On December 22nd, her father’s birthday, Mila Sloane tightened her jacket around her neck as she climbed the steps to enter the annual Christmas banquet as her dad’s guest. With temperatures plunging into the teens during the night, a light film of frost had carpeted the small coastal town. Inside the beach-themed office of the plant manager, a ship’s wheel flanked the outermost wall. Soft Christmas tunes played from an old-fashioned stereo, and a hodgepodge of savory seafood dishes and holiday treats had been laid out on a sideboard.
Mila removed her coat and hugged Bonnie, the eternally cheerful plant secretary for the past forty years. Together, she and Bonnie had planned the surprise party for Mila’s dad, to follow the luncheon. He’d never had a surprise party before, and at his age, Mila wondered how many more opportunities he’d have.
Bonnie tugged on her holiday-themed sweater. “Harvey doesn’t have a clue about the party. He’ll be right down. Help yourself to the food.”
Mila’s father had worked for Bogue Isle Freezing Plant for the past sixty years. Sixty years! Who’d ever heard of someone working at the same job for sixty years? But at eighty-two, Harvey Guthrie was anything if not a creature of habit. Never one to complain, he’d gladly worked back-breaking hours, six days a week, in exchange for the security of the rickety ocean hideaway where he repaired freezer equipment and waited on the customers from local seafood restaurants. But most importantly, Harvey had tamed a legion of cats who could smell the fish from miles away. Each morning, he’d arrive at work an hour early to strategically place food bowls for the fifteen-plus felines he tended. He’d fill each bowl with bags of tuna and salmon-flavored morsels, and then he’d sit on a rock pile by the back dock where he’d pet and talk to each one. The cat colony accepted Harvey as one of their own, and when surrounded by cats, he entered a trance-like state with little need or interest in human interactions. His favorite, a grey-tabby named Cruz, curled up around the old man’s neck each day when Harvey ate a lunch of cold leftovers inside a make-shift office that smelled of grease and tools.
Mila filled a reindeer-themed paper plate with tangy crab dip alongside a mound of boiled shrimp and smoked trout. She’d get a steaming mug of clam chowder later.
By the time she returned to the weathered sofa, a hint of sunshine had broken through the cloudy picture window that looked out onto a field overgrown with tangled weeds and rocks. When she had worked in this same office as a teen, she’d spent hours staring out that same window at sea gulls and sand pipers, pecking through the grass and pulling up terrestrial insects. She was enjoying a tangy cracker covered in dip when her dad walked into the office, wearing a heavy freezer coat covered in grease stains. Cruz peeked out from underneath Harvey’s arm.
“I brought my buddy.” His hazel eyes, her dad’s best feature, twinkled when he smiled. She had inherited his eyes with the same blue-tinged ring around the iris.
Mila shook her head. “You and your cats. You should come back as a cat in your next life. Now tell me, when will you be over on Christmas Eve?”
“I work half a day, so it’ll be around three. I have to take Flo to the grocery store first before I come over.” He gently set Cruz down onto the sofa, and then settled in next to her. “Visit with your brother,” he told Mila as he stroked the cat’s head.
Harvey had lived with his sister, Flo, since his home had been destroyed in Hurricane Isabel. His salary helped supplement her meager disability income.
Mila pursed her lips. “Sad that after sixty years you have to work on Christmas Eve.”
Harvey smiled. “I don’t mind.” And he didn’t. He’d do anything for the plant, despite the puny salary and lack of benefits. He considered it his home away from home.
Harvey sampled the crab cakes, and was finishing off a mug of clam chowder when his supervisor, Timbo, entered the party from his back office. “Harvey, when you’ve finished, I’d like to see you.”
Mila rolled her eyes. “Can’t he even let you eat your Christmas meal in peace?” Mila and her husband figured that the job would be the death of her dad.
Harvey scooped up his last spoonful of chowder and tossed the paper mug into a large waste can before he disappeared into Timbo’s office.
With her dad out of sight, Mila took the opportunity to retrieve the almond birthday cake with butter cream icing from her Jeep. She was balancing it on one hand and slamming the door with the other when she first noticed her dad standing in the distance, holding Cruz. But her dad and Cruz were both inside the office, with no rear exit. Now lightheaded, her feet felt nailed to the ground. She couldn’t move or think. Inside her head, the nearby waves made sloshy sounds. And then, the dozen or more cats surrounding her father all stood upright on their hind legs and walked away. She had to be dreaming. “Dad,” she called out, but he turned and vanished behind the dock.
