The mansion came into view between the copses of trees, which had been lining either side of the road for the last hour. From a distance it looked old and gray, many-windowed and somewhat medieval; though, this being the Northwest, it couldn’t have been more than a hundred years old.
Aimee’s boyfriend, Thomas, drove the car and pointed out the mansion only after she had already seen it. She watched it get closer and closer. Her view jounced as the car’s tires ground across gravel and tripped over potholes.
Then they turned left at the gated entrance and traveled a paved lane leading right up to the front door.
Being that she was Uninitiated (he only spoke this to her, but his tone of voice still somehow managed to capitalize the ‘U’) Thomas had wanted her to wear a blindfold over her eyes, but seeing as how their relationship was already on shaky ground and the whole point of this little excursion was to, maybe, bring them closer together again he quickly gave up on that. What was non-negotiable—he sheepishly told her—were the hooded, white robes they both wore. The robe was so big and billowy that she felt lost within it. And the hood was topped by two peaked points, which was odd.
Even odder, was the flap that fell down over the face, two holes cut out for eyes, depicting a cat’s face which had been morphed and elongated to the shape of a human skull.
“The grass is very pretty here,” Aimee commented. “Very green.”
“Yeah,” Thomas distractedly agreed. “Um, the owner left a lot of money to us after he died. For upkeep and stuff like that.” She couldn’t help but make note of “to us”. “And there’s also the money from monthly membership fees.”
A car had been following them ever since they’d turned onto the back-roads. That had probably been two hours ago. And it continued to follow them now all the way up to the mansion’s entrance.
“Just keep an open mind,” he pleaded with her through wet eyes. He was allergic to cats, and there was cat hair all over the car’s seats. “Okay? It’s not as weird as you think.”
“I’m keeping an open mind,” she promised, and held up the first three fingers on her right hand. “Scout’s honor.” She cut her eyes to the mansion’s looming facade, to the strange car behind them. “It’s still weird, though.”
Thomas sighed. “Please.”
He brought the car around the circle drive and parked at the end of the line of cars which were already there. The car that had been following them parked just behind.
He continued, “Let me do the talking. At first, at least. Okay?”
This time Aimee didn’t promise. She popped her door open and scurried through it before he had time to say another word.
A rotund man exited from the other car. The man caught sight of her and glared, but then he saw Thomas and the glare fell away. “Thomas! It’s so good to see you again! How have you been, my boy?” He came forward to shake Thomas’s hand, grabbing the young man’s arm in what was meant to be a friendly grip. Then his attention turned to Aimee. “And who is this?”
“Aimee,” she said, sticking her hand out. The man took it and her shoulder as well, taking possession of her entire arm, if only for the moment.
“It’s good to see ourselves one more strong,” he spoke seriously, staring into her eyes. His were a flat, pale shade of blue and she could feel them probing her for something. Then he released her. “What say we head inside?”
Aimee had only known Thomas for two months. They’d met in a coffee shop. He’d approached her, sipping on a latte or something—she couldn’t remember—and did his best to flirt while grinning at her with all of his uneven teeth. His eyes and nostrils were red-rimmed and he kept sniffling the entire time he talked to her. He mentioned he’d spent the afternoon feeding stray cats, most of them feral. He’d spoken reverentially of the experience—that’s the word she chose when she described it to herself later, “reverentially”.
He’d, of course. asked for her number; and she wouldn’t have given it to him, if not for his hair. He had the most beautiful, brown curls she had ever seen and she just wanted to sink her hands into them and let her fingers get lost forever. And, sure, the feeding stray cats thing was endearing. At first it was.
But how did it come to this? How did she come to be here? Where did it begin?
Only a week after they’d begun dating, Thomas had gotten a cat and brought it to her apartment. His own apartment didn’t allow pets, but he knew hers did. So he expected to be able to keep the cat there. She didn’t want a cat, had never wanted a cat, but also didn’t want to make him to bring it back to the pet store, or throw it out onto the street, so the cat stayed with her. He came over everyday to spend time with it, and her, though less with her than it.
Then there were the texts he received from secret senders. He’d told her he was involved in some sort of group, but he wouldn’t say what kind of group it was. They were always in constant communication with one another. So his phone would be blowing up no matter what the time of day it was, even if it was the middle of the night, and he would reply back immediately every time. He behaved as if this were a matter of life-or-death. The first time it happened she’d asked if it was something serious, thinking that a family member of his had ended up in the hospital, but he just waved it away and claimed it was nothing.
