“Roger, slow down!”
Now Brent Kenton had to admit that taking a desk job was the worst thing he’s ever done. When his uncle, the personal trainer, admonished him for taking a job that required sitting all day, he said he would be just fine.
“Just fine”, he panted.
Now, here he was racing after a black-haired cat with subtle orange stripes through city streets just because of a key on his collar.
“A note. All this…..because….of a….key…collar.”
At last! Roger slowed down, just due to figuring out how to jump to a window over some boxes…..wait. What? Window? How big are these windows….Brent looked twice at the narrow window at the top of some crates in an alley in the area of town he didn’t recognize. He bent down, catching his breath. His dress shirt was damp with sweat under his dark blue suit and he could tell his slacks were as well. Being late fall here in the upper 50’s and windy didn’t help much. Still out of shape. Why, oh why, did he try and make friends with a stray that greeted him every afternoon after work.
Because he treated Brent like somebody that mattered. That was welcome in his own little world, in his alley, his beat-up building, his beating-up job and co-workers that knew what a pushover he was. But Roger showed up one day after a horrible time re-organizing and re-re-re-organizing the software disks according to one arriving and departing boss’
His beat-up, dull matte furinsecure demands. Fine. He needed the job. Needed.
On the cement flower bed border outside the bright glass building came Rogers’ scratchy me-now. Just as Brent was leaving to try and forget another day of berating, ridiculous demands, piling regrets, the animal with orange and black eyes stared up at him.
“What do you need?” came Brent’s automated answer. “Oh my god. I’m having a conversation with an alley cat. Dad was right. I need a life.” However, a paw reached down, pointing to the mini-mini-bag of chips in the hand holding his case. “Are chips okay with your people?” After a moment of thought while traffic noise grew louder in his head, demanding his presence to add to it, he realized…. “Well, you’re probably living on week-old fish and other crap we throw out, so a salty fried chip would probably be better for you than me.” His fingers found what he considered a prime chip. All in one piece, crunchy from being thicker than the others in the mostly-air bag and not too much salt…..then he crumbled it into his palm. Rogers’ paws began kneading the concrete, giving “Purks” as a signal that gratitude was in order. The suction began as soon as the crumbs scattered to the border. Brent couldn’t help himself but watch this animal, this survivor, gorge himself on human junk food and purr like it was a gourmet meal.
“There’s a lesson here, if this was some made-for-cable drama. Something about not taking little things for granted, being good to those lesser than you….yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.”
Another “Purkk” answered him as the salted potato slice was inhaled. After some snout cleaning, he took off with a bound.
“Roger that, I guess.” Brent said to the now-invisible tail leaving to whatever dumpster he may be hiding in. “Roger. Sounds like a good fit.”
He then wadded up the rest of the bag and threw it into the trash.
More encounters followed. Only a few of them didn’t end with an edible reward for the animals’ time, but the times that it didn’t, Roger was still attentive, looking up at his new counseling patient. Those rare times, Roger would place a paw on Brent’s arm before leaving quietly and quickly.
This afternoon was different. Roger was wearing a collar with a gold key, striking Brents’ attention more so than usual. His friends’ coat gained a shine recently and his eyes looked clearer than before. Brent tried to take the key into his fingers to examine it, maybe get an idea who put it there and why. The slick beast dodged and weaved and swatted at the bare human hand, no claws. Nevertheless…. “Ow! What’s your problem?”
It was then that Roger ran off and Brent pursued him, guilt motivating him. His only actual friend and he ran him off. Shining blocks went past to give way to weather-beaten brick and cracked concrete pavement. Giving Brent more exercise than he’s had since high school. The years showed.
The orange-tinted black coat shown even in this dark alley along with the eyes to match. Funny he never noticed Rogers’ eyes before. He turned to look into the window that seemed to be the target, the objective of this chase, then back to his out-of-shape human objective. There was a “Purkk” and he dove into the partly opened window.
“You really think I’m going to fit in there? You’ve lost your furry little mind….” with that last observation, a door visible to Brent now opened. “Oh. Okay, then. Why not?” He went to the door, his breath catching up.
“I’ve seen enough horror movies. This is usually where a skeleton hand in a robe reaches out and grabs me, pulls me inside. Do I have that right?” There was only about an hour left of daylight, but there was some light in the room. “I don’t really have anything else going on for me, I might as well check this out.” and went inside.
Cats. Cats and more cats. Many different species, colors, sizes. Even some kittens that sat upright like their grown-up companions. All watching Brent, blinking, but staring at the human intruder. They all sat on shelves and chairs around this otherwise empty room. Some remaining sunlight beaming in, lighting the table in the center.
