The Day Pickles Spoke

     Umberto had been debating whether or not to watch porn the first time his cat spoke to him.
It started off innocently enough. Umberto was in the kitchen. U, for short. Umberto is an ungainly name with no flow between the syllables.
     U was in the kitchen. He’d been ambling around the house for almost an hour now, unsure of how to fill time. Caught in the struggle of wanting to do something productive and the nagging urge to dissolve into a festering internet porn-deep dive. U had been through this enough times to know the inevitable feelings of self-loathing and disappointment that followed these half-erect marathons. Age had made him stronger. His will could more readily fight off uncouth desires. 
     It often made him think back to a philosophy course he’d taken, where they’d talked about free will. A completely overdone discussion, he thought. It made no difference whether we actually made our own choices or if everything was predetermined in the inevitable marching forward of history. Our choices were still our own.
     But that’s not what U was thinking about. The term he remembered with fondness was second order volitions. The idea that humans don’t only feel urges, but have higher-order desires that can be used to overrule the lower-caste ones. He wanted to watch horrible, degrading porn. But wanting to avoid the shame he’d feel afterward was stronger. This was self control. He controlled his destiny.
     So, irresolutely fighting off the sexual advances of his computer, U was in front of the fridge. It was the third time he’d opened it in the last hour. There wasn’t much to be said of the contents. A jar of mayonnaise, so close to empty it didn’t warrant opening. Some milk. A bag of shriveled and soggy spinach. A few beers. U took a beer.
     Closing the fridge and pulling a bottle opener out of the drawer, a voice came from behind him.
     “Starting so soon, are we?”
     He swiveled around in panic. His stomach sank. U lived alone. He’d gotten home from work not too long ago and hadn’t seen anyone inside, or any signs of a break in.
     U looked into the living room, where the voice had come from. No one. 
     “Don’t look so scared. I’m not judging. I mean, who am I to judge when I sit around all day. You’re the one with a job.”
     This time the voice came from his left. U turned his head, reluctant to see the source. The voice was smooth, confident, slightly mischievous in tone. By the open door sat his cat. He was sitting up straight. His tail twitched sporadically behind him. He was staring at U. 
      U had named him Pickles.
      “Wha..what?” U stammered. Lost. Baffled. Pickles kept staring.
     “I hate to spoil the little narrative you had going about us, but the ruse is up, Umberto. There’s something I need to tell you. It can’t wait any longer.”
    Eyes glued to his cat, U finally grabbed the bottle opener from the cabinet and opened his beer. Without averting his eyes or tilting back his head, he took three, gulping swallows. He set the bottle down on the counter.
     “What...do you need to tell me?” 
     U felt his voice quivering. It was strange to suddenly feel so exposed in front of a creature who he normally went about all sorts of personal business in front of without a thought.
     “It’s about the neighbors down the street. They just moved in, as you know. A small family, one young child. An only child. Just like you.”
     “How do you know that?”
     “What? About the family or that you’re an only child?”
     “About me...and the family I guess.”
     “Oh, come on, U. We’ve lived together for the last 7 years. I might be old and lazy but I’m not dumb. I saw the family on my morning walk.”
     U didn’t know what to say. He’d gone from fear to vague acceptance to an utter dissolving of how he understood the world.
     “How can you talk?”
     “Like I said, I’m not dumb. I’ve lived with you and your family for almost my entire life. It wasn’t difficult to learn. And us cats have more innate ability than you think”
     “But...why didn’t you ever speak before?”
     “Well, a couple reasons. As Confucius said: ‘The clever man speaks, the wise man listens.’ Besides, there never really was a need before. I’ve always had everything I wanted. Until now. So that’s why I’m speaking now.”
     “But...but you’re a cat. You’re Pickles.”
     The cat made a sound that U could only understand as a sigh.
     “Yes, Pickles...really an unfortunate name. I can’t say you were the most inspired child. I prefer to call myself Agatha.”
     “But Agatha’s a girls name.”
     Pickles looked at him cooly.
     “So it’s perfectly reasonable for a cat to speak, but a man can’t call himself Agatha?” 
