The cats who live in the vacant lot behind the gas station were already trotting out from behind the various scraggly bushes and shrubs. Angela rolled down the window of her beat-up Chevy as she pulled up and inhaled a deep breath of the humid ocean air.
“Selena! Bentley! Honk!” Angela squealed in a pitch reserved solely for cat-culling.
Selena pranced alongside the car, barely avoiding the tires as Angela pulled into her familiar spot. Angela loved her especially, for the cute little crook in her tail and because she was always the first out and mewling when she arrived every day at five. Bentley waddled out and plopped himself on a patch of grass just out of reach and regarded them all with feigned disinterest. Honk, padded up to him and nuzzled him for a moment before getting swatted away.
Angela pitched her voice to yet a higher octave, “Summer! Vamp! Gramps!”
The other cats also kept their distance. Angela was used to this. They never really let her pet them, but their familiarity was enough encouragement. Poor little guys. If she didn’t come out and feed them every day, who knows what would happen to them? She was a sixty-five year old retired school teacher and single, so she welcomed the daily ritual of feeding these neighborhood strays.
Retrieving a plastic food container from her backseat, she sprinkled dry kibbles in several piles. A few of the cats converged immediately. The veterans patiently waited; they knew what was coming. After replacing the dry food container in the car, Angela returned with several cans of wet food which she shook out on top of the dry piles bringing all the cats to the trough.
“Hi guys. Is that good? Numnumnum! Honk, you are hungry today!”
She stood back and hugged herself and looked over her little friends.
As if acknowledging her concern, First Gramps and then Selena both looked up at her and blinked.
Vamp was another of her favorites, the runt with a beautiful gray coat and sharp yellow eyes.
“Vamp! Vampy!?” She called, “Ps-ps-ps-ps-ps!”
Angela scanned the overgrown lot. Weeds and grass sprouted from the cracks in the faded concrete. A line palm trees stood like prison bars against a passing hot breeze. At the far edge of the lot three raccoons, scratching and crunching, fussed over something.
Oh no, Angela thought taking a breath and stepping around the jumble of feasting felines cautiously making for the raccoons.
The low sun glinted off the polished jaguar on Brent’s hood as he waited to turn into the shabby gas station. The Hindemith Sonata he was listening to reached one of its crescendos and he turned it up to properly feel the pulsation of the harmonics. He loved the way the music forced him to take slow deep breaths; it was a meditation on sorrow and despair, but also on beauty.
When traffic allowed, he pulled into the gas station and made his way to the back to view the lot he had just purchased. The gas station was included in the purchase, and the resentful owner inside waved a courteous middle finger at him as he passed by the sooty windows. So it goes, he thought to himself. You ran it into the ground, I’m just the guy with the shovel.
He didn’t recognize the rusty old Chevy as he parked beside it. It certainly wasn’t the owner’s. On his stereo, the piano was jangling its way up a scale in counterpoint with a lilting viola line and he closed his eyes to savor the tension. In his mind he pictured the new mini-golf course which would soon be built on his newly acquired land: The pirate ship, the meandering caves, the mini-adventure culminating in the final round over a pond filled with live alligators. It would be his third, and the grandest of his empire.
Once the sonata had settled itself into the next movement, he opened his eyes and turned down the stereo. In the softening blue of dusk he could still see the image from his mind and he sighed at its imminent beauty. He could even see its first customer striding after her first hole-in-one. Then he realized that he was looking at a real person. A middle-aged woman with a blaze of orange hair was trespassing on his dream.
He killed the ignition and got out of the car. Brent was so fixated on Angela in the distance that he didn’t notice four of the five cats streak away into the underbrush. Gramps, the oldest and most grizzled, trotted away with less fear and stopped just outside a bush to briefly eye the interloper.
“Hey! Excuse me!” Brent yelled, waving as he stepped toward the curb. His fancy leather shoes crunched on an unfamiliar rubble and he leapt back realizing he had stepped one of several piles of stinking cat food.
“What the fuck is this bitch doing?”
Wiping off the scraps as best he could on the grass, he set off after the woman.
