Title: Thrill of the Chase
Word count: 2798
Summary: Max is a senior house cat who works very hard to make sure his human is taken care of. But who’s there to help Max out when he finds himself in a cinch?
Max wasn’t sure where Henry would be without him.
Henry was always running hopelessly late. If Max didn’t wake him up, Henry rolled out of bed with barely enough time to eat breakfast after his shower. He’d spend all day under the water, given the chance. He had fallen asleep leaning against the powder blue tiled wall once, and Max had been the one to find him. Panicked, he had endured the assault of water from above to make sure Henry was okay. Henry had been incredibly ungrateful, yelling at Max for going into the tub. Now, Max waited just beyond the reach of the spray of water in anticipation of another incident. And when time was coming close, Max sounded the alarm.
“Alright, alright! Fuck, I’m coming, alright? Shut up, Max.”
The water would turn off with a squeak and a squelch a few seconds later, but Max wouldn’t leave without Henry, clothed in red-and-white plaid boxer shorts, trailing behind him. There was a box full of magazines on top of the back of the toilet. Who knew what he would distract himself with were Max not there to keep him on task?
Max led the way down the hall, jumping on top of stacks of books partly for amusement and partly to keep within Henry’s line of sight.
Before Cara left, Max had been able to relax more. He worried, of course, but Cara never let anyone forget breakfast. Or dinner. She had been a big fan of food, announcing its arrival with a wide grin and a sing-song voice. She shared her plate with Max.
But she was gone now, along with everything that smelled like her. Henry had taken it hard. Dinner was always late and he almost never used a plate, but Max forgave him. He missed Cara too.
“Maxie,” Henry said. His voice was still thick with sleep. It would go away with some coffee, as would the silly nickname. Max let it go because he knew Henry wasn’t in his right mind before coffee. Henry said so all the time.
Max led Henry throughout the kitchen, jumping onto the counter so that he could direct Henry. He circled the clean mug, left on the counter the night before, and Henry reached for the coffee pot full thanks to the automatic timer. Max used to hate that thing; it had arrived shortly after Cara had disappeared, and for a few days Max had believed Henry was awake when he was actually smacking the ‘snooze’ button over and over. Breakfast had been very late those days.
Henry poured himself a bowl of cereal—without milk—and Max leaped down from the counter. Henry pulled a wooden chair out from the cluttered kitchen table. He began to lower himself into the chair, but Max leaped up into the seat.
“Shit. Oh.” Henry quickly straightened up. “Sorry Max. Didn’t see you there.”
“Oh. Hungry too, bud?”
Max jumped down from the chair with a gentle thud, and Henry set his bowl down. The cat kibble fell into the bowl with a satisfying clink, right on time.
When he had finished eating, Max circled Henry’s legs and purred. He was careful to stay just out of Henry’s reach. It took a loud “Meowww!” for Henry to stand up and follow.
“The hell, Max? What d’you want now? Get back here, you weirdo.”
Max weaved and leaped his way back down the hallway lined with Henry’s book stacks. In the bedroom, he curled up on the black trousers that Henry had tossed onto the desk chair the night before.
“No, no, Max. Not those. Leave those alone.”
Henry would tug on the trousers, and Max would obligingly get off of them. Henry stepped into them, one leg at a time, while Max sought out the shirt. He found it draped on the corner of the bed, and leaped onto it.
“Max, for fuck’s sake. Not that, either.”
Henry tugged the shirt away, and Max purred his approval while Henry dug through a pile of laundry in search of a clean undershirt. He finally found one, or one that was at least clean enough, and pulled it overhead while Max looked for his socks. He pulled a pair of black dress socks from a second laundry pile, one sock at a time, and delicately batted them towards Henry. He had to meow loudly for Henry to notice.
“What, Max. I’m running la—Oh, there they are. Awesome.” Henry shoved his arms through the arm holes of his white button down before reaching down for the socks. He gave Max a quick scratch under his chin before straightening back up.
“Okay, no more playing around,” Henry said. He said this every day. “I’ve gotta finish getting ready, buddy. Go find a toy.”
Henry didn’t realize that Max hadn’t played with toys in many months now. He was an adult cat, no longer entertained by balls that didn’t move and no longer enticed by the promising sound of a paper bag that was always disappointingly empty.
Instead, Max jumped onto the desk and curled up on a pile of papers, from which he could watch Henry and still rest his head on his paws. Max meowed lazily to get Henry to look at the time and closed his eyes. He didn’t remember hearing the front door bang shut. He must have fallen asleep before Henry had gotten through the house.
