The Machine

Submitted into Contest #235 in response to: Make a race an important element of your story.... view prompt

2 comments

Contemporary

Beep, beep-beep, beep!

New sound, new routine. My ears flick backward and forward, triangulating the source. There, in the center of the room, is a monstrous contraption my human installed the day before. 

It’s all wrong. The smell, the sight of it. The attention Sarah gives it as she taps the front panel.

I stretch and jump down from my perch atop the cat tree. As I pad to the hulking grey and black beast, Sarah pauses to watch me. I sense her hold her breath the way she does when she’s curious to see how I act and afraid that the slightest movement will scare me off. That puts me on edge, because The Machine is towering and fierce, with a flat screen face and long stiff arms that reach out to grab hold of her. And she stands willingly in their cold embrace. 

I stretch my neck forward and give The Machine a good sniff. 

“Watcha doing, Hal?” She coos. I can tell by her tone she thinks I’m being silly. “You makin’ sure the machine is safe to use?” 

I stare up at her to convey that I think she’s being silly for standing on the invasive monster. We have no idea how dangerous it is. 

But then the impossible happens again.

“Watch out, Hally boy.” 

Beep!

Choo-Ooo-Woo-wOooOo— 

The machine groans angrily and the floor begins to move. It slides out beneath Sarah as it whirrs into action. I try to track the white and blue letters painted along one side of the rolling floor, but they move too fast and the floor just keeps rolling. 

Thoom-doom, thoom-doom, thoom-doom, thoom-DOOM. 

Sarah runs because if she doesn't she'll fall off. A pungent reek emanates from the rolling floor, smelling like the rubber bands Sarah sometimes flings for me to chase, but much stronger. And within the contraption I detect the constant clicking and shifting of many smaller machines. This thing is alive and it’s pushing her backward and she’s in danger, she’s nearing the edge and could get sucked under.

I scratch my paws against the rubber floor but it’s no use—The Machine doesn’t back down. Sarah is puffing and panting, struggling to keep her footing against The Machine. I sense cortisol in her sweat and her heart rate is skyrocketing. I have to save her from this violent beast that pushes her relentlessly back, back, back. 

Dylan pushed Sarah back. That made her upset. So upset that she packed up all my toys and brought us to this smelly new apartment and refuses to let me go back to Dylan. 

I crouch and wait for the painted letters to appear again. That’s got to be the key to defeating this beast. There they are! I spring, paws landing right on the big blue letter. But instead of backing down, it drags me with it. My front paws end up in a race against the angry machine, just like Sarah’s feet. Both of us just one misstep away from being gobbled up by this monster.

Beep-beep-beep! The floor growls and moves even faster. I barely remove my paws before they’re dragged under. Rats! I’m forced to back down for now. 

I stare up at Sarah again, at the frown that has creased her face and the red flaming her cheeks. 

Let’s go play, I suggest. Rrrow-Wow! She’s busy watching the smaller screen tool she calls a phone. Meanwhile The Machine still has her barred between its arms. I mean, it’s a wonder humans have managed to survive with such poor instincts for self defense. I meow for her to get down, before the beast devours her. But she’s got the little white things in her ears and can’t hear me. 

I miss Dylan. Well, I miss the condo we shared with him. Until a month ago we lived with Dylan in a different home. It had a long hallway running from the front door all the way to the far end of the living room. We used to race in the mornings. 

Our days started when Sarah woke up and fed me. Swoosh, the sound of the fridge door. Crack! The sound of my chicken pate. Clink! My plate being set on the cat tray.

After my breakfast and Sarah’s coffee, all it would took was for me to come out of my litter box and haul tail down the hall into the living room. By the time she thundered in from the kitchen, I was securely swathed in the shadows under the couch, watching. She’d pretend not to know where I was, and leave the room with heavy footfalls. 

I waited to hear her at the kitchen sink, then shot out from under the couch, leapt over her feet, and bolted down the front hall. The race was on. Sarah chased me up and down until I veered off into the bedroom. And the frantic scrape of my claws on the wood flooring tore the laughter from her. And so I ran faster for the corner each time. 

Because for a few minutes, from one end of the condo to the other, and back again, it was just me and my human putting one paw in front of the other. Blood flowing, hearts racing, bodies pumping feel-good chemicals into our bloodstream and making us bright-eyed and breathless with joy.

I loved the thrill of being chased by Sarah. It made me run as fast as I could. I wasn’t running to escape her or to beat her to the top of the tree. I was just running to feel the air in my fur, to imagine the forest floor beneath my paws, and the vital thrill of hunting, and being chased. To feel alive. And knowing Sarah felt the same, it was a special bond between us.

“You big silly boy, Hal!” she squealed, lumbering into the room. “I’m gonna get you!” She raced me to the cat tree in the living room. I leapt to the top shelf in two limber jumps, and stood glorious. 

I won. And my reward was lots of back rubbies and scratches behind the ears. 

Sometimes we woke Dylan up with her laughter and the frantic scrabbling of my claws on the wood. Sometimes Dylan grumbled that he’d had a late night and needed more sleep. Sometimes Sarah shut the bedroom door and left me out in the hall to listen as their voices and their stress levels rose. 