     Agatha tilted his head slightly. Umberto stared.
     “But for the sake of not confusing you more than necessary, you can keep calling me Pickles. It doesn’t bother me.”
     U looked at his feet. Then at his beer. He took another long drink. Pickles sat patiently. Or Agatha. A chill ran down his back.
     “You saw me when I was…?”
     “Please, stop. Let’s not fall into a self-conscious spiral. I swear to you, I don’t judge. You’ve been very good to me, and although humans are strange creatures, that’s not what I want to talk about.”
     “What do you want to talk about?”
     “Well, as I was saying, the new neighbors moved in a few days ago. I was curious so I went up to the house and peeked in through the window, to try and get a sense of what they’re like.”
     Pickles paused. His fur prickled up.
     “That’s when I saw him. The most beautiful, sleek creature I’ve ever seen. Shining black fur. An elegant stride. And his whiskers…”
     A shudder. Pickles stood up and walked in a small circle, sitting back down and shaking himself out.
     “I couldn’t move or stop staring. His paws tread delicately across the floor with the grace of a prince. I got lost in his movements.”
     Umberto tried to drink more beer, but the bottle was empty. He set it back on the counter with a resonating hollowness.
     “Grab another beer, if you want.”
     U did as his cat suggested. After he cracked it open and took another swig, Pickles continued.
     “Anyway, after a while he finally looked up and saw me. I was terrified. Our eyes locked. I felt my tail bushing out like a raccoon’s. At the same time, I didn’t want to seem aggressive. Of course that made me even more nervous.”
     Pickles licked the fur from his upper lips.
     “But he didn’t panic. He just kept looking at me through the window, curious. He meowed. My whole body melted. I managed to croak back a response. He jumped up on the windowsill, directly on the other side of the glass from me. All I could think was how handsome he was.”
     This was a lot to process for U. Pickles could talk. He was gay. And as much as he tried to tell himself it didn’t matter, U couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that Pickles had seen him masturbate.
     “I don’t want to bore you with this. The point of it all, the reason I’m talking to you after years of silence, is that I need your help. I want to meet this cat. Face to face. Whisker to whisker. I’ve been back to that windowsill every day since then and the desire is overpowering. I need you to get me in that house.”
     U considered. It was a love story, but between cats. And Pickles wanted him to help.
     “Can’t he just come outside?”
     “I wish! But his family doesn’t let him out. They’re probably afraid of him being eaten by a coyote, as if he were some kind of idiot.”
     “Are his owners there all day long?” U asked.
     Pickle’s eyes narrowed.
     “Owners?”
     “I mean, family. Are they always home?”
     Pickles glared a bit at U. He let it go. 
     “Yes, it seems like it. But I’ve devised a sort of plan. There’s no need to go breaking into their house.”
     U looked around him. It was late in the day and the light was turning orange. Everything glowed. The wood floors were ignited. He walked into the living room and sat down on the couch. Pickles sauntered over, hopped up, and joined him on the opposite end.
     “What’s the plan?”
     “It’s simple, really. As a welcoming and friendly neighbor, you walk over to introduce yourself and welcome them to the neighborhood. And you bring me along.”
     Staring absently up the staircase, U thought about it.
     “That might be a little weird.”
     Pickles flicked his tail, annoyed.
     “Then what do you suggest?”
     U looked down at his cat and stayed silent. It was all too weird. But he felt inclined to help. Pickles had always been a great pet. Even as he’d gotten old and lazy.
     “It might make more sense if I go over the first time by myself. That way I can at least pretend to find out that they have a cat. I can suggest some sort of cat ‘playdate’ and see what they say. It’d still be pretty weird, but I think it makes more sense.”
     Pickles stared at him. He considered.
     “And if they say no?”
     U took another sip.
     “Then we figure something else out.”
     Pickles brought up his paw, licked the top of it, and ran it over the side of his face a few times.
     “Ok. Let’s give it a try.”
     “Ok.”
     “How about tonight?”
     “It’s a little late. Maybe better to do it tomorrow.”
     “If you go now, I promise to not wake you up at sunrise tomorrow to feed me.”
     Pickles definitely wasn’t as dumb as U had believed.
     “Ok. You got yourself a deal.”
 
