Carried Away, Chapter 12
“This is too weird,” I said. “Why are we so afraid of these cats?”
“It’s weird and that’s why we are afraid. Do you have any food in your satchel?”
“Nope. Just a bottle of water.”
“Cats wouldn’t be following us for water. There’s plenty of water in the river that we crossed.”
“What do you have in your backpack?”
“Some canned food. I have sardines and tuna in there, but those cans are sealed, and there’s no way the cats could know about them.”
“So why are the cats following us?”
“If they aren’t interested in our food, that means they are interested in us.”
Cruz bit his lip before continuing. “They consider us food. And right now, they are playing with their food.”
I snorted and continued walking. “Your imagination is getting the better of you. Cats don’t eat people.”
Cruz caught up to me easily. We walked for a while in silence; I focused on the street signs and the directions to the hostel, while Cruz continued scanning the balconies and alleyways for stray cats.
“The number one reason why dogs make better pets than cats,” he finally said, “is that dogs are omnivorous, and cats are carnivorous.”
“What difference does that make?” I asked.
“It’s not uncommon for pet owners, especially elderly pet owners, to outlive their animal companions,” he explained. “If the owner lived alone, sometimes the deceased goes undiscovered for several days, and the pet is forced to take care of itself during that time.”
I didn’t like where this was going. I wanted to stop him, but couldn’t bring myself to interrupt him.
“A dog will break into your pantry, and tear open packages of grains and root vegetables, when he’s hungry enough. But we don’t often keep beef, fish, or poultry in our pantry, do we? Meat spoils too quickly.
“So what’s a cat to eat in that situation?” I didn’t answer him. Unwittingly, I started watching for cats who might be preparing to ambush us.
Cruz, to his credit, didn’t feel the need to spell it out for me, either. Instead, a few moments later, he began singing:
I gatti mangiano i turisti,
E pappano i giornalisti.
I played it over in my head, translating it piece-by-piece: The cats eat the tourists, and feast on the journalists.
The street we were on soon opened up into a small square, with a plot of overgrown grass and a large tree in the median.
Cruz consulted the map on his phone. “The street to our hostel continues from the opposite end of this square,” he pointed.
I aimed my flashlight in the direction he indicated. The beam swept across another overfilled public dumpster positioned near the tree, and caught the movement of a flicking tail hiding behind it. The cat whom it belonged to had stuffed itself headfirst into some small sack of feline nourishment, and hadn’t noticed us yet.
Cruz put a finger to his lips and began to try to sneak past the dumpster. I followed him as stealthily as I could (which is pretty damn stealthy, even versus cats), but when he stopped suddenly in his tracks, I bumped into his back.
Suddenly the beam of my flashlight reflected off of hundreds of tiny golden eyes; some up in the tree, some within the dumpster, and some hiding in the unkempt grass.
The first cat, still flicking its tail, pulled its head free. I realized with horror that what I had thought was a small sack was in fact a sleeve. A grimy, tattered jacket sleeve.
This cat dropped a human finger that it was holding in its mouth and let out a low, keening howl that broke the silence of the night. One by one, the other cats joined in, combining their voices in a ghastly, mournful chorus.
The sound spread far and wide, echoing from buildings and rolling through the streets. Soon we heard responses, as cats all over the city took up the call. The noise was painfully discordant, and I expected to see lights in the windows as the residents of Vicenza were roused from their sleep, but the apartments remained dark and lifeless.
The horde of cats before us began advancing. Cruz threw his glass bottle, but that didn’t deter them. They just kept creeping toward us. “Well, I’m out of ideas,” he said.
“I’ve got one left.” I looked Cruz in the eyes. “Run!”
Cats can sprint at speeds up to 50 kilometers per hour. I wish I had known that earlier. I can only sprint about 20 kph because of my short legs. Even Cruz probably doesn’t spring much faster than 25 kph. But it’s not like we had any alternative other than to try.
We also learned that night that cats are instinctive hunters. Perhaps if we had exercised more self-control, and made ourselves into more intimidating targets, we could have escaped unscathed. Now, we’ll never truly know.
The worst surprise, however, was discovering that feral cats are also pack hunters. We were fully unprepared for the level of cooperative behavior they exhibited in trying to bring us down.