Shaken, she re-entered the office and silently set the cake down on the sideboard. With trembling hands, she was sticking candles into the thick chocolaty frosting when Bonnie exited the storage room, carrying a sack of gifts. Bonnie stopped short. “What happened? You look like you just saw a ghost.”
“Did dad go outside when we weren’t looking?”
“No. He hasn’t come out of the back office.”
Mila shrugged. “I haven’t slept well lately. You know how the mind plays tricks.” She returned to the sofa and was petting Cruz when Harvey emerged from the meeting, wearing a blank expression. He walked past Mila and went straight outside.
She’d never seen him like this before. She glanced at Bonnie whose eyes had opened wide. Mila grabbed her dad’s winter coat on her way out the door, and she found him outside, sitting near the rock pile.
“Dad, what’s’ wrong?”
He clutched a calico he’d named Louise, and tears had collected in his eyes. “I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it.”
Mila couldn’t bear seeing an old person cry. Now, she felt all broken up inside, like the time when her grandmother had cried after finding her dead parakeet. Mila reached out and grasped his arm. It felt uncharacteristically fragile, as a twig that might snap with just the right flip of her wrist. “What happened?”
“He let me go.”
“What! But you’ve run this place for his family the past sixty years.”
Harvey’s voice sounded flat, as if he were afraid to register any emotions. “He said to pack my things after the party and go. You’re done. Those were his exact words; you’re done.”
Mila pressed her hand to her head. “Are you sure you didn’t misunderstand? Maybe he was letting you go home early for Christmas?”
Harvey shook his head. He hadn’t misunderstood. He sat in the frigid cold in his work uniform with his name sewn across the front pocket.
Her voice rose in anger. “I’m going back in there to give him a piece of my mind. It’s bad enough that they’ve exploited you for all these years, but to fire you with no forewarning. And on your birthday!”
Harvey grabbed Mila’s hand. “No. Don’t. It’ll only make things worse.”
“How can it get any worse?”
“I just want to be alone for a while.” He stroked the calico and refused to look at her. “Without my paycheck, how will I take care of the cats?”
Since the plant provided no pension plan, Harvey’s only income now would be his social security check. Plus, Mila’s deceased mother had run up debt all across town before she had died, and Harvey had spent years trying to pay off the creditors. But without his salary?
“Dad, I’ll help feed the cats. I don’t want to leave you alone. Why don’t you come home with me?”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll see you on Christmas Eve.”
“Did you leave anything inside the office?”
“My new train magazine and a couple UFO books.”
“I’ll get them for you.” Mila rose to her feet and walked around to the front dock and up the steps past the freezer room, which held 300-pound blocks of ice, ice that Harvey had pulled onto a conveyor belt for decades. At the end of the dock, an industrial grinder chewed up the frozen blocks and spit them out through a massive hose onto the fishing boats heading out to sea. As a child, she and her brother had played a game where they had ridden the ice blocks down the track to see who could get closest to the grinder before hopping off. Their dad would stand at the far end of the dock, clutching ice tongs in one hand and waving to them with the other. If only their mom had known. Times were different then, simpler.
Inside the entrance, the familiar smells of grease and machinery greeted her, along with the fish and sea smells. Her leather boots crunched against the gritty floor covered in years of sand and grime. Inside, a space heater kept the tiny 8 x 3 office warm, and a yellow and white tabby lay sprawled across a padded bench, napping. The cat didn’t know that Harvey wouldn’t be returning. What would become of all those animals? Mila shook off the thought and searched a built-in shelf until she located her father’s books and tucked them under her arm. Without looking back, she left the office, and ran straight into Timbo. Her heart skipped a beat, coming face-to-face with her dad’s hangman.
Fortyish with dirty blonde hair, he mumbled, “Hello,” under his breath, but didn’t bother looking at her.
“Timbo.” Her voice had an edge.
Sheepishly, he looked up, but didn’t speak.
“How could you do this? My father has dedicated his life to this place and never once complained or said no. And to toss him out onto the streets without even a small pension? How can you sleep at night?”
He folded his arms across his chest. “Times have changed. I can’t afford his salary anymore since losing the party ice division last year. It’s that simple.”
“Does your father know about this?” she asked, as if chastising an unruly child. “I can’t believe he’d go along.” Timbo’s dad, Bobby, had inherited the business from his uncle when he was practically a kid. Harvey had trained Bobby. Mila had also worked for Bobby, all those summers as a bookkeeper.
