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Anita and the Mother of Cats

This was the second of two stories written for a friend of mine. (The other one is "Passion Play".) It was actually published in a magazine he was editing at the time - back in 1997, to be precise. I'd been reading a lot of Charles De Lint at the time, and that influence is evident - though I don't think it measures up to the quality of his work. I had a fairly strict limit on story length, which forced me to squeeze things down more than I really liked. Still, it was fun to write.

It had, reflected Anita, been one hell of a day. On the good side, she had managed to scrape together enough to pay for the coming semester’s tuition. Unfortunately, even at a junior college the cost virtually emptied her bank account, and she really wasn’t sure if she could make it to payday this time. Then, on the way back from the grocery store, her timeworn Dodge had broken down, leaving her to walk the rest of the way with her two carefully-stocked grocery bags, one in each arm. As a result, her arms were now aching, and her back was starting to join them. If I’d had enough cash to fill them properly, she thought, I’d never have made it. As it was, she was returning home later than she ever really wanted to be out, especially in this neighborhood.

As she made her way up the street, placing her feet carefully to avoid tripping on the uneven stones of the sidewalk, she saw him: a younger man in ratty clothes, his face made prematurely harder and colder by the street, with carefully greased black hair and a gold ring in one ear. He let his eyes wander insolently from her face to her feet and back up.

Then he smiled.

Chilled, she turned and mounted the steps into her apartment building. As she cleared the doorway, she saw him cross the street, not hurrying, but definitely turning in her direction. She immediately regretted her outfit, but the short skirt and the blouse were an unwritten part of her job requirements. If being a secretary hadn’t turned out to pay better than most other jobs, and if she hadn’t needed the money so badly, she would have quit long ago. At least her shoes were sensible; she exchanged heels for tennis shoes every day, as a part of her after-work ritual.

She paused at the top of the stairs, looking back to see if he was going to follow her into the building, the weight of the groceries momentarily forgotten. For a moment the front hall was still. Then a figure moved through the doorway, the light of the single dim bulb revealing the younger man’s face. Though she had half-expected this, she started slightly when she saw him, causing one of the grocery bags to crumple. He looked up at the sound, smiling his predatory smile at her again, and started up the stairs.

Anita didn’t waste any time. She dropped both bags immediately, sending cans of vegetables rolling down the stairs, turned, and ran quickly up the hallway to her door. She had left it locked, of course, and there was a long, terrible time while she fumbled out her keys and unlocked the door. At any minute, he would come up behind her and...

But no. He reached the top of the stairs just as the door opened, his steps slow and almost lazy. His insolence and composure made her want to scream, in fear and frustration combined. If he was going to attack her, couldn’t he at least be nervous about it? Or guilty? Anything, anything would be better than this awful, placid calm. Stumbling into her apartment, she slammed the door behind her, shot the bolt and slipped the chain into place. Breathing deeply, she leaned back against the door and forced herself to be calm. The door was locked; she was safe; she could relax. She repeated this to herself like a prayer, over and over.

When he knocked on the door, she nearly leapt out of her skin.

“Can I borrow some sugar, miss?” The voice was smooth, even amused.

“Sure,” she shot back. “It’s out there by the stairs.” Immediately, she regretted speaking. “Pendejo,” she added under her breath.

“Let me in,” he said, his voice insistent. “‘S not polite t’ leave me standing out here.”

She didn’t answer, backing nervously away from the door. She knew she should call the police, but the police seldom came to this neighborhood. They would probably take their time answering the call, and by then it would be too late. Shaking her head as if to clear it of that morbid line of thought, she looked around for a weapon.

It was a cheap apartment, the only kind she could afford. In addition to its other problems— its location, the bugs she had persistently chased out, the occasional lack of hot water— it had a cheap front door. The intruder was a fairly big man, and his first kick broke away the wood around the bold, leaving it hanging in the doorframe as the door swung open. The chain held it for a moment, but then a second kick ripped it free of the door as well, and he walked casually into the room. Smiling, he swung the door shut behind him, pushing a chair back against it to keep it closed. Anita’s kitten, Whisper, raised his voice in a low sound of warning, more groan than anything else, but he was only five weeks old, and too small to pose a threat.

While the intruder’s back was turned, she swung the baseball bat at his head.

He was faster than she thought— too fast! Screamed part of her mind— and he managed to turn in time to ward the off most of the blow with his arm. He stepped in before she could swing again, wrestling the bat out of her hands and tossing it away behind him. She took a step back, and he backhanded her across the face.

The force of the blow brought tears to her eyes and set her ears to ringing. She fell back, landing gracelessly on her butt, her vision blurred and her wits fled. At that moment, someone else knocked on the door. Anita wiped desperately at her eyes, trying to clear away tears so she could see. The man hesitated, holding out a knife he had drawn from somewhere in his clothing. It was a hunting knife, not large, but smooth and extremely well polished; to Anita’s eyes, it looked very sharp.

