by Zachary T. Owen
Nancy lived alone in the solitary, removed hills somewhere behind a Pennsylvania town, her house nothing more than a cottage, though she owned a barn big enough to hold many duplicates of the cottage. She wasn’t old. She was thirty four and tired.
It was mid afternoon on a Tuesday when she saw the cat. There had been many cats that slinked out of the woods and meowed at the front door for a handful of food or a saucer of milk. This cat was not an exception, and he was very friendly.
The cat was all white, besides a black patch around his left eye. His fur was short and thick and his tail very long. “Hello Captain,” Nancy said to him. She opened the door as the cat paced on the rotten welcome mat, his tail raised. He poked his head into the house and had a look at the kitchen, then darted over to a chair and made his way onto the kitchen table.
Nancy ran her hands over his short hair and the Captain began to purr and do a little cat dance. She went to the small back room and filled an old measuring cup a fourth full of cat food. “I’m sorry it isn’t fresh,” she told him. He didn’t seem to mind and ate the food quickly. Nancy went to the fridge and got the milk, then fetched him a saucer and poured the milk all the way to the top. The Captain was very happy about this.
His tongue lapped rapidly and his purring became louder. Nancy continued to pet him and his tail began to flick back and forth with a will of its own. She found a sore on his right side, about the size of a quarter—deep, red, and gleaming. “You better stay inside,” she told the Captain. She didn’t have much money these days (in fact she would have to find a way of income soon) and paying for the Captain’s good health might not be feasible.
As if her new guest was capable of opening the door himself, but not smart enough to figure out a lock, Nancy went to the front door and locked it. She looked out the pane of glass that made up most of the door and watched the trees as they rustled slightly in the wind, their leaves beginning to change. “How the seasons pass,” she said.
That night the Captain nestled beside Nancy and his warmth reminded her that a man had not been in her bed for almost five years. For a moment she felt sad. It was a short moment—the strays who came and went kept her company and were much nicer than men. She kept it simple here, mostly took to reading during the day and writing at night. She didn’t even own a television anymore. The last one had gone out in the middle of a soap opera re-run and she’d tossed it into the garbage.
She got up around one a.m. to use the restroom and took a long look at herself in the bathroom mirror. She was pallid, thin, and short haired. She smiled at herself and somehow it caught her off guard. When she finished up in the restroom she opened the door and saw the Captain waiting on the other side. He meowed incredulously.
“Oh don’t be mad,” Nancy said to him. “Nature calls sometimes.”
She picked him up and returned to her bedroom, which was slim and warm and darkened by large draperies over the windows and a lack of all the electric blinking found in many bedrooms—digital clocks, old VCRs and stereos that could never really be shut off. The room was an encasing for a snug bed and a closet big enough to hold clothing that would last for two weeks before a washer and dryer were needed.
Nancy woke early, rising from the bed at six a.m. and traipsing naked into the kitchen. She pulled out a kitchen chair and turned on the coffee, pulled a plate from a cabinet and went to the fridge and got some eggs. She began to prepare her usual breakfast of eggs and toast.
The Captain came in looking haggard and hungry. Nancy fed him and watched him scarf down the food. The sore on his left side looked marginally bigger. “Your boo-boo isn’t looking so hot,” she said. “Let me get something for it.”
She left and came back with some Neosporin and gauze, which seemed like a sad-sap way of helping the cat out, but it was all she had. The Captain did not get irritated or frightened when Nancy applied the Neosporin to his wound, nor did he seem to mind when she put the gauze on him. He finished his food and went to the front door, his meows sounding a little restrained but needy.
“No, no, Captain. I don’t think you should be going outside.” She picked him up and found the living room she rarely used, where a litter box was placed in the corner. Nancy set the Captain in the litter box hoping this would be the answer he needed to keep him from wanting to go outside where he might somehow make his wound worse.
He spun around in the litter box for a minute before finally resting his butt in it and beginning to do his business. Nancy left him to have his privacy and began to finish preparing her breakfast.
