The Thing in the Basement
By Gerri Leen
You can hear it, in the basement, behind the metal boxes that your human puts her outer-coverings in just when they start to smell good—when the boxes are done, she brings out her things stinking of flowers or fruit. She’s lucky you know the sound of her voice, because her scent is all over the place.
You chirp to get her attention. A cat would understand the sound. “Alert! Something to hunt!”
But no. Your human is frightfully stupid. She goes on loading the boxes and turns them on. You hear the sound of water, but you can’t see it. You’d splash in it if you could. Your kind has played in water since cats first walked the earth. You’re the original longhaired breed. Your lineage was explained to you by your mother, who heard it from her mother, who heard it from hers.
“She’s a Turkish Angora,” you’ve heard your human say when she’s complimented on your silky white fur or your bright green eyes. As if she had anything to do with them? She thanks your admirers, nonetheless.
But the water perplexes you. You’ve whiled away more than a few moments down here trying to find it, so tantalizing, but right now it’s annoying you because it’s masking the sound of whatever’s down here.
You’re a mighty hunter. That’s what your human tells you, as if you need confirmation that you’re skilled at catching vermin. Doesn’t she realize this is why you stay with her? Why any of your kind do? The first cat to move in with humans was a visionary who could recognize an all-you-can-eat buffet in the granaries. A bunch of cats followed. And the rest is history.
Not that you have to eat vermin anymore. Not when there is wet food and dry food and things she calls treats. But you could feed yourself if you had to. You don’t need her.
Just like you don’t need the cushy puff that conforms to your every move and that your human has put in the sun so you can bask. That has nothing to do with your decision to stay. You don’t need soft things and you can bask on the floor just as easily as on the puff. Nothing she gives you is necessary: you stay with her because it’s convenient.
She picks up the basket that holds her outer-coverings and says, “Do you want to play with the bird?”
You could, of course, play with a bird outside—if she ever let you go outside. You don’t need this stupid toy, but you follow her back upstairs because it makes her feel good.
Some time later, you lie on the ground panting as she puts the bird toy away. It’s just possible you have a toy problem.
“We do this to keep in shape,” your mother told you as she chased a red dot all over the living room of the human who raised you until you were eight weeks old. “It’s not fun at all,” she said as she careened into a wall.
Sure looked like she was having fun.
Your human is standing as she often does in front of the cold box that holds the wondrous cheese and the delicious milk. You chirp to get her attention but then turn, staring at the wall next to the fridge. The noise that was in the basement is now in the walls.
Mice do this. Your mother told you about it, thank Bast, or you’d have gone insane the first time it happened. “You’ll hear them, my dearest, and you’ll maybe even smell them, but you can’t get them when they’re behind the walls.”
But you think this is no mouse.
You find yourself growling before you can stop yourself.
“Rivina. Stop that.”
You don’t stop. Your human doesn’t control you, no matter how many stupid things you’ll do to get her to give you the wondrous cheese. That’s expedience, not obedience.
You know the name she’s given you—and when you’re feeling generous, you even react to it—but Rivina is not, of course, your name. Your name in cat translates roughly to Shining White One of the Sunlit Rocks. Your family line always uses names that end in Sunlit Rocks, the rest is up to the mother. Thank Bast, your mother had good taste. And that you knew her. You talked to a cat once who didn’t know her real name because her mother had disappeared when she was only a few days old. It was when you were stuck in a cage right after the humans in the white coats made you go to sleep for a bit and then you woke up with a very sore belly.
You felt sorry for that cat, who thought Trixie was a real cat name. She didn’t speak cat very well, either, and you had a hell of a time understanding her, but your manners are impeccable and you tried not to make her feel bad for being so inept at the simple task of being feline.
The sound in the wall moves and you follow it, growling the whole way until your warning, a sound that should strike fear in the very bowels of the thing behind the wall, is cut off as your idiot of a human scoops you up and holds you like a baby.
“Boo-Boo, why are you growling? There’s nothing there, you silly thing.” She carries you into the family room and you intend to get back to the wall, but she pulls out the silk throw you can’t resist, the one she’s hidden in the high shelf in the coat closet ever since you threw up on it.
