Bartholomew Gets Out
Levi Flaherty dawdled on the front stoop of his parents’ home, fingering the key from their estate attorney. With an upward glance, he gauged the progress of a troublesome cloud blocking the sun. Omens mattered to Flaherty. This would be his first visit to the house in the weeks since his parents died and he didn’t want to risk going in “under a cloud.”
Waiting by the door, he imagined he could still hear them inside. His mother singing nonsense songs as she set the table for one of his dinner visits. The muffled sound of his father deep in the basement, pounding meddlesome things. He shivered. Nothing would keep the house in check, now that they were gone.
The sun finally punched through and he slid the key into the lock, hesitated a moment, then turned. When he pushed the door open it made a sickly smacking sound, like peanut butter on the roof of an angry dog’s mouth.
Everything inside looked unchanged, except for the dust. Their jackets still draped the coat rack. Their baubles and treasures were untouched in the study. In the kitchen, the yellow cabinets glowed with good cheer which seemed a little forced now. As he surveyed each main floor room, Flaherty gained confidence. Nothing thumped in the closets. No eyes glared from dark shadows. No whispers questioned his sanity.
Climbing the creaking stairs to the second floor, he passed their room and opened the door to his own childhood lair which he’d avoided it for years. They’d preserved the bedroom like a shrine to his younger self. The gnome figurine stood on alert where he’d glued it to the bedpost. Shelves brimmed with paperbacks by the likes of Donaldson and Tolkien, Anne McCaffrey and Neil Gaimen. In a poster on the wall, one of Frazetta’s snow giants still teetered, eyes clouding at the sight of his own blood thick on Conan’s sword. Flaherty’s own eyes lingered a moment on the dying giant before he turned away.
The only thing out of place was a tightly folder piece of paper on the dresser. His nickname “Flare” was sprawled across the top in his mother’s script. With a shaking hand, he plucked the note and sat on the edge of the bed to read:
My Dearest Flare,
If you’re reading this then I suppose your father and I must be dead. Sorry about that. Whatever you do, please don’t let the cat out. It’s not safe.
All Our Love,
Mom & Dad
“Dad” was penned in a different hand, as if it were a birthday card she’d passed over to him to sign.
Flare flipped the paper around looking for something more, but the back was blank except for his name. He sighed and refolded it.
“I didn’t even know they had a cat,” he said to what he thought was an empty room.
“Well that’s rich. I was beginning to wonder whether they had a son.”
He jumped. A massive cat now sat near the dresser. Long fur in greys and browns framed its face in a flowing regal mane. Green eyes blinked once and its tail swished, thumping the baseboard.
Flare lifted an eyebrow and stood. “You’re not real,” he told the cat. It helped to say it out loud when these things happened. To remind himself that he was, most likely, seeing things.
The cat squinted. “Don’t rub it in.”
“Then you admit it.”
“That you’re a figment of my imagination.”
“I admit nothing of the sort.”
“No, no,” Flare said, waving his finger. “I said, ‘You’re not real,’ and you said, ‘Don’t rub it in.’ You very clearly implied that you are not real. You’re just—you’re something I’ve imagined. It’s from reading this stupid note.” He shook the paper at the cat. “Mom and Dad die out of the blue and leave me alone. I’m alone! And they stick me with this monstrous house with its creepy basement and all their bizarre crap. And the only explanation of anything I get is this stupid note! ‘Gosh, sorry we’re dead now. Don’t let the cat out.’”
“Flare, you seem to have a few issues. Perhaps you should see someone about that.”
“I am seeing someone! I’ve been seeing someone about my ‘issues’ practically my whole life! And it’s because of them.” He shook the note again to be sure the cat understood. “They made me this way.” He strode toward the door, adding, “Cats don’t talk. I’m leaving.”
“Who said I’m a cat?” The cat rose, strutted across the room to a patch of sunlight and sat again to begin licking its paw.
Flare gestured toward it, raising his eyebrows.
“Oh, pishaw,” the cat scoffed. “You, of all people, shouldn’t go around judging books by covers. Your parents never did and they certainly didn’t want you to start.”
“You didn’t even know them.”
“Didn’t I? I’m the cat. You said so yourself.”
“Well, I’ve never seen you here.”
“You never looked. That’s always been your problem, Flare. You never look. And when you do see something, like a talking cat, you turn away.” Lowering its paw, the cat swished its tail again. “Just now, for instance. You were about to storm out of the room and slam the door. Out of sight, out of mind, right? If you see something unusual, best just to ignore it, or run away. That’s what you’ve always done, but you can’t do that forever. You’ll lose your mind.”
