The only cat Tomas Delgado could find, before his old ride died out from under him, was a young tom. A black one this time, barely weaned. Weak. Not long for this world, most likely.
Still, it was all that was available on this rainswept night in Valley Village, early in the Year 2000.
‘The Year 2000,’ Tom mused. It was hard not to think of it in capitals and quotes. He’d never imagined that he might see the calendar roll over to that science fiction date for himself, not in all the decades of his unnaturally-prolonged existence. It was the symbolic start of The Future, and had been the focus of anticipation and dread across all the worlds in almost equal measure.
The former necromancer could likewise never have guessed that this zero-year sandwiched between two colliding centuries was also apt to be his last.
Some nights he might’ve found a dozen cats or more congregated behind the Ralphs supermarket at the intersection of Magnolia and Coldwater Canyon, but this evening the inclement weather had driven them all away. The housecats had retreated to their homes and the ferals to whatever dry hideaways they were able to find.
Tom stood up in his scrawny new body and stretched hugely, testing it out. The kitten had sheltered under a lean-to accidentally erected when a stockboy propped a number of wooden shipping pallets outside the market’s rear delivery entrance, so its fur was relatively dry.
The stomach was empty and knotted with cramps, though, and the joints ached in the cold. The musculature had had neither the time nor the nutrition required to develop well.
This kitten might do for a few hours, old Tom thought, but if he couldn’t find something with better prospects for survival soon, he was finished.
He couldn’t believe there wasn’t another, stronger cat somewhere within the range of his perceptions. It was his own fault, really. He’d stayed with his last form too long, past the point of its realistic hope for recovery. But dammit, he’d enjoyed his fourteen years spent playing the ragged neighborhood scrapper called One-Eyed Jack by the locals who left food out for him on their back stoops. For him, or for pets of their own, all of whom had learned to leave such offerings alone until Tom/Jack had eaten his fill.
It had been a simple life, rough and close to the bone, but a good and free one for all that, and Tom had hoped to prolong it for one more summer, if he could. He’d hoped for so long that he let himself get caught out unawares, like a movie vampire too stupid to buy a watch or an almanac, one who finally gets crisped by an unanticipated sunrise as the contrived culmination of a film’s last act.
Tom had loved films since their invention, and he’d continued to watch them over the decades. Even in catform he’d always had access to television in living rooms or store windows and movies at the drive-in theater that used to be up on Roscoe Boulevard, so he really should’ve known better than to make such a classic blunder by now. But hope had made him stupid, and he’d stayed with old Jack until the frail feline body lacked the strength for him to send his mind out very far.
This sickly black kitten, this unfortunate runt that was all he could reach, wasn’t doing a hell of a lot to boost his signal, either.
Tom was tired, but he figured that if he went to sleep now his odds of waking up dead in the second chamber of the Temple of Mictlantecuhtli were pretty damn high. And, even though he was ninety years late, he knew that el Rey de Los Muertos would still be waiting at the door to greet him.
And yet… he was so weary that he didn’t know if he cared anymore. He couldn’t really keep this cathopping business up forever, could he? At some point he’d have to face the King.
The Great and Powerful Mictlantecuhtli’s wishes might be deferred, but never denied. The strange new form his temple had assumed in the modern-day world was proof enough of that.
Old Tom had spent too many decades avoiding that odd building in Hollywood to want to curl up and die quite yet, however. The Silent Tower, people had called it for a while, though Tom had never known the reason why. He’d heard the place was truly quiet these days, perhaps dormant, and had been that way since at least the early 1950s. The apparent stillness could well have been an illusion, however, if not a trap, and Tom had little desire to challenge it. He’d cheated King Death at his own game long ago, and Mictlantecuhtli’s ire over that insult was not apt to have lessened with the passing of the years. Time meant very little to him.
Maybe if he could get some food into this new catbody, Tom thought, that might be enough to keep it going till he could find himself a sturdier replacement.
There was also a dumpster behind the supermarket, one piled so high with soggy boxes and bags of crap that its lid sat ajar by a good four inches.
It was a pretty slight gap; but then, he was a pretty slight cat.
Tom laddered up the outside of his shipping pallet lean-to and leapt onto the closed half of the dumpster’s plastic lid. It was slippery and his legs were shaky—he almost slid right off the side. But his paws found purchase just in time and then he’d made it; he was up there. Soaked to the skin already, with his small heart rabbitting along… but one step closer to nourishment, of some sort.
