A cat has developed an unhealthy relationship with a miniature Christmas village...
The tiny town, sprawled over a layer of freshly-fallen cotton snow, was picturesque and precise in almost every detail. Anne, his late-wife, had hand-painted each house, building and figurine with a care that had approached love. The result was an almost exact replica of the Anderson’s neighborhood, and an apt testament, Walter believed, to a woman who had lived her life seeking out, and nurturing, the beauty in others. Just looking at the festive tableau gave Walter a feeling of real joy.
It had, that is, until about a week ago- until the business with Snowflake had started...
Walter closed the door to the elements. He doffed his overcoat, hung it on the coat-rack in the corner. This done, he retrieved his cane and limped over to his favorite chair. He let out a great sigh as he half-sat/half-collapsed into the plush recliner.
From the direction of the kitchen, the tingle of a lone jingle-bell. Walter looked up to see his late-wife’s white, long-haired tabby round the corner. The cat padded a few steps into the living room and paused. It looked up at the festive display of miniatures.
Don’t, Walter thought in the cat’s direction, Don’t you do it…
The cat looked at Walter. It looked back at the village...took a tentative step toward the unsuspecting hamlet...
“Don’t…” Walter said. The cat paused for an instant. It took another two steps, reared back on its haunches.
“I said don’t!” Walter seized the remote-control on the table beside him and threw it at the cat. The device landed just in front of the surprised animal. It bounced, it’s double-A batteries flying off in opposite directions. Snowflake leapt back and away from the commotion, turned and fled the room.
Walter Anderson put his face into his hands, which were shaking. He cried.
You need to tell somebody he thought.
And he would. Probably. People in their late seventies, Walter had learned, have to be careful about what they say. Even small, insignificant lapses of memory- the sort that people of all ages experience every day- are suddenly chalked up as evidence of senility, or worse.
As such, he’d resisted the urge to tell someone- anyone- what was going on in his home. His son and two daughters loved him, he knew- but they wouldn’t believe him. He might just as well call and ask to be placed in a nursing home, or whatever euphemism was being bandied about these days. Last he’d heard, death’s waiting rooms were being billed as “elder-care communities.”
Now, though, Walter needed to tell someone. Now two people had died.
The person he wanted to tell, the person he judged would give him the most objective hearing, was James Lanford. His friend and former colleague was a serious fellow, but he was an open-minded, kind man. All the same, the thought of looking his friend in the eye (because this was the sort of conversation Walter was not about to have over the telephone) and telling him the truth seemed ridiculous. It made the whole situation seem ridiculous- and Walter supposed that it would be... if people weren’t dying.
Hey Jim, how the hell are you, pal? And the wife, and kids? I’m so glad to hear it! Hey, can I tell you that my cat thinks he’s the planchette on Death’s Ouija Board? Oh, and Death is one sick fuck, apparently, because he’s using my late-wife’s Christmas Village for the purpose…
Okay, so maybe he wouldn’t tell Jim Lanford. Yet. Maybe he’d wait until after supper, and then decide what to do. Maybe he’d have a snort after dinner as well. He had just been to a wake, after all…
A full-stomach and two-fingers of Irish whiskey later, and Walter was feeling considerably better. He limped and winced his way from the kitchen into the living room, a finger’s worth of golden spirits sloshing in his glass. He turned and let his rear fall into the embrace of his favorite chair.
He eyed the village. The coast was clear, for now. Miniature sledders, carolers and townspeople were safe, for the moment.
Walter took a sip of his whiskey. He luxuriated in the taste, in the warmth that spread up from his stomach to soothe his chest and his limbs. He placed the tumbler on the table beside him.
He listened a moment, seeking out the sound of Snowflake’s bell. Satisfied, he reached for the remote he’d thrown across the room. Stupid old man, he thought. With a grunt and an effort he hoisted himself out of his chair to retrieve the device and its batteries. That done, he sat, listened once more for the cat. He turned on the seven o’clock news.
Not tonight, Snowflake. I’ll dismantle this village before I let you near it again, buddy…
Of course, that was it! Why hadn’t he thought of that sooner? That was what he’d do. What he had to do. He’d dismantle and store the village...
Walter yawned and stretched. He opened his eyes. And following hard upon:
Asleep! You fell asleep!
He sat up in his chair, winced as his hip cried out an objection. He looked for the clock on the nightstand, but it wasn’t there. Realizing, in an instant, where he was and why he was there, Walter’s stomach did a flip in his abdomen. The Christmas village…Snowflake!
