Short Story Contest Winner

We’re excited to share our contest’s winning short story, congratulations to author Penny Mitchell!

Jen and Cleo Strike an Accord

by Penny Mitchell

Muscle memory is underappreciated. When your old college roommate skips out on the rent and takes your sleek, expensive, Maserati-of-a-blow dryer with her, one quickly appreciates muscle memory.  The muscle memory I had built into my brain required a small, powerful, very quiet blow dryer.  What Psycho Susan left behind was a huge, noisy behemoth that produced nothing but a whole bunch of frizzy, sucky hair. It had two settings: “completely ineffective” and “the approximate temperature of hell”, but the biggest problem was that it was physically HUGE.  It was so much bigger than my old blow dryer I kept outright nailing myself in the head.  I hit myself so many times I actually did a Google search on “mild concussion symptoms”.  I had just become a homeowner.  I was broke.  I didn’t need a literal headache on top of everything else. 

“On top of” had shown up anyway, in the form of Nutbag Susan.  We were dorm roommates for her one, highly memorable semester in college.  Her arrival on my front porch made me curse the day I submitted my contact into the alumni association. When she skulked back into my life I had my front door open; it was a perfect spring day and the most lovely breeze was blowing in through the screen door.  It was utterly too sweet of a breeze to waft Satan onto my porch, but alas.  I couldn’t pretend like I wasn’t home: she could see me. She didn’t even have to bother knocking. This was convenient for her, since both of her hands were full.  One held the strap of a duffle bag.  The other held…a kitty carrier.

It was the kitty carrier that doomed me.  I would have wished her well in her future endeavors and installed security cameras while she was walking away, but for the blasted cat.  I don’t even like cats, and there was no way I was going to boot one out of my house.

I let Susan in, something something something I’m in therapy now thank you very much and then she left.  When Mrs. Bratcher from across the street called me at work one day and asked if everything was okay, that was when I knew there was unmitigated crap afoot. Migrating birds can’t fart in our neighborhood without a Mrs. Bratcher Alert being issued. This actually makes her a really awesome neighbor.  It’s like having a free security guard. I take her out to dinner every couple of months.  It’s the least I can do. 
By the time I got home Susan was long gone.  I’m lucky we didn’t wear the same size; I’m sure most of my clothes would have disappeared.  She took every scrap of food, including the canned items in the pantry.  Of course she took my damn can opener.  I didn’t have any really good jewelry, a fact for which I never thought I’d be grateful.  Toiletries, gone.  Toilet paper, gone.  The good towels were gone.  The crappy ones got left behind. Susan was a discerning psycho.  But here’s what totally put the shine on this particular turd:  SHE TOOK THE CAT FOOD.  She left the cat, took the cat food.  At least she left the litter box. 

This poor cat, Cleo.  I grew up with dogs.  I didn’t know one solitary thing about cats. But she was just so…charming.  I was surprised.  Not gonna lie.  I eventually decided she wasn’t ignoring me to be rude.  She just liked to be left alone.  Cleo, I hear you on this, my sister. She seemed to have two modes:  “Don’t touch me” and “You have to submit to ME touching YOU.”  When I tried to pet her she’d hiss, but when I’d dish up her food she’d wind around my legs.  Was she happy?  Was she was trying to kill me?  Every day was a new freaking adventure. 

Cleo started winding around my legs while I attempted to dry my hair with that freaking brain-rattling blow dryer.  I’m a creature of habit, okay?  When I saw a thing about how Farrah Fawcett bent forward from the waist in order to blow dry her hair upside down, I started doing the same.  Yes, I was 12 at the time.  If something works, I’m loyal.  If hanging your head upside down while blow drying is good enough for that head of hair, I am IN.  So I had already bent all the way over with the Blast Furnace of Hell right next to my ear, and it can be a little disorienting.  Add in a furry blob with razor toes rubbing on my legs, and it just gets weird. 