Silently, Timbo shook his head.
“What goes around, comes around.” Mila had heard her mother say it a thousand times when growing up, a threat without really making a threat. She turned and rushed from the plant and to her Jeep. Inside, she leaned her head back and closed her eyes. She couldn’t stand conflict, and now her intestines quivered like Jell-O. In the distance, her dad still sat on the rock pile, clutching the calico.
Who determines the worth of a human being? she wondered. The kindest person she knew had just been tossed into the street, like a bag of old garbage. His years of sacrifice and dedication now meant nothing. With unsteady hands, she phoned her husband, Sean, and told him what had happened. She dropped the cell by her side and drove toward home. She’d call Aunt Flo later, after she’d settled down. But as hard as she tried, her mind kept drifting back to her dad, heartbroken, sitting alone on the rock pile. And then, the childhood memories flooded her; especially how she’d awaken each Valentine’s Day to find a chocolate baby doll with candied red eyes on the foot of her bed. Her dad had given her the same gift every year until she had moved away to college. When she pulled into her drive, she sobbed into her gloved hands.
Mila busied herself as she tried planning her annual Christmas party, but with her holiday spirit quickly vanishing, she sat in front of the TV, flipping channels instead. Sean was working out of town that night, and she had the week off from the small community college where she taught Business Administration. She’d worry about the party later. Her mind kept drifting back to her dad. Despite the unreasonable hours, the plant had kept him going. By 5 am each morning, he’d get up, eat breakfast, and then make the twenty-mile drive. And now what would he do? The shock alone could kill him. She phoned Aunt Flo back around 9 pm.
“He came home around six and went straight to bed. He didn’t even eat supper, and I’d made his favorite, fried oysters.”
“I’m worried sick. I don’t know what else to do?”
“Well, nothing you can do, really. It gets worse. After you left today, Timbo told Brother that he can’t come onto the property anymore to feed the cats; something about liability if he fell and got hurt.”
“What! Oh my God. I can’t believe the cruelty of that guy. It would do dad good to go back and forth, feeding the cats.”
“Well, he can’t do it now.”
Mila ended the call. She thought of how her father’s life had revolved around cats and the caring of them. He had always reminded her of a cat when he napped, with one arm folded across his eyes like an extended paw. He had helped her understand “cat talk,” a host of feline non-verbal behaviors, such as cocking their heads, flinching their ears or wagging their tails when excited. He had even given her a book once that taught her a series of sounds and movements to help her bond with wild cats. She sensed that deep down her dad had little use for humans. Cats will never let you down, she’d heard him say more than once, and she could still hear his voice as she collapsed into bed and buried her face into the homemade quilt that her grandmother had made. That night, she dreamt of dead cats and of her father floating out to sea.
Up before dawn, Mila halfheartedly sorted through recipes and made a shopping list. She’d drive to her aunt’s and take her father out to lunch at the Seaside Inn. It’d get his mind off things. But first, she’d go over to the plant and feed the cats. To hell with Timbo and his threats. Let him try arresting her.
In front of the TV, she sat down with her breakfast of oatmeal and was watching the local news when it came into focus, the freezer plant. A swirl of blue and red lights from police cruisers lit up the night sky. What on earth? she wondered—a fire, a burglary? She cranked up the volume. A reporter stood in front of the plant, holding a mic.
Incredible. Just incredible. When Timothy, Timbo, Willis, manager of Bogue Isle Freezing Plant, didn’t come home last evening, his wife phoned the authorities. What they found defies description. Although the exact cause of death has not yet been determined, it appears that he has been mauled to death. Mr. Willis was covered in multiple lacerations that looked like claw and teeth marks. Strangely, the attack happened inside the plant, not outside where an animal might more likely attack. According to authorities, this appears to be an isolated incident, so there’s no need for panic. Foul play hasn’t been ruled out. Stay tuned for live updates.
Mila froze. She had told Timbo that what goes around comes around, but she hadn’t meant it literally, had she? Still, in retrospect, her words sounded more threatening than she had intended. And just what had happened? Had Timbo crossed paths with a rabid fox or a pack of wild dogs? She could think of no other reasonable explanation.
Just as the broadcast ended, Aunt Flo called.
“Thank God you answered,” Flo said. “Did you watch the news?”
“Yes, I just saw it. Terrible.”
“Brother is gone. I looked in on him a moment ago and his bed’s empty. You don’t think he had anything to do with this, do you?”
