Mallory stared at the floor of the upstairs study where a carton of peach ice cream was melting, the fruity milk soaking into the carpet. Next to that sat a bottle of Beefeater gin and ten feet away stood Bob staring into a corner of the room, wearing his tired bathrobe and holding a fistful of kitchen knives.
“Bob?” Mallory said.
He waved his free hand to quiet her.
“Don’t move,” Bob said, “It wants something.”
Mallory looked around the room. There were three small dents in the corner wall but everything else seemed normal: the desk heaped with construction paper, the floor trashed with cuttings, a half-empty gin glass stashed behind the pencil sharpener. There was the smell of something sharp, bleach maybe? Or peppermint?
“Bob, what the hell are you doing?” Mallory said. “We’re supposed to meet with the financial advisor in 45 minutes.”
“Just go without me,” Bob said. “You shouldn’t be in here anyway; you know I need this space for my art.”
“It’s our meeting, Bob. We both have to be there.”
Mallory walked over to the gin bottle and picked it up. The label was nearly scrapped off so she could only make out the word ‘eater’. Bob’s eyes flickered to her then back to the corner.
“Don’t come in here!”
“Oh, calm down,” Mallory said. “I’m not gonna mess up your vibe or whatever.”
Bob had blocked off the study six months earlier, claiming it was his “new process”. Mallory knew it was just another way of hiding after the DUI. He hadn’t sold any art since getting off probation and every week since then he’d come up with some new fangled solution for his slump. Of course, none of them had to do with sobriety.
All his misguided attempts to bounce back reminded Mallory of the times before all this, back to the day they met: sixteen years ago in Upper Division Painting at the university. It was the first day of class and she watched him that entire hour, hardly getting any work done herself. He was so careful, each stroke planted in just the right spot, like he knew where they belonged as if someone was guiding him. After class she asked him out and two days later they had sex in the back of the paint supply closet and again every night for the following three months.
The baby came in the middle of that year. Bob volunteered to dropout but Mallory refused. You can’t waste your talent, she remembered saying.
Now she watched him glare at the empty corner and wondered if he still knew how to mix paint.
“Seriously, we need to go. I don’t care how much you’ve had to drink, you’re coming. I’m texting the advisor to let him know we’ll be late.” Mallory set the bottle down, wincing as she did; her stomach still ached from her shift at the hospital. The new alzheimer’s patient punched her in the gut as his a way of saying hello. Half a second later he threw another jab but Mallory caught his wrist, gritting her teeth into a smile.
Bob crept towards the corner. Mallory looked up.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“There,” he said. “It’s right there and if I look away I’ll lose it and if I lose it then… well, it won’t be good.” Bob flung a knife at the wall but it hit handle-first and fell to the floor.
“Ugh, Bob.” Mallory rolled her head back and sighed.
“It moved,” Bob whispered. “It’s quick.”
She marched over to Bob, standing straight, looming two inches above his eye level.
“Give me the knives,” she said, her palm out.
Bob’s gaze shifted to her then back to the wall.
“I-no. I can’t. Mal, it’s not safe.”
“Bob, I’m not playing around here. Give them to me or I’m leaving again.”
Bob’s shoulders tightened.
“Mallory, I know what this looks like but I’m telling you, it’s not safe.”
“Fine, then you can explain to your daughter why I’m not here in the morning because I am not dealing with this nonsense tonight.”
A familiar thumping came from the stairs behind them. Rebecca appeared, wearing a tattered black t-shirt that revealed half of her left bra cup. She wreaked of pot and cheap body spray. At least she quit wearing those pants with chains on them, Mallory thought.
Rebecca had been transitioning through the various dress codes of teen angst: hiding in long sweaters, then wearing pajamas 24 hours a day, then black everything, and now something between punk rock girl and stripper… renegade groupie?
“What the shit’s going on up in here? Dad, what are you doing?” Rebecca said.
“Watch your language, Becky,” Bob said, still facing the corner. “Honey, you’re mother and I need to talk. Why don’t you go out for the night, see a movie or something?”
“A movie? What is this the 50’s?” Rebecca said, looking around the study, frowning when she saw the gin bottle. “What’re you two talking about? Is dad drunk again?”
“Yeah,” Mallory said, walking back to the doorway and leaning against a bookshelf.
“No, I am not,” Bob said. “We just need to talk.”
“Becky.” Mallory sighed. “Your father’s right, this might be a while. Is there anyone who can pick you up?”
Rebecca rolled her eyes.
“Yeah, I guess Chad could.”
“Chad?” Bob said. “That kids a jerk. I don’t like you seeing him.”
“Why,” Rebecca said, “cause he can still drive?”
“Young lady!” Bob yelled, still without turning.
“Oh, Jesus. Becky, here’s sixty dollars. Just give us some time please.”
