The day humanity came to its end, Michael Thomas was arguing about Cheetos.
“Bullshit! Flaming hot is better. Just because they’re newer doesn’t make them any less good,” he said. He held out a freshly opened package of the snacks in question to his co-worker, Ronald.
“You’re messing with a classic,” Ronald said, propping his work boots up on the breakroom table.
“But you’ve never even tried them. Just one bite.” Michael held out a Cheeto like he was trying to feed a toddler.
“Nope. Don’t need to.”
Michael took the bite, overemphasizing his enjoyment.
“You’re an idiot,” Ronald said.
Their weighty conversation was interrupted by Tom, their boss. He’d silently slinked up to the door of the breakroom, a skill he was probably more proud of than he should be. “Hey, when you two are done jerking each other off, can one of you go check the tree outside the front desk? The ladies in Finance are saying they see a cat trapped up there, and they’re freaking out. Stupid cat should figure it out on his own, I say, but I guess we live in a world where no one wipes their own asses anymore.”
“Boss, flaming hot or original?” Michael said.
“Save the fucking cat.” Tom stared at each of them for effect, then turned and left them alone once again.
Ronald and Michael were the only two salaried maintenance workers at Sterling, a hair care product development and testing firm of about five hundred. This ensured there was always enough work to keep them employed and that every day felt a little different. Sure, there were drawbacks, and they were often treated as less than, but Michael and Ronald enjoyed each other’s company and found solidarity in the more mundane aspects of their job. Arguing about Cheetos was just one in a long line of petty arguments they’d regularly have to help on the more mind-numbing days. Rescuing a cat was just the thing they needed on a day like today.
They played Rock, Paper, Scissors to see who’d go, as was their custom. Michael shot scissors.
“Dammit,” he said, as he looked at Ronald’s closed fist.
Ronald smirked. “Shit man, don’t know what to tell you. I’ve shot rock first my whole life and it’s never let me down. You need a new play.”
“Next time, you smug asshole.” Michael clipped a walkie-talkie to his hip. Then, he left the room to address the last maintenance ticket that would ever be logged at Sterling Hair Care.
When Michael walked into the brisk fall day, he was immediately struck by an odd sensation, a feeling that something was off. It felt as though something was missing - missing from what? From the world? - but he couldn’t tell what. As he looked around, everything seemed as it should be. Off in the distance, cars sped along the highway. Down in the parking lot, co-workers chatted as they walked back from lunch. The wind blew through the trees, raking the cold forcefully across Michael’s pale face.
All looks just fine and dandy, he thought, just peachy effin’ keen.
But maybe that was it, that it wasn’t what he was seeing, but instead what he wasn’t hearing. Yes, something sounded wrong outside. It was as if the bass or treble knob had been turned all the way down on the stereo of the great outdoors. Still, he couldn’t figure out just what specific sound was missing.
Shit, Michael, who cares. No one. Now keep your weirdo thoughts to yourself and do your job. He pulled on thick leather gloves and walked to the tall tree below the finance department windows.
The tree was the oldest and biggest on campus, the only one the landscapers hadn’t planted. Its branches stretched up to the windows of the third floor. A cat could be hiding anywhere in there.
As Michael peered up through the leaves, which were starting to turn brilliant shades of red and yellow, he noticed the gawkers up on the second floor. The Finance ladies. Apparently, those women had nothing better to do today than stare out the window and “supervise”. And while this wouldn’t be the first time he’d climbed a tree, it had been a few years and he was keenly aware of his increasingly fragile body. He certainly had no desire to be the afternoon entertainment for anyone, especially when it could be at his expense.
He looked up at them and gave them an overly exaggerated thumbs-up, followed by a wave. He hoped they’d get the message. They didn’t. After a few more seconds of blank stares, he gave a subtle “move along” gesture, which seemed to do the trick, though their indignation was felt through the plate glass.
Michael turned back and squinted up into the tree. At first, he saw nothing. Just crimson and sunshine whipping back and forth in the wind, which was biting harder now. He scanned for a full minute as the old branches creaked against the gusts. Then he saw them.
Yellow and slitted, cat eyes to be sure, peeking around the trunk of the tree, as if hiding.
There was something else in those eyes, too.
Hunger? Michael thought. No, meaner than that, buddy boy. Deeper down than that. Hate? Could cats hate?
He felt like those eyes were anticipating something. And while the eyes weren’t dead, he sensed death in them. The cat’s eyes widened a little as drool trickled out of its mouth. It appeared to be smiling now.
Deep in Michael’s soul, an alarm was sounding. An overwhelming sense of dread overtook him, and before he knew what his feet were doing, they’d carried him to the entrance of the building and back inside.