Sometimes I look back on that night, and wonder exactly what advantages our species has over the common cat.
Cruz took off immediately, racing across the square and toward the street that we hoped would lead to our hostel. I didn’t stop to think whether I still expected the hostel to provide any kind of safe shelter from the cats, I just chased after Cruz.
And a starving horde of feral cats chased after me.
The street ahead of us narrowed considerably, and I was immediately concerned about cats ambushing us from the balcony ledges above our heads. Sure enough, frenzied furballs began raining down upon our heads.
Because of my typical attire, I was fairly well-protected from these attacks. Cats leapt at my back, only to find that their claws could not penetrate the stiff leather of my duster. Cats fell upon my head, only to slide off the brim of my hat. By wildly brandishing my cane, I discouraged the cats from attacking me from the front.
Cruz was not as well-defended. His shirt was loose cotton, and those cat claws shredded the fabric as if it were tissue paper. His heavy backpack protected his back, but also provided a perch for cats to land upon and assail his head and neck. I caught up to him and swatted a calico with my cane that was furiously trying to gnaw his ear. It howled as it bounced off the wall next to us. Cruz grunted a brief “Thanks!” as he grabbed the siamese on his left sleeve and ripped him away, tossing him down the street behind us.
A third cat took advantage of my momentary distraction by climbing up my leg and chest to claw at my face. Only my neatly-groomed beard protected me from losing a chunk of my cheek. I grabbed this gray tabby by the tail and yanked him off my shirt, and he went into a hissing, dangling frenzy. A pack of cats were stalking me from my right side, so I swung this little psycho over my head like a lasso and chucked him into the crowd. Let them deal with that spastic maniac.
The street ahead started to gradually slope upwards, which was discouraging to my poor, burning legs. I stole a glance behind me and saw that the larger part of the cat horde was still hard after us, hissing and howling. Cruz gripped the straps of his backpack and I saw that his right forearm was bleeding; from bites or scratches, I couldn’t be sure. He kept running up the hill, checking the balconies and rooftops for pouncing cats.
Because he was looking up, he failed to notice the ambush from under a BMW parked on the curb. From my position, lower to the ground and about ten yards downhill, I saw the telltale glint of those evil golden eyes just a split second before they struck. Two dark felines shot out from under the car and twisted themselves around Cruz’s legs, tangling him up. Already tired and off-balance, he stumbled and pitched forward, and the three cats waiting overhead pounced on his back, scratching and clawing. Under this coordinated onslaught, he could do little more than cover his face and scream for help.
Help, which I wanted to provide—I really did. But I couldn’t very well ignore the larger mob of predators on my heels. “Hold on!” I shouted. I smashed the driver’s window of the BMW, and its alarm went off. The flashing lights and sirens should have woken the dead, but did nothing to rouse the Vicenzans. I reached inside and dropped the car into neutral gear, and then slipped out as the sound & light show rolled backwards toward an unappreciative audience, who scattered in surprise.
Having bought us a few moments, I turned my attention to the fancy feast that was my traveling companion, and laid into those cats with tired, heavy blows from my cane. I could no longer react with hasty panic; instead I took a breath between each blow and went for the most violent strikes available. Moments later, I was helping Cruz back to his feet in the middle of five cat corpses. His clothing was torn into bloody tatters, and his face wasn’t much better looking.
“Come on,” I said, looking back at the re-organizing horde, “we gotta keep moving.” I pointed him up the street and we both began to run.
We made it the next half kilometer without incident. Apparently the cats had learned some caution now that I had demonstrated my intention to push parked cars at them. They kept a healthy distance, but continued to follow us, occasionally uttering those haunting, low-pitched howls just to let us know they were still behind us.
My legs were burning, but fear and adrenaline kept me pushing through the pain. I could tell Cruz was on the verge of collapsing as well, as he kept stumbling every four or five steps.
We came to another bridge, not running or even jogging any more, but limping. “It’s not much further, Terence,” I reassured my injured companion. “The hostel is just about fifty yards past the bridge, if I remember the map correctly.”
Cruz grunted his approval. Neither of us wanted to consider that the hostel might be locked up, or abandoned, or worse—infested with more cats.
We reached the peak of the bridge, and looked ahead into a sea of writhing fur, sharp teeth, and glowing eyes. Behind us, there was more of the same.
