For Turkiss and Hopper
Before he became a Hollywood fixture, Pascal worked briefly as a cat sitter. He got the gig through his sister, Vivian, whose best friend knew his situation—no job, no girlfriend, available on weekends—and contacted Vivian about the opportunity. Vivian had taken it upon herself to get her lazy younger brother’s ass off of their parents’ couch and into the job market, which Pascal was stridently resisting.
Vivian’s friend worked at a talent agency that represented the acclaimed horror novelist and screenwriter Barton Eckles-Enk, who needed a cat sitter for a few days. Cat sitting wasn’t a real job, but a job in between jobs, a mode of employment befitting a boy-man of Pascal’s qualities, but Vivian’s friend had suggested that if Pascal performed well he would be first in line for a shot as a production assistant on Barton Eckles-Enk’s next feature.
“I’ll think about it,” Pascal told Vivian.
“I already told him you’d do it,” Vivian replied.
“What? You love horror movies!”
“But I’m allergic to cats.”
“You’re allergic to responsibility.”
“I don’t know…”
“There are a lot of things you don’t know,” Vivian said, her exasperation sliding out from under the mask she wore when dealing with her brother. “You don’t know that I closed on a condo in San Diego for mom and dad last week. They’re signing the house over to me. That makes me your new landlord. Get ready for some big changes, bro.”
Pascal didn’t know what to say. He thought of the movies he’d seen where the main character discovers he’s a prince or a mutant or some other awesome thing and his life is changed forever. This was the opposite of that.
“It’s time to carpe fucking diem, dude. Don’t screw this up.”
Barton Eckles-Enk called Pascal the following day. “I’m looking for a cat sitter,” he stated in a voice that was flat and uninflected. It was the voice of someone who was accustomed to being listened to.
“I’m your man,” Pascal said. Vivian had told her brother when to expect the call, and made him practice what he would say.
“You’re not a writer, are you?”
“Don’t be silly,” Pascal answered, straying from Vivian’s script.
Barton laughed, but Pascal wasn’t kidding. He possessed a vague yearning to do something in the film industry. Perhaps as a producer, definitely not as a production assistant, which seemed like way too much work. Writing was out of the question.
“You can have the job,” Barton announced, “on two conditions. You can’t tell anyone what you’re doing. No pictures, no tweets, no online updates. Cornelius stays off the Internet.”
“Okay. What’s the other thing?”
“Don’t drink my whiskey.”
“I never touch the hard stuff.”
“Now I suppose you’re going to tell me you’re in recovery.”
“You’re not exactly reassuring me.”
“I’m a wine cooler man myself.”
“How old did you say you were?”
Pascal wasn’t sure which way he should lie, up or down. He crash-landed on the truth. “I’m 28.”
“You’ll do. Come to the Biltmore Palms tomorrow at noon.”
Pascal had never heard of the Biltmore Palms but it sounded swanky. Barton gave him the address and ended the call. Pascal celebrated this stroke of good fortune by walking down the Dutch Elm-lined street to the local liquor store, which doubled as a deli. He splurged on a bacon and chorizo burrito and left ten dollars in the tip jar. The cute Mexicana behind the counter, sensing a change in the fat boy who had grown up on her tía’s cooking, smiled.
Pascal was more than a fan of horror movies, he was also an avid reader in the genre and he especially loved reading the books that had been adapted into movies. He was particularly fond of stories that pre-dated the digital age and only existed in print. Although he lacked the collector’s drive, he delighted in stumbling upon old pulp paperbacks and magazines that ceased circulating long before the Internet ruined everything.
Pascal surprised his parents by getting out of bed and leaving the house before noon. He went to the library to see if they had the latest book by his famous client. Barton Eckles-Enk was a horror writer who’d successfully crossed over to Hollywood. His stories featured haunted pools, carnivorous plants and lycanthropic coyotes. Despite his popularity, Pascal found Barton Eckles-Enk’s work hackneyed and derivative. He preferred the stories of his infamous former colleague, Seymour Silverbane, who was much less well known and had had a very public falling out with Eckles-Enk over the authorship of a story.