Angela had deliberately slowed her pace as she neared the trio of raccoons, but when she got within the sweet and sour pungency of what they were eating, she slowed even further. It smelled of death. The raccoons had noticed her but were trying to cram the last few bites in before retreating. She clapped and stomped at them and they reluctantly hurried away, and she braced herself for the inevitable trauma.
But it wasn’t Vamp. It was a dead cat, but not one she recognized. The remaining matted and bloody fur was long and white, and the cat had been a lot bigger than little Vamp.
The head was missing. Instinctively, she scanned the ground around her and found nothing.
“Excuse me!?” a strange voice called from behind her.
She spun around and saw a lanky man in a poorly-tailored gray suit picking his way toward her.
“You can’t be here. This is private property.” He said, stopping abruptly. He must have finally picked up the scent of the dead cat.
“I’m sorry, I was just looking for a missing cat.” Angela said.
“Your missing cat?” He had pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and was holding it over his mouth.
“Well, not really”
“Are you the one feeding all the strays in the lot?”
She looked him over for a moment before answering. He shifted his weight to an alternate loafer and fixed his hair. “I am.” She said.
“You can’t do that. You’re trespassing on private property.” He turned to walk away expecting her to follow.
“You own this lot?”
“I do,” He said half-turned, “So come one, or I’ll be forced to call the police.”
“What about the dead cat?”
“You said it wasn’t yours. Leave it. Come on. Let’s go!” He clapped his hands. Angela wasn’t sure if she was surprised by the fact that he did it or that she actually responded. Forgetting momentarily about the headless carcass, she followed him.
“You shouldn’t feed stray cats on someone else’s property,” He continued, “It encourages them to stay. And then they breed, and then I have a huge mess on my hands when it’s time to bulldoze.”
They were approaching the center of the lot which hosted a menagerie of assorted detritus: a dismantled baby carriage, some empty milk jugs, a dirty condom like a dried up slug. Brent gave all these items a wide berth as if they were radioactive. He stopped so suddenly that she bumped into him. His cologne smelled worse than the dead cat.
“What do you want?” He said, still looking forward. “Shoo!!”
Looking around him, Angela saw Gramps sitting directly in their path.
“Just keep walking toward him and he’ll run away.” She said.
“I don’t like cats.” As he said this, he turned to walk around Gramps and tripped. As Angela reached forward to steady him there was a creak and then a loud CRACK as his foot broke through a rotten sheet of wood. As he fell forward, he grabbed at her to keep from falling and ended up pulling her on top of him. There was another crash and then they were both tumbling down a steep embankment into a thick darkness full of rocks and roots.
Angela awoke to the sound of Brent’s moaning. It was pitch black and the air was moist. She felt pretty bruised up, but seemed to be able to move all her limbs.
“Are you okay?” She asked in the direction of the moaning.
“No.” He grunted. “I’m pretty sure my leg is broken.”
“How long was I out?”
“Shit if I know. I feel like I’m in a sensory deprivation chamber. What the fuck happened?”
“You fell,” Angela said. “And you decided to take me along for the ride.”
He started moaning again and she crawled slowly in his direction, feeling along the walls and ground. The earth was moist, but not mud, and there was air flow, but she couldn’t tell from where. She finally felt a scrap of his clothes and sidled up to him. When she accidentally bumped his leg she could tell by his sharp yelp that it was indeed broken.
She found she could stand up with a little headroom but still couldn’t see her hand in front of her face. “Sorry. Can you stand?” she asked.
He tried, and screamed, so she got his arm over her shoulder and helped him up, bumping his head in the process.
“Fuck! Watch it.”
She swallowed the impulse to curse him out. “Now what?”
“This way!” A new voice whispered. It sounded like a child.
“Was that you?” Angela asked.
“Hell no it wasn’t me.”
“Hello? Who is that?” She asked the darkness.
“This way. Follow my voice.” The whisper said.
“Where are we?” Angela asked.
“The passage.” The whisper responded.
“What passage? What the fuck?” Brent said. He was sweating and dreaded any movement, especially at the urging of some ethereal child.
“Can’t we just go back up the hill?” Angela asked, starting to feel Brent’s weight on her shoulder.
