Sometimes when you see a thing, something awful, something close to you, it cuts you deep inside. It takes hold of that part of you, down at the root, a part you didn’t know you had and it just moves you like the ocean, so you don’t hardly know you’re moving, and you can’t stop it, and you don’t want to. It’s like it just overrides your head, so you feel something so hard you don’t even try to think.
Looking back now, I wish I had.
When I first met Angie, she had this ginormous, overly friendly cat; a Maine Coon cross she called ‘House’ and he was always affectionate, always cuddling in your lap.
I hated cats. Never seen a reason to feed something that would shit in your house and not do anything useful. But that cat, he just took to me fast and I couldn’t ever say why. He’d come when I called – come running whenever I’d come over – just to see me, like a dog.
He’d even bring me his favourite toy, this little stuffed mouse, and he’d fetch it if I threw it, over and over. Sometimes I’d just chuck it behind the couch or under a table, but he’d find it. I could bounce it off the wall and over the railing so it would drop down into the stairwell, and who’d ever expect a cat of that size to do the sort of acrobatics House did to follow his little mouse and bring it back?
I think that’s probably why she took to me like she did – Angie – and we just seem to hit it off at a run. Six months in and she packed up her apartment and I moved out of that damned trailer down by the Chippawa.
I didn’t bother giving the park owner any kind of notice. I’d been there for five years and I don’t think he’d come around for the rent more than twice. That trailer was older than I was, wheels flat and sunk into the creek bank up to the axles. It wasn’t even a house trailer. It was more something you’d tow up north to camp and hunt moose.
Kind of smelled like a dead moose, too.
I worked long hours driving a truck back then – away from home three, four days at a time, and every time I came back to it, it seemed like it was sinking further and further in; the vines and the weeds and the silt just consuming it. Pretty much just left everything in it and drove off. Everything I owned and wanted to keep fit in two garbage bags with room to spare. Wasn’t like I was going to miss that bucket, or the weeds and vines. They could have it.
Neither of us needed a ring, but I bought her one anyway; made it official so her mother wouldn’t throw a fit, and we put in together on a little house in town with a fenced in yard and a little trellis shaded by sprawling Wisteria.
Six months from the day we got the keys, we brought our firstborn baby girl home. Josephine Page Byron. You’d never see a little baby so quiet and content and smiling right from the get go.
The morning after we brought her home from the hospital, we woke to find the cat in the basinet, lying beside her and very intently watching our little angel sleep.
Even I thought it was adorable, my little buddy watching over my little girl, and Angie took a picture for Instagram. Feeling better safe than sorry, I hoisted House from the basinet and took him outside to throw his mouse around for a few minutes while Angie nursed the baby.
He followed me in again as I made breakfast and he sprawled out high up on the fridge, basking in the morning light and surveying his growing family with an air of masterful certainty.
A few days later, however, my wife found him in the basinet again, sitting beside the child, watching her very intently.
She was a little concerned at first, as any mother would be by the attention of another towards her baby, but the more we watched the two of them, the more we became convinced that House saw it as his duty to protect Josie, and spent more and more of his waking hours perched over her crib like a 20 lb cougar.
We had begun having a mouse problem around that time, as the Wisteria had spread up the side of the house, and the mice quickly took to using it as a highway, chewing through the window screen and entering into the nursery.
Not one mouse got anywhere close to our girl, though. By the time I realized what was happening, trimmed the Wisteria back and fixed the screen; House had killed seven mice and lined their tiny headless corpses up outside the nursery door. Not that they would have likely hurt the baby, but to House, they were intruders. My wife called him Josie’s guardian lion.
I wish I could have believed that.
It all seemed fine for weeks, until Savaria, Angie’s nana, came for a visit. I should have put House in the basement for the evening. Savaria was straight-off-the-boat Italian. Eighty years old, lived in Canada most of her life and refused to speak English. She wasn’t just Catholic, she was… crazy.
