Melanie came home, stripped her uniform off and showered. Managing a restaurant had definitely been taking its toll on her mind, not to mention her soul. But it paid the bills and at least she was no longer just a waitress trying to make ends meet.
After eating another “TV special” and the late night line up faded into paid commercials, she smoked a cigarette on her front porch; the only habit she couldn’t completely break. She had won the battle to stop chewing her nails (she learned to like the taste of Tabasco, thanks to Mom) and stopped tapping her teeth, but this nasty little nervous habit had a way of sneaking back into her daily routine now and again. Especially after a day when shipment arrived for the wrong store, and her store was low on everything and short on help.
Melanie sighed and took a drag from her cigarette—coffin nail, cancer-stick; her mother’s voice screamed from the back of her mind, “No man likes a girl who smokes!”
Melanie vocalized inside her own head, conversing to the voice of her mother. Even in her thoughts, Melanie argued with her.
“Mr. Right-Now doesn’t care about yellow teeth, Mother.”
She started to go over inventory and schedules mentally when she heard the soft lilt of a child’s voice.
Melanie rubbed the bridge of her nose and glanced at her watch.
“Midnight-thirty.” she mumbled, slightly fazed, and then added a bit too loudly, “Hello?”
She felt a bit silly when no reply came, but no porch lights turned on and no one shouted out their windows for her to shut up.
The lilt came again. She didn’t want to tempt a sleep-disturbed wrath so she didn’t holler. She didn’t see a tom-cat but she did approximate where the voice had come from and moved toward it, albeit cautiously. She walked, slightly hunched over, and every time she stepped down on the balls of her feet she couldn’t help thinking about Indian trackers in spaghetti westerns. Her blonde braid fell across her shoulder and swung back and forth next to her ear. She spoke into the dark and tried to communicate to the disembodied voice.
“Does your mommy or daddy know you are out this late?” She came to a stop in front of a house that sat about a block and a half from her own. She hunched over a bit deeper, almost squatting as she moved, worried about being found in pajamas in someone’s front lawn talking to a child that possibly could have been her lack of sleep and stress induced hallucination.
She whispered even lower this time.
The porch light blasted to life and Melanie back peddled to the sidewalk. She felt sick to her stomach and looked down the street at her house. An old woman dressed in a blue flower print robe came to the screen door and opened it.
“Hello, ma’am?” Melanie swallowed again and approached the woman who looked at her with wide cataract eyes and thin drawn lips.
“You better not be getting in my flowerbeds!” She had a light southern drawl to her voice so it all came out, “Yah bettah not be gettin’ in mah flayer beds!” The woman backed away from the screen and half of her faded into the darkness of the house behind her. Melanie stopped and held out her hands.
“I don’t mean to bother you! It’s just...” She swallowed as her thoughts rough-housed. ‘There’s a voice calling out and I think I am crazy!’ Melanie struggled for words.
The woman stared.
“I thought I heard something and thought I would check and make sure everything was okay.” Melanie’s body suddenly drained of strength and for some odd reason, she felt like yawning.
‘My God, I must be overworked! I am standing here in some old lady’s front lawn in the middle of night in my pajamas.’ She rued mentally. Melanie waved and started walking back to her house.
“My sincerest apologies ma’am! I won’t bother you anymore. I’m truly sorry.” She thrust her hands into her pajama pockets and forced herself to look at her feet. She imagined the woman thinking, “What in the hell is wrong with you?” Melanie hoped like mad that the woman wouldn’t call the cops on her. She braved a glance back over her shoulder but the woman was already gone back inside, door firmly shut. After about a minute, the light extinguished. Melanie felt her cheeks burn hot as she raced up the steps to her house.
“You need some serious rest Mel.”
She shook her head and went inside, eager to crawl into bed.
Sometime in the grey hours before full dawn Melanie woke up, unable to go back to sleep. She tried masturbating—sometimes getting off relaxed her just enough to get back to sleep. However, her movements were predictable, she couldn’t think of anything good to get off about (not even that hot new hire at the store), and she lost interest in herself.
“Well, fuck.” She muttered. She stared at her ceiling and blinked before looking at her clock.
“Four o’clock?” She sighed, got out of bed, grabbed her furry pink robe and went into her front room. Coffee wouldn’t brew itself for another half hour and it didn’t sound as good as a cigarette. Melanie grabbed her pack of smokes and shuffled outside.
The breaking-surf sound of rushing cars filled the distance and everything had a dewy layer of moisture on it. She noticed cat paw prints on her windshield. She thought of that tom-cat and looked back to that house where the old woman lived.
“Am I going crazy?” She chattered, trying to smoke and whisper to herself at the same time. She shook her head and snubbed out her cigarette. She stared for a time at the woman’s house. Maybe it was her subconscious trying to tell her that if she doesn’t get going on building a social life she will be the old lady with cats. She completed her thoughts aloud.
“But a child’s voice? Well, old women think of their cats as children, right?”
