Aphelion Issue 268, Volume 25
December 2021
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Kitty's Atomic Cat Club

by Meg Smith

The moon is 238,900 miles from Earth.

Kitty and I were talking about it. If we built a rocket with enough fuel, we could make it.

Kitty and her grandmother moved to our neighborhood.

For her name, she put Katherine Bartlett. Kitty is her nickname.

The first day of fifth grade, the teacher Mrs. Sparks, wrote the new date on the blackboard every day, even though there was a calendar right there on the wall.

She wrote, Sept. 5, 1962, on the blackboard.

We all stood, and said the Pledge of Allegiance, looking at the flag, which was right next to a picture of President Kennedy.

I glanced over and saw Kitty was standing with everybody else, with her hand over her heart, but she had this superior serious look on her face, like I’ve never seen. Most kids in class get up, say the pledge, and sit down, the end.

When it came to the last words, “Liberty, and justice for all,” Kitty’s face got really serious-looking, and she pronounced the words in a way that kinda made me shiver.

Like, I don’t know what. Almost like a witch, casting a spell.

When I came home from school, Mom wanted to know how I liked fifth grade -- my new home room, and my teacher, and everything.

I said they were all swell -- and she said, “good, dear, don’t say ‘swell.’” My Dad says “swell” all the time -- but I guess “swell” is something boys and men say.

“Okay, they’re good,” I said. Then I told her about Kitty.

Mom said, “It’s hard being the new person.”

It’s not too often a new kid moves in. It seems to me every kid has been exactly the same place, and isn’t going anywhere until maybe sometime later, when they’re adults.

So a few days later, my Mom gave me a tin full of cookies she had made -- she’s the world’s best cookie-maker -- and told me to bring them over to Kitty and her grandmother.

It was a kind of funny, small house. The outside was painted green, and it had a slate roof.

I remember passing it a whole bunch of times, but kids didn’t pay any attention to it, because there was no kid living there, until now.

Kitty’s grandmother answered the door, and she was not like any grandmother I knew. For one thing she looked way too young -- and she had young-looking hair and a young-looking face. Almost more like a mom than a grandmother.

“This is so nice, thank you, Cindy!” she said. She called to Kitty, and Kitty came to the door, with this slow walk, almost like a grown up's.

I thought she was going to be all serious, because she seemed very serious in school. But instead, she smiled the biggest smile.

“Hi, Cindy!” She seemed really happy to see me.

I thought maybe she’d want to play dolls in her room, or play cards at the kitchen table.

But her grandmother said, “Kitty, why don’t you show Cindy your project in the backyard?”

“Um, sure!” Kitty said. “It’s pretty neat.” I wasn’t totally sure she really wanted me to see it. We went through the kitchen, out the back door to the yard.

The yard was small, and there was a clothesline, and a wheelbarrow, and some other stuff for gardening.

The yard sat on top of a big hump of land, covered with dry grass. And if you looked over far enough, the land sort of dropped off, into a big, sandy area, full of weeds and I even saw an old tire.

I didn’t see anything at first that looked like a project. But then I saw a square of dirt and some pieces of wood in a pile. Sure looked like a weird thing for a girl to be working on.

“What are you making?” I asked.

Kitty stood really tall, like the teacher makes us do when we practice our posture in class, and she kinda puffed out her chest, and looked real proud. “I’m building a fallout shelter,” she said.

I whistled. I don’t whistle around parents or other grownups, because we girls aren’t supposed to whistle. “I’ve heard of those,” I said. For school, we had to read the paper every day. I read how President Kennedy wanted Congress to give more money for fallout shelters. “Is it for you and your grandma?”

“No,” Kitty said, and she sounded kind of mischievous.

“Don’t you want you and your grandma to be safe?” I was amazed.

“Well, we might get one for us,” Kitty said. “This one’s gonna be for cats.”

