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Under The Rug
Grumps is a simple man. There are two things in the world that Grumps loves: himself and his apartment. There are two things in the world that Grumps hates, one is peanut butter and the other is cats. Yes cats, Grumps hates their softness and their purrs, and how they always seem happy. Grumps does not like happy things, which is why the children call him Grumps. He had a real name once, a name like you and I have, but Grumps is so old that there is no one left around to call him by it.
Grumps has a simple routine. He wakes up in the morning and has a bowl of cereal (none other than Captain Crunch) and then he cleans his apartment. He alphabetizes his books and vacuums his carpet. He dusts his windowsills and makes his bed. At some point, he will stop for lunch, and then clean some more. Then at four o’clock sharp, he puts down his supplies, eats dinner, and reads until 9:30 when he goes to bed. Not much else happens in Grumps’ life. He has no pictures on his walls, and no T.V. in front of his couch, and he never, ever, reads the newspaper. Grumps does not care what people are doing in the world, he cares only for himself and his apartment, his beautiful apartment.
One evening, at 7:54 pm while Grumps reads his book, he hears a strange noise. A noise he does not like. A noise that brings only one word to his mind. Ghost! Grumps gets up from his comfortable leather chair, his book still in his hand. He picks up an old wooden broom, and walks around the corner to where he heard the noise. As Grumps turns the corner, his ancient heart nearly stops beating. Grumps has never believed in ghosts, but he has never not believed in ghosts either. He has never really cared one way or another. What he sees now assures Grumps that there are in fact ghosts. A small, squirrel-sized lump wriggles around under his rug. Every few moments it lets out a thin wail that makes the back of Grumps neck prickle unpleasantly. As this creature, this ghost goes on wriggling and wailing, Grumps finds that he is afraid. Grumps has only been afraid once before. Only once. He was nine, his mother died. He was afraid. Now fear makes him reckless. Book and broom alike fall from his hands, clattering noisily on the floor. Grumps runs, and picks up one of his chairs. Swinging it high over his balding head he brings it down hard on the lump. “CRASH! CRACK!” Grumps almost doesn’t notice as a nearby lamp shatters, and as one of the legs of his chair falls off. The lump lets out a shriek, a sound that Grumps is sure only a dying demon can make, before it lies still. Feeling triumphant, Grumps peels back the edge of his rug to reveal… a kitten! “NO!” Grumps is incredulous. A cat! In his apartment! How can this be? Grumps reaches down, and gathers the little creature in his hands. He shakes it by the scruff, waiting for it to make a noise, when he really gets a good look at it. It is light orange with darker ginger stripes. It has a little tabby tail that swings limply below it. It has a strange looking dent in its tiny back. And worst of all its eyes, clear blue glassy eyes, don’t blink. Grumps knows the cat is dead. He also knows, though he doesn’t want to admit it, that by hitting it he has killed this cat. He tells himself it was an accident. He tells himself that he doesn’t care. He tells himself it’s okay because he hates cats, and now there’s one less in the world. But Grumps knows it is not okay. Grumps may not like cats, but he doesn’t want them to die! He doesn’t want anything to die, not after his mother.
Grumps opens a window and looks below him. An alley with a large green dumpster sits 50 feet down. The air that hits him is cool and refreshing, Grumps has not been out of his apartment in over a week. Picking up the kitten again he tosses it out the window, hearing a little “thump” as it hits the garbage in the dumpster. He is about to close the window when he hears a pitiful meow. Looking down, wondering if the cat has somehow come back to life, he sees a new gray kitten stumble into the alley. He shuts the window quickly. Grumps has had enough cat trouble for one day. For the first time in years, Grumps goes to bed before 9:30. As he lies in his warm bed, Grumps tries to let go, tries to forget the creature he killed. The next morning, as Grumps chokes down his Captain Crunch, he tells himself he will never have to worry about that kitten again. Grumps is wrong. Two weeks pass, and it happens again.
It is 7:54 pm. Grumps hears a strange noise. A noise he does not like. A noise that brings only one, haunting word to his mind. Cat! Grumps gets up and puts down his book. He takes a deep breath, promising himself that he is just re-living the horrible event. The event that still burns in his mind. The event that haunts his dreams, the event that has him waking up in the middle of every night. The Event. Grumps turns the corner, already knowing what he will see. There it is, the lump, just like before. Grumps does not pick up a broom, or a chair. He does not break a lamp, or drop a book. Grumps simply walks to where the lump is, and peels back the carpet. The kitten is silver now, but it is unmistakably the kitten Grumps hit. He knows. He knows because as he pulls away the carpet, the kitten turns its eyes to him. The eyes that Grumps knows he will never forget, ever. The sightless blue eyes of the ginger tabby kitten. Only this time Grumps cannot kill the cat, this time the cat really is a ghost. Grumps stumbles backwards, tripping over a table, and landing painfully on his hind side. The kitten is on its feet now. Its fur is fluffed and it hisses menacingly. Then it lunges. Tiny, razor-sharp claws rake down Grumps’ arm, and he howls in pain. The kitten is regrouping, getting ready to spring again. Grumps can see the cold need for revenge in its ice colored eyes. It crouches low, when suddenly, a flash of bright, brilliant white slams into it, and the two go rolling across the floor. As they skid to a halt Grumps sees that the flash of white is not a flash at all, but another slightly larger ghost cat. It pins down the furiously struggling kitten and appears to be whispering something in the kitten’s ear, until the kitten stops struggling. The cat steps off the kitten, who pulls himself to his little silver paws, and the two slowly make their way over to Grumps. He is trembling like a leaf in the autumn breeze that blows outside his apartment.
“What is your name” a voice as clear and sweet as honey flows from the older cat’s mouth. Somehow this does not surprise Grumps. Grumps is done with surprise.
“Grumps.” Okay, so maybe Grumps is not completely finished with surprise. He is shocked at the sound of his own voice. Grumps cannot remember the last time he heard it. It must have been years ago.
“What is your name?” the cat asks again, “Your name. Not what they call you, your real name.”
Grumps has to think hard before answering, “Tom.” The word is strange on his tongue. It has been so long since he used it. Since anyone used it.
“Why?” it is a simple question. The kitten’s word rings in Grumps’s ears. It could be asking why to anything, but Grumps knows what the kitten is asking. Why did you kill me? He shrugs, unable to answer.
“You can make it up,” the white cat tells him, “Go to the alley. You will know what to do,” and then the two glimmering cats are gone.
Grumps is in the alley now, and he hears it. The meow he heard on the night he put the tabby kitten in the dumpster. The mew of a kitten. He sees the little gray kitten, huddled in a corner and finds that the white ghost cat is right, that he knows what he must do. He picks up the shivering creature and starts back up the stairs to his apartment. As he does so, he turns to look at the little kitten, and something swirls in his heart, and the cold that has clenched it for so long softens, just a little. “Maybe kittens aren’t so bad after all,” he thinks.
“Do you need a home little one?” he whispers. As if in answer, the little cat stretches up to lick his cheek, and for the first time he can remember, Grumps smiles.