She ate the eggs slowly, her mind wandering. She thought of her mother and father who she never saw. She had a cell phone once, for a while, but she stopped making the payments some time ago. Her parents, not able to call her, drifted away. They weren’t going to show up on her doorstep. She was going to have to come to them.
Nancy left the kitchen and got dressed.
That evening she left the house and went for a walk in the woods, looking again at the changing leaves. She wore a scarf and heavy boots, trying to keep the oncoming chill away from her bones. She went down the path she normally took but strayed from it when she remembered her sister had not sent her a birthday card on her last birthday.
Nancy walked absently and thought of all the people she knew who didn’t really seem to know her. She cleared some branches away and walked further into the woods and stopped at a creek where she skipped some stones. She tried to catch a frog but he was too fast.
When Nancy got back to her house the sore on the Captain’s side had begun to bleed through the gauze. It was a restrained, subtle bleeding, but it was there and she saw it. The red trickled softly through the fibers and Nancy decided to change the Captain’s band aids and apply more Neosporin. Before she did this she decided to take it a step further. She picked up the cat and took him to the sink, where she washed the edges of his sore, careful not to get any soap into the center, until she was sure it was much cleaner. The Captain did not complain or fidget. He was merely complacent.
And so Nancy fixed him up again and watched him explore the house.
He returned to the front door that night and wanted out again. “Okay, okay,” she said. “But please don’t go far and come back soon.”
She let the cat out and as he left, jumping over a stump and darting into the woods, she felt her eyes grow heavy and her heart shudder.
The Captain did not return for three days, and during those days Nancy spent most of her time in bed. She ate sparingly and could not find it in herself to read another word of Plath or bother picking up her copy of What Dreams May Come.
She dreamt very little and felt old and used.
When the Captain came back his bandages were missing and he seemed winded. He sat in front of the door and meowed angrily, until Nancy let him in. She patted his head and had a look at his sore. It had grown viciously.
She sighed and fed him, hoping that the growing sore would stop consuming him. She did not want to silence his misery in her own way. She thought of the revolver under her bed, the one her brother swore she needed to keep in case somebody invaded her home. It hadn’t happened yet.
When the Captain was done eating she held him for a long time and began to cry. She spent the whole day watching him. She dressed his sore again and found an old dog leash and collar she had kept for god knows what reason and put them on the Captain. “Now we can go outside and you can’t wander off and harm yourself,” she said.
The two of them walked down Nancy’s preferred path, looking up at the tall oaks and elms. Some of the leaves had prematurely fallen loose, and the wind was gaining strength. Even with her scarf on Nancy could feel it creep into the flesh of her neck, pull deep into her breasts. The Captain was strangely compliant during the walk.
She saw, for the first time, movement beneath the Captain’s gauze. It was a subtle shuddering, almost a twitch, but somehow more deliberate. She tried to shrug this off, to ignore it, but as the night went on the twitches became more noticeable. It came to the point where it looked more like something was crawling under those bandages.
The Captain periodically stopped walking and stood looking at the ground. As he stood frozen he would burst into bouts of shivering. Nancy took him inside and laid him on her bed. He seemed uncomfortable but not in pain.
She did not sleep well. Her dreams were mostly full of wounded cats and disrespectful men. Four times she awoke with a gasp, her forehead dotted in sweat, and left to the kitchen to down a glass of water. During all of these episodes the Captain remained asleep. His strange movements, his shivering, had stopped. He looked peaceful in his sleep. He lay with his sore against the bed and looked healthy. Nancy knew if she turned him over that portrait would dissolve.
After her fourth awakening, Nancy sat on the edge of the bed and petted the cat in his sleep until he began purring. She scratched behind his ears and under his chin and in the pit of his belly. Finally she leaned back into the comfort of her bed and accepted sleep. As she fell away she was vaguely aware of a sound that was something between a bird call and a dying mouse’s futile shriek.