“That’s why they weren’t chasing us,” Cruz huffed. “They knew we were cornered.”
“You’re giving them too much credit. These are just cats. They don’t have our intelligence.”
“And yet they’ve caught us.”
I looked at the hordes of hungry, vicious felines, bearing down on us from both sides, and almost conceded that Cruz was right.
But then I remembered exactly what advantage our species has over the common cat.
“Is this where we make our stand?” Cruz asked, leaning wearily against the bridge railing.
“Not exactly,” I said. I gave him a forceful shove over the edge. He yelped in surprise, and then splashed into the river.
Feeling rather petty, I extended my middle fingers towards the cats in both directions, flipping them the bird before I flipped myself over the handrail and hurdled myself into the waters below.
Short, Relatable Horror Stories, #1
Sometimes, when I'm eating lunch, I use those little ketchup packets by tearing off the corner and applying ketchup to my food.
And sometimes, after I eat, I count the number of empty packets and the number of torn-off corners.
And sometimes those numbers DON'T MATCH UP.
excerpt from “The Bell Will Tell”
I approached the church, my footsteps still audibly crunching in the snow. Even though the cathedral emitted light from its windows, it was as eerily silent as the rest of Lozère, and my footsteps were still the only sound in the night. The snow sounded abnormally loud to my ears - or perhaps it just seemed that way, now that I was approaching the only building with any indication of occupation. If there were people in that cathedral, surely they could hear my approach. What could they possibly be doing inside there? For all I knew, the entire township was huddled inside, in ghostly quietness.
I paused at the door. I didn’t know what I expected to find; I only hoped that whoever was inside was still alive. I raised my hand to knock, but the thought of breaking the unnatural silence was suddenly reprehensible to me, and I could not complete the action. Instead, I lowered my hand to the door handle, where it paused as I summoned the courage to enter. I took a deep breath, reminding myself that churches are typically places of warmth and hospitality. With a steady push, I opened the door wide to look inside.
I don’t know what I expected inside, but I immediately realized that I had expected the door to creak. The cold weather, under normal circumstances, would cause contraction in the brass hinges, while simultaneously expanding the moisture remaining in the wooden door. Truthfully, even the most masterfully crafted doors eventually learn to groan and creak.
But not this one.
The door swung open with nary a sound. The still, cold air behind me began to mingle with the warmer air from inside, but there was no wind outside to announce my entrance. Pale moonlight entered through the door ahead of me and cast my shadow before me, mixing it with the wavering golden shadows caused by hundreds of hand-held candles seated in the benches.
The movement of the door was enough to cause the candles to flicker, but nothing more. I stepped inside, and the door swung shut behind me, as silently as it had opened. The benches were filled with people, none of whom turned their heads to look at me. Everyone was dressed in somber tones of mourning, with their attention fixated toward the pulpit across from me.
A coffin lay there, directly in front of me, down a long, carpeted aisle. The lid of the coffin was partitioned in two, and half of it--I assumed the upper torso half--was open. The raised lid had a square glass window set in the center, the purpose of which mystified me. A line of people, also holding candles, was proceeding past the coffin to pay their respects, still in that horrible utter silence. More than anything, I wanted to grab someone, ask them what was going on, and demand some answers about this horrid ceremony, but I could not bring myself to make any noise that would disturb the solemnity of the situation.
For lack of a better idea, and possessed by my own macabre curiosity, I grabbed a nearby candle and took my place at the end of the line of mourners. As I proceeded closer to the front of the cathedral, I stole furtive glances at the people seated in the benches. I would have expected to see more than a few tearful eyes, or even heard a wayward sob, but these faces were completely dry, each one expressing a mixture of sorrow and shock.
I reached the open casket. Upon looking inside, I could not help myself - I gasped audibly in shock and fright.
A young lady lay within the coffin, with her arms tightly bound to her body with rope, completely immobilized.
Her eyes were wide open.
