Friday Flash Fiction (a day late): The One with the Cat

To recap: I’m in a Facebook group called Friday Flash Fics. We’re given a photo as a writing prompt, with our flash fiction responses (500 words or less) to the photo posted every Friday.

Except this week, apparently, because it’s Saturday and I’m just getting around to posting this. Also, I went over 500 words. Like, way over. The picture that inspired this edition:

Picture of a mountain lion in a bathtub getting its paw scrubbed

I love cats, even the ones that would probably eat me.  I remember reading once that the average domestic housecat would have us for lunch if it weren’t for the size differential, so lucky us, I guess.

Anyway, this story is late which means I haven’t had much time to proofread it, and I wrote a big chunk of it on my phone. Typos might abound. Hopefully I’ll have time to clean them up later. Without further ado:

The Houseguest

When Jerry threw Carl out, the last thing Carl said to him was, “You’ll miss me.”

“Please.” Although Jerry shut the door in Carl’s face, he was proud that he did not, in fact, slam it. “If I’m lonely I’ll get a fucking cat.”

Perhaps the universe was listening. The next day, when Jerry opened the front door to head to work, there was a cat curled up on the doormat.

“Cat” was perhaps an understatement. The mountain lion was at least twice as long as the doormat. As Jerry stood there, tempted to scream if not for the way his heart was clamoring to get out by way of his throat, the mountain lion opened one eye then the other, yawned, and stretched.

“Hello. My home burned down. I was wondering if it would be too much trouble to stay with you for a while.”

Jerry briefly considered he might be going crazy, but then the mountain lion said, “Look, I’m kind of desperate here. Help a guy out, please?”

Jerry still said nothing. The mountain lion gently butted his head against Jerry’s leg. “Hey, anyone in there?”

“Sorry,” Jerry said, and briefly the mountain lion’s ears dropped. “No, I mean I’m sorry for just standing here. It’s just, kind of a shock.”

“Yeah, I get that a lot. You’ve seen the fires on the news though, right? All up the mountainside.” The mountain lion shook his head. “Stupid campers.”

The shock dissipating, Jerry finally noticed the srteaks of black soot marring the beast’s coat. He stood aside. “Come in.”

“Thanks, man. You don’t know how much this means. It’s pretty crazy out there.”

Jerry left the front door open. He still wondered if he was hallucinating, but if the mountain lion was real, he wanted an open escape route just in case.

Once inside the confines of the house, the smell assailed him.

“What?” the mountain lion asked as Jerry coughed and made a gagging noise.

“Look, you can stay, but you have to take a bath.”

“A bath?” The lion sighed. “Really?” Jerry didn’t respond. The lion sighed again. “Oh, fine.”

Once he was in the tub with warm water running off his back, the mountain lion didn’t seem to mind it all that much, not even when Jerry cleaned between his toes.

“My name’s Jerry, by the way.” Jerry set down one paw and picked up the other.

“Nice to meet you, Jerry. I guess this is where I’m supposed to tell you my name?”

“That’s usually how it goes, yes.”

The mountain lion looked down at his paw. “I don’t have one. It’s not something we do. There isn’t really much need for names out in the woods.”

“Oh. I have to call you something, though.”

“But I don’t want a name.”

“How about I just call you Lion? It’s not a name per se, but you are a mountain lion so it’s just kind of a shortening of that.”

“Lion. I thought you people called us cougars.”

“Would you rather be called Cougar?”

“Not really. What is it with the human need to put a label on everything, anyway?”

“It’s just what we do.”

“Then I guess Lion is the least offensive option.”

After Jerry rinsed him off and pulled the stopper from the drain, Lion stood and gave himself a vigorous shake, soaking everything in reach—including Jerry.

“What?” Lion asked as Jerry wiped water and bits of fur off his face. “It’s what we do.”

After he had dried off, Lion announced that he was kind of hungry. At a panic-stricken look from Jerry he quickly added, “No no no. Eating my host would be rude. Besides, that causes a whole lot of other problems.”

“Have you ever…?” Jerry started to ask, but trailed off. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know. Lion shook his head.

“Not on your life, but word gets around. Me, I stick to deer, rabbits, a cat or dog in a pinch…”

Again Jerry blanched. “Please don’t eat any of the neighborhood pets.”

“Yeah, I can see where that could cause problems for you.” Lion glanced toward the kitchen. “Maybe there’s something in the fridge?”

Something in the fridge turned out to be two steaks, three pounds of frozen hamburger (Jerry defrosted it, but Lion said not to go to the trouble of cooking it), and the last of a half gallon of milk. Jerry wasn’t sure what he’d do about dinner for his guest.

“Why me?” Jerry asked suddenly. Lion looked up from the bowl of milk, white mustache painted across his snout.

“You mean why did I stop here instead of one of your neighbors?” Jerry nodded. Lion tilted his head in what Jerry figured was a kind of shrug. “Why anything, really. Most things are just…” Again, Lion seemed to search for the right word. “Instinct.”

Jerry didn’t think he could just leave his guest alone in the house, so he called in to work and took a personal day.

“I don’t want to inconvenience you,” Lion said. “Please, just do what you’d normally do.”

Jerry considered that. After everything with Carl the day before, though, the prospect of staying home with an apex predator was preferable to a day at the office trying not to dwell on the apex predator at home along with the ex. He dropped his keys back on the foyer table and flopped onto the sofa.

“I think I could use a day,” he said.

