A Cat’s Duty

By Spencer Koelle In Proton Reader Two

Tofurky watched the sanitaphage scurry along the couch. His legs were tight with tension, nose and ears twitching. The smoke-smelling Panic Attack seemed completely oblivious to his presence, its four wings folded back over the baby-like face on its back, stingers lowered. The root-like antennae coming from its eyeless head waved in wide, slow arcs, while the bell-shaped mouth sucked at the air. 

It slowed down and raised its head. The two stingers twitched. It unfolded its wings. 

Tofurky sprang just as it took off. The Panic Attack tried to swerve, its other head mewling like an upset kitten. The impact of his paws would have turned a moth or cockroach into a smear, and this sanitaphage was the size of a large mouse. Five of the hook-covered legs sank into the couch, like water into carpeting, and it tried to wrench around and sink its stingers in. 

He didn’t bat it around or let it crawl away, like regular prey. Tofurky sank his teeth into its thorax. It yielded a little, almost passing through him before it broke apart. It had no taste, but felt like the prickle he got from touching doorknobs after rolling on the fluffy rug. The severed stingers twitched twice, and the baby head gave one more indignant squeal before dissolving into a buzz that irritated his whiskers. 

Tofurky took a moment to groom himself, as he usually did after a successful kill, and padded over to his dish. To his disappointment, it still had dry, crunchy food, the kind with many shapes. He felt a bit thirsty, but the water was very close to the food, and water with food near it was usually foul. 

It hadn’t always been like this. Aasif used to open cans that smelled wonderful, full of juicy, tender food that satisfied his thirst whether he drank water or not. That food didn’t churn inside him, except for that one time. He always tried to be considerate and threw up where it wouldn’t be seen when Aasif gave him a particularly nasty batch.

Tofurky padded back to the couch. This whole house smelled like home, but the couch especially smelled like him and Aasif, and a little bit like Not-Aasif and Other Human. Not-Aasif had petted him but didn’t feed him, except some very rare times when she shared her food, which was even better than the juicy food. She had made lots of loud noises, though, and Tofurky hadn’t liked that, especially when she made threat displays at Aasif. Other Human had mostly ignored Tofurky, aside from the one time he had let Tofurky explore the big outside that all the exciting smells came from. 

Now there was no Not-Aasif and no Other Human. Aasif seemed less scared, but also less playful, and there was only bland dry food, not delicious food. 

A fly hovered over one of the marks on the couch. Tofurky forgot about Not-Aasif and Other Human. It was time to hunt again. 

The enormous sanitaphage outside caught Tofurky’s attention for a few moments. It was at least twice as large as the humans it passed unnoticed among, far too big to be a Panic Attack, Ennui, or even a Depressive Episode. Its five muscular legs each ended in a crooked mask, face-like but fixed, that grabbed hold of the ground beneath by biting it. The pulsating body hung with teat-like swollen protrusions, with sharp pale tips sticking out. It snapped one of its three toothless, throatless jaws on a stray Panic Attack, bringing up the leg to drop it into the mask’s eyehole. It sidled to one short human who was yelling while covering their ear. Its jaws clacked eagerly. 

A can lid creaked.

Tofurky shot off the window ledge and bounced off the unopened comfy box. He scrambled hard and fast towards the sound, swerving around the couch and bolting through the chair legs. Aasif was standing at the counter, smelling of sweat and coffee. 

Something went wrong when Tofurky was just inches away. His pads skidded off the unyielding floor. His claws refused to catch. He continued drifting, butt-first, towards the cold metal of the oven. 

Tofurky caught himself just before collision, recovered quickly and hurried over to rub his face against Aasif’s legs. Aasif smelled more like him now. He tilted up and cried to make the food come faster. 