“Dad? Of course not. The reporter said that Timbo was mauled to death. Probably a rabid fox or dog. Is dad’s car gone?”
“Yes. He left his phone here so I can’t call. You don’t suppose he went back to feed those cats?”
“Probably. I was just about to drive over there myself to feed them.” A feeling of dread shot through Mila, as it had when her mother had become unresponsive during a phone call years ago. She’d rushed to her parents’ home, but not soon enough.
She left her breakfast on the coffee table and hastily changed into sweats and darted out into the frosty morning for the ten-mile drive. If her dad showed up in the midst of the investigative chaos, he wouldn’t know what to do. And then her blood ran cold as she remembered her dream, the dead cats and all. What if her father had committed suicide by walking out into the freezing waters of the sound where his body would wash out to sea, never to be recovered? Without his job, and robbed of his cat family, he may not have had the will to carry on. She was fearing the worse when an old truck passed by, pulling a trailer bed filled with cats. She did a double-take. A grey-tabby resembling Cruz rode in the bed, perched high on up a pillow. She could have sworn that the old man driving the truck was her father. But where would he have gotten the truck and trailer? She sped up to get a closer look and noticed the out of state tags. Must be the stress, she told herself, fueling her already overactive imagination. She shook off her mistake. She needed to focus on finding her dad and bringing him to her house. There, she’d make a pan of fudge that they’d enjoy in front of their favorite Christmas movies. She should have brought him back to her house after he had gotten fired. Aunt Flo was too old to watch out for him.
When she pulled into the large shale parking lot, a police cruiser was parked to the side, and yellow crime tape cordoned off the main entrance to the plant. She shivered at the image of Timbo being ripped apart, flailing about, fighting for his life. And then, she spotted her dad’s old station wagon, out by the rock pile. Her pulse quickened. Some rabid animal could be roaming the area, searching for fresh victims. She parked her Jeep and slipped on a wool cap and gloves.
By the back dock, a hoard of cats greeted her. No doubt hungry, she hadn’t had time to stop for the cat food. She’d do it later. “Dad. Dad,” she called out. Cruz rubbed around her legs and meowed. She turned the corner, past the rocks and searched. He couldn’t have gone far, and he wouldn’t have gone inside the roped off plant. Possibly, the police were interrogating him, so she rushed up to Timbo’s office where lights shone from within.
She gently cracked the door where a policeman questioned Lou, Harvey’s best friend for the past twenty years.
The officer looked up. “May I help you?”
“I’m just looking for my father. He came over to feed the cats.”
Lou turned to her. “I noticed the car, but haven’t seen him. He didn’t answer last night when I called.”
“Okay. Thanks.” Mila clicked the door behind her and rushed around to the dock before the policeman had a chance to question her.
At the edge of the shore, a colony of cats waited, all the usual ones, Cruz, Louise and Bennie. But then, she noticed a new one that she hadn’t seen before, a short-haired smoky gray with vibrant hazel eyes. She sat down on the rocks that poked at her flesh like tiny darts. The gray male climbed into her lap and butted his head against her face. When she stroked him, his purr vibrated strongly against her hand. He was so distinctive. There’s no way she would have forgotten him. He gazed into her eyes, a knowing look, and was gently meowing when she noticed a blue-tinged ring encircling the iris. When he jumped from her lap, he left a smear of fresh blood on the left side of her beige sweats.
Then, he stood upright, on his hind legs. As the gray cat-human walked away, he stopped and stared at her one last time before he took his rightful place amongst the other homeless cats by the back dock, near the sea.
Kelly Piner is a practicing Clinical Psychologist, specializing in the treatment of addictions. Her short story “Starscape” was just selected by Aesthetic: A Dark Academia Anthology. Her short story “Ghost Town” was recently accepted for the Horror at the Beach Anthology by Horror Tree. “Dearly Devoted” will appear in the Dark Hearts Anthology by Ghost Orchard Press. Her short story “Lazy River” was accepted for publication in Weirdbook’s upcoming zombie issue. “Halloween Pie” recently won the Halloween contest sponsored by Spookbrain, and her dark Christmas story “O Christmas Tree” was just selected for the Dark Lane Christmas Anthology. Her short story “Baggage Claim” was published on Page 47 at be-a-better-writer.com. Drunken Pen Writing featured her short story “Halloween Retreat” in its October 2019 issue. She also has short stories published in The Literary Hatchet and Dark Dossier. She just completed her first novel, FAT SANDS.
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