Jerry was surprised, after a time, to discover that whatever primitive monkey part of his brain screamed “danger” at the first sight of the mountain lion eventually stopped raising the alarm and relaxed into his guest’s presence. Which is to say: Lion ended up staying a long time. While the fire chewed its way up and down the mountainside, the two settled into a routine: up before work, Jerry ate yogurt and granola while Lion ate a pile of whatever meat Jerry bought at the store (Lion ate a lot). Jerry felt comfortable enough to return to work, and at night they went hunting.

That is, Lion went hunting and Jerry went for a walk.

“You don’t have to come with me if it upsets you,” Lion said. He’d just caught and finished off a rabbit with a speed that stunned Jerry. They were out at the state park not far from the base of the mountain, which still glowed with fire.

“It’s not upsetting,” Jerry said. The cat’s snout was painted red and Jerry couldn’t look him in the eye.

“Jerry,” Lion said, deadpan. He licked a paw and used it to clean off the blood. “I can smell how weirded out you are by all this.”

“You can?” Jerry considered. “What does being weirded out smell like?”

“Kind of sour, kind of like metal.” Lion got up and trotted in the direction of the parking lot. “I guess I should say it’s what fear smells like.”

“But I’m not afraid of you.” It was true, any fear Jerry’d had at the beginning had faded to nothingness.

“I worry that’s not a good thing, though,” Lion said. They had known each other for two weeks now, so they were more comfortable telling each other frank truths. “If you lose your fear of me—which is a very normal fear, I might add—I’m concerned you won’t have that fear if you encounter other mountain lions.”

Jerry fished his car keys out of his pocket. Despite his squeamishness, he was afraid of what might happen if another human crossed Lion’s path. “Doesn’t that go both ways, though? Are you losing your fear of humans?”

Lion did that tilt with his head again that Jerry figured was a shrug. “Nah, you people still scare me.” He looked up toward the mountain. “But maybe not as much as that. Can you smell it?”

Jerry breathed in deep, but all he could smell was the dark rich dirt beneath their feet, the sharp scent of pine needles. “Not really.”

“Things that smell like burning make me want to run and never stop,” Lion said.

*

“So, what happened?” Lion asked. This was about four weeks after he’d moved in—around week three, Jerry stopped thinking of the arrangement as temporary. They were in the kitchen eating dinner. Jerry had taken to sitting on the floor next to Lion while he ate instead of at the table. It was Wednesday, chicken night.

“What do you mean?” Jerry asked.

Lion scarfed down a whole chicken breast. “Whoever you shared this house with. His scent is still on the place.”

“What does he smell like?”

Lion stopped eating and lifted his nose. “Artificial.”

Jerry laughed out loud and set his fork down. “Well, that’s certainly accurate. He wore a lot of cologne.”

“What was he trying to cover up?”

Jerry didn’t answer right away. He set his plate down and got up, opened the fridge, and pulled out a beer. “I don’t know if he was covering up so much as he wasn’t the person he claimed to be. It’s not even an interesting story. He lied, he cheated. That ever happened to you?”

Lion didn’t answer. Jerry turned around to see him eating the last bit of food off Jerry’s plate.

“You were done with this, right?”

*

After six weeks, the fires on the mountainside were finally out. When Jerry came home from work, Lion was sitting in the foyer.

“It’s time, Jerry.”

Jerry closed the door. “I know, I know. I’ll get dinner started.”

“No. I mean it’s time for me to leave.”

“Leave? But you just got here.”

“Jerry, it’s been more than a full cycle of the moon. I’ve been here a long time.”

Jerry set his keys on the foyer table. “Oh.”

“The fires are out now, which means I can go back.”

“That doesn’t mean you have to go right away.”

“Jerry.” Lion patted the floor in front of him. “Sit down.”

Jerry sat. He’d been spending more of his time at home on the floor since Lion had arrived.

“Listen to me, Jerry. I told you at the beginning that this would be just for a while, and I meant that.”

“But—” Jerry found he couldn’t finish the sentence. Soon after, the tears started.

Lion wrinkled his nose. “Whoa, what’s that?”

“What’s what?”

“You smell funny, Jerry.”

“Thanks a lot.”

“No, I mean, what is this?” He waved a paw at Jerry’s face.

“Sadness, I guess.”

“Sadness?”

Jerry paused and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “You’ve never been sad before?”

“I’m not even sure what sadness is.”

“Well, how does it smell?”

Lion bent close to Jerry’s face and sniffed. “Kind of sweet. Like a beehive.”

“Imagine being stung by a bee. That’s kind of what sadness is like.”

Lion flinched. “Sounds awful, Jerry.”

“Yeah, it’s not my favorite.”

“I don’t want you to feel that way about me. I’m very grateful that you let me stay with you during the fire, but I’m a wild animal, Jerry. I belong out there.”

Jerry was no longer crying. “I know.”

He opened the front door. Lion sauntered out. It was already starting to get dark, and the typically quiet street seemed even emptier than usual. Lion paused and turned back.

“If you see another mountain lion like me, Jerry, it probably won’t be me, so be careful, okay?”

Jerry nodded. “Do all mountain lions talk as much as you?”

“Nah, I’m kind of an outlier. Most of us don’t have a whole lot to say. It’s not in our nature.”

“Why do you talk so much more than other mountain lions?”

Lion paused and seemed to be considering it. “You know what, I have no idea why. It’s just my instinct, I guess.” He lifted a paw. “Take care, Jerry. You’re gonna be all right.”

“You too, Lion.”

Before he turned away for the last time, he said, “I think I picked the right house.”