Aasif ignored him. Despite this cruelty, Tofurky followed him as he dumped the contents into a bowl, but not Tofurky’s bowl, and put it in one of the many mysterious boxes. He reached down, his eyes dark and his face blank, to pet Tofurky. Tofurky repeated the cry. More scritchies were given, but when he opened the box again, Aasif took the bowl to his desk with the poke-and-yell box.

This was time for pretend eating, then. Tofurky’s human was warm and gentle, and always fed him and cleaned his sand box, but the human had some strange aversion to sharing his food. It seemed like he ate, but whenever Tofurky sniffed or tasted a scrap of the stuff it was completely inedible. When Aasif first brought Tofurky home from the scary place, this had worried him, and he left some of his food for Aasif to eat, even nudging him to it, or bringing him a small twitching gift. It was now apparent that Aasif ate somewhere, somehow, but kept up this performance anyway. 

A faint light flickered on the wall. Tofurky charged after it, fake food forgotten. 

Just as he charged, the glowing patch jerked away and vanished. This time Tofurky scrabbled to a halt before crashing into the wall. 

The sanitaphage was still moving outside, dragging folded wings twice the height of Aasif behind it. It stretched up, hovering over a human in bright clothes with a long blue toy dangling from their ears. The sanitaphage crouched down, dangling its bloated udders on their flesh, half pressing down and half passing through them. The external organs squeezed, and their pale tips shot forth too fast for a human to see, even if they could see or hear or smell sanitaphages. Tofurky could see them, as they uncoiled like one of his special toys, driving the serrated barbs into the human’s face, shoulder, heart and groin. For a moment, the human shuddered, closing their eyes, while the deflated sacks pushed and pumped. Then the dart tubes coiled back up into the masses, distending them again. The three jaws cried out in a frustrated discord. Many times a sanitaphage would pass through a human without effect, and Tofurkey didn’t know why. The vast sanitaphage stretched its legs out, passing through the human and another, moving towards the next house in the row and out of sight. 

A Panic Attack dove at the human from the grey sky, landing both stingers where the larger thing had failed, discharging the contents as its antennae went limp and the baby face on its back let out a gurgle of delight. The Panic Attack went limp and disintegrated while the strange human increased their speed. 

“Where is the darn error? I thought I fixed that already!” Aasif shouted. Tofurky didn’t recognize any of the words, but his human banged on the desk, and he only did that when he smelled upset. 

Tofurky ran over to help. Aasif pinched the bridge of his nose and stopped him from helping with the poke-and-yell box. After being called a “bad kitty” Tofurky curled up next to him instead, and got some scritchies. He didn’t understand why Aasif tried to do all the poking and yelling himself. Tofurky wanted to show that they were friends. 

They curled up together, and Aasif poked and yelled, then poked more and yelled less. This was good. They were warm and safe, and there were no nasty pests flying around.

Tofurky was startled out of Aasif’s lap when the shouting started in the house next door. It was louder, shriller, with more voices than usual. It seemed to scare Aasif too, and it scared him even worse when the smashing and banging started. Aasif did a lot of looking at his small noise box and the poke-and-yell box. He patted Tofurky, telling him it was okay. He didn’t smell okay.

Tofurky relaxed again, as the petting continued, and then chased the Red Dot around. He was just ready to curl up for a nap when more loud voices and knocking sounds came next door, accompanied by flashing blue lights.

He could just see the sanitaphage through the corner of the window, shambling out, unfolding its wings covered in white hands and red stripes. It took off into the sky, udders empty, trailing dark mist. It was going away, so Tofurky tried to go back to sleep. 

The next day, an Ennui wriggled in through the closed window during Tofurky’s breakfast. It moved slowly, grey and bloated like a long-rotten sausage. It kept bending to bite its own guts with the human-shaped mouth at either end of it, groping its way along with the four tiny hands at its middle.

Tofurky turned away from his food and began slowly stalking towards it. Ennuis were normally sluggish, but this sanitaphage could put on short bursts of speed. 