Two months of this and she was ready to break up. She would’ve broken up if he didn’t beg and plead with her (“Can I still come to see the cat?” “No! Of course not!”) and bargained with her (“What can I do to fix this?”) and ended up promising not to keep any secrets from her from then on.
That’s how she ended up here. In front of this gray, lifeless mansion. Walking into a large foyer decked out in intricate molding, marble flooring, and two sweeping staircases at the opposite end. Feeling dwarfed by both the over-sized robe and the high ceiling.
There were more people in here, wearing white robes and milling about while taking drinks off a tray carried by a passing servant. They spotted her and eyed her suspiciously, but, like the rotund man, perked up when they saw Thomas. Aimee noted that he seemed to be the youngest person here by half.
“Thomas! How are you, dear?” A white-haired woman with a long neck came toward them at a brisk pace—much like the edge of a knife being drawn through a shallow pool of water. “Who is your guest?”
“This is Aimee,” Thomas said. “My girlfriend,” he added.
“Well! That’s just lovely, isn’t it? It’s so nice to see you’ve found someone! And even nicer to see more youthful faces among our ranks. Young people today just don’t take enough interest in the state of the world.” She turned to Aimee. “And how are you finding things?”
The woman gestured around her. “All of this. Isn’t it grand? We might’ve not been taken very seriously during the early days but our cause is now finally getting the support it desperately needs!”
“Oh…yes. Um, I’m a little fuzzy on this, but what is our cause exactly?”
A look confusion came over the woman’s face. “Huh?”
Thomas pulled her away. “Sorry, but I really should show her around.”
The woman recomposed herself and patted his arm. “Oh, but dear, the meeting’s about to start! You can show her around later.”
An unseen bell chimed and a set of double doors opened. The flow of white robes took them through an antechamber which—in addition to the requisite cushy chairs and sofa, coffee table, ornate area rug, and low-lit lamps—was decorated with photographs, paintings, woodcuts, sculptures, and taxidermied representations of the felid family.
A pride of lion, lionesses, and cubs lounged above the fake fireplace while a seven-foot long tiger stalked in the corner. An oil-painted bobcat, thick-coated and jowly, was momentarily caught prowling the brilliant whiteness of fresh-fallen snow. And the entire expanse of one wall was given to black-and-white photographs of primly posed house cats, each one bearing a brass plate with the feline’s name and birth-death dates.
Aimee felt that she was beginning to understand what kind of place this was and what kind of people tended to congregate here.
Then they were in a room that could only be described as a small auditorium, with rows of chairs and, yes, even a dais at the front. The white robes filled the rows one by one and waited silently until a very old man with sunken cheeks and only wisps of hair on his head mounted the dais and began to speak.
“Welcome, friends,” the old man said, “to another meeting of the High Order of Felinophiles! Glory be to Catkind!”
“Glory be to Catkind!”
The entire room roared with the mantra.
“What the hell is this?” Aimee whispered to Thomas.
“Shh. Open mind, remember?”
The old man, the group’s leader, continued, “For all of human history we have been under the oppressive thumbs of inferior rulers! We’ve toiled and trembled and thrashed away for centuries in our attempts to instate the rightful inheritors of this earth! And all the while, we’ve had to watch as the more ignorant of our species wrought destruction and ruin on a planet that was never ours to begin with! We wept, brothers and sisters, how we did weep! How much longer must we weep until they hear our cries?”
The room wailed with the misery and disgrace of it all. Aimee looked around, hoping to spot a quick exit.
“Our day is coming soon. I promise you, brothers and sisters, our day is coming soon. No! Not our day, but their day! Soon we shall all bow down before our feline lords and be thankful, thankful, to feel the barbs of their distaste!”
“This is insane!” Aimee spoke quietly.
“Shh,” Thomas shushed her. But already a few of the Felinophiles around them had turned slightly in their chairs and were watching her out of the corners of their eyes.
“We need to get out of here!”
Her heart began to hammer away in her chest as soon as she said it.The back of her neck burned and her palms itched and every hair on her body had stood up. More eyes were upon her now. Already, they had caught the scent of her fear.
A Felinophile, wearing a padded version of the robe, entered the room holding a fat, scarred, and, above all, angry-looking tomcat.
“Brothers and sisters, let me be the first to set an example for human-kind. Allow yourselves to witness the lengths that we must all take in order to atone for our past pretensions!”