After a moment the door swung open, the chair sliding across the bare wooden floor in front of it. The man shifted uncomfortably, trying to find a position where he could watch both Anita and the door at once. Whisper made his low, yowling sound again.

When the hunched, ragged figure shuffled into the room, Anita wanted to cry. Mad Maggie was no threat to anybody— just a harmless old street person, scrounging her living out of the dumpsters and alleyways. She must have left her cart in the front hall, Anita thought wildly. She was never without her shopping cart, and the twin grey cats that rode in its front. Pouncer and Yowler, she called them— she would speak to the animals from time to time, but almost never to people. The two cats sat in the doorway at her feet, eyeing the room disdainfully.

Anita had met Mad Maggie during her second day in the apartment. Maggie did her scrounging in the same block as the apartment building (she probably had a squate somewhere nearby), keeping strictly to her territory. The residents knew her by sight, and sometimes gifted her with bits of food or worn-out clothing. Given food, Maggie invariably divided it among the dozen or so cats who followed her— a constantly changing group, though Yowler and Pouncer seldom left the cart— and ate no more than the animals did.

Anita had found the woman interesting, in a peculiar sort of way. She had tamed her as she would any other wild animal, giving her food when she could afford to, keeping her movements slow and careful so as not to alarm. After a time, the old woman seemed to become accustomed to her, and after Whisper came to live with Anita, Maggie proved willing enough to teach her the names of the other cats as well.

The intruder turned, emitting a low chuckle, and gestured with the knife. He was almost twice her height, straight and strong against her hunched, elderly frame. “Get lost, old woman,” he said. His voice carried the unmistakable hint of a threat.

Mad Maggie said something— Anita couldn’t tell exactly what— and shuffled easily into the room, raven-sharp eyes glancing easily around. When she stopped, she was not quite betwen Anita and the intruder. She lifted her head, peering out from beneath the shapeless cloth hat, absently brushing away a tangle of unruly grey hair. “Jordan Thomas,” she said suddenly, and the young man jumped. Her voice was surprisingly clear and penetrating.

“Ain’t no thing,” said the man, who apparently was named Jordan, with a small shrug. Then, with a sudden, vicious movement, he lunged at Mad Maggie, driving his knife deep into her ribs. She let out a strange sound— a whuff!— and folded over, collapsing onto the floor. “Crazy old woman,” he said, turning back to Anita. “Ain’t nobody goin’ t’miss her at all.”

The sound cut him off, rising up from stillness to fill the room. It was an eerie sound, an inhuman moaning cry from a chorus of feline throats. Unnoticed, they had followed Mad Maggie into the room, spreading out along the walls, perching on the table, the windowsill, the desk which held her battered old typewriter, the edges of chairs— everywhere. A low counterpoint rose beneath the sound: some of the cats were growling as well.

Jordan Thomas turned back in disbelief as Mad Maggie straightened and rose. No longer hunched, she seemed to gain height as she drew herself up. For a moment she regarded him, something ancient and cold and regal and powerful in her eyes.

“My boy, my boy,” she pronounced. “You’ve done it now. I couldn’t stop them if I wanted to, and I don’t.”

He looked from her to the circle of cats. Anita saw more of them coming in the door every minute, filling the room in a steady stream. Slitted pupils glared coldly. She recognized some of them— Snowy, who belonged to Mrs. Moore down the hall, a tabby who lived upstairs— and realized that every cat in the building was here. No, she thought, realizing how many she didn’t recognize, more like every cat on the block...

They parted as they came around her, furry bodies brushing easily up against her. She might have been part of the furniture, save that they never stepped on her. Jordan spun, disbelief turning to panic as he looked for a way to escape. There were none. The windowsill was guarded, by Yowler and Pouncer and Whisper and others. Other cats were still arriving through the front door, and for a moment he could imagine a steady flow of them going all the way out to the street.

A set of claws raked his arm, and he cut at it with the knife. It dropped easily away, avoiding the blade, and large tomcat latched onto his achilles tendon. Before he could stab it, an orange tabby had sunk its fangs into his hand, forcing him to drop the knife.

It was over in minutes.

“There now,” said Mad Maggie, putting out a hand and drawing Anita to her feet, even as her age seemed to reassert itself. “That’ll be better. A kindness for a kindness. Best if you don’t say anything about this, though,” she said, watching the last of her children stroll easily out of the room. Anita nodded, her muscles slow with shock. Then Maggie patted Anita on the arm, and shuffled out the door behind that long, impossible stream of cats.
Behind her, on the window sill, Anita heard Whisper meow. When she looked over at him, he licked his lips, then put his head down and settled into a long, contented purr.