That sounded like a screwy idea. We have a dog, Petie, and he has his own dog house. But if we are gonna build a fallout shelter, we’ll just bring Petie in there with us.

Like she read my mind, Kitty said, “Why should it only be people? There should be shelter for animals, too.”

“I figured people will just bring their pets in with them, or hide with their pets in the basement,” I said.

Kitty said, “There're lots of animals that don't have a home. Especially cats.”

My parents talk about what’s going on, but they sort of clam up if they see me or my baby brother listening.

But I already know. Everyone knows. Ever since first grade, when they showed us the Duck and Cover film, with Bert the turtle.

Sometimes, we even have a drill in the school, and we all have to drop the floor and try to scrunch under our desks.

But until Kitty told me her plans to build a fallout shelter for cats, I hadn’t thought about all the animals that don’t have a place to go.

“This seems like a lot of work for one person,” I said. “Why don’t you get some people to help?”

“Are you volunteering?” she asked me. She said it straight-up, like an adult would, too.

“Well,” I said, “I don’t know much about building anything like that. I helped my Dad a little when he built our dog’s house.”

By “helping,” I handed him nails and brought him a lemonade, because Mom did not want me using a hammer or getting hurt or messing up my clothes.

But, I thought, it might be fun to actually help build something. So, I said, “Sure. But you gotta tell me what you want.”

Kitty nodded. “Absolutely. It’s easy. Plus,” she said, getting that serious voice again. “In gratitude, I’ll make you an honorary member of the club.”

“What club?” I looked around. There was just me and her.

“Kitty’s Atomic Cat Club,” she said, as if it was obvious.

I said, “Okay, let’s do some work. I have to leave in a little while for supper.”

We only got as far as maybe two boards. I held them in place, and she did the hammering. She did pretty good, too, and she told me her Dad taught her.

I wanted to ask her more -- but it was getting to be time to go home.

Well, it was just like Kitty said.

Cats in the neighborhood seemed to find their way to Kitty and her grandma’s house. Cats I never saw before. They must have all been hiding down by the grocery store, or the school, or just out in the woods beyond Conway Field, where the boys play baseball.

It was like they had their own telegraph system, because they found their way there.

Kitty and her Grandma were putting out food for them.

Some neighbors complained, but Kitty’s grandmother promised they wouldn’t put out food for anyone’s pet cat.

One day I asked Kitty about it, and she said, “I’m training them.”

“You can train a cat?” I asked. You throw a ball, a cat won’t go after it. But then you drop something on the floor, like a marble, or a jax, that you don’t want the cat to have -- and the cat will go right for it and fight you over it.

I was beginning to see that Kitty would get an idea in her head, and that’s it.

Kitty said, the cats will need to know where to come if there’s a bomb and we all have to take shelter.

Whenever we talked about Current Events in class, I started to feel nervous, in a way I never did before. Maybe it’s because I was getting older. Fifth grade is pretty old.

Also, because Kitty and I were really building this fallout shelter -- even if it was just for cats.

September ended, and October began. Most of us were already thinking about Halloween. A whole month away, but it could take that long to figure out the right costume for trick or treat.

I noticed Kitty did try to make some friends, and she did make a few. For one thing, some kids were impressed that she seemed to know so much, but she didn’t act all snobby because of it.

One day at recess, Bobby Jenks tripped over a rock and fell, and started bawling.

Kitty ran right over to him. Bobby Jenks had polio when he was little, so sometimes he falls down hard when he tries to run and keep up with the other kids.

Kitty put her arm around him. “It’s okay, Bobby,” she said.

Billy Haskell started laughing, and I gave him a sharp elbow in the side. “Whatcha do that for?” he yowled.

I smiled. I’m a girl, and he can’t hit a girl. “‘Cause you’re laughing at a kid with polio,” I snapped.

“Oh, yeah. Sorry. I forgot.” Billy Haskell is not the class brain, but he’s okay.

So Kitty was working on her shelter for the cats, and the cats kept coming.

