“Two Pinocchios”

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"Two Pinocchios"

Written by Blair Daniels, Craig Groshek

My phone call was interrupted by mewling at the back door.

Meeeeeoooow! followed by a scratching sound across the glass. It sounded like a cat. Hungry, angry, or both.

“Look, Jim,” I said, trying to ignore the sound. “You’re going to do fine tomorrow. All you need to remember is that Michael started the fight, not you, okay? There were no security cameras, no witnesses. It’s your word against his.”

Meeeeooooowwww!

 “Look, I gotta go, alright? We’ll talk tomorrow.”

I pocketed my cell phone and made my way to the back door. Dammit. Not one — but two — stray cats sat on my back porch, little more than silhouettes in the dying sunlight.

I rolled the door open. “Hey! Scram!” I said, shooing them off.

They stared up at me. Meeeeoooooowww.

 They were nice-looking for cats, I guess. Better-looking than the usual mangy strays I saw on the sidewalk, anyway. One was a gray tabby with bright green eyes; the other was black, with pale blue eyes the color of the sky.

“I said get out of here!” I shouted.

They didn’t move.

I sighed and slid the door shut. As soon as it clicked into place, the constant mewling started up again. I popped in earbuds, sat down at my computer, and pulled up my client’s case. Jim Walfort. Charged with aggravated assault. As long as he kept his story straight tomorrow, he was looking at only a few years at most —

Mreeeeeeeow!

 A high-pitched wail broke my thoughts. I turned to see the two cats, still standing on the porch. One was standing on its hind legs, now, pressing its paws against the glass.

“Oh, for Pete’s sake.” I shoved myself out of the seat and walked over to the door. “Get out of –”

As soon as I yanked the door open, they darted inside.

“Dammit!”

The black cat immediately leapt into my armchair, making itself at home in the soft cushions. The gray one bounded under the table, tail flicking behind it.

Both watched me, perfectly still.

In the inside light, I could tell, now, that they were wearing lengths of twine around their necks. A silver medal dangled from each. Oh, their owner is going to get an earful. I stormed over to the black one, on the armchair. I expected it to dart off as I approached; but instead, it stayed perfectly still. Watching.

I turned the tag over in my fingers. I thought I’d find a phone number, or an address; instead, only one word was engraved on the tag.

Auges.

 “Is that your name? Auges?” I bent over and peeked at the gray cat’s tag. It read Kiefer.

 What kind of owner doesn’t even put their contact info on the tag?

I stared at the cats. They stared at me. At least they were quiet now.

I would’ve spent more time getting rid of them, but I had a lot of work to do preparing for tomorrow’s case. I put a saucer of milk on the floor, which they both bounded over to. Then I sighed, turned from their prying eyes, and sat back down on the computer.

* * * * * *

I woke up two hours later in my computer chair. I groaned and rubbed my eyes. 1:06 AM. I’d fallen asleep right at my desk.

I lifted my head and glanced around the living room.

The cats were gone.

My house had a cat door from the previous residents. They must have found it and snuck out. There was no sign that they’d even been here — except for the clumps of gray and black hair shed onto the carpet.

I hauled myself up to the bedroom and slept for another four hours. Then I put on my suit, drove to court, and promptly forgot all about the cats.

“My client, Mr. Walfort, was only acting in self-defense,” I said, staring into the judge’s blue eyes. “Michael Sheinman attacked my client. He feared for his life, and tried everything to get Mr. Sheinman away from him.”

I glanced at the plaintiff. Mr. Sheinman still had the scars running down his face, starkly white against his bronze skin. His attorney sat next to him, her face twisted with concern.

“It’s a simple case of self-defense, your honor.”

Less than an hour later, we had the verdict. Not guilty. “You’re amazing, Carlo,” Jim whispered to me, as we left the courtroom. “Thank you.”

“Of course,” I said, patting him on the back.

I left the courtroom feeling great, looking forward to a long weekend.

Until I got home.

I heard them before I even opened the door. Meow, meeeeooow. As I stepped in, they both fell silent, staring at me with eyes of blue and green.

Damn cats. Just like people — you give them an inch, they take a yard. Give them a little milk, they come back for more.

“Fine,” I muttered. I pulled the fridge door open. Milk sloshed in the bowl. With a clink, I set it down on the tile; the cats came running forward.

My heart stopped.

The cats looked… different. Kiefer’s snout was slightly scrunched and flattened, as if perpetually snarling. Auges’ sky-blue eyes looked too large for its face. The pupils had thinned to vertical slits, despite the dim light.

Something was off about their movements, too. As they leapt for the milk, they didn’t do it with all the grace and elegance of a cat. It was more of a limping, off-tempo motion. Like a child just learning to walk.

As their tongues hit the bowl, I jumped back.

What was that smell? Not the musty smell of an animal. No. The smell of fresh-cut pine, as if they’d both spent their day rolling in pine needles. Or potpourri.

A heavy dread settled in my chest. Then I decided to act.