“I know it’s not your favorite food, but please don’t be so picky, sweetpea.” Aasif called over the poke-and-yell box. He was poking more than usual, and the yelling had turned into low grunts. Tofurky considered climbing up to help, but the prey was more important. 

Tofurky turned back, scanning the floor for the grey two-mouthed sanitaphage. They could float through the air, but only slowly, and preferred to climb for real speed. Ennuis seemed to prefer tight corners and close walls. It wasn’t near the window anymore, and it wasn’t on the far wall. 

Sharp barks broke Tofurky’s concentration. He popped his head up. There were no dogs outside the window, and he couldn’t smell any through the screen door. It must be a far away one.

Light raced across the floor as Aasif angled his small noise box. Tofurky charged after it. It vanished as soon as he put his paws down. 

Tofurky still felt hungry. He turned and headed back towards his food bowl. He nibbled and ate until the only bits of food left were spread out near the edges, where he would have to smoosh his whiskers to get at them. He wasn’t that hungry yet. 

The curtain rustled, and Tofurky looked up. Late, far too late, he saw the fingers bunch up and the sausage-shape contract for one, big spring. He ran anyway, skittering over the tiled floor, bouncing off the side wall so he could spring onto the couch armrest and climb up the curtain. Tofurky only got halfway before the wretched Ennui sprang, its form diving straight through Aasif’s curly hair with a gurgling chuckle. He didn’t react to the sparks running along his skin or the deep hum, but his body slumped down towards the screen. His poking slowed down. 

“Oh, why bother?” he groaned. Tofurky could hear the sanitaphage wriggling into Aasif, spilling out its phantasmal guts and foamy spawn. 

Tofurky reached up and added a few pokes to the box. Aasif didn’t even try to stop him from helping.

“Go ahead, Tofurky, you can’t do any worse than I did,” Aasif said, his eyes low, his arms sagging. 

Tofurky lowered his paw. Aasif wasn’t poking anymore, so he couldn’t show they were friends by poking the box with him. Instead, he gently kneaded the couch, like a long-forgotten source of comfort, and padded onto Aasif’s lap. He groomed Aasif’s hand and rubbed scent on it. 

Aasif moved his hand, and scratched Tofurky behind the ears just once. 

“Good kitty,” Aasif said. 

Tofurky knew he wasn’t a good kitty, though. If he was good, he would have caught the pest before it attacked his human, and now his human was hurting inside as the Ennui reproduced. He looked up at those sad, brown eyes, and Aasif looked back down at him. He managed another pet, even with the sanitaphage surging through him. 

Tofurky tucked in his legs underneath him, curled his tail, and sat there. The wrigglings inside Aasif seemed to slow when he purred. He stayed there until the Ennui hatchlings began to crawl out through Aasif’s fingertips. They were fast, skinny wrigglers, like inchworms, and Tofurky dove after them one by one. 

“And now you’ve abandoned me too,” Aasif mumbled. “Everybody leaves me.”

Aasif bounded down the stairs and manipulated the doorknob. Tofurky looked up from his catnip rainbow. His favorite human swung the door open, bringing in the smells of pigeons, yucky metal, and many other humans. Aasif made the getting-things noises, closed the door, and then rushed to his desk with a new cardboard box. 

Tofurky returned to chewing his rainbow, so he didn’t see when Aasif made the Big Noise. 

It was the clash and clatter a charging predator would make. Tofurky jumped into the air and couldn’t stop himself from crying out. He skittered off until he found a laundry basket to dive into, upturning it in the process, but he didn’t care that it was on its side. It still felt safer than the open house. 

“Oh no, Tofurky, dude I’m so sorry!” Aasif said, in a sad, gentle tone. 

Tofurky could still feel his hair bristling. This was almost as bad as the big loud dog walking by, or a large Depressive Episode clacking together the tragedy and comedy masks on its mandibles as a threat display. 

Aasif walked up, slowly, bending down to put one hand forward so Tofurky could sniff it. He did. He smelled like he was sorry. 