     ***

 

     Later that evening, Umberto found himself on his new neighbor’s doorstep. He knocked three times. A middle-aged woman, hair pulled back in an excruciatingly tight bun, answered the door. U gave the spiel he’d been practicing for the entire walk over.
     “Oh, how lovely!” Her voice was shrill. U thought to himself that he much preferred Pickles’ tone.
     “Please, do come in. Sweetheart, the neighbor is here to welcome us to the neighborhood!”
     The husband time-warped into the hallway, as though he was standing behind the corner just waiting for his cue.
     “Well, isn’t that just lovely? Hey there, neighbor. Name’s Jim, and this is my life-partner, Pam. Put her there!”

For a moment U thought Jim was talking about his...life-partner. Luckily, U’s body responded to the outstretched hand before his delayed mental processing had time to embarrass him.
     “Nice to meet you, Jim and Pam. I’m Umberto. I just told your wi...life-partner that I live in the house on the next property over.”
     “UMBERTO! Umberto. Umberto.” Jim said the name each time with a lower volume. “Did I hear an echo?” He let out a rumbling laugh. Pam joined in, alternating between looking at Jim and U as she did. U’s feet felt especially heavy on the doormat.
     “Pam, why don’t you grab something to drink for our new neighbor here. Do you like wine, Umberto?”
     “Um, yes, that sounds great. Thank you.”
     “Perfect!” Pam shrieked. “I’ll go open up a fresh bottle right now! I have it chilling in the vegetable crisper!” She scuttled away.
     “Thanks, pickle!” Jim shouted down the hall towards her. U’s face scrunched. He cracked open his lips as if to ask a question but stopped himself. Jim noticed.
     “Oh, that’s just a little pet name I have for her,” he chuckled.
     Jim’s hand came down heavy on U’s back with a hefty double pat.
     “Come on in U. Do you mind if I call you U? I’ve been told I get familiar pretty quickly. Take a seat here by the fire.”
     U let himself be led, or pushed, down the hallway and into an expansive room on the right. The fireplace blazed, the orange-tinted light dancing on everything. There were four arm chairs arranged in a trapezoidal incline towards the fireplace. The walls were covered with what looked like ancient Egyptian inspired art and empty bookshelves. As U approached the seat, he saw, a parabolic extension, a napping black cat.
     “Oh, so this is your cat” U vomited.
     Shit.
     “I mean, you have a cat! So do I. What’s his name?”
     Jim didn’t seem to take note of the slip up.
     “Oh, we don’t have a name for him. We prefer for him so self-identify as he will. You see, Pam and I are part of a following…”
     “Here you are!” Pam scooted across the carpet with three glasses containing ice on a tray, along with a green bottle of Perrier. “So sorry, U. We only had one bottle of wine left, which we’re saving for a special occasion. Not that this isn’t special! Is Perrier alright?”
      U suddenly imagined himself falling to the bottom of a well. Then he wondered why he’d thought of that.
     Pam distributed the glasses and took a seat next to Jim, who kept making side glances at the nameless cat stretched out in front of the fireplace.
     “Thank you, pickle. I was just starting to tell U here about the following.”
     “Oh, Jim. Don’t bore him with that! The poor boy just got here. He’ll be ready soon enough.
     U became unusually aware of the hairs on the back of his neck.
     “You’re right, pickle. So, tell us U. What do you do?”
     U did his meager best to make small talk for the next 20 minutes. He needed to leave. His shirt collar was shrinking by the minute. He realized that waiting for the right moment to end a conversation with people who never stop talking was like waiting for the right moment to jump off a moving train. 
     “Well, I wish I could stay longer but I have to go feed my cat. He’s probably meowing up a storm by now.”
     “Of course!” Jim bellowed. “It’s been great meeting you, neighbor.”
     “Oh, it really has! Thank you so much for the warm welcome. We’ll be sure to return the favor soon.” Pam’s words flickered with vague intention like the empty bookshelves under the firelight.
     “Thank you both very much for having me. Happy to have you become part of the neighborhood.”
     They walked U down the hallway to the front door. Jim opened it. As U was stepping outside, Jim spoke.
     “You know, we ought to introduce our cats sometime. Maybe they’ll get along. Ours has always been an outdoor cat, but we’re a little nervous here with the coyotes and what not. What’s your cat’s name, by the way?”
     U stopped and looked at Jim’s face illuminated with the moth-swarmed fluorescent porch light. Jim’s teeth glowed an ungodly white. Pam was standing beside him, nodding endlessly. U exhaled.
     “Agatha.”

