December 19

The Exterminator’s Visit (Part 6)


“Kitty,” Ethel said, tentative.  “Kitty?”

No answer.

She looked again at the box with the hole in the side.  It was a heavy one, precariously balanced on one step, and the overhang supported by smaller bins on the step beneath.  On closer inspection, the paw prints had an unusual shape:  it was impossible to tell which direction the animal had been walking when it made the tracks.

Whether it had crawled out of the box, or in.

Ethel set down the flashlight and gripped the box by its top corners.  She began to rock it back and forth.

The weight within the box shifted.  Books or outdated TV remotes, or pillows soaked through with water.  A fresh gurgle of slime poured out the opening.

She held still and waited. Again, a weight shifted within the box.

Ethel retrieved the flashlight, aimed it through the opening.  The edges of the cardboard looked as if they’d been eaten away by sharp teeth.

On impulse, she slapped the side of the box, and metallic contents rattled within.  She uttered an angry “Shoo!” then kicked the box hard with her good leg, taunting the stray to reveal itself.

Finally, an answering hiss responded.

A cat.  She knew all along it was only a cat.

The sound came from the opening of the cardboard box, but it also seemed to come from all directions at once.  It filled the stairway.

The box began to sway on its own.

Ethel stepped back, her hand pressing against a trash bag filled with Styrofoam packing material.  The side of the bag was warm and sticky, and now that foul smell coated both her hands.

Another hiss, a rustle.  Then another shake of the box.

The cat growled, its voice muffled by the rattle of metal and plastic.  It was one of those weird animal cries that approximated human speech, then yawned into an incomprehensible howl.  Her husband, always more sentimental, would have remarked:  Oh, Kitty tried to call your name or, She’s telling us she’s hungry!

Then the box fell over.  It crashed into the path she’d begun clearing up the middle of the stairs, and the movement within grew frantic, an animal scratching at a closed door or fighting its way out of a burlap sack.  Items clattered within, cardboard thumped and bulged, and Ethel screamed “Shoo!” again, kicked the box once more for good measure.

A wail of pain rose from the rubble.  She thought again of her sentimental husband.   It’s like a baby.  Doesn’t Kitty sound like a baby, Ethel?

No, nothing like a baby.  More like an animal stuck in a trap.   Ethel felt an unexpected pang of guilt:  she’d set this trap, without realizing it.  The poor animal had wandered inside for warmth, only to have the world fall onto it.

But she’d set a trap for herself, too.  Loose items had fallen behind her in the commotion, filling in the path she’d cleared for her upward climb.  Ethel would have to back out slowly, redistributing bins and boxes into new stacks.  It would be a long, slow effort — lots of stooping and lifting and balancing.  She started with People and Us Weekly issues that had spilled to a lower step, then gathered Sunday newspaper supplements into the same pile.  All the while, the animal cried louder, almost as if it were deciding to chew off its own leg to escape.  Ethel wanted to rearrange the items carefully, to make sure the new piles were sturdy.  But she couldn’t concentrate with all that crying.

It’s like a baby.

It was not a baby, it was a wild animal.  A bulge pressed outward from the toppled box, and Ethel decided that’s where the cat was attempting to break free.  For some reason, she didn’t want to see the animal once it scurried out, and she worked faster to accomplish her own retreat.

That section of the box grew dark and damp, and a small split tore open in the wet cardboard.  In the flashlight glimmer, a moist pink line appeared, then opened into the twisted circle of an animal mouth.  The howl grew louder, and a fresh gust of animal breath assaulted her.  The cat’s tongue swished out from beneath, then a gurgle of that awful milky substance drooled out one side of the opening — a spoiled yellow-brown, with veins of blood and dust-gray flecks.  The mouth contorted and a round head forced through the enlarged rip in the toppled box.

It’s like a baby.

No, it was one of those freakish Egyptian cats.  Hairless, wrinkled even on its face, the skin loose and pink.   And yet it was like a human baby after all, with that pinched look of a newborn, but the head as large as a toddler’s, and instead of those wet red wrinkles, something more like the withered folds of an elderly person — the coiled creases Ethel saw on her own hands and arms, on her neck when she looked in the mirror.  Yet this stray didn’t have the dark tented ears she expected on a cat.  They were matted flat against the sides of the head, loose folds without the shape of cartilage — almost all lobe.

And its eyes.  Cloudy blue-gray, but with a cold, wide iris.  The head turned towards her, and the black irises flashed in the dim light.  The mouth opened in another angry howl.  “Ethel Finley,” it said.

Kitty tried to call your name.




[…concluded in December 20 entry…]