1st Place – Jan. 2018

What I Hate

by JJ Rushmore, 1460 words

“Mr. Hawkins, are you in there?”  Ringing the doorbell again, I yelled louder. “Mr. Hawkins! Open up!” Rapping with the brass knocker produced no effect. I pounded on the door with my fist. “Mr. Hawkins, are you okay? Mr. Hawkins!”

No reply came from the darkened home. A faint, high-pitched sound arose from within—possibly music, maybe a choir singing off-key, a distant ululation of many voices. An odor wafted around us. It was something unidentifiable, yet decidedly unpleasant.

“Mike, check the back, and peek in the windows. See what you find.”

“Roger that” Mike said, as his burly form disappeared around the dilapidated building.

A neighbor had called in a welfare check on Sam Hawkins, having not seen him in several days. Mike and I responded from the volunteer firehouse. We weren’t EMTs, but we were nearby, so we drove our department’s aging ambulance over to see if we could help. We brought a firefighter’s axe just in case.

Mike returned. “I can’t see anything, no lights, nothing,” he began. “The shades are drawn, and the back door’s locked. What now, Tom?”

In answer I hefted the axe, readying a swing at the front door, when a voice stopped me.

“What are you doing? Don’t do that.”

A diminutive woman appeared in a housedress and glasses. White hair and wrinkles pegged her on the far side of sixty. She barely came up to my armpit.

“Use the key, fool,” she said, as she elbowed her way to the front garden. She stooped and picked up what looked like a rock, turned it over, and extracted a key from a hidden compartment. Handing it to me, she muttered, “Just like a man—all balls and no brains.”

Accepting the key, I asked, “Did you call this in, Ma’am?”

“No, I didn’t. There are enough busybodies in this neighborhood already.” She tossed the fake rock on the ground. “I saw the flashing lights and wanted to know what was what. Is there something wrong with Sam?”

“That’s what we’re here to find out. Thank you for your assistance, Ma’am. Now maybe it’d be better if you gave us some space.”

The Hobbit lady huffed and backed off to the sidewalk.

I turned the key in the lock and opened the door. To my horror I saw a room filled with cats. Cats covered the floor, draped on the furniture, and hung from the curtains. There were Persians, tabbies, calicos, and tigers. They squirmed and writhed and stretched in the dim light, heads turning and tails twitching.  The room itself appeared to move, in a way a room should not, triggering a wave of vertigo. I staggered against the door frame and clutched at Mike’s arm.

Cats. I hate cats.

I had hated cats ever since my aunt’s Siamese scratched me when I was three. I automatically touched the trio of scars running from cheekbone to chin. They still blazed angry red after a shower, and gleamed pale white when I tanned. The experience instilled a lasting fear of all things feline. Over time the fear evolved into hate.

“Mr. Hawkins, are you there? Mr. Hawkins!” Still no answer.

We entered the roomful of fur, a colosseum of cats, like Christian gladiators surrounded by lions. Several mangy creatures squeezed by us, rubbing on our legs, biting our feet, their tails curling around our ankles. I resisted a rising anxiety, battling away the familiar panic. One animal stood on its hind legs, reaching up and puncturing my thigh with needle-sharp claws. I cursed and kicked it away.

The wail of ten dozen felines grew in volume as soon as they saw us. The wailing swelled in a cacophony of meows as the animals cried out to us, apparently starved for food and attention.

A blast of odor assaulted our nostrils. We reeled as if punched, gagging from the cloying smell of cat urine, mold, and mildew. Mike turned and retched onto the front porch. Swallowing hard, I squared my shoulders, crooked my arm around my nose, and waded ahead through the thick atmosphere.

We picked our way through the crowded house, plowing through cat bodies, both alive and dead. Each step required effort, like trudging through deep snow in a howling blizzard. Except it wasn’t winter in New England, it was summer in Texas. The house lacked air conditioning, and the stifling air choked each breath. Sweat poured off our brows and stung our eyes as we pressed forward.