Barton Eckles-Enk’s latest book was about an old man who made videos of his cats. The old man’s little movies developed a cult following as the videos got progressively stranger. The book was called Cat Party and had been adapted for screen. Barton was working on a sequel. Pascal surmised this was the project that Vivian had mentioned.
Pascal hadn’t read it, but the story sounded familiar, and the library had a copy of Cat Party available. He checked it out and waited for the bus that would take him down Ventura Boulevard to the metro station at Universal Studios. He tried to read but found it difficult to focus. On the bus, the guy sitting next to Pascal wouldn’t leave him alone.
“Cat Party? What kind of bullshit is that?”
“It’s for work,” Pascal said, which seemed to satisfy the man.
Pascal emerged from the station at Western and Hollywood and walked east until he reached Barton Eckles-Enk’s street. Pascal wondered if he’d made a mistake. It was a grimy, grubby street with a Shakey’s Pizza on one corner and a donut shop on the other. He stood before an old, run-down apartment building in the Art Deco style that wore its neglect like a shabby tuxedo. This can’t be the place, Pascal thought, but the dead neon sign that read BILTMORE PALMS said otherwise. Pascal’s phone vibrated in his pocket, signaling the arrival of a new message: Door code #667. Apt. 255.
Pascal thumbed OK and approached the building. To the right of the door sat an antiquated security system with square metal buttons that resembled the pay phones of his childhood. Pascal punched the code. The door buzzed faintly. He yanked the handle and went inside. Shafts of light stabbed through the windows. The furniture was worn and the carpet smelled like a dead man’s closet. Dusty clown paintings decorated the walls. If Barton Eckles-Enk had been a pulp writer or a B-movie hack—a writer like Seymour Silverbane, for example—the building would have made sense to Pascal, but Barton Eckles-Enk was famous and this place was a dump. Pascal was having trouble reconciling the discrepancy.
A narrow set of stairs led to the second floor where he found apartment #255. Pascal knocked, but there was no answer. He knocked again, listened closely. All he heard was the sound of traffic from the boulevard swimming through an open window at the end of the hallway. His phone buzzed. The text message read: Look down.
Pascal did as he was told and discovered a pair of keys under the doormat. He unlocked the deadbolt and then the door. He pushed it open and a flash of white shot toward the opening. Pascal moved his leg to block it and pinned a cat he presumed was Cornelius to the doorframe. Cornelius was pure white with jagged black diamonds around his eyes connected by what resembled an upside-down cross. Pascal nudged the cat back into the apartment with his foot, which Cornelius did not like one bit.
“Hello?” Pascal called out.
No answer. The apartment was furnished, but barely. No rugs on the floor or pictures on the walls. He wondered what Barton Eckles-Enk used the place for. Writing? Romance? A residence for his cat? Pascal moved down the hall past a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room. When he rounded the corner into the empty kitchen, his phone vibrated again. Instructions on the fridge. Where was Barton Eckles-Enk? And how did he know he was here?
A magnet in the shape of a skull pinned an envelope to the door of the refrigerator. Inside the envelope was a note wrapped around four one hundred dollar bills.
P— Food on the counter. Litter box on the balcony, so leave the door open. Don’t. Drink. Whiskey. Enjoy your stay. —B.E.E.
A bottle of whiskey sat on the kitchen table. There were no labels or markings of any kind but it looked old.
Cornelius hobbled into the kitchen and hissed at him. Pascal thought he might have injured Cornelius when he pinned the cat to the doorframe, but then he saw the problem. Cornelius was missing his right front leg.
Barton Eckles-Enk had a three-legged cat.
Of course he did.
Pascal woke in Barton’s spare bedroom feeling groggy and disoriented. He’d stayed up late reading Cat Party and his sleep was besieged with strange dreams but none were as strange as the book. The old man with the video camera was a maker of hats. He lured stray cats to his shop with fresh fish and new milk procured during a full moon. And then he made his videos.
Even though Pascal had limited his interaction with the cat, he woke feeling congested and short of breath. His chest felt tight and his eyes itched. He coughed and dislodged a short white hair from the back of his throat.
He got up to feed the cat but the food he’d left out the night before remained untouched. He searched all over the apartment, but the little beast was nowhere to be found.