After an evening of criticizing my lasagne and my marbled lineage in muttered Italian she didn’t think I understood, she ambled up the stairs to squat and destroy our plumbing and evidently took a wrong turn and found the nursery.
We were alerted to this fact by the loud screaming river of Latin profanity, hissing and spitting, followed by something that sounded like an exorcism.
We tripped over each other scrambling up the stairs, hand and foot, to find the bug-eyed old battle-axe cursing in three different languages, armed with a broom, her rosary beads intertwining her fingers as she took swipes at the cat, who was mantling the crying baby, ears flattened and bottlebrush tail straight out, ready to defend his little girl with his very life, talons and teeth bared.
I wrenched the broom from her grip and resisted the urge to beat her to death with it while Angie ushered her out of the nursery and down the stairs. Once the broom was lowered, House calmed down and dropped into the basinet with Josie to cuddle and pacify her. It was a reassuring sight and the baby was cooing and babbling within seconds and asleep before I left the room.
Downstairs was anything but peaceful. The gnarled old wench just wouldn’t leave it alone and kept blathering on that cats are the devil’s familiars and cats should never be left around babies; that House would steal her breath as she slept or eat her soul or some goddamned nonsense.
The more Angie tried to calm the haggard old bat, the louder and more insistent she brayed until I feared her superstitious ramblings would wake the baby. Certain that the cat was no threat, we eventually gave in, mainly just to placate the exasperating old bag. I ushered House out of the nursery while the she muttered bible verses in Latin, made the sign of the cross over the basinet… and then hacked up and spit on the door frame. She made some weird hand gesture while she did it.
I gave her the finger.
House hung limply over my shoulder like an enormous, unimpressed dishtowel as she retreated finally down the stairs. After donning a wool coat and tying on her headscarf (it was only 112 outside, of course she needed to layer up) she stood at the open door and pointed a gnarled, bony, old finger up at both of us and warned, in raspy, hacking English, “Watch that cat!”
Angie relented and agreed, if only to avoid further conflict and herd the old cow out the door and into her taxi, after which she returned with a sigh and a dramatic effort of bolting the door as I chuckled over the old woman’s backward, old world beliefs.
We had been exhausted to start with before hosting the unplanned visit the woman had foisted upon us, followed by the impromptu exorcism and broom-jousting session. I let House out to do his business while Angie fed Josie, and somehow I just forgot to let him back in.
We were both so tired we just collapsed in bed and passed out; didn’t even clear the unfinished dinner off the table. In the morning, I found House impatiently mewling outside the back door, where he’d scratched the hell out of the lower half and climbed up the frame, trying to get back in.
Angie was still asleep; she’d been up frequently through the night with the baby, restless and crying after the tumult of the evening and I figured it was just that, but Angie worried she might have been coming down with something.
Maybe she was.
When I let House in he cut a path straight to Josie’s room but then he just stopped and acted strangely cool toward the baby. Skirting her basinet in a broad arc and staring sidelong, he moved slowly, in stops and starts, like he didn’t recognize her.
When he did hop up to the edge of her basinet, he sniffed her very cautiously and tapped her with a paw, like he’d do with a chewed mouse when he wasn’t sure if it was alive or dead. Then he just retreated to the dresser above her and sat watching in distrust.
I gave him a quick scratch on the head and a cheek rub before I left but as I moved past, something brushed my leg. The damn Wisteria had grown back up the side of the house and snuck a green shoot in through the screen, broadening until it had split the mesh like pantyhose and bloomed in a beautiful spray of lavender.
It was pretty, but I couldn’t afford the mouse problems, so I snapped it off and set it in a wine bottle for Angie, then went out and trimmed the rest of the plant back again and set about fixing the screen before any more mice decided to find their way in.
The cat’s behaviour had shaken me a bit and I kept an eye on him, but he didn’t show any signs of hostility toward her. Nor was he as cuddly as he usually was. In fact, I never saw him move from his perch. Not for days.