Then a soft whimper came. Nearly imperceptible and unnoticed by all those who were still in their houses at this hour, but Melanie wasn’t inside her house. It sounded like a child whining.
“Fuck it I’m NOT going back over there.” After the words came out, she sighed.
Melanie went inside, slipped on a pair of house shoes and before she could stop herself, made her way back to the old woman’s house. As soon as she felt the crush of grass beneath her house shoes the child’s voice sang out, but very hushed, “Kitty...kitty...”
Melanie listened and followed this strange voice until she reached a small rectangular basement window that was open to just a slit. She crouched down, careful to not press down stalks of marigolds, daffodils and pansies, and squinted against the darkness. She couldn’t see anything except for a bit of moving shadow and she scooted a bit closer. In doing so, she pressed her hand on something jagged and cried out.
“Shit!” It wasn’t loud enough to echo, but it was loud enough to call a pair of child-like eyes to the window. Melanie gasped and fell back.
“Oh my God.” She clapped a hand over her mouth.
“Kitty...kitty...” The voice was unmistakable. ‘This was the voice she had been hearing!’ Her thoughts were like frightened rabbits scrambling.
“Are you okay?” she managed. The eyes, which had been staring distant, locked on to her and steadied.
“Kitty-kitty.” It was syrupy and sad all at once. Melanie clutched her chest and leaned closer.
“Do you need help little...uh...girl?”
The eyes blinked. Melanie glanced behind her, watching for any signs of the old woman. She looked back to the eyes.
“I’m going to get the police. You hear me?” She was just above a whisper, her teeth chattered. The eyes blinked.
“No.” The child’s voice said. Melanie froze halfway to a stand.
“No? Why not? Are you okay? Is this your... do you...” She couldn’t find the words but the voice started anyway.
“Can you help me?”
Melanie lost her breath a moment and crawled toward the window.
“How old are you honey?” She felt a pang of fear for this child. Her heart hammered in her chest so that every movement seemed to vibrate her entire body. The rushing sound of blood in her ears threatened to drown out everything around her. When Melanie neared the window the child’s eyes moved away and blended into the darkness; Melanie leaned in to whisper between the glass and the ground.
“I’m going to go call the police. If you need help, they’ll--”
The child’s words cut her off before she could finish. Melanie strained to see inside the basement window but could see nothing but dark stains against an even darker background. Something moved inside, the sound of it reminded Melanie of air escaping. Then a smell, a truck stop bathroom smell complete with vomit, assaulted her nose. She gagged a bit and rocked back onto her haunches.
She fought the bile that rose in her throat.
“You poor thing.” She stood and a dark flimsy-appearing tendril snapped out like a frog’s tongue then coiled itself around her arm. It burned her skin and she felt some of her flesh give way beneath its course-sticky grasp.
“Oh fuck! Oh fuck!” was all Melanie could manage to yell out. She tried to grab the sinister vine and remove it from her arm but recoiled. It felt like she was grabbing sandpaper—hot, moist, slightly sticky sandpaper. She stared at it, blinking back tears of pain. Everything around her became blurry.
“Kitty...kitty...kitty.” The child’s voice had a warble in it, as if it was happy but it began to deepen and warp with baritone.
Melanie yelled out as her flesh pulled away and slipped down her arm like a loose piece of clothing. She screamed louder when she saw her own sinew and bones. She tried madly to pull away as the tendril pulled her closer to the window, and her arm felt as if it were slipping free from its socket. She looked up and saw the eyes again. The bluest eyes she had ever seen. They were sparkling and laughing.
Melanie yelped and struggled. More greased tendrils whipped out and found a place upon her body. They tightened like slipknots and yanked her forward. She hit the walls around the window so hard that she almost lost consciousness. Her nose popped out of place and blood gushed, her lips swelled up and she had nearly bitten her tongue off.
It sounded distant, the old woman’s voice, and Melanie tried to look over at the door. She only managed to catch a glimpse of turning sky. The stars were already gone, replaced by citrine stained clouds…bruised and bleeding clouds. Porch lights flicked on, up and down the street.
Melanie reached for the sky and inhaled to scream, but the tendrils tightened their grip around her throat. They snapped her in half as they pulled her through the window. Blood and viscera sprayed the grass, glistening across the trimmed green blades, and oozed from the glass and wood-frame of the window.
Satisfied crunching noises rumbled from it, then a short stumpy olive-colored appendage slid out and moved across the circumference of it; it cleaned up the blood and gristle neat as a whistle, careful to not disturb the flowers that surrounded the window there.
The commotion aroused people enough that, wrapped in house-coats and armed with various morning implements —some dangled toothbrushes from their lips, they ventured to the edge of their porches. A braver few ventured to the edges of their lawns, bodies bent with anxious curiosity. But upon seeing nothing of concern they returned to their routines, a bit grumpy at the disturbance. No one noticed that Melanie’s front door was slightly ajar, or the child’s voice that sang out, low and cheerful in the expanding morning light.