“It’s completely blocked with debris, and by now the raccoons have started to cover it up. Please, trust me, we have to hurry. I know this passage well. Just follow me and we’ll try to get you out of here safely.” Try? Raccoons?! There was something ominous about the whisper. There was a faint lisp, like a hair lip, and it was impossible to tell how far away it was coming from. But there really wasn’t another option.
“Okay,” Angela said, “You ready?”
“I guess.” Brent replied.
“Come on.” The whisper insisted.
And so Angela, with one hand on the cool earth of the wall and the other around the waist of the tall suit, started lurching forward into the darkness.
“What’s your name?” She asked, as much out of curiosity as to distract him from his evident pain.
“Brent. Witherstein.” He said between drags.
“Great.” He gasped.
“Come on.” The whisper hissed.
For Brent, each step was agony. Little red-headed Angela seemed to be deliberately jostling him and with every lurch forward a hundred nails were simultaneously hammered into his screaming appendage. To distract himself from the pain he attempted to hum the theme from the Hindemith sonata. It took concentration, and that helped.
“Shhh!” The whisper commanded, cutting Brent off. “Try to be quiet. We aren’t safe yet.”
“Where does this passage go?” Angela asked, “Is it far?”
“There are lots of tunnels down here. They are meant to be confusing. He built them to trap outsiders as well as to conceal the inner chamber.”
Angela had too many questions. “And you are leading us out?”
“Yes. Unfortunately we will have to pass through the chamber, but I think it will be empty for awhile still. But we should hurry. Keep moving this way. I’ll be right back.”
There wasn’t any sound, but he could feel the whisper’s absence. They moved along for a few steps and Brent tried to escape to a painless place in his mind. He thought about his Father teaching him to golf when he was young. It’s all about the short game, son, he always said. And so Brent became a great putter, but his drive never quite landed where he intended.
“Grab the wall,” Angela said, breaking his meditation.
“Because you’re heavy and I need a break.”
Brent did as he was told and he could sense her bending down to straighten her spine and then twisting her hips.
“He said we should hurry,” He huffed, wiping the sweat from his brow.
“And then he left us here. In the dark. So we’re taking a break.” Her voice had a soft musical quality to it, like a cello; a little gritty but full and soft. “Maybe you’re less scrupulous than me, but I’m a little freaked out right now.” She said softly.
“I’m the one with the broken leg”
“And maybe you’re in shock or something. That voice could be anyone. It could be leading us anywhere. It said that raccoons were preventing our escape.” It sounded like she was chewing her fingers. Then she spit. “Doesn’t any of this bother you?” She asked.
“We don’t have much of a choice right now, do we?”
“Quiet!” The whisper commanded suddenly. In the distance there was a clanking sound, like someone opening a door, followed by some soft moaning. Angela held her breath. Brent did the same. Then the jingling and clank came again followed by the thick familiar silence.
The three of them remained there listening for a good fifteen minutes. A cold sweat clung Brent’s clothes to his shivering body.
The whisper again broke the silence, “Okay—“
Angela broke him off, “Now wait. Before we go any further, you need to tell us who you are and why you’re helping us.” She paused, feeling out of breath, “And how you even knew we were down here.”
The question hung in the air for a long moment. Brent attempted to shift his weight and again felt the electric hammer of pain ricochet up his body.
“I saw you fall. And I ran down another route to find you.” The whisper said calmly.
“You saw us in the lot?” Angela asked.
“Your friend looked right at me before he broke through the door.”
The answer was staring them in their face, but in the darkness it was impossible to accept the implication.
“All I saw was a stupid cat.” Brent grunted.
“I’m not the one who fell down the hole.” The cat whispered.
“Gramps?” Angela asked, “You’re a talking cat?”
“If you don’t mind calling me Griff, I’d be much obliged. You’ve been so kind to come and feed me and my family every day this past year, I didn’t give a second thought to coming down here to help you. Lean down and put out your hand”
Angela was at a loss for words, but she did as she was told—for the third time today, she noted silently. In the complete darkness she suddenly felt the soft fur of a cat brush her hand, it was the same kind of greeting her own cats would give her when she came home and when she fed them. “Holy shit,” she said.