The market boasted a new service deli, serving soups and sandwiches and chicken and coldcuts, and Tom could smell the lukewarm remainders of several people’s comingled dinners down there in the trashbin’s shadows.
He shoved his small head under the lid at the gap’s widest point, then weaseled the rest of his body through.
It was actually not so bad in here, Tom thought as he picked his way down into the tight crevasses between the dumpster’s contents. The bin was full of smells that would appall a human being, but didn’t draw the same negative value judgments from a feline palate. Besides, it was relatively dry, and dark, and private. The drumming of the rain on the plastic lid was a cozy, comforting sound.
Tom felt like just another shadow, in here.
He found a three-quarters-eaten breast of fried chicken at the bottom of a trashbag and clawed open the thin plastic to get at it. Some satiated human had left good white meat on the bones. Only a bite or two, but it might be enough to keep a small cat alive, for a little while, if he could manage to digest it.
Tom was making the experiment in small bites when the plastic lid overhead swung up and away, gonging a second later against the back of the metal bin.
He jumped and fled, bounding out of the dumpster on some last reserve of strength and eliciting a brief, cutoff shriek from the young woman who’d torn the roof off his sanctuary when he darted past her and raced away, across the wet blacktop.
Tom scrabbled up into the ivy that topped the painted concrete retaining wall separating the market’s parking lot from the houses and apartment buildings that filled out the rest of the city block.
Figuring he’d reached a minimum safe distance, Tom turned back to see what sort of intruder had just deprived him of a last meal.
It wasn’t really a woman at all, he saw, but more of a girl. Maybe fourteen or fifteen years old. On the cusp. She was looking right up at him, having tracked his brief flight across the lot. Tom glared back at her with his new kitten’s baleful green eyes.
“I’m sorry, little cat,” she said, standing in the rain like it wasn’t even there. “I didn’t mean to scare you. Come back down, if you want to. We can share.”
Tom knew she had no way of knowing that he understood, but he saw that she was a tenderhearted little thing, alone and afraid and out of her element, and he was moved by her offer of generosity. He didn’t take her up on it (his legs felt too much like old, loose rubber bands to try climbing down again), but he lingered in the plant cover at the top of the wall, waiting to see what she’d do next.
For the moment, he was more interested in her than he was in his own imminent demise.
The girl waited for more than a minute, cooing to Tom and trying to coax him back down. She was cute, with long black hair and large dark eyes. Too young and too pretty to be safe alone out here on a night like this.
When it was clear he wasn’t coming down, she turned back to the dumpster and hauled herself up onto the thing’s slick blue side so she could bend in at the waist to scrounge.
She came back up with the chicken breast Tom had been nibbling, as well as part of a ham sandwich. She used the bread to swipe yellowing mayonnaise off the scrap of gray meat she seemed to have deemed edible, then flapped it in the rain to wash it off a little more.
She crouched down in the lee of the supermarket building, trying to take advantage of the minimal shelter it provided, and tore a small strip of meat from her piece of reclaimed ham. She raised it to her mouth with a shaking hand and forced herself to chew it. Swallowing took an obvious effort.
Eating from the trash was a new experience for this girl. Tom had to wonder what had happened in her world that she was out here like this, suffering like a miserable stray. She had her eyes squeezed shut tight and her breathing turned shallow as she fought to keep down the morsel she’d managed to eat.
After a minute or so her shoulders began to shake, right before she lost her struggle with nausea and gagged up her one bite of dumpster ham.
She started to cry, hugging her knees to her chest.
This was nothing old Tom wanted to see. His heart went out to the little one, and for a second his slow blood boiled with rage against the ugly, poisoned realworld that would throw this child away, leaving her to eat other people’s garbage and sleep out in the rain.
You know what? Tom thought then: fuck it. He was done for anyway. He might as well make his last act in this world one of kindness.
He drew back deeper under the ivy, and sent his mind out. His kitten wouldn’t survive this effort (meaning his mobile old soul would die with it, once and for all), but right now, he didn’t care.
He found the market warm and bright inside, the aisles mostly empty of shoppers as the rainy evening gave way to an inhospitable night.
Tom condensed his awareness down near the express checkout lane, the one closest to the store’s front entrance.
