Merna Hepcock was an obsessor. She didn’t try to devote herself to one, solitary pursuit, but there was nothing to help it.
The first obsession had been her husband Vlic in the first year of their marriage, the perfect man she would never stop loving. Then her adorable child Anthony, who she’d hardly put down for months. Then scrapbooking. Then reading. Then―
That was why when she arrived home with an orange and white tabby, Vlic brushed bits of toast from his lap, adjusted the newspaper across his drooping stomach, and said simply, “absolutely not.”
“You’ve got no time to take care of that thing―and I’m severely allergic.”
Why was Merna not surprised? When she’d tried adding kale to his smoothies the first year of their marriage, he’d informed her of his death-provoking allergy to it after noticing little green floaties in his fourth serving. When she’d taken up accordion, Vlic’s doctors allegedly reported loud noises to be unquestionably restricted. And when Anthony needed his diapers changed the first year of his life, Merna had been none-too surprised to discover thesevere rashes Vlic received from changing diapers. The invisible rashes.
Merna stroked the tabby’s padded back, caressing each break in his back bone. “It’s too late. I love Gingy already, and you can’t tell me no.”
“I already have.” Vlic flipped several thin pages. “Blasted paper! Why do they have to scatter one article to every corner of the paper?”
“When Anthony starts first-grade, I’ll be lonely here. Nobody to keep me company in this house―and think of the rats Gingy’d kill; no more expensive exterminators”
“A bag of rat poison would work just as well.”
Merna sniffed and pressed Gingy’s nose against her own, the darling. “A bag of poison couldn’t keep me company during the day.”
“Merna. It’s only that I’m afraid my allergies―”
“Perhaps you’re right!” Merna cried suddenly, suspiciously melodramatically. “Perhaps Gingy was never meant to distract me from the lonely hours during the day! Perhaps I’ll turn to reading again! Yes. Reading all day. But alas, I believe my prescription needs an update. I shall have to buy new glasses.” If Vlic was going to play his allergy card, perhaps she would play her glasses one.
Vlic peered above the top of his wilting page. “Did you say…?”
“Terribly, expensive, non-insurance-covered, new ones. What a shame! All those precious, precious dollars that could have been spent for food!”
“Food…” The room silenced, all except the hardly registering scriiitch, scriiitch, scriiiiitch of Gingy stroking his tongue up and down Merna’s arm. Finally, all three of his chins wobbling, Vlic started, “I suppose one cat wouldn’t irritate my nose too much… But only one cat; no wife of mine will become a cat woman.”
A quick peck on his cheek and Merna was hobbling from room to introduce Anthony to his new, furry brother. “I’m seeing better already.” No. Vlic wasn’t so bad―though her eyesight really was atrocious recently…
For several months, it really was only one cat, just Gingy who stalked the house in day hours and prowled the streets at night, keeping mainly to himself save the many times a day Merna hoisted him from his five foot jungle gym and squeezed his fatty tissue till his adorable eyes bulged.
Perfect little Gingy. More perfect than the stars and the moon and the casseroles devoid of greens she’d perfected for Vlic. So what if cat hair seemed to sprout from the tile like carpet, or if Anthony hated that the thing stared endlessly at his parakeet? Gingy was part of the family.
“Cat hair everywhere!” Vlic would sometimes shout when he grew impatient, but each time Merna would clasp at her pockets and say “now, where have they gone? I might just have to buy another pair.”
True. Gingy may not be the first thing her husband or child would save in case of a burning house, but as long as there was only one cat…
It wasn’t until Merna walked into her room full of cat hair and damp animal smell that she understood from her husband’s twitching lip and clenched hands, he’d had enough. “Anthony hardly sees you anymore even when he’s home from school, and the cost of all the cat food is more than our water-bill. You’re even forgetting to cook dinner because Gingo’s food takes precedence. And my allergies―”
“His name is Gingy. But I agree.”
The perfect feline appeared in the doorway, and Merna scooped it into her arms. “Absolutely. I’ve been spending far too much time with Gingy. But, you see, I wouldn’t if Gingy weren’t so, terribly, incredibly lonely.”
The cat sneezed and blinked apathetically.
“Lonely?” asked Vlic
“You can see it in everything he does. Just look at him!” Again, Gingy blinked. “If only he had a friend, I wouldn’t have to spend so much time cheering him up. Think of all the pasta I’d once again have time to make. Think of the casseroles.”
Vlic struggled as quickly as he could to his feet, and glared at his wife. “We’ll get another cat the day I die! Absolutely n―!”
But the blessing of increasingly terrible nearsightedness won.
