A miasma of urine, feces, and death wafted around us.
“Mr. Hawkins, are you in there?” Ringing the doorbell again, I yelled louder. “Mr. Hawkins! Open up!” No reply came from the darkened home.
Rapping with the brass knocker produced no effect. I pounded on the door with my fist. “Mr. Hawkins, are you okay? Mr. Hawkins!” A faint, high-pitched sound arose from within—possibly music, maybe a choir singing off-key, a distant ululation of many voices.
“Mike, check the back, and peek in the windows. See what you find.” My voice was hoarse from a rising bile, a sourness from the fetid aroma. I cleared my throat with no success.
“Roger that,” Mike said. His burly form disappeared around the dilapidated building.
A neighbor had not seen Sam Hawkins in several days and had called in a welfare check on him. Mike and I responded from the volunteer firehouse. We weren’t EMTs, but we were nearby, so we drove our department’s aging ambulance over to see if we could help. We brought a firefighter’s axe just in case.
Mike returned. “I can’t see anything, no lights, nothing,” he said. “The shades are drawn, and the back door’s locked. What now, Tom?”
In answer I hefted the axe, ready to swing at the front door, when a voice stopped me.
“Don’t do that!”
A Hobbit lady appeared in a housedress and glasses. White hair and wrinkles pegged her on the far side of sixty. She barely came up to my armpit.
“Use the key, fool,” she said, as she stepped around us to the front garden. The woman stooped and picked up a rock and extracted a key from a hidden compartment inside it. Handing it to me, she muttered, “Just like a man. All balls and no brains.”
Accepting the key, I asked, “Did you call this in, Ma’am?”
“No, I didn’t. There are enough busybodies in this neighborhood already.” She tossed the fake rock on the ground. “I saw the flashing lights and wanted to know what was what. Is there something wrong with Sam?”
“That’s what we’re here to find out. Thank you for your assistance, Ma’am. Now maybe it’d be better if you gave us some space.”
The diminutive woman huffed and backed off to the sidewalk.
“Are you sure you’re ready for this, Tom? Remember last time.”
“We have no choice, Mike. We’re here to help.”
We donned gloves and masks and opened the door. To my horror I saw a room filled with cats. The beasts covered the floor, draped on the furniture, and hung from the curtains. Some were obviously dead. There were Persians, tabbies, calicos, and tigers. They squirmed and writhed and stretched in the dim light, heads turning and tails twitching. The room itself appeared to move, triggering a wave of vertigo. I staggered against the doorframe and clutched at Mike’s arm.
Since childhood I’d had an irrational fear of all things feline. It didn’t matter the size or kind—from Bengal tigers to cuddly kittens, they all terrified me. The uncontrollable fear became a source of shame. I blamed my terror on the animals themselves. Over time the fear evolved into hate.
Overcoming my revulsion I stepped into the house and called out, “Mr. Hawkins, are you there? Mr. Hawkins!” Still no answer.
We entered the roomful of fur, a coliseum of cats, like Christian gladiators surrounded by lions. Several mangy creatures squeezed by us, rubbing on our legs, biting our feet, their tails curling around our ankles. My skin crawled and itched. The space grew smaller. I turned to retreat, but the animals had surrounded us. One animal stood on its hind legs, reaching up and puncturing my thigh with needle-sharp claws. I cursed and kicked it away.
Scores of felines wailed as soon as they saw us. The wailing swelled into a cacophony of meows as the animals cried out to us, apparently starved for food and attention.
A rancid stench enveloped us. We reeled as if punched, gagging from the steamy smell of cat urine, mold, and mildew. Mike turned and retched onto the front porch. Swallowing hard, I squared my shoulders, crooked my arm around my face, and waded ahead through the thick atmosphere.
We picked our way into the crowded house, and plowed through cat bodies, both alive and dead. Each step required effort, like trudging through deep snow in a howling blizzard. Except it wasn’t winter in New England, it was summer in Texas. The house lacked air conditioning, and the stifling air choked each breath. Sweat poured off our brows and stung our eyes as we pressed forward.
