Ben took the same path to and from work every day. From the door to his trailer, he walked on the loose gravel parking lot to the bike path through Mechant Lake Forest Preserve. The path was a four mile loop, but Ben only used a mile long stretch along the east side. Once he got as far south on the path as he could, he trudged through some wild grass and low shrubs for about fifty feet until he emerged on the back lot of Cletus’ Auto Shop. Ben did oil changes and a few other basic services, but was not allowed to operate the hydraulic jacks.
On a warm Thursday evening, when he arrived back at his trailer, there was a red children’s book leaning against his screen door. A thin hardcover with the picture of a dusty-grey British shorthair cat on the front. The title was Felix and the Hidden Treasure.
Ben hated cats. Just seeing the cover of this book enraged him. He kicked it aside, reminiscing about the many cats he had kicked at on the path to and from work all these years.
The book came to a rest next to the metal stairs, open to the last page. Felix sat on a pile of coins and treasure underneath a shady chestnut tree. The way Felix looked at him, that’s what intrigued Ben. He glanced at the book, took a step up, then stopped.
Against his initial instinct to avoid reading at all costs, Ben bent over and scooped up the book. Inside his trailer, he plopped down on a heavily duct-taped lounge chair that used to be black leather. Opening the book made him feel like a kid again when nobody read to him. In 2nd grade, he used to pick the books with the most pictures when his class went to the library and make up a story of his own since he still couldn’t read.
Forgetting to even change out of his greasy overalls, Ben turned to the first page. Felix the cat stood at the beginning of a path, just like the bike path Ben walked to work every day. It even had the orange stripe down the middle.
Felix looked over his shoulder, beckoning the reader to come on an adventure with him.
Come with me, to a treasure that awaits. Perhaps we’ll see, those pearly gates.
Astonished at the picture on page two, Ben felt a sense of déjà vu as his eyes fell upon Felix walking past a rusty gate hanging askew on an equally rusty white metal fence. Behind the fence was a junkyard. The very same junkyard Ben passed every day. It even had the same blue 1970 Chevy on blocks, heavily rusted.
As if mesmerized, Ben turned the page.
Just up ahead, painted the color blue…a run down shed, for me and you.
Ben’s eyes bulged as he remembered the blue shed he passed every day just a bit further down from the junkyard. It was a flimsy tin structure, barely standing. But it was blue. The white doors had failed over the years, and now it just sat open. Ben purposely took a wide berth after coming across an angry mother cat and her kittens inside one time.
Felix urged Ben on farther. On the next page, he could see Felix regarding a pair of elm trees arching over the path. Ben shook his head in disbelief. He knew those trees! They were just a bit farther down from the broken down shed! And they formed a little shady arch over the path, which he enjoyed most during the summer months.
Let’s take a rest, a pause for a sec. What’s next in this test, will make you a wreck.
Immersed in the journey, Ben let the world around him slip away. He could almost see Felix walking on his path, guiding him toward…something.
On the next page, Felix stood in front of an old water pump Ben knew well. It was exactly halfway between the start of his daily walk and when he got to the back lot of the garage he worked at.
Felix had a raised paw, pointing at a well-hidden dirt path carved subtly into the lush wild grasses. Ben’s mouth hung open as he turned to his right, in his imagination. This time of year, he would have to duck through the dense forest. Thick branches would wick at his shoulders and head, but he could be careful.
Just a bit more, not to worry. The journey afore, now you have to hurry.
Felix led Ben through a maze of flowering bushes and lush green grasses. The winding path no longer familiar as it strayed from the paved bike path, but promised something glorious.
Eager to reach the end, Ben turned to the next page. There was Felix, looking over his shoulder, making sure Ben kept up. There was a small grassy clearing, and the dirt path ended. A circle of tall white pines enshrouded the cozy nook.
Almost there now, time to stretch a leg. Worthwhile I vow, riches you will beg.
Felix continued across the clearing and onto a new dirt path that led deeper into the evergreens. Ben had on idea if this part of the forest preserve actually existed along his path, but he was dying to find out.
As Ben turned to the final page, he saw Felix’s little cat face turned toward the reader. He wore a grin, his paws outstretched. In a sweeping gesture, Felix drew Ben’s attention to another small clearing just beyond the trees. The dirt path ended at the base of a mountain of coins and jewels. A treasure chest sat open, overflowing with stacks of bills and gold coins.
A promised treasure, I cannot lie. Value no measure, so much you will die!
Closing the book with an audible pop, Ben jumped up and ran to the front door. He pushed the screen, slamming it against the side of his trailer. Giggling like an idiot, he shuffled along the gravel, kicking little puffs of white dust into the air.
As he approached the bike path, he held the book open to the first page. Looking down with the book in front of him, the path was an exact duplicate in the book.