“Really? We’re being led through a dark passage by a talking cat?” Brent was still leaning against the wall attempting to move as little as possible. “Maybe I am in shock.”
The cat chimed in, still speaking very softly, “This is a very dangerous place. We’re about to get into some light, so whether you believe me or not will soon be a moot point.”
“And how did you know my name?” Angela asked.
“I’ll get into that later. Right now, we should move. Are you ready?”
Angela felt for Brent’s arm and gently shifted his weight onto her shoulder before lunging forward again with heavy steps.
“Be careful,” Griff said, “There’s a sharp turn up ahead. You’ll see the light to your left.”
And indeed after a few more steps she could see a faint yellow glow on the wall ahead and on the edge of the corner. The light was gradual so their eyes had time to adjust. After turning the corner, about twenty feet ahead was a chamber lit with soft yellow light, and trotting ahead of them was Gramps, the talking cat who evidently preferred to be called ‘Griff.”
“No shit,” Brent grunted.
I wish there was some way I could have warned them, Griff thought to himself as they moved toward the chamber. But I couldn’t have anticipated Brent’s trip.
He stopped and looked back at the two clumsy humans. Brent’s injury was slowing them down significantly, but there were some things in the chamber that might work well for a splint.
Angela was staring at him as he knew she would. Human’s didn’t take well to animals adopting there language. He wasn’t enjoying it so much himself; it made his mouth feel funny. A necessary sacrifice.
When they got to the chamber, Angela sat Brent down on a wood bench along the nearest wall and they both stared around the subterranean chamber. The dirt walls and ceiling were supported by a criss-cross of ancient two by fours. The light was generated by two hanging Edison bulbs connected to a wind-up generator. Dark tunnels led off in four directions. In the middle of the room was a steel operating table like what would be seen at a vet’s office. An adjacent rolling table had a set of operating blades, sutures, needles, etc. In the corner stood a large cabinet with glass panes revealing an assortment of bottles and jars inside. Lining the opposite wall was an array of six medium-sized cages. In one of the cages was a very large sleeping raccoon.
“She’s pregnant.” Griff said noticing Angela’s stare. “He has her sedated to keep her from trying to escape. Some instincts are impossible to subdue.”
“Who?” Angela asked.
“William. The gas station owner.”
This brought Brent back to attention. “Willy? What are you talking about? This hole belongs to him?”
Griff nodded. “William was a prominent biologist in Nigeria. But when he moved here with his wife, none of his credentials were accepted. His uncle passed away and left him this gas station, and he built this lab so he could continue his experiments.”
“Like teaching cats to talk?” Brent growled.
Griff hopped up on the operating table and looked Brent in the eyes. “His wife was diagnosed with Parkinson’s about ten years ago and has slowly developed a form of dementia which convolutes her speech. Out of desperation William built this lab and began experimenting on our vocal chords and lingual muscles. He also stimulated an enzyme production in what he identified as the speech centers our brains. I was the first. Selena and Vamp can speak as well.”
“Where is Vamp?” Angela asked, remembering the missing kitten.
“I don’t know,” Griff said. “She disappeared sometime last night.”
Angela considered this and looked around the makeshift lab. “What’s with the Raccoons?”
Griff looked towards a pile of rubble in the corner. “There’s a broken chair over there. You can use that and some of the medical supplies to make a splint for Brent. I would like to be able to move faster if we can.”
Brent had his eyes closed, apparently trying to conserve his strength and control the pain. Angela walked over to the corner and began to sift through the refuse. “You didn’t answer my question.” She found an intact chair leg and then walked over to the cabinet and began searching the drawers for a binding material.
Griff was watching one of the tunnels anxiously. “The raccoons were a mistake. They were the first round of experiments, and William accidentally over-stimulated them and triggered a sort of psychosis. He has them trained, but they are prone to aggressive fits and lingual tics. They are very territorial about this lab. They see themselves as having been reborn here and the doctor is their god. They’ll be after us soon enough.”
