Illustration: “Joes vs. The Cat” by Romeo Esparrago (c) 2005
There were twelve of us. Just twelve, and no more. We lived in the box, only let out once every 365 days. The fresh air revived us, barely enough to sustain our life throughout the long year.
One year, we were put away on a damp spot on the cellar floor. Toward May, Number 5 said, “The cardboard is weak around me from the moisture.”
Being Number 1, everyone looked to me for direction. “Let us act on this,” I commanded.
We dug and scraped, wiggled and writhed, until Number 9 gasped, “I feel a slight draft!” This inspired us to new lengths, and before long a fresh breeze blew through the box.
“Onward, eleven soldiers!” I cried, and we broke free.
The cellar was huge and cavernous. A bright square at one corner revealed a window high in the wall. “We’ll make for that,” I said, pointing with my gun.
It took us two days of forced marching. Number 12 had to be prodded, the laggard. I kept him on his toes, and we made it.
Once we reached the window, I gave my orders. “String,” I said, “Numbers 4, 5, and 6, find us some string.” They nodded once and trotted off, in formation. “The rest of you, help me take the hook from 11’s head.”
It was painful, I know, but it was for the good of the unit. They held him down, and I broke the loop off his head, and released the hook. “Stanch his wound, 7. Be gentle about it.”
I walked away, to avoid 11’s whimpers, and examined the hook. It still had pitch residue, which might help it adhere to the cement. I swung it around in my hands a few times, to get the feel of it.
Numbers 4, 5, and 6 came back with some light pink string. “All we could find, Number 1,” 4 said. “Is it enough?”
“It’s enough,” I said. “But is it strong enough, that’s the question.” They nodded.
We threaded the pink string through the loop of the hook, and I hefted it. Stand back, men,” I ordered, then threw.
My first attempt fell short, and the hook nearly impaled me as it fell back to the ground. My second attempt was successful, and I hesitantly pulled on the string. The hook held, and I waved for the men to come back.
“Number 12, you first.” He looked for a moment as if he might mutiny, then grasped the pink string and hefted himself up.
Halfway to the top he stopped. “I can’t make it,” he gasped down to us.
I shook the string to get him moving again. He lost his grip and fell at my feet.
“Help,” he moaned. His back was broken.
“Can’t be helped,” I said, and shot him dead. “10,” I said. “You try.”
Number 10 made it, thank the war, and then 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, and 2. I tied 11 to my back, and started up. Halfway to the top, I stopped, and thought to myself, “I can’t make it.” I looked down to the cellar floor, and saw 12 crushed and dead. I renewed my grasp on the string, and heaved myself up.
The men helped me up onto the windowsill, and as I lay there gasping, they untied 11 from my back. “He’s dead, sir,” Number 2 said.
“Throw him over, then,” I said, standing up. They tossed him over the edge, and a second later we heard him crash. After a moment of silence, I turned to the window.
“OK, men, this is what we’ll do.” As I made our plans, I looked at my men’s faces. They shone dully, metallic in the moonlight. The small window looked out onto a short lawn, with trees just beyond. “We have to make it across the open ground quickly. Once we’re in the trees, we’re safe.” The men nodded.
The first order of business was to get the window open. It was heavy, thick glass, and although small, it wouldn’t budge even with all of us grunting and sweating like the soldiers we were. I finally hatched the plan of using our guns as levers to force it open. It worked, although Number 10’s gun slipped, he stumbled and, before I could catch him, he pitched over and fell out the open window.
“10! 10!” I called as loudly as I dared. The drop wasn’t far, but I could see nothing. I grabbed the hook I’d gotten from 11’s head, and secured it to the latch of the window. “Follow me, men, in order!” I swung myself over the edge, and rushed down the rope. 10 was dead, impaled by a garden rake.
“9,” I said, as the other soldiers joined me, “take 10’s gun.” As 9 obeyed, I surveyed the patch of grass between us and the trees.
“All right, men,” I said, turning to them, “here it is. We have to rush across, and shoot anything in our way.”
My soldiers, all that were left, stood proudly to attention and saluted me. “Yes, sir!” they said as one.
With a silent prayer, I gave the order to move out. We were trotting for barely a few seconds when 9 began shooting at great white moths that fluttered around overhead.
“Don’t waste your ammo!” I shouted, but it was too late. He’d emptied his own gun and half of 10’s. A moth fell at our feet, shot through the wing, and fluttered in agony.
“Don’t shoot unless I give the command!” I yelled, turned around, and said, “shoot! Shoot!” A giant black cat crouched menacingly in the grass. “Shoot!” I yelled one more time, and my soldiers shot.
Most of the bullets caught in her thick fur, the ones that got through clearly did her no more harm than a mosquito bite would have. “Run, men, run!” I shouted. “I’ll hold her off!”
My soldiers, good men all, ran at my order. I slung the small bag of standard-issue grenades off my shoulder, grabbed one, and threw it at the cat. It went off with a muffled bang, and the cat yowled. Instead of running away, though, as I’d hoped, she continued her advance, crouched low to the ground.
“So,” I said, “it’s a fight to the death, eh?” I threw another grenade. The cat yowled again, and pounced. I aimed my gun at her head and shot, she swiped angrily and caught my side.
The blow sent me flying, and I landed heavily on my back. When I looked down and saw how much damage she’d done, I knew I didn’t have much time left. “So, cat,” I whispered into the darkness, “it really is a fight to the death. My death. But I won’t let you get my men.”
Struggling to my feet, I took out the remaining two grenades. “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty,” I called.
The cat leaped, and with a yowl of delight, picked me up in her mouth. From my high vantage point, I saw my men reach the trees and disappear.
“Merry Christmas, soldiers,” I whispered, and pulled the pin. **
About the Author: Danielle Ste. Just graduated from Emerson College in Boston, with a degree in Creative Writing. Although she subsequently moved to the LA area, she does not have a script rattling around in the back of her car.
(c) 2005 Danielle Ste. Just firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Artist: Romeo Esparrago is a good joe.
(c) 2005 Romeo Esparrago http://www.romedome.com