When he did make his move, it was in the night.
Three days after the excitement, we were jolted awake by Josie’s agonizing screams. I was up and out of bed before I knew why; had leapt clear across the bedroom to the door trailing our sheets, with Angie on my heels.
We burst through the nursery door to find the cat sitting astride the baby, viciously scratching and digging into her chest. The baby’s blood soaked her little frilly gown, shredded as the skin on her chest.
I didn’t stop to think, I didn’t stop to feel betrayed or bewildered. I grabbed House by the neck and threw him across the room, chased him, kicking at him to get him out the door and still he tried to dodge and get past me. His attention was riveted on the baby and the intent in his eyes was predatory.
We manoeuvred and stale-mated each other for seconds until finally I hooked my foot under his belly and punted the bastard through the hall and over the railing. I didn’t care where or how he landed. He would be gone by morning.
I turned to find my wife hysterically sobbing and cradling our bleeding, shrieking, daughter. She was too upset to move and I was too frantic to stall, so I hoisted the both of them in my arms, pounded down the stairs and out the door to the car; raced to the hospital.
I hate hospitals. I hate doctors and nurses and lab techs and receptionists who all bustle about with too much clinical detachment to truly understand how much pain and emotional trauma you’re in when you rush your baby girl through those doors, covered in her blood, with her chest torn open, not knowing if she’ll make it, praying to God, the universe, and anyone else; praying that she keeps breathing long enough…
Just a little longer, girl. Just a little more. I’ve got you, we’re here now, don’t give up.
Doors swung wide, my whole world admitted through them. Josie on a gurney, speeding down the hall. Crimson hands clamping my blood-soaked shirt to her wounds. Doors… people… lights rushing overhead in an endless tunnel until we were finally into the ER.
Angie and I helped the night staff hold her as she screamed and writhed and hands appeared alongside and in between. Nameless faces in scrubs, shouting, moving; syringes, sponges, iodine, sutures…
Gloved fingers moved in flurried bouts, tending to her deep, multiple lacerations. The fear and anger were exhausting and I thought either of us would faint as the night wore on.
The cat’s claws had torn up her chest, her abdomen, both thighs and her left arm. It was a miracle he didn’t slash her femoral or carotid arteries. The claws had sunk so deep, they’d dug into the soft bone of her sternum and ribs. She would have scars for the rest of her life… if she surv-
….She would have scars.
It took two hours to close her up. Two hours, a blood transfusion, thirty-four sutures and dozens of tiny butterfly bandages. By the time we had finished, the morning shift doctor was finally coming on duty.
Almost immediately, however, he noticed signs of infection setting in and started the little girl on a stronger regimen of antibiotics. Cats, he explained, like many predators, carry an awful assortment of bacteria sheathed with their claws, so that even when a wounded prey animal gets away, it will usually die of sepsis.
And as the fucking cat had never had a rabies shot in its miserable life, little Josie had to endure that, too.
Two days later, we returned home with the baby. In our haste to leave, we had left the door open and the cat had had the sense to flee. If it had still been there, I don’t think I would have given it to a neighbour, or surrendered it to the Humane Society. At that point, I probably would have drowned the fucker.
But that didn’t happen.
It was for the best. At that moment, my family was as whole as it would ever be, and healing. We stayed inside, we cuddled with Josie on the couch, just tried to savour each moment, suddenly aware of how easily it could have all been taken from us.
But the crying never seemed to cease. She was on a cocktail of strong antibiotics and as strong a painkilling regimen as her tiny body could handle, which was simply never enough. She was in excruciating pain and having to watch her endure it, knowing we could do nothing was an unending torment for us.
We fussed over her bandages and kept her wounds immaculate; knowing that if they didn’t knit up, the next step would be a skin graft. But nothing we did seemed to help. She had a discharge that constantly oozed and left her wounds and anything touching them encrusted and scaly. She screamed and grabbed at our hands, flailing her tiny arms whenever we tried to change her dressings.