For a moment I was as paralyzed and lifeless as the corpse in front of me. Too terrified to make a sound, too terrified even to turn around. I could feel the stares of hundreds of silent townsfolk piercing the back of my head. What was this? To the best of my ability, I acted the part of a sorrowful, silent mourner, bowing my head over her bound body. I reached out to touch her, and her skin was cold and clammy. I carefully watched, but she showed no signs of breathing, blinking, or a beating heart. Was she truly dead? Or suspended in some total paralysis? Was her mind conscious behind those unblinking eyes? I shuddered to think of that possibility - that soon, the people of Lozère would quietly bury a living person, unable to cry out because her breath was frozen in her chest.
I nearly leapt out of my skin when a large bell, hung high in the steeple of the cathedral, rang out its sonorous ring. It was the first sound I had heard during my entire visit to this horrid village, other than my own footsteps. The mighty bell rang out again, and again, a total of eight times, apparently sounding the hour of the night. As the last echoes of ringing faded away into the night, four large men stood up and surrounded the casket. A fifth man also approached the front end, shuffling forward with an uneven gait. He was tall and gaunt, with a long, black cloak lined with red satin and a wide-brimmed hat (much like my own) pulled low to mask his face. I remained in place, unable to move, transfixed on the ritual playing out before me. Without lifting his gaze to meet my eyes, the tall, gaunt man reached into the coffin with his right hand, and wielding a pair of scissors, cut the ropes that bound the corpse. He waited for a moment, as if in expectation that she would burst forth in resurrected life. Once satisfied that she would remain motionless, he reached up and closed the lid of the coffin, and I understood the purpose of the window in the lid. Through this window, the woman’s pale face and wide eyes continued to haunt me as the four large men lifted the coffin and carried it out of the church.
In a neat, orderly fashion, the congregation silently stood up and filed out after them.
The procession led me outside and around to a small cemetery beside the cathedral. The townsfolk surrounded an empty plot as the pallbearers lowered the coffin into it. During this process, I glanced around the graveyard. Although the ground was covered in a uniform layer of snow, more than a few of the graves seemed freshly dug, covered in mounds of loose dirt where the falling snowflakes refused to accumulate. I counted more than twenty such graves, and this, more than the falling snow, gave me sudden shivers.
Being smaller in stature than the townsfolk, it was a simple matter for me to nudge my way through the crowd and stand at the foot of the lowered casket. The pale face and wide eyes stared horridly up into the night sky. The pallbearers, finished with their initial task, grabbed four nearby shovels and solemnly stabbed them into a nearby pile of soil. The first shovelful of dirt landed next to the glass window, as I continued to stare at her face in horror. A second scoop landed even closer, partially covering the window. My wild and morbid imagination transported me inside her coffin, watching the dirt falling on top of me, covering the window and obscuring my last glimpse into the world of the living. Could she still be alive? Those eyes, wide open, continued to speak of her paralyzed terror, until the dirt finally covered the window and I lost sight of her horrid face. The pallbearers systematically shoveled dirt into the grave until it was full, and then tamped the loose soil with their shovels.
When the last man set down his shovel, he bent down to pick up the end of a string that had apparently been buried with the coffin. Curiously, I watched him tie that string to a small bell that dangled from the headstone, and in a burst of recognition I understood its purpose. I had heard tales of what was called a “safety coffin,” but had never actually seen one before now. To mitigate the risk of being buried alive, certain taphophobic inventors had come up with the crazy idea to leave a bell above ground at the grave site, and attach the bell to a pull string that would run underground to the buried individual. Should that unfortunately inhumed individual wake up and find themselves trapped in a wooden box under six feet of dirt, they could ring the bell until someone noticed and dug them back up again to set them free. Homes had doorbells for those who wished to enter; now tombs had doorbells for those who wished to leave.
At long last, my soul quieted down within me and the horrible tension of the situation left my body. I understood how the rest of the community could tolerate this terrible spectacle, now that I knew that the lifelike body beneath us had means of communicating her survival, should she prove merely paralyzed and not, in fact, deceased. The calmness and quietness of the townsfolk were merely their means of coping with a horrible situation for which they obviously had more experience than I did. In the same quietness that I had come to expect from the people of Lozère, they slowly trickled out of the cemetery, presumably to return to their homes.
I followed suit, turning only at the edge of the cemetery to glance back at the grave. The tall, gaunt man with the red & black cloak remained by the headstone. My curiosity compelled me to stay, and I melted into the shadows of a nearby tree, that I might surreptitiously observe him without causing any alarm. I waited there, patiently and quietly, wondering the reason for his lingering attendance.
