Short Story by James Strauss

The brothers crouched under their queen-sized bed.  They slept together because they were kids and they’d been in the house only a couple of months.  Grandma had ‘passed on,’ as everyone told them, although nobody ever told them where she’d gone. The house deep in the country was their house now.  In time, their father said, they’d get beds of their own, and eventually rooms too, when their older sister went off to college.

They didn’t like sleeping together, although hiding out under the bed was okay. Their room had the thickest and best rug in the house, and grandma’s old bed left plenty of space for them to create a real clubhouse underneath the old but sturdy thing.

“Close the window,” Clark said from under the bed keeping to his own side.  “It’s getting too cold in here and a bat will fly in, or something worse.”

“You do it.  I’ve got my blanket,” Peter responded, clutching s tattered blue rag of a blanket to his chest, as if the mess of old chewed-on material would keep anything warm, much less his slightly shivering little body.

“This place doesn’t even have screens,” Clark complained.  “Dad will have to cut a lot of wood at the mill to buy screens, and everything else we need,” He made no move to get out from under the bed and close the window himself, however.

“I like the cold,” Peter stated, quickly creating a reason why he wouldn’t leave his secure hideout to accomplish the simple chore.

Clark sighed. His brother was impossible. At nine, Clark wasn’t more than an inch taller than his brother, but certainly not nearly as thick or well-muscled. His six-year-old brother was a baby version of Andre The Giant, and it was disconcerting for an older brother to have to deal with that kind of weirdness.  He smiled, thinking about the difference between the two of them.  He himself was fast, nimble, and smart. His brother was hard and thick but slow of thought.  Clark would have laughed out loud at the mind picture comparison, but he was afraid his brother might figure out what he was thinking. Peter might be slow, but he was neither stupid nor weak.

There was a scratching sound that seemed to come from the wall of the room where the single window was encased.  Both boys looked at one another in question.

“What’s that, Clark?” Peter whispered, clutching his blanket closer with both hands, careful and slowly putting the Oreo cookie he’d sneaked out of their purloined cellophane pack, taken from the high kitchen shelf at the back of the house.  Suddenly, he wasn’t hungry.

Another, deeper series of scratches penetrated the silence that followed Peter’s question.

Clark remained totally silent.

A great thud on the floor was the next sound both boys heard. Something was in the room. Clark and Peter automatically drew together, clutching one another and staring at the end of the bed near where the sound had come from.  Neither boy dared to breathe. Something was in the room with them.  The early morning darkness prevented them from seeing far enough to guess what it might be but, whatever it was, it didn’t belong there, that much they knew.

“Santa?” Peter whispered into Clark’s ear.  Clark was too afraid to speak or even tell Peter not to speak.  Instead, he breathed in and out carefully.  The six-year-old was a child. Clark had been brought into the adult world the season before when his father had taken him aside to tell him that there was no Santa Claus, and more recently to inform him that he was getting divorced, and they were moving to grandma’s old house in the woods.  It was part of Clark’s job to assure that his brother remained the child he was, his dad told Clark, so he couldn’t tell any of what he’d learned to his brother.

It was morning. Or it would be if it ever got light. Clark thought intently about Santa and the myth of Santa Claus.  It was a good myth, but Santa didn’t’ have claws.  The scratches had been real, however, and there was definitely something in the room with them.  He prayed fervently that his dad had gotten it all wrong. They should have closed the window.  They should have had screens.  They should have stayed in the city where they belonged, not move to the middle of a forest in wintertime. But, Clark, no matter what it was, he wanted to see it.  Slowly prying himself loose from Peter while holding one finger up to his lips, he eased to the overhanging blanket on his side of the bed.  He got no chance to peer out, however.

Before he could make another move, a large animal slid under the bed to quickly settle below them, under the foot of the bed.  Clark winced as fear convulsed him.  He  turned to face the beast, and then threw both of his arms around his brother and kicked back toward the head of the bed at what he saw.

Both boys stared into huge unblinking eyes of gold. Clark pressed both their bodies against the back wall, getting no resistance from Peter.   Neither boy made a sound, although tears had begun to run down over the younger boy’s cheeks.

“Don’t move,” Clark said, not knowing what else to say.  The animal was a cat.

Not a regular cat, but a huge cat of the forest, at least twice the size of either boy.  It was light brown in color, even in the low light.  It flicked its tail as it stared at them from only a few feet away.  The tail was black at its tip.  The black tip flicked back and forth behind the animal, as if a snake waiting to strike.

The three of them remained frozen in place for several moments, only the boy’s breathing making any sound at all.  The cat’s tail moved silently.  Finally, the cat blinked, and then yawned.

“Are you tired?” Clark rasped out at the great thing, tentatively, but only got the ominous and unblinking golden stare in return.

“You’re scaring us,” Peter said to it, making his older brother shake his head in disgust.

“Of course, it’s scaring us,” Clark whispered out. “Giant cats eat meat. We’re meat.”

“I’m not meat. I’m a boy. He can’t eat me if I’m a boy, can he Clark?” Peter whimpered out, trying to wipe away his tears with his ratty blanket but having no luck.

“I don’t know,” Clark replied, tentatively.  “He hasn’t eaten us yet.  He would have eaten us already, I think, if he was going to.”  Getting an idea, he let his brother go and reached for the Oreo package they’d stolen.  The cat’s great head turned minutely to track his small movements.