A breeze pushed the curtains into the room. Pascal looked to see if Cornelius was outside on the balcony doing his business in the litter box, but he wasn’t there. Pascal didn’t know if Cornelius was the kind of cat that came when called, but he gave it a shot. He wandered around the apartment, calling the cat’s name as he opened cabinet doors and looked under tables.
“Cor-neel-yuss….” What a stupid name for a cat.
Pascal gave up the search and decided to go to the movies. He took a short bus ride down Hollywood Boulevard and settled in for a long afternoon. One sci-fi flick and two horror movies. The trifecta of monsters, blood, and tits turned him into a twelve-year-old glued to his parents’ sofa way past his bedtime. His adoration was so complete that he didn’t notice when his phone battery drained down to nothing.
In between films he thought about Cat Party, wondering what would happen next. He wished he’d brought it with him. When the final credits rolled, Pascal dusted the popcorn off his clothes, emptied his bladder in the men’s room, and shuffled out of the theater. By the time he reached the Biltmore Palms he’d forgotten the code to the building. No problem, he’d just check his… Dead phone. Damn.
He approached the ancient entry system and considered his options. The entrance was dimmer than he remembered and he had a hard time reading the faded numbers on the buttons. He was pretty sure it was star number number number or number number number pound, and that one of those numbers was a six and the other one was either a five or a seven.
Pascal punched in a code and waited for the buzz. He thought he heard something, but it was faint, barely audible, hardly there at all.
He tried again and got the same result, only the buzzing was a bit louder this time. He swatted a bug away and pressed his ear to the speaker, just to be sure. He could definitely hear a buzzing sound and as he canted his ear to the speaker box he gazed up into the pulsing light that illuminated the entrance.
The light fixture was shrouded in bees.
Pascal cleared the porch and went galumphing down the street. By the time he was halfway to the boulevard he’d sufficiently recovered enough to notice an exceptionally short private security guard loitering under a streetlamp.
“I already call,” he said in an accent he couldn’t place.
“They film here tomorrow.” The guard pointed at the trucks parked on the street, which Pascal had failed to notice. “The bees come from the trees,” the guard continued as he approached. His accent sounded Slavic, maybe Russian. Pascal guessed he was a foot taller than the guard. Maybe he was an actor and this was something he did for extra money.
“They spray the hive and the bees move here,” the guard explained. They stood in front of the building, looking up at the freakish sight of the bees swarming the lights.
“What are they shooting tomorrow?” Pascal asked.
“I do not know the answer to your question. Are you in the film business?”
Pascal hesitated. “Sort of.”
The guard hooked an eyebrow.
“I’m helping out a screenwriter.”
The guard wrinkled his nose in distaste. “They will be here tomorrow.”
Pascal caught a glimpse of movement inside the Biltmore Palms. Someone was leaving. He sprinted up the walk and caught the door before it closed after a young woman exited the building. She must have known about the bees because she ducked her head and didn’t look back.
Barton Eckles-Enk’s apartment was just as Pascal had left it: plenty of cat food, no cat. He turned on all the lights and searched for Cornelius again. He discovered a closet in the hallway that he hadn’t noticed before. He tried to open it but the door was locked. When his search turned up nothing, Pascal tossed the cat food down the garbage disposal and opened a fresh can, but Cornelius refused to come out of hiding.
There was nothing else he could think to do. Pascal climbed into Barton’s bed and did something he almost never did: he thought about his future. With his parents moving to San Diego, he was going to have to find someplace to live. Vivian had told him that she would start charging him rent if he planned on staying past the end of the month. There was no way he could stay at the house with Vivian, but where would he go? San Diego? Pshaw.
Pascal could see himself ending up in a place like The Biltmore Palms. Old and depressing. Did Barton sleep here? Pascal doubted it, but considered it likely that he’d slept in this bed, leaked his dreams on this very pillow. Pascal tried to make some progress in Cat Party but kept falling asleep and jerking awake. He was drifting off when a loud bang that he definitely didn’t imagine jolted him out of bed.
Pascal went out to the living room to investigate. He flicked on the lights. Nothing seemed out of place. The balcony door was open but the cat wasn’t there. Pascal was 40% creeped out, 60% annoyed.
