Aphelion Issue 273, Volume 26
June 2022
 
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Temporary Company

by Nicholas J. Devlin




Susie Bartelow was a girl who needn’t have pets. Little Susie, with her bubble-gum lips and brassy blond hair, a mass which on most days could be found tucked up in a pink hair band, was not ready for them. And now, not-so-little Susie, 25-year-old Susie, a refined, fierce version of the girl she once was, was still not ready for pets. Not now, and not ever.

She first thought it was some wild animal, maybe a beaver or a fisher cat, but would these mammals be out in the winter? She didn’t know, and it didn’t matter, because as it shimmied its way through the Colorado aspens and approached Susie Bartelow, it was clear as the January day itself that it was a tiny house cat. A tabby. A tabby with a raccoon tail, lime-green eyes, and a red felt collar with a beige zig-zag design and a golden bell which hung mightily from it.

It quivered its hind leg in an attempt to shake off snow, sank it back down reluctantly, and then did the same with the next leg. It finished its course on the fresh snow and hopped down to the dense, packed snow on Susie’s walkway, easing along the stretch between it and Susie, no

 

longer struggling. It stopped before her, looking up with glowing eyes that begged, then mewed diffidently.

“Hey buddy. You lost?” she said. She bent over and scooped up the cat, a cat that did not resist. She saw when she did this that she was a female. The cat snuggled cozily against her chest, palms flat on her clavicle. She was purring, and as Susie brought her through the front door of her bungalow, the cat went in for a nose lick.

******

She closed the door and set the cat down. It caressed her leg.

Then she removed her cardigan, hung it on the rack next to the door, and said, “I’ll get you some food and water, but first, I need to do something.” She went through the kitchen and into the parlor. The cat followed. A dim fire was burning in a brick fireplace next to a television stand. Adjacent to the hearth of the fireplace, perched on the hardwood floor, was a horseshoe iron rack with a full stack of wood. She grabbed a log from the top, opened the fireplace door with her free hand, threw the log in, then grabbed another, and fed this one to the fire as well.

She started back for the kitchen, and suddenly, she tripped over something and fell, catching herself on her hands unscathed. When she looked up, a squinting pair of eyes met hers. Whiskers tickled her face as they frisked against it. She had tripped over the cat. Susie had always associated cats with being standoffish, so she was quite surprised to see how gregarious this one was.   

“Man, you're friendly, huh? Sorry,” she said. 

******

She filled a ceramic bowl halfway with water and set it down next to the counter. Then she fished through one of the cabinets. When she retracted her hand, it had a shallow can in it. She grabbed another bowl, pulled the can’s tab back, and emptied the contents into it. The cat, not so excited about the water, could hardly contain herself as Susie prepared this bowl. She set it down, and before she could withdraw her hand, the cat was indulging.

She examined her collar. There were no tags, or anything indicating the cat’s name or where she had come from.

“Bumble Bee. Sorry. I know Starkist is better,” she said.

******

“Keeping her isn’t even an option, mom,” Susie said as she browsed her laptop.

“Good. You know what I told you about pets. They’re a distraction, a big responsibility. Then, after many years, too many, they die, leaving you heartbroken and worse off than before. I imagine you’re not ready for that,” her mother replied from the speaker of Susie’s iPhone, which lay flat on her bedroom desk. 

Just like Little Susie wasn’t, right mom?

“So what’s the plan then?” her mother continued.

“I’m gonna find the owner.”

“There must be a million cats in Colorado Springs, baby.”

“And most of them are home, where they belong. Don’t doubt my social-media powers. There’s even a group for this block on Facebook.”

“Okay, darling. Well—looks like you got some temporary company. Maybe it’s not a bad thing.” 

******

The Saturday was to be dedicated to staying in and writing her novel, but now, thanks to a mystery cat, she wasn’t getting any writing done. She had due diligence, of course, which was to keep the cat alive and to get her home. She drove a few blocks down the neighborhood’s hill to the mini mart and bought two cans of Friskies shreds, a small bag of litter, and a smaller bag of dry food. When she returned, the cat was eagerly awaiting her arrival, padding for the door as she unlocked it. She was greeted with solemn swipes to the ankle. She worried for a second that she was getting attached, then chuckled at the absurdity of the thought. 