The second cat was a snow white-persian, mouth constantly open like some dog waiting to be fed and a bow wrapped around its middle to complete the angel look. He was perfect. Flawlessly perfect. Utterly a miracle.
Yet despite the company Gingy now had, Merna still forgot to make dinner often or wipe grime from the toilets, even to tuck Anthony into bed―though it was unavoidable. This new cat was too adorable. Somehow she slept more peacefully at night with two cats then she’d even with only one. As if the more adorable kittens collected, the greater her happiness would be…
The third cat was not bought from the store. Drenched in mud, half balding, and soaked to the bone, it was pulled with loving arms from a rainstorm.
Merna scrubbed the creature with soap and a towel till its fur shone, and when her husband bumbled into his room to discover the furry joy vomiting hairballs over his pillow, she told him, “I couldn’t leave the thing out there. It would have died there in that puddle; it would have been murder to leave it. But don’t you worry. It’ll be gone tomorrow.”
Yet the cat was not gone the next day. Nor the next. Nor the next. How could she? It would be like dumping Anthony in a garbage―no, worse. Three cats weren’t even unmanageable―nor were they with the addition of the siamese from the adoption center. Or the black cat found stalking rats in the front-yard. Or the identical gray kittens from the pet store. Just a few more cats wouldn’t kill anybody.
It wasn’t until the tenth cat Vlic finally stormed into the designated feline sleeping corner, and slammed his foot into the wood. The ten darlings lifted their heads. And Merna.
“Shhh Vlic! Gingy’s hardly gotten sleep with Anthony pestering him and Floral isn’t feeling―”
“NO MORE!” Vlic shouted. “No dinner this week! No cleaning done!I’ve arrived home four out of five days to find you didn’t have time to pick up Anthony, and half these monsters aren’t even potty-trained!”
“They’re adjusting Vlic,” Merna said, putting her finger to her mouth to signal the man to be quiet. These poor babies were trying to sleep weren’t they? “You can’t expect them to make it to the litter box every time they need to go; most of them are hardly a year, and Anthony couldn’t even use the toilet until he was three.”
“Droppings on my pillow! I can’t step without plunging my foot into some bowl of cream or molding hairball. No more Merna. One more cat and I’m gone. Forever.”
The cats snuggled into one another, draped across furniture and pillows. Delectable. How could she agree―? But maybe ten were enough. Merna sighed. “Alright. No more.”
It was the truth. No more. She’d simply have to resist the urge to buy the set of three kittens a neighbor had offered. And the beautiful bobtail the adoption center still hadn’t found a home for. And every other offer of a new child that could bring her so great contentment.
Yet even as her resolve told her ‘no more cats,’ cats were the only thing her mind seemed to dwell on. Even when she finally got around to the grocery trip Vlic had finally pestered her into doing, not a trip for cat food, food for the people who would never understand her quiet as well as her babies did. Cats. Cats. Cats.
She pulled her spectacles from her pocket and fit them tight against her graying hair Hunched to reach the bottom shelf, Merna snatched a bag emblazoned with the word CAT in large blocky letters. She’d done the same action to get this same bag so many times she probably didn’t even need glasses.
Almost everything was in the cart she needed. She only needed eggs, milk, cereal, potato, cat―
No cat this week. The promise to Vlic would not be broken. No more― but perhaps before she checked out the food she’d just go look at the cats in the back by the fish tanks. Just a few minutes, then straight home to the children that needed her. Oh, and to Anthony
And somehow, without Merna truly consciously doing it, cat number eleven became part of the family. The most affectionate of them all. A teeny white thing with gray spots, almost silver, that curled up next to her on long nights, right in the spot Vlic no longer snored in.
True to his word, Vlic left in a blaze of screams and curses, with a single suitcase beside him in the car and no slowing down.
Fine. FINE. If he couldn’t see how special this new addition to the family was, perhaps he deserved to go. He had never loved her like they had, and as he drove away Merna realized she had never loved him like them. A cat for a husband. Fine.
Anthony came on the weekends. Perhaps he curled his nose at the sight of the house full of fleas, cat hair, and stink, but she was his mother; At least he still came. Every week, friday, when the day school released, Anthony’d run the six miles to his mother’s house, set the cage with his beloved parakeet near a window, and dash to find his mother.
“Wanna play?” he’d ask and throw his arms around her neck.
“Of course” she’d try to respond enthusiastically. “But―but maybe a little bit later. Bonny has a cough and Philip needs special meals; he doesn’t like the food his other brothers do.”
“You promised we’d play this week. You said when I came home from school we could go to PizzariosPizza.”
“I―well―just wait a little, alright?”