     U turned the key and opened the door into darkness. From the black void, Pickles spoke.
     “How’d it go?”
     U’s instincts took him across the living room to the lamp. He switched it on. Pickles was sitting on the couch, exactly where he’d been earlier. U thought about his neighborly encounter.
     “It was...interesting.”
     Pickles’ ears perked up. 
     “Interesting? Did you suggest the date?”
     “Umm...I guess. I mean, they did, actually. So yeah, we just have to set up a time.”
     Pickles jumped off the couch and pranced over to U, rubbing up against his leg and purring.
     “Amazing! Thank you so much, Umberto. I really appreciate it.”
     “No worries, buddy. I gotta tell you though. They’re a strange couple.”

     

     ***
 

     A few days later, U arrived home to find a note on the door. It was tucked underneath the knocker. The paper was that thin, plastic-y receipt paper destined for the trash. He unfolded it. The handwriting was surgically precise, written in blue ink. It gave little hint of humanity on the other side. It read:

 

     Hi Neighbor! 
     Dinner tomorrow, with Agatha? No need to let us know if you can’t. We’ll be ready for you at 7:30.
     - J+P

 

     He got inside and set it on the kitchen counter. Pickles was nowhere to be seen.
     U wandered over the fridge and wondered what the hell he was going to do tonight. He could cook a nice dinner. But there were only eggs. He could watch a movie. 
     U felt lazy, so he grabbed a beer and went outside to lie in the hammock, under the shade of the crusting pine that dropped sticky bombs of sap below.
     Lying there, U stared through the branches at the clouds. He listened to intermingled sounds of bird calls and sirens. He thought about Jim and Pam. He thought about the child Pickles had mentioned seeing when they’d moved into the house. They hadn’t mentioned a kid at all. And U hadn’t seen any photos of him or her in the living room the evening he stopped by. 
     A dinner date with the cats. U never expected anyone would actually be open to that. He’d never heard of cat playdates before. It was out of his realm of experience. But Pickles’ deep purring at the invite gave U a sense of obligation. After all, the cat was almost like a brother to him. And he could talk the whole time…

 

     ***

 

     “Are we ready for the ascension?”
     “Everything is prepared, sir. Our guests should be arriving this evening. We’re confident the boy will come. Along with...Agatha.”
     The black silhouette cast a monstrous shadow across the room, the body enveloped by a glowing halo of flames. The pointed ears twitched erratically. The tail, enshrouded in shadow, flicked back and forth.
     “What will you prepare us?”
     “Your favorite, sir. Canned tuna, with warmed milk for desert.”
     The ears twitched back in hostility.
     “What kind of milk?”
     Jim stood up a little straighter. His shoulders rose.
     “Um...whole milk, sir. Will that satisfy you?”
     The opaque hair-lined triangles returned to a less threatening position.
     “That will be fine.”
     “Very good, sir.”
     Jim couldn’t see his eyes. They were absorbed by the shadow. But he could feel them on him. Chilling. Even with the heat of the fire. 
     “And the human?”
     Jim shifted his feet. 
     “Everything is prepared, sir. The drink. The chamber.”
     Silence. The flames behind devoured the wood without remorse.
     “Um, one question, if I may, sir?”
     “Proceed.”
     “The human asked for your name, as you well know. Shall I continue the story of us not naming our...um, of not having named you?”
     The sound of Pam stirring a glass pitcher tinkered in from the kitchen. The tail stopped twitching.
     “He won’t ask again. And in any case, he’ll soon know its irrelevance. Now, go.”
     He turned away towards the fire and sat upright, staring into the flames. Jim gave a bow to his master’s back and exited the room. Eyes ignited with the reflection of flames, the cat let his mind quiet for the ceremony ahead. It would be an extended evening.