“Hello, girl. I’ve got some real food for you,” she said as she chucked what was left of the tuna and replaced it with the chunky, slimy goop. The cat engorged. Susie watched. When she was halfway through, she stopped eating and gave Susie a few more loving swipes. “You must be full. I need to get a picture of you. So you can get back to your owners. They must be worried sick.” She picked her up and set her on the counter, but when she stepped back to snap the shot, the cat jumped down and followed her.

“No, no,” she said. “I need you to stay.” She struggled to get the distracted cat to look at the camera, or to stop moving at all. When she looked up for a split-second, Susie managed a close-up shot. It had a slight blur, but her cuteness was captured nonetheless. The look on her face was innocent, desperate, the bell hanging just below. It jingled when she struggled to keep up with Susie as Susie strutted to her bedroom. She spewed a collection of posts across social-media sites, all with the same picture and message:

CAT FOUND. WALLABURG ST. NEAR SPRUCE INTERSECTION.
NO ID TAG. MESSAGE ME IF YOU KNOW ANYTHING.

******

She hadn’t gotten around to writing, but she planned to do so after dinner. There was just a little bump in the road, an adorable one that was now watching her from the couch in the parlor. She sat on her hinds, fascinated with this writer girl. 

“I know sloppy joes aren’t the most lady-like,” she said to her. “Don’t mind me.” The tabby jumped off the couch, hastened to the counter, and jumped up, passing to Susie a beseeching look. “Whoa, whoa. Careful. You almost knocked over the sauce.” The cat approached one of the cabinets and nudged her head repeatedly against it. “Hungry? Still? Man, you must’ve not eaten for days. Poor thing.” She opened the cabinet and reached for another can of Friskies, but when she pulled it out, the cat was nudging her head against something else.

“Tuna? The Bumble Bee? Well, okay.” She poured the tuna into the bowl which had remnants of the Friskies from earlier. The cat scarfed it down in one sitting. “Guess I was wrong. You really do like that stuff. Bumble Bee. That’s what I’ll call you. Bee for short.”

******

With a steaming cup of tea, she sat down, ready to write at last. First though, she would check to see if she had any leads on the owner hunt.

Hundreds of notifications were waiting for her. It hurt to read them. Strangers ridiculed her. Others mocked. Some suggested she check into her local “cuckoo house.” 

Somehow, someone had elaborated a sick prank, she thought. They had put this lost cat in her yard, then got everyone on board to claim the picture she took of it was nothing but one of a counter, with—what’s that—a waffle maker?

This was the only possibility. Surely, she was not crazy. Surely, there was a cat in the picture. She could see it. Clear as day. Should she take another picture? No, that would only feed the sick prank. Speaking of the cat, where was she?

She scanned the room. No cat. Had she been tripping? Was there no cat? She stormed out of the bedroom. No cat in the corridor. Onto the parlor. No cat there. The last possibility was the kitchen, and she was relieved to see Bee curled up in a potato ball on the counter, fast asleep. She walked over, trying hard to not wake her. She stroked Bee, who indeed stayed asleep. The cat was real. The picture, however, would need an explanation.

******

Susie never got around to writing. Sunday would be a new day, however, a new opportunity, and she slept like a baby, Bee curled in her spoon. When the day came, she was sure to eat a hearty breakfast, one of eggs, bacon, and toast, before making the dreadful call.

******

“So let me get this straight,” her mother said, again on the speaker of Susie’s iPhone. “You want to send me a picture of the cat, and then tell you if she’s—there?”

“Um. Yeah,” she replied.

“What’s been going on with you? I mean, and I hate to be brusque, but do you have any idea what’s caused you to lose your marbles? I know it may be hard to tell, you know, when you have. But honey. Whether or not I see a cat in the picture, you’re gonna need to check yourself in somewhere. We’ll pay for it. Me and Tony. When there's a discrepancy in what you’re seeing and what others are, it's time to get help.”

Susie hung up. She didn’t need this. She sent the picture to her mother along with a text: “Just tell me if there’s a fracking cat.” Not long after her phone buzzed: “No cat.