It looked sturdy enough, and boy, she could use a hammer and nails.

Then, one day, we got to school and it was like things had changed.

You could just tell when you walk into the homeroom.

After the Pledge of Allegiance, Mrs. Sparks said she had to tell us something very important.

We already knew, from the news the night before. Soldiers were going to Florida, and President Kennedy ordered them to go to protect us.

She pulled down the map of the world and showed us Florida, and showed us Cuba, which is an island, and how close they are to each other.

At first, you think, well Florida is far away from Massachusetts, where we are. And believe me, Massachusetts is way harder to spell than Florida.

Cuba was important because the Russians were thinking about putting missiles there.

And we had to be ready, in case there was a war. Not one like my Dad was in, and where my Mom was an Army nurse -- in Korea. That’s where they met.

This one wouldn’t be away somewhere, like that one was.

This could be a war with an atomic bomb that could travel anywhere.

Mrs. Sparks said the best thing for all of us to do was to work hard on our lessons, because that’s the freedom the soldiers going to Florida, and President Kennedy, were fighting to protect.

I didn’t understand how learning fractions was going to help, but I decided I would try really hard, anyway. It would make my Mom and Dad proud.

Besides, when I started thinking about all those numbers, I was thinking less about bombs in Cuba, and I felt a little less scared.

It was also around that time Kitty’s great-uncle, her grandmother’s brother, Henry -- Mr. Hockster -- got sick and was in the hospital.

The hospital is in Boston, and that’s where Kitty’s grandmother had to go for a few days.

I thought that was pretty crummy, being sick in the hospital when a war might start.

Kitty said this aunt was supposed to come and stay with her for those few days.

I went over Kitty’s house after school.

I was thinking about all the cats -- because it seemed like if those cats needed to get together in her fallout shelter, now was the time.

I came to the door, and there was no aunt there, just Kitty at the door. “Come in,” she said. Her voice went low, and she sounded really urgent.

“What’s happening?” I said. “Where’s your aunt?”

“She can’t get here. She called to say she can’t make it. Her husband works in civil defense and he wants her to stay,” Kitty said.

For some reason I wasn’t sure if I should believe her. I said, “Aren’t you scared?”

She admitted, “Kind of.”

Before I could say anything else, she said, “Come on. I gotta show you something.”

The shelter was done, or as done as it was gonna be by the time any bombs landed.

She even attached a roof, and a door, with hinges and all.

“Wowee,” I said.

But I could see she had no time to admire her work.

We went inside. She held the door open, and she made a funny sound she makes to call the cats. “Woosh woosh woosh woosh,” she called, over and over.

Some cats started to come -- some big and small ones, orange ones, ones with stripes, and one cat with a bald patch on his tail that made it look like his tail was broken in half.

I noticed the sky was getting all dark, and it was cold -- the way you expect the middle of October to get cold.

But I was starting to feel scared.

Finally, Kitty closed the door. She had a flashlight, and she turned it on.

The cats looked kind of scared, too, with big eyes, and their ears twitching.

Kitty started making comforting sounds to them. I started doing it, too. It made me feel a little better.

The wind started picking up. The walls shook a little bit.

“Kitty,” I finally said. “I think the war might be coming.”

“Maybe,” she said. We were both sitting on the floor, cross-legged.

The floor was made of some boards, and was kind of hard and uncomfortable.

A couple of the cats came over to us, and one little cat actually hopped into my lap. I patted her head. She was a calico cat, very pretty.

“Do you think we’ll be safe in here?” I asked. I couldn't decide if I should stay, or if I should go home -- I didn’t want my parents to worry. But I didn’t want Kitty to stay alone, either.

She startled me when she said, “I don’t know, Cindy. I built this place as best I could, and you helped.”

“Listen,” I said. “You could come to my house. It’s a war -- my parents were in the Army, so they will know what to do.”

