~Apocalypse Hill: Cat Flap~
The following incident takes place during the events of Apocalypse Hill.
Joan looked at the dead bird that had been deposited on her kitchen floor. The neck had been torn and a wing was missing. She clucked her tongue with annoyance and retrieved a plastic bag from the cupboard, dropping the poor creature inside and placing it into the outside bins. She wasn’t squeamish about it; she’d had more than one grisly present left for her over the years.
‘Birds, rabbits, even had a bat, once. Lord alone knows how they caught that bloody thing. It’s not down to my cats, you understand, Mandy,’ Joan told her young neighbour later that day over a cup of tea. ‘No, no, no; Jackson, Mr Tabby and Ginger would never dream of killing anything. They’re very cultured cats, you see. I’ve brought them up from newborns to act in a respectable manner. Plus they’re very well fed; they’ve no need to go trawling the garden for snacks like common animals.’
Well fed was certainly one way of putting it; all three of her current cats were more than a little on the chunky side. She couldn’t help but lavish attention and treats upon the trio. There came a point when they struggled to squeeze in and out of the cat flap into the back garden. Instead of putting the chubby threesome on a diet, Joan had a larger cat flap added.
‘No, no, no, not my cats. They would never leave such things in my kitchen. That’s the thing with cat flaps, you see. It helps my cats get out and about, but it also lets other things get inside.’
Mandy was a single mum who had left the father of her child to bring up little Ashton alone. Not that Joan held that against her; it was a modern world, after all. You have to move with the times. Would’ve been a scandal if Joan had done the same in her twenties of course. Just imagine the horror if she’d bundled up baby Celia and done a midnight flit from Frank! Her Mum would have disowned her, for starters.
But no, this is just what happens nowadays, and who was she to look down upon it? Truth was she admired Mandy, in a way. Being strong enough to go it alone with a little kiddie. They’d had a little cake and pop party for his second birthday only the other week. Cute as a button, he was.
Celia had never had kids of course, and it was too late for that now; Celia wasn’t a young woman anymore. She could maybe adopt, though. Joan had mentioned that once or twice, read up about it down at the library even, but Celia wasn’t interested. ‘I’m not the nurturing sort, Mum,’ she’d said over and over again.
Joan knew it, and she wanted her own daughter to live the life that felt right for her, but a part of her, in the pit of her stomach, hadn’t stopped longing for grandchildren. She supposed a head-shrink type would say that’s why she doted so on her cats or had taken such an active interest in little Ashton.
Well maybe it was, but then who else was she going to pay attention too? Celia was all the way down in London, Frank dead for almost twenty years, no grandchildren; should she just sit here alone and let the cold creep in? A loving heart was a healthy heart. That’s what Joan always said, when people stopped to listen.
‘You know one time, after getting that bigger flap fitted, I actually came home to find a fox asleep in my kitchen! Not a small one either; a big ol’ boy! Chased it round the place with my broom before I managed to shepherd it back through the flap. Cheeky thing! So regal though, foxes; don’t you think? Make a riot of your rubbish bins, of course. That’s the thing you see, that’s the thing with these cat flaps: other things can get inside. Things that aren’t supposed to. That’s why I know it isn’t my cats leaving these presents. It’s that big, black moggy from across the road; oh I’ve no doubt about that. I often see him skulking across my back fence whilst I’m at the sink, washing the dishes. I’ve been over there to tell Mr Wright about it more than once, but you know that grumpy old fool. Not interested. Ah well. What’s the harm though? Probably wants a little extra love and food, that’s why he comes round my kitchen. Can’t see Mr Wright being much in that department.’
Joan had taken to calling the black mog Charlie Boy; she’d wave to it as it passed and call out its new name. Poor thing wouldn’t come near when she was around though. A nervous mite. Clearly Mr Wright had not treated him well.
‘Lord alone knows what I’ll find coming though that cat flap next, Mandy!’