******

She thought of 2015, when the “dress phenomenon” erupted. Most of what went viral online was trivial and dull, but this photograph, one of a washed-out dress hung in a shop, actually had something to it. Vision scientists confirmed it was blue with black stripes, although most viewers saw it as wedding white with yellow-gold stripes. She saw it for what it was on and off, a royal blue sheath offset by charcoal black. It alternated with appearing white and gold, and as time progressed, she saw the black and blue dress less and less until she saw it no more. Maybe this was the next phenomenon. Maybe someone else had seen the cat. After all, she hadn’t gone through all the comments.

******

She went through every thread twice. If someone had seen the cat, they weren’t speaking up, or they had a painfully ambiguous way of saying it. No comments Susie went through had even as much alluded to the confirmation that there was a cat in the photograph. She pulled her phone out of her pocket, unlocked it, and opened the recent photos. There, in the last frame, was the blurry picture of the cat. She enlarged it to make sure Bee was really in it, in spite of Bee occupying most of the frame. 

******

Devin was flamboyant enough that he could’ve walked into any gay bar, which Susie was quite sure he did in secret, and no one would as much as think to question whether it was his first time in the place. She could’ve hung out with him in her bedroom, door locked and lights out for hours, and no one would suspect he touched her. He didn’t act the way most guys act around girls. He acted the way most girls act around girls. He was gay. As far as Susie knew, however, he was closeted.

She was not surprised to see him, looking handsome as ever in his fur-hooded parka, oil-brown khakis, and men’s Uggs, cradling a box of cookies from ZZ’s bakery. That was him. Even on short notice, he came bearing gifts. It was part of the overt femininity that everyone seemed to see but never bothered to stir together the greater meaning of. His face was sunbaked even on this frigid day. He was clean-shaven, his jawline sharp.

“Sorry to ask you over on short notice like this,” she said. “Come in.” He kicked his boot on the threshold to rid snow, stepped in, and handed the box to Susie.

“White Chip Macadamia. Sounded too good to resist.” The warmth radiated across her hands when she grabbed it, and with it came a sweet and sugary aroma. Devin removed his boots and coat, and they made their way into the kitchen. Susie fixed them each a half glass of whole milk. She sat down and opened the flaps of the cardboard box. Steam spooled out, the sweet smell became sweeter, and in it, her deep worries about Bee escaped her. But the relief was temporary.  

The worries came back when a bell jingled from the corridor and Bee padded into the room weightlessly. She greeted Devin with an apprehensive acceptance of his head stroke, then pounced up onto his lap. She purred loudly.

“Well, hello there. You’re friendly,” he said as he generously stroked her rump. Her tail erected high from it like a tree from its sprout, and when Devin pulled his hand away, she begged for more.

“I found her outside,” she said. “Yesterday morning.”

“Did you put posts on the community forums?”

“Yes. And see. Well…” She was about to dip a cookie in her milk but stopped herself. “That’s the problem. Look. I need you to do me a weird favor.”

“As long as it doesn’t involve anything sexual.” At any other time, she would have capitalized on this allusion, but she only tittered, then resumed.

“I need you to tell me what you see in a…well…hold on. Let me just…,” She slid her phone out of her pocket and opened the photo app. The last photo in her recents was from a week prior. It was of her and her agent, Brett Turner, announcing the plans for her novel that she was now much behind on. There was no photo of a cat, or even one of a countertop background. “No…no. This can’t be right.”

“What’s the matter?”

“Hold on.”

She went onto Facebook. No evidence of any cat posts. Twitter. Same thing. Pinterest. Forget about it. Instagram. She was almost glad to see it gone from there. She stared blankly at the phone.

“What’s the matter, Susie?” There was a long silence, and she thought it was possible three minutes had passed.

“I’ve just been…procrastinating. I never made the post.” She couldn’t believe she was saying it, but she had already been swimming out to the looney boat, and if she told him everything now, she would be a passenger, life jacket and all. “It’s just that—well—what if I want to keep her?” The possibility was but a scapegoat, but could it have been true? She was careful not to let Devin know she had already named the cat. 