He flipped the switches at the end of the hall and a little sliver of pinkish-yellow light spilled into the hallway from the crack under the locked closet door. Pascal pulled on the handle and was relieved when the door didn’t open. He went back to the end of the hallway and flipped all the switches. On and off and on again went the lights throughout the apartment, but none of the switches turned off the light in the closet. He went to the other end of the hallway and tried those switches, too, but the light in the closet stayed on. He rapped on the door and maybe it was an echo, perhaps it was his own frustration, but he could have sworn he heard a faint purring from inside the closet.
“Cornelius?” He’d taken to pronouncing the name in a Southern drawl. “Is that you, boy?”
Pascal crouched on all fours and peered under the door. Perhaps he’d catch a glimpse of fur. Maybe he’d see the shadows cast by Cornelius’s legs. Three little shadows. But no. The light suddenly shut off, plunging the hallway into darkness.
Pascal woke up craving donuts. He checked the closet (still locked) and then the kitchen (cat food, no cat). Both he and the whiskey were a little older, but nothing else had changed. He told himself not to worry about Cornelius. Cats are predators. He was probably up the street getting fat on Hollywood vermin.
Pascal went outside and stepped into a bugbath. The entrance was carpeted in dead bees. Down on the street, a film crew unloaded gear from a truck.
“They spray,” the security guard said, looking even shorter than he remembered.
“I see that,” Pascal answered. The light fixture, now dark, was clear of bees. A few drones buzzed at the edge of the porch. Pascal made his way to the street, crunching through the carnage.
“These exterminators do not fuck around,” the guard said.
Pascal pondered this. He felt bad for the bees because, well, wasn’t he supposed to? Bees fucked flowers and crapped honey. They were an essential part of what made the world go round. And now they were dead. If this were a horror movie, this would be considered a bad omen.
“Going for donuts,” Pascal said. “Get you anything?”
“Old-fashion,” the guard replied, “and thank you.”
Pascal went to the shop, briefly debated how many donuts he should buy (two or three?) then remembered he’d have to double the order on account of the guard and decided on a dozen that he could pretend were for the crew. A dozen wouldn’t be nearly enough. He doubled down and doubled down again, gave the Laotian lady behind the counter one of Barton Eckles-Enk’s hundred dollar bills, and told her to keep the change. His largesse bought him a free sack of donut holes. He felt better than he had in weeks.
He staggered back to the Biltmore Palms. The guard was sweeping the bees into a large pile. Several members of the crew conducted official-looking business that ceased abruptly when Pascal flipped open the pink flaps and invited them to dig in.
“Thank you!” said a woman holding a digital clipboard.
“Don’t thank me,” Pascal said. “Thank Barton Eckles-Enk!”
The crewmembers froze.
“Yeah,” he continued now that the cat was out of the bag, the donut out of the box, etc., “he lives right here.”
The crew looked up at the shitty apartment building and then at the pile of bees at their feet while scarfing down maple bars and apple fritters. Donuts were donuts. Pascal stuck around to watch—as the Keeper of the Donuts, he could hardly go back to the apartment now. He watched the crew work, tried to figure out which one was the production assistant. He couldn’t make much sense of what was going on, and those he asked didn’t seem to have much of a clue either. After about an hour of standing around trying not to look as bored as he felt, a man asked him if he wanted to help carry some gear out of the truck, which Pascal politely refused. He amended his future résumé so that he would be the kind of producer who didn’t visit sets. He would be the kind of producer who lunched fabulously and bought donuts for the crew. When he was sure that no one was watching he slipped away and went back inside the Biltmore Palms.
A tinkling sound drew Pascal into the kitchen. Cornelius, his tag gently clanking the edge of the bowl, was eating.
“Cornelius!” Pascal practically shouted. “You’re back!”
Cornelius ignored him. When he finished eating, the cat hopped away from the bowl. “You want some more?” Pascal opened the cabinet for another can and a bee buzzed out and stung him in the face. Pascal swatted it into the sink and turned on the faucet. The bee circled the drain and disappeared. The bee had stung him on his right cheek just below the eye. He’d never been stung before and hoped he wasn’t allergic. How long did it take to find out? Two minutes? Twenty?
