by Joseph Hirsch
There were probably more than two types of people, but one had to keep it simple sometimes if they wanted the world to make sense. For Katie the world was divided between dog people and cat people. Not that some had an aversion to one or the other, but even among animal lovers, one could only be diplomatic for so long. Sooner or later you had to admit you liked one more.
It didn’t take long for cats as her pet of choice to translate to cats as her favorite pets at work, which made it clear enough. She was a cat person.
Cats were usually quieter, less needy. She liked a boarding room filled with cats just fine, which was mostly what she had tonight: a vertical, five-tiered metal and wire motel for felines on the Japanese economy model. “Guests” at the motel included two fluffy Persians with cute and puggy snouts; a snowy Himalayan so fat he looked like a baby version of a Yeti from the Mountains of Tibet; and assorted striped tabbies with owlish jade-green eyes somehow ideal for watching the lone human walking the floor these late nights. Cedric the hairless sphinx with his piebald patches of leathery skin creeped her out a tad, but he couldn’t help how nature made him and his disposition made up for his wrinkly, mole-rattish body.
As for the handful of non-cats boarded at Cherry Tree, they were no problem. There was a dog she loved and a rat she tolerated, proving she was anything but specist except when it came to humans. The dog in question, Bichon, was a French poodle mix with a coat kinked as merino wool. He looked like someone’s well-worn childhood toy run through the dryer one too many times. The rat, Cedric, was an albino with red eyes and yellow claws who mostly kept to himself in a corner of his cage.
The rat and the dog were as quiet as the rest of the animals. The loudest sound tonight was the radio warbling some 80s New Wave love songs. Below that was only the scrape of Katie’s Crocs on hard cement as she danced before a curiously docile animal audience.
She brightened as her improvised dance step, half-moonwalk/half-Sammy Davis soft-shoe, put her in front of the pet taxi where three stray kittens meowed gently. “Hey, babies…” Their grey coats were soft as the fur of newborn ducks, and they were coiled one upon another in a pile cute enough to earn the January slot on a glossy wall calendar.
She stayed en pointe on her toes as best she could (no mean feat in the clodhopping Crocs) until she came to the kitchenette. Then she lowered her stance and rocked on her heels once to work the soreness free from her feet. Afterwards, she migrated to the wall, placed a fingernail covered in quicksilver polish over the 3 AM slot on the schedule Trish had written. She noticed, as she held her place on the ledger, that the varnish on the nail had worn thin and the color had chipped.
No problem. She got paid this Friday. She’d buy that slightly-used veterinary text from Trish for half-price (unless the heifer went back on her word) and then get her nails done later that same night. And still have enough money left for a good bag of weed. Throw in enough Chinese takeout to make the cheat on her diet worth the next day’s self-induced guilt trip, and she’d call it a weekend.
“Azithromycin for Garfunkel,” the note said. “Rinse the dang syringe when finished!”
“Eat me,” Katie muttered under her breath. It was a testament to Trish’s fearsome rep that Katie spoke sotto vocce even when the most senior tech was out of town, presumably visiting a dying relative but probably on a gambling junket.
Still, the little sharpie note hadn’t been written out of spite, and someone had been slacking on washing the syringe between uses.
“Ginger,” Katie whispered, adding the first of many names to her suspect list of lazy, non-syringe washing techs, before taking a sip of her iced macchiato she’d been nursing to keep awake. She tugged on the straw so that her cheeks went concave like those of a starving supermodel, but the more she tugged, the more the slush acted like a frozen milkshake. She looked down. Some obstinate chunk of chocolate chip encased in caramel thick as molasses had plugged the straw. The bevel on the damn thing was cruddier than the channel on the unwashed needle of the kitty’s flu hypo.
The doorbell dinged, startling her so her heart jumped. “Shit.” She set the drink on the countertop, looked around as if caught sleeping on-shift. She glanced toward the faces of the kennels. Some of the animal eyes showed the perma-fear that came with total dependence, the horror of being trapped, even in such calm surroundings. One or two had lazy, lolling eyes, yawning maws open, looking trusting and sated.
There was no judgment in them. If the world had been composed only of cats, she could have eaten her way into oblivion and never had to hear about how she was letting herself go. Or even worse, field the loaded compliments about how she was brave and body-positive for embracing her figure and looked good with the extra weight.
Alas, people still existed, and one of them had pressed the button for service.
The bell rang again, and she prepared to break the barrier between boarding room and clinic proper.
Only the backup lights were on, suffusing the waiting room in a dull orange glow that could be peaceful or eerie, depending on Katie’s mood. She walked behind the horseshoe-shaped desk, looked at the black and white image on the security monitor and the man standing at the back door. Eerie, she decided. Tonight was eerie.