Flare felt the note crumpling in his hand and he forced himself to relax his grip. “Look, I’m not about to get lectured by a talking cat. Like I said, I know you’re not real. You’re just something crawling out of my head, and you need to go back in, where you belong. Yeah, I turn away because every time I’ve ever admitted to seeing something like you, I’ve ended up on antipsychotics or in supervised care. I’m not going back to that, Mr. Cat.”
The cat turned away, narrowing its eyes to the sun. “That’s not quite true. It was never that way with your parents, was it?”
Flare drew in a breath and turned to the dresser. The slightly chunky man in the mirror looked a little strained, with unkempt curly hair and unnatural rings under his eyes. “No. They encouraged me and said things like, ‘The world is lacking enough in imagination already.’ Basically, they made it worse. And now they’re gone. Just like that. And the best they could do was leave this stupid note that says nothing.”
“Well, about that.” The cat stalked over and looked up at him, its head higher than his knee. “It used to say more.”
Flare opened the note again and spread it on the dresser. The writing he’d read earlier occupied the top of the page but the rest was blank.
“What do you mean? There was another page?”
“No. There were more words on that one but I…sort of ate them.”
“Ate them? You ate the paper?”
“No. You’re not listening. The words. I ate the words. What else was I supposed to eat? I’ve been trapped in this house for weeks and weeks. It’s not my fault. I ate the words. That’s one of the things I do.”
Flare folded the note again and stuffed it in his pocket, saying, “I’m done. I’m leaving.” He turned and headed toward the hall.
“Wait!” The cat coughed once.
“For what? More crazy? I have enough of that.”
“No. A-huh. Just … ka-k-hggh … kggh … kahgh”
Now the cat started hacking repeatedly, each cough more forceful than the last.
“A—are you alright?” Reluctantly, Flare stepped forward but it lifted a paw with one claw raised then slammed it to the floor as it hacked again. And again. And, finally, one last, violent retch.
“Ahaaa. Ahh. Ah. Whew. That’s better.”
Squinting at the floor, Flare noted, “But you didn’t cough anything up.”
“I most certainly did. Look at your note.”
He hesitated, then pulled the paper from his pocket and unfolded it. Now, beneath the signatures was written “P.S.” but nothing more.
“Huh. But, P.S.? That’s it?”
“Oh there’s more, believe me. If you let me out, I’ll see what else I can cough up for you.”
“Ha! No. I’m not supposed to let you out. It says so right here. Maybe you should have eaten that part.”
“Oh come on. It’s been weeks. I’m purrrfectly capable of taking care of myself. Come on friend, please? Let meowt. Meowwt. Let meowwt. Get it?”
“No.” Flare spun away and fled the room. His feet pounded down the stairs and he could almost hear his mother admonishing him from the kitchen when he was a boy. Flarey! No running in the house. You’ll scare something!
The way they raised him made it nearly impossible to survive the perils of childhood. They wanted him to have imaginary friends. They took him out on “hunting expeditions,” encouraging him to find things in the real world that simply weren’t there. While some kids looked for hidden saws, brooms, and combs in drawings of children on swing sets, he got dragged to real playgrounds to look for hidden faeries, gnomes, and nymphs. It’s not that he actually saw things very often, because he rarely did. It’s just that his mom and dad trained him to keep looking, always. It made him into a circus freak in grade school and it only got worse as he aged.
Flare found himself in the kitchen, looking out the back window. The kitchen always drew him when he was upset. Its bright colors and clean surfaces radiated normalcy and calmness. He turned on the faucet to rinse his hands and face in cool water but it sputtered and gasped and splattered, having gone unused for so long. He flicked it back off and forced his shoulders to relax.
“It’s Bartholomew, by the way. Not that you asked.” The massive cat somehow had appeared without a fuss on the counter to his left.
“Get off the counter, you bad cat.”
“I will if you let meoowwwt.”
Flare thought about shoving it to the floor but their eyes were now nearly at the same level and the cat didn’t flinch from his glare. Its paws were huge and he suspected its claws would be like meat hooks, only sharper. He turned back to the more soothing view of the yard.
“Meoowwwt. Let meowwt. I can do this all day you know. Meowwwt.”
Pretending to ignore the cat, Flare walked around the chrome-legged kitchen table to the refrigerator and pulled the door open for a distraction. It seemed strangely empty, yet a noxious wave, like sour death, managed to roll out. Gagging, he hastily closed it again.
“Gods no, don’t ever call me that. It’s Bartholomew, please.”
“Kitty, why is the refrigerator so empty? I mean, it’s like they weren’t even living here.”
The cat jumped softly to the floor and slinked over. Standing on its hind legs it stretched upward, pressing its paws against his side then flexing its claws. Flare froze, noting he’d been right about their size and potential for piercing.
