“Move faster you lazy bastard, I’m hungry and the wolves are coming”
I nod vaguely, the best I can do given the searing pain in my legs, the sweat dripping from every pore on my body and the worrying burning sensation in my lungs.
“Son of a bitch. Are you actually slowing down? Are you really that out of shape? I could walk faster than this”
I consider suggesting that he does it but there’s not enough air left in my lungs to pull the double duty of moving and talking, plus I know the answer, or at least the vague outline of it, something along the lines of “shut up fatty”. I used to take offence at that, but he has a point, I’m out of shape and sensitive about it.
“Come on, there’s the trailer, get your lard ass over there and then you can feed me”
Like syringes his claws dig into my neck, poor motivation but the only way he knows. I can feel small drops of blood start to mingle with the sweat, oddly enough the new pain does help surpress the old aches, which is something I suppose.
A wild howl goes up in the distance as I stagger through the door, kicking it shut in the same inelegant motion as falling over. With a padded thud he leaps off of me as I collapse and walks around to look down at my unhappy face, his disdain tangible but easily ignored through the exhaustion.
“If you worked harder we wouldn’t have to do this”
I grunt, all the reaction I can offer.
“We should have gone out earlier, moved faster, we could have been home and fed hours ago. Get up and feed me.”
My muscles have gone limp now, defeated for the day but gradually the air is coming back into my lungs, heart slowing to it’s usual dull thud rather than the frenetic Irish jig it’s been doing for the last ten minutes. Still I don’t move, both because I can’t and because even I have my limits with him.
He watches me for a few seconds, eyes narrowing into snake like slits, disgust no less evident. A paw reaches out and taps my nose, a gentle touch, loving almost and completely false. Unlike the full rake of claws that comes next, scoring a line of fine read scratches across my slick and tender cheek.
“Don’t ‘ow’ me, get up and feed me, then you can die for all I care, in fact, hurry up and die now, I’ll just eat you where you lay. Although given the fat content I’ll probably end up with heart disease for my troubles.”
He’s exagerrating, I’m out of shape, not morbidly obese and I’m fairly sure he wouldn’t eat me. Well, not immediately anyway and he’d definetely rather I stayed alive, that’s why he’s here, that’s why he comes out with me, otherwise I’d have given up long ago.
With probing delicacy I pull myself back to my feet and let the overloaded backpack drop from my shoulders. It takes a second to be sure but I’m fairly confident I won’t fall over, although moving at anything more than a pained shuffle is out of the question. Excercise, or at least the sort of life or death fleeing I have to do these days, is a new one for me, like so much in this world.
“We found that can of tuna, I’ll have that. And the catnip, don’t tell me you don’t have any I can smell it even through the plastic and I’ve had a long day.”
I look down at him, still lecturing me even as I tower uncertainly above him. He’s small, even for a cat, his ragged black fur puffs up in a poor attempt to look bigger whenever I look at him but you can see he was the runt of the litter regardless. I mentioned it once, he nearly took my eye out, he has body confidence issues he said, before calling me fat for the fiftieth time that day. I don’t mind, I don’t enjoy it, but I don’t mind. After all a talking cat is worth the odd insult no matter who you are.
The backpack goes on to the stained and scratched formica worktop which dillineates the optimistically aspirant kitchen from the rest of the trailer and I start to rake through it. Tins of beans, bandages, a pitifully rare half bottle of vermouth, some sachets of cat food and, of course, the tin of tuna. There is no catnip, no matter what he thinks, but I know he’s fiending for a fix and I’ve gotten tired of explaining that to him. Besides, every time I try to he just turns the tables and points out the shakes I keep waking up with, we end up throwing addictions at each other until we’re both too defeated to do anything but sleep. Except tonight I have my half bottle, something to look forward to.
“Hurry up, I’m wasting away here, not all of us have layers of blubber to rely on when we feel hungry.”
“You want to eat sooner, go out and hunt.”
He hisses in a perfunctory sort of way and leaps up on to the counter, watching eagerly as I open the tin and then rushing in to gourge himself as I dump the fish out in front of him. I manage to make it over to the fold out bed before accepting my bodies final surrender for the day, although not before grabbing that precious bottle to see me off.
“We did well today.”
He doesn’t hear a thing while he’s eating so the words are said more for my own benefit than his. And we have done well, enough food to last a week by my reckoning, as long as neither of us indulges too much. Past experience, I admit, suggests that we will, neither one of us has the impulse control to stop but still it’s a nice thought that we might not have to brave the wilds again for a few more days.
“You’re right though, it was close and the wolves are coming nearer and nearer to this place. Might be time to move soon.”
“Move where? Wolves everywhere” he manages to mumble around a mouthful of fish.
We sit in near silence while he chomps down the last of his meal, barring the echoingly loud sound of my unscrewing the lid of my bottle and taking a swig. Outside another howl echoes around our canyon, it could be close enough to be terrifying but it’s hard to tell, the geological oddities of the place can play tricks on you like that. He doesn’t move though, just finishes eating and sets about licking away at the formica, rinsing the last traces of flavour from it. His hearing is better than mine, if he isn’t panicking then I won’t, not that I could do much if I did anyway.
“We’re better off here, you just need to learn to run faster, if we leave it’ll just be the same thing somewhere else.”
With another gulp from my bottle I lose the will to argue, the medicinal mix of fortified wine relaxing my body into wilfully tipsy apathy. I’m dimly aware that, as he’s a cat, his vote shouldn’t count for much but this is no democracy anyway and when he disagrees even the threat of walking away from him and going my own way would be seen as hollow. Besides, it’s an old conversation, a played out one. We should have left weeks back but we didn’t and now it was too late to worry about it, or at least we’d grown too lazy to bother trying.
“Maybe I can dig some traps tomorrow, sharpen some sticks or something.”
He leaps off of the counter and jumps onto the bed next to me, eyeing my bottle with the cynicism of a cat logging its rapid depletion for later use in an argument.
“Don’t be stupid, they’re giant, bastard wolves, not humans. They’re smart enough to walk around holes and use your sticks as tooth picks. They can’t open doors though, so you learn to move faster and we stay inside.”
Until we get caught and killed I think to myself, although as that’s the unspoken punctuation mark to almost everything we say about the future I don’t bother saying it out loud.
“Yeah, ok. I’ll start excercising tomorrow then.”
He always says that when he’s bored of talking to me, which happens at the end of most days. It balances out though, I’m bored of talking anyway and we both know that anything else we say now will be a false promise. By tomorrow we will, one way or another, have eaten everything we gathered today and then we’ll have to make another run into the ruins of the town. The same routine as we’ve followed for the last six months, everything else is just window dressing to our slow decline. For now though he’s slumped down next to me, his face buried in his fur and sleep rapidly slipping over him. He’s not even mentioned the catnip, he must be tired. I rest a hand on his back, ruffling his fur with casual affection, he doesn’t shake me off although neither of us mention the contact. As his eyes slide shut I hear one final mumble of ‘fat bastard’ before we both slump into sleep.
With a final tired gesture I drain the vermouth and fade away as the wolves shuffle and growl outside.
For more from me you can check out my novel Crashed America – available in paperback and digital formats. Or you can try any of my other work here – variously available as ebooks or paperbacks. All ideal escapes from 2016 and, if you time the reading right, you can dodge a chunk of 2017 too just in case…