She got it clean, so she really should leave it out and let you enjoy it. And yeah, you might throw up on it again and she’ll have to clean it, but what else does she have to do?
She sits on the chaise you like to share with her, and lets you cuddle in between her legs with the silk underneath you as the familiar sound of the moving tiny-human box starts up. Oh, you know this song. She enjoys the story this music goes with so much. It makes her happy and she lets off so many nice smells when she’s enjoying herself.
You settle in for a nap. That thing in the wall is probably just a really big mouse.
The thing in the walls is now on the upper level. You wake with a start and realize your human’s snoring was masking the sound of whatever has invaded your domain.
You’re about to growl but think better of it—she might wake up and stop you again. And this needs to be attended to.
You ease off her, hitting the floor silently, skidding a bit, as you always do, because of the fur between your toe pads. You’ve seen others of your kind on the tiny-human box, and they don’t seem to have the insulating fur that makes your breed thrive in bitterly cold and savagely hot environments. On shiny floors, though? You’ve wiped out cornering more times than you would ever want to admit.
You go slowly until you hit the carpeted stairs, then half run, half creep to the upper level.
You smell it before you see it, and you hear it before that. It’s hunched over the bed you allow the human to share with you and is sniffing your favorite pillow.
“Hey!” You yell it in cat because any superior species will understand you. If it doesn’t, you’ll know all you need to about it.
It turns. Skin is flaking off it much the way the paper sheds off the scratching pads and cubes your human gives you. It doesn’t smell good like they do, though. It smells…wrong.
It growls, the sound nothing like a cat or even a dog, and you’re sure that your human will come clumping up the stairs in her ungainly way, but she doesn’t. Can she not hear this? Stupid pinned ears. What kind of species would want ears that don’t move? Especially when there’s an invader in the house sniffing pillows and—is it drooling all over your worm toy?
You would puff yourself up the way you’ve seen other cats do on the tiny-human box, but your fluffy fur doesn’t do that. Still, you can arch your back and pin your ears and say, “My toy. Not yours.” You hiss and growl and you finally hear your human rousing.
“Boo-boo, do you have another mouse?”
You and the creature both turn toward the stairs. Then the thing dives at the wall, and you expect it to either careen off the way you’ve done during your more spectacular wipeouts or crash right through, but the creature doesn’t hit the wall so much as disappear into it. You leap at it, thinking to follow it and—well, you’re not sure what you’ll do once you catch it, but clearly it’s up to you to do something—but the wall is solid again and you hit hard.
Dazed, you slide down and protest when your human picks you up and begins to check your mouth—as if you’d actually eat a mouse you catch. Doesn’t she understand you leave her the carcass-gift to reward her for giving you the wondrous cheese and the delicious milk? Even if she doesn’t give you them as often as you’d like. You wish you understood what “lactose intolerant” meant.
“Rivina, you gave me a scare. I thought a snake had gotten in here.” She puts you on the bed and goes into the room of running water.
Normally you would join her and make her turn on the faucet for you or you might jump into the large tub and chew the clear shiny thing that lines it. But tonight you just sit and listen for where the thing has gone.
The house is quiet. If the thing is still in it, it’s gone to ground.
It’s all right. You’ve waited out many a mouse; you can wait this thing out.
You jump down to check on your worm toy. Where the thing’s drool hit, the fluff has come off your toy and it smells funny.
Damn it all: this is your second favorite toy. You’ve had it since your human first brought you home. The thing will pay for its disrespect.
You prowl the next day. No rest for you—you forgo at least half of your hourly snoozes to patrol. You’re exhausted and your human isn’t feeding you enough to work this hard.
Now would be a good time for some delicious milk.
You’re in the basement, sniffing along the wall where you first heard the thing when you smell it and turn. It’s standing by a door your human never shuts. The thing howls in a way you know means triumph and slips out, slamming the door shut behind it. You can hear it on the stairs, and you’re glad your human is wherever she goes most days during the basking hours. Usually she isn’t back until dark. Plenty of time to get out of this room.
You push the door the way you do for the small room of running water, when your human has company who think to keep you out. The small room’s door doesn’t shut all the way and they are always surprised at your skill in opening it. Your human usually sounds embarrassed and calls you. You just lie down and wait the human visitors out. Some get uncomfortable, some ignore you, but some smell like others of your kind, and you will befriend them in honor of their own cats. To add distinction to their smell, if they’re sitting down on the water-throne, you crawl into their inner outer-coverings that pool on the floor around their ankles. Not everyone appreciates this.