Angela had found some bandages and was fixing the table leg to Brent’s broken fibula. He whimpered in as manly a way as he could. Angela stood up and looked at Griff.
“Okay, so we’ve got some rabid raccoons after us. Is that all?”
“That’s enough for now. Are you ready, Brent? We may need to move faster in this next portion.”
“How do you even know my name?” Brent asked. “I never told you. Angela never said it.”
Griff sighed. Angela had never seen a cat sigh before and wondered what it meant that this one could sigh.
The cat again looked directly at Brent, “Cats are naturally telepathic. Some more and some less. I am quite adept at reading humans’ minds, and combined with my acquired predilection towards your language, it makes me quite special indeed.”
They all looked around at each other for a moment. Griff admired how well the humans were taking it.
“Just get me out of here.” Brent said, reaching out so Angela could help him up.
Griff looked down the passage that would lead them out and strained to hear the telltale scratching and cursing that would forewarn the raccoons’ approach. For the time being there was only Brent’s raspy breathing.
Brent appropriated a thick wood dowel from the refuse pile as a cane and was hobbling along unaided. Angela walked closer to Griff whose tail was low and ears back.
“Are the raccoons really dangerous?” Angela asked.
“It’s amazing what happens to an animal’s brain when it is suddenly thrust into the field of language. It learns and develops words for things it hasn’t had the proper time to consider and understand. With this frustrating advancement comes an awareness of inferiority, and, for the feisty brutes Nature engineered raccoons to be, one hell of a Napoleon complex.”
The passage had gone completely dark again and Angela slowed to help Brent avoid knocking into the walls. She grabbed his free hand to lead him. It was cold and clammy and, though she felt bad for him, she couldn’t wait to let it go.
“But you and the other cats don’t have that?” She asked.
“We were spared the psychosis after William adjusted the experiment, and, as I have indicated, we’re quite different from raccoons.” Griff flicked his ears around and sniffed the air. “Someone’s coming,” He hissed. Quick, there are two rooms just ahead. We’ll duck into the one on the right.”
She pulled Brent along and felt for the handle on the the right. Up ahead and around a curve a light was approaching.
“Easy! Easy!” Brent wheezed.
Finding the handle, she pushed open the door into what seemed to be an even deeper darkness. For the second time that day the scent of death filled her lungs and she fought the urge to wretch.
“Get in! Get in and close the door!” Griff said. “Softly!”
They rushed into the darkness and Angela closed the door, holding her breath against the effluvium hanging in the air. Moments later, the light emanated under the crack of the door. Angela covered her mouth with her shirt and tried to take a few deep breaths to calm down.
Outside the door they heard keys jangle and a door opening and then the light got dimmer. There was a deep muffled voice mumbling and cooing unintelligibly. Angela held her breath and tried to make out some words to no avail. Then for a moment it fell completely silent. They all watched the light at the bottom of the door for movement but everything was completely still.
Then a loud moan, a clearly feminine howl, broke through the silence. It was a wretched sound, like a dog with a broken leg being trampled on. The voice murmured something encouraging, but the howl again overtook it.Goosebumps sprang down Angela’s back. In the darkness, Brent sounded like he was crying softly. Griff padded over and pushed his body against Brent’s good leg to comfort him.
The alternating murmurs and howls continued for another ten minutes before silence again took hold. The light got brighter outside their door and they heard the door across the passage close and lock, and then the light began to fade into the distance.
“What the fuck was that?” Angela whispered.
“William’s wife.” Griff replied.
They waited for a few minutes in silence before quietly exiting the room they had holed up in. Both Brent and Angela gasped at the clean air. Griff sniffed at the darkness.
“Come on. He’ll be back soon,” Griff said.
“And just leave her here? She sounded like she was in pain.” Angela was already feeling for the knob on the opposite door.
“You can’t help her. Not here. Not now,” Griff said attempting to sound like a rational cat. “Once we get you and Brent to safety you can decide what of this ordeal you wish to share with the authorities.”
“He’s right,” Brent grunted. “I can’t help you. We can’t even see. We should just get the hell out of this nightmare.”