Devin fed her a tacky rhetoric about how it was understandable she was feeling a connection with the cat but her due diligence was to try her hardest to find the owner, for the cat and for them. If no one claimed the cat, Bee would be hers. She promised Devin she would put up posts, flyers, whatever it would take to find the owner. Devin asked if he could help, to which she said she appreciated the offer but was quite capable of doing it herself.  

******

When Devin left, Susie scanned through her photos and social media one more time to make sure what she had seen was right. There was nothing. She wasn’t going to make another post, lest the same thing happened, and now she saw it as more likely than not.

It was time to write, and so write she did. She wrote five-thousand words before she was tired, Bee curled next to her laptop all the while. The story was fresh. It was about a man who had divorced his wife and sought out a new life, one off the grid, out in the homestead of the Rockies. Over time he would become more and more detached from society as he learned primal skills until he didn’t need society at all. It would become a utopian lifestyle for him. But one day he would question it all, whether it was real. Whether he was real. He makes a trip into town after a long period of isolation and finds the world is not the one he knows, had ever known, or rather, one that had ever known him.

More would ensue. It needed an ending, of course. All stories needed endings, but this one was fresh. Fresh, but on a good track. The right track.

“Ow!” she screamed as a deep and sharp pain shunted her left hand. It felt as if she had punched the whirling blades of a blender. Something had her. Bee had her. She was biting her hand with ferocity. “Bee! Get off me!” She squirmed, but Bee did not retract. “What are you doing?!” She palmed Bee’s face with her right hand, which fit snug in it, and forced her off. Bee released a lion hiss and stormed out of the bedroom.

Rivers of maroon blood ran down her hand. Flaps of skin hung flaccidly. In a fit of shock, Susie cradled her left hand in her right and dashed to the bathroom. She ran warm water over the punctures, which stung like hell, and swaddled the hand in a paper towel. Then she rummaged through the closet with her good hand, searching for the first-aid kit. When she found it, she acquired an unopened roll of gauze wrap, opened it, and replaced the paper towel with the fabric. She untidily shoved the first-aid kit back in the closet and clasped the edge of the counter, staring deeply into her reflection. 

“What the hell?” she said. Part of her had hoped the reflection would respond. She needed a sound opinion. She strode through the corridor and into the parlor. The fire was not ablaze, but it had just enough embers to give life to a couple logs. She threw two in. Bee was out of sight for the rest of the night, and Susie paid little mind to this. She needed a break from the little bastard, the cute, adorable, bastard that just so happened to have a taste for human flesh. The bedroom door stayed closed for the night.

******

“Devin. Please,” she said the next morning, phone to ear. “I can’t do it. It’s hard to explain, but I can’t.” 

“Okay, okay. I get it. You really are attached to her, huh? Send me a picture, and I’ll get the posts out by this afternoon.” Her face lit up.

“Oh. Thank you, Devin. Thank you so much. You’re the best.”

“I know. But just remember, Susie, if we find the owner, you have to cough the cat up.”

“I know,” she said. “I know. I will.” And what Devin didn’t know was there was nothing more she wanted. Bee had been okay this morning, sauntering around and following Susie as she did her chores, made breakfast, and rekindled the fire, but she couldn’t shake off the cold feeling of wariness that was produced by the Bee’s savagery the night before. When Bee was staged just right, atop the kitchen table and in a glint of sun beaming in through the far window, Susie snapped a new picture, this one much better than the first. Then she sent the picture to Devin and added another log to the fire.

******

Where’s the cat,” the text from Devin read. It stifled her, and when she got her breath back, it came in an icy blast. She dropped the phone, which met the floor with a hard thud, and raced to find Bee. She was in the bedroom, kneading Susie’s comforter with a rumbling purr. She looked up at Susie, slit-eyed.

“What are you?” She wanted Bee to respond, to tell her what. She had to put her back where she had found her. It was the only way out. She scooped up Bee, and Bee held onto her like a baby, front paws over her shoulder. It was maternal, like a mother holding a child, but as she neared the front door, she could feel the razor-sharp tip of Bee’s claws intruding her skin. It was nothing malicious, but by the time she was at the door, her claws had clung the way a rock climber grabs onto an unpromising hold. “C’mon, Bee. You’re starting to hurt me.”

