May 11, 2013
© 2013 M. Ramon
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Bernie scooped the food into the blue bowl. It was Tammy’s favorite, yellowfin tuna and shrimp with wild rice in gravy. Bernie didn’t like to spoil the girl, and usually only gave her her favorite once a week, but this would be the third day in a row he served it for her. It was a special occasion of sorts, a get-well-soon treat for Tammy. A couple days before she had come in from playing outside, and she was limping quite severely. Upon inspection Bernie had found a small wound on her right front leg–it looked like it might be a small bite, but he wasn’t sure.
His first thought was to take her to the vet, but one look in the money envelope he kept hidden behind the dresser beside his bed had put that idea out of his head. He was broke, even broker than usual, and there was no money for a vet visit. Instead he rubbed some of the blue salve that Gertie Crabb had given him long ago, swearing that it could cure just about any type of ailment. He had never gotten around to using it, and Gertie Crabb had passed some time ago, gone to that great bingo hall in the sky. He spread the thick ointment on the wound (which didn’t look that bad he decided, no real need for a vet), and wrapped a strip of cloth around Tammy’s leg. The next day, when he took off the cloth, the wound was almost completely healed, and Bernie gave silent thanks to Gertie for her mystery miracle salve.
Although the wound had healed remarkably fast, leaving only a small bald patch roughly the size of a dime on Tammy’s leg as the only sign of the original injury, the whole episode seemed to have upset the girl deeply, and for the past couple days she had been lethargic and moody.
Bernie finished scooping out the food and stood up, his arthritic legs giving protest. He tossed the can in the trash and used his foot to nudge the bowl closer to the little bed he had made for Tammy near the wall. He made little kissing sounds through pursed lips.
“Come on, old girl, eat you scrumshums.”
Tammy made a deep purring noise, but didn’t move. Bernie tapped the side of the bowl with the corner of his shoe.
“Come on, eat up. It’s your favorite.”
Tammy raised herself out of her little bed and walked to the bowl. She sniffed at the food, looked up at Bernie, and then back down at the food. Finally she leaned her head down and started eating.
“Good kitty,” Bernie said as he bent down to stroke Tammy. “You sure are getting big. Maybe we have to think about putting you on a diet, girl. You eat while Daddy takes a little nap.”
He left her to her meal, and went back to his bedroom. He kicked off his shoes, climbed into bed and pulled the covers up.
When he woke, it was dark out. Bernie checked the bedside clock, and then cursed at himself; his “little nap” had ended up being three hours long. He knew he would be up until two in the morning now, unable to fall asleep at a proper time. He slipped out of bed and shuffled out of the bedroom and into the bathroom, where he relieved his bladder with a sigh of satisfaction. He flushed, washed his hands, and went out, taking a seat on the couch in the living room. He picked up the remote and clicked on the TV. He channel surfed (as much as one can channel surf when one only gets network TV) and settled on the evening news. He left the volume turned down, not much interested in the day’s happenings.
In the dim blue light of the television a shape appeared, sauntering over to Bernie. Tammy settled down near his feet. He reached down without looking and stroked her fur. Something didn’t feel quite right, so he looked down at her.
“My God. You really are getting big, aren’t you girl? I could swear you’ve gotten bigger since just this morning.”
Tammy gave a soft purr in agreement. The rest of the night was uneventful, and to his own surprise Bernie was able to get to sleep at a reasonable time despite his long nap earlier in the day.
In the morning Bernie made himself a cup of instant coffee while squinting at the harsh light of day streaming in through the small kitchen window. As he drank off the cup of terrible-tasting coffee he searched around for Tammy, who he usually found still in her kitty bed early in the morning, but who was conspicuously absent on this particular day. He strolled through the house–the living room, the dining room, and then back to the kitchen; she was nowhere to be found.
“Where in the hell did that girl get off to?” he asked the empty room.
It was then that he noticed the screen door. There was a hole in the bottom left-hand corner; it was ragged, as if something had chewed right through it. Considering the size of the hole, Bernie’s first thought was that a coyote had chewed its way in sometime during the night. He rushed out the door, the screen slapping shit behind him, looking every which way.
“Tammy, where are you?” he called out. “For chrissakes, don’t hide from me now.”
He caught movement from the corner of his eye. He turned to find a strange sight. At first he was certain that it couldn’t be Tammy, that the animal he saw was much too large to be his girl. But the coat was that same familiar charcoal gray, shot through with darker patches, including the one patch that Bernie always told people looked just like the state of Florida. She was facing away from him, with her head bent down to the ground; it looked like she was working at something, perhaps a mouse or an unlucky bird. For a moment Bernie just stood there, looking at her, wondering at the size of her; she looked about as big as Max, Ralph Thompson’s Border collie. Then he saw blood. He broke into a sprint, but when he got near her Tammy whirled around and bared her teeth at him with a sharp hiss. The fur around her muzzle was stained red, with little chunks of something (Bernie tried not to think of the word “flesh”) stuck in her whiskers.
