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The Canary

The canary


Estimated reading time — 9 minutes

I didn’t know what to think as she slinked towards me, fresh from her afternoon swim. Still in her favorite black bikini. Wet hair slicked back. Wearing pitch-black sunglasses that concealed the intent of her green eyes. She told me once her eyes were sensitive to bright sunlight, but the sun was on a downward path, and I always suspected she wore them to hide what she was thinking.

Bethany settled into the pool chair next to mine as gracefully as a ballerina. She never danced professionally or explained how she learned to move with such poetic grace, so I chalked it up to clean living and good genes. Suddenly, I felt her hand on mine. Leaning closer, she whispered, “I have a surprise for you later.” I felt a familiar thrill. The same one I’ve felt ever since we started dating one year ago. But the tone in her voice was somehow different. Almost sharp.

“Was she angry with me?”

We lounged for another hour, taking in the last warmth of the afternoon sun. Hunger called, and Bethany led the way up to our Anniversary Suite to change for Dinner. Exiting the elevator on our floor, she squeezed my hand with surprising strength. Her nails bit slightly into my flesh.

“Ouch! Take it easy there, Tiger.” I tried not to sound surprised at how much it hurt.

“Oh, sorry. I’m just excited for tonight.”

Her grip loosened, but I could feel a hint of tension between us.

After a quick shower and shave, I put on an outfit that was nicer than casual while Bethany was getting ready. Her keepsakes were arranged on the desk as always. She never went anywhere without them. Pictures of her parents, the heart-shaped pendant she inherited from her grandmother from Europe, and the picture of Cecil inside the pendant. I’m glad she seems to finally be over that business with Cecil from last month. I know owners can get pretty attached to their pets, but I never saw anyone lose it as badly as Bethany when her kitten died. I apologized endlessly and promised to get her a new cat soon, but the way she looked at me when I suggested replacing Cecil told me that was a bad idea. I haven’t brought it up since.

Bethany lithely stepped out of the bathroom in a black dress that looked painted on. When she saw me holding the pendant, she gave me a glaring glance that made my short hairs stand up. But the look was gone before I could say a word. She picked up her purse and headed for the door. I started to say something that would probably be another apology, but she turned and looked at me with a beaming smile.

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“Let’s go. I’m STARVING!”

Maybe I imagined that glare because she seemed fine when she looked at me over her shoulder. We were together on a wonderful trip, and she glowed more beautifully than the day we met. I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I put down the pendant and took her hand as we walked down to the restaurant.

———————————-

The restaurant was a perfect choice for our Anniversary Dinner. I wanted to make everything was just right for Bethany, so I booked the table with special instructions to seat us with an ocean view. The maître d’ got an extra tip for placing candles and Bethany’s favorite flowers on the table. Valerian flavors are her favorite, so there was a large bouquet waiting when we were seated.

Our waiter expertly rattled off the specials and suggested wines. I ordered steak, as usual, and Bethany ordered her favorite – quail. She always had a taste for fowl. I tried to get her to go for a steak once, but she just turned up her nose at it.

The conversation was pleasant, and we held hands periodically as young couples often do. But once in a while, I caught her glancing at her watch.

“Late for a hot date?” I tried to sound more jokey than annoyed.

“Oh…no, sorry. It’s just that the surprise I have for you is sensitive, and I want to make sure you get it when the time is right.”

“Sensitive?” Now she had me curious. When the food arrived, the waiter quickly placed it and left without any needless chatter. The steak was excellent, and it looked like Bethany was enjoying her quail. Maybe she enjoyed it a little too much. She dove right in and devoured the small bird ravenously. If I wasn’t with her in a public restaurant, I believe she would be sucking every morsel of meat from the tiny bones. After picking the bird clean, she looked at me and said:

“That was marvelous. I could curl up in a ball and take a nap right about now.”

I worked up a small smile and reached over with a napkin to gently wipe a stray spot of sauce off her chin.

“Don’t fall asleep on me just yet, my sweet. Let’s go for a nightcap. A perfect ending to a perfect meal.”

“That sounds wonderful.”

I took her by the hand and led her to a lounge adjacent to our restaurant. It had just the right mood. All the booths were angled towards the wall-length windows for a stunning view of the sun setting over the water. We sat for a few minutes in silence to drink it all in. The thing I had been meaning to say to her for the past year welled up inside of me. This moment was too right to let it get away.

“I love you, Bethany.” I didn’t know if this was a big deal for her to hear it. It was a big deal for me.

“I love you, too,” she said with a wide smile. Her teeth gleamed with reflected sunlight. “This year has been the best of my life…well, except for Cecil.”

“Right. Cecil,” I echoed. “Look I know I’ve apologized repeatedly for what happened, but I am – you know – sorry. Can we just move on from what happened? I’ll do anything to make it up to you. Just name it.”

“Sorry? I know you’re sorry, but I want to hear you tell me again what happened after.”

“Aww, c’mon. We don’t have to dwell on that. I did what I thought was best. Don’t you believe me?”

Bethany gave my arm a reassuring squeeze and let out a soft sigh. “Of course, I believe you. It’s just harder than you can understand. Cecil was more than just a kitten to me, and when you…did what you did…well, I…”

“Wait,” I was determined to head her off before this spiraled into an argument and ruined the evening. “I want to talk, but can we put a hold on this just for tonight? I promise we’ll come back to it tomorrow.”

I could tell it took a lot of effort for her to back down. “Alright. Okay. We don’t have to talk about this right now. I think I’ve had enough wine. Do you wanna blow this popsicle stand?”