She opened the door and stepped onto the front porch. Bee’s claws were now halfway into her skin. She went to let Bee down, but Bee only clung on harder.

“Ow!” she screamed. She tried to pry Bee off, but with this came an immense wave of sheer pain, like knives twisting, and she appeased Bee. The bell on her collar rang wildly. Bee fixed onto her, she went back into the bedroom and lay down. Bee retracted her claws, and continued kneading the bed, purr recommenced. Susie curled into the fetal position and sunk her head deep into the mattress, still maintaining her watch on the demon cat. She noticed blood on her blouse, which was now ragged with pinholes.    

“Alright,” she said. “You win. You’re here to stay, and there’s nothing I can do about it. But what’s everyone going to do when they see I’ve kept you and made no efforts to find your owner? I should ask someone to come over right now, take a picture of you, and see for themselves. With my luck, though, the only people showing up will be the cops with a pretty pink letter denoting I have no choice but to ride in an equally pretty red ambulance. Or someone will come, at nothing short of reluctant, and they’ll snap the shot. And guess what. You’ll be in it, Bee. Right?” Bee nudged her head against Susie’s face as if to confirm it. “You’re gaslighting me, Bee. My cat’s gaslighting me.” She gasped, gazing into the popcorn ceiling. “My cat. No. You’re not my cat.”

At this, she shoved Bee off the bed and Bee sprung downward, rolling on herself upon impact. Susie felt like a monster. She stormed to the parlor, opened the fireplace door, and threw another log in. She then stepped backward, and when her ankle met the lip of the couch, she fell into it, sobbing.

Face buried in her hands, one of which had a soft gauze padding, she wept, “Why is this happening to me?”

Behind her Bee lurked, ready to pounce.

******

The first thing she felt was Bee’s fur, her soft, sleek fur. She had never had pets of her own (you needn’t have them, Little Susie), but she had always admired the way cats groomed themselves. Dogs had to be taken care of in this aspect, and if they weren’t, their fur would become matted, their odors foul. But cats had a sense of hygiene. They were lady-like, gender notwithstanding, and Susie liked lady-like. More than this, she liked the ways cats were wary of people, the way they required to earn one’s trust before getting cozy. Give a dog a treat, and he’s your best friend. It took time with cats, usually, not so much with Bee. And if they didn’t trust someone, they had a corked bottle of ferocity, in the form of razor-sharp claws and fangs, to strike with if need be.

The claws came second. They pried into her cheeks, then pulled, dragging bits of flesh and blood with them. Susie released a reedy wail as Bee rearranged her face. Meanwhile, her bottom paws were doing a job to Susie’s midriff, which was now clad in a bloody war garment. She tried desperately to pull the tabby off, but when she did this, her skin came with the cat. If she pulled the whole way, it would be like tugging at a hoop earring until the lobe gouge rent. Bee was no more than ten pounds, but she had all the leverage on Susie, who prided herself at a healthy one-forty.

The teeth came third. Bee gnawed at her nose like a gravy-drenched chicken bone. When Susie resisted, Bee growled demonically. Susie wasn’t having thoughts anymore. But she had instinct. And her instinct told her to trample Bee, planting her onto the hardwood floor.

She did this, and Bee yowled electrically. Susie felt something crack in the cat, and she hoped it was a crippling fracture. Bee let off Susie’s nose, still clung onto her face and midriff, and for a second Susie felt disgusted at herself for hoping the cat was hurt, the sweet and lovable house cat which had been anything but a monster until the day before.

“Get off me!” she yelled as she got back to her feet, but Bee wouldn’t budge. She squirmed her head spastically. It made the pain worse. Blood pooled from her cheeks, and skin gave way to muscle. She had to kill Bee.

She jimmied her hand through the cat’s bloodied arms and grabbed Bee by the neck, digging her thumb into Bee’s trachea. Bee growled and unclipped her paw from Susie’s cheek. She batted at Susie’s arm, and it felt to Susie as if her claws were growing rapidly. Bee was losing air; she could tell this much, but she was in for a fight, and after a mess of batting, she fought off Susie’s grip. At this, Susie tripped over the couch, falling back into its soft padding.

