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Day Forty-five: Sleeper

July 5, 2011 3 comments

Lucille carried Smokey’s food over to his basket and set it down. He jumped up to the table, gave a final, grateful “meow,” and started eating.

“Good boy, Smokey,” she said, scratching between his ears. She went back to the kitchen, rinsed out the can and dropped it in the bag under the sink for the recyclers to take on Friday. The apartment was hot, but she didn’t mind. At her age, she’d take hot over cold any day. At least her back was feeling better, and her hip wasn’t twinging. That meant a couple of good days were in store. Maybe she’d go out to the supermarket.

She went back to her large, overstuffed chair and eased herself into it. In her younger days, she would have leaped in, curled a leg under herself and rested her head on the armrest. But these days, the best she could do was to be more or less comfortable when she sat down. She hit the remote and turned the volume back on.

“…in fourteen states and the District of Columbia. In local news, ten year-old high school freshman Paul Barbeau won the state science championship with his ingenious new printable circuitry. He says it will revolutionize the textile industry, allowing us to integrate our personal electronics into nearly every part of our lives. Barbeau – who is on track to become the youngest-ever graduate of Littleton High School – was unavailable for an interview this evening due to an incident involving a crashed-”

She muted the TV again at an insistent noise from Smokey. All cats are picky, she knew that. And any human who wants to live with one has to be willing to make concessions. In this case, he simply would not tolerate an empty food dish being left around when he was done. “Yes, yes, I know,” she said, lifting herself out of the chair. She ran her fingers down his spine as she passed him, and he started to purr. “Your wish is my command.” She took the bowl to the sink, gave it a quick rinse with soap and water and set it to dry.

Smokey came to sit by her feet, and made a small inquisitive noise. “You know, Smokey,” she said. “If I hadn’t found you all those years ago, you wouldn’t be eating so well. You know that?” He blinked and started licking a paw. “A little gratitude is all I’m asking, you terrible, awful widdle kitty.” She had long ago stopped hating herself for lapsing into baby-talk with the cat. It was another one of those inevitabilities of cat ownership. Besides, he just ate it up.

They said that living with a pet was a good way to live to a happy old age. She didn’t know much about research and gerontology and all that kind of thing, but she knew she was doing better with Smokey than she’d done in those last years before Roy finally keeled over. As insistent as Smokey was, at least he never yelled at her for not cooking his food the way he wanted, never kicked her out of bed when he’d been drinking too much. Never called her a useless old bag…

Lucille’s eyes misted up and this time she did hate herself a little. She had watched his coffin go into the ground with a sense of grim satisfaction that she’d have at least a little time on this planet to herself. But as bad as he was, as awful as he could be, the apartment still felt empty without him. She didn’t believe in ghosts, but if pressed, she might say it was sort of the opposite. A tangible absence that just wouldn’t go away.

She’d found Smokey a few weeks later, a little grey kitten hunting through her garbage. When she came out to drop off her trash, he looked up, meowed once, and ran to her feet. She, and everything she owned, was officially his from that moment on.

She settled back into her chair and Smokey took his place on her lap. He purred, rubbed his head against her hand a couple of times, and curled up to sleep. She petted him gently and turned the volume back on. The news anchor was reading from a piece of paper now and looking confused.

“…and experts are at a loss to explain what we’re seeing here outside the studio.” The anchor looked off-camera. “Jim, do we have someone outside? Yes?” He looked back out of the TV. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re now going live outside our main studio here in Sylvania City. Are we…? Okay.”

The view cut to another camera, this one unsteady and noisy, which was overlooking something in the middle of the city. Lucille had been to Sylvania once, and like most visitors she best remembered its vast central gardens – The Sylvania Hortus. It covered a thousand acres in the middle of the city and was home to every kind of growing thing that would survive there. There were lakes and ponds, rose gardens and wildflower hills and running tracks and vast lawns that were full of people on any halfway decent day. It was called The Green Heart of the City, and everyone who lived there said it was the biggest reason they stayed.

But now, in the center of the gardens, there was a… Lucille didn’t know what to call it. It looked like a crack in the world, bleeding out something that could have been light, but wasn’t. Where the light touched, things turned dark and insubstantial. The trees cast bright shadows that trailed away from them, and the dark blight spread. The cameraman was talking, trying to fill airtime, and the anchor was asking stupid, meaningless questions, like “What is it?”

“I… I don’t know, Leonard,” the cameraman said, then quickly corrected himself. “Mister Reeves. All I know is that it hurts to look at, and that the air feels… it feels wrong. It feels… I don’t know. Sharp.”

The crack in the world pulsed, once, sending out a wave of darkness, and the camera’s feed went dead. They switched back to the anchor, who looked like he wanted to throw up.

Lucille knew how he felt. She had a hand over her mouth, and her stomach tightened. Whatever it was, even over the TV it was horrible, and as the anchor went on, talking without knowing what he was talking about, Lucille could feel that nameless, unreasoning dread rise from the base of her spine.

“Damn,” said a voice from her lap.

She looked down at Smokey. He stood up and stretched, arching his back. Then he looked up at her, and the intelligence in his eyes was vastly different from what she had always imagined she saw. He blinked, slowly. “I can’t stay,” he said, in a voice that had far too much bass in it for such a small, nasal creature. He looked back at the TV. “This is what I was sent here to do.”

Lucille looked down at him. “S.. Smokey?”

He licked her hand once. “I know,” he said. “I never meant for it to be this way. I didn’t think this would go on as long as it did.”

“What… what are you?”

He sat, his back straight and his head high. “I am one of the guardians of this reality, Lucille.” Behind him, the TV let out a squawk of static and went blank. “I’d explain, but there really isn’t time. That city is about to be devoured, and the world will go soon after if it isn’t stopped.”