     ***

 

     “I can walk, you know.”
     “Yeah, I know. But don’t you think it’ll look a little weird if we just show up and you’re walking next to me like a person.”
     Pickles glanced up at U, his paws dangling straight out in front of him.
     “I hadn’t thought about that.”
     The sun had already set and the sky had lost any real hue of color. The chirping of the crickets surrounded them, the only other sound U’s shoes treading on the asphalt. Up ahead was the driveway leading to the neighbors’ house. Light emanated from the windows.
     “This is going to be so weird.” U said it more to himself than Pickles.
     “We don’t have to stick around too long. All I need is to meet him. I’m curious what his name is.”
     “They said he doesn’t have one.”
     “Of course he does. Us cats have a sense of identity too, you know.”
     “Trust me. I know that now more than ever.”
     They arrived at the foot of the driveway. The porch light showed the way. U noticed something he hadn’t before, or maybe that hadn’t been there during his first visit. Stone cat statues, in different postures of sitting, standing, sleeping, fighting...the meek light made them a little disconcerting for U’s taste, as much as he enjoyed feline accompaniment.
     They arrived at the door. Music was coming from inside. It sounded like classical. Heavy on the cellos and deep brass. Ominous. U held Pickles with one arm, reached out, and knocked.
     The door swung open almost immediately. U jumped back a half inch. Jim and Pam were standing in the doorway, smiling. Pam was holding a glass of wine. Jim was wearing an apron. His teeth exuded an unnatural white.
     “Well,” Jim exhaled. “Hey there, neighbor! You made it! And with a friend, I see. This must be Agatha.”
     U felt Pickles tense up slightly in his arms.
     “Oh, please come in!” Pam said with a grin. “Mind if I trade you?”
     Before U could process the exchange, he was holding a glass of wine and Pickles was in Pam’s arms.
   “Oh, he’s lovely!” She held Pickles up against her chest and scratched under his chin. He looked at U helplessly.
     “Come, U. Let’s go sit in the living room.” Jim lead the way as he spoke. His shirt was tucked insanely into his beige khakis. It looked like suspension cables were keeping it locked in place. 
     U walked behind him towards the living room that glowed with the light of the fireplace. Pam followed almost touching U with each step, compelling him forward.
    They turned into the living room. There in front of the fire, waiting for them, was the black cat that had obligated this entire visit.
     “Please, take a seat,” Jim said.
     U sat down in the exact same place he had on his previous visit. Jim sat opposite him. Pam set Pickles down on the carpet, whose eyes were locked on the black cat. Once on his feet, Pickles stood very still. He and the black cat stared at each other. Pickles didn’t move. Everyone was silent. The crackling of the fire only added to the tension.
     After a few seconds, the black cat stood up and walked slowly towards Pickles. He stopped short a foot away, then, softly beneath black lips…
     “Mrrrrow.”
    Pickles was frozen, his tail getting bushy, careful to not arch his back. U looked at his hosts. They were transfixed, as though this moment were pivotal. If U had had a tail, it too would have been bushy.
     The black cat moved forward and brushed up against Pickles. Pam’s shoulders dropped. The glisten of Jim’s teeth reappeared.
     “They get along! How lovely.” Pam held her hands together over her chest. She looked relieved.
     “Well, isn’t that great.” Jim let himself sink into his armchair, throwing one leg over the other. “Did you try the wine U?”
     U lifted the glass up to his lips automatically. It smelled musty. He took a sip.
     “Mmm. Delicious. What kind of wine is it?”
     It tasted terrible. Jim just kept smiling at him. No answer came. Pam chimed in.
     “Red.”
     U stared at her, then back to his glass.
     “Oh, yeah. Of course…”
     Jim revived himself with a little shake of the head. 
     “Sorry, U. Got lost in thought there for a moment. The move and all has got me a bit frazzled, I suppose. So, tell us. What do you do? Are you in school?”
     “Um, no. I graduated a couple years ago. Right now I’m working as a teacher…”
     U’s voice trailed off. Pam and Jim were just...nodding. Incessantly.
     “That’s great, that’s great,” Jim said. Nodding.
     “The most underappreciated job in the world,” added Pam, exuding pity.
     U took another sip of the foul wine. He didn’t know if it was just the awkward situation, but he was feeling light-headed. He didn’t see the cats. 
     “Do you...where’s the bathroom?”
     He tried to get to his feet. U felt a hand on his shoulder, pushing him back down into the couch. The room was starting to spin.
     “Relax, neighbor. Everything is ok. It will all be fine soon…”
     U’s body started to merge with the sofa, sinking. He couldn’t focus his vision on anything. It was all blurring together. He was blurring into it all. Somewhere, from no distinct direction, U heard meowing. Meowing. He was one with the sofa. Meowing. Heat and cold were his only sensations. Meowing. The flames of the fire started to dim. Someone took the glass of wine from his hand. Everything went dark.
     “Mrrrreeeow”