I pulled the bowl out from underneath their noses. “Get out!” I shouted. “Out!” They shrieked and mewled in protest. I pulled the door open and chased them out. Then I slid the door closed. Pulled the blinds shut.

Then I pushed the coffee table in front of the cat door.

They wouldn’t be coming here anymore.

* * * * * *

 The next week went by without incident.

I didn’t see the cats. And thus, I slowly forgot about them. I had more important things to think about — like the Valentino case. It was the first high profile case I’d ever been assigned. I couldn’t screw it up.

I met with Mrs. Valentino the evening before the trial.

“He deserved it,” she said, in her thick New Jersey accent. “In fact, he deserved worse. First, I should’ve cut off his –”

“As I’ve said before, Mrs. Valentino, it’s not my business whether you’re guilty or not. My only goal is to get you the best sentence possible.”

She nodded.

“You should dye your hair, maybe get glasses,” I said, looking over her bleach-blonde hair. “We’re trying for that meek, motherly type to win the jury over.”

“Fair enough,” she said, shooting me a grin.

The day of the trial, things went well. The people of the jury were sympathetic to her story — at least, they appeared to be, from their nods and smiles. A few of the women even teared up as she took the stand, and sobbed out a fabricated story of how Mr. Valentino cheated on her on their anniversary.

“Look at her,” I said in my closing remarks, gesturing to Mrs. Valentino. “Do you really believe that woman could kill the love of her life? She is a mother, an artist, a woman beloved by her community. The forensics don’t mean a thing. Of course her fingerprints were all over the crime scene! She was his –”

Mrow.

I stopped. Whipped around. My heart pounded in my chest.

Scrtch, scrtch.

I scanned the courtroom. There — A flash of silver among the wooden seats. What? There’s no way —

“Mr. Collodi?”

I glanced up at the judge.

“Yes. Sorry.” Come on. Keep it together. I sighed, and continued: “Your Honor, there simply isn’t enough proof to convict this woman. She’s inno–”

Mrow.

 A black shadow zipped across the floor, behind the jury box.

“Your Honor, uh, I…”

Mrow!

 “I conclude my argument.”

I sat down. Sweat poured across my brow. The suit felt tight, hot, constricting. I quickly pulled off the jacket, procuring odd looks from the jury.

I arrived home exhausted. The jury was in deliberation, and would be for days, most likely; but after my performance, I had little hope that Mrs. Valentino would end up a free woman. This was supposed to be your big break. Your high-profile case, to make you a household name, I told myself.

What would Mom and Dad think?

 Angiolina and Domenico. Two Italian immigrants, who owned a tiny restaurant on Maple Ave. They never thought I would get that far.

And maybe, now, I never would.

I walked up the sidewalk and opened the front door.

The strong smell of pine hit me before I even stepped inside.

The cats stood in the kitchen. Waiting for me. Auges in the armchair, tail softly flicking behind it. Kiefer near the back door.

They didn’t look like cats anymore.

They were horribly disfigured. Auges’ eyes took up half its face. Its nose was elongated and pointed, like a shrew’s. Kiefer’s face crumpled in on itself. A mess of wrinkled fur that sagged and hung off the bones. Their legs were twice as long as they should have been, bending at unnatural angles when they stepped forward.

And their eyes were no longer green and blue.

They were pure black.

I ran at them. “Get out!” I screamed. “Out! Out!”

A chaotic chase ensued. They darted into the kitchen; I grabbed a skillet and waved it at them, hoping to appear a threat. They dashed past me, underneath my legs, into the foyer.

Then they slipped out the cat door, mewling.

How did they get in? I glanced at the overturned coffee table next to the front door. How did that happen?! I grabbed a hammer and a box of nails. Thwack, thwack — I hammered the cat door shut.

That would keep them out. For good.

* * * * * *

My sleep was plagued with nightmares.

Of faceless, masked men breaking into my home. As they tied me down and cocked a gun against my head, the cats just watched. Tails flicking. Softly mewling.

Their bottomless black eyes watching as the gun fired into my skull.

I woke up in a cold sweat. Gray dawn shone through the window, and I pulled myself out of bed. When I finally got dressed and left the house, I found the only trace of them — a track of muddy footprints, leading away from the door.

Those were misshapen, too. They looked more like talons than paws.

I hurried to work. Took the elevator up to the top floor. Gormund & Jenkins, Criminal Defense. Nearly tripped on the way to my desk.

“Carlo, are you alright? You look terrible.”

Mary Wittel walked over to me, her pretty face twisted with concern.

“Yeah, I’m okay. Just stressed.”

“I believe it. That Valentino case… phew. But it’s worth it. You already got more media coverage than any other person here.” Her eyes lit up. “Say, want to go out tonight? To celebrate?”

“The decision’s not out yet.”

“I’m sure you crushed it. Meet me at 7, at the Cedar Grill?”

“Uh, sure.”

I turned back to my computer. Smiling, for the first time in a while.

7 arrived quickly. Before I knew it, I was sitting at a table outside, watching the flames of the torch dance. At 7:05, she joined me. Red dress, heels, dark hair pulled back in a sleek bun.