Joan spent the rest of the day tidying her house. It was a fair sized place that Frank had bought for them fifty years prior. They’d spoken about extending it at various times, but they never got round to it; money was always needed for something else. These days the place was already too big as it was. Too big for just Joan and her cats, but she couldn’t imagine selling and downsizing. Wouldn’t be right. This place was her; she’d been here the longest part of her life.
Joan got down onto her knees on the bathroom floor with difficulty. She dunked a sponge into the bucket of soapy water and scrubbed at the tiled floor. She liked to keep a good household, always had done. Point of pride. Now that Celia was coming back to stay for a few days she was making sure every inch shimmered.
‘You’ll be able to eat your dinner off the toilet seat by the time I’m through!’ Joan had said to Mandy, hooting with laughter.
It had been so long since Celia had been up for a visit. Going on a year now. Had to cancel her trip earlier in the year, work needed her, so she said. Celia was always so busy, and so very far away. Joan had made the trip a few times of course over the years, down on the train, but the older she got the more of a drain it was. So now she sat at home and waited for Celia to find the time. Or a ‘window’, as Celia liked to refer to it as.
She didn’t blame her daughter; of course not. She had a busy life. She was a success! Built that interior design business up from the ground, now she had a whole host of people who worked under her. Joan bragged to anyone who would listen about her clever daughter down in London with her own business. Joan liked to think that it was something to do with her own flare for keeping a tidy home that had rubbed off on her daughter. Helped nudge along the spark that had developed into such a wonderful skill. Well, it certainly wasn’t down to Frank. Football, beer, and naps, those had been his passions.
Joan felt a giddy joy at the idea of Celia being back home. So long. So long. So long. She wondered how many more visits she’d enjoy before her time ran out. She was getting on, there was no denying it; before she knew it she’d by laying down for the long sleep. Sooner or later. No avoiding that.
So let’s make each time special. Every visit could be the last visit.
That night, Joan climbed into her too large bed exhausted. She’d gone at the house like she was trying to rub it see-through and her body ached. The last thing she did before giving in to sleep was set the alarm so she could get up with plenty of time for a last check of the house before Celia arrived, then turned off the bedside lamp and closed her eyes, excited like a kid on Christmas eve.
‘Hm?…What was…?’ Joan awoke and squinted at the clock: it was a little past 3 in the morning. Joan had been dreaming about Celia, when she was a little girl, trying to get Frank to teach her how to ride a bike. Frank had given up after ten minutes, of course, so Joan had taken over.
Something had made her wake up, Joan knew that. She was a good sleeper, hardly ever woke up in the night. Closed her eyes at night, opened them in the morning; that had always been the way. But it was a little after three, her eyes were open, and she didn’t need to pee; so something had woken her up.
Joan sat up and got out of bed, slipping into her dressing gown.
There it was! A noise, something downstairs. Her cats knew better than to play silly beggars when it was dark. Maybe a bloody nuisance fox again.
Joan opened her bedroom door and quietly made her way downstairs. At the bottom she retrieved her mop from the cupboard and shuffled through into the kitchen, where she was sure the noise had come from.
She flicked on the light: the kitchen was empty. Fox must have made its own way on out again. Joan sighed and leaned the mop against the wall before heading over to the stove, flicking the radio on as she went. She knew herself too well, if her sleep was disturbed she’d lay wide awake for an age without something to ease her in; warm milk always hit the spot.
As she put a pot on the stove and poured some milk into it she looked out the window and wrinkled her brow in confusion: was it snowing out there? She peered closer, pushing the drape aside; something was certainly coming down. Thick and heavy, coating the houses and road. Didn’t look like snow much, plus when did it snow this time of year anyway?
‘More on that breaking story of the strange yellow matter that has been falling across Apoc Hill-‘
Joan turned to the radio, ignoring her bubbling milk.