But those races were my favorite time of day. Even better than the chicken pate. Even better than when Dylan sat slack-jawed on the couch on the weekends, looking between his phone tool and the TV and ignoring me as I climbed onto the seat next to him warm nap. He never tried to grab me like Sarah does. Always chasing me with her arms outstretched, kinda like The Machine. 

But Dylan never pet me, either, not the way Sarah does. 

If Dylan were here, he’d wake up and ask Sarah to exercise later, when he’s at work. 

Dylan was not good at sharing, or running. One morning I heard him in the kitchen, heard the swoosh of the fridge and the crack! of a can opening. I trotted over to the counter, waiting for the tell-tale smell of chicken pate. But instead he put the can to his lips and guzzled. I got closer and twined around his legs. I meowed, asking for a bite of chicken if I could beat him in a race down the hall. But I realized too late that the can didn’t smell like chicken. It smelled like beer. 

He must have been surprised to see me by his feet, because his foot collided with me. I don’t think it was on purpose. But I’m a cat. I reacted instinctively. Sarah heard me yowl, and when she came into the room she saw my tail puffed up. I didn’t mean to get Dylan in trouble. It happens automatically when I feel threatened. Sometimes Sarah chuckles and calls it my Christmas-tree tail. But this time she didn’t laugh. 

Then there were more closed doors. More shouting, more cortisol permeating the condo, more anxious energy rippling over my fur. My tail twitched all night, even while I slept. 

Within a week we left. 

It took me a while to adapt to this apartment. There’s no hallway, just a big front room that connects to a big bedroom in the back, where The Machine lives. Still, I tried. I raced back and forth the first week, but I don’t think Sarah heard me. Humans have very dull senses. She wouldn’t have seen me unless she picked up her head from the pillow, but she laid on the bed for a few days. And then the big box arrived and it gave birth to this monstrous machine, and now I think The Machine is supposed to replace Dylan. 

It’s certainly better at moving than he was. And so far it hasn’t made Sarah cry. 

The Machine decelerates with a low whining and Sarah steps off. Finally! I cry. Rrr-Oww! I follow her to the bathroom and urge her to be more careful, not to stand on it when it’s moving. She just spent thirty minutes running uselessly against the dumb machine and now she might be late for leaving the house. 

She pats my head and closes the bathroom door, leaving me alone with my nemesis. It just sits there all day, still as the most cunning predator. It doesn’t blink, it doesn’t so much as breathe, but I do hear its insides clicking softly for several minutes after. A static ripple skitters over my pelt. 

That’s how Sarah finds me minutes later when she re-emerges from the steamy bathroom. Just sitting and eyeing the machine. Maybe that’s why she does it. 

Beep, beep-beep, beep!

That sound makes me jump to my paws and cede a step. The Machine is on the prowl again, rolling endlessly toward me yet never catching me. It's great black tongue licks slower this time. I scent the air again. All I sense is Sarah’s excitement, but it's not the kind I smelled around Dylan. It's a good kind of excitement. I raise a paw slowly and step closer, then another.

The Machine doesn’t attack. 

“Go on, Hally boy. Try it.” 

Try it? I stare at her with wide eyes. For Sarah’s own sake, I hope she doesn’t have to raise a human baby any time in the near future. The kid wouldn’t survive past a year. Sarah is kind and loving, but way too trusting of dangerous monsters. 

But I’m a cat. Curiosity drives me. After a few more tentative sniffs, I step onto The Machine. The ground sweeps out from under me and I land on my rump. Finally, The Machine’s claws come out. But I’m quick to try again.

I take a few steps onto it this time before being thrown off. It’s as if a big invisible arm comes down and brushes everything off The Machine. I’m helpless against this strange force. But I think I’m starting to figure it out. 

The next time I hop onto its rolling black tongue, I take off at a trot. Front paw, back paw, left, right. I get into a rhythm, and soon I don’t want The Machine to stop. Because the air is moving around me and my blood is pumping and my instincts to play and run are waking up again for the first time in weeks. 

I look up at Sarah. Rrow-Wow? I ask her to make The Machine go faster. I want to run again! I want to feel the wind through my fur and that vital feeling of being alive. 

Beep-beep!

Choo-woOOo-wOOoo. Faster and faster my paws move, until I’m outrunning myself, faster than I ever ran at the old condo. Until it’s just the rhythm of me and The Machine, locked in a race against ourselves. It's a feeling better than joy. It's exulting.

If I make one misstep it will hurt. It will send me flying backward and I’ll have to start all over again. I might even come to fear The Machine if I get hurt by it. But for this feeling? I’d shake it off. I’d try again, and again. 

I blink up at Sarah. Her eyes are leaking, which I heard means humans are sick. But she’s smiling at me like she does when we race. I realize Sarah hasn’t been fighting The Machine. She hasn’t been running endlessly toward nothing. 

She’s been racing against her old self, carving a new and stronger version with each thunk of her sneaker against the rolling floor. 

I love you, I convey. Mrrrt! 




February 03, 2024 02:12

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2 comments

Gail Ormsby
22:08 Feb 07, 2024

what an incredible story from the animal's point of view great story

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Amanda Song
18:05 Feb 10, 2024

Thank you! It's inspired by an internet video of a cat running on a treadmill haha.

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