Two more Felinophiles appeared and erected a collapsible pen around the dais, enclosing their leader, who now shucked his white robe and revealed that all he wore underneath were shoes, socks, and kitty-cat boxers. His body was covered with ghostly embossments of healed scars. The scars traveled in groupings of four and, for a moment, his hands drifted and tenderly traveled along with them.
Then he lowered himself down to all fours and the cat was placed in the pen as well. The animal took one look at him and began to growl, long and low.
“I offer the sacrifice of my own flesh in exchange for all of Catkind’s forgiveness!”
He began to crawl toward the cat, who, because it was already backed up against the opposite side of the pen, growled even louder and began to lash out with its claws. The old man’s face and forearms were raked again and again. Despite this, he continued to come closer and even reached out one hand to caress the cat’s face—an opportunity for the animal to latch onto the extended limb and sink its fangs into him.
“That’s it!” Aimee stood up. “I want out! IwantoutIwantoutIwantout!”
She attempted slip past the seated Felinophiles, but they stood as well, in order to block her escape.
“What is this? What’s going on here?” The Felinophile leader rose as well, forgetting about the cat, who clung on for moment more before dropping to the floor and leaping over the lip of the pen. “Who is this? Who allowed her in here?”
“It was Thomas! He’s the one!” someone shouted.
“How could you let one of the Uninitiated in among our ranks?”
“I’m sorry! But she was going to break up with me!”
Every face, every pair of hateful eyes, were upon her now and she could feel hands gripping her wrists and arms. They lifted her and she tried to kick out with her legs, but those were restrained as well. She was brought to the front of the auditorium and thrown into the pen down at the old man’s feet. Blood dripped from the tattered skin of his face and arms and stained her robe. He stared at her with cold dissociation.
“She must be done away with,” he announced. “More so, she must be destroyed! Body, mind, and spirit! None of her should survive to taint this already sullied world!”
Roars of assent went up from the Felinophiles. She could see that some of them had already run out to grab the decorative pokers from the fireplace, and even more of them had procured scissors and rolling pins and other rending and bludgeoning instruments.
She turned her face away and moaned, “Please don’t.”
The was a thwump as Thomas landed beside her. His nose had been broken and was running with blood and snot.
The old man stuck his face down near hers. “But we can’t just let you go free,” he purred at her. “We cannot allow word of our existence to get out, otherwise it will all be ruined! Everything we’ve worked for!” He turned to the Felinophile congregation. “Take them away and make sure they are not seen again.”
“No!” she screamed.
She and Thomas were lifted out of the pen and carried back toward the doors through which they’d first entered. It was at that moment that the doors opened of their own accord and several abashed faces appeared on the other side. The Felinophiles stopped dead in their tracks and everyone just kind of looked at each other for a moment.
The faces sat atop bodies wearing gray robes, much like the ones the Felinophiles wore, but atop the faces were shark plushy hats in the process of devouring said faces. It was one of these faces that cleared its throat and managed to speak:
“Sorry if we’re interrupting something important, but there’s meant to be a soccer game scheduled today? One between the Selachimorphaphiles and the Felinophiles? I believe we have the date and time right. Unless…this isn’t the right place?” The face looked hopeful.
“No, no, this is the right place.” The Felinophile spokesperson turned back toward the leader. “Soccer game today?”
“Yes, of course!” the old man exclaimed. “How could I’ve forgotten? Quickly, those who are part of the team, get your jerseys on! The rest of you, let’s get plenty of chairs set up out on the lawn! Above all else, let’s have fun, yes?”
“But what about these two?”
Their leader looked a bit embarrassed. “Wee-e-ell…we don’t want to give our Sharky friends the wrong idea, do we? We’ll let them go with a warning. But just this once! Okay, Thomas?”
Thomas—eyes wet and red, though this time not due to allergies—wailed, “Yes! It won’t happen again! I promise! Thank you!”
She and Thomas were lowered to the floor and released. Aimee herself was given a few pats on the shoulder by one of the kindlier-looking Felinophiles and told, “Sorry about that, we’re big on mob mentality around here. You probably shouldn’t come back ever again, though.”
“No,” she agreed.
After they were back in the car and had passed through the gate again and were back on the back-country road leading away from the mansion, Aimee buried her fingers in Thomas’s curls, jerked his head toward herself, and announced loudly in his ear, “We. Are. Breaking. Up! And I don’t care what happens to the cat!”
She rolled down her window, stuck her head through it, and announced to the world, “I am done with cats!”