The drugs wrought havoc her stomach and the only way we could get them into her, short of jabbing her with more needles, was to mix them in with Angie’s breast milk. But with both of us tending anxiously to Josie, not stopping to sleep or eat for two days, she was having trouble producing.
Barely able to pull myself away, fighting the feeling in my gut, I ran out for fast food late one night and sped home to find the house eerily silent.
In my panic, my stomach in knots, I bolted through the door and in through the kitchen, only to find Angie sitting in her nana’s old rocker, Josie’s head over her shoulder, finally asleep. I stepped softly toward her, relief washing over me until I was close enough to see the tears streaming down her reddened face in the moonlight.
She peeled the baby from her shoulder, a glistening nest of green strings drawing out from a dark stain crusting her shirt. Her lips moved and trembled, unable to conjure words.
She’s getting worse.
Another night and a day in the hospital. More lab tests. More doctors and nurses. Opening the sutures; removing dressings stuck to her in some kind of fibrous, scaly crust; debriding the wounds as my little girl screamed and shook.
More perplexed looks.
Cultures and lab reports came back showing some kind of contaminant growth. Not MRSA, not regular strep or staph, campylo or candida, or any of the litany of god-awful abbreviations which had recently entered our vocabulary.
“Cellulose,” I overheard a lab tech say, “The only thing I can recognize is organic cellulose. Like plant fibres.”
After that, the doctor began looking at us strangely; questioning us separately; asking pointed questions about how long the baby had been left alone and where. What sort of traditional medicines we’d been using on her…
“Herbal poultices, some kind of bark plaster, Eastern healing…” he said, “Anything. We just need to know…. You are… native….right? Is this the word?”
My wife and most of the ER watched me lose my shit and scream at the doctor until he backed up far enough to reach the assistance button on an empty bed.
We returned home again. Without answers.
The best they could offer was a mildly stronger sedative for little Josie, as her blood tests showed her liver and kidneys functioning well enough under the onslaught so far. Sometime around midnight, cradled in Angie’s arms in our bed, she finally nodded off, fitfully. And having barely slept for the past week, we obligingly followed suit. It was the first moment of peace my family had felt in so long.
It must have been shortly before dawn that I woke, fetched to the surface by what I remembered as the smooth contented gurgles of a happy and healthy baby girl. As I opened my eyes in the predawn darkness, I could just make out the silhouette of my wife quietly rocking our little girl as she cooed and clucked and spit up a little.
Then the moon passed from behind a cloud and cast a hard light upon us and I saw then what I had missed before – that the gurgling was not coming from our daughter, but from Angie, immobilized and being strangled. Vomit bubbled up from between her rigid jaws, her limbs stiff as iron as she spasmed in the grip of some kind of seizure.
Pieces of Josie’s body were scattered amidst the tangle of roots and vines that had burst out of it and they were choking my wife, binding her arms and legs, crushing the life out of her.
Our baby wasn’t ok; she wasn’t going to get better, and what had risen from her little broken body was a cadaverous green and scaly thing that spread up the walls and across the ceiling; had slithered and begun to weave itself around the bed frame and, I realized too late, my own legs and arms.
I could see then, in the cold light of reality, that the vines and roots were enshrouding her, wrapping and entwining further around her, crushing her ribcage and worming through her flesh. Feeding on her.
Her face was ashen, her eyes bulged and glassy, and the puke she choked on had stopped spurting. No movement but the agonal reflex of her jaw.
I was bound to the bed on my side, arms trussed behind me, unable to do anything but stare into my wife’s eyes as she died, helpless and alone.
As I knew I soon would.
Panicking and angry – at the doctors, at the cat, at myself – I floundered violently, slamming myself around and shuddering the bedframe as dozens more vines snaked towards the movement. The more I twisted and wrenched my wrists, the tighter they got, until I could feel nothing in my arms but the skin they were tearing off.