‘-some have reported that the blossom, if that’s what is, began to fall quite suddenly-‘
Joan pushed the drape aside again and looked at the ‘snow’ that was drifting down outside; she couldn’t tell if it was yellow or not in this light. She’d have her milk and poke her head outside.
‘-that other breaking story: the outbreak of seemingly unprovoked attacks sweeping through town tonight-‘
Joan went to lift the pan of milk off the stove when a streak of movement caught her attention in the corner of her eye-
‘Ginger? Jackson? Mr. Tabby? That you, there?’
-Joan turned to look- as she did so something ran between her legs. Joan exclaimed in shock as the obstruction hit her ankle at speed causing her to lose her balance-
‘-More than one death has already been reported in this shocking and still unfolding story-’
-Joan threw out her arms to try and steady herself, but it was no use. In what seemed to her like slow motion, Joan fell, twisted, to the floor. One arm caught the radio as she went, bringing it down with her and silencing it as it struck and broke.
Joan knew as soon as she hit down that something had broken. She felt it go. Heard it, like a rifle shot. She would have screamed out, but the pain was so sharp and sudden that it robbed her of the power to vocalize and instead her mouth stretched wide in an anguished mute cry.
The room closed in on her and blackness swamped.
‘Go on, Celia; don’t you be afraid now. If you fall off, that’s just nature’s way of telling you to practice even harder. You’ll tame that bicycle yet, you’ll see.’
Joan awoke, shivering.
The kitchen stank like burnt milk and urine.
Joan tried to move and cried out in pain. She was broken good, she wasn’t going anywhere. She wondered what time it was; it was morning at least, she was sure of that. The room was bright with the morning sun shining on through.
Joan wasn’t going to be able to make it to the phone; even if she wasn’t as busted up as she was, she didn’t have the strength to drag herself to the other side of the house for the land line and she knew her mobile phone was all the way upstairs. No; she was going to have to stay right where she was until her daughter arrived. Maybe…maybe, when Celia found her this way, she’d decide to stay for longer. Look after her. Maybe she’d even want to keep a closer eye on her. Visit more often, or split her time between here and London even to take care of her poor old Mum who could no longer be trusted on her own.
Perhaps this wasn’t such a terrible thing to have happened. Maybe it would even be a good thing.
Something moved at the other end of the kitchen. Joan lifted her head and squinted: a small, dark shape was sat on the floor several feet away.
‘Who is that? Ginger?’ Joan knew that it wasn’t. ‘Oh…Charlie Boy? Charlie Boy, that you over there?’ The dark shape shuffled forward into view, then sat, looking directly at Joan.
‘It is…it is you. Was this your doing?’ The cat just looked at her, quite still and unconcerned. ‘Not your fault, that’s okay, you weren’t to know.’ Joan was surprised to see her neighbors cat actually inside her house, sitting calm as you like. He was always so wary and liked to keep his distance usually; but now there he was.
‘Decided to come inside at last, Charlie Boy? After a little attention, I’ll bet.’
Joan squinted at the cat, it seemed like it was covered in something; like it had been dusted all over in yellow. Joan remembered the radio broadcast. The yellow snow? Blossom. Whatever it was.
‘You came in to get out…get out of the strange yellow snow, did you? That’s okay. Don’t you worry about nothing, now. Me and you, we’re just going to have to sit this one out until my daughter arrives. She’ll sort everything out. Don’t you worry. Don’t you worry. She’s a good girl, she’ll know just what to do. Won’t panic or fret, she’ll see this whole thing straight as quick as you like.’
Charlie Boy stood, eyes unblinking, and padded across the floor towards her, stopping by Joan’s head.
‘Hey there, Charlie.’ Joan didn’t like the cats eyes. Something was wrong with them. Something that made her heart flutter. ‘Okay…okay…now you just go over there, Charlie. You just-’
Charlie Boy bit Joan’s face.