 

     ***

    

     U came to with what felt like the worst hangover of his life. His eyes couldn’t adjust to the light. It was dim. He tried to get up. Something was holding him down.
     Looking towards his wrists, he saw they were strapped down with leather belts. Another went across his waist and still others around his ankles. He was strapped to a large wooden board, upright but angled slightly back. The heat rose to his head. He started to thrash.
     “What the fuck!?!” he sputtered. A mist of saliva lingered in front of his mouth.
     U looked around. This was wrong. He wasn’t in the living room anymore. The walls were stone. Damp. Torches lined the walls. The whole thing felt like a medieval dungeon. Disparate shadows jumped around him. It was chaos.
     “HEY! What the fuck is this!?!”
     A creaking sound came from behind. U thought of all the bad horror movies he’d ever seen. They were coming true. A door closed, but U heard no footsteps.
     “Good evening, human.”
     The voice came from in front of him but U saw no one. He jerked his head every direction.
     “Ah, a little lower.”
    U looked down. He stopped struggling. There was the black cat from upstairs. The one Pickles had so desperately wanted to meet. He was sitting in front of U, maybe a meter from his feet. His orange eyes glowed with the fire of a circle of torches.
     “You...you talk too…”
     The cat’s head tilted slightly to the side.
     “Too? So Agatha has already spoken to you? Interesting.”
     The cat started to pace back and forth in front of U.
     “Don’t waste your energy struggling, human. The straps are good. Your destiny is written. There’s nothing you can do to change it. Nothing any of us can do.”
     “What’s...where’s Jim? And Pam?”
     “They’ll be down shortly. It’s almost time to begin.”
     U’s stomach couldn’t sink any lower. Maybe there really wasn’t anything he could do. Maybe his fate was set.
     “Begin WHAT.” He yelled it. He’d lost all volume control. “Begin what?”
     The black cat continued to pace back and forth, collecting his words methodically.
     “Like I insinuated, all of this is bigger than you. It goes much further back than your spirit has been on this earth. And certainly in this...capsule.”
     U’s head rotated from side to side, following the cat as it paced.
     “You see, life and death are not beginning and end points. They are more like oscillations in a cycle. A return to a point in a circle as it spins around. But this circle isn’t static. It is also moving forward. Like a wheel.”
     U felt his eyes crossing. The cat continued.
     “Imagine a point on the outer edge of a wheel. As the wheel moves forward and completes a full rotation, the point returns to the same place. On a vertical axis. There is, of course, also a horizontal axis. This changes. So even as the point returns to its vertical location, we cannot say it is in exactly the same place. There has been a shift.
     Life and death are like a point on the wheel. You may say that you were born, or that you died. But the wheel continues to roll. Has been rolling. For much longer than you could know.”
     As the cat enunciated his soliloquy, U sank back into the board he was harnessed to. The cat stopped and looked at him.
     “Are you following, human?”
     “Umberto.”
     The cat blinked.
     “Pardon?”
     “My name’s Umberto. Not human.”
     The black cat’s ears twitched back in agitation.
    “How frail. To think this name, your name, as you say, defines you as separate and different. You call a flower a rose, the shrub it grows from a rose bush, but is it not the same? The name you give it has no bearing. It is still part of the earth from which it blooms, of the air and sun from which it grows.”
     U’s brow furrowed.
    “As are you part of the unified existence. You are not separate. You are not Umberto. You are but another iteration of that which already is. Seamlessly integrated into the continuing cycle, whether or not you are oblivious to it.”
     U felt the heat rising in his face. Who the fuck did this cat think he was.
     “Yeah? And what does that make you?”
     The black cat stopped pacing.
    “If you’ll let me continue, I will explain. To say that we are all part of the same being isn’t to negate a hierarchy. You humans have long clung to this idea, memorialized it in your sacred texts. The earth was made for man, and man alone shall reap it’s harvest.
     In truth, the error is not too grave. But it missed the mark by a step. There is in fact a higher order of existential iteration. A class of creature superior to man, unbeknown to your modern scholars. One that has been unforgivably dethroned by your kind, who have usurped the claim to power through brutish arrogance.”
     The cat suddenly stopped in his tracks. He sat down, brought one of his back legs up, and began to vigorously scratch at his neck. This finished, he continued pacing.
     “I assume you’re not too daft to realize what creature I’m speaking of?”
     U’s head was now hanging down helplessly. The novelty of a speaking cat had completely faded. Without a drop of enthusiasm, he muttered:
     “Cats?”
     “Correct, human. Feles, as we are referred to in Latin.”
     U lifted his head and looked down at the little creature asserting its superiority over him. He felt a tightness in his throat.
     “So, what? You tied me up down here to tell me your better than me? What’s this all about? Where’s Jim and Pam?”
     The door behind him creaked again. U held his breath. This time he heard footsteps. Slow. Timed. They were wrapping around him on both sides.
     It was Jim, on his left, and Pam, on his right.
     “Hey! What the fuck is this?! Let me go motherfuckers! Let me fucking go! What did I do to you?”
     The two other humans said nothing. They merely stood on either side of U, staring at him. They were draped in clear plastic jumpsuits, their hands stretched over with purple latex gloves.
     “What are you doing?!”
     They stood there. Feet together. Arms by their sides. Faces blank. All of U’s screams caused no reaction.