Walter turned and saw exactly what he was hoping not to see. There, hovering in the midst of the idyllic, Saturday-Evening-Post-cover of a small ceramic town, was his late-wife’s cat. Ridiculously out of scale, it looked every bit the camp science-fiction, or horror-movie, monster.
“Oh...oh, Snowflake,” he heard himself say. “Oh, no…”
Snowflake looked over, unmoved. Walter limped the few steps over to the display.
Each time the cat had marked a house in the village, which had been twice now, the animal had become enthralled- obsessed really- with the ceramic replica first. It would react to unseen actions on the part of the inanimate object. Now, Walter could see that the cat had positioned itself between two of the miniature houses. Perhaps Snowflake had not yet had the time to perform his bizarre ritual. Maybe Walter had come awake in time to stop the animal…
“Get down!” Walter rarely, if ever, yelled. The cat fled the village. Silently, the townspeople rejoiced. Walter had exorcised the demon...
Or perhaps he hadn’t. The muscles in the old man’s throat tightened in a familiar, if unwelcome way. The red house beside the small church had been scratched- savaged, really- to the point where all that remained of its paint were a few errant stripes of red that vanished and reappeared as they saw fit. Walter stared with disbelief at the the deep grooves the animal had shaved into the ceramic. He felt an instant of pity for his wife’s cat- his cat, now, he thought. The poor creature had to have felt that…
Again, the old man cried. Was this really happening? Was it even possible that something like this could be happening? And, more troubling still, was that the reason he’d been unable to bring himself to tell anyone? Because he knew, deep down, that this was insane- that he, himself, had gone insane- and that all that was left for it was a one-way ticket to one of death’s waiting-rooms?
Pull it together, Anderson...
Walter took a deep breath. He looked at the clock on the cable-box. It was two-twenty in the morning, far too late to place a phone call. And at any rate, what would he say? Hi, this is Walter Anderson from down the road. My cat seems to think you should get out of town for a while, for your own health. That would accomplish nothing, and perhaps even motivate his neighbor to reach out to one of Walter’s children…
His gaze wandered, seemingly of its own volition, back to the village. The house Snowflake had marked (or its life-sized counterpart, at any rate) belonged to Giovana Ricci. Many of the neighborhood women disliked and gossiped about Giovana. Not because she was a lesbian, they were quick to add, as they passed along some unsolicited nugget or another, but because she “flaunted it.” Walter had met the young woman twice now. She seemed like a nice kid.
And now she was in mortal danger. Walter felt certain of it, and so he needed to act.
Without really thinking, he limped across the room and took his overcoat from the coatrack. He put it on , pulled the gloves from its pockets. He’d been wearing his shoes.
His mind worked furiously. What was he going to do? Was there anything he could do, to intervene in this?
Just go, Anderson. Just go, and think on the way…
He opened the front door. A gust of frigid air brought tears to the old man’s eyes, stole the breath from his lungs. It was still snowing, he saw. Two dusty inches, at least, had powdered the landscape. Closing the door momentarily, Walter took a scarf from the coatrack. He tied it around his mouth, nose and ears.
Once outside, the old man took a few careful, limping, steps toward his car. He stopped. The car was covered with snow, and likely a layer of ice. In the time it would take to start the car and remove the snow and ice, he figured, he could walk to Giovana’s house twice. He looked in the direction of his destination, which was three houses up the street. Even in the elements, it didn’t seem any great ordeal. He turned, and limped off into the wind and the snow.
Keeping to the curb, so as to ensure a relatively level path, Walter closed the distance to his destination. It was cold, and his scarf was not enough to keep out the entirety of the icy wind.
He’d knock on the front door. It seemed as good a plan as any. Of course he still needed to come up with a reason to be knocking at this ungodly hour. If he couldn’t come up with one by the time someone answered (if someone answered,) he figured he would just have to improvise. What else could he do?
Walter was closer to the house now. From this angle he could see that there was a light on in the kitchen. Was it possible that one of the young women was awake? He felt the tiniest ray of hope. Upon further inspection, though, he saw that the driveway was empty. Neither Giovana's car, nor her lover’s truck, were anywhere to be seen.
What if they aren’t home?
Walter stopped, shivered. That was a very good question. He adjusted his scarf and continued on. Did whatever fatal misfortune that awaited Giovana (or, perhaps, her lover) need occur inside the house? Now that he thought about it, he had absolutely no idea.