We found Sam Hawkins in the bedroom. The stench was stronger there, bordering on putrid. He lay on the bed, naked, covered with yellowish-brown smears. His corpulent body was pale and pasty, his flesh sagging unnaturally. The image engraved itself on my memory.

“Explosive diarrhea,” Mike said. He had to shout over the caterwauling animals. “I saw it in Iraq. Check for a pulse. They dehydrate quickly.”

I felt around his fleshy neck for the carotid artery, but without success. Finally, I detected a faint pulse in his wrist.

I keyed the mike on my shoulder. “Dispatch. Rock Harbor Two here.”

“Dispatch. Go ahead, Tom.”

“Molly, we need an ambulance at 88 Travis Drive. We have a male Caucasian, approximately forty years old, six-foot, three hundred pounds. He’s presenting a weak pulse, shallow breathing, pale skin, with signs of diarrhea and dehydration. And send Animal Control. Have them bring both vehicles.” Or several guns and a lot of bullets. “And call in a black-and-white for crowd control.”

Molly promised to send help, and disconnected.

“We have to get him out of here,” I yelled, breathing through my mouth. We hollered back and forth over the din. A few cats began to migrate into the bedroom.

“We’ll never be able to lift him, Tom.” Mike and I were both ex-military, he an Army Ranger, me a Marine. We were in good shape, but I had to agree.

“You’re right, Mike. Wrap him in the bedclothes. We’ll drag him out.”

Cocooned in white sheets, Sam Hawkins resembled a giant chrysalis. We dragged him out head first, with me leading. Hawkins’ huge circumference forced us to turn him on his side to get him through the narrow doorway. We strained against his bulk, almost tearing the sheets as we half-lifted, half-dragged his body down the hallway and into the living room. Into all the cats.

Sam Hawkins’ body acted as an icebreaker, pushing away cat bodies like ice floes in an arctic sea. One cat hopped onto his inert form, hitching a ride through the chaos. A different animal jumped on my shoulder, another on my head. I yelled and swatted at them, dropping Mr. Hawkins in the process. His head thumped on the floor.

“Watch it, Tom,” Mike said. “Remember he was still alive when we started.”

“I know, I know, but these damn cats creep me out.”

I did better after that. Cats jumped on me three additional times, and I only dropped Sam Hawkins once more while knocking them away.

Once outside on the front lawn, we unwrapped our bundle, exposing the victim’s head and shoulders. Mr. Hawkins was still alive, although his breath was ragged. There were two contusions on his head that weren’t there before.

By this time the cruiser had arrived, and the officers kept the growing crowd of rubbernecking neighbors at a distance. Using a blanket from our vehicle, Mike provided a modesty screen while I washed Mr. Hawkins down with a garden hose. When the ambulance drove up a few minutes later, we had Sam Hawkins cleaned up, dried off, and wrapped in a fresh sheet. We both took showers as soon as we returned to the firehouse.

***

I arrived home an hour later, drained and exhausted. Abby, my youngest, squealed in delight as I entered the kitchen.

“Daddeeee!” she rushed over and wrapped herself around my leg. “Daddy—come quick! Come see what I got!”

I gave her a hug. “Hi, Pumpkin. How’s my little girl?”

The tow-headed four-year old grabbed my hand and tugged at me. “Daddy! Daddy! Come see!” I resisted long enough to kiss Mary by the stove, and allowed Abby to drag me into the living room.

A large cardboard box sat against one wall. Abby opened the flaps and giggled in delight as she pointed to the box’s interior.

The mass of fur squirmed and writhed and stretched in the dim light, heads turning and tails twitching. Mewing and scratching sounds emanated from the cardboard container. The room started spinning, and I swayed unsteadily and fell on the couch.

Abby screamed. Mary rushed into the room, wiping her hands on a dish towel.

“Abby! Whatever is the matter, Honey? Tom? Tom, are you okay? Tom!”

Cats. I hate cats.

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