TICK: Chapter 3 – Sour Milk

Tom stood back, admiring his handiwork.

The simple act of making a ham and cheese sandwich had turned into a terrifying quest of leaping over the chasms of the kitchen, wrestling with the bread bin, returning to ground level with two pillow-sized slices of bread in his mouth, accidentally closing himself in the fridge and smashing some of his most expensive crockery in an effort to get a small plate.

He’d built up a collection of bruises and cuts, but he wasn’t as beat-up as his breakfast: the bread looked as shredded as the cheese, which lay scattered more around the plate than on it.  He’d used his razor-sharp teeth to pick up the ham, which had somehow ended up being half-eaten between the pack and the bread.  Clearly he was even hungrier than he imagined, which was saying something.

Tom licked his furry chops.  No matter, he thought with relish.  Food is food.  Mouth watering, he tore a big chunk of bread off in his mouth – and after two chews spat it out.  It didn’t taste like the soft, doughy bread he loved: it tasted spongy and starchy, like a block of polystyrene.  His kitty taste buds weren’t agreeing with this human food!

Instinctively he ran his tongue along his teeth, removing any bits stuck between his teeth, feeling thoroughly depressed.  Not only had all that effort been a waste, but it seemed as though he was more cat-like than he thought, and human only in his mind.  But he was still Tom Verbrisser, right?  He stared at the sandwich, eyes locked on the thin slice of ham in the middle.  Well, he could eat meat fine, couldn’t he?  Dragging the ham out from between the bread slices and scattering cheese everywhere, he gobbled it up in one go.  It tasted as delicious as ever, and he immediately scrambled for the rest of the pack, gnashing his teeth ravenously at the juicy pieces, his instinct to satisfy his hunger taking over…

He forced himself to stop, pushing the pack forcefully away.  He rolled his tongue around his muzzle, licking away the debris.  Well, he thought; that had been embarrassing.  Just because he was a cat didn’t mean he had to act like one.  He was better than that: he was Tom Verbrisser!  He could overcome animal instincts, cat or not.

But now he needed to drink.  Milk seemed like an obvious choice, but he was filled with images of milk spilling everywhere, turning sour and stinking out his beautiful kitchen for weeks.  He shuddered: no thanks.  Water would be just fine.

He leapt onto the chair, silently praising himself for getting it right this time, and jumped and padded his way to the sink.  The cold tap gleamed with misty droplets, and even through his fur Tom could feel how icy cool it was.  Instantly his throat felt dry.  Placing his paws awkwardly on the handle he twisted – or at least tried to.  It was jammed tight.

He cursed himself.  Why hadn’t he got a plumber to look at this drippy tap?  That was why he’d closed it so tight: the dripping drove him mad in the night.

He tried headbutting it, and tried using his teeth, but it remained stubbornly still.  Finally, in sheer frustration, he threw his whole body at the tap.  It spun open, he landed in the sink, freezing water blasting in his face.

“Aaaaaagh!” he shrieked, scrambling against the blast of water that seemed to tear at his fur.  He leapt up onto the draining board, and spun the tap shut.  Breathing heavily, he felt disgusted at being soaked.  Sure, if he had been walking to work and some stranger brought a bucket of water down over him, he’d be none too pleased, but this…this felt wrong!  He could feel the cold water trickling through his heavy fur and spidering over the skin beneath…ick!

The solution came to him as naturally as blinking, and he shook himself vigorously from nose to tail-tip, not stopping until he felt dizzy.  Catching a reflection of himself in the drip-flecked chopping board, he saw his black and white fur sticking out in damp spikes.  He sighed.  Being a cat was tough.

Turning back to the sink, he turned the loosened cold tap until a gentle stream poured out, and he licked rapidly from it.  From some reason lapping up the water came more naturally than sipping it, scooping great dollops into his mouth.  Before long his thirst was quenched.

Now what?  Turning off the tap, he looked in dismay across the messy kitchen: the muesli; the massacred sandwich; the smashed crockery.  Nothing he could do about that for now.  What did cats do beyond eating?  Well, if Puzzle was anything to go by, a lot of sleeping, and going out.  He’d never felt more awake, and he wasn’t allowed to leave the house.  Great.

Making his way back to the floor, he racked his brain, trying to remember what he was meant to be doing today before the minor bother of turning into a cat sidetracked him.  The mix of the blow to his head last night and the shock of this morning had left his mind more full of holes than a slice of Swiss cheese.  He knew he had to prepare some kind of presentation…but what for?  Why?  When was the deadline?

There had to be something he could do to refresh his memory.  Maybe if he could remember what had happened before this whole mess started, he might find a clue as to how he ended up turning into a cat?  It was a long shot, but worth a try.