Options running low and scarcely able to breath or move anything but my head, I clamped my jaws down on the closest vine. It was woody and bitter, but soft enough to do damage, and to my satisfaction, I felt it recoil.
I bit it again, harder, felt my teeth meet and nearly sever the vine and so I bit another one, and another. They bucked wildly and tightened their grip, knocking the wind out of me, but I had done them some damage so I continued until finally, in their wild convulsions, I was able to tear one hand free.
The roots were on me then, as an octopus killing a lobster, and there was no hope for the other arm. I flailed the free one around, casting about for something – a letter opener, a glass, a picture frame – anything with which to inflict damage! But the struggle had knocked over everything around me.
My fingers at last caught the lamp cord, plug clinging narrowly to the socket, and I fumbled for it with the tips of clawing fingers. The vines were wrapping around my face and neck now, invading my mouth and trying for my eyes. There was no more air to be had.
One final swipe and I caught the cord! I quickly wrapped it around my hand, drawing the lamp toward me and then like a yoyo, drew it up in one yank and caught it.
Armed with a battering ram, I swung the heavy brass base blindly in broad arcs, smashing into every vine and root I could hit. In turn, the remaining tendrils bit harder, bearing down and tearing me away from the bed.
Ribs cracking under the strain, choking on the roots in my mouth and unable to gasp, I felt myself slipping away and made one last ditch effort to get the mass of roots off my face, biting into them with adrenaline strength and aiming for my own head with the edge of the lamp base, bludgeoning myself, busting at the roots, and breaking my own jaw.
It was all I could do just to stay alive as tendrils and suckers slowly coiled their way up my free arm. But before they did, I succeeded in tearing the cluster of roots away from my face right before it climbed up the wall, raining down ceiling tiles, and anchoring itself in the rafters.
Eyes and mouth cleared for a bristling moment, I caught sight of the thing killing me and right then the futility of it all cut the fight out of me. For every vine I severed, two or three more had branched off and grown from the wound. It was like a goddamned hydra. I wasn’t winning; I was barely slowing it down and I was making it fucking bigger.
It now occupied half the room. It was climbing into the attic and drawing what was left of me with it. No question, there was no chance of winning. I took what little strength remained in my nearly enveloped right arm and threw the lamp base as far as I could before tendrils attacked my face again.
The only thing I’d done right in days was hit my mark right then. The east window shattered, I yanked a swarm of green shit out of my mouth and screamed as loud as I could with broken ribs and a broken jaw and no room to gasp, all on the unlikely chance that someone, somewhere close by might be walking their dog at 5am on a Sunday; that someone out there might hear me and come to my aid.
But there was no one out there. Not then.
And as the last of my vision was crowded out by the squirming tendrils crawling over my face, penetrating my nostrils and mouth, digging into my ears and clenched eyes; my final sight of the demolished room, lit by the white glow of the upended TV, was of a tiny figure framed by the broken window, with pointed ears and green glowing eyes.
Under the immense pressure, the pain, the multiple concussions, and the sustained lack of oxygen, my body finally gave out and I felt myself drift away.
I can’t know how long I was out, but when I came to again, I was being thrown around the room like a chew toy. The vines bucked and swung me about, crashing into walls, floor and ceiling, and loosening their grip.
No idea what was happening, I saw my chance and took it, breaking both hands free and tearing at the vines around my face and chest, feeling the tendrils tear out of my flesh as they reluctantly came away. The thing seemed almost to roar as the splintering wood and failing cinder block crashed down around us.
Blinking blood away, I saw those green eyes again, leaping towards me, and I understood. The cat had come back.
And he had not come alone.
Dozens of cats were pouring through the shattered balcony window, climbing into the fray and attacking the violently flailing vines. An ever-growing army launched itself at the monstrous thing with tooth and talons bared, with the ferocity of lions and the organisation of fire ants.
