutiny.
“You saw her transform, eh?” he whispered in a hoarse voice. “Then she’ll be coming after you. You see, the boys in blue and I call her ‘mom’, and the boys at the fire station love her, too. She made us what we are today.”
He let my listless body go, and I slid to the street. He stepped back, and I saw the firemen laughing at me as they wound their fire hose into the fire engine. Shadows elongated from the firemen, the light from the fire engine on the other side of their synchronized work. They got into their fire engine and I watched it slowly pull away.
Red and his partner got into the squad car and took off. I still leaned against the police car as I sat, and when the car left I fell backwards. My head struck the pavement hard, bounced once, and I saw stars on a clear day. The sun shone down. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t scream. All I could do was think, “What the hell? What the hell happened here today?” A shadow slid over me, the sun high above and behind whoever approached. The person became a silhouette against the bright sun when I looked. A hand appeared to help me up, and I almost took it when I saw withered old flesh and long yellowed nails—the old woman.
I screamed and crawled on my back away from her. She just looked down and stepped to my side. I saw her fully once the sun didn’t hang behind her.
“Would you like to learn from me, young man?” she asked with a knowing smile. “There’s a lot you can learn from an old lady.”
My only response was to scream… and I haven’t stopped screaming yet. Screams fill my dreams, the nightmares of crimson cat-eyes that plague me. The psychologist hasn’t helped, but no one can unless I can convince them to believe me. I lost my children, my two sons. Supposedly I’ve gone crazy. That hurt the most, especially the knowledge that Daniel and Sam live in that same city with those… things. My children send me letters with pictures. I see them… their eyes. And I watch, careful to make sure they haven’t become one of “them.” I’ve contacted the Church to inquire about exorcism. The priest laughed at me when I suggested he exorcise the entire city. So I’m alone in this padded cell with no one to trust, no one to confide in.
I received a letter from Daniel yesterday, my oldest son. He’s coming to see me tomorrow. I saw the picture of him. He had red glowing eyes. My psychologist said it was just a trick of the camera, but I know better—Daniel’s one of them now. I have to free him. Death is the only option.
I have to kill my son.
If only they’d let me out of this damned straitjacket.