And at that moment Halston knew that it was something more than a cat. It was something possessed of a malign, murderous intent.
He caught one last glimpse of that black-and-white face below the flattened ears, its eyes enormous and filled with lunatic hate. It had gotten rid of the three old people and now it was going to get rid of John Halston.
It rammed into his mouth, a furry projectile. He gagged on it. Its front claws pinwheeled, tattering his tongue like a piece of liver. His stomach recoiled and he vomited. The vomit ran down into his windpipe, clogging it, and he began to choke. In this extremity, his will to survive overcame the last of the impact paralysis. He brought his hands up slowly to grasp the cat.
Oh my God, he thought.
The cat was forcing its way into his mouth, flattening its body, squirming, working itself farther and farther in. He could feel his jaws creaking wider and wider to admit it.
He reached to grab it, yank it out, destroy it…and his hands clasped only the cat’s tail.
Somehow it had gotten its entire body into his mouth. Its strange, black-and-white face must be crammed into his very throat. A terrible thick gagging sound came from Halston’s throat, which was swelling like a flexible length of garden hose.
His body twitched. His hands fell back into his lap and the fingers drummed senselessly on his thighs. His eyes sheened over, then glazed.
They stared out through the Plymouth’s windshield blankly at the coming dawn.
Protruding from his open mouth was two inches of bushy tail…half black, half white. It switched lazily back and forth.
A bird cried somewhere again. Dawn came in breathless silence then, over the frost-rimmed fields of rural Connecticut.
The farmer’s name was Will Reuss. He was on his way to Placer’s Glen to get the inspection sticker renewed on his farm truck when he saw the late-morning sun twinkle on something in the ravine beside the road. He pulled over and saw the Plymouth lying at a drunken, canted angle in the ditch, barbed wire tangled in its grille like a snarl of steel knitting. He worked his way down and then sucked in his breath sharply.
“Holy moley,” he muttered to the bright November day. There was a guy sitting bolt upright behind the wheel, eyes open and glaring emptily into eternity. The Roper organization was never going to include him in its presidential poll again. His face was smeared with blood. He was still wearing his seat belt.
The driver’s door had been crimped shut, but Reuss managed to get it open by yanking with both hands. He leaned in and unstrapped the seat belt, planning to check for ID. He was reaching for the coat when he noticed that the dead guy’s shirt was rippling, just above the belt buckle.
Rippling…and bulging. Splotches of blood began to bloom there like sinister roses.
“What the Christ?” He reached out, grasped the dead man’s shirt, and pulled it up.
Will Reuss looked – and screamed.
Above Halston’s navel, a ragged hole had been clawed in his flesh.
Looking out was the gore-streaked black-and-white face of a cat, its eyes huge and glaring. Reuss staggered back, shrieking, hands clapped 68
to his face. A score of crows took cawing wing from a nearby field. The cat forced its body out and stretched in obscene languor. Then it leaped out the open window. Reuss caught sight of it moving through the high dead grass and then it was gone.
It seemed to be in a hurry, he later told a reporter from the local paper.
As if it had unfinished business.
University of Maine literary magazine Onan, January 1971. Revised and reprinted in Heavy Metal magazine in July 1981.
Dexter Stanley was scared. More; he felt as if that central axle that binds us to the state we call sanity were under a greater strain than it had ever been under before. As he pulled up beside Henry Northrup’s house on North Campus Avenue that August night, he felt that if he didn’t talk to someone, he really, would go crazy.
There was no one to talk to but Henry Northrup. Dex Stanley was the head of the zoology department, and once might have been university president if he had been better at academic politics. His wife had died twenty years before, and they had been childless. What remained of his own family was all west of the Rockies. He was not good at making friends.
Northrup was an exception to that. In some ways, they were two of a kind; both had been disappointed in the mostly meaningless, but always vicious, game of university politics. Three years before, Northrup had made his run at the vacant English department chairmanship. He had lost, and one of the reasons had undoubtedly been his wife, Wilma, an abrasive and unpleasant woman. At the few cocktail parties Dex had attended where English people and zoology people could logically mix, it seemed he could always recall the harsh mule-bray of her voice, telling some new faculty wife to “call me Billie, dear everyone does!”