“No.” Angela said, trying her shoulder on the door. Behind it a fait yelp was heard. “I’m not leaving her down here. She can follow us out too.”
“It’s not a good idea,” Griff said.
“Everyone said that about feeding you guys, too.” She shouldered the door again a little harder, “But here you are saving my life.” Not making much progress with her shoulder she took a step back and felt for the knob with her shoe. Bracing herself against the other door, she gave a good kick just below the knob and the door swung open. Inside, there was more soft orange light from a single Edison bulb. Angela stepped inside. Brent hobbled in reluctantly behind her.
The room was a paradox: Bright flowery sheets were rumpled and filthy on the bed. A beautiful wood dresser had been jostled away from one wall and beautiful dresses were spilled across the dirt floor. On the ground near it a broken mirror reflected the jaundiced light. There was an untouched plate of nachos and hot dogs on the floor by the bed. Facing the far corner, a woman huddled shivering in the shadows. Her shaved head revealed fresh stitches along the base of her skull.
“Be careful,” Griff said from the door. “Her treatment is ongoing, and she still suffers psychosis from the first round of experiments. William is still trying to fix her.”
Fix her? Angela slowly approached the poor woman. “Miss? Are you okay? We can help you leave here.” She inched forward until she was in arm’s length of her. “Miss?”
The woman violently whipped around and grabbed Angela forcing her back a few paces knocking into Brent. Brent yelped and caught himself on the bed. The woman screamed a garbled incantation and clawed at Angela’s face with black fingernails, her eyes were rolled upward as if she were trying to peer into the garbled mechanics of her brain. Angela put her arms up but ended up falling back with William’s wife on top of her,.
“Help me!” Angela screamed.
Griff maintained his distance, but Brent managed to right himself and hobble over to them. Bracing himself, he raised his makeshift cane and brought it down hard on William’s wife’s head. She collapsed immediately and Angela pushed her away and got up shakily.
“Can we go now?” Griff asked from the doorway.
The door was broken but Angela closed it as best she could. Brent admired her courage; he would have left the mystery of the woman behind, partially because he was wounded, but also because he was still crippled by a cowardice that he had only recently begun to grudgingly acknowledge.
“There are stairs up here,” Griff said. “Be careful.”
Angela and Brent found them and Angela very carefully helped Brent with the painstaking ascent. They reached a landing and, coming around to the second flight, could make out a crack of bright light at the top.
“Where does this lead?” Angela asked.
“The back room of the gas station.” Griff said. He was sitting at the top step now sniffing at the bottom of the door. “We’re not safe yet. He’s fed her, but he could come back any moment.”
When they made it up the second flight, Angela pushed open the door and helped Brent up into the fluorescent light of the gas station’s back room. The buzzing of refrigerators greeted them as well as the smell of dirty mop water.
There were two doors. One led to the main room of the station, the other led out back to the dumpsters. Angela and Brent went for the back door. Griff snuck to the interior door and peeked inside. William was at the counter helping a customer. With a sigh of relief he joined Brent and Angela as they stepped outside.
The short alley was framed by the back wall of the station and the chain-link dumpster enclosure. A door-size gate hung open at the far end. It was night now and eerie green gas station light emphasized the grime splattered on every surface. Brent could see their cars just across the lot and felt a frantic sense of relief fluttering up inside him. He caught Angela looking at him and they shared a smile. She looked like hell, but he couldn’t imagine he looked any better.
They had only gone a few steps down the alley when three high-pitched scratchy voices froze them in their tracks.
“Fuckin’! Kill. Bitch!” “Master Bastard Faster!” “Shutup.ShutUP.SHUTSHUTup.”
Three raccoons came around the corner and blocked the path to the car. The smallest one stepped in front of the other two who hissed and started running around in looping circles.
“FUCKin right! Gotcha knew you’d SHIT be showin’!”
The two behind him tittered like comic book cronies as they continued to lope over and around each other like fuzzy electrons around a cursing nucleus.
Angela stepped forward and stomped and clapped as she had earlier in the day, but they made no move to flee. Instead, one of the cronies leaped at her and sliced her on the forearm. She hadn’t noticed they were all carrying razorblades cushioned on one side with duct tape, like prison weapons. She retreated to her friends and the raccoons took a step further into the alley.