This was a date.

I felt the stress slowly melt away.

“So what are your big plans after the Valentino case? Maybe move to New York City, become some hotshot attorney?” she asked, taking a sip of wine.

I shot her a smile. “I think I just might. I’ve already got some offers from firms up there. Paying double what Gormund & Jenkins does.”

“That’s great. Yeah, I’m starting to get sick of the firm, too. I’m on the Rivera case and it’s a real doozy. So many pieces of confounding evidence and –”

She stopped mid-sentence, her eyes fixed on a point above my shoulder.

“Mary?”

“Look.”

I slowly turned around.

The cats.

They stood on the street, peering around a parked SUV. Kiefer no longer had ears; instead, there were just holes on the side of its head. Auges’s eyes drooped halfway down its face, as if melting in the heat.

Both stayed perfectly still. Watching us.

“No, no, no.”

“Carlo?”

I stood up. “We need to move inside. Now.”

“What? Why?”

“They keep following me. I can’t get rid of them. I don’t know what they are, or why they’re doing this to me –”

“Carlo,” she said. Her voice was soft and steady, as if speaking to a child. “Are you afraid of cats?”

“Those aren’t cats,” I said, with a scoff. “They’re monsters. They try to claw their way inside my house every night. They follow me and threaten me. And –”

I turned around. Mary was picking up her purse, heading for the door.

“Wait! Where are you going?”

“I’m leaving,” she huffed. “I can’t believe I ever asked you out.” With a swish of her red dress, she was gone. I was alone.

I turned back around.

The cats were closer, now. Much closer. They sat several feet from the dinner table, watching me. Tails flicking back and forth.

I ran.

I could hear their claws clicking against the cement. Hear their panting breaths, feel their hearts pounding after mine. I ran into the parking lot. I dove inside my car, locked the doors.

Then I began to back up.

Beep beep beep.

I glanced at the rearview camera.

The two cats stood behind the car, their eyes glowing white on the screen. Knobby, emaciated, legs bent at strange angles.

I stomped on the gas.

A sickening bump.

I pulled out of the parking lot without looking back.

I arrived home feeling more relaxed than I had felt in weeks. I took off my shoes, sat back in the armchair, and let my body relax.

A few seconds later, the scratching started.

Scrtch, scrtch. Meeeoooow.

I sprang up and ran to the windows. Peering through the blinds, I saw them there. Standing on my porch, scratching at the cat door, more misshapen than ever.

“I killed you!” I screamed. “How are you still alive?”

Meeeeooow.

“Why are you doing this to me?”

I thought back to the first night I brought them in. When they still looked like cats. Then I defended Jim Walfort. That’s when they started to twist and deform, taking on their monstrous appearance.

They changed even more after I defended Mrs. Valentino.

Even more after I lied to Mary about getting lucrative job offers.

Lies. They’re after me because of all the lies I’ve told.

Scrtch. Scrtch. The scratching sound pounded in my ears, but I tried to shut it out. I pulled out my cell phone and dialed the police.

“Westchester Police Department, how can I –”

“I have information on the Valentino case,” I blurted. I must’ve sounded like a madman, panting, shaking, nearly crying. “I need to discuss it with you immediately.”

As soon as I spoke, the scratching stopped.

Telling the police everything meant breaking attorney-client privilege. I swiftly lost my law license, and found myself unemployed immediately thereafter. Despite knowing I did the right thing, I quickly spiraled into depression as I spent every day alone in my house, wondering where to go from here.

Seven days later, I heard it.

Meow.

I looked out the window. There the two cats stood. Auges and Kiefer. They had both returned to their original feline forms. Fluffy, cute, watching me with their blue and green eyes.

After a moment’s hesitation, I opened the door.

They bounded in. I filled a bowl with milk, just like I used to, and set it down on the floor. They lapped it up excitedly.

As I watched them, the thought came to me.

The little restaurant on Maple Ave.

My dad was always looking for hard-working, honest employees. I’d make a quarter the salary I did at Gormund & Jenkins, and the hours would be tough… but at least I wouldn’t be lying. Getting guilty people off the hook. Protecting murderers like Mrs. Valentino.

A month later, I was moved out of the house, making the drive across the country back to my hometown.

And that’s where I am now. I like it here. The work is harder — no sitting in an air-conditioned office all day, raking in heaps of money — but it’s honest work.

As I finished bussing the last table, I heard my dad’s voice from behind the counter. “Time to close up,” he said, shooting me a smile.

“Just a second.” I walked into the kitchen and grabbed the brown paper bag of leftover scraps. I continued out the back door, into the dark alleyway, next to the dumpster. I whistled.

Two cats came bounding out of the darkness. A black cat and a gray tabby.

“Here you go, Auges,” I said, placing down a leftover piece of fish. “And Kiefer.”

They looked just like they were supposed to. Moss green and sky-blue eyes. Pink noses, cute little paws, fluffy fur.

Just two cats, enjoying the night’s leftovers.

I smiled and headed back inside the restaurant.