In one swift motion, Bee took the claw no longer occupied by fighting Susie’s arm, hooked Susie’s right eyeball, and pulled it out. It hung from the socket by the rectus, dangling like a tetherball. Susie’s vision converged into one dimension, and she could taste the blood pooling out of her eye socket and over her mouth. Then, just like a kitty going for a treat, Bee mouthed the eyeball, dragging the rectus out of Susie’s eye socket.

Like a good prize earned, Bee retracted her claws from Susie’s ragged flesh and took the eyeball to the corner of the room, snacking on it like a chicken flake. Susie wept, but all that came out was blood. If she didn’t call for help in the next few minutes, she would faint, leaving herself to rot in a puddle of this blood until her absence became suspicious enough for an investigation. But she couldn’t do this with Bee alive.

She snuck to the fireplace with what she had left in her, and slid the glass door open. The fire was burning well now, thanks to the log she had added. When she was done, she could see Bee slurping in the last of the rectus like a fine Italian noodle. She would be back for more. This Susie knew.

She swiped Bee, who reacted by twisting and digging her claws into Susie. Just like that, she was stuck again.

 Like ripping a Band-Aid off, Susie.

She ripped the Band-Aid off, and with it came the last of the skin on her face and midriff, and the silk of her blouse which now exposed her bloody abdomen.

She flung Bee into the fire, and before she could run out, Susie fixed the door over the hearth. There was a mad racket of squeals and yowls and hisses, then a bright explosion. Viscera painted the screen door. Face first, Susie dropped to the floor. She felt for her phone, which was in the right pocket of her tainted skinny jeans. The battery was down to one percent. God, she thought, all that and now I’m gonna die from low phone battery.

Not politely, she asked Siri to call 911.

“911. What is your emergency?”

“I need an ambulance.”

******

As far as Susie’s mother was concerned, she was never contacted about a lost cat, not by Susie, or anyone else. As far as social-media records went, there were no posts ever made about a missing cat by the writer. As far as Devin’s account went, he had never gone to Susie’s house, never talked to her on the phone, never bought cookies (turns out ZZ’s was closed that day), never discussed feline matters with the woman over a glass of milk. As far as the evidence went, only bowls of water and cat food along with a makeshift litter box ever stood to suggest there was a cat in the house. Investigators even searched the house for remains of a feline: fur, loose litter, anything. Nothing was found. Not that they were dumb enough to believe a cat was responsible for what happened. When first responders got to the house, the fire contained only logs, embers, soot, and flames. One of the cops even threw a new log onto it. 

They could only conclude Susie did what was done to herself, which called for some serious time in the state hospital. Five months.

Susie was never the same. Once released, she was able to replace the eye patch she detested with a glass eye. It saved her from the pirate jokes. And although the depth perception aspect of her situation was a bitch, as she put it, she was a better writer than before. She finished her novel in the hospital, and it sold as a bestseller. This kept the wheels moving for her financially.

******

Two years after Susie came back, after her life had restored to a semblance of normalcy (nothing was ever “normal” again; most everyone in Colorado Springs knew about what happened), she found herself typing away at a novel on a crisp winter day. She had moved her desk to the parlor, for the ambience of the fire, she had told friends, but this was not true. The fire had become something of a comfort measure for her. It had saved her life, and if she was ever attacked by a small animal again, which didn’t seem unlikely, she would be in the right place.

The fire needed another log. The rack was empty. She slipped on her Uggs, threw her parka over her torso, and headed outside. The dry Colorado cold bit her. She descended the front steps of the porch and rounded the house toward the cord which was piled under tarpaulin. She approached it and lifted the sheet, but the sound of a rustling noise stopped her, a noise hauntingly familiar.

She saw the dog. It was a bedraggled Australian terrier. Around its neck was a red felt collar with a beige zig-zag design and a golden bell which hung mightily.

THE END


2022 Nicholas J. Devlin

Bio: "My writing has generated thousands of views and abundant engagement on my independent blog, boomsplayground.com, though I have no publications. Thank you for your time. My goal is to not waste it."

E-mail: Nicholas J. Devlin

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