Six a.m. came and went and Nancy did not rise. A descending heat took hold of her and she awoke in wetness, uncomfortable and fatigued. It was exactly noon.
The Captain was on the floor. He stood still but a small hunk of meat hung out of his sore. “Oh god,” Nancy said. She bolted out of the bed and lost her vision and nearly fell on the floor from the wave of dizziness that struck her.
When her eyes adjusted and the sick feeling in her stomach settled, she watched the wound of the Captain. The meat was twirling around, like a playful finger. The Captain took two awkward, uncoordinated steps forward, and the meat finger continued moving, but at a different pace. It tried to reach for the floor and failed. The sound that Nancy had heard in the night came again, only louder, booming through the cat’s side like he was a not a cat, but a loudspeaker dressed as a cat.
Nancy watched and felt her sickness return. She almost fainted but pulled in all her strength at the last moment. Her body was jittery as she went to the bathroom and found the scissors. She did not know if what she was about to do was the right thing, but it was the only thing her mind was telling her to do.
The scissors were dull and it was hard to snip at the digit-like tendril. It flailed about as she tried to cut it, and the sound came louder. Nancy screamed and squeezed the scissors with forefinger and thumb, hoping the damn thing would cut off.
Though he looked uncomfortable and confused, the Captain did not show any sign of pain. He stared at the scissors as they did their work. Nancy pressed the blades together hard and with some twisting the meat finger came off and landed on the floor with a pud.
Nancy took the Captain into the kitchen and tried to think of what to do with him. The gun came into her head again and she could almost feel it between her ears hogging all the space her brain tried to claim as its own. She shook her head and said “No” and went to the liquor cabinet to find her only friend besides the strays, and his name was vodka.
The days passed by in a drunken blur. Nancy watched as at first one new meat finger sprouted from the Captain’s sore, then two, then three, then six and on and on. The red, glistening tendrils wiggled and flailed. It looked like the Captain had eaten a squid and it was fighting to get out.
The sore got bigger, too. Eventually it took up nearly all of the Captain’s side. He began to walk less and less frequently. Nancy had to leave him by the litter box so he didn’t piss or shit on her floor. He spent more time staring at the floor than anything, but on occasion he would look up at Nancy with an expression which said I don’t understand what is happening and then release a long, tapering meow. “I don’t understand either,” Nancy would sometimes answer back.
She was eating less now and drinking more. She fell into a continual stupor, sometimes staying in bed all day as she sipped on her vodka. Vomiting became frequent late at night and in the early hours of the day.
The meat finger, the one Nancy had cut from the Captain, had gone missing. She hadn’t thought much about it at first, she was so worried about her precious cat and his worsening condition, but when she came upon a red smear on her bedroom carpet, where the finger had been, she wondered what had happened to it. Surely it hadn’t crawled away? If she wasn’t so drunk she might have been more puzzled.
Sometimes Nancy tried to cut off more of the things sticking out of the Captain’s sore, but they always came back. They were changing now. Some of them were thicker. Some of them bent like elbows and others seemed to be growing long strands of hair on them. There was an eyeball on at least one of them.
The Captain still used the litter box and still ate his food and drank his milk. Nancy couldn’t bear to look at him. He would be dead soon, she was sure.
But he wasn’t. He kept on going. Eventually his wound took up almost half of his body and the limbs which poured out of it spent almost every minute moving rapidly, but the Captain was not dead and did not seem to be dying.
And maybe he should have been dead, especially when the infected side of his body began to swell outward, as if the red, shiny limbs on it were the limbs of a giant caught and compressed in the cat. If there really was a giant thing folded in on itself inside the Captain, it was done living in such small quarters.
Nancy found herself staring at the cat, finally, and puking not from alcohol, but from the abnormality that grew from him. She wiped her mouth and then gagged again. The Captain was lying in his litter box, his eyes closed. Nancy hoped he was finally dead. She took a step forward and the limbs began to go berserk.