Kitty said, “I understand if you have to go home. But I gotta stay with these cats.”

She leaned in close and said, “I have to tell you something and show you something. Because after today, I might not get to.”

“Um, sure,” I said. I added quickly, “But we’re gonna be okay.” I had this crazy thought that if I said that, we would be.

I noticed there was a box. Kitty leaned over and dragged it close to her. Some of the cats got up and backed away. One cat hissed a little.

I thought maybe there was a mouse in there.

She opened the lid with one hand, and handed me the flashlight. “Hold this,” she said.

So I sat there holding the flashlight, wondering what was in this box that she needed to show me before Khrushchev lobbed a missile at us.

She pulled out something round, like a ball almost, wrapped up in a blanket.

She put it on the floor, and I kept holding the flashlight.

She pulled the blanket away from it. I almost dropped the flashlight.

It was a skull. A real, human skull.

“Son of a bitch!” I said, loudly. My hand started shaking, making quivery light all over the inside.

“Shhhh!” she said, almost shouting.

My heart started beating so fast, and my hands and arms were shaking.

“Kitty!” I hissed, as quiet as I could. “Did you murder somebody?”

“No,” she said, keeping her voice low. “I didn’t. But my parents did.”

I was beginning to think I didn’t want to die in an atomic war, not seeing my parents, and the last thing I learned was that my friend’s parents killed someone and his skull was sitting here.

She put an arm around me, and I shrank back. “You’re my friend,” she pleaded. “You’ve been my best friend since I got here.”

“‘Course I’m your friend!” I said.

“Listen,” she said. “My name isn’t Kitty Bartlett. It’s Jane Willard.”

I was dumbstruck. “Um, okay. Are you a spy? Is that why you have a different name?”

“No!” she sounded exasperated. But I saw her face in the glow of the flashlight, and her lower lip was quivering. Tears were forming in her eyes, and she looked away.

“It’s okay,” I said. “You can tell me.”

She looked down at the floor. Some of the cats started butting their heads against her, like they already knew whatever it was she was going to tell me.

“There’s a reason I live here with my grandma. My parents killed a man. They’re in prison. And it’s all because of me.”

She went on: “We lived in a small town and we were happy. But there was this guy, everyone called him Mr. Gus.”

She stopped, and she swiped tears from her eyes.

I lowered the flashlight. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” I said.

I stared down at the skull. I’d never actually seen a real human skull before. It was sort of gray and dull. The top had lots of little cracks. It was hard to believe it was real, but I knew it was.

“Mr. Gus. He -- I was walking home from school, and I took a shortcut. Through this woods where there was a little park. And he was there, like he was waiting.” Big streams of tears were running down her face, into her lap, and a few tears even fell on some of the cats near her.

The wind was blowing outside, and some cold wind came in between the slats in the wall.

“What do you mean, he hurt you?” I said, and then I felt dumb. I felt like I knew, and yet I didn’t.

“Then a boy I knew -- same age as me. He took his Dad’s pistol and shot himself. His head was blown out everywhere. He left a note -- saying Mr. Gus hurt him too, but how he wanted to die like a man.”

My stomach felt like it was jumping inside me, like it wanted to rip its way out.

A boy -- shot himself.

I looked down, and I began to feel glad there was nothing left of him except his stupid skull.

Kitty coughed, like her throat was going dry. “If I had said something, Mr. Gus wouldn’t have hurt that boy, and he wouldn’t have killed himself.”

Then her tears really flowed.

I couldn’t think of anything to say.

I was feeling even more confused, and scared. And the wind was picking up outside, and shaking the walls more.

Kitty said that’s when she told her Mom, and her Mom must have told her Dad.

Because they went to Mr. Gus’ house. They didn’t act mad. They acted all friendly, Kitty said.

Her Mom gave him a cake with some drugs in it. The drugs made him sleepy, and her Dad marched him out of his house, deep in the woods, and shot him.