Clambering up the staircase one huge step at a time, he pushed his way into his bedroom and unzipped his workbag with his teeth.  His papers scattered across the thick rug, and he realised with warm relief that he could still understand English.  Still, without his memories, the pile of papers meant little, as if he had just found a pile of old schoolwork he boxed up and left in the attic to collect dust.  Some of it echoed deep within his memory, particularly when he pawed through some details of nearby Jacobsen Park, and some notes made in his handwriting, dated only yesterday, regarding a will-reading, but that was about it.

Tom whiled away the hours rifling through the papers, the idle hope that some of it would leap out at him fading all the time.  What could he do?  All he knew for sure was that this presentation he needed to give had a deadline, and it was soon, and seeing as he’d taken time off to prepare, it was surely important.  This was a nightmare: he couldn’t work on something urgent if he didn’t know what it was!  And even if he did know, what could he do? He was a cat!

A sharp scraping noise from downstairs launched him to his feet, his now-dry fur sticking up again.  Then a voice called:

“Hey kit, I’m back.  Where are you?”

Tom looked up at the high window.  The sky was flushing pink, the windows of the houses opposite reflecting a hazy sunset.  How long had he been up here?  Well, he thought glumly as he padded downstairs, however long he’d been given, he now had one day less.

He stopped halfway down the stairs, and looked down at Puzzle from between the banisters.  She looked absently around the house, her eyes wide.

“Well, it looks like Tom really is gone,” she said matter-of-factly.

Don’t sound too put-out, he thought bitterly.  Didn’t she care that he was gone?  Didn’t she miss him?  He shook himself – what was he on about?  He was here!  He was a cat, not invisible!  But he didn’t point that out to Puzzle: she wasn’t convinced yet; he needed to play this tactfully.

“And you needed to spill breakfast cereal over the floor to find that out?” he asked, clambering down the rest of the stairs.

“Well, sometimes Tom goes away for a few days,” Puzzle explained, “when he does, he usually sends someone around every morning to clean the nest.”

“You mean Marsha?” Tom put in.  Marsha was indeed the cleaning lady he hired to maintain the house and feed Puzzle and the fish whenever he went on holiday or business trips.  Nice woman, he recalled fondly: reminds me of Mum.

Puzzle nodded.  “If she didn’t turn up to clean, then Tom didn’t plan this.  He really has gone missing…”

Still no sadness: she sounded curious if nothing else.  Come on, Puzzle!  Tom yelled in his head, I treated you well enough, didn’t I?  I thought you liked me…he pushed the thought down and cleared his throat.

“Or turned into a certain animal?” he ventured.  She didn’t reply.  She scanned the kitchen, looking from the broken plates to the ragged sandwich to the puddles of water splattered in nooks and crannies.  At last she turned to face him.

“You really aren’t much good being a cat, are you?” she said, her eyes glittering with humour.

Tom walked up to her side.  “It’s me, Tom, I promise,” he assured her.  With a sudden flash of inspiration, he added, “I know how you like to be petted.”

She peered down at him, considering.

“Now that is something only he would now,” she said, tone guarded, “Go on.”

“Err…” he mumbled awkwardly, “you’re going to have to lean down a bit.  You’re taller than I am now; it makes things a bit…difficult.”

Puzzle crouched, tucking her front paws under her chest.  Tom gulped.  He had to get this right: his stomach still stung from when Puzzle last clawed him.

He lifted a shaky paw.  Fear was impulsively making sharp claws extend from the tips.  Well, that wouldn’t work: he’d risk cutting Puzzle, and that would hardly reassure her.  He sighed, resigned to the obvious.  He’d have to use his tongue.  He’d seen other cats groom one another with tongues, he knew it was natural and normal, but all the same, he felt hugely uncomfortable.  Swallowing his pride, he ran his tongue backwards along the fur on Puzzle’s neck, spiking up the hairs.  Puzzle’s back arched contentedly, and Tom proceeded to lick the hairs down, then back up again.  Puzzle gave her front arms a luxurious stretch, and purred deeply.  With every lick Tom felt more comfortable with grooming Puzzle, and it soon felt as natural as a handshake.

Finally, Puzzle stood up, and Tom stood back, slightly apprehensive.  But she looked at him with dancing, curious eyes.

“Only Tom knows I liked my fur stroked backwards,” she whispered, looking at Tom as though seeing him for the first time, “It’s…it’s really you, isn’t it?”

“Hi Puzzle,” he said sheepishly.

Puzzle leaned forward and ran her tongue over his head and ears.  A shiver pulsed down his spine.  It felt…nice.  As Puzzle groomed him some more, he felt oddly happy, in spite of everything.  A rumble rose deep in his throat.  Was he purring?