Henry was an exhausting human.
But he had his good qualities. He always knew exactly the spots Max loved to be scratched—and avoided the ones he did not. He left sherpa throws, folded sherpa-side up, in Max’s favorite sleeping spots. And, unlike Cara, he only bought Max’s favorite flavors of his favorite treats. He even knew to get the soft chews, and to skip the cans of shredded stuff.
The sound of bags rattling alerted Max to Henry’s homecoming. Max had relocated to the living room, where he had a sherpa blanket draped over the back of the sofa. He stretched with a wide yawn, claws extended into the throw. Then he heard Henry put the bags down, and they settled with a clatter that sounded suspiciously like canned food.
Careful not to appear overly eager, for it was still a little early for dinner, Max sauntered into the kitchen to find Henry dumping the contents of his bags onto the table before tossing the yellow plastic bags unto the floor, where they would presumably stay until Henry realized he was out of garbage bags until his next shopping trip.
“This place is fucking shit,” Henry was saying, and Max realized this was his cue to hang back. Henry had never hit him, but he was prone to dropping things when he was stressed. The chair seemed like a safe shelter, so he sat under one that gave him a decent view of Henry.
“How’d it get like this, Max? This is fucking disgusting. Crap everywhere.”
Max didn’t bother answering. It wasn’t a question actually directed at him. Max was a very neat cat who always used his litter box and covered up when he was finished. He groomed several times a day and always used his scratching posts. If there was a mess, it certainly wasn’t because of him.
“She’ll be here in an hour. Dammit, I’m so late. I meant to get home an hour ago but there’s no food in the fridge and we’ve got to eat something.”
Max agreed with that, and he meowed enthusiastically to show his support.
“Not now, Max. I’ve gotta do the dishes and—What’s the living room like? Can you even find the damn sofa?”
But Max wasn’t paying attention. He had turned, instead, to the discarded bags scattered on the kitchen floor. Henry had lost his interest when he had decided to pay more attention to water, suds, and clinking dishes than to Max. The bags, however, proved to be an entertainment. They skittered and floated when he pounced on the pile. Before one could land naturally, he tackled it to the ground. The sound of the rustling plastic nearly drowned out the sounds of Henry grumbling to himself as some water escaped the sink and splashed to the floor.
“Fucking spoons,” Henry was saying. “Who the fuck even invented spoons?”
Max turned suddenly, surprising the unsuspecting bag behind him. He pounced. He and the bag slid on the tiled floor and fell into the table leg with a dull thud. Max abandoned his hunt, momentarily, and leaped onto the chair to obtain the high ground. He needed to see who had attacked him. But then he remembered Henry telling him to get down, and—having spotted no obvious attackers—attacked the bag again to deliver his killing blow. He sank his teeth into the plastic handle and shook his head. His bell collar sang out his victory.
Henry turned off the sink to inspect Max’s kill.
“Max, what’re you doing?”
Max purred, a loud rumble that emitted from deep in his throat.
Unimpressed, Henry shook his head. “You killer, you.” He turned his attention back to the dishes.
Max released his bag. The kitchen just then felt both familiar and not, as though it were an apparition in a dream. The same chairs were there, which hadn’t been moved since Henry had eaten his cereal for breakfast. The garbage can was still full and made the kitchen smell faintly of rot. But there were suds on the sink and puddles growing at Henry’s feet and too many bags. The food was still on the table, forgotten for the moment, but Max resisted the urge to leap up and investigate the table. Henry had sounded unusually distressed when he’d gotten home.
Maybe, Max thought, there was a surprise for him.
He turned his attention back to the bags with renewed curiosity. Behind Henry’s back, Max sniffed and pawed at the bags, searching for a hint. The fourth bag he investigated smelled suspiciously like fish.
He stuck first his paw into the opening, then his head. The bag was empty, of course. He knew it would be. But he wanted to be sure of the smell.
Salmon, maybe. Henry knew he loved Salmon. But maybe it was tuna. He doubted it was tuna. Max only ever got tuna out of a can, and–
A metallic crash! and a shouted curse startled Max and sent his thoughts scattering. He scrambled backwards, heart hammering. If Henry found out what he was doing, he would probably get really mad. He might get angry enough to take the surprise (fish) away. Max wiggled backwards, but no matter how far he crawled back he never seemed free of the bag.