“What’s wrong?” Bernie said. “It’s just me, girl. Let me take a look at you. Are you hurt?”
He took another step closer, and then he saw what it was that Tammy had been busy with, the source of the blood. It was a dead animal, all right, but it wasn’t any mouse or bird. He wasn’t completely sure (the thing was a ruined mess), but he though it looked like another cat. There was no collar, so if it was a cat it was a stray.
“Goddamn, Tammy, what a mess. Come on, inside now. Go.”
She stood her ground, staring him in the eye, unmoving, her breathing short and quick. Then she started toward the house, and Bernie nearly breathed a sigh of relief; with the shock of both her newfound size and the mangled thing that might be a stray cat fresh in his mind, he wasn’t exactly in a hurry to try and pick her up.
Back in the house Bernie closed the screen door, and after once again taking a look at the hole that had been chewed through it (by a coyote, he had thought at first, but now he knew better), he closed the door as well. Tammy was lying in her bed in the kitchen, although the bed now looked comically small for her frame. Bernie walked past her and into the living room, where he sat down on the couch; the living room seemed dim in spite of the early-morning light coming in through the window.
Something had happened to Tammy. Something was still happening, perhaps. He tried to think what it could have been, what could have caused the sudden change in size. All he could think of was the wound she had acquired a few days before, the thing he thought looked like a small bite, but it had healed up nicely with Gertie’s blue salve.
He thought again about taking Tammy to the vet, but he didn’t have the money, and without a car it would be a forty minute walk into town just to be turned away by the prick animal doctor who had taken over when Simpkins died. He thought about calling someone, but there was no one to call. And what would he tell someone if he did call them? Help, my cat is getting huge!?
That evening, after putting it off for as long as possible, he emptied a can of chicken and gravy into Tammy’s bowl, and set it near her. She watched him as he worked, and sat unmoving, following him with her gaze, until he left the kitchen; only then did she eat. That night, when Bernie went to bed, he did the strangest thing: he locked his bedroom door. He wasn’t sure why he did it (cats can’t open doors, you shithead, he thought to himself), but he did it anyway. It took him a while to get to sleep, and when he did sleep he had terrible dreams of being chased, but in the dreams he wasn’t quite sure who or what was chasing him, only that if he was caught he was done for.
In the morning he sat on his bed awhile, not wanting to go out there, not wanting to see Tammy. Then he was struck by a wonderful thought: what if the whole thing had been a dream? What if everything, the hole in the screen door, the Border collie-sized Tammy, the dead stray cat (if it had indeed been a cat), what if all of it had been a part of the long series of nightmares? What if the whole previous day had been one long bad dream?
The idea so excited him that Bernie shot out of bed, unlocked the door (he didn’t stop to wonder how, if the previous day had been a dream, his door was still locked) and went looking for Tammy, for his good girl Tammy. He checked the kitchen, but her bed was empty. He went into the living room, and stopped cold in his tracks. There was a trail of mud and something else, something brighter, leading away from the living room window. The widow itself had been left open the night before (the night that was not a dream, after all), but the screen was missing, as if something had knocked it out. He followed the trail with his eyes; it disappeared down the dark hall that led to the empty garage.
He walked slowly to the entryway of the hall. It was too dark to see the end of the hall, or the door to the garage. He reach for the witch and flipped it up, and in the light he saw Tammy, with her he rear pressed up against the closed garage door and her head buried deep into the flesh of an animal, or half of an animal rather; it looked like the hindquarters of a deer. A strange sound escaped Bernie throat then, a strangled, mewling sound. Tammy’s head came up at the sound, her muzzle smothered in gore. Bernie took one step back, and then another. Tammy stood then, and he could see that she was now as big as a mountain lion, but with that same familiar coat, gray with black patches. She growled at him, a deep, bass growl that sent adrenalin streaming through his body with a warning flashing in his mind: GET OUT! YOU ARE NOT SAFE HERE!
He turned and ran for the front door, but halfway there he swerved for the window with the missing screen, and hoped he was making the right choice. On the one hand he wasn’t sure if his old knees could get him up and over the windowsill, and on the other hand it would save him the time it would take to unlock the deadbolt and throw back the chain on the door. He ran as fast as his legs would allow, and when he was just a couple steps away from the window, he jumped, his hands held out in front of him, trying to make his frame as small as possible so that it would fit through the window. As he went sailing through the window a feeling of pride welled up inside him.
This old boy still has a few tricks up his sleeve, he thought triumphantly.
Just as his feet hit the ground something hit him from behind; it felt like he had been clipped by a Mack truck. He tumbled face first onto the ground, the wind knocked out of him. He tried to lift himself up, but then a weight descended upon him, driving him back to the ground. He heard another growl, low and dangerous.
“No, girl; it’s me. It’s me!”
Then he heard the sound of a car engine. He looked and saw an old blue Ford coming up the driveway.
