Probably Still Better Than “Cats”

A quick mental calculation told Hansel he was exactly in the collision point of a mad monster and a feather-crazed markscat. Puss Who Shoots hadn’t dropped his revolver, and trigger discipline didn’t seem to be his primary concern. With death on two sides and baked beans leaking into his pocket, the boy chose self-preservation.

“KITTY! FETCH!” he yelled, tossing the hat and its irresistible feather to his side. It didn’t fly like a frisbee. It caught a little gust of wind in the crown of the hat and floated for just a second about two feet from Hansel. Realizing his figurative grenade was about to fall into his metaphorical trench, he dove for cover. He hit the ground in a rolling tumble.

The space he’d vacated was suddenly an extreme physics problem as the hat, Grendel, and Puss Who Shoots tried to occupy it simultaneously. The hat was the immediate loser, but not the biggest loser. Hansel cringed and closed one eye as the situation resolved in a small ginger-colored snack. There was roaring, yowling, a crunch, a loud hiss, a grunt of surprised pain, and then a much larger crunch.

Hansel looked away into the trees to avoid the worst of Grendel’s table manners. When the smacking and gulping and chewing noises lessened, he turned around to see the hat and bandolier in bad shape on the ground, and a red scrim of cat remains around Grendel’s mouth. The monster wiped his face with one large hairy arm and belched mightily.

POW! A small bullet flew from the monster’s mouth and hit the ground next to Hansel’s sneaker. Hansel jumped, being understandably jumpy. The monster reached a claw into his maw and dug something out of his teeth.

“One of those little pop guns got stuck in my molars,” he said, and threw the tiny pistol behind him. It hit the ground and went off again, the bullet hitting a boulder and ricocheting over their heads. Hansel flinched again. “Not very safe, are they?” the monster mused. Hansel shook his head.

“You want this?” Grendel held the hat out to Hansel. Hansel shook his head again. “It might fit, at least try it on,” he coaxed.

“No, Grendel, I do not want a dead cat’s hat.” It was a lot like looting a corpse, even if the corpse had been the main course. Plus it was probably way too small.

“Have it your way.” He flung the hat into the trees. “He shot my toe, you know.” Grendel did a passable ballet arch of his foot, and the boy peered at the wound. There was a bleeding hole in Grendel’s toe, about the size of a mosquito bite bump.

“Yeah, I know. Ouch. Can you walk on it?”

Grendel tried a few limping steps. “Not very well. We’ll have to stop for tonight.” The monster went to his pack and started rustling around, intending to make camp right there.

“Um, Grendel?” Hansel ventured. “Can we camp somewhere without…this?” He gestured at the tufts of bloody ginger fur and part of a tail scattered around the ground.

“Oh, yeah. Sure.” Grendel secured his pack and they walked for a few minutes. The monster was limping, but it was much worse if he noticed Hansel was watching.

He’s just a big baby, Hansel thought. He made a show of being exhausted at the next clear spot, to give Grendel an excuse to stop. They made camp and ate some granola bars and jerky.

Grendel started a fire to keep Hansel warm and handed him an extra blanket. He sniffed. “Why do you smell like beans?” he asked.

Hansel panicked. For whatever reason, he didn’t want to mention the can in his pocket. Even slightly spilled, the beans were his last refuge from starvation. He didn’t want to pony them up for the joint food stores.

“Excuse me?” he said. The monster looked at him, puzzled. “Like, EXCUSE ME? I farted?” he said, challenging Grendel to contradict that.

“Oh. Ripe.”

“Thanks?” Hansel would get to keep his beans for now, but the monster would think he had serious gas problems. He guessed he didn’t care that much what the monster thought about his bowels as long as they were still inside his body. On his tree pee trip, he found a pebble the right size the plug the hole in the can.

Night fell upon them like a bucket of water from a high window. Hansel was bone-tired from the adrenaline of the cat fight. Grendel went to sleep easily, snoring softly a few feet away. Hansel started to drift into whatever fitful sleep he would get when he heard something.

“Mmmfffffmmmeeee,” the monster breathed in his sleep. Hansel sat up, listening closely. The next words were clearer. “Mooommmm…mommmmmmy.”

Grendel was calling out for his mother in his sleep. Hansel felt a sudden, unexpected wave of longing himself, not for his father, certainly not for Hellen. It was for his own mother, a woman who was more idea than memory, but certainly wouldn’t have sent him into the woods to die. He didn’t think so, anyway. Adults were surprisingly disappointing lately.

The boy lay back down and closed his eyes. Maybe he had more in common with the monster than he’d realized. After a few moments, he got up and moved his little bed of blankets a few feet toward Grendel. Not in snuggling range of the claws and teeth, but close enough to feel less alone in the world.