The night was calm and quiet. A cool and crisp October breeze blew softly down the suburban street shaking loose several leaves. The few Halloween decorations in the trees gave a final sporadic shudder as the wind blew by, and soon nothing else stirred along the quiet block. Down toward the intersection a sleek, lean neighborhood cat darted toward the road. As the cat began to cross the street it stopped abruptly and crouched down. Its eyes searched the other side of the street in a quick but thorough manner before it hesitantly began to move.
Again, as it reached the lawn on the other side, it paused and cocked its head to the side in a puzzled manner. Its eyes continued to scan around looking for whatever had caused this hesitation, but not a thing stirred the entire length of the block. As if satisfied that nothing was out of the ordinary, the cat slowly rose up out of a crouch and began to walk up toward the front of the house.
An old man smiled to himself as he watched the cat slink up the walkway, past him, towards the porch. As it has always done, time had given this once tall and healthy man a look of frailty and weakness. His thin, fading, white hair stirred slightly in the breeze and his sweater hung limply over his body. The old man’s face was weathered and aged and as he reached into the pocket of his cardigan, his hands appeared fragile and worn. He pulled out an old pocket watch and flipped open the clasp. He nodded to himself and looked back up at the house.
Although age had robbed him of his youthful body, it had done nothing to take away the bright, intelligent look of the old man’s bright, blue eyes. As he moved up toward the porch, he carried his small, frail body with a casual ease that showed no signs of arthritis or age. The old man walked quickly up the porch stairs and then moved calmly to a swing near the door.
As the old man sat down, he glanced over at the cat as it sat not five feet from the swing. It was quietly drinking from a bowl and seemed oblivious to the man’s presence. As the cat turned from the bowl, its eyes drifted toward the old man, but they seemed to slide over him and continue to search for whatever had startled it. It crept slowly toward the old man and as it came nearer it began to purr deep in its throat.
Again the old man smiled to himself and once again reached into the pocket of his sweater to look at his watch. A breeze suddenly sprang up and carried more leaves across the yard, and the cat stopped purring and spun toward the street. The old man’s eyes narrowed slightly and he watched as the cat arched its back and hissed. It suddenly took off down the porch and disappeared around the house.
“Not a very friendly greeting, was it?” an amused voice drifted up from the start of the walkway.
The old man glanced up and watched as a tall, attractive, young man began to walk toward the porch. The young man wore a well-cut black suit and shirt with an impeccably knotted deep red tie. He was tall and svelte and carried himself gracefully up the stairs. Though it was slightly sharp and angular, he had a handsome, friendly face and short, dark hair. His eyes were as dark as the sky above and he had a disturbingly intense gaze that was hard to turn away from.
He glanced down at the old man and a wide grin spread across his face, “Well, well, well, my old friend, fancy meeting you here. Was that little . . . creature, a friend of yours?” He cocked his head in the direction the cat departed.
The old man met his gaze with a level expression, “Contrary to your own misguided belief, no matter how well you dress, you can’t hide your true nature”. The old man smiled slightly. “Not everybody and everything is swayed by your expensive clothes and your winning smile.” He gestured in the direction the cat departed.
“Case in point.”
The young man’s wide grin returned and he moved toward one of the distant whicker chairs on the porch. He leaned forward with a grimace and wiped down the dust and leaves from the chair and sat down. The old man watched this without expression and again reached into his pocket to look at his watch. “You know,” began the young man as he unbuttoned his jacket and smoothed down his tie, “I do believe that they work you too hard.”
The old man glanced up from his watch and shrugged in a small, noncommital way.
“And they you.”
The young man laughed softly and his grin widened, “Oh, come now. I don’t mind my job. Decent hours, and a great dental plan. Besides, I so often get the pleasure of your company.” He glanced out of the corner of his eyes at the old man’s stoic expression and the grin flickered slightly. “Well,” he began again, “at least sometimes I enjoy our little . . . chats . . . ”
The old man stared at the other man briefly then looked out across the block. The street was again quiet and devoid of any movement or sound save the two men on the porch. As the two men sat in silence for some time, the lean cat reappeared on the side of the house. Its large eyes shone brightly as it stared in the direction of the seated men. The tail flicked nervously as it stared intently around and on the porch.
Again the gaze swept across and past the men without a flicker of recognition, and yet its demeanor showed its intuitive knowledge of the two men. The cat again hissed in the direction of the well dressed young man and raced back across the street.
The young man’s eyes narrowed slightly, and in the distorted light of the street lamps and moonlight, his face drastically changed from the handsome stature it previously had. His dark eyes flashed and the pupil and iris seemed to mold into a slit. His face twisted slightly and seemed to accentuate the sharp chin and high cheekbones. The bright grin now resembled a sneer of contempt or hatred, and the previously perfect teeth were jagged and stained.
As the cat sprinted across the street, its legs seemed to give way underneath it. It stumbled awkwardly as it tried to regain its balance. With a dull thump, it ran head first into the rear tire of a car parked on the street. The cat’s body crumbled instantly and it moved no more. As quickly as it happened, the young man’s face resumed its former good looks. He turned to the old man and his perfect, bright grin returned.
The old man returned this jovial smirk with a cold, icy gaze. The young man chuckled slightly and kicked his right foot over his left, “Please old man . . . you know as well as I that that . . . thing wouldn’t have lived much longer without this guy around to feed it.” His head snapped back in recognition toward the house. “It’s better it gets a quick way out rather than suffering the pain and fear of starvation that we know it will.”