Rebecca took the money, thumped down the stairs and out the front door, letting it slam behind her. The sound gave Mallory a measure of comfort. She wrinkled her forehead, wondering why she couldn’t have found a nice quiet boy to settle down with, like an accountant or, hell, even a garbage man; his wife wouldn’t have to deal with this sort of crap. She turned back to the study.
“Get away!” Bob yelled at the corner and hurled another knife which dented the drywall and fell.
“Stop, Bob! You’re gonna fuck up the house. What the hell are you on?”
“I’m not on anything. Stop insinuating… whatever. I was working,” Bob said, “on something new: a children’s book.” He edged towards the desk, snatched up a stack of papers and held them out for Mallory. She took the stack and looked down at what appeared to be a drawing of a cat…thing.
“His name is Doopli Cat,” Bob said, gin fumes coating his words. “He’s the messenger of imagination. I mean, I think that’s who he is. Or maybe he’s the messenger of inspiration?” Bob’s fist tightened around the remaining knives. “I just—I can’t figure him out. I mean, I know what he looks like, I’ve known that for years… since I was a kid, but… His story just isn’t coming. Nothing I’ve made feels right, it’s just too big or something. I had to clear my head so I got the gin, and then…”
Mallory looked at the drawing. Doopli Cat looked more like a furry person than anything: standing on two legs, wearing a red cape, and smiling with big square teeth.
“God damnit, Bob. I mean, I get that you’re working on something, which is great but…” Mallory shook her head and dropped her hands. “What the hell does this cat have to do with throwing knives at the wall?”
Bob crept back to the corner, accidently stepping in the growing puddle of melted ice cream but ignored it, letting his sock soak up the peachy milk.
“I just know how big this could be, you know?” Bob said. “Finally, a break. Can you imagine? A whole series of Doopli Cat books? But then this,” Bob sneered, pointing his chin at the corner.
Mallory stared with him, narrowing her eyes, searching for any explanation, a bug maybe? Or dirt? Anything other than more stalling and nonsense. And why couldn’t there be a reasonable explanation for all this? Don’t I deserve that? Just a little speck of hope?
“There’s nothing there, Bob. Your daughter already can’t stand us and now she sees you like this; all strung out on whatever, yelling at nothing. Look, I don’t know what you’ve taken this time but it’s not okay.”
“I-” Bob sighed through his nose. “I did drink, yes, but I didn’t take anything else. Listen-”
“No, Bob. Drinking? In the middle of the day? Haven’t you learned anything in the past two years? All those classes we had to pay for, I had to pay for, the hospital bills, the attorney fees, the court fees?”
“Rah!” Bob erupted, shouting at the corner. “Leave me alone!”
“Whatever.” Mallory turned and walked down the stairs and out the front door.
Outside the air was bitter, instantly freezing Mallory’s nostrils. She walked to the end of the driveway and got in her pickup truck, sealing herself inside while it warmed up.
She thought of all the other nights spent like this, leaving her home in the dark, fried from work but driving anywhere that allowed smoking indoors. She’d spend the night there, burning through one cigarette after another.
The third or fourth time she’d found a downtown hotel that was nicer than the other places, clean at least, and run by some Chinese businessmen who smoked everywhere. It was expensive but ever since the first night she’d been putting money away, a little each month into her own bank account. She’d even bought a small water-color set. She would smoke and paint in her room, making little landscapes in runny blues and reds. She smiled and thought of the warm bed, the hotel shower, the fresh towels.
The morning after she would come home in need of fresh clothes and her blood pressure medication. Bob would be there, curled up on the floor. Last time she found him asleep with one of her shirts clung to his chest. She couldn’t fight much more after that.
Mallory lit a cigarette and sat in the warming truck, looking into the window of the upstairs study. She could see Bob’s shadow cast against the corner. How long are we going to keep this up, she thought, pulling out her phone to call the hotel.
She dialed the number and was about to hit send when a noise came from the house that made her stop.
She looked up as something smashed into the windshield.
Mallory jumped, nearly dropping her phone. The truck’s glass spiderwebbed from the impact.
She flung open her door and looked at the damage: pieces of gin bottle were scattered across the windshield but the label was still intact, reading ‘eater’. The study window was broken, the curtains sucked through the opening and waving in the wind.
Mallory slammed the door and marched inside. Bob was still facing the corner, unmoved, his foot still soaking in the ice cream puddle. His body was shaking and the smell of bleachy peppermint was strong.
Mallory looked at the corner.
There, just above eye level, appeared to be the shapes of two white eyes, a triangle nose, and a furry feline smile. It was the same color and texture of the wall. A… Cat? She thought. So this is it huh? This is his move, some shitty statue.
“Bob,” Mallory said.