Max’s head shot up in alarm. The bag was still there, filling his vision with yellow and green lettering. He brought up his rear right paw and scratched, and his ears were overwhelmed with plastic rustling. He shook his head. The bag shook, but didn’t come free.
Oh no no no.
“When did I make spaghetti,” Henry was wondering out loud, unaware. Another metallic clang. He must have dropped a pot.
It wouldn’t keep him occupied for very long, Max knew. He’d be found out.
But he didn’t get very far. Max cried out when his nose met the sharp edge of the chair leg. He shook his head again, brought a front paw up to push the bag away. He only succeeded in shifting the bag so that the handle settled more comfortably around his neck. He could see, but the bag was still there as yellow in his peripheral vision and a rattle and a rustle that filled his ears and distracted him.
“Max, you alright over there,” Henry was asking. His voice sounded far away. Max kicked furiously at the bag handle again, but he couldn’t get it past his nose. He growled, frustrated.
“Shit, Max. Holy shit. Come here, you crazy cat!”
Henry was standing over him now. Max could see him as he stood in his human’s shadow. Henry bent down, suds-covered hands reaching out for Max, but Max flattened away from Henry’s touch. He shot between Henry’s legs—He was never getting his surprise fish now—and meowed. The bag inflated behind him, slowing him down, making his throat ache as the handle loop strained against his neck.
Oh no no no no no.
With a terrified yowl, Max took off. Down the hallway—over the books, around the stacks, trying to lose the bag in pursuit—into the bedroom, where the bag followed him underneath Henry’s bed. While Cara had lived with them, this space had been a haven: dark, uncluttered, and too low for the humans to bother him with uninvited pets during his naptimes. But now, it was a tangle of dirty and forgotten clothes, dumbells, gym gear, and scraps of paper that Max liked to chew on every now and again.
In this place of unknown mysteries, Max sought his refuge. He dove below the low-hanging blanket, expecting the bag to come free with the motion. Instead, it snagged on the heel of an old pair of shoes, causing Max to cry out in pain and alarm. Somewhere beyond the bed, Henry cried out his name. But he didn’t think Henry would be able to save him now. The thing was on his neck!
“Henry,” a female voice said. “Henry, what’s going on?”
“You’re early,” Max heard Henry say. He sounded flustered.
“Henry,” the woman said again. “What’s going on?” She sounded like Cara, but her voice was less sharp. Max thought this must be what dying was like: the memories of passed loved ones coming to bring you to a place of unlimited canned food and slices of roast beef. But as lovely as that sounded, he wasn’t sure it was worth the pain of the plastic handle digging into his neck now. He growled and rolled onto his back, kicking his back legs in a furious attempt to get free.
“Max got into the shopping bags, and–”
“Oh, the poor baby. That’s your cat, right?”
“He’s under the bed and I can’t–”
There was the sound of footsteps, and a rustling as the woman cleared a place on the floor where she could kneel. “Geez,” she said. “Don’t you ever clean under here?”
Henry made a sound that Max didn’t understand, but the woman was laughing.
The clutter around Max started shifting, and he panicked as he toppled onto his side before a set of hands scooped him up.
“Poor baby,” the woman’s voice said again. Out from under the bed, Max was disappointed to see it wasn’t Cara. Her hair was too dark, and her skin too. But she kissed the top of his head before putting him down in her lap. He was too big for her thighs to hold, but she sturdied him with one hand as the other fiddled with the bag around his neck.
“Why don’t we give him a treat to cheer him up,” she said. “That must have been awfully scary for a little guy.”
She wasn’t Cara. But she didn’t squeeze him too tight and allowed Henry to take Max from her arms with less fuss than Cara used to. She followed them to the kitchen while Henry massaged the base of Max’s ears where he loved being pet the most. He didn’t murmur reassurances like Cara or the strange woman might have, but he gave Max a comforting pat on the head when he put him down in front of the food bowls while the new woman asked where his favorite treats were. She even mashed the pate up with a fork before putting it in his bowl, the way Cara always did and the way Henry always forgot.
He would have to figure out something to call her besides “Not-Cara,” he decided. Henry seemed to have named her “Sweetie.”
“Mrrrrow,” said Max, trying out the name. She knelt on the tile to scratch him under the chin. She seemed to like it.
“Thanks for calming him down,” Henry was saying as Max rolled onto his belly for Sweetie to pet. “I don’t know how I would’ve.”
“He’s a good boy,” Sweetie cooed. She scratched Max’s belly, and he wondered what he would have done without them.