“Come on out of there, sweetpea. I’ll get you some treats. I think we still have one bag left that I’ve been saving up.” Aasif said, gently tickling Tofurky’s chin. Tofurky deigned to leave the safe basket, following his human to the cabinet. Aasif pulled out the bag and rattled it. 

Tofurky made the noise to tell Aasif that yes, he wanted the food. Aasif counted out one, two, three, and many treats. The sound alone had set Tofurky’s mouth watering, but the meaty, mealy, exotic aroma had him shifting from paw to paw. 

Aasif put one out on his hand, kneeling, and Tofurky took it, because even though he had been scared he felt very safe now. Aasif walked back to the couch and sat down, putting the other treats on the floor for him. Tofurky munched up the savory excellence, with just a hint of moisture, while Aasif began opening his new box. 

“Tofurky, you’re gonna love this new toy,” Aasif said, proudly setting something down on the couch next to him. It was a tiny poke-and-yell box! 

“Well, Tofurky, they expect me to finish this without answering my fricking required questions, so I’ll just wing it. You got any ideas?” Aasif said, beginning to poke. 

I love you, Tofurky meowed, poking his little poke-and-yell box to show how safe he felt around Aasif. 

“That’s a good point. I hadn’t thought of trying that,” Aasif said, poking faster. 

They continued, and Aasif did some yelling, a lot more poking, and another yell before turning to Tofurky.

“Of course, it’s obvious! Why didn’t you say something sooner?” 

Tofurky nuzzled his hand. If humans purred, Aasif would be purring by now. 

Tofurky lifted up his paw, allowing the Ennui to squirt away like a jangly ball. He caught it again with two quick jumps. It was too tired to get far, and Aasif wasn’t home right now, anyway. Besides, the chase kept him from getting bored.

This had been a rough night for Tofurky. His nap had been interrupted by lots of fast loud cars with flashing lights. Then, just when he had found a good warm spot to rest again, a loud biting fly came into the room, followed by a few squirming sanitaphage hatchlings. Then Aasif had left the house, even though it hadn’t been the normal time for him to leave the house, and that was the worst part. 

Tofurky heard unfamiliar human words and footsteps drawing near to his house. Maybe Aasif had brought back Not-Aasif or Other Human? Maybe he was bringing a new human into the house to talk and pretend-eat and do his mysterious things with boxes? 

Tofurky ripped the Ennui into four small pieces, then scampered into a mostly empty basket. (Just cutting it in half sometimes created two smaller sanitaphages).  He trusted Aasif, but he didn’t like new people in the house. 

There was an odd knocking sound on the door and more unfamiliar human words. Instead of fumbling with the mysterious knob, or shoving something through the slot, the footsteps moved over, towards the side of the house. Tofurky perked up. 

Three skinless jaws slathered at the window. A white mask, shaped into an expression of intense pain or longing, with two stylized wings carved into it, pushed through the wall without disturbing the cracked paint. It tilted in the direction of the yelling box, then towards Aasif’s bedroom. The eyeholes shrunk, and it made a sniffing noise, although there was no nose carved into it. 

Tofurky hissed and showed his claws. He didn’t want this pest to be here when his human returned. Maybe a threat display would be enough this time. He knew that the Depressive Episodes were skittish and rarely emerged when he was purring. 

Two more masks pulled through, followed by thin, muscular legs, testing their strength against the carpeted floor. The snapping jaws passed through the glass, and the unintelligible human words became clear. 

“Make them all sorry. Just give in. Make them all sorry. Just give in.” the jaws chanted. The alien words were strong with firmness and command, like Aasif right before he got up from his couch to chase Tofurky away from the oven. 

Tofurky arched his back, fluffed his tail, and hissed as loud as he could. One of the big outside cats would have backed down, but the impudent sanitaphage took no notice of him. Time to defend his territory. 