Ben walked hastily to the first landmark, almost seeing Felix actually walking in front of him. With a scowl, Ben wished Felix was there. He would toss him into the trunk of that old Chevy in the junkyard if he was.
As he passed the rusty gate, Ben smiled. Remembering the time last summer when he brought a super-soaker with him and blasted the trio of orange stray cats with gasoline. They ran away, hissing and screaming at him, but he got them good. He wondered how long it took them to lose the stench of the fuel caked on their fur.
Farther down now, Ben approached the shed. He turned the page in the book, using it as a map. He closed his eyes and saw Felix in his mind, acknowledging the shed just like in the book.
With a chuckle, Ben thought back to the time he found a mother cat with her litter of newborn kittens in the shed. It was drizzling that day, and the raindrops pattered at the metal roof with a pleasant beat.
It was early July then, and a rush surged through him as he relived lighting a ten pack of firecrackers and tossing them into the shed, then slamming the doors shut. The racket the cats made was like sweet music to Ben’s ears as it mixed with the pop of the firecrackers.
A few minutes farther down the path, Ben came to the arched elms. Just like in the book, they provided shade from the heavy summer sun. He took a moment to rest and recalled that time in the fall two years earlier when he came across two fat gray strays. One with a striped tail, the other with a black one.
They lumbered slowly on that hot day, seemingly dehydrated from the unusual October heat. Ben laughed to himself, remembering firing rocks at the two cats from the shade of the elms. He never hit them, but came close a few times. They scampered off before he could do any real damage.
Moving on, Ben turned the page in the book to where Felix stood at the water pump. Ben put his hand on the pump, marveling at the accuracy of the book.
Who wrote this amazing tome? Someone who wanted Ben to have the treasure, that’s who.
Before turning toward the little dirt path hidden from unobservant eyes, Ben thought about the time last winter when he came across a little black kitten, shivering in the frozen air. He picked up the kitten with a comforting tone, petting and reassuring him he would take him somewhere warm. When he got to the end of the path, where a small pond had frozen over, his tone changed. Ben stomped the ice until his steel-toed boot broke through to liquid water.
With a snarl, he dropped the kitten into the freezing water, then headed in to work. To this day, he still has no idea what happened to that little black kitten.
Just as in the book, there was a little dirt path heading at a right angle away from the paved bike path. Ben ducked under some low hanging branches and crept greedily toward his destination. With the book as his map, he emerged onto a clearing.
The whole time, Felix egged him on. Ben could almost see Felix on the path before him, just like in the story. He quickly paced across the clearing and into the dense forest. This summer had been particularly wet, making the trees and grasses and shrubs extra lush.
Spines from sticker bushes scraped at his legs. Heavy branches with soft pine needles slapped at his head and neck.
His back ached as he lunged forward hunched over. But he pushed farther ahead. Surely, the treasures that awaited him were close now.
Like a doorway, two majestic cypress trees stood side by side, giving just enough space for a man to slip between. The branches just above his head hung over, completing the doorway illusion.
With an eagerness he hadn’t felt since he was a child, Ben stumbled into another small clearing. Only, instead of a mountain of jewels and coins and treasure, he saw cats.
Lots of cats.
He found himself in the middle of a vicious circle of hissing felines. They closed the space behind him, cutting off his only escape.
There were orange ones with long spindly tails, and gray ones with striped tails, a trio of black cats with piercing green eyes, and a white one with pointy pink ears. Their colors ranged all points on the rainbow, but they had one thing in common: Ben’s wrath.
Their little faces were vaguely familiar, but who can really remember every cat they assaulted?
They were all there. Amber, the one he threw firecrackers at. And her three babies, Jester, Joker, and King. And Sophia, the British short hair. And Oscar, and Pharaoh, and Lady, and Dot. The one he tossed into the freezing water, Ebony. And there was Freesia, the one he doused in gasoline. And all the others. The ones he assaulted every chance he got. The kings and queens of this jungle.
Closing in around him, Ben shuddered in terror. Before he could register what was about to happen, they were on him. Moving like lightning, they clawed at his face, his neck, his skin. One jumped on his head and clawed his right eye out with a triumphant meow.
Dozens clung to his body, their claws piercing his skin. He spun with a wail, but it went unheard. They were at least a mile from civilization. Deep in this dense forest.
Blood oozed from countless wounds, and the cats continue to ravage him. Ben fell to the ground in a tortured hump. Pain seared through every inch of his body, down to the bone.
Screams and hisses and scratches and claws and bites and cries and pain. The assault lasted long past the time Ben’s mind could register pain. But the time he could feel pain was an eternity.
Three days later, police investigated a missing person’s report filed by Ben’s employer. When they found him, they said his body looked like ground beef. Unrecognizable.
And Felix grinned.