The camera wasn’t the best, but she could at least glean a few details from the monitor. He stood under the wan cone of light at the backdoor, stamping his feet as if urgently needing the bathroom. He wore a frayed tweed jacket and the top of his head was bald, the thatches sprouting from the sides of his skull of a piece with his shabby figure.
He didn’t even seem to have a pet with him. Unless of course it was something small and strange. Perhaps a goldfinch he kept warm in the inner pocket of his threadbare jacket, or a squirrel whose trust he’d gained feeding it acorns in the park.
Soon she would have to stop inventing details for the dude’s life and let him in or tell him to buzz off. Confrontation was not her thing. But neither was getting assaulted.
But how could she fault the rest of the world for judging her for being overweight just because she liked to enjoy herself, and then turn around and deem a man a creep just because he looked a little weird? She studied him again on the monitor.
Decision time, Katie…
She tapped her foot, the Croc that was light as a ballet slipper a minute ago now heavy as a leg manacle.
She walked across the room awash in the eerie golden light, until she reached the side door. The crimson of the EXIT sign bled over her reflection in the glass. The man waited on the other side.
He saw her, and relief filled his owlish eyes. “Oh, thank God!”
“Can I help you?” She squinted, as if doing so could make him disappear. Nothing personal but it was three in the morning, he was a man, and she was alone. Surely he understood?
He spoke before she could offer to call a tow truck or an ambulance. Or a cop.
“I don’t have much time! My name is Dr. Marcus Steyer. I work at the private research institute at…”
The last bit was inaudible, the man so out of breath she couldn’t quite hear him. “Where?”
“It doesn’t matter.” He shook his head, and his straggly hair danced like cornsilk. “The point is, the Department of Defense…” He paused, studied her, seeming to ferret out with his eyes whether he could trust her.
Katie wanted to help him, or at least hear him out. But not enough to open the door. Or even get closer.
“The Department of Defense was studying it. In the latent stage, you see, it fosters complacency and causes one to let their guard down. You can understand, then, how this might have psy-op applications if one found a way to increase its potency while keeping the parasite the mere size of an insignificant eukaryote?” The words had come tumbling out seemingly of their own volition.
“What?” She squinted now less from a desire to make him disappear than from confusion. She felt like she was back in high-school, stoned before a test.
“Toxoplasmosis,” he said, huffing in exasperation. “You’ve heard of it?”
“I know what it is. I’m studying to be a vet and I work at this clinic.” She’d also heard a bowdlerized explanation from her aunt who told her all about it while pregnant.
His eyes brightened and he held up a bony pointer finger. “Good, now imagine that instead of just making a pregnant woman friendlier or a mouse less scared of cat urine, it could cause a lemminglike reaction in an enemy force on the battlefield. Released in aerosol form in-theater, a usually cautious and tactically minded foe would throw caution to the wind, essentially behaving like the poor fools who charged fortified machinegun nests in the Great War.”
“Okay.” She nodded, somehow pitying this crazy old man as much as she feared him. It seemed important to him that someone believe. “So…” She paused, ignored the exchange of hisses and barks passing between the usually sedate pets in the room behind her. “What do you want me to do?”
“Do?!” He stepped back, as if offended, insulted that one could even suggest something could be done. Whatever the situation, he obviously thought it hopeless. Fine then, but why the hell was he at her door, making her nervous, making her usually chill animals go spastic in the back? “The parasites were supposed to be put to military use once they were enhanced. But the enhancement gave them…” He paused, moistened his lips with what spittle he hadn’t already spat out by shouting until he fogged the window over the door. “I hesitate to call it sentience, but at least the agency of a virus. You see, we…”
A bright light backlit him, a buttery halo that half-blinded Katie. She blinked, squinted. It was high beams. The professor turned around, stared into the light spearing toward him and suffusing his form until he looked radioactive. “I have to go! They’re coming for me, don’t you see? Our species is in danger! I can only…”
Tires screeched outside. He looked back at Katie. “You must kill them!” He shouted so loudly the glass rattled in the pane. “You must start by killing all the cats in your facility.”
Her nostrils flared as she tried to keep her breathing normal. Crazy and harmless was one thing. Crazy and suggesting she kill the cats? Even if he wasn’t crazy and happened to be telling the truth, if she had to choose between the cats and humanity…
She sneered, snorted. To think she had almost bought this b.s. “Look,” she said, patience at an end. “You-”
His hand punched through the glass. Shards sliced his skin from knuckle to wrist but he kept pushing while Katie screamed. She drew back but the hand reached in, breaking the remaining jagged shards of the window until his whole arm crossed the threshold. The door came off its hinges, his wrath so great he tore through the wood as if it were particle board. She stepped back and he charged forward. His bleeding hand shot out. He grabbed her scrubs, wringing the burgundy cotton material. The fistful of cloth claimed in his clutch caught her bra, undoing the hasp of her gold necklace as the brassiere’s underwire snapped.