He wiggled his legs, gauging the distance and readying his muscles. Tofurky sprang, just as the thing straightened up on its mask-footed legs. He rammed, headfirst into the warm napping metal, momentarily blinded by pain. 

The mouths, far overhead, chattered, and the masks gurgled gleefully.

“Just give in. Just give in. Just give in!”

Tofurky righted himself and turned around. The thing was half vanished into the ceiling. Tofurky tried to bite the nearest leg, but it pulled away from him, the intruder keeping its balance by stretching out a wing that reached far into the kitchen. Above him, the teat-like glands wobbled and trembled. One barb shot straight down, passing through his eye and coiling around his spine. 

The cold rain, leaking through the dirty box, dogs barking close by, so many dogs, and angry humans shouting–

Tofurky pulled free. The barb flopped and wiggled on the floor, its coil loose. The fifth masked leg pulled through the wall. It was shaped like an angry human laughing. 

Tofurky dived after it, claws bared, but it shot up over his head. He dived after another leg, which pulled up. By the time he went for the third leg, the sanitaphage had unfurled both sets of wings, and beat them furiously to get off the ground. Tofurky leapt up, swinging his claws at the stinging sacks, but it was stronger and faster, vanishing upward with a single cry of “Make them all sorry!”

Tofurky had run before, like when he heard the can open, or when Aasif asked “What-have-you-got-in-your-mouth?” This time, he ran faster.

It wasn’t until Tofurky rounded the curve and dived after his human’s sleeping room that he realized the door was shut. He still ran up against it, slamming the side of his body. He scratched and yowled, demanding entrance.

“Make them all sorry. Make them all sorry,” it chuckled through the door. He jumped up and batted at the confounded “knob”. It rattled tantalizingly, but there was no other effect. 

Fine then. He would deal with it. This wasn’t the first time that Tofurky had faced a prey that was cornered but out of reach. He backed up slowly, just in case it tried to rush him, then carefully folded his legs under him. His tail swished back and forth as he watched it. 

The wind kicked up. Rain pattered on the rooftop. Outside, another cat yowled, desperate with heat. 

Tofurky did not waver.

The first part to emerge through the doorway wasn’t the jaws, or the mask leg, or the wing. Three jiggling flesh-bags rose like pus from a reopened wound. Tofurky sprang, realizing in that instant that he should have dodged instead. 

The first white barb shot through him without effect. The second one lodged right in his chest. His breathing slowed, in the timeless moment where the pounce becomes the fall. 

Tofurky had let the Ennui get Aasif. He had missed mice and squirmy things that chewed through fake food. When it hurt, he had peed where he shouldn’t and made Aasif scream at things. He must be the reason why Not-Aasif and Other Human had left.

Another barb passed through him. Many more swollen glands poked through the door and launched their penetrating contents. One of them struck home, coiling around his insides, and then another. His sight flickered. 

It was too much trouble to clean Tofurky’s sandbox and brush his fur and get him food. The Before Family had taken him in, showed him a warm house full of bright colored lights and strange smells, and the human-kitten had petted and played with him, but that was when he was a kitten. He had done too many bad things, and the human-kitten no longer needed him to play with, and they had left him. Every human would leave him and every other cat would chase him out of their territory. Too much trouble.

Tofurky barely felt the smack as he hit the floor. His limbs felt loose as meat in gravy. His fur felt cold as the rainwater behind the big box of angry humans. 

Bad kitty. Bad, bad kitty. Just give in.

Tofurky had slept in many warm laps, gotten many scritchies, and eaten many succulent treats. Maybe it was time to stop. Maybe he could just rest here and not get up. Or maybe he should help it along, bat open the forbidden box under the sink like the bad kitty he was, and find the worst tasting stuff, and eat it. Just give in. Then Aasif would know he wasn’t loved. Make them sorry. 

The door handle rattled and shook, but it wasn’t moving. No, it was the door downstairs. 