They leapt on to the writhing vines, working together, attacking weakness, biting and tearing into them. Where I had only slowed them down, even spread them, they knew how to kill them, viciously tearing into the base of each vine, biting off every tendril and spraying cat piss on everything that moved.
It cauterized the amputated stump – seemed to poison it – and with the loss of each limb, brandishing only a weakened, clumsy remnant, it began tearing at its own limbs, trying to force new growth as it grew ever smaller.
The giant Maine Coon and two large tailless Manxes attacked the vines that bound me until finally, in the midst of its wounded thrashing, it let go, slinging me through the drywall and splintered two-by-four studs, into the closet.
Crawling out in excruciating pain, coughing bloody phlegm onto the powdered gypsum beneath me, and scarcely able to breath, I surveyed the ongoing battle as plaster streamed down and the floor shuddered and heaved, near to collapsing beneath us.
The floor was littered with clothes and debris; chunks of vine, writhing and dying; and cats, injured, bloodied, or torn in half. But mostly, my eye was drawn to what remained of the killer vine, suckers and tendrils gone, reduced to a fraction of its size now, and struggling with atrophied stumps and few remaining vines to save itself.
I saw House, attacking the base of the trunk, caught and dragged into the bloody mass of roots and bones, three small Scottish Folds sucked in close behind.
I felt beneath me and found one of the fire extinguishers I had purchased months ago when it became clear that we would soon be three and I felt it my duty to do everything necessary to ensure the safety of my family.
I pulled myself painfully to my feet, hefting the 20 lb canister along with me, ducking bullwhip vines and leaping cats and limping for the heart of the bastard as pieces of limbs and cat fur rained down around us.
Before I reached it, the root ball contracted sharply like it had been gut-punched and began swinging its last heavy limbs in maddening pain, barely missing me and striking devastating blows to the broken floor joists, which began a collapse that dropped the whole center of the room several feet.
The fucker knew it was going to die and there was no question it was intent on making every one of us pay for it.
Pulling the pin, I aimed the nozzle at the dying plant and squeezed the trigger, enveloping us in a cold cloud of frigid dry ice. I didn’t wait for it to clear, I just kept firing until it ran out. What was left was a decrepit, lumbering, frost damaged trunk that continued to writhe and squirm, trying to crush House and the others who were deep inside the roots, killing it from within.
I swung the canister over my head with my one working arm and brought the edge down sharply into the trunk. It swung maddeningly around, breaking through the wall and before it hit me, I swung again, dead center in the frozen patch, with the impact of a cannon shot, blowing chunks of it away.
Then it caught me and the world moved. I lost hold of the canister and was flung, cartwheeling back into the broken drywall and the relative padding of the clothes heaped in the collapsed closet. And with one sagging heft, the remains of the green menace collapsed alongside me, felled as it had fought me; killed from inside by House and the little Scottish Folds.
What was left of the east wall collapsed into a pile of rubble on the front lawn just as the first rays of the sun burst over the blood red horizon and most of the upper story fell the remaining feet into the lower floor.
Coughing up copious amounts of blood from a punctured lung, I made my way through the rubble and ruins of our home, over the destroyed bed and collapsed for a time in quivering sobs as I held in my hands what pieces remained of Angie and Josie.
And as I could do nothing else, and because the roof would soon come down on us all, I collected House, who’d sustained a broken leg and several puncture wounds, and we made our way out and down the rubble slope to sit and watch the sun rise.
The last of the legion of cats was filtering out when a frail old Asian man in a fedora, gilded by the morning glow, clambered up the wreckage to peer inside and then turned back to me, with a mournful look and a wavering voice, said, “Goddamned Wi-zhu vine… my niece had that. Terrible thing to lose a child to…”
He carefully picked his way back down through the slabs of stucco and snapped timbers; turned once more from the lawn to point a shaking, gnarled, old finger at House.
“Watch that cat! A cat will tell you….. Cats just know.”