When he seemed assured that no one else remained, his right hand reached into his pocket and withdrew his scissors, and with them he severed the bell-string.
New book synopsis!
It seems that no matter what game Sparrow plays, the cards are stacked against him.
Soon after he steps off a Mississippi steamer, Sparrow makes three regrettable transactions, and finds himself on the run from bankers, bounty hunters, and other bad guys.
But when he finds that the posse chasing him is also harassing an innocent young lady and her family, he decides that it's time to make his stand.
Drink, swear, steal and lie - those are the new rules of the game.
I thought that I knew how to write good crime stories - but Prose turned out to be the real thieves!
Last week I sponsored a $30 challenge. The purpose of this challenge was to encourage critical reviews for a short story that was being offered on Amazon, free of charge, for a limited time.
Prose gladly took my money. They took my $30 and then they took an additional $3 fee. They never posted the challenge, and never offered you the reward.
I have credit card statements that verify that Prose took the money. Unfortunately, the Amazon promotion has ended now, so the challenge has no purpose or value.
If you are writing a crime novel, you might consider a story about an online writing website that steals money from its community. I think that’s a rather clever concept. I would also suggest (and ask) that you share this post to ensure wide dissemination to all Prose members, warning them against purchasing any credit on this site.
For my part, I will be disputing the charges with my bank and accusing Prose of fraud. I would have loved to offer that prize to any one of you. I have read such intelligent and thoughtful work on this site and I wish you all the best.
Howling and Growling, Prancing and Prowling
I halted abruptly. I had heard a rustling in the straw behind me, and yet the air was preternaturally still. Hesitantly, I raised my head and stood on my tiptoes to see over the high heads of wheat, but I didn’t see any pursuing brewers, bottlers, or bartenders behind me. I didn’t see anyone walking through the field, and it would have been difficult for any average-sized person to creep unseen through the stalks.
Yet as I watched nervously, the stalks of wheat began to part, far away from me, as something moved through the field, swiftly and surely approaching me.
I wasn’t about to wait around to meet it, whatever it was. I turned and ran.
I threw away any remaining caution, thrashing through the field with abandon. The wheat made a curious chorus, breaking and parting before me, crushing beneath my feet, rustling behind me as my pursuer made chase. To these noises, the beast behind me contributed snarls and snaps, growls and grunts, huffing and puffing.
Stiff strands of wheat slapped my face and stabbed at my eyes as I raced away from my unidentified hunter. I had no idea where I was running any more, or even which general direction, nor did I know what I was running from; I only knew that I had to get away from it.
Without being able to see any of the surrounding landmarks through the tall stalks, I had no means of getting my bearing or running with an intelligent purpose. I glanced at the night sky, hoping that the position of the moon would give me an indication of my direction, and noticed how large and bright it seemed this night.
A full moon. I pondered the significance of that fact for just a brief moment.
The wheat in front of me suddenly gave way and I found myself out in the open, crossing a short 20-yard gap of hard-packed dirt, and then I plunged into a forest. The trees of this forest were sparse as I entered, but quickly grew more densely together as I rushed deeper inside, too afraid to look back.
The thick canopy of evergreen branches over my head soon choked out most of the bright moonlight and my eyes quickly adjusted to my murky surroundings. The trees above me blocked not only the light, but much of the snowfall also, sheltering the undergrowth. I quickly found that the ground was no longer hard and frozen, but soft and spongy, yet also more restrictive and forbidding. Fallen logs impeded my sprint, and I had to slow down to hurdle each one or duck underneath trees that had fallen against one another. Low hanging branches brushed against my hat and would shower me with their captured snow. Bushes and brambles blocked me at almost every turn, entangling my legs.
A large, wide tree appeared in front of me, and I jumped behind it, pressing my back against it while I tried to quietly calm my aching lungs and thumping heart. Rough bark pressed back against me, and I smelled the sweet scent of sticky pine sap as I breathed deeply and determinedly through my nose. As my heartbeat descended from allegro to allegretto to moderato, I cautiously peered around the tree trunk, first on the left side, and then on the right side, to catch a glimpse of my pursuer.