The sanitaphage strode over him, one mask carved with tears, the other sticking out its tongue and puffing its cheeks. The stingers were already pulling back up into their plump sacks. The jaws chattered with anticipation.

Make them sorry. Make them sorry.

Tofurky forced life into his numb limbs. He began, crawling, then staggering. 

The door swung open, bringing a wave of sounds and scents from outside. 

“Tofurky, I’m home! I’ve got good news too! The client said yes!”

Tofurky ran. He bounded down the stairs, heedless of momentum, untroubled by the potential crash at the end.

The sanitaphage had passed through the railing in one swoop. Its jaws were stretched wide open, too excited to speak.

Tofurky leapt into the air, throwing all his strength into the momentum. He hit the hip where the rear three legs joined, then twisted as he fell downwards, slashing his claws at the engorged venomous teats. 

“My goodness, somebody’s excited,” Aasif said as he stepped over the threshold. 

The thing pulled back, baring the fangs in every one of its mouths. The five masks twisted into expressions of disgust. 

Tofurky skittered forward, slashing at the backs of the legs, then jumped up to swat it right on the jaw. He didn’t feel the contact, but he saw the mouths snap shut as his claws raked across them, sparks flying. 

“Settle down, baby,” Aasif said, big bags hanging in his hands. 

Tofurky would groom and nuzzle him later. He sunk his fangs into the tips of the wings, and the sanitaphage bucked back and wailed.

“Make them all sorry! Make them all sorry!”

It launched a volley of white stingers into Tofurky. He bit down and struggled to endure.

He should just give in. He should let the wind and rain finish what the First Family had started. He should drink the foul water behind the box of angry humans and let sleep take him. Just give in!

Tofurky extended his claws. He sunk his teeth into the flaccid stingers. The mouths whined.

“Just give in! Make them all sorry. Just… give… in…”

It was the cry of a defeated prey, like a mouse’s dying squeak or a disemboweled wasp’s twitching. 

Tofurky lunged forward, biting, scratching, and hissing. The pale light flashed at every point of impact, and the creature flapped its wings and shuffled backwards until it passed through the kitchen wall. 

“Make them all sorry,” it wheezed, like a hurt human, before the last jaw and mask passed through the wall. The sanitaphage was still visible through the window, so Tofurky leapt up onto the oven. He hissed and spat and batted at the window. The massive sanitaphage stuck out three tongues at him, then took off with many beats of its wings, to die in the dark or trouble some other home. 

“Sweetpea, calm down. Nothing’s there.” Aasif said, coming up behind Tofurky. He grabbed hold of him, mostly supporting his weight, and gave him a little nuzzle on the head before setting him down again. 

Tofurky meowed, trying to explain that the danger had passed, that they were safe, that he loved Aasif, and was glad Aasif scooped his poops and fed him good food and water and kept him warm and safe and dry.

“You are one crazy little goober,” Aasif said, chuckling. “But you’re my little goober,” he repeated, and the love in his eyes was as plain as the stingers of a Panic Attack or the glisten of chicken-and-gravy. 

Tofurky stepped forward and rubbed his scent on Aasif’s legs, to make it clear to every cat, dog, human and sanitaphage in the world that this was his human. 

“Dinner time!” Aasif said, pulling a familiar can from the bag. Finally, they were back to wet food!

Spencer Koelle is a stressed bisexual living in Philadelphia with a roommate, a partner, and four orange cats. He enjoys Irish Whiskey (when he can get it), fake meat and scary movies.  His website is www.spencerkoelle.com and he bites when cornered. Find him online @KoelleSpencer on Twitter.

Proton Reader Two

Welcome to Proton Reader Two
A foreword by Sami Lawson

Let Our Grief Be Fruitful, At Least in This Way
A short story by Jordan Hirsch

A Cat's Duty
A short story by Spencer Koelle

The Protector of the Forest
A short story by Katie Conrad

Baby Boy
A short story by Adam Fout

The More Loving One
A short story by Scott Edelman