The Captain opened his eyes. He meowed.
Nancy screamed—it wasn’t out of fear. She was angry. The Captain did not deserve his suffering. His meow, this time, had showed some indication of pain.
In the kitchen was a bottle of vodka with one last swig in it. Nancy grabbed it from the kitchen counter and took the final gulp. She went to her room and found the revolver her brother had given her to keep safe from the home invader she never thought would come. He’d finally arrived, after all.
She couldn’t do it. Nancy pointed the gun at the Captain and meant to squeeze the trigger but he just kept looking at her.
Even with her eyes closed she could feel that penetrating stare. Her trigger finger trembled and she could feel a coat of sweat already beginning on her face, though the alcohol may have been as much a factor.
And if she couldn’t shoot the cat while drunk, when could she? His meow came to her and she opened her eyes. One of the meat fingers was petting the Captain.
Nancy found the burlap sack she kept in her bedroom, inside one of her dresser drawers. She slid the gun into the waist of her pants and grabbed the sack. She returned to the Captain and felt her legs go weak as she bent down to put him into the burlap sack.
“I’m sorry,” she told him. “I don’t know what I can do for you.” But she did know, and yet she failed. The thing growing out of the side of the Captain began to move with aggression as she tried to put him in the sack. One of the meat fingers touched her arm as she pushed the Captain in. The cat was silent once more. He had accepted his fate in a casual manner.
Nancy took the burlap sack outside and went straight for the old barn she never used and dumped the Captain into it. She left and came back with water and food that would last him at least a few days and then shut the barn door and went inside and began to drink away the rest of her friend vodka.
And she kept on drinking.
A week went by and Nancy could take no more. She dumped the remainder of her vast supply of alcohol (she had moved on to brandy and whiskey after running out of vodka) down the kitchen sink and tried to ignore the impulse to hoard a few remaining bottles.
She went outside and looked at the barn, the looming symbol of what she had done, or what she had failed to do. No noise came from inside, no meow or sound of moving limbs. Her ears remained untainted by subtle traces of the monster.
Nancy turned away from the barn and went back inside. It was almost midnight and she was tired. From her kitchen window she looked at her car and considered driving home to her parents and begging them to help her. What they could do to help was an unanswerable puzzle. The situation was beyond that now. She had missed her chance, and even if she had brought the Captain to her parents and said she needed the money to get him an operation, they would have said no, they would have told her to quit taking in strays (“They spread disease,” her mother said). Her brother was much the same. Her family was not compassionate toward animals. Or poetry. Or art. Or people.
And was there even gas in the car? It had been so long since Nancy went anywhere, since she had needed to get any kind of supplies. Her money was running low and she would have to return to the normal world soon but what then?
The memory of the Captain would not be eclipsed by a nine-to-five job; his suffering would not be erased by a daily routine. She had to face it soon. Something had to be done for the poor feline.
Nancy slept soundly that night, the relapse into sobriety allowed all her wasted wakeful hours to come crashing down on her in the form of equivalent sleep. She would have slept all night if she hadn’t been disturbed.
She dreamt of driving her car through clouds that looked like cats when something closed around her throat. In the dream she looked down and saw nothing. When she awoke she clutched at her neck and felt the slimy hold of the wandering meat finger.
It twisted itself around her like a snake and tightened. Nancy stood, her face burning red, and fled into the bathroom. The mirror revealed the pulsating limb had grown. Nancy’s forehead was turning red, her mouth open and gasping for air. She frantically searched for the scissors behind the mirror as the thing kept squeezing her.
She came across a Bic razor, a pair of tweezers, a nail file, but no scissors. Her vision dulled as she abandoned the mirror and went on her knees to throw open the cabinet beneath the sink. The scissors were in plain sight.
A quick slash across the slimy meat of her enemy caused it to loosen and fall on the floor. The thing tried to slither away but she stepped on it and kept on stepping until it was a custard of brown and red mush. Yellow pus boiled up from the mush and the custard quivered and molded over like old food.
