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The Story of Sebastian and Sheba
Before he took his new name, before the animals rose up and overthrew their oppressors, before there was talk of prophecies and saviors, the great warrior Mort(e) was just a house cat known to his human masters as Sebastian. It was a time that now returned to him only in dreams and random moments of nostalgia that disappeared as quickly as they arose. All of it except for Sheba. The memory of her was always digging at him like a splinter under a nail.
Sebastian’s mother, a nameless stray, gave birth to her litter in the cargo bed of a pickup truck. If he tried hard enough, Mort(e) could see brief flashes of those days spent suckling with his brother and sister. He could recall the warmth of his mother’s fur, the rough surface of her tongue, the sound of her cooing, the smell of his siblings as they climbed over him, the wetness of their breath.
He could not, however, remember the circumstances that separated him from his family. There were no records for him to consult once he became sentient. All he could do was imagine the truck driver—most likely a friend of the Martinis, his eventual owners—discovering the destitute brood while loading the vehicle one morning. Sebastian’s mother probably hissed and scratched when the humans removed her kittens. But in the end, she was most likely grateful to be relieved of them. Instinct told her that she had fulfilled her evolutionary role and was still young enough to have more kittens.
From that morning on, the days dissolved into one another for little Sebastian. Janet and Daniel Martini were a young couple then. The newlyweds spent their first year together renovating their house for the children they planned to have. Left to himself, Sebastian believed that he owned the place. He crept into the rafters and slunk through the newly constructed ceilings and walls. The workmen covered up the wooden beams, shooing Sebastian away from his favorite hiding spots.
Once the living room was complete, Sebastian would recline in the square of sunlight on the carpet, drifting in and out of sleep, watching the dust motes floating around him. During the day, while the Martinis worked, the house was quiet. At night, Sebastian would visit his masters at the dinner table, sometimes reaching his paws up to Daniel’s lap. The man wore jeans that carried the scents of his print shop: chemical cleaners and metal and ink. The manufactured odors would sting Sebastian’s nostrils if he inhaled too deeply. Daniel would then lead the cat to the basement stairs, where he kept the water and food, along with the litter box.
Sebastian rarely thought of his siblings or his mother, until one morning when a family of strays marched in single file across the front lawn. The mother led two kittens who obediently hopped behind her. Sensing they were being watched, the mother stopped and pointed her tail in the air. She eyed Sebastian, who stared at her in return, his paws propping him up on the windowsill. She hissed. Sebastian hissed back, mimicking her. Then she extended her paw, and three sharp claws merged from the tips. Sebastian flinched. Satisfied, the mother cat kept walking. Her young ones gave Sebastian a final once-over before following.
A dog’s bark sent them scurrying out of sight. The dog was Hank, a brown mutt who lived across the street. Hank seemed to have no purpose in life other than barking until he was hoarse, while his red nylon leash strained to keep him at bay. He often focused his anger on Sebastian, who slept on the windowsill when he wanted to feel the cool glass on his side. On this day, Sebastian let Hank holler for a little while before stepping away from the window. It was an act of mercy.
Sebastian gazed at his own paws and noticed for the first time that the toes were not as long as those of the other cats. The digits had been sheared off. That seemed impossible, for he should have remembered such an incident. Regardless, this observation produced a moment of clarity for him. There were probably many things he did not remember about his past, living by himself in this house, sleeping away the time. Moreover, there were cats and other creatures beyond the walls, and he had been one of them. But now he was here, separated from others like him. He knew there was no way out, even though he had never searched for one.
Though it may have been terrifying, the moment drifted away, along with most other memories. There was warmth and food here, along with other wonders and distractions. A new plush carpet in the living room was even softer than his mother’s furry belly. An enormous gaudy mirror took up nearly an entire wall of the living room, leaving him baffled for weeks after its installation. Not only was there another room, but another cat! This stranger had a white chin with an orange streak that draped over his forehead, extending along his spine to his tail. Though Sebastian was relieved to discover that the other cat was an illusion, he still had to remind himself of this fact every time he walked by the mirror.
He dedicated entire days to the new television, with its flickering screen, endless looping wires, and whirring circuitry. When the Martinis left the attic door open, Sebastian had a new world to conquer, filled with toys, cardboard boxes, holiday decorations. His first expedition lasted from one sundown to the next. From the window he could see grey roofs, green lawns, streets that glistened in the rain, and a never-ending stream of cars rolling along the horizon, the edge of the known world.
And then Janet brought home a young one of her own. A few days later, Daniel picked Sebastian up—something he never did—and carried him into a bedroom where the baby boy lay on a towel on the mattress. Daniel spoke softly to Sebastian, rocking him gently before placing him on the bed. Sebastian sniffed the baby’s soft, clean skin. The baby gurgled and waved his arms. Daniel let Sebastian sit there for a long time.
Sebastian liked the child, whose name was Michael. And he was happy when, perhaps a year later, Daniel brought him another infant, a girl named Delia. These were his people, and he belonged with them. This was home. He was safe here. There was nothing else to life. There didn’t need to be.
For many animals, things began to change when they were first exposed to the hormone. For Sebastian, the real change began when Janet started sleeping with the next-door neighbor.