He didn’t like to steal, but when the checker got distracted by some old bat’s raft of questions regarding a fifty-cent detergent coupon, he delved into the cashdrawer and popped the mechanism that held it closed. Tom had always had a knack for getting into things. He’d studied the locksmithing trade for a time, in his youth.
He raised the springclip that held the ones down in their slot at the same moment he sent out into the electric eye that controlled the market’s automatic door, triggering it and letting in a well-timed gust of cold, wet wind.
A single crisp dollar bill fluttered out and landed in the next lane, unseen, before the checker nudged the errant drawer shut with her hip and made some comment about the weather to the crusty old coupon-hound who had begun to laboriously count out her purse full of dimes.
Tom’s formless point of awareness tugged the dollar under a nearby rack of chewing gum and trashy magazines, and then he marshaled his strength.
When the aged cheapskate left, lugging her discounted soap out toward her Mercedes, Tom floated the pilfered bill out after her, like a tiny magic carpet.
The wind outside blew it to the ground, where it stuck to the wet sidewalk.
Someone other than the intended beneficiary might find it at any minute, and he wouldn’t get a second chance at this.
Behind the market, Tom’s cat took a deep breath and let it out, very slowly.
He sent his mind out as wide as he could and then pulled it back in tightly, drawing fine particulate matter off the ground and out of the air, coalescing the dust down into a form that reflected light and possessed at least a little bit of mass.
Tomas Delgado (or at least a pretty good approximation thereof) reached down and peeled the damp dollar bill up from the sidewalk. He felt his blood pounding through his distant kitten’s ears as his projection of a human form strolled nonchalantly around the side of the market, leaning on a cane.
Just the way he remembered himself.
The crying girl looked up to see a hunched old man with kindly eyes and a wry grin standing over her. He could tell she hadn’t even heard him walk up. Her emotions were very palpable, to him.
He held out a dollar bill.
Tentatively, the lost girl took it. “Th- thank you,” she stammered, her sinuses well clogged from weeping. She wiped her eyes. “Thank you.”
The old man nodded and tipped his hat, then turned and walked away from her, without ever having said a word. The girl watched him go. He seemed somehow to vanish into the rain and mist before he’d made it all the way down the alley that exited onto Coldwater.
Tom managed to open his cat’s eyes again, with an effort. He was lying on his side in the mud, panting shallowly. The effort of appearing as a man for a minute or two had depleted the kitten, used it up, and Tom knew he wouldn’t be able to send himself out again.
So this was it. His long, strange sojourn on the earth plane would finally draw to an end, before this night was through.
Still, as Tom watched the young runaway or whatever she was hurry around to the front of the store with her newfound money, he was comforted to know that his last act of will in this world had been a good one.
He’d always been a sucker for a pretty face. He didn’t regret the action sentiment had prompted him to this time, though. Not one little bit.
The girl came back in less than two minutes, clutching a small paper bag.
She approached his hiding place in the wall-topping ivy carefully, and Tom managed to sit up, wondering what it was she thought she was playing at.
When she took a can of cat food out of her shopping bag, Tom felt the weary old heart he’d been carrying around for better than a hundred years shatter within his fragile cage of tiny kitten ribs.
This starving girl had gone and spent her single dollar on him.
“Hey there, little cat,” she said, peeling the pulltab-equipped lid off the top of the can and setting it down in the relative shelter of an overhanging tree branch. “Come on out. I thought this might do you some good.”
And then, at that point, although he wouldn’t have thought it possible thirty seconds before, Tom found he had the strength to run to her.
He clawed his way right up the front of her jacket to nuzzle in against her neck. Her skin was warm despite the chilling rain, her cheeks aglow with mild fever. Still, she laughed delightedly and put her hands around his tiny body. He thrilled to feel her gently stroke his fur.
Shelter, then, was the first order of business regarding this one. Warmth, then food, and not garbage from a can, either. No more of that for her, not ever again. If Tom had to hunt down a live chicken to provide a decent goddamn meal, then he fully meant to do it.
When the girl set him down, he ate the food she’d purchased for him. He would be surviving this night, he’d decided after all, and he was going to need his strength for the days ahead.
Old Tom had remembered that he used to be a lion, in his dreams.
Then he became a cat that only dreamed he was a man. And he’d stayed that way for so many years, hiding from the King through four decades of bobcats and panthers before the encroaching city drove those so deep into the hills that common housepets became his most reliable vehicles into the modern era.