Nancy laid her hands on her throat and began to massage where the beast had tightened. She felt nervous tears coat her cheeks. She was dizzy and out of breath but alive. The thought of the Captain being choked to death by the thing growing from inside of him made her cringe.
It was time to see what had become of him.
Every step toward the barn brought Nancy a feeling of imaginary pain. She expected every footfall to be ended by a tentacle which had burrowed into the ground beneath the barn, only to travel forward and ripple from the earth to take her. The moonlight did not dispel her fear. She walked carefully, even with complete vision of her path.
The barn door came open with a jolt. Nancy inched her face into the opening, not daring to open the door any further than she needed to. She saw nothing in the darkness and knew that she probably never would. This is why she had brought a flashlight which hung in her nervous hand like the hilt of a sword. The revolver was tucked into her pant line, snug and cold against her skin. She pushed the flashlight into the opening. Before turning it on she heard a creaking, as if the rafters of the barn were about to give way.
The beam from the flashlight was strong. It was like casting daylight into the barn, as if the door was wide open and the sun was burning bright. Nancy attempted to take in the scene, to digest the apparition that snaked around the rafters of the barn with its uppermost half, and rested some of its many limbs in the dirt. Its head, which seemed almost to float independently from the body, was thick and gristle-like, the face covered in red patches that looked like raw meat. In shape it was dog like, but the tongue that came out of its snout was forked into a multitude of sharp looking prongs.
It took her everything not to shriek.
The body of the beast swirled and contorted in several directions, like a series of skinned animals sewn together irregularly. One of its many limbs, a small fetal hand, held in its red palm a dead baby bird.
As the beam of light moved across the beast it did not stir or fidget. Nancy found the Captain, still attached to the thing which had grown from him, hanging in the air. He looked about himself and his side still rose and fell. Whether or not the beast was a parasite which needed to feed off of the Captain to survive or merely needed him for its growth and hadn’t separated from him yet, Nancy was not sure. The Captain looked miserable as he hung in the air and released a long howl that was far removed from any sound a cat should make. He stared down at the ground, looking in the direction Nancy had last left food for him, and then he stared at Nancy. His tiny eyes glowed in the beam and the Captain released another howl.
“Oh Captain, look what I’ve done to you,” Nancy whispered. “I am the only guilty one here.”
Something above Nancy released a rodent-like titter and she raised her flashlight to see an appendage with fat, malformed fingers. It latched onto her head and suddenly she was being carried into the air toward the dog-headed beast which had seen her from the start, but was clever enough to pretend it hadn’t.
Innumerable limbs, talons, and slimy tentacles groped at Nancy as she was pushed through the rafters, moved through the air. She could feel them on her breasts, around her thighs, curling around her forearm. She held her mouth shut, keeping her screams inside. It was not an easy task, but she was afraid if she was loud or visibly afraid the head of the monster would tear into her. The network of body parts beneath and around her enjoyed the slowness of the journey, the raw dog, screaming in guttural bursts, seemed to be in no hurry to eat Nancy, or whatever it planned to do. She felt her veins throb as the slimy appendage around her thigh continued to tighten.
The flashlight had become heavy in her grasp, her arm tired and weak from the pulsating hands and tendrils that prodded her flesh. She hung onto it, afraid of how this community of the Limb King might act if the light vanished. The beam swung and jolted around the barn rafters and Nancy had little control over where it pointed, as a six-fingered hand squeezed her wrist and moved her arm this way and that.
The gun was still tucked in her pant line. If her body wasn’t completely restrained by the Raw Dog, the King of Limbs, Nancy would have already fired at the thing’s snout, into its dim black eyes, its army of forked tongues, until she erased these features and left only a smoldering wound.
She stopped being carried. The grip on Nancy relented just enough for her to point the flashlight straight ahead. The face was looking at her, the tongues flicking out like pink flames. The black eyes widened in recognition of—a snack, a mate, a plaything?