He’d come this far, though. He decided to continue on, just to make sure. If they weren’t home, at least he would know that he’d tried.
The rubber tip of Walter’s cane came down on a bit of rock or ice. It slid forward and he swayed, nearly fell. He found his balance; took a moment to rest his suddenly pounding heart.
Be careful, you old fool...you’ll do them no good if you break your hip…
Walter took a few deep, slow breaths. When his heart settled he resumed his mission of mercy. He passed the large maple tree at the edge of the Sullivan’s property and then he’d made it.
The wind howled as Walter picked a careful path up the front walk to the stoop. He favored his good leg as he took the two stairs. It was far colder outside than he’d anticipated, and he was beginning to wish he’d waited on the car. If the young ladies weren’t home (or were home, but didn’t invite him inside for a moment) the walk home promised to be a cold one.
Having survived the front stoop, Walter took a moment to rest. He watched his exhalations dissipate into the bitter-cold night. To the left of the door, a small, glowing circle of light. It occurred to him that he hadn’t yet devised a plausible reason for his late-night intrusion. He rang the bell.
The sound of the electronic chime sang out into the unsuspecting night. Walter cringed. If the young women were home, they were awake now. He only hoped he hadn’t awakened the entire neighborhood as well.
Walter waited. He looked about to see if anyone had stirred. The wind howled through the trees that lined either side of the street, bending their skeletal frames to its icy will. There was no answer at the door. Nobody was home.
He would go home and de-ice the car, he decided. Then, he’d sit vigil until one or the other of the young ladies came home. He pulled his scarf more tightly around his mouth and nose, turned to descend the stairs...
And that was when he heard it. It was a sound not unlike the brush of fabric against itself, or the whisper of slippered steps on a carpet. Like near-silent steps, though, the sound Walter heard had an animated quality about it. It seemed very much a sound that had been created by something alive...
He turned back to the house, listening for the sound, but the wind had picked up again. He waited for it to subside...and there it was! He looked to the modest home’s large picture window, saw that it was well-covered by thick, winter drapes. Walter descended the steps, took a self-conscious glance in either direction. He made his way across the snow-covered lawn and around the side of the house. The gate to the side-fence took some effort to open against the light accumulation of snow, but an elbow and a few shoves did the trick.
Like his own and his late wife’s house, the back of the Ricci home opened out to a modest, floor-level deck, by way of sliding glass doors. Walter picked a careful path up the deck, leaving three-parted tracks in the snow behind him.
The sliding glass doors were covered by wide horizontal blinds. Large swaths of light were visible from in between. Walter limped to the doors and peered inside.
If it hadn’t been moving, Walter would think later, I’d never have seen it.
A flame of shadow, he thought- but that description, he knew, was only about fifty percent on the mark. The frightened old man simply didn’t possess the vocabulary or experience necessary to come up with anything better.
Get out of here...now. Go and warm up your car and wait for them to come home…
Yes...he needed to go. The problem was, he was transfixed. The movement of the wraith-like entity was enthralling...hypnotizing. The longer Walter stared, the more he could discern slight differences in the...what?...color?...frequency?...of the thing. Bits of it flashed in and out of existence; others coalesced into ever-deepening shades of nothing. Just watching it felt terrible. Walter imagined he could actually feel the wrongness of what he was seeing. He was relatively sure he was going to vomit, and in fact wasn’t entirely sure that he hadn’t already. Now that he thought of it, yes, he had. He did again, unable to take his eyes from the monster.
The demon-fire was aware of him, now. Walter was certain of it, though he didn’t know by means of what sense he could be certain. The creature’s attention probed and explored him, nonetheless. Like the cold, it found the exposed parts and tunneled its way inside.
Three houses down, Snowflake leapt up onto the windowsill, into the Anderson’s Christmas village. He walked to the ceramic home representing Walter’s own.
In Giovana Ricci’s backyard, Walter knew that he was suffering a heart attack. He’d been dimly aware of the building pain in his left arm and side for the past few minutes now. Breathing was taking more and more effort. The cold air hurt his lungs. He needed to call for help, he knew. He needed an ambulance, or he was going to die right here in the neighbor's’ backyard. In the snow. At three in the morning.