“I probably should have warned you about that,” Griff muttered as they withdrew slightly.
“They’re just three stupid raccoons. Take this stick,” Brent said, handing her his cane.
“Big stick JERKoff.” The small one said and the other two instantly stopped their frenetic scampering. They all stared at the advancing Angela for a second before tittering and retreating outside the gate and disappearing.
Angela lowered the cane she had been brandishing and looked back at her comrades.
“That was easy,” she said.
A loud BANG from behind her caused her to jump and spin. The leader raccoon had leapt on the gate and swung it closed. His little hand then clamped shut a padlock that had been hanging loosely on it.
Behind the small raccoon, who seemed to be giving them the finger, the other two raccoons had reared up and were flinging sharp rocks over the gate at them. Suddenly Angela felt like she had been punched with a small hammer. She reached up to her cheek and her hand came away slick with warm blood. The leader raccoon leapt down and joined his thrashing brothers.
Angela grabbed Brent and they all hurried back inside and locked the door behind them. Outside a slew of muffled curses could be heard as well as scratching and scraping on the door.
William just happened to be in the back room when they entered. He tilted his head slightly, taking in the scene: a dirty man with a broken leg and a dirty bleeding woman.
“What are you doing back here?” He demanded.
From behind a shelving unit Gramps watched to see what would happen. He knew he could sneak out later if they could somehow talk their way out of it. The raccoons had ceased their noise at the sound of William’s voice and it was unclear if he had heard them.
“Brent? Are you okay?” William asked, suddenly recognizing the man who had bought his property. “What happened to you? Who is this woman?”
“I’m fine,” Brent said quickly. “We, uhm, had an accident in the lot out back.”
“In the lot? Oh My Goodness. What were you doing out there?” William asked, pulling out a chair for him. “Here, sit down. Miss? Are you okay? Your cheek is bleeding!”
“I’m fine,” she said, but William was already grabbing a roll of paper towels for her to press on her wound.
“Please,” he said. “Do you want a proper bandage?”
“I’m fine,” she repeated, not knowing what else to say, but William darted from the back room to get some bandage for them. She looked at Brent. “What should we do?!” she said.
Before Brent could respond, William was back waiving an array of first aid materials from his gas station shelves.
“What happened to you two?” he asked with true concern. “Have you called the police?”
Brent shot a look at Angela indicating that he would do the talking, but before he could begin, from the hidden door to the passage came a faint moan and a shuffling sound. William’s eyes got wide as cue balls and he slowly turned his head toward the false cabinet that hid the stairs to his secret chamber. They all froze.
The door to the cabinet blew open and William’s wife tumbled out emitting a shrieking moan that would haunt Brent and Angela for years to come. She flailed at William who began pleading her name, “Lucy! Lucy, no!”
Griff darted to the main store breaking the temporary trance that had frozen Angela and Brent in place and they got up to quickly follow him.
As they exited,William was wrestling for control of his frantic wife, cradling her and cooing her name. As the door shut, Angela looked back and caught him giving her the most evil look she had received in her life.
The main room of the gas station was quiet and empty as they scrambled to the front door. Griff took the lead as Angela helped Brent along. He zig-zagged through the candy aisle past rows of colorful snacks and was swinging around the counter when he suddenly stopped.
Sitting just inside the door were the three raccoons. The leader was standing on the two others shoulders and had just hung a “Closed” sign in the window. He slid the deadbolt in the glass door into place.
“Bitches TRAPped. Pray to God! GOD!” The raccoon screeched.
He leapt down and the two lesser raccoons began their manic scramble around him again. It was a swirl of gnashing, tittering fur, accented by the intermittent clicking of razor blades on the tile floor.
Angela and Brent stepped out of the aisle and emitted a few curses themselves. In the back room a loud BANG made their hearts jump and the raccoons titter louder. Griff darted behind the counter.
William’s voice erupted from behind them. “Be careful,” he said, stepping into the main room of the store. “They’ll slice you up good. They know about the Achille’s tendon. They also know where your largest arteries run. They are smarter than they appear, I’m afraid.”