“Let me go!”
He let go, but the hand he released from her shirt now struggled to close around her windpipe.
His fingers smelled like pickles and pastrami, a fetid lunchmeat musk that would have made her wretch if she weren’t so terrified.
His hand, liver-spotted and wrinkled, got close to her mouth and she bit it, aware in some distant chamber of her mind that this was bad hygiene. She clamped with her incisors and sank her eyeteeth deep enough to form a strong, semicircular dent in his flesh. There was a wet spongey squish followed by a hollow crack as first the outer layer of fat ripped and then the bones broke in his hand. She bit down harder and thought of how terrified she’d felt when he smashed the window (after she’d trusted him enough to listen to him!). She thought of how the snapping of her bra had caused her breasts to flop loose, how the golden thread of her necklace had chilled her skin and raised goosebumps.
Her mind, mostly blank, flashed back to a couple of freezeframes from the self-defense class she’d taken in a local dojo. She dropped her Croc on his instep. He howled in pain before pulling the shredded webbing of his hand free of her mouth.
“Come on!” she snarled.
The man turned, holding his arm close as if needing a sling. He stumbled back through the doorway, and ran off into the night yelping from the pain.
“Get back here!”
She watched his retreating form, and she struck a triumphant, wide-legged pose as she stood before the clinic.
There was a rubbery screech and then a four-door black sedan she had missed until now pulled off, tires spinning and taillights red as dragon’s eyes. The dark car faded into the night.
The rage left, and fear that made her quiver to the point of nausea came in waves. And as the feeling of power left her, the old helplessness came back. She let herself cry, because he was no longer here to see her cry. Then she turned around and walked over to the console behind the desk, adrenaline flowing too fast for her to feel the chill of the night blowing through the hole he had torn in the door.
Glass crunched underfoot and blood spilled in patters thin and constant as a warm, light rain. “Mugh…” She wondered if or when she would ever be able to form words again. Thought must precede word, and there were no thoughts in her head.
Images sure, flitting across the flickering slate of her mind. Faint palimpsests of the fight that had just taken place, the sight of his blood, his watery eyes, his moist and desperate lips making sounds that were less than gibberish now. The ravings of a sex-mad lunatic who would say anything to get into the room with her.
As she sobbed she listened to the howl of dogs and mewling of cats behind her, whining as if her torture were their own. No, the bastard hadn’t ruined animals for her. If anything, another lousy human would drive her deeper into the warm and furry embrace of the beasts. But Cherry Tree Clinic was spoiled for her. She would have to find a new job. The sanctity she had enjoyed here at night was permanently defiled. Thanks a lot, asshole.
But first Katie would call the cops, tell them what had happened, give them a description. After that she would curl up in a ball and take her time emerging from the catatonia, the cocoon with which she would cover herself to avoid slashing her wrists.
The phone was in her hand. The words were in her head. She just had to get them into her mouth. But the path from brain to tongue was a hard one to travel, much harder than the wet trail her tears took from her eyes to cheeks.
She stuttered, felt a wail growing in her belly, a plaint a mother might let loose for her dead child.
Except this was a roar of defiance, of victory.
They had won, jumped containment from the lab, sent the foolish two-legger running from the compound, driving him to this building where there this bipedal female had been waiting. The feline musk born aloft on her estrous scent had attracted them, leading them to this place where the furry four-leggers were stacked in abundance.
Some of the super-strong eukaryotes drifted from the mucus-filled nostrils of the weeping homo sapiens female to the grey cauliflower convolutions of her brain, settling in the basal ganglia where they would get to work on her mind. The rest moved through the air, toward the sound of the hissing cats and barking dogs. The invisible hoard divebombed beneath the cracks in the door behind which the steel catacombs of furry four leggers were stacked one upon another. Just like in the lab. Except here, unlike in the lab, there would be no containment, no airtight seals, no decon measures. There were no two-leggers with big brains like the crazy one from whose body they had just jumped, nor two-leggers who made war weapons, like the ones who had followed the big-brained one here in their black steel vessel.
Out here was only the world, defenseless and dumb to the knowledge that the mutant spore would soon spread from this modest clinic to the rest of the world, and from the world to the most distant of stars.
About the Author: Joseph Hirsch is the author of more than a dozen published books. His shorter works have appeared in numerous venues including Bull: Men’s Fiction, Zahir: A Journal of Speculative Fiction, and 3 AM Magazine. He holds an MA in Germanistik and can be found online @ www.joeyhirsch.com
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