The creature lurked at the edge of the room, resting on the floor near the radiator where it was warm. It gazed with hunger upon the sleeping boys far away in their beds.
At last the cat appeared, passing through the door that had been left ajar. As the cat strolled by the radiator the creature latched onto a passing strand of fur on the rear leg.
This evening Snowman chose Max’s bed. He leapt gracefully from the floor to the top of the bed, but on landing he crushed the creature between his leg and the bedsheets, stunning it.
When the creature regained consciousness it pushed itself up and stood on two legs. Before it the sheets bunched to form a hillock, blocking the view. It climbed this with effort, grasping tiny fibers to gain purchase until at the top of the hill it saw the vista beyond, of the top of the sleeping cat’s head. The creature hiked down the other side of the hill and traversed the plane of sheets, giving the cat head wide berth. As it passed before the cat’s face it felt nauseating blasts of warm air, the fishy exhalations from the nostrils. Just beyond it glimpsed its ultimate destination: looming like a mountain range, Max’s calf jutting out from under the comforter. The creature began its final trek across the plane that separated the cat’s head from Max’s leg.
The smell of the boy’s foot grew, but driven by hunger the creature ignored it. It reached the foothills of his leg and grabbing some leg hairs it climbed up the skin until it reached the level platform of his shinbone. The skin was rather dry, and the creature licked it all over to make it softer and generally more palatable. It began to gnaw. Soon the top layer of skin gave way and blood flowed into the creature’s mouth and down its throat.
Max stirred and shifted his leg such that the creature was no longer on a flat shelf but at a sharp angle. It grasped two hairs of his leg and continued feeding until it was well-sated, then it released its grip and slid down the slope of skin to the bed. The fall knocked the creature’s belly and made it vomit up some of the blood, leaving a streak on the faded floral print sheets. It stood up, almost drunk with blood, and crossed the expanse of the sheets to the cat’s belly. It nestled in the fur, where it would wait for the cat to awake and give it a ride off of the bed.
Gorged with blood, the creature drifted off to sleep.
Several days later Anna spoke with Yuri in private. “Now Max has it. The…wound. On his calf. And Larissa has another one on her shoulder. See for yourself.”
Yuri found Larissa on the couch reading a book. She pulled her collar aside to show her father the scab on top of her shoulder. “It itches like the other one?” he asked.
“When is the last time Snowman slept in your bed?”
“Three nights ago.”
Yuri next went to the boys’ room, where they were sitting on the ground playing Stratego. “Max, Mama says you have some kind of scratch on your leg.” Max agreed and rolled up his pant leg to show his father. “Did Snowman sleep with you?”
“Yes, two nights ago.”
Taras said, “It’s not Snowman’s fault, Tato.”
“Then how did you boys get the marks?”
“I scratched it. So did Max.”
“Do you have any other marks?”
They both shook theirs heads.
“And you feel okay, besides wanting to scratch?”
The boys agreed they did. Yuri returned to Anna. “It’s the damn cat. He has fleas.”
“Would flea bites be that big?” she said.
“I don’t know. The bites itch then they scratch them to make a big mark.”
“Yuri,” she said hesitantly, “it might be chicken pox.”
“No, I talked to Vera. Her kids had it. They had many spots all at once, not just one. And a fever too. Taras has one spot, and it’s been a week now…” Snowman had followed Yuri out of the boys’ room and now was rubbing his side against Yuri’s leg. Yuri was unmoved. “From now on the cat stays in the cellar.”
“We can’t keep him in the cellar. He’s too clever, he’ll get upstairs again.”
“Then he can live outside for all I care. We can’t have him infecting our children with fleas.”
Anna said, “They make collars for cats that are supposed to keep fleas away. I could get one.”
“Fine. For now, you can try that. But if the bites keep showing up on the kids, that cat is out on the street.”
The boys resumed their game of Stratego, Max having a distinct advantage in that Taras had still not mastered the rules. The whole time they were being watched.