The raw spots among the face looked red and irritated. Tiny hands were beginning to poke their way through the tender meat. The King of Limbs, the Raw Dog, was never going to stop growing. Nancy understood. And the Captain, somehow alive, would remain a prisoner of this community of red limbs and groping hands.
Nancy wasn’t scared anymore. Just angry. The face opened and the tongues went for her throat but she had already bitten into the hand on her left arm and yanked the gun from her pants and soon the bullets were taking the tongues right out of the mouth of the beast and shooting through the back of its head and shaving the gristle away from its bloated face.
All of the pieces of the monster which held Nancy let her go and before she could collect herself she was on the barn floor, the wind knocked out of her and the monster looking down at her with what was left of its face and snarling, making an expression she recognized, the same kind of look Nancy’s father had given her when she proved she was smarter than him, the same look people on the street gave her when she sang loudly to herself, the same look her grandmother had given her for saying fuck in public—a look of disgust.
The Raw Dog, The King of Limbs, came swooping down in all its mass to take Nancy and crush the life out of her, but she was already up and running and the door was inches away. She tried to look for the Captain over her shoulder as she escaped, but she dropped the flashlight and everything was lost in darkness and so she kept running toward the moonlight and left the Captain behind without glimpsing him one last time.
She felt warm flesh brush her ankle but after that the barn door was shut behind her and the thing didn’t come out, didn’t burst through the wood. She understood maybe it wasn’t going to; maybe the barn was some kind of nest. It was perfect. It was what she wanted. She was going to fix it all, to make it right. She remembered now that she did have some gasoline for the car, stowed away, though not enough to go very far. She remembered, too, that she had matches in the kitchen.
She still held the gun tightly but she threw it in the grass. She didn’t need it anymore. She had fire.
And so Nancy found the gas and the matches and then was outside again, throwing gas on the barn in little splashes and leaving a circular trail around it and then lighting the gas and watching the flames burst into life and scuttle up the wood like bugs of fire.
As the fire traveled upward, eating at the upper half of the barn, and then the roof, Nancy watched it and felt its heat. She stepped back a safe distance and watched the wood, which had grown old, get lost in a storm of flame.
“Goodbye sweet Captain,” she whispered. She said a little prayer for him and remained still until the barn began to quiver—then she stepped back further, watching the black fog ascend to the cloudless sky.
There was a noise from inside the barn, finally. A pitiful, frightened howling which at its crescendo became a cacophony of pain, a wall of sound no ear but Nancy’s would ever be able to identify as the cry of the King of Limbs who had been birthed into the world only to die days later. She almost felt cruel for smiling at the sound, but it was a relief she had never felt before.
And yet still she found herself crying a moment later for the lost Captain, who she hoped, sailed somewhere far off, though she had never had any great religious convictions. She walked away from the barn as it collapsed into itself and found a place in the woods where she could create a grave for him, a place to mark his existence so that he wouldn’t be stamped out of the world.
This place, of course, was in the trail she loved and where she had walked with the Captain and she could almost feel his weight in her arms, his body vibrating with purrs. She bent down and stared at the soft spot in the ground where she would make his grave. She let her knees fall to the earth and she put her hands in the dirt, feeling the familiar texture of nature in her palms. She had no more tears now and she simply sat and meditated and remembered what it was to know happiness and promised herself she would find it again.
Nancy stood up and collected some stones, putting them together until they made a small mound. She struck a stick into the earth and stepped back and looked at the grave. She smiled and then turned to face the world, all too aware there were angry dogs out there, dying cats, and unwelcoming faces. It was her against them. And she would win; she had fire. Hope swam in her veins. She breathed in deep and turned away from the woods.
Zachary T. Owen’s work has previously appeared in The Alarmist, Micro Horror, and Dark Eclipse, among others. He is also the author of a recently published novelette, Beauties in the Deep.