An ornate box sat on one side of the table in front of Brent. “Oh, this is just…..messed…” before he finished that thought, Roger bounded up next to the little ornate treasure box, head up, key proudly displayed on his chest. “Key. Box. Cat wearing key. Human confused and wondering where the camera is.” Brent did actually know better. No one at the office and any of his acquaintances didn’t care enough about him to pull a prank, so this was just a prank he was pulling on himself, thinking there were hidden cameras. “Okay. Stupid human confused thinking this is a reality show.”
The key caught his eye. The box caught his other one. Many boxes have locks. This one does. There’s a key on this kitty’s hairy chest. Shrugging, Brent reached for the prize on the cat’s collar. It unhooked easily and felt heavy in his fingers. Roger stayed his post, watching his human benefactor figure things out, and insert the key.
No angelic choirs. Cat or human. No special effect light show that he has paid many a dollar to watch at the theater next door to his run-down apartment. Just a scroll inside of the nicely-lined interior of the nicely-ornate exterior box. Brent looked around him at the contented looking felines watching every move. No purring, no mewling. Just sitting up straight, watching this human clown go through his motions. Because Brent was just that. A foolish human clown. So what would he have to lose by unrolling this scroll and finding out what it had to tell him.
“My dear sir or madam. Let me be the first to congratulate you on being selected for the post of caretaker of this den of felines. The selection process has been a closely guarded secret since what we humans know of as ancient times. These are no ordinary cats. They are not the types to wallow with full bellies in front of a fireplace or being dressed up in human baby clothes for photographs. Despite being survivors, they need our help. They need a human caretaker to help them discover food sources, get medical help if needed, defend the den however is needed. Only one that is discovered to be capable of great compassion is selected. These intelligent, loyal and faithful beasts will provide the same for you if you accept the terms as presented here. 1. You live among them for the rest of your natural life. 2. Your outside worldly life as you know it is ended. 3. You will arrange burials or cremations for their deceased. 4. Betrayal is not tolerated and will come at the cost of your life. Meaning, no animal control, no dogs set loose on them, no giving away kittens to well-meaning humans. No selling of these noble beasts for ‘science’. You will be fed and cared for as well and will not need to rely on a mortal job to provide for yourself. If you refuse these terms and go on your way back to the world you realize by now that you do not fit in with anymore, the location of the den and these instructions will disappear and they will relocate elsewhere. You will only be allowed moments to consider this offer. Myself, I am proud to have offered my service to these beautiful creatures and I hope that you can join our ranks.”
Inside the box, there were photos. Simple 3x5 prints in color and black and white and under those, what looked like those old-time pictures in sepia and yellowed along the edges and corners. The men and women in these pictures all different ages, nationalities, manners of dress and ages when the photos were taken. With one thing in common. Surrounded by cats. Like here in this room, varying species, colors and sizes and ages. Some of the humans looked like they dated back before this area of the country was settled.
“Was this some kind of….” before Brent could answer, he realized that this isn’t a trick of some kind. Looking around at their eyes, he could see they weren’t typical housecats expecting treats and scratches. There is an intelligence here. An expectation of services to help each other survive. This wasn’t an episode of some cheesy horror-comedy show either. This was real. More real than Brent expected. He always loved cats, but his parents, his few girlfriends refused to have one and even bullied him into staying away from them at friends’ places they visited. “My turn to make a decision now. Okay. Let’s do this. After all, I have nothing really out there to come back to. If I can make a difference to somebody, human or not. Let’s do this.” Roger already had a fountain pen in his mouth with an inkwell next to him at that moment, anticipating the right decision. “You trickster, you.” he laughed, taking the writing utensil and signing where indicated on the scroll under many other names on it. He found an old peel off print camera nearby and took the hint….and a photo of himself with some of his new friends behind him. After replacing it, there was a leather pouch next to the box. On inspection, Brent found gold coins. “Ah, this is the part about being taken care of.”
Walking to a window, one of the kittens hopped into his arms and nuzzled into him. Returning the gesture with scratched ears, Brent looked out at a scene of a woman screaming as her purse was taken from her, a fire engine blaring its siren and a passerby’s radio speaking about a nuclear war being certain.
This will be a good life. A better life than he could have out there. Just a family to take care of each other. That was all.
On a shelf high up over and behind Brent and the cute-acting kitten, the tortoiseshell looked sideways at the Maine coon that had one of the knives hidden in his thick-haired tail. The chirps and klicks exchanged agreed that this IS a good life, indeed.