Please, don’t let me die watching this...thing. Don’t let me die with it watching me…
His knees buckled then, and- mercifully, as far as Walter was concerned- he fell backward. He landed hard on his tailbone. The pain exploded into every recess of his body, of his mind. It was excruciating, and yet somehow cleansing...beautiful. He embraced it, let the metallic-smelling flash wash the residue of the creature’s touch from his consciousness. The mere fact that he was no longer looking at the shadow-flame was, in spite of this new agony, a significant relief.
His face tense, his eyes brimming with tears born of pain, Walter searched the pockets of his overcoat for his cellular telephone. He was disappointed (but not at all surprised) to find he’d neglected to bring it with him. He’d lived seventy-six good years without one of the damned things, and had been in no hurry to join the ranks of the electronically leashed. Eventually, though, and probably Inevitably, the kids had bought him one. It had been his Christmas gift the year his wife had passed. They were always getting on his case about him turning it off, or leaving it at home. Boy, would they have a field-day, with this…
The night seemed to darken a shade, and Walter understood that he was losing consciousness. He looked up into the falling, windswept snow. It was beautiful...peaceful.
Everyone has to die somewhere, and of something. You could die worse…
Walter realized the truth of this. He would, at the least, die having tried to do the right thing.
And the snow was beautiful…
Giovana Ricci sat by Walter Anderson’s bedside.
“You don’t believe me.” He offered a tired smile. “I don’t blame you…”
The young woman shook her head. “I didn’t say that.”
“It’s okay.” Walter felt as though a truck had driven over his chest, but the doctors assured him that he was out of the woods, for now. “I’m very sorry,” he said. “I really was trying to help...I would never have gone into your yard otherwise…”
“That I believe, Mr. Anderson.” Giovana smiled.
Walter chuckled, winced. “Please, anyone who saves my life may call me Walter.”
She stood. “Well, Walter, why don’t you rest? I’ll stop in tomorrow and see how you’re doing.”
Walter closed his eyes. He endured/enjoyed the pulse of gratitude that welled from within his core. It radiated out into his stomach, his throat. It was not unlike the pleasant burn of the whiskey he’d had earlier. “I would like that, Miss Ricci. I would like that very much.”
“Giovana, or Gio.” She smirked. “Anyone who dies in my backyard can call me by my first name.” She took the old man’s hand and gave a gentle squeeze.
“You remember what I said…?” Walter asked.
“And you have my keys?”
Walter nodded. “Thank you...again.”
Giovana stepped into Walter’s house and thought: He didn’t say anything about an alarm…
She closed the front door and looked for a keypad on the wall. There was none. It had occurred to her by then, at any rate, that the pitch of the alarm was too high to be a house-alarm. It was also too fast, and the interval between tones too short..
A smoke alarm? Is the house on fire?
Only that didn’t feel right, either. She looked to her right, then, and understood the truth of the situation. Sprawled, obviously dead, in the midst of the most beautiful miniature Christmas village Giovana had ever seen, was the cat Walter had described. Not fire, then, but Carbon Monoxide.
She re-opened the front door, took a deep breath of fresh air; another. With healthy lungs full of oxygen, she sought out the source of the incessant, staccato tone. Sure enough, it was the CO detector in the bedroom. She’d snatched her cell from her purse before she was out the front door. She dialed 911.
Walter awoke to find his neighbor seated, once again, by his bedside. She looked upset.
“Hi Giovanna. What’s wrong?”
She’d been lost in thought. The sound of his voice brought her back to the here and now. “Me...how are you?”
“I’m okay, thank God... and thank you.” He waited a moment. “What is it?”
Giovanna regarded him with haunted eyes. “I believe you.”
The old man sat up, as much as was possible. “What happened? Are you okay?”
She nodded, and Walter watched as a tear streamed down her face. She explained the carbon-dioxide spike that had killed Snowflake. She told Walter how the incident had precipitated a check of the surrounding houses- and how firemen had discovered lethal levels of the invisible, odorless poison inside her own home.
“I think you had it wrong, though,” she said, after a few silent moments. “I don’t think that Snowflake, or the village were a part of anyone getting hurt. I think they were trying to warn us…”
Walter like that idea. “I like that idea.”
“Do you know what, Walter?”
“We’re alive.” Giovana laughed. It was a nervous, fragile sound. “It feels good to be alive, doesn’t it?”
God, it really did. He nodded.
“And you know what else?” She leaned forward in her chair.
Walter shook his head, smiled. “What else?”
“It’s Christmas Eve!” She stood and hugged her new friend. “Merry Christmas, Walter.”
J Robert Kane/Dec 2016