Clark took out an Oreo, put the package down, and then extended his hand out toward the creature’s muzzle. The cat looked at the cookie, then back at the boy, and then the cookie again.  Clark dropped it in front of him.

The cat sniffed the cookie.  With one whip of a long pink tongue, the cat swept the cookie into his mouth, moved his jaw slightly, and then returned his head to its former staring position.

“Cats don’t eat cookies,” Clark murmured in wonder. “They don’t have any sense of taste for sugar.  It was on Sponge Bob.  I remember it.”

“Sponge Bob isn’t real,” Peter said, his voice weak, but having lost its waver.

“Not all of it,” Clark instantly responded, taking another cookie from the Oreo pack.

“David Hasselhof is real, only the rest of its animated.” He tossed the cookie through the air.  The cat quickly opened its mouth and caught the black and white wafer.  It was gone in a second.

“This cat’s eaten cookies before. I think he likes them.  Like a game,” Clark went on, tossing one cookie after another to the same effect.

“What are we going to do when we run out of cookies?” Peter asked, bringing his blanket up to his mouth and chewing again.

“We both asked for a pet from Dad for moving here,” Clark replied.  “Dad said we could at least have a pet because of all the trouble. He didn’t say what kind of pet.”

“What trouble and what pet?” Peter asked, as Clark held up the last cookie.

“Him,” Clark laughed for the first time. I think he was somebody’s pet out here.

We can have him.  He has a tag.”  Clark held out the last cookie, moving its upper body slowly closer to the animals chewing muzzle.

“PIN and a number, it says” Clark spelled out, reading from a metal tag pinned into the cat’s right ear flap.  He backed away when the creature’s head turned to focus its huge eyes on him once again.

“What does that mean?” Peter inquired, trying to repeat the letter and number sequence but not getting it right.

“I don’t know,” Clark replied, “some pet identifier, maybe.  I don’t know. But he eats cookies, not boys, and he has a pin with a name on it.”

“Don’t pets have collars, and not pins in their ears.” He waited a few seconds before adding, “are some cat pets this big?”

The cat blinked, finally.  Clark leaned slightly forward again and talked directly to the animal. The cat put his head down at the boy’s feet.

“See?” Clark said, in triumph, reaching his right hand out to touch the cat’s fur atop its head.  Two great ears twitched but didn’t move away or attack, instead just blinking again and closing its eyes.

“C’mon Peter, we can pet him. He’ll like it.” Clark stroked the animal while trying to convince his brother to join him.

“I’m afraid.  He’s too big, too furry, and his teeth are sharp.  I’m afraid.  I want mom and dad,” his brother responded, but making no move to leave his place, pressed against the back wall, blanket up to his mouth.

“Great idea. We got dad’s present. We can wake him up early to thank him. Let’s go.”

The cat slept, snoring mildly.  Both boys crept around it, Peter dragging his blanket by its left paw.  The blanket caught on one of the animal’s sharp claws. Peter pulled but it wouldn’t come loose.  The cat did not move its paw or the claw holding the blanket, even though Peter pulled hard several times.

“He’s got my blanket Clark,” Peter complained, unwilling to let go.

Clark pulled his little brother back and stared at the scene.  “He likes the blanket, like you like the blanket, and he’s our pet now so he can protect it for you.”

“Okay, as long as I can have it back later,” Peter said, as they clambered out from under the bed.

Both boys ran as silently as they could to their dad’s bedroom.  Opening the door, they eased into the near darkness.  Clark bent over his dad, who was sleeping on his back.

“Dad, dad, dad, dad,” he repeated, leaving five seconds between each word.  Peter waited silently at his side, having been a part of their special system for waking his father many times over. On about Clark’s twentieth “dad,” his father opened his eyes.  His facial expression was not one of happiness.

“It’s too early,” their father breathed out. “Go back to bed until its light.  He started to roll over onto his stomach.

“No, dad,” Clark whispered urgently.  “Not this year.  You said we could have a pet and you came through. Only a dad like you could have brought a such a huge special pet like this,” Clark went on.

Something in the boy’s tone caught his father’s attention.  He came fully awake and leaned up onto his elbows.

“A pet?” their father breathed out.  “A special pet? A huge special pet?

“He still has the price tag in his ear,” Peter said.

“Oh God,” his father said, sitting up and messaging his head.

“C’mon Dad,” Clark said, pulling on his father right arm.

The three of them slowly moved to the boy’s bedroom, not turning on any lights.  Clark led his dad into the room near the bed.”

“What pet?” his father said.  “I don’t see any pet.”

“He’s under the bed, Dad,” Peter said.  “He ate a whole pack of Oreo cookies and then went to sleep.”

“A whole pack of Oreos” their father asked, shaking his head in the near dark. “Well, what is this Oreo-eating pet?” he asked, looking from one boy to another.

“He’s a cat, Dad.  He’s real big and really special, like only you could find.”

“And he’s so big,” Peter said, expanding both arms out to his sides with hands up.

“Okay, I got it,” their father said, “but when you’re small everything appears really big, even a house cat.  I guess maybe this cat, even a different and special cat, will be okay if you want to keep him.”

Vaguely, as he lowered himself to his knees, the man recalled the tag in the animal’s ear the boys had mentioned.

“Let’s see what our new little friend looks like,” their father said, getting on his hands and knees to peer under the bed.  He leaned his head down until his jaw was almost to the floor and peered under the bed as sharply as he could in the low light of early morning.

The cat opened both of its great orange eyes.

“Oh my God,” their Dad said, unable to say more or move from where he lay.

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