Her Mom and Dad told her grandmother to take her and leave. Well her uncle, the one in the hospital, Mr. Hockster had a house he owned. That’s the house Kitty and her grandmother moved into.

“I’m telling you this because we all might die, and someone has to know. But if we live” – she grabbed my arm, and I dropped the flashlight, almost right on the top of Mr. Gus’ skull.

“I won’t ever tell,” I swore.

I knew if I told, Kitty’s grandmother might get in trouble, and Kitty might get taken away to an orphanage or some awful place. And then I might never see her again.

And the cats wouldn’t have anyone.

I was also thinking -- this could be the end. We could die, right here, with these cats, and the skull of this horrible man who hurt little kids. I felt like a trap door opened up, and we were all falling, and falling.

But I drew in a deep breath, and let it out. Dad always said if you do that when you’re scared, you won’t be scared anymore.

I had to breathe in and out a few times.

“How did you get the skull?” I asked.

“Before I left with my grandmother, I went back to the place Mr. Gus was buried. It was all bones, strewn everywhere. They couldn’t find them all, just a few -- I think animals got them.”

That made my stomach squirm again. The wind kept hitting the outside walls, and I had to keep taking deep breaths to drive the fear away.

Kitty looked at me with that serious face, the same look when she said, “liberty, and justice, for all.” She said. “I took his skull. I took it home, and boiled it. I saw that in a movie, once. And, it worked.”

“Golly,” I said. It sounded stupid.

I just had images of cannibals in movies, with human bones floating around in a bubbling pot. “Why did you do that?”

“Because I wanted to be sure,” she said, grimly. “When I look at his skull, I feel better. I know he’s dead. He can’t hurt me, and he can’t hurt anyone, anymore.”

She touched the top of it lightly with her fingers. “That’s right,” she said, to the skull.

I shivered.

“You’re mine now. You can’t hurt anyone. I won’t let you.”

I was thinking about Kitty’s parents -- sitting in some cell, in a small town. If the bomb hit, they’d have nowhere to go. They’d be trapped in there.

My face began to burn. Tears came to my eyes. I didn’t want them to. I was trying to stay strong. I kept breathing, in and out.

Finally, I said, “I bet your parents would be real proud, though. You’re really smart. You’re doing good in school. And you built this shelter for all these cats.”

But she seemed far, far away, like she was traveling, inside her own mind, someplace else.

We just sat, really quiet, for a long time.

The wind kept blowing, rattling the boards of the wall, and the air got colder.

But, a little while later, the wind started going down. I could tell by the dim light through the boards that it was starting to get dark. But, nothing else was happening.

It was just a regular October wind, not wind from a bomb blast.

Suddenly, Kitty started talking, and it startled me. “I never, ever told anyone about that since I moved here,” she said, finally, and she let out a long breath, too. “I feel different now.”

In the flashlight’s glow, I saw her smile.

I still felt that feeling of falling, and I felt kind of weak, and light. But I said, “Different, how?”

“I feel a little bit better.” She smiled more.

I said, “Do you think maybe we should look outside?” I said this very slowly. “Maybe it’s okay out there.”

She nodded. “I think it is.”

So, we shifted ourselves so we could stand up. My arms and legs felt a little stiff -- like we’d been sitting there a million years.

My eyes started to sting, and I realized for the first time that I had been crying, too. I didn’t even know it, until then.

We pushed open the door. The cats seemed glad, too, because they started strolling outside, and I almost tripped on one. My legs were shaking, I realized.

The moon was rising over Kitty’s yard.

“You’d better go home,” she said.

I brushed at the tears on my face. I didn’t want anyone to see I had been crying.

I saw her standing up, straight and tall, looking out at the moon.

I smiled, and when I did, I felt a little better, and stronger. I stood up straight, too.

“Maybe we’ll be okay,” I said.

“Maybe,” she agreed.

Some of the cats strolled away, but some of them sat near us, around our feet.