She screamed and flapped at the hissing cat, causing it to retreat, but not exit entirely. Instead it took back its position at the other end of the kitchen and sat staring at her.
Joan touched the wound on her face, breath quick, and felt the blood smear between her fingertips and cheek.
‘Scat…! You scat, you hear me? You get out of my house!’
Charlie Boy ignored her.
‘This is my house, you get out of here!’
Three other cats entered through the cat flap from outside, each was similarly dusted in yellow.
‘Ginger, Jackson, Mr Tabby, you be careful of that bad cat! Be careful now!’
Joan’s three cats sat beside Charlie Boy, all four seemed to regard her with altered, fractured eyes. Joan began to feel very frightened. She used what little strength she had to push herself as far back from the cats as she could, until she was pressed up against the cupboard door.
The cats stood.
As one, the cats made their unhurried approach, their eyes never leaving her.
The cats hissed as they swarmed her, needle teeth and claws flashing as they attacked again and again, Joan lifting her arms to try and protect her face from the worst of it.
Not my cats, not my cats; oh no! I’ve brought them up from newborns to act in a respectable manner.
As quickly as it had started, the attack stopped.
Joan lowered her lacerated arms, a sharp pain in her chest. The cats had their backs to her. They were looking towards the cat flap.
‘Well…oh my…oh dear…’
Joan gulped down air and tried to ignore all the blood.
A fox slipped into Joan’s kitchen. It prowled back and forth, before taking a seated position; the cats went to join it.
‘…Go…go away, please…’
The fox rose, standing up on its hind legs. It took three steps forward like this, as though it was the most natural thing for it to do in the world.
‘The Hill will crack.’
Who had said that? Had the fox spoken, or was the voice just in Joan’s head? Well, foxes can’t talk; of course not.
Of course not.
Joan looked towards the stove; that burnt milk, that stink was going to stick hard, she knew. No way to get rid of it before Celia arrived, even if she opened all the doors and windows wide and went at the burnt on bits hard with bleach. That smell was sticking around a while.
The cat flap was pushed open by a tiny hand.
‘Please,’ said Joan. ‘Please, I need some help.’
The hand was joined by a second, then two arms slid inside, followed by a head. It was a small child, no more than two years old. Joan recognized the child: it was Ashton, her neighbour’s little boy.
‘Oh, Ashton! Ashton, there’s a fox! Be careful! Go get your Mummy! Ashton, don’t come in here! Don’t!’
But the boy didn’t listen; he wriggled and squirmed and breathed in hard as he struggled to make it in through the cat flap. Finally he twisted just right, something in his body cracked and he slithered in like a snake.
‘No, Ashton! Run! Can’t you see the…’
Joan stopped. Something was wrong with Ashton. She could see it in the way he held himself. Like something else was wearing an Ashton disguise. Something frightening.
The boy wandered over to Joan, his walk strange, disjointed. As he reached her, he crouched low onto his haunches and looked at her. The whites of his eyes were yellow.
‘Please don’t, Ashton.’
The boy stood and made his way over to the cutlery drawer. He pulled it open and retrieved a large carving knife; it looked so large in his tiny hand that it was almost comical.
The cats and the fox shuffled closer to watch.
The boy approached Joan, his manner almost casual. Joan thought about how he’d laughed at his birthday party, a little conical hat on his head. Such a happy little boy. He really loved chocolate cake.
Ashton placed a small, cold hand on Joan’s right arm, holding it tight.
That’s the thing with cat flaps, you see. It helps my cats get out and about, but it also lets other things get inside.
Joan tried to go elsewhere as the knife went about its business. She was dancing with Frank the night he asked her to marry him. She was holding Celia for the first time, her eyes so large and full of trusting wonder. She was in that hotel room with her old boss; just that one time, just that one mistake.
‘It’s okay, Ashton. It’s okay. Don’t you worry none. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay.’
The Hill will crack.
So much blood. And she’d spent such a long time cleaning the place, all ready for her.