SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
October 5, 2014

Cat Scratch Fever

 

It was a little before eight on a cool and clear Friday morning. Morgan had left for work twenty minutes earlier, and I was getting myself together to make the day’s beer run. I’d wrenched my back something horrible two days earlier, spent the previous day flat on the floor, but things were starting to slide back into place. Enough to allow me to stand mostly upright. Enough to convince me I had to head out. Besides, there were priorities.

            As I opened the apartment door, I felt something furry dart past me into the hallway. This had always been a fear, that I would let one of Morgan’s cats slip out and wouldn’t be able to find it again. Even though it would be enclosed within the building and wouldn’t get out into the street. The damn things are quiet and can slip around me with ease, and they knew it. None of them had ever made a break for it like that when I was alone before. They do it to Morgan, but only because they know she’s more fun, and more important, she’s the one who feeds them.

            I left the door open a crack and went into my stooped Frankenstein routine, arms out in front of me, hoping I might spook whoever it was into running back inside. I heard what I thought was the soft padding of cat paws heading in that direction. Then I heard the low growl from inside the apartment. That could mean a couple of things. Sonny, the big orange tabby with emotional issues, was probably at the back window growling in vain at some sparrows. It sounded closer than that, though. It sounded like it was coming from the entry hall, which probably meant Daisy, the round black and white one with an attitude, was getting ready to slap one of the other two around a bit. In either case I assumed whoever had slipped outside had returned home safely, so I stepped back inside and closed the door. Just to make sure, I decided to take a head count (when I can find them, I can identify them by the coarseness of their fur and the lengths of their tails). That’s when I heard a second growl join the first, then a third. It was a quietly terrifying sound, like the overture to a Satanic symphony. It takes a moment to realize what it is you’re hearing, and once you do it snakes into your bones.

            Okay, that wasn’t right, especially when all three growls seemed to be coming from three different rooms. It hit me then that what I was in the midst of was a worst case scenario. The cats weren’t building toward a fight with each other, or anything outside.

             Our downstairs neighbors have five cats of their own, and care for a swarm of another ten or so ferals who gather in the back yard. Two of their cats, who spend most of their time outside, are in the habit of climbing up the back wall and staring into our second-floor windows. (The pod people who lived here before me left the window open and allowed the two to wander in and out as they pleased, and it’s a habit and an expectation the cats haven’t quite outgrown yet.) Yes, well, let’s just say Morgan’s cats and the neighbors’ cats don’t exactly see eye to eye on matters, and when one shows up outside the window it usually results in a typhoon of hissing and growling and spitting and clawing through the screen. Now those same sounds were coming from well inside the apartment.

            See, those same two neighbor cats also have a tendency to slip out of the downstairs apartment and wander the halls until someone lets them back in. It had never been much of an issue before, but now it was clear one of those cats was in my apartment, Morgan’s cats were freaking out about it, and I was alone so it was up to me to find and extract the intruder before someone lost an eye or a leg, and I had to do it fast.

            Not being able to see any of them, and not being so sensitive and attuned that I can identify the growls, I did the only thing I knew how to do in moments like that, and swallowed a scream.

            I tried to triangulate the various growls, thinking if I went to the middle of all that, I’d find the offending cat, but when all the cats in the apartment kept slinking about, hopping on chairs and window sills and down again, darting over by the TV then over to the table then out into the kitchen, it was obvious this was pointless. From that point I just got stupid. Trying to ignore the shrieking pain from my newly re-ruined lower spine, I dropped to my knees and waved my arms in wide arcs in front of me, hoping I’d somehow bump into an unfamiliar cat who would then stay still long enough for me to grab it and eject it through the front door (or the window) without having my own throat torn open in the process.

            There was a scream and a brief flurry of struggle ahead of me to the right, so I lunged forward and only briefly grabbed at a departing tail.

            I was still on my hands and knees when the action seemed to move to another room, the growls escalating to hisses and spitting and sharp, guttural barks. If the invader ran under the bed I was fucked, and so was it.

            Thinking this was all so fucking useless, that I was doomed, that I should maybe just let them work out their own problems themselves no matter how much blood it took, I left the scene behind and headed down to the neighbors’ apartment. At least they’d be able to identify their own cat. It was early I knew, but still—this was kind of an issue that should probably be resolved sooner rather than later. I pounded on the door and waited. Upstairs the hissing and scrabbling of claws continued. There was no answer, and I heard no sign of life behind the door. Giving up, I headed back upstairs with no idea what my next stupid and useless move would be. A broom maybe. Christ did I even know where the broom was?

            Inside, things had quieted. Only the growls were still there, and they all seemed to be coming from the floor of the kitchen. There was a vague shadow on the window sill that wasn’t moving. I got the sense it was a thing cornered, though I’m usually wrong about things like that.

            I stepped over and, praying it really was a cat and not just a shadow, scooped it up. It began screaming and thrashing, all claws and teeth, but as it did I was able to feel its fur and gauge the length of its tail. I didn’t think it was one of Morgan’s but given circumstances I couldn’t be sure. It was worth a guess though, so I carried it to the door, still lunging and swinging at me, and tossed it outside. If it was one of Morgan’s, well, I’d deal with that later. The fewer I had to wrangle in the apartment the better. I’d pick them out one by one, and by god one of them would have to be the right one.

            Back in the apartment, things were eerily quiet. The hissing and growling had stopped as suddenly as if I’d closed a window. I’d either grabbed the right one, or everyone was dead. I didn’t think the latter was true, but I’d need to take a head count at some point to be sure. Whatever it was, at least things were quiet again.

            Downstairs I heard the front door of the building open, and stepped out into the hall.

            “Hey,” I called down the stairs. “Could you tell me if one of your cats is in the hallway, or one of mine?”

            “Oh,” a voice called back. “That was Rosalind, but she’s inside now.”

            “Okay. Good.”

            I stepped back into my own apartment once again and closed the door securely behind me. Taking a quick count I found two of the three, but figured the third was under a piece of furniture. I’d already done enough damage to my back as it was, something that was only then starting to creep to the foreground as the adrenaline flushed away. Yup, that was gonna be crippling me for a few more days.

            While I still could, I put on my shoes and headed out to get that day’s beer. Along the way, I’d try to determine how badly I was bleeding.

 

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