He’d noticed three squirrels had stopped to watch him. He had walked right by them, but they hadn’t moved.
Stood their ground, he thought, shivering. For what? What the fucking shit was going on?
Michael leaned against the wall to consider what he was feeling. Did I really just run away from a cat? What the hell’s wrong with me? But, it wasn’t just that creepy-ass cat, was it? No sir, there was the sound outside, and those freaky squirrels, too. Right? Maybe?
The more he thought through it, the more ridiculous it all seemed. He felt a tinge of shame.
“You’re holding it together, Michael,” he said quietly to himself, glancing around to make sure he was alone. “You’re alright. Just a weird day. Just a weird fuck shit day. And you forgot the ladder. Had to come back anyway.”
He walked back to the maintenance office, where Ronald was laughing at something on his phone.
“Michael, have you seen the video where they put the chipmunk on the tiny surfboard and pull him around a tiny pool, like he’s water skiing. It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.” He looked up to see Michael staring blankly at the ladders. “Hey! Hello? Phone home, buddy. You okay?”
Michael jerked. He met Ronald’s eyes and tried to act cool.“What? Oh, yeah. Just forgot the ladder,” Michael said.
“How the hell you gonna get up a tree without one of those?”
“I know, right? Stupid.” Michael turned and pulled a ladder off the wall, still trying to shake the feelings from outside. “Ron, you ever felt like an animal was looking at you like you was its next meal? You know, like, it was whetting its appetite. Some shit like that?”
“Nope,” Ron said, giving it a half-second’s thought. He returned to his phone. “When you get the cat, come back and we’ll watch the surfing chipmunk. Animals are just too fucking hilarious, am I right?”
“They’re a riot.” Michael snatched the ladder off the hook and left the maintenance office for the last time.
Outside, the cool wind whipped his skin as his leather boots clunked against the cement. He took deep breaths in time with his steps, trying to rationalize his feelings. Not helping matters, the world was still muted. In the absence of that elusive sound, time itself seemed to be creeping and crawling towards him. Waiting for him. He shook his head.
Just your old ears, pal. These things happen at your age. Buck up, buddy boy.
His ears had never been the best, not since the car wreck. That nasty incident had taken his eardrum, killed two young women, orphaned a dog, and put him behind bars for twenty-five years.
An Alcoholics Anonymous bingo, he’d thought, as the judge had read the verdict. Please and thank you, Mr. Daniels. May I have another, Mr. Cuervo?
He'd been twenty-seven years old, with priors. He’d served the whole sentence.
He still had nightmares about one of the women, the one who hadn’t died instantly, the tall one he’d pinned between an alley dumpster and his ’67 Camaro. She’d been nearly cut in half, but just kept calling for her dog to come back, still gripping its leash. That was the last thing she’d done before she died.
In his nightmares, she would look at him, her skin pale and streaked with blood. “Where’s my dog, Michael? Are you taking care of it? It loves to play fetch and take short walks around the block. Sometimes I give it a bone. Will you give it a bone for me, Michael? Since I can’t. Because I’m dead, you see. You saw to that, didn’t you? And then, will you take that bone and shove it down your fucking throat until you choke on it? Will you do that for me, Michael?” And then she’d smile wide, showing a mouthful of cracked and missing teeth, and blood would pour out of her mouth as she pushed the car away from her mangled body. She would walk towards him, bones and tendons straining and grinding, with the leash outstretched in her hand. He would always be frozen in his seat, his mind and body numb with booze, as she’d put the collar around his neck, cackling as she did it. And then she would begin to tighten it. She would pull with all her strength until his vision darkened and his lungs burned. She’d lean into his ear, the smell of death and decay rolling out of her mouth, and whisper, “Cheers.” And then he would wake up, struggling for air and tears rolling down his face, wishing all over again that he’d died instead of them.
Michael took a deep breath. He’d leaned up against the concrete wall, lost in his thoughts.
I’m sorry, girls. I’m sorry. But I’ve got a job to do. I’ve got to help this cat, you understand. I’ll be back, I promise. He took another breath and slapped his cheeks. It stung just right.
“Just some bad thoughts, Michael,” he said quietly. “Hang in there, buddy boy. We’ll have that vacation soon.” He forced his feet to start walking again.
Michael arrived at the tree and leaned the ladder against the trunk.
Steeling his nerves, he took the first two steps quickly as he raised his head upwards. He immediately met the yellow eyes of the cat, whose orange scruffy fur he could now see billowing out from behind its peeking face.
Two more steps. He was up in the branches now, nearly close enough to grab it. The cat stared back, eyes glazed and glowing in the shade of the leaves. Death eyes.