As soon as the grooming had started, however, it was over.  Puzzle brushed past him and headed for her feeding bowls.

“Wait,” said Tom, “Don’t eat that.”

Puzzle turned to face him, unsure if that was a threat.  Tom shrank back.

“Cats…cats can eat raw meat, right?” he asked

Puzzle relaxed.  “Of course,” she drew herself up proudly, “I hunt raw prey, after all.  The stuff you feed me’s okay, but nothing beats the fresh stuff.”

Tom winced, and headed for the fridge.

“Don’t give me that!” she snapped, “I don’t eat all of them.  I leave some for you by your door.  You’re welcome, by the way!”

Don’t remind me, Tom thought with a shiver.  He recalled the dead sparrow he’d trodden on last week, the bones crunching under his shoes.  He dragged out the steak, and pierced the wrapping with a claw.

“Care to join me?” he asked, “There’s plenty of it.”

Puzzle looked at the steak hungrily, but seemed uncertain.  Tom had once told her off for scavenging two rashers of bacon he’d left in an open pack.  At the time, he’d thought nothing of it, but seeing things from a cat’s eye now, he could sympathise.  Got to take food as it comes, I guess.  He hoped he hadn’t upset Puzzle too much.

“Come on,” Tom encouraged, “I’m hardly going to tell you off now, am I?  You’ve got the size advantage.”  Tom even stewed over the thought that Puzzle was in charge of the house now: if she was to force him out the house, he’d be powerless to fight back.  She wouldn’t, though, would she?

Luckily Puzzle didn’t seem to be thinking that way: indeed, as she padded over and munched deeply on the succulent steak, she seemed to be lost in thought.  Tom joined her, eating in silence.  This was the first time he’d shared a meal with someone since…since…he frowned.  He couldn’t remember the last time he ate with someone else, and he couldn’t blame memory loss for that.  At least turning into a cat had done one good thing: it had brought him closer to his one and only proper friend.

Finally, Puzzle spoke up.  “So, what happened to you?” she said through a mouthful of red meat, “How did you end up like this?”

Tom gave a hollow laugh.  “Your guess is as good as mine,” he said, “All I remember is following some cryptic signs to some dark place, being knocked unconscious, then waking up here.  I…I owe you my life, Puzzle,” Tom suddenly realised.  She’d mentioned her saving him earlier, but he’d been too in shock to appreciate it, “If it weren’t for you, I’d be in two pieces somewhere on a railroad.  Thank…thank you.”

“Don’t mention it,” she said gruffly, “Like I said, I couldn’t just let a strange cat die.”

Tom mulled over what Puzzle said as he tore off another chunk of steak.  That was right – Puzzle hadn’t known she was rescuing Tom, but she rescued him anyway.  Why?

“Someone wanted you out the way,” Puzzle said, cutting through his thoughts, “What are the chances you just so happened to lie unconscious on a BigMetalSnake track?  No, somebody put you there on purpose…”

Now Tom was even more confused.  Was it the man who’d knocked him out?  The caterwauling cats?  The maker of those signs?  Someone didn’t want him around, that was for sure.  But who?  He wasn’t popular with many people, but turning him into a cat and leaving him at the mercy of a train was…well, unusual to say the least.

“Thirsty?” Puzzle asked, “Here, my drinking bowl is full of milk.  You can share with me if you like.”

Tom blinked.  “S-Sure,” he stammered, and he stumbled over his front paws to join her.  Puzzle’s eyes glimmered, amused at Tom’s clumsiness in his cat body.

Puzzle leant over the bowl and lapped deeply.  Tom patiently waited his turn.  While he waited, he was again struck by the sensation of how odd this all was, yet strangely pleasant: he was a cat, talking with his own pet cat and sharing a bowl of milk with her.  Had someone told him yesterday this would happen, he would have laughed in their face and then moved a safe distance away.  But now…

Puzzle straightened up, happily licking flecks of milk from her muzzle.

“Your turn.”

He lowered his head, and slowly lapped at the surface.  The milk tasted fine, but it smelled slightly off.  A sour whiff shot up his nostrils, up into his head…

…and it all came back.  The sour milk smelled identical to the odour of the Old Dairy, the rattling bottle in the kerb, and the drink he’d had before the bizarre journey home.  Everything came washing back to his memory in a barrage of colourful images.

He sat bolt upright, spraying milk across Puzzle’s flank.

“Hey!” Puzzle yelled, licking furiously at her fur, “What’s wrong with you?”

“I remember,” Tom spluttered, milk dripping from his chin, “I remember what happened yesterday.  I think I know who did this to me.”

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