He jumped down from her lap and sat in the middle of the room. “You should probably cover your eyes, Lucille. Just in case.” His fur stood on end as he began to glow with a radiant blue light. Lucille squinted against the sudden brilliance and held up a hand against it. She could still see him, but he was changing, growing into something bigger. Human, but only in shape. Tall and dangerous, something that still carried the feline with it, but merged into something more.

When the light faded, it did so just enough to get a view of him for a moment. He was wrapped in the light, which spun and danced and spiraled around him, and he stood with that constant potential energy that all cats have. The light was his armor, and it shone in a thousand different shades of blue. “Thank you for all you’ve done, Lucille,” he said. “I truly am grateful.” She thought he smiled, but couldn’t be sure. “I hope I can repay your kindness one day.”

The light flared again, and she cried out. When it faded, he was gone.

“Smokey?” she whispered. She stood up slowly and looked out the window. Dark clouds were moving through the sky, against the wind that was blowing the tops of trees. The clouds were moving west. Towards Sylvania City.

She put her hands on the glass and her eyes filled again. The apartment was empty again, but this time it was so much worse.

The western horizon exploded in blue-white light, and she prayed that he was okay. And that he would come back.

Whatever he was.

Day Eighteen: Business

June 8, 2011 1 comment

“Where do these people keep the spice section? I can never remember…” I pushed the cart through the supermarket. True to the worst stand-up routines, it pulled to the left – a Liberal supermarket cart. It tried to steer me into the egregiously sweet breakfast cereals, none of which (to my knowledge) contained any useful spices.

“Maybe the next aisle, I don’t know.” Rosie sounded exhausted. But she always did, these days. I tried to help as much as possible, to take some of the pressure off, what with her job and everything. I did the cooking, of course, and did the cleaning most days. But there were some things I couldn’t do for her. Things she wouldn’t let me do even if I could.

We hadn’t had a good dinner together in weeks, and it was starting to wear on me. I had grown up cooking, being able to whip up something… well, maybe not wonderful, but certainly edible and enjoyable. From my mom and my grandfather I managed to inherit a bunch of recipes, the kind that are perfect for big families with little time, even though our family was just the two of us. I learned enough of the basics – what went with what – to make a decent meal nine times out of ten.

When I married Rosie, my love of cooking was probably what won her mother over. “Rosie needs a man who knows how to take care of the house,” she had told me over several glasses of wine. “Our Rosie is busy, you understand, with her… Her business.” She winked at me, but I couldn’t tell if that was the alcohol of her attempt at being subtle.

Rosie’s business.

I would never tell her, you understand. I would never even for a moment complain to her about it, because I know how important it is to her, and to everyone, really. I know she’s doing a hard job, one that she never really wanted and can’t really give up. She should get medals, accolades, high schools named after her. But I hated her “business.” I hated what it did to her, how it made her feel, how it made her think. If I could take it away, I would. But then she wouldn’t be Rosie.

“Over there, honey,” she said. “Cumin.” I turned to look where she was pointing and took her in. She was beautiful. Shiny black hair, smooth dark skin… except for the scar on her cheek. Even that, I wouldn’t ask her to give up.

I guided the recalcitrant cart dawn the aisle. There was a full shelf of spices there – my own little candy store. I pulled off a bottle of cumin and then, after a thought, some turmeric and red pepper. Maybe spicy beef tonight. “Rosie, do we have green peppers at home?” She didn’t answer. “Rosie?”

When I turned around she was standing behind the card, her hands clenched on the handle and eyes closed. She was straining, the muscles on her arms twitching. “Get out, Paulie,” she said quietly.

“Again, Rosie?” I looked around. “Here?”

“Get out slowly or he’ll see you.”

I couldn’t quite hold back the frustrated sigh, and I hated myself for it. I dropped a package of noodles into the cart and walked up to her. I knew what this was. Same thing every time. “Be careful, hon,” I said, and kissed her on the cheek. I don’t think she noticed.

Before I got to the end of the aisle, I heard the sound I’d heard so many times before. Like a great, wet tearing noise. When I turned around, there was a gaping wound in the world, torn through as though the supermarket and everything in it was just a facade, a matte painting that we all pretended was real. The wound dripped something that my brain could only interpret as blood, but I knew that wasn’t what it was. And in the darkness beyond, I could see shapes that had no business calling themselves shapes, and heard screams that only barely qualified as noises.

The Hunter was coming again.

Rosie stood up, all the tiredness leaving her body. She’d pay for it later, I knew.

From behind, silhouetted against the utter darkness of the rift, she seemed to shine with a light that came from nowhere and everywhere at once. Her back straightened, and flickers of silver brilliance danced around her. I shielded my eyes against my wife as her left hand whipped to her side, pulling a greatsword from whatever sideways place she always kept it.

Sword in hand, guarded by the light, she stood ready as a great, inchoate, unspeakable thing pushed and tore and slid its way out of the widening rift, squeezed itself down to our paltry three dimensions, and took a thunderous wet step into the baking aisle of our local supermarket.

Rosie shifted her grip, ready to do business with The Hunter.

I shook my head and started walking slowly and calmly to the exit as great living tongues of darkness began to catch and dissolve the people who had decided to run out of perfectly understandable panic. It took a few times of being utterly unmade and then reconstituted – painfully – before you were able to hold back the gibbering terror. The air behind me shook. Glass broke, the shelves tipped, toppled, and emptied. The air itself bent and twisted, and I stopped for a moment as up and down redefined themselves. When I got to the door, I felt – not heard – a howl of pain and anger and fear.

And I smiled. He never learned.