But now he’d be that lion again, on behalf of this generous girl who needed an ally in this world as much as anyone Tom had ever seen. She would never walk alone again, he vowed, or be without defense. He’d teach her every secret he had ever learned. He’d arm her up with magicks so old and deep and true that she’d be the match of any operator, imaginal, or ordinary jerk that fate could ever throw her way.
Tom was prepared to trust her with everything he knew, worlds be damned, after fifteen minutes of acquaintance.
The child may not have known it yet, but her initiation as a witch had already begun. Her teacher had selected her as his pupil, and an ancient pattern might now play out anew.
Assuming the girl wanted to learn, that was. She had to be willing, as the sorts of truths Tom meant to share couldn’t really be transmitted, but only received. The skills he had to pass on would change her, divert the course of her destiny off from where it might otherwise have led, but then again, she’d never have her native kindness shamed out of her by a wicked world this way, either. The power that comes with knowledge would make her strong enough to keep it, and that seemed to Tom like an excellent thing.
For the first time in the gods only knew how long, the old ghost in a cat actually felt excited about something.
He refused to let himself be troubled by the thought that one day, for her own safety, his girl might need to know the secret of the King’s Chambers and the building—the Silent Tower—that now concealed them. Tom knew the consequences of that revelation could be as dire for this new child as they’d once been for his lost love Dulcé… if he wasn’t just as careful about it as he could possibly be.
But that theoretical occasion was many, many years off; a decade or more before she’d be ready, and for now there were far more immediate plans to be made.
Tom knew the Valley incredibly well after a fifty-year career as a backyard mouser. He knew the secrets cats knew, the hidden paths and the rarely-traveled roads, the forgotten tunnels and the rooftop hideaways.
There was a certain place he knew of, not too many miles distant. A place many cats knew, that literally thousands of them had visited or lived at over the past forty years or so. It used to be a farm-supply depot, a rather remote one, in the dimmest days of Tom’s human memory. During his bobcat years it’d been a small farm itself, or maybe a large garden would’ve been a better description, growing corn and strawberries and selling them all summer long from the property’s original wooden shack. It saw a couple of seasons as a Halloween pumpkin patch in the late 1950s. Then, in the years after that Cuban Missile thing Tom absorbed some news about in passing, the patriarch of the family that owned the place had sunk a bunch of money, literally, into an underground nukeproof bunker in which to wait out an anticipated Apocalypse that never quite came.
The bills for the project kept coming, though, and apparently they’d never gotten paid.
The acreage was abandoned to this day, its future tied up in legal limbo while the original paranoiac’s distant heirs squabbled over their inheritance, none of them even aware, at this point, of the big bomb shelter that had bankrupted the family business so many years ago.
Forty years worth of Valley cats would’ve brought their every half-eaten trophy to these people’s doors in gratitude, if any but Tom had been able to find them by reading a street address. Rumors that the property was soon to be sold off and either developed or reopened as a nursery continued to circulate, but so far they’d come to nothing.
Tom felt certain he could find a way to lead his new protégé out there, even without a voice to guide her. He’d been robbed of his capacity for words along with his living body almost a century ago… although that, too, was another story. One he supposed he’d need to reveal to his new friend, in time, after she’d gotten used to the psychically-projected pictures, sensations, and dreams that were the only vocabulary he had to work with anymore. Their connection would have to be empathic, emotional and visual, as the unfortunate events of Tom’s past had eliminated all verbal options.
But that was all right. The bus line that ran past the market would get them close to the place he meant to take her, and he could fox a goddamn mechanical fare counter. That was easy. Once he got his girl out to the hunting-place, he was pretty sure he’d be able to get them into that subterranean sanctuary, too. He was good at getting into things. They might find food down there, cans, military-style rations maybe, or other packages that required opposable digits to open. It seemed likely enough. The place had been built with the end of the world in mind, and you’d have to expect that survivors would want to eat.
He was surprised by how much better he felt once his small belly was filled with the preservative-laden bovine mash they sold as ‘cat food’ these days. The girl seemed pleased and gratified simply to watch him eat it.
When he was finished Tom looked up at her, his ward, his new best friend, and thought that she had no idea what she’d just bought herself, for the price of a can of processed cowlips.
Copyright © 2010-2012 by Sean Patrick Traver / All Rights Reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.