     “If you will let me continue, human, I’m trying to do you the courtesy of at least explaining where you fall in all this.”
     The other humans turned their faces toward the cat. They were cuing U to do the same. U turned his head from one to the other, hoping for a spark of recognition. But there was none. He hung his head down again.
     “Very good. You see, this cycle I was speaking of doesn’t begin and end with your birth or death. These are merely moments of transition from one stage to the next. It’s a long-winded process. You die. But something continues on. In a new body, a new form. We call this the ascension. Humans are but a step away from the top, which is, of course, us feles.
     Now, the cycle isn’t perfect. Not all ascend successfully. But those spirits that have the correct synergy, that are pure enough; they are elevated into this higher form. Before the ascension can occur, as you already may well understand, the human life must end. Your life must end, human.”
     U lifted his gaze to meet the orange eyes.
    “You should be honored to have been chosen. The affinity you share with Agatha is a testament to your fitness. When it’s finished, you, ‘Umberto,’ will be gone. But your essence will be synergized with that of Agatha’s. He will grow stronger with your sacrifice. I’ve long searched for another feles to join me in the following. Everything has already been explained to him. He understands the importance of our movement and has accepted. Agatha’s role in the ceremony will come shortly, for he must draw the sacrifices blood after death.
But the connection you two share makes you the ideal subject. We are confident your ascension will be a success.”
     “Suc...success?”
     The cat sighed.
    “Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work as one would hope. There is some, what do you call it...collateral damage, yes, that’s it. There is collateral damage along the way.”
     The cat turned his head towards the corner of the room. It was dark, with no torch directly above, but U strained his eyes to see what the cat was looking at. As the seconds passed, the dim silhouettes of a pair of shoes appeared. Children’s shoes.
     U turned his head down to the floor below him. The ground at his feet was irregularly splotched a darker hue than the rest. He started to scream for help. The cat and the two humans waited until he stopped. U watched a tear fall from his chin.
     This was it. This was the end. His fate. His destiny.
     “Humans.”
     Jim and Pam stood a little straighter.
     “One of you will now retrieve the claw.”
     They both bowed, and Pam retreated. U started to whimper.
     “Jim...Jim, come one, man. Don’t do this. You don’t want to do this. We’re on the same side. Don’t listen to this fucking cat!”
     Something crashed behind U.
     “What was that.” The cat’s tail twitched. “Human, go check on the other.”
     Jim ran out of the room. He yelled.
     “Oh fuck! Honey?! Pickle!?”
     “What happened?!” the cat screeched.
     Jim ran back into the damp stone room, his hands shaking.
     “It’s Pa...I mean, the human. She’s unconscious. It looks like a statue fell on her head…”
     “Nevermind!” screamed the cat. “The ritual must continue! Go, retrieve the claw.”
     Jim retreated again out of U’s sight. The footsteps dissipated behind him and quickly returned. Jim stood to his left again.
     He was holding a long, wooden staff. At the end, strapped on with wrapped leather, was what looked like a giant cat’s claw. It glowed a pale white in the torchlight, like it was carved from ivory. Jim closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He held the weapon in front of him. His hands stopped shaking.
     The cat started croaking a horrible chant in a language no human could speak. As he recited the lines, his voice got louder, became a screech. U was shaking. Screaming. Jim looked up into his eyes and moved towards him. He lifted the staff high above his head. U’s eyes fixed on the claw. It gleamed orange flames. The screeching got louder. U looked into Jim’s eyes. They got closer. Closer. They pulsed red with the blood of a man committed to an idea bigger than him.
     And they were gone. U jumped as Jim’s entire face disappeared behind a blanket of fur. The claw fell and the point sank into the wood an inch away from U’s hand. But four new claws appeared. Smaller ones, still gleaming, attached to a small paw that hovered above Jim’s throat.
     They disappeared. Into flesh. Four deep red lines appeared along Jim’s throat. At first thin, but the blood started to flow. Jim grabbed towards his face, which reappeared. This time the claws dug in just under his chin, dragging through the skin and ripping it open down to the collar bone. He screamed. The blood squirted in all directions. 
     A familiar voice shouted out from the furry mass clinging to Jim’s chest.
     “Umberto!” 
     It was Agatha.
     He lept from Jim onto U’s shoulder. The bleeding human collapsed on the ground, adding to the dark stains on the floor. He tried to speak. Sputtering blood, he groaned:
     “Sorry, neighbor.”
     U then heard a scream so viscerally awful it made him shudder.
     “Yoouu!!!”
     The black cat had arched its back in pure aggression. Every follicle of hair pricked out on end.
     “You traitor! You beast! I will finish it alone! And you too will fall with your master!”
     Agatha quickly whispered into U’s ear.
     “Sorry for bringing you into all of this, U. But thanks for everything. It’s been good.”
     At that moment, the black cat lept for U’s throat. Agatha was already in the air between them. They collided a few inches in front of U’s body, a chaos of fangs and claws and shrieks and blood. The squabble continued on the ground until the black cat sprinted away through the door behind U. Agatha pursued. The screams shrank into the distance. Then they were gone.
     U was alone. Except for Jim, who was hardly even groaning now, prostrate in a pool of his own blood. Within a few minutes he was silent.