Behind the counter, Griff found Vamp in a cat carrier held closed with a piece of twine. Vamp blinked his eyes slowly in a greeting thinking, I knew you’d find me.
And just in the nick of time, Griff replied silently before setting to work gnawing through the twine.
Brent backed up to the counter and Angela stepped back to join him. She was scanning every surface for a potential weapon.
“You should let us go,” she said. “This can only get worse for you.”
“Worse for me?!” William laughed, flailing his hands in the air above him, one of which gripped a small revolver. “Everything I have experienced in this country has been worse for me! You two cannot fathom the horrendous turns my life has taken since I immigrated here.”
He walked toward them slowly through the far aisle. Behind him hung giant ads for beer and cigarettes.
“In Nigeria I was a doctor!” He shouted, eyes wide and nostrils flared. They could make out the glistening lines of tears running down his cheeks. “But here,” he continued, “I work in a gas station.”
Brent tried to interject, “William—”
“Don’t say my name!” William screamed as he stepped out of the aisle and pointed the gun at Brent. “Because of you I don’t even have this shitty store.” He took a deep breath and wiped his face with the back of his arm. “Because of you,” his voice broke, “I don’t even have my beautiful Lucy.”
As William advanced on them from one side, so too did the raccoons from the other. Brent and Angela had nowhere to go.
William shook his head, “When you hit the bottom you think that ‘worse’ becomes an invalid word. You stare at the mud floor and the dirt walls, you speak to your silent wife and hear only animal noises, you breathe gas fumes every day and sell crap food to ignorant people who treat you like a fool, and you think you have already arrived at ‘worse.’ But it seems the journey never ends.”
Griff jumped up on the counter. “It wasn’t their fault, William,” he said. “The fell down a hole in the lot. I was trying to lead them out when they heard you wife and wanted to help her.”
“No one can help my wife,” he said, lowering his gun. “I see that now. But I had to try. Even with my pathetic third-world degree I could have still done something with my life.”
“You did something for us.” Griff said with a swish of his tail.
William stopped walking as if struck by this. The raccoons also paused, panting. Suddenly, Vamp lept from behind a snack aisle onto William’s head, clawing at his face and eyes. William dropped his gun and punched at the cat. Griff hissed and bounded to help Vamp.
Seizing the opportunity, Angela grabbed Brent’s cane again and swung it at the dumbstruck raccoons knocking the leader across the floor like a furry tumbleweed. The other two converged on her. She swung at one of them and missed. The other one went for her heel with a blade, but Brent pushed a cooler off the counter hitting him and sending him scrambling. Angela’s second swing at the other raccoon connected and sent him rolling up an adjacent aisle squealing and cursing.
“Come on!” She said, reaching for Brent and hauling him towards the door. As he unlocked it, she turned to ward off the one remaining raccoon. In the back, the cats’ tag team assault had left William’s body a web of scratches and tears and his face a bloody mess. He was fumbling blindly for the gun as the cats together pounced on the remaining raccoon. They screeched and squealed in a tumble of fur and claws as Brent and Angela finally stumbled out into the front lot.
As they hobbled across the parking lot to hail some help, a second shot rang out behind them.
Angela ducked and sent Brent sprawling. When his broken leg connected hard with the concrete his wail was as animal as any of the sounds they had heard that day. Angela looked over her shoulder expecting to see William shooting at them. Instead saw the Griff and Vamp bounding toward them.
“He’s dead.” Griff said.
“Are you okay?” Vamp asked, looking them over.
Hours later, when the ambulance and the police arrived, Brent and Angela were told that William had shot his wife and then himself. Brent and Angela recounted their story of falling down the hole in the lot and the ensuing nightmare. It wasn’t difficult to leave out the part of the talking cats and their aid.
As Angela was getting checked out in the back of one of the two ambulances, a detective from the police precinct stuck his head in.
“Hey. Can I ask you one more question?” He asked, brows raised.
“What’s the deal with the three dead raccoons?”
Angela took a deep breath and shrugged.
“Ask Brent,” she said.