“Help me!” Bernie called, scrambling for the car.
The car stopped, the engine cut out, and the driver opened his door and stepped out.
‘No, get back in the car!” Bernie yelled.
“What’s wrong with you, mister?” the driver asked.
Bernie scrambled up onto his feet and looked back. Tammy was gone. The window frame with the missing screen stared back at him like a vacant eye.
“Where did she go?” Bernie asked.
“Didn’t you see her?”
“Mister, I just drove up here, and next thing I know you’re hollering like you just saw a ghost.”
Bernie turned to the man, a tall guy in a cheap gray suit, with a bad hair piece on his head.
“We have to go,” Bernie said.
“Listen mister, I don’t know what’s goin’ on here exactly, but you need to calm down. And let me tell you, I’ve got just the thing to help you with that.”
The man walked around to the back of the car and started fumbling with a key ring with too many keys on it.
“What are you doing?” Bernie asked. “We have to go. It’s not safe. I’ll explain in the car.”
“Now hold on a minute. I’ve got just the thing right here.”
The man found the key he was looking for and slipped it into the trunk lock, popping it open. He reached into the trunk and brought out a bottle filled with a clear liquid.
“This here is the reason why I stopped here on my way to town,” the man said. “I saw this place, and I said to myself, ‘Fred, I bet the fella who lives there could use some of that good tonic I got back there in the trunk.’ That’s exactly what I said to myself.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Well, now there’s no need for strong language, sir. I promise you this here tonic will cure any number of ailments.”
The man closed the trunk.
“Of course, if you don’t want any, then it’s your loss, my friend.”
Then the man’s face changed, turning from the smug face of a slick salesman, certain that in the end you will buy whatever it is he’s selling, to the face of a man who is looking straight into the eyes of an abomination, an unspeakable horror. Bernie saw the change and acting without thinking, purely on instinct, he ducked. Something awful cut through the air above his head and slammed into the salesman. She looked even bigger now, even though it had only been a few minutes since he had last seen her. It was Tammy, improbably huge Tammy, unexplainably terrifying Tammy, who once upon a time had been Bernie’s good old girl.
Bernie stood from his crouch and rushed around to the driver-side door. He jumped in, trying to ignore the piercing screams coming from behind the car. He slammed the door and reached for the ignition. The keys weren’t there. Then he remembered the key ring the salesman had fumbled with before opening the trunk. He scrambled then, checking the visor, the glove box, anywhere there might be a spare key. No luck. Then he thought of a book he had read many years ago called Cujo, about a mother and son who get stuck in a broken-down car while a rabid St. Bernard stands watch over them, waiting for his chance to tear them to pieces.
To hell with that, he thought.
He jumped out of the car and ran for the vacant window of the house. He made it to the window, but he had no strength for another leap, so this time he climbed through, first one leg, and then the other. He ran to the end table beside the couch and picked up the phone, an old, black rotary-style deal that he had owned for going on thirty years. Just as he picked it up he heard the screaming stop outside; it just cut off suddenly, as if Tammy had grown tired of playing with her food, and now wanted to turn her attention to other matters. Bernie had a bad feeling, so he hung up the receiver and picked up the whole telephone set, then headed down the hall to his bedroom, thankful for the extra-long cord keeping the phone plugged into the wall.
Just as he made it to his room he heard something crashing into the house, and he slammed the door shut. Once again he locked it, a cat’s inability to open doors be damned. He kneeled down on the floor and set the telephone set down, then picked up the receiver. He thought about who to call, and then the obvious answer came to him: the police. As he dialed the 9 something slammed into his bedroom door. He froze for a second, and then there was another bang. It scared the crap out of Bernie, but the door was holding. He dialed the first 1 before the phone was ripped out of his hands. It clattered against the door with a hard thunk. He grabbed it up and dragged it back to him, and put the receiver to his ear. Silence. He toggled the button on the switchhook. Still nothing. He pulled on the cord, which ran under the door, and it kept coming and coming. He saw what the problem was–the end of the cord had been chewed off.
Then Tammy slammed against the door again, and this time a crack appeared, running up the middle of the door.
“God damn!” Bernie exclaimed.
The bedroom window. It was the only way out now. He ran to it and pulled up on it. The damn thing wouldn’t budge. Tammy hit the door again, and Bernie could hear the sound of wood starting to shatter.
“Come on, you son of a bitch.”
He pulled again, and the window opened a couple of inches. There was another bang on the door, and Tammy was in the room. Bernie looked back for just a moment, and saw that she was even bigger now–the size of a male lion, at least. He turned back to the window and pulled as hard as he could, and then he was grabbed from behind. He was thrown onto the bed, and he felt the bed move as Tammy climbed up with her awful weight. He could feel hot breath on the nape of his neck. Then he felt something him in the back, almost like a punch. For a second he felt nothing else, and then a hot, searing pain bloomed in the center of his back. That’s when the screaming began.