“Don’t call me ‘Kitty’ again, ok?”
“Um, right. Got it.”
“Good.” Bartholomew dropped to a sitting position and spent a few moments licking the mane beneath his chin. “Are you accusing me of raiding the refrigerator?”
“It sounded like you were.”
Flare ran his fingers along the counter then wandered around the room until the table stood between them. He could still see the tall cat’s green eyes beyond the table’s edge. “No, I wasn’t accusing you of raiding the refrigerator. I’m sure you wouldn’t.”
“You really don’t know anything about me, Flare. I’m trying to be friendly. Good-natured. Chummy, even. But you won’t even let me out and then you go accusing me of raiding the refrigerator.”
“But I didn’t—”
“We both know you did. How about you just let me out. Meowwt. You know. Let meeoooowwt.”
Flare looked away and leaned back against the sink. “Mom … said it’s not safe.”
“You don’t even think I’m real. Remember? Besides, I’ll be fine. It’s a fenced yard. What could happen? And afterwards, I’ll cough up a few more words from her note for you. Flare, really, for all you know, the P.S. might have been, ‘P.S. Just kidding about letting the cat out. We always do whatever he wants.’”
Flare didn’t think it was likely that was what the rest of the note would say, but he had to admit he wanted to know. And besides, there couldn’t possibly be an actual cat in the house with him. After all this time, it would be dead. So, if he stuck to his conviction that the cat wasn’t real, what could it hurt to open the door for a moment and close it again? “Ok,” he said. “But just for a bit. I—I have to meet Liz and then I just want to go home.”
Bartholomew had started strutting to the short hall that led to the back door, but he stopped and stared. “Home? But you live here now, don’t you?”
Flare laughed. “No way. There’s some places where I imagine things like you and other places where everything’s normal. I need to live in a normal place. If I moved back here I’d probably be drugged up and locked up in a few weeks. Or days even.”
“But what will you do with the house?”
“Sell it. That’s why I’m here. Liz—she sort of works for me—she said I should go through it and decide what I want to keep. It’s the first step. Once I take what I want, the estate sale people will come in and get ready for the sale. After that, we’ll sell the house too.”
The cat’s jaw hung open, revealing a few too many large, sharp teeth. “But you mustn’t, Flare. You know that. This house is yours now. It’s your responsibility. You can’t walk away from it, or us.”
Before Flare could object, the cat disappeared down the hall. He followed it, walking past the basement door which he eyed warily. He’d always thought if he owned the house he’d put a lock on that door. Or maybe just nail it shut. At the back door, Bartholomew stood waiting, tail flicking.
“Yeah, I know.”
Flare walked up to the door and reached over the cat. “Hey, it’s already unlocked. That’s weird. Why didn’t you just let yourself out?”
“Do you intend to let meoowwwt or would you prefer to test my patience further?”
Sighing, Flare tugged open the door and the cat darted out to the porch without looking back.
“Hey!” Flare called. “Be … well, be careful, ok?”
Ignoring him, Bartholomew sat on the top step to survey the yard and its huge mounds of weed-covered dirt. The mounds had always been there. Flare imagined they dated back to the construction of the house, more than a century ago, but he didn’t really know. They made a fun playground for a growing boy to escape into but probably wouldn’t do much for the resale value of the house. With a frown, he closed the door and returned to the kitchen.
He’d spent a few minutes poking through the contents of his parents’ junk drawer when he heard a loud slam and a rumble from the back porch. A ferocious screech followed, then growls and yowls and a horrible ruckus of thumps and crashes. He grabbed scissors from the drawer and started to run to the back door then stopped reflexively, wary of running with scissors. It was a stupid reason to stop but gave him time to realize the little drawer scissors would be worthless in the face of whatever Armageddon might be unfolding on the back porch.
Tossing the scissors back in the drawer, he went for a knife. Then a bigger knife. And a rolling pin. In the back hall, he traded the rolling pin for a mop then turned finally to the door. As he stepped forward, all the noise abruptly ended.
Nearing the door, he noticed dark spatters of red trickling silently down the glass of its high window. He leaned the mop against the doorframe and reached for the knob. After a few deep, calming breaths, he called, “Kitty?”
With no response, he turned the knob and waited a moment, then pulled open the door.
Tufts and strands of long grey and brown fur littered the porch and even clung to the back wall of the house. These were mingled with splashes and streaks of what must have been blood and also something black and oozing. Bubbling even, or sizzling. The air smelled feral and sour and electric. Like the refrigerator, only more beastly and bloody.
Flare dropped his knife and it thunked into the worn wooden boards of the porch floor.
“Kitty?” he croaked. “Bartholomew?”