I asked Kitty, “Aren’t you scared, staying here alone?”

“I’m not alone,” she said. “I got food, and a key. And the cats.”

The world seemed so strange and big.

I have a house, and parents who are not in prison. No one’s ever hurt me.

I never had a friend who shot himself, and I didn’t own a mean dead man’s skull.

I couldn’t command animals to come to me.

Even Petie sometimes needs to be coaxed.

I looked up at the moon. It wasn’t quite full, it was big and almost round, and very yellow.

I went back home and my Mom threw her arms around me. “Where were you?”

“I’m so sorry,” I said. I started crying again. I didn’t tell her anything that Kitty had said. “I went over Kitty’s to make sure she was okay. I should have called. I’m sorry.”

Dad came to the door, and picked me up in his arms. “It’s a good thing you came home, young lady. Or we’d have to eat all your supper and then you’d have none!”

“You should have called,” my Mom said. “But I’m glad you checked on your friend. That was a very caring thing to do.”

The next day after school, I promised my parents I’d come home real quick, that I just wanted to check on Kitty.

My Mom had already made some cookies. “She’ll like these,” I said.

When I got there, Kitty was out in her yard.

She was sitting on the ground, and I knew she had that skull with her.

“Hey,” I said. I tried to sound cheerful, but it was hard knowing your friend has got this skull.

“Hey,” she looked up at me.

“My Mom made these.” I held out the cookies.

She smiled. “Your Mom’s swell.”

It felt good to hear another girl say “swell.”

“I’ve been thinking,” she said.

“Me, too,” I said. “I think you should get rid of that skull.”

“Me too!” she said, super surprised that we were both thinking the same thing.

She had a hammer. Two hammers, actually. “After I told you, I felt better,” she said. “I know Mr. Gus can’t hurt me or anyone else.”

We took the hammers, and started smashing up the skull. We smashed it to smithereens.

Then, we picked up all the pieces, and walked down into the sand pit with a shovel.

We used the shovel to smash it up even more. Then we covered it.

There were some animal bones down there. The teeth were harder to smash up, but it looked like Mr. Gus never went to a dentist a day in his miserable life.

His teeth were all broken, and some of them were missing.

I know it sounds strange, but it felt good, smashing up his skull, into absolutely nothing and burying it in the dirt with some animal bones.

We went back up to her yard, and started eating the cookies.

Some of the cats came around. She already had food ready for them.

We sat there, me and her and the cats, the founding members of Kitty’s Atomic Cat Club.

“My grandma called,” she said. “She’s coming back on a train and should be home tonight.”

“We should save her some cookies,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said.

We looked up at the moon, which was rising. I was going to have to leave soon, but I had an idea. An actual, honest-to-goodness idea.

I said, “Someday, if we don’t have a war, we could go to the moon.”

“That’s true,” said Kitty, and she sounded like she hadn’t thought of it. And I felt good I had thought of something first.

I said, “I remember the teacher said once upon a time, girls couldn’t vote, and now they do. Or when they grow up. And my Mom was in the army -- she was a nurse.”

“Wow, that really is swell,” Kitty said.

We stood and I put an arm around her and pointed up at the moon. A couple of the cats rubbed against our legs, which kind of tickled.

I said, “Well if girls can vote and go to the Army, maybe we can go to the moon.”

“Maybe,” Kitty said. I could tell she thought it was a good idea.

“Maybe cats can go, too,” I said.

“Maybe,” she agreed.


2021 Meg Smith

Bio: Meg Smith is a writer, journalist, dancer and event producer living in Lowell, Mass. USA. In addition to Aphelion, her poetry and fiction have appeared in Sirens Call eZine, Raven Cage, Dark Dossier, The Horror Zine, and many more. She is author of five poetry books and a short fiction collection, The Plague Confessor. She welcomes visits to megsmithwriter.com, Facebook.com/megsmithwriter, and on Twitter @MegSmith_Writer.

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