The old man glanced back toward the lifeless cat.
“So why, I wonder,” he began softly, “would you show it the courtesy of ending its supposed suffering?”
The old man’s blue eyes met the young man’s deep black, and they stared at one another for several seconds. A smile tugged at the corner of the younger man’s lip, “Well, my old friend, perhaps I finally felt a little bit of compassion toward something. Maybe I took it upon myself to ease its eventual suffering.”
He leaned forward while keeping eye contact with the old man. His voice dropped to a whisper and the tugging at his lip broke out into another wide grin, “And perhaps, I just didn’t like the little bastard.”
The old man shook his head slightly and reached his hand into his pocket to again check on his watch. The young man chuckled softly under his breath and leaned back in the whicker chair. “Why are you still here?” the old man asked softly. “I’m sure you have other people to meet.”
“As a matter of fact I do. However, I just can’t get over this fall weather. Lovely, no? And besides, if we both show up for the same meeting, we won’t know who gets the honor of escorting him until its time. Why the mortal coil needs to be shed to determine their final destination, I’ll never know, but the anticipation is a real killer.”
His grin returned yet again. He reached into his pocket and pulled out an expensive, jeweled cigarette case. His long, almost delicate fingers withdrew a cigarette and with a cocky grin he offered the case toward the old man. The old man looked over at the case, then up at the grinning face of the younger man. He shook his head slightly and returned his gaze back to the street. The young man shrugged slightly and as he glanced down at the cigarette, a flash of flame lit its tip.
He inhaled noisily and leaned back, “You know way back when, we never met this often did we?” He again shot a look over at the old man and after several seconds of returned silence he continued, “I can remember a time when we were like two ships on the ocean passing each other in the dark. Barely aware the other was even out there. Of course, from time to time we would indeed run into one another, but it was a rarity, no? Now it seems that every other meeting I go to, I see you.” He grinned broadly, “what does that tell us, old friend? In this day and age the lines are blurred, things aren’t just two separate colors anymore, but instead have become a single shade of grey. We almost never know a person’s final destination beforehand anymore. Perhaps. . . they,” his hand gestured lazily toward the sky, “want to see the true soul untouched by their mortal shell before deciding.” He chuckled softly.
Without returning the younger man’s gaze, the old man again reached into his pocket to check on his watch. He frowned slightly. “You know,” he began, eyeing the cigarette the young man was deeply inhaling from, “smoking those things will kill you.”
The young man snorted suddenly and coughed sharply. Smoke sputtered out of his mouth and he leaned forward quickly. His wheezing laughter sent a chill up the old man’s spine. The young man raised one eyebrow in a puzzled expression and stared intently at the senior of the two. “Correct me if I’m wrong, my old friend . . but I do believe you just made a joke?”
The old man smiled tightly, “Well, now that you have been entertained, perhaps you’ll be on your way?”
“Ah you see, I knew you could be entertaining.” The young man chuckled and shook his head, “but I think I’ll stick around, gotta meet a quota and all of that , no?” He glanced at the old man as he looked at his pocket watch yet again. He raised his eyebrows, questioning, “Why do you constantly check that old watch of yours? We’ll both know when this guy's time comes and he’s ready for his meeting.”
“Habit perhaps. But regardless, he’s just about ready,” the old man whispered.
“I’m dying to find out who gets to meet with this gentleman”, came the soft reply from the younger man.
The two men were looking at one another, but their eyes seemed to be momentarily blank as if listening to, or waiting for something. Though, there was no sound or movement from the house or down the entire block, both men suddenly blinked sharply and glanced toward the house. Their eyes stared at the door of the house then slowly were drawn back to one another.
The young man grinned and nodded toward the other. For the first time all night, his smile seemed forced, “Well, you don’t want to keep our guest waiting do you, old friend? I’m sure that man has some serious questions for you.”
The two men rose to their feet in a fluid motion and continued to stare at one another. The younger man’s smile spread farther and he turned to leave, “I’m sure we’ll cross paths again, old friend. Perhaps I’ll get the next one? Until then . . . ”
The old man turned and watched him walk away. A slight smile played on his lips, “Until then . . . Godspeed.”
The young man spun quickly around and for a moment he staggered slightly. Again his eyes flashed and his face was distorted. A look of shock and pain washed across his face and he bared sharp and jagged teeth. A slight hiss escaped his lips, and his body gave a sharp, almost involuntary shudder. He lowered his head slightly, and when he brought it back up, his appearance was as it had been. His handsome face beamed and his grin seemed almost genuine. He bowed his head slightly toward the old man, “I appreciate your sentiments, and I would love to reciprocate . . . but to be perfectly honest, I just don’t believe in him.” He grinned again, spun around and strode down the walk way.
The old man watched him go quietly and soon the street was empty yet again. He glanced up at the lifeless cat near the tire of the car. He smiled slightly and the cat was suddenly sitting at his feet. It finally glanced directly at the old man’s eyes and it gave its tail a hesitant flick. The cat’s gaze found its own lifeless body and it stared for a moment. The cat snorted slightly and then glanced at the point where the younger man walked off and shook its head roughly as if to gather itself. The old man’s grin widened and he turned back toward the house, “Yeah , I know ........... I just don’t like him, either,” he whispered. He opened the door and hurried to his meeting.
Bio- Alex Bubis is a student at the University of Iowa.