A crash from the living room sent him scurrying down the hallway to the living room where Cornelius was up on the coffee table, swatting at another bee.
“No, Cornelius,” he said and scooped him up in his arms, which Cornelius did not like at all. He thrashed out of Pascal’s grip and hit the ground hopping. Pascal used a dishtowel to thwack the bee and dumped its body in the sink. He thought about shutting the balcony door since that’s obviously how the bees were getting into the apartment, but how would Cornelius get out to do his business? As he pondered this, a door slammed shut behind him in the hallway.
The light was back on in the closet.
“Not this shit again,” Pascal said and left the apartment.
He went down to the movie set, but after the third person asked him what was wrong with his face, he moved on. He wandered down Hollywood Boulevard where even the street people gave him weird looks. He ducked into a bar with a stage and a pole but no dancers. He ordered a whiskey sour, but the bartender wouldn’t serve him. He caught his reflection in the mirror. His face was badly swollen. He looked like a monster.
Pascal reluctantly went back to the apartment. He turned on all the lights, and each room he entered was filled with dead bees. There were dead bees in the hallway and dead bees in the kitchen. Their corpses covered the counters and spotted the floors. They were everywhere.
Pascal found a foxtail and a dustpan underneath the sink, and swept up all of the bees. When he was finished he sat down at the kitchen table. He wasn’t accustomed to manual labor—any kind of labor really—and his body was spent, his nerves frazzled. The whiskey beckoned. He picked up the bottle and examined the cork stopper. It wasn’t sealed. It would be so easy to…
Cornelius sat at Pascal’s feet, an amused expression on his little face.
“What are you looking at?” Pascal barked.
Thankfully, Cornelius didn’t answer.
His cell phone moaned. Vivian was calling. He didn’t want to talk to his sister so he dumped the call into voicemail. After a minute, she called back.
“What?” he demanded.
“Don’t what me,” Vivian snapped. “How’s it going?”
“Horrible. I got stung by a bee. I think I’m going to come home.”
“Because of a bee sting?”
“On my face.”
“Pascal,” his sister sighed, “you have to stay. It’s only for a few more days.”
“Put some ice on it and take a nap.”
Vivian was the go-getter in the family, always trying to get ahead so she could have a comfortable life. Pascal wanted the same thing his sister did, but he would prefer to skip the getting ahead part and go straight to the comfort. Pascal loved his sister and he knew his sister loved him, but sometimes he wished she loved him a little less.
He cracked some ice into a bowl and took Cat Party into the bedroom. He didn’t have much more to read. Only about fifty pages or so. Flipping to the back of the book, he looked at the author photo. Barton Eckles-Enk, reclining in a wingback chair, decked out in a dressing gown. It seemed as if Barton Eckles-Enk wanted people to dislike him. Seated on a small table next to the author was a white cat with black markings around its eyes that Pascal presumed to be Cornelius, except this cat had all four of its limbs.
Pascal didn’t know what to make of that.
Meanwhile in Cat Party, the people of the village had become suspicious of the hatmaker’s weird videos. They had him holed up in his studio and demanded to be let in, but the old man wouldn’t come out. It was your typical pitchfork-shaking scene, and one that struck Pascal as familiar. He was positive he’d read this somewhere before. The mob broke all the windows in the hatmaker’s shop and forced their way inside, but the old man had disappeared. In the back of the studio, the villagers found a locked room and went at it with an axe. What they found was so horrible, so disgusting, that Pascal thought he was going to be sick. He closed the book, but it was too late for that. The words were now images, images he could never un-imagine.
The next morning Pascal went into the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. He set the water to boil and took down the can of instant coffee he’d found in the cabinet. There was milk in the fridge but when he went to splash some into his cup he spilled it all over the counter because there was a dead bee in the mug. Pascal rinsed out the mug, added more milk, opened the coffee can and found another dead bee in the grounds. He emptied the mug in the trash where there were more dead bees. There was a dead bee floating in Cornelius’s water bowl and another one laid to rest in a flowerpot. When he went to sweep them up he discovered more dead bees nestled in the bristles of the foxtail and still more in the dustpan. There were dead bees on the bookshelf. Dead bees in the butter dish. Dead bees every goddam place he looked.