Bob turned, his jaw slack, his eyes full of white panic.
“Mal, leave. It’s not safe,” Bob said, his voice was a broken whisper. She’d never seen him so scared, not even when he crashed the car two years ago and turned in his seat to see Becky’s unconscious body in the back seat, both her arms broken.
His fear was real and it clawed at Mallory’s guts, trying to pry its way in but she ignored it and walked closer. I’m just overtired, she thought. This is stupid.
The face stared at them. Then it moved: its eyes scanning left, then right, then settling on Mallory. Slowly, its mouth curled into a smile; a smile with large square teeth. The eyes blinked.
Terror bit deep, sinking into Mallory’s stomach. She felt its eyes on her, wanting.
“H-He’s come,” Bob whispered. He tried to throw a knife but it slipped from his hand and fell a foot in front of him.
A cracking sound burst through the room, like glaciers breaking apart. Mallory looked up to see the ceiling rolling like ocean waves, as if the plaster and paint had turned into liquid. It moved down through the walls until the entire room was a pale roiling sea.
Mallory’s brain screamed for answers but there were none. Fear pulsated through her, threatening to take over. Bob hunched down, his body shaking so hard that his teeth chattered.
She was alone again, like always. Ever since she could remember life had dropped her into the dark places to fight barehanded: the girls locker room, behind the bar that late October night, the hospital emergency room on her first day. All those years spent pretending not to be scared, keeping what focus she could, learning to hold on no matter what. Mallory gritted her teeth. Hold on, she thought.
The cracking noise faded as the waves began to settle and shapes formed in their place: hundreds of matte white eyes, triangle noses, and thick smiling mouths. Every surface of the room was covered in grinning opaque faces.
Their mouths opened and together they howled.
The noise shook the room but Mallory held fast, her jaw clenched.
Papers shot through the air, books curled backwards over their spines, pens erupted into inky tendrils. Bob, broken, screamed into the floor but no noise could penetrate the howling. It grew until Mallory’s lung vibrated so badly she couldn’t breathe. She fell to her knees and tried to inhale, her eye shut. Hold on, HOLD ON, she thought.
Then it stopped.
A soft breeze moved past them, carrying the scent of peppermint and bleach. She looked up and before her stood Doopli Cat.
He towered; his head nearly touching the ceiling. His body was a singular white tint, the same as the walls, and in his hands he held out a flat, blue rectangle, offering it to Mallory. She stared at it and, reaching out with shaking hands, took the rectangle. Doopli Cat smiled and knelt down in front of her; the smell of bleach and peppermint pouring from his smiling mouth.
Bob whined but stopped when Doopli Cat turned and frowned. Bob vomited gin onto the floor. The Cat turned back to Mallory and smiled. He lowered his head and spoke but no words left his throat. He made no noises but his lips moved, mouthing unheard things. Mallory watched his thick tongue snap out silent letters as puffs of eye-stinging chemical breath hit her face. Doopli Cat lifted his massive hand and pressed one long furry finger against Mallory’s forehead. It was soft and a warmness flowed through Mallory; she felt calm. The warmth reminded her of playing on her grandparent’s tire swing in the July heat.
Her jaw relaxed and she smiled. Doopli Cat stood and backed away. He stretched his arms wide and his body began to hiss. His skin evaporated into puffs of putrid steam that filled the room. The sting of bleach and peppermint threatened to burn exposed skin, forcing Bob to curl away, clamping his eyes and mouth shut but Mallory sat peacefully, still smiling. A second later it was gone.
Mallory stood and looked around the room. The books were destroyed, the desk looked somehow age worn, and the ice cream still sat on the floor. Bob stood, staring down at the blue rectangle in Mallory’s hands.
She realized for the first time that it was a book and on the cover was a picture of Doopli Cat drawn in wispy ink. The title read: Doopli Cat and the New Friend. Written by Mallory Kline.
She opened it and on the first page was a picture of the study, this study, the one in her house. It was clean and someone was sitting at the desk, a woman.
She turned the page and the woman was smiling, staring down at the desk and behind her stood Doopli Cat, looking over her shoulder, admiring her work. Mallory could still feel the cat’s finger pressed against her forehead, his warmth still running through her.
The third page was blank but something inside Mallory yearned for it, longing to touch it, to fill it. She could hear the empty paper crying out—it needed her.
Mallory walked to the desk, grabbed a pencil and started to draw. Bob crept towards her, trying to look over her shoulder.
“You’re going to be late,” She said without turning.
“The financial advisor. You’ll have to go without me.”
Bob cleared his throat.
“Uh, sure. Yeah,” he said and slunk out of the room. A moment later the front door slammed as he left.
Mallory smiled and reached past the pencil sharpener where the gin glass was still hidden, half-full of melted ice and liquor. She lifted it and drank.