Michael took the last step. He reached out to grab it, not pausing to let his nerves get the best of him. The orange tabby licked its lips. And then began the longest, and last, thirty seconds of Michael Thomas’ life.
As he began to pull on the cat’s scruff, it let out an unholy hiss that made his blood run ice cold. It wasn’t a cat sound.
Another noise answered, deafening and enveloping. The missing sound of the world suddenly came roaring back. Michael heard dogs barking and howling in the distance. Birds chirped and fluttered their wings nearby. And more cats, hidden among the branches and leaves, let out vicious screams as they revealed themselves. He was surrounded.
My God, Michael thought, there must be twenty or - and then pain exploded like shrapnel all over his body as the felines dug their claws into whatever fleshy real estate they could find. They all burrowed their five-fingered meat hooks in deep and pulled him tight against the trunk of the old tree.
Michael’s eyes raced around, overwhelmed by what he was seeing. A nightmarish flurry of claws and those hateful, hungry eyes. So many of them. The beasts licked their lips and began to bite into him with their needle-sharp fangs. The sudden bursts of pain blurred Michael’s vision, and he lost his grip on the ladder, falling back. But the cats pulled back harder, and he was once again stuck tight to the tree. Their prisoner.
The cool breeze ripped through the leaves and across his body, and he could feel that his clothes were soaked. He was bleeding badly. It occurred to him that he was probably going to die soon.
As the frantic onslaught continued, the pain began to swirl away into a cold numbness over his whole body. Amid this hellish frenzy, he was thankful for that, at least.
In this small gratitude, he thought, Is this it, then? Is this how I go? Maybe this is hell. Perhaps, this whole day I’ve been dead. Maybe I died in my sleep. In my sleep. Sleep. Sleep, what a thought. He wanted nothing more than to rest. He felt so light, and yet so heavy. Blackness began to slither into his vision.
An explosion of sharp pain and a sudden gush of wetness brought him violently back to reality, to the tree, to the pack of feral cats from hell who’d baited him, who’d played him, who were brutally killing him. The orange tabby leaned back from his neck as the two new puncture wounds spurted dark blood, rhythmically splashing the cats and beading up in little crimson drops. Michael’s eyes widened in horror.
Jesus! Oh, God, Jesus! Why? Why are you doing this? Why are they doing this? Can’t you stop them, won’t you stop them oh this is so fucked up the cats are killing me God so fucked up please make it stopGodpleasemakeitstop God are you listening?
Finally, in some last act of quasi mercy, the orange one wiped blood from its eyes, reared back, and plunged both claws deep into Michael’s neck wound, and then tore back violently. And then again. It dug at Michael’s neck flesh until it opened up with a deep red torrent that soaked the tree and all of the cats holding him tight to it. Michael’s body jerked, though he felt nothing. He was in complete shock now. As another gush shot out, his body went limp.
At this sign of apparent surrender, the cats loosened their grip and let his body fall to the ground. He landed with a thud and a squish, as his blood-soaked clothes began to wring out underneath his weight. He opened his mouth to cry in protest, but only a slight wheeze escaped, vanishing under the sound of the wind in the autumn leaves.
Michael looked towards the tree. The cats had spread out, now quietly licking the blood off their fur. Past the tree, as far as his dimming vision could reach, he counted six deer standing at the edge of the nearby woods. Had they been watching?
The largest of them took a step closer, then another. The others followed suit. Michael could now see that all of them, even the fawns, had that smiling, glazed-over look on their faces. The youngest of them couldn’t have been more than a day old. The deer continued to creep closer, making no noise as their tiny hooves stepped gracefully across the grass.
Michael continued to bleed out, his body cold, and numb, and shaking. His vision darkened more and more. The deer were brown, hazy ships drifting across a green ocean, coming to carry him away.
Away to…something. Somewhere. Maybe…maybe, he thought, this will be penance enough. Perhaps I’m going somewhere…good after all. Maybe.
Faintly, he heard the tall girl whistling for her dog. I’m coming, missy. I’m here and…I’m coming home. Coming back to you. Keep whistling, girly…I can hear it now.
And then, as his vision became blackness and his eyes closed for the last time, he knew what the missing sound had been. He had heard what the world sounded like when every animal went silent. It was the sound of every animal anticipating in harmony. The sound of waiting.
Gotta tell front desk…Charles…let him know…something’s happening. Michael’s shaking fingers hit the talk button on his hip walkie, long enough to make it crackle, and then the strength left him, and his hand fell limp again. Charlie, I…gotta tell you…I, I, I think I think I think that…shit, I think I’ve got to let you know that I’m…I’m… gonna get my vacation after all.
And then the blackness overtook Michael Thomas, and he knew no more.