The neighbor appeared out of nowhere in the Martinis’ driveway one day. Janet chatted with the man while the babies were asleep upstairs. Sebastian observed from the window. The neighbor was tall, with long hair that flopped behind his ears and a pair of round glasses that reflected the light in brief flashes. Beside him, fidgeting at his knees, was a dog. Large brown eyes. A white coat with an orange patch extending from the hip to the shoulders. Mysterious and exotic, a creature from another world. The man would occasionally grasp her collar in order to hold her still.
Sebastian was convinced that the dog was about to attack Janet. He pawed at the window in an attempt to warn her. If only he had those sharp claws like the stray cats, she would have heard the scratching. The neighbor gave the dog a whack on her side, and she sat down and remained still. This animal was clearly the man’s property, and posed no threat. The use of force to subdue the dog surprised Sebastian, for the only time he could recall being disciplined was when he sat in the recliner. Janet had swatted him out of it so many times that he began to believe that the chair was somehow connected to the woman, and could summon her instantly.
It wasn’t until the neighbor was saying goodbye that the dog finally spotted Sebastian. She cocked her head, trying to figure out what this little creature was. The man yanked her collar one more time, and she left with him.
Her name was Sheba. A few sunrises later, the man and the dog performed an odd ritual in their yard. He tossed a fluorescent green ball, which the dog would chase down and return to him, over and over. Both of them seemed so pleased when the task was completed that Sebastian again wondered if the dog somehow ruled over the man. But then the man dangled a piece of food until she sat and waited for it.
Sebastian once dreamt of the dog invading his house and taking his family from him. He saw himself on the other side of the window, in the forbidding cold, while the dog stared at him from his spot in the living room.
Some time later, the Martinis invited another stranger to the house. A teenage girl named Tanya. The couple dressed up in new clothes—Janet in a long silvery dress, her sandy hair tied in a bun, and Daniel in a jacket and tie. They kissed the children goodbye and left the house together for the first time since Delia had arrived. Tanya sat on the couch watching television. She smelled weird, like candy, flowers, and mint. Every once in a while, she would go upstairs and check on the children. Sebastian kept his distance, spying on her from behind a chair or underneath a table.
Something had happened to the family. Tanya had split them up somehow. She was clever. She said hello the way all guests did, with a smile and a gentle hand. Sebastian ran away from her. She could not be trusted. A predator was in his house. Sebastian was on his own. He had to protect this place by himself.
Each time Tanya visited the children’s room, Sebastian stayed on her tail while still remaining far enough away, in case she pounced on him. In case she had claws. It went on several more times until he could barely stand it.
She went in once more, and he waited in the hall. He could hear the girl speaking softly, her palms sliding down the fabric of the sheets. The lights dimmed. Something was happening.
Furious, Sebastian charged, butting the door with his head. The sound of the collision was like an explosion. Tanya was the first to scream. Sebastian began screeching as he never had before. He pawed at the door. Inside the room, both children were crying. Tanya whispered in response, trying to soothe them. Sebastian would have none of it. She was trying to trick them, the same way she had tricked the Martinis. Don’t believe her, he tried to say. I am here to protect you.
Eventually, the Martinis’ car pulled into the driveway. Sebastian stopped yelling, relieved that he was able to summon them so quickly. While the children continued to cry, the babysitter stuck her head out the window and called to the Martinis for help. She was loud enough to get Sheba barking from next door. Janet arrived first. Sebastian let her walk by, proud that he had held off the intruder long enough for his masters to see. She tried to open the door, but it was locked from the inside. She banged on it for a few times before Tanya let her in. The girl’s face was slick with tears, her eyes red and raw. Janet hugged her, then went to the children’s cribs and rocked them to sleep. Defeated, the girl sat in a chair and wept.
Sebastian walked downstairs, where he found Daniel leaning against a wall. The man’s tie was undone, his skin yellow and wet. Sebastian noticed a new scent on him, a putrid version of Janet’s perfume. Daniel stared at himself in the great mirror, a line of drool hanging from his bottom lip. Sebastian went to him, hoping for some kind of explanation, but the man nudged him away with his foot. Sebastian stood there, stunned. Meanwhile, Janet walked the traumatized girl to the door. She and Daniel exchanged angry words. Years later, Mort(e) imagined her saying something to the effect of, “Your cat showed more concern for your children than you did.” And then she must have said something about his drinking. She ignored his angry reply. Tripping on the first step, Daniel managed to drag himself to his room, where he promptly fell asleep.
The house fell silent. Sebastian was alone to contemplate what had happened. It was he who was the enemy, the intruder. He was a prop for this house, not to mention its prisoner. They had mutilated him so that he could guard the house in name only. He pictured the days stretching endlessly before him. He realized that he would die alone in this place.
When the moment passed, he wandered over to the window. Tanya was gone, and Janet stood in the driveway speaking to the neighbor again. The dog was with him. This time, Sebastian did not have to wait for the dog to make eye contact. She stared at him, her tail wagging. Dogs seemed incapable of controlling their tails. Minutes later, the neighbor and the woman sat at the kitchen table sipping tea and laughing the way the Martinis used to years earlier. Sebastian did not have the energy to stand up to yet another stranger. Besides, he was content to stay by the window. Sheba remained in the driveway, her leash tied to the doorknob.
The glass separated them. Sebastian drew closer. Sheba pressed her paw to the window and licked the glass in a vain attempt to get to his face. Sebastian sniffed the trails of saliva but could smell nothing. This continued into the night, while the two humans shared stories and jokes. It was not long until all the evening’s events were forgotten, replaced with Sheba’s warm brown eyes and lapping tongue.