Along the edge of the room the boys kept their various board games and puzzles stacked on the floor. On the corner of the Risk box, with its tiny legs dangling over the edge, sat the creature in plain sight, though still quite small and easily overlooked. Its hunger had been growing since morning, but it knew it could not yet eat. In a few more hours, when all were asleep, it would feed at will. Even if the cat did not cooperate, the creature, now receiving solid nutrition, had grown enough that its own legs could get it across the whole floor and up onto the bed well before dawn.
Boba, making his rounds of the family members, now entered the boys’ room. He stood by the edge of the Stratego board, awaiting some form of welcome from the boys, but none was forthcoming. He was about to move on to Larissa’s room when the barest hint of motion caught his eye, coming from among the gray boxes on the floor. This he needed to investigate.
He set his old legs in motion and nearly stumbled across the Stratego board, but Max, accustomed to the dog’s clumsiness, had his hand ready to block the way. “No Boba!”
Boba stopped, turned about, and took the long way around Taras to get past the boys to the pile of boxes, but by the time he arrived there he had forgotten where he had seen the motion. It might have been the gray box in front of his nose, or maybe the gray box next to that one.
The creature stood up on the edge of the Risk box to greet the dog’s halting approach. The dog’s face loomed large, its black nostrils like truck tires, flaring, trying to gain a scent. The dog was so close now that it could have swept up the creature with a quick flick of its tongue. But the creature stood its ground.
“Look at Boba…” Taras said. The dog’s head was lowered as he peered into the Risk box. “What’s he looking at?”
“Maybe a mouse?” Max said.
“Snowman killed the mouse…”
The dog’s nose filled the field of vision of the creature. Beyond the nose up the snout the creature looked into the eyes of the dog. It was unclear whether he was able to focus well enough to see the creature. The milky pupils widened, then contracted…
And then came the moment of recognition, as the dog’s eyes opened impossibly wide. To further startle him the creature extended its arms and flailed them in wide circles.
Max had just advanced his marshal piece when Boba suddenly squealed, as loud as the time the boy drove over his foot with a bicycle. His tail dropped between his legs and he stumbled backward into the game board, scattering the pieces everywhere.
“Boba!” Max shouted.
The dog turned about atop the game board and once his muzzle was aimed at the door he bolted from the room, whimpering the whole way.
The boys chased after him and found him in the place he went during thunderstorms, beneath the couch in the living room. Max got down on his belly and raised the dust skirt of the couch, exposing the dog’s rear.
“What’s wrong, Boba?”
The dog would not move, his whimpers now a continuous high whine.
“He got hurt,” Taras said, getting down on the floor beside his brother. “Let’s pull him out.” He grabbed Boba’s tail and tugged.
“Not like that,” Max said. He managed to get his hands on Boba’s rear legs and pulled, his front claws dragging across the hardwood floor. Once out in the open Boba squirmed and desperately tried to wedge his head under the couch again, but Max held him tightly by the collar. The dog could not look the boy in the face.
Their father walked in. “What are you doing?”
“Boba got hurt,” Taras said.
“Maybe he did,” Max said. “He squealed like he got hurt, then he ran away.”
“What did you do to him?”
“Nothing, Tato. He was staring at the wall, then he squealed. That’s all. Maybe a mouse bit him.”
“Show me where.”
Max released Boba and he scrambled back under the couch. They took their father to their room and pointed at the pile of boxes. After a cursory examination he said, “I don’t see anything. Go find Snowman. If there’s a mouse he’ll smell it.”
After several minutes Max returned carrying Snowman awkwardly by the middle. He dropped the cat to the ground beside the boxes. All waited patiently as the cat took his time bringing himself back to full height and then stood motionless beside the boxes. Eventually he rubbed the side of his cheek against the Risk box, then he pulled back and rubbed the other cheek against the box.
The creature had seen the man approach and scurried into hiding behind the cardboard of a tattered box. When the cat rubbed itself against the box the creature leapt into the thick neck fur, burrowing deep. Then the cat walked away at a measured pace.
“See, no mouse,” the man said. “Snowman would have smelled him.”
The creature passed within inches of the man’s legs. Something stirred within it, something that had been lost: It was feeling emotion, in this case a sense of satisfaction at having outwitted the man. But also it felt a longing to feed on the man’s children later that night, not just out of hunger, but out of a desire for…revenge?