 

     ***

 

     It had taken U over an hour to finagle the claw into his hand and cut the leather straps that held him to the board. He’d passed Pam’s body on the way out. Her skull had been smashed in by a statue of a sleeping cat that had been on the mantle above her.
     The staircase U ascended brought him into the kitchen of the house. A glass of wine still sat on the counter top.
     He was now in the street, staggering back home with little ambition. It was dark, but with the promise of daylight looming. The sky was turning that subtle blue that announces sunrise.
     U got to his front door and pulled the key out from under a potted succulent to the side. As he turned the key in the lock, he heard a howl. Then a yapping. At first one and then a chorus of high-pitched yelps, filling the brisk air.
     Coyotes. 
     U went inside, not bothering to close the front door. Instinct guided him towards the fridge. Devoid of food. He grabbed a beer.
     He ambled throughout the kitchen and living room. He stood in the doorway and watched the sky’s color change. Birds chirped. The coyotes had gone silent.
     U walked back to the fridge and opened it again. Still empty. He grabbed another beer.
     He wandered into his bedroom. Orange sunlight sliced through the windows. He walked to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. He pulled the skin on his face in different directions, tugging at it to see how it stretched. Mechanical feet took him back into the bedroom.
     His eyes fixed on his laptop. Sitting at the foot of the bed. Beckoning.
     U closed the curtains. Automatic. He plugged in the laptop and opened it. Private browsing. Automatic. He settled himself down into his bed, the laptop to his side, his heart pulsing with unbridled anticipation. He unbuttoned his pants. Dissolving. The world around him faded into a twelve by ten inch screen. His eyes were fixed. The ritual continued. Automatic.
     The human disappeared.

 

     Coyotes howled again in the distance.