The abrupt change in terrain and illumination had apparently caused it some minor hesitation as well. I heard, rather than saw, its heavy, padded footsteps hesitantly approaching my general direction, no more than ten yards away. The footsteps then paused, and their sound was replaced with the snuffling and sniffing of a predator searching for my scent.
And at that moment, he must have found it, because he lifted his head and gazed right at me. The meager moonlight glinted off of his golden eyes, glowing in the darkness. I stood, petrified, not daring to move, for I knew that once I started, this beast would give chase. His dark silhouette seemed abnormally large to my night eyes--his shoulders were nearly at the same elevation as my own, and only my vertically-aligned neck and head made me taller than him. Although I had that small advantage in height, his legs were longer than mine, and he had four of them upon which to run. Watching his paws twitch in nervous excitement, I knew that he was faster than me, stronger than me, hungrier than me.
I would have to be more clever.
The beast crouched, preparing to pounce.
I inched my leg out to the right, from behind the tree, preparing for a mad dash.
The beast sank lower, baring his teeth in a silent growl and flexing his hind legs.
I shifted my weight imperceptibly, and reached outward, exposing my right arm in the open night air.
The beast pounced, and I snapped my arm back and leapt to the left as he crashed past the right side of the tree. I sprinted away, dodging from side-to-side, trying to keep trees between us every time I passed a wide trunk or fallen log.
I didn’t have an endgame planned out for this scenario. I was unarmed--even missing my cane, which was the only weaponizable item in my usual ensemble.
I instinctively lunged at a slender tree trunk, gripped it tightly with my injured right hand, and my momentum carried me around in a sharp and painful 90° turn. I felt a furious, snarling mass of fur and teeth barely miss me as it leapt past. I landed and kept running, while the beast behind me skid through the pine straw littering the forest floor.
A tree had long ago fallen in the dark forest, about twenty yards in front of me. It lay at a low angle, propped up on one end by the stump that had once borne it, and forming a narrow gap with the ground. I hurdled the log and huddled behind the stump, and surely enough, the dark-haired monster jumped over the log and landed in front of me. Using my feet and hands, I scrambled backwards, crablike, through the restrictive space under the log. Protruding branches scraped at me, but my face was relatively protected because I was moving backwards, not watching where I was going, and my leather coat guarded my back and arms as I pushed my small body through the crevice.
A fierce, lupine face snapped at my short legs, and I kicked back in the darkness, occasionally making contact with my beastly pursuer. The branches that had assailed my back now assailed his face, blinding him temporarily as he scraped and crawled through the gap after me. But here, my small size was to my advantage, for I easily slipped through to the other side while the beast before me seemed stuck, at least momentarily.
I observed with a mixture of terror and fascination, for a short second, as this monster struggled to escape the sharp branches and tight space, but my survival instinct overcame my curiosity and I turned again to run.
Faintly, in the distance, I could see the flickering, shimmering glow of a campfire in the night air, and I ran in that direction.
Without warning, the trees cleared and I skidded to a halt at the sharp edge of a ravine, the campfire glowing far below me. Trapped, and panicking, I spun around and kicked out with my heavy-booted foot. I was rewarded with a satisfying thunk, but the impact knocked me backwards and I slipped over the edge of the ravine, sliding down the steep, pine needle-strewn slope on the back of my leather trench coat. I made no effort to arrest my descent, and slid all the way to the bottom, where I came to a halt in a relatively soft patch of heather.
Far above me, I heard a mournful howl, of a predator thwarted of his prey, a hunter unwilling or unable to continue his hunt, before I passed out from delirious exhaustion.
I thought my car was running fine, but in order to get it registered with Uber, I had to take it to their licensed mechanic.
He took one look at my car and said, “You need to remove all of the 3/4-inch lugnuts.”
I was confused. “Why?”
“3/4-inch lugnuts are overused. I hate them.”
I inquired further. “Should I replace them with something else?”
He groaned with impatience. “No. Just take them out. All of them.”
“But won’t that make my car unstable? Won’t my tires wobble?” I persisted in asking.
He became angry. “You came to me for advice, and here it is. I’ve been at this job for many years. I know how to drive and I know what passengers like, and NOBODY LIKES 3/4-inch LUGNUTS!” He was practically shouting by the end of his little speech.
Words are your components - Don’t let your editor sabotage you.