But this door is not giving the way the small room of running water’s door gives. It’s standing firm against you.
You’ve seen your human open the room of outer-coverings in the bedroom. She pushes down on a bar that is like the one in the room of running water that holds the endless paper.
It’s not actually endless. You found that out when you were a kitten. Your human was not pleased when she came home and found you engulfed in a continuous stream of the stuff.
You leap and grab the bar with your paws, wishing you had eaten more because you are not pulling it down, but then you slip to the end and the thing suddenly gives. You slip off as the door pops open and you push it the rest of the way and run up the stairs.
Where is the thing? Its smell is all over the main level. You rush to the stairs to see if it has gone back to the upper level, but the stairs don’t smell of it.
Then you feel your hackles going up and before you can turn, you feel it scooping you up.
You don’t know what it thinks it’s going to do. You can tell it doesn’t expect you to rake the holy hell out of it with teeth and claws. You run up its arm and back down its back, turning around to take a deep bite from its ankle.
Bits of its paper-like skin are stuck all over you. It will take forever to get clean.
Your anger grows.
The creature moans and backs away. You make the yowling noises the annoying ginger tom makes when it comes around “wooing” late at night when your human is asleep. You hiss at the thing, and spit and growl, but you don’t meow because that’s for your human. You don’t trill either because that’s for cats.
The thing stops and studies you for a long time, its backward movement ceased. So you arch your back even more and step toward it.
“Wait,” it says in cat.
You stop because you haven’t spoken cat to anything but the stupid tom in a very long time. “Who are you?”
“I am a traveller. Who are you?”
You think that’s a title, not a name, but you answer, “I am Shining White One of the Sunlit Rocks. Why are you in my house?”
“Your kind are slaves. This is the human’s house.”
You bristle at this idea. “What did you say your name was?”
The thing goes to the front door, the one that your human shoos you away from whenever it’s open and you get too close. The thing eases the door opens and makes a sign you think means it wants you to go through. “This is your domain. Outside.”
You’ve seen how thin the tom is. You’ve also seen the many other creatures that live outside your house. Your house.
You don’t move.
The thing makes a frustrated sound, then says, “I am not your enemy. I only want the human.”
“I need this one.”
“It is a long story.”
You think it’s lying. Its scent has changed. You think it’s just lazy. Or maybe it can only travel so far from its nest, like some of the ants you’ve licked up or the bigger bugs you’ve caught in the basement to amuse yourself when mice are scarce.
“This is my human. I think you will not have her.” You stand. “Prepare to die.” It is more than you would give a mouse or bug, but they don’t speak cat.
“I do not want to kill you.”
You laugh, and it feels good. “I don’t want to kill you, either.” You like talking in cat again. “Perhaps you could just…stay hidden. The human doesn’t know you’re here and I won’t tell her.” Not that she’d understand you if you did.
“I am hungry.”
You sigh. “Fine, I’ll leave some food in my dish for you—”
“I eat humans.”
You close your eyes for a moment. “Again, though, couldn’t you eat someone else’s human? Next door there are only dogs. They really are slaves.”
“Your human smells good.”
You agree with it, if for very different reasons. “Okay, then. I guess we’re going to have to fight. It’s been enjoyable talking to you. By the way, you messed up my worm.”
“You wish to spend your last breaths speaking of a stupid toy?”
You realize this thing may speak cat, but it will never understand what being a cat means. How you carry your worm and other toys around with you isn’t just play, it’s hunting. It will never comprehend the honor you share with your human as you announce the movement of your toys—generally late at night when she has just fallen asleep. She rarely comprehends the honor, either, but you forgive her ignorance because…
Oh, hell, because you love her. There, it’s out. You’ve said it. And this scaly-ass paper-thing from the basement is not going to devour the human you love.
You don’t bother with warnings. You leap and it’s like the time you climbed the curtains when you were younger, when your human was away. Shredding them slowly, bit by bit until they were no longer hanging, blocking the light.
You thought your human would be happy you’d improved the room. You thought wrong.