“You bet.” The sun had fully set, and I felt a little pleased with how well I diffused the situation. We got up from our booth and strolled, arm in arm, towards the exit. Her grip on my arm tightened slightly.

———————————-

One month ago…

Bethany and I came back to her house from our date, and I could tell things were getting serious between us. It was like that line from an old movie: she was “practically perfect in every way.” I felt like I hit the jackpot.

Well, she was almost perfect. She had this weird, uncomfortably close relationship with her kitten, Cecil. There’s nothing wrong with a woman having a cat, of course, but the way she treated it was odd. She would swaddle it and feed it and talk to it like it was a baby. I’ve seen people act like their pets were family members, but Bethany went a little overboard. Some of our dates even got cut short because “Cecil needed his mama.”

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Like I said – almost perfect.

That Tuesday, I was leaving her place for home. I don’t know how he got out, but it wasn’t my fault. I was backing my car out of the driveway, and then I heard this high-pitched wail. I knew as soon as I heard it what it was.

Cecil’s lower half was caught under the rear tire. I moved the car up to get him loose, but as soon as I could get a closer look, it was clear this was bad. He was mewling pathetically, and it was obvious he wasn’t going to last much longer. Thankfully, Bethany wasn’t outside to see what happened next.

Then the impulse just came over me. I don’t know why for sure. I guess I told myself it was to spare Bethany’s feelings, or it was an act of mercy for Cecil. At least, that’s what I told myself later. It just happened so fast.

I reached down and snapped Cecil’s neck.

It took a few seconds to process what I had done. To feel the little ball of soft fur go limp in my hands. To feel the sudden silence when its cries stopped. The back of my neck prickled with heat, and I could feel beads of sweat run down my back. My hands were shaking as I stood there looking down at Bethany’s dead kitten.

“AAIIIIEEEEEEEE!!!!”

Bethany was screaming hysterically from the side of my car. At the time, I didn’t know if she saw everything or if it was the shock of finding Cecil like that. She darted around me and snatched Cecil’s body from me, scratching my hands in the process. She sank to her knees, rocking Cecil’s limp body and wailing with grief. I tried to console her, but it was hours before she would come back to me.

Later, I told her what happened. Everything. In the end, she said she understood, but I caught her looking at me a few times since then in a new way. Not a loving way. A couple of weeks later, I surprised her with the Anniversary trip, and thankfully, she said yes.

———————————-

Now…

We got off the elevator on our floor and strolled to our room. Bethany clung to my arm lovingly, and all felt as it should be for a young couple in love. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the talk of Cecil put a wall between us. I warned myself to let it go and enjoy this moment.

As we got close to our room, Bethany gently pulled me to a stop. With a sly look, she said “Wait here. I want to check to see if your surprise is ready.”

“Okay. What is it?”

“It’s a surprise, silly. I had it delivered just for you.”

Bethany shooed me a few feet away from the door so I couldn’t peek inside. She opened the door just wide enough to slip in and shut the door quickly. I could hear rustling noises and then a very faint squeal of delight.

“Okay. I think I’m going to like this.”

I waited for her to open the door, but nothing happened. I was getting impatient, so I knocked. She called back loud enough for me to hear through the door:

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“Not yet, my love. Almost ready.”

A few minutes later, the door opened. Bethany was coyly standing there, wearing nothing but a sheer robe. A single lamp was lit in the room’s corner, casting our room in romantic darkness. She beckoned me to enter and sit on the side of the bed. As soon as I crossed the doorway, Bethany shut and locked the door behind me. Once I was seated, I saw the surprise she kept hinting at all evening. It was a box as tall as a nightstand and twice as wide in the corner of the room. The lid was off.

“What are you up to, Bethany?” I was excited at the prospects but feeling more and more confused. What was in the box?

“It’s time for you to find out.” She lightly pushed me back onto the bed and started undoing the buttons on my shirt. With each button undone, she gave me a little kiss on my neck. A minute later and I was lying breathless with my shirt completely off.

Bethany stood up, walked over to the box, and pulled out what looked like a large laundry bag. With what little light there was, it looked like something was moving in the bag.

“Uhh, what the hell is that?” I propped myself up to get a better look.

“It’s your present. This is for everything you’ve done for me.” She leaned down and kissed me hard on the lips, gripping the back of my neck with one hand. Her nails bit into my skin like claws. I pulled away from the pain.

“Oww. Hey! Not so rough!” That’s when I noticed the coppery taste of blood on my lips. She bit me! “Okay, I don’t know what you’re doing, but I’m not into it.”

The single lamp behind her turned her form into a dark silhouette. She let the robe slip off, and I could instantly tell something wasn’t right. She looked like she had grown a third arm from her lower back. I squinted to focus in the gloom and realized it wasn’t an arm. It was… a tail? Bethany’s body contorted and twitched violently. I stared dumbfounded. Her eyes, no longer the same as those of the woman I thought I knew and loved, glowed with a feral light. Pointed, feline ears emerged through her flowing black hair.

She sprang on me. Claws slashing. Fanged jaws snapping. Before I could yell for help or fight back, it was too late. I could feel the warmth of my blood flowing from my open throat.

The cat thing that was Bethany lifted her head and looked down on me with satisfied hatred. She slinked over to the twitching sack, undid the knotted rope holding it closed, and poured out a litter of kittens onto my chest.

No, not kittens.

Grotesque cat children. Crawling babies, mewling with feline faces!

They scurried towards my open throat like infants eager to reach their favorite treat. Before all went black, I could feel her “children” feeding on my open wound. The last I heard was a purring whisper from Bethany:

“For Cecil…”

Credit: Gabriel Hernandez

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