Dex made his way across the lawn to Northrup’s door at a stumbling run. It was Thursday, and Northrup’s unpleasant spouse took two classes on Thursday nights.
Consequently, it was Dex and Henry’s chess night. The two men had been playing chess together for the last eight years.
Dex rang the bell beside the door of his friend’s house; leaned on it.
The door opened at last and Northrup was there.
“Dex,” he said. I didn’t expect you for another – ”
Dex pushed in past him. “Wilma,” he said. “Is she here?”
“No, she left fifteen minutes ago. I was just making myself some chow. Dex, you look awful.”
They had walked under the hall light, and it illuminated the cheesy pallor of Dex’s face and seemed to outline wrinkles as deep and dark as fissures in the earth. Dex was sixty-one, but on the hot August night, he looked more like ninety.
“I ought to.” Dex wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Well, what is it?”
“I’m afraid I’m going crazy, Henry. Or that I’ve already gone.”
“You want something to eat? Wilma left cold ham.”
“I’d rather have a drink. A big one.”
“Two men dead, Henry,” Dex said abruptly. “And I could be blamed.
Yes, I can see how I could be blamed. But it wasn’t me. It was the crate.
And I don’t even know what’s in there!” He uttered a wild laugh.
“Dead?” Northrup said. “What is this, Dex?”
“A janitor. I don’t know his name. And Gereson. A graduate student.
He just happened to be there. In the way of…whatever it was.”
Henry studied Dex’s face for a long moment and then said, “I’ll get us both a drink.”
He left. Dex wandered into the living room, past the low table where the chess table had already been set up, and stared out the graceful bow window. That thing in his mind, that axle or whatever it was, did not feel so much in danger of snapping now. Thank God for Henry.
Northrup came back with two pony glasses choked with ice. Ice from the fridge’s automatic icemaker, Stanley thought randomly. Wilma “just call me Billie, everyone does” Northrup insisted on all the modern conveniences…and when Wilma insisted on a thing, she did so savagely.
Northrup filled both glasses with Cutty Sark. He handed one of them to Stanley, who slopped Scotch over his fingers, stinging a small cut he’d gotten in the lab a couple of days before. He hadn’t realized until then that his hands were shaking. He emptied half the glass and the Scotch boomed in his stomach, first hot, then spreading a steadying warmth.
“Sit down, man,” Northrup said.
Dex sat, and drank again. Now it was a lot better. He looked at Northrup, who was looking levelly back over the rim of his own glass.
Dex looked away, out at the bloody orb of moon sitting over the rim of the horizon, over the university, which was supposed to be the seat of rationality, the forebrain of the body politic. How did that jibe with the matter of the crate? With the screams? With the blood?
“Men are dead?” Northrup said at last.
“Are you sure they’re dead?”
“Yes. The bodies are gone now. At least, I think they are. Even the bones… the teeth… but the blood… the blood, you know…”
“No, I don’t know anything. You’ve got to start at the beginning.”
Stanley took another drink and set his glass down. “Of course I do,”
he said. “Yes. It begins just where it ends. With the crate. The janitor found the crate…”
Dexter Stanley had come into Amberson Hall, sometimes called the Old Zoology Building, that afternoon at three o’clock. It was a blaringly hot day, and the campus looked listless and dead, in spite of the twirling sprinklers in front of the fraternity houses and the Old Front dorms. The Old Front went back to the turn of the century, but Amberson Hall was much older than that. It was one of the oldest buildings on a university campus that had celebrated its tricentennial two years previous. It was a tall brick building, shackled with ivy that seemed to spring out of the earth like green, clutching hands. Its narrow windows were more like gun slits than real windows, and Amberson seemed to frown at the newer buildings with their glass walls and curvy, unorthodox shapes.