Pascal could leave and never come back or he could clean up the mess. He was leaning toward leaving, but knew Vivian would never forgive him. He went into the kitchen, found a pair of rubber gloves, and went to work. He moved the furniture, shook out the rugs, cleaned appliances inside and out. He wiped down everything: the counters, the top of the refrigerator, the blades of the ceiling fan—anywhere a dying bee might settle. He swept the bees into a pile and dumped them into a paper sack. Surveying his work, he noticed he’d neglected the frames around the windows and doors and wiped those down as well. While he was finishing up the windows in the bedroom, something fell from the sill and landed on the floor.
Pascal went to the locked closet and took a deep breath. He slid the key into the lock’s chamber and the light inside the closet clicked on.
Pascal pressed his ear to the door. He heard a faint buzzing sound, a mechanical kind of music that made him suddenly aware of the blood sloshing around his skull.
He turned the key and opened the door. He was greeted by the musty odor of a bouquet of dead flowers that sat atop a tiny table with tiny chairs that had been set for a children’s tea party. The closet’s walls were lined with shelves stuffed with books, most of them paperbacks and many of them quite old. They were, Pascal realized with a shock, all by the same author: Seymour Silverbane. It was an enormous collection of the author’s novels, stories and anthologies with dozens of copies of each edition and subsequent translations: The Beast at the Bottom of the Pool, The Ghastly Garden, The Mystery of the Creepy Canyon, and so on.
It seemed as if Barton wasn’t just collecting Silverbane, but buying up all of his books, many of which Pascal had never seen before. He wanted to pull some down from the shelf for a closer inspection, but the smell was overpowering; and that’s when he noticed the grisly tableau on the table. Each plate contained a bone furred with mold. A single bee droned around the naked light bulb. The scene was identical to the final chapter in Barton Eckles-Enk’s book, which meant that the bones he was looking at were legs. Feline legs. Cat bones.
Cornelius mewled from the hallway. He gave Pascal a look like, I told you so.
Pascal had so many questions. Did the publication of Cat Party precede the scene in the closet or did the contents of the closet anticipate the book? Either way it meant serious trouble for Barton Eckles-Enk. That meant the only thing standing between him and the pitchfork-waving mob was Pascal.
After serious thought and considerable deliberation, Pascal did what anyone in his position would do: he took photos of the tea party with his mobile phone.
When he was done, he wandered into the kitchen. Cornelius hopped along beside him and squatted in that lopsided way of his in front of his bowl. The poor guy was hungry. Pascal opened a fresh can and filled the cat’s bowl. He sat down at the kitchen table and watched Cornelius eat. He could still hear the buzzing from the closet. Or maybe it was a bee in the toaster. Or in the underwear drawer. Or in any of the hundreds of places he’d found them. There was even a bee floating in the whiskey bottle on the table. Every so often the bee’s wings would quiver, and little waves of whiskey would travel out toward the glass.
Pascal opened the bottle. The aroma was overpowering. Sharp yet honeyed. Aromatic and inviting. His mouth went dry, his head lightened, delirious with desire.
He went to the kitchen and took a tumbler out of the cabinet. He tilted the bottle and the bee floated into the glass. Pascal lifted it out and carefully set it on the table. The bee buzzed its wings, clearly struggling, probably wasted, and expired on the countertop.
Pascal put his finger in his mouth. His senses awakened with pleasure. He scrolled through the photos and selected the best one. I’ve got some ideas for your movie, he typed and sent both the message and the photo to Barton Eckles-Enk. Pascal set down his phone and picked up the tumbler. “Cheers,” he said to Cornelius, and lifted the glass to his lips.
Jim Ruland is the author of the novel Forest of Fortune and the short story collection Big Lonesome. He is currently collaborating with Keith Morris on his memoir My Damage about his life with Black Flag, Circle Jerks and OFF! (Da Capo 2016). He lives in Southern California where he runs the reading series Vermin on the Mount, now in its eleventh year. jimruland.net