You spare a moment to wonder how she will feel about flaky basement-living traveller-thing skin all over the floors she just used the vacu-monster on. Then you give yourself over to the killing.
It is a fine fight. The thing gets a few good hits in, one time even sending you sailing into the wall. But in the end, you lie panting, and it lies dead, in pieces, looking not unlike the paper scratchers only less viable. You can only find one eye, but you carry it up to the bed you share with your human and leave it on the pillow. You grab your toy and carry it to the bed, too, leaving it next to the spoils of this war.
Surely they will sing songs in your honor. There will be feasts with wondrous cheese and delicious milk, and the silk throw will come out and stay where you can enjoy it.
You hear the sound of your human’s loud-thing pulling in, the door opening and closing, the sound of her footsteps along the walk. You race downstairs to meet her, surrounded by the thing you laid waste.
She walks in and stops. “What the hell did you do, Rivina?” She walks over. “Did you tear up one of your scratchers? Why is it all over you?” She reaches down and you chirp to warn her, but she’s touched it and it’s stuck to her. “Ewwww.” She puts down the bag of all things and says, “I can’t deal with this,” and walks upstairs.
Surely your gift will please her. A trophy of war, the large gooey eyeball of the thing that would have killed her. Now the cheese will come out.
“Rivina, damn it! What is this?”
You know that tone. There will be no cheese. You slink to the basement and hide—err, strategically loiter behind the furnace—while she cleans up.
Finally her movements lose the jerky loudness of anger, and you creep up to see if she’s calmed down.
She’s sitting in the chaise. No silk throw, but she sighs and pats your normal place.
“It was going to kill you,” you say in the meow-tongue your kind made up to speak with humans. “I saved you.”
“I’m not mad. You’re just being a cat.”
“Yes, a brave, noble cat. It was going to kill you.”
She looks over at your other scratchers. They are all clustered in one corner because she knows you like to sleep on them when you aren’t sharpening your claws and leaving scent. “I think they’re all still there, though. What was that stuff? I couldn’t get it off the broom. I had to throw it away.” She looks at you like that’s your fault.
“It was going to kill you,” you meow. “Kill you. Kill. Dead. No more you.” You’re speaking to her like she is a kitten who’s been dropped on her head a few too many times. “You’re lucky I was here.”
She kisses you and you squirm. A mighty warrior doesn’t need a kiss. “Oh, Rivina. You’re lucky to have me. Who else would put up with you?”
You want to protest, but she’s doing the face massage where she rubs by your nose along your whiskers, and you can feel your paws going limp.
“You want some cheese, baby?”
She’s right: you are lucky. But so is she. Even if she never knows it.
About the Author
Gerri Leen lives in Northern Virginia and originally hails from Seattle. In addition to being an avid reader and an at-times sporadic writer, she’s passionate about horse racing, tea, whisky, and art. She has work appearing in: Nature, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, Grievous Angel, Grimdark, and others. She’s edited several anthologies for independent presses, is finishing an urban fantasy novel, and is a member of SFWA and HWA.
About the Narrator
Tina Connolly is the author of the Ironskin and Seriously Wicked series, and the collection On the Eyeball Floor. She has been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Norton, and World Fantasy awards.
She co-hosts Escape Pod, narrates for Beneath Ceaseless Skies and all four Escape Artists podcasts, and runs Toasted Cake.
Find her at tinaconnolly.com.
About the Artist
Matt Dovey is very tall, very English, and most likely drinking a cup of tea right now. He has a scar on his arm where he tripped in the fog as a teenager, fleeing a police drone after curfew. He now lives in a quiet market town in rural England with his wife & three children, and despite being a writer he still hasn’t found the right words to fully express the delight he finds in this wonderful arrangement. His surname rhymes with “Dopey” but any other similarities to the dwarf are purely coincidental.
He has fiction out and forthcoming all over the place, including not so long ago on this podcast, with episode 364, “Remember to Breathe”. He’s even an indentured servant I MEAN WILLING VOLUNTEER in the PodCastle slush mines, digging for the shiniest stories to present to the castle dragon in exchange for one more day of not being eaten.
You can keep up with the rest of it at mattdovey.com, or find him timewasting on Twitter as @mattdoveywriter.