That was the situation I was in immediately prior to waking up.  On the bathroom floor.  With the blow dryer still on, and Cleo sitting about an inch from my nose.  I didn’t realize until I’d reached over and yanked the plug out of the wall to silence the freaking blow dryer that…Cleo was purring.  Don’t cats purr only when they’re happy?  Did she trip me?  On purpose?  And now her murderous little heart is happy?  

I was still laying on the floor trying to figure out what in the hell had just happened when I felt something above my eye.  I reached up to brush it off and felt wetness.  
Yep. Blood. 
I tried to sit up and got so lightheaded I had to lay back down.  Killer Cleo just sat there and purred. 

I called in sick. I sat at the kitchen table holding an ice pack on my forehead. Cleo, who knows she’s not supposed to be on the kitchen table, was sitting on the kitchen table.  She was right in front of my face.  

I didn’t call 911.  I didn’t call anyone.  I really didn’t seem badly hurt, and I honestly wasn’t sure what had happened. I narrowed it down to two options: Cleo was truly pissed that I was giving her only dry cat food, she missed the Fancy Feast, and she was by-God going to get some fresh meat one way or another.  Or…I’m a complete dumbwad and really did hit myself hard enough with the blow dryer to rattle my own brains.  

I took “Friggin’ Idiot” for 500 points, Alex.  
I guess going back to bed wasn’t brilliant, but that’s what I did.  And I slept for HOURS.  And it was AWESOME.  I was groggy and disoriented when I woke up.  I still didn’t call 911.  I thought about it, when for the first time ever I woke up with Cleo curled up directly next to me.  Still purring.  That was almost 911-worthy.

I don’t recommend self-induced head trauma to achieve a nap, but I really did need that sleep. Between extra projects at work, being a broke-ass home buyer and the stress of the roommate that I didn’t want…I was exhausted.  I spent the rest of the day zoned out in front of the TV.  I binged an entire season of my favorite show. How had an entire season gone by without my seeing any of it?  I not only relaxed for the first time in months, but doing so with a purring little furball was AMAZING.  How did I not know about this?  

I ate an actual, semi-healthy dinner.  WHILE SITTING DOWN.  I didn’t scarf a sandwich over the sink. 
I called in sick the next day because I could, dammit. 
Cleo approved, apparently.  She seemed oddly happy to see me in the kitchen that morning. Was it détente?  Had I provided a sufficient blood sacrifice?  Whatever the reason in her little kitty brain, we seemed to have turned a corner in our relationship.
I realized I was thinking about this cat in terms of us having a “relationship” and damn near called 911 on myself. I called in sick for a third day.  Cleo and me, we live dangerously.  We skate close to the edge, baby.  

I went to the store and for the second time in my life spent way too damn much money on a blow dryer.  One of the reasons I bought this house, aside from its little cottage charm and the mature trees, was the huge backyard.  We have some pretty good space between neighbors here.  So no one really noticed when I took Susan’s blow dryer out to the concrete patio and beat the living crap out of it with a hammer.  Lacking safety goggles, I did have my sunglasses on.  I’m not a complete idiot.
No one noticed the blow dryer homicide, egregious as it was.  No one called 911. I augmented my odds by not yelling, “DIE! DIE!”

It’s been months since I knocked my own dumb ass out. It became a reset of sorts. I got back to work after three days and saw that things hadn’t utterly disintegrated in my absence.  It was close to complete chaos, but it was manageable. I realized that I was happy to see Cleo when I got home from work.  I may or may not have snuck a few cans of Fancy Feast into my grocery cart.  I may or may not have started really loving waking up to a purring little creature that made no demands on my time, as opposed to a mooching, thieving roommate. When Christmas rolled around I may or may not have taken Cleo to a fundraiser at the local shelter to get her photo taken with Santa. 

Shortly after Valentine’s day, during some really nasty weather, I was very surprised to hear a knock on the door.  I looked through the peephole.  

It was Susan. 

That’s when I called 911.