But how could Anthony truly expect her to have time for that? She had too many children to spend time with only one, especially when that one had clearly proven himself to being capable of fixing his own food and cleaning his own room. Couldn’t he understand his siblings were important too? Especially now he had twenty of them.
So Anthony played alone with his parakeet, never taking it out of the cage with Gingy always watching. Every weekend. Alone.
When Vlic finally called on the phone, it rang almost all the four times without Merna answering. “You called?” she said. “But before you say anything, I’m not getting rid of them.”
“It’s Anthony’s parakeet. Anthony and I are driving to the mountains for a snow week, and we’ll need you to take care of the bird.”
A cat brushed against Merna’s leg, purring. “No. No, I don’t have time to take care of them all and a bird. I’m sorry Vlic, but―”
“I wouldn’t be asking, but my sinus’ have been so bad in this heat recently. The doctors have said a week in the cold might help them. Really, I don’t want to make this hard on you, but the allergies…”
Gingy hopped on the counter and stared his mother straight in the eyes, blinking just as she sighed. “Well―alright. Just one week?”
The parakeet really wasn’t so bad. Just a cup of seeds every two days and fresh water every night. Nothing much. And her children found so much enjoyment in the thing, watching it night and day hop from one branch to another, pressing their wet, black noses against the bars and seeing if their tongues could reach the thing. Gingy, for one, truly loved the bird, hardly moving from his post even when the dinner bell rang.
“Now, aren’t you hungry sweetie?” Merna crooned one day and laid a plate of shredded fish before him.
He prodded it with his nose, then resumed his erected position. “You’ve got to eat now. We don’t want my favorite darling going hungry. Just a little bite?”
“But even with all the trout, tuna, or food pellets she could offer him, Gingy had eyes for nothing but the blue, singing bird. Poor thing. He could hardly sleep, he looked so hungry. By the second day of not eating, it hurt Merna’s heart to watch her baby anymore and his obsession with the bird.
“Please! Just try some. It isn’t poison, I swear. Just a little, and you’ll feel so much better.” But plead as she might, the cat barely blinked. It would sniff nothing, would crave nothing, would eat nothing to fill his poor, empty emaciated stomach besides…
When Anthony arrived, eyes wide and excited to finally see his parakeet, Merna hugged him tight as he sobbed into her shirt.
“I just don’t know how it happened!” she consoled. “The door of the cage must’ve broken open. There was nothing I could do to stop them. Oh, Anthony I’m so sorry!”
Anthony stopped coming on the weekends after the tragic and utter accident. But―but Merna could not worry about that. There were children that needed feeding, and children that needed buying, not time to worry of the loss of only one when she had thirty to clean after, cuddle with, and love.
How had she lived so long without true happiness in her life?
There never seemed to be a reason to frown anymore, not now Merna had everything she’d ever wanted. Even the day she forgot her glasses when picking up food, she only laughed it off. “Just look for the big CAT,” she muttered to herself, and once three, bold, familiar letters came into focus she plucked the bag from its shelf. Odd. Since when had the cat food bag felt that light?
Merna curled in her bed that night, surrounded by her true family at every angle, a smile on her face, and warm bodies pressed against her. This was bliss.
The moment the sun shot through her blindness window, Merna awoke, rubbed her eyes, yawned, and pushed her toes into a pair of pink, wooly slippers. Part of Merna wanted to pick up one of the warm bodies littering the bedroom floor and hold it tight to her chest―but she’d let them sleep. At least one had to get up soon anyways; usually at least half of them arose by this time in the morning to pine her for food.
Even in the hallway the cats slept, more still than they’d ever been. Even in the kitchen, where she finally allowed herself to stroke Gingy, sprawled across the table asleep―Gingy was cold. He must have just arrived from hunting mice in the frigid outdoors.
Trying not to make much scuffling as she hobbled, Merna made her way to the tub designated for feeding―odd. There was still so much of the little brown pellets, when usually her felines devoured them the very hour she laid them out… She might as well leave some more. Perhaps the sound of thumping pellets would stir them, though they were so cute snuggled against each other and curled in balls across the floor
Merna reached for the bag emblazoned with CAT―then paused. She hadn’t taken much time yesterday to examine the bag before dumping half of it into the feeding bin, but something about it, about the colors of the package, about its design and the size of the letters, seemed just a tad off.
Fumbling in her robe pocket, she produced a pair of well-needed glasses and shoved them onto her nose. In an instant, everything was clear.
Oh. Oh no. NO.
The bag did not say CAT; it said RAT. And the label did not say food; it said poison. Slowly Merna gazed, body shaking and hands-trembling, once more across the room strewn with her huggable, precious, perfect, sleeping babies.