We found Sam Hawkins in the bedroom. The stench was stronger there, bordering on putrid. He lay on the bed, naked, covered with yellowish-brown smears. His corpulent body was pale and pasty, and his flesh sagged. The image engraved itself into my memory.
“Explosive diarrhea,” Mike said. He had to shout over the caterwauling animals. “I saw it in Iraq. Check for a pulse. They dehydrate quickly.”
I felt around his fleshy neck for the carotid artery, but without success. Finally, I detected a faint pulse in his wrist.
I keyed the mike on my shoulder. “Dispatch. Rock Harbor Four Two Bravo.”
“Dispatch. Go ahead, Tom.”
“Molly, we need an ambulance at 88 Travis Drive. We have a male Caucasian, approximately forty years old, six-foot, three hundred pounds. He’s presenting a weak pulse, shallow breathing, pale skin, with signs of diarrhea and dehydration.” I choked and coughed. “And send Animal Control. Have them bring both vehicles.” Or several guns and a lot of bullets. “And call in a black-and-white for crowd control.”
Molly promised to send help and disconnected.
“We have to get him out of here!” I yelled over the din, breathing through my mouth.
“We’ll never be able to lift him, Tom.” Mike and I were both ex-military, he an Army Ranger, me a Marine. We were in good shape, but I had to agree.
“You’re right,” I said. “Wrap him in the bedclothes. We’ll drag him out.”
Cocooned in white sheets, Sam Hawkins resembled a bulging chrysalis. We dragged him out headfirst, with me leading. Hawkins’ huge circumference forced us to turn him on his side to get him through the narrow doorway. We strained against his bulk, almost tearing the sheets as we half-lifted, half-dragged his body down the hallway and into the living room. Into the cats.
The body acted as an icebreaker, pushing away cat bodies like ice floes in an arctic sea. One cat hopped onto his inert form, hitching a ride through the chaos. A different animal jumped on my shoulder, another on my head. I yelled and swatted at them, dropping Mr. Hawkins in the process. His head thumped on the floor.
“Watch it, Tom,” Mike said. “Remember he was still alive when we started.”
“I know, I know, but these damn cats give me the heebie-jeebies.”
I did better after that. Cats jumped on me three additional times, and I only dropped Mr. Hawkins once more while knocking them away. As I stepped out the front door, the heebie-jeebies receded.
Out on the front lawn, we unwrapped our bundle, exposing the victim’s head and shoulders. Mr. Hawkins was still alive, although his breath was ragged. There were two contusions on his head that weren’t there before.
By this time the cruiser had arrived, and the officers kept the growing crowd of rubbernecking neighbors at a distance. Using a blanket from our vehicle, Mike provided a modesty screen while I washed Mr. Hawkins down with a garden hose. When the ambulance drove up a few minutes later, we had Sam Hawkins cleaned up, dried off, and wrapped in a fresh blanket.
We both took showers as soon as we returned to the firehouse. I heard Mr. Hawkins survived. I don’t know what happened to the cats.
I arrived home an hour later, drained and exhausted. Abby, my youngest, squealed in delight as I entered the kitchen.
“Daddeeee!” she rushed over and wrapped herself around my leg. “Daddy—come quick! Come see!”
I gave her a hug. “Hi, Pumpkin. How’s my little girl?”
The tow-headed four-year old grabbed my hand and tugged at me. “Come on, Daddy! Hurry!”
I resisted long enough to pause by the stove and kiss Mary before I allowed Abby to drag me into the living room.
A cardboard box sat against one wall. Abby opened the flaps and giggled in delight.
A mass of fur squirmed and writhed and stretched in the dim light, heads turning and tails twitching. Mewling and scratching sounds emanated from the cardboard container. Heebie-jeebies crawled up my spine. I swayed unsteadily and fell to the floor.
Abby screamed. Mary rushed into the room, wiping her hands.
“Abby! Whatever is the matter, Honey? Tom? Tom, are you okay? Tom!”
Cats. I hate cats.