Joyland

New York |

Kitten Fingers

by Lucie Britsch

edited by Amy Shearn

It was the coldest winter in years, the internet said. Snow covered the land, making it other-worldly, which was better than this worldly. It wasn’t Harry Potter magical but it was good enough. People were told to stay in and people were fine with that and were going to anyway, because it was the golden age of TV, the internet said.

The bar was quieter than usual, but there were still a few patrons, none of whom seemed concerned with the weather. I doubted they even knew it was winter, or didn’t care maybe. Apathy was trending right now, or it would be if the wi-fi wasn’t down. But we stared at our phones anyway. The fire resented us all, burning so brightly and no one giving a shit.

The flow of beer and glow of the fire preserved us all in amber somehow, like in that dinosaur movie people love. We were contained, we were content. Winter had come, like that show said.

Even when the door blew open, and a mysterious figure entered, no one raised an eyebrow, HD or natural, and not because everyone was on their phones or drunk, but because of that apathy again. It was unlikely to be a celebrity so no one cared. All the celebrities were off skiing somewhere, or trapped on the internet, somewhere with better wi-fi.

I need a room the figure said, it was unclear if it was a he or she, because they were dressed head to toe in ski wear, their voice muffled by a thick scarf. This could have been a look for all I knew, I’d worn the same jeans and same band t-shirts for so long now I forgot shopping for clothes was a thing. I was like Steve Jobs, but with no ambition or turtlenecks.

We just have the one I said, because oddly we did only have the one.

I’ll take it the figure said. I watched them fumble in their bag for a wallet. It’s impossible to do anything in mittens so they basically threw money at me. I sympathised; I’d fumbled in mittens myself a few times.

I don’t want to be disturbed the stranger said as I showed them the room. As you wish I said, because we were all about customer satisfaction, but also, I was lazy, and it was a lot of stairs.

Will you be needing anything else sir I said, assuming it was a man, traveling in this weather, alone, at night, wearing such a bad outfit, reminiscent of an 80’s shell suit, but for winter sports, like the ones Eddie the Eagle wore. Women dressed better I thought, the little I knew about them.

Is the kitchen closed? The stranger asked.

It is, I said but I can make you something I said, because we were trying to get a better rating on TripAdvisor, but also, we had a load of old ham that needed using up.

Very well they said. Very well I said, leaving them to get settled.

I returned with a tray 10 minutes later and startled the stranger, who was by then in a state of undress. The stranger was in fact a woman. Underneath the outer garments she was wearing regular person clothes. She still had her mittens on and her scarf was firmly wrapped around her neck and chin, to conceal her identity maybe, but more likely because it was cold. It was winter after all, and the heating was on the blink. You can read all about it in our one-star review on TripAdvisor.

Sorry ma'am I said, leaving the tray on the bed. Can I get you an extra heater or blanket? We didn’t have another heater or blanket. There was a dog in the bar though, if neither minded.

No, that will be all, thank you she said. Please knock next time she said. I was just glad she didn’t scream. The patrons downstairs were a useless bunch but I was pretty sure if a woman screamed, they might put down their phones, for a second anyway. I’d also called her ma'am, which I suspected was weird.

Back in the bar a news report came on the TV. A scientist had gone missing. Yawn. She was potentially dangerous. Ooh. They wouldn’t give details but they said she would be acting strangely and possibly wearing mittens. They advised not to approach the woman but to contact the authorities. It was winter. Everyone was wearing mittens.

No one in the bar batted an eyelid. I was sure someone would ask me to turn it off, no one wanted to hear the news. But no one said anything. They were all too busy staring at their phones, willing the wi-fi to work, which was a great misuse of magic if ever there was one. The fire was still going look at me look at me! It swore in the old days people used to stare into it.

On my way to bed that night, after putting out the fire because I had a feeling it was mad and wanted to murder us all, I stopped outside the stranger’s door.

I told myself it must be a coincidence. Several people that night had been wearing mittens. Just because she was a stranger to me didn’t mean she was the strange woman they were looking for on the news. I decided I’d wait till morning to see just how strange she was.

The next day I made up a breakfast tray and knocked on her door.

Come in she said.

She was still wearing her mittens and scarf but was in a different outfit of regular people clothes.

I’m sorry if I was rude last night she said.

No, I’m sorry if I was rude, I said, putting the tray down on the bed.

Are people looking for you? I asked then, deciding to just be open with her. She didn’t seem dangerous. Harbouring a fugitive would actually be a good distraction.

She sat down on the bed then and told me her story.

She was a scientist. They’d been working on a cure for cancer, but then something strange happened. A tech billionaire wanted to give them some money to do a private study and in return she would help fund their other projects. She said something didn’t feel quite right about any of it, but she worked with men, who liked money, and the tech billionaire was a billionaire and also happened to be an attractive woman.

The tech lady wanted us to study cats she said, more specifically she wanted us to see if we could harness their power.

I laughed then. I couldn’t help it.

I’m not joking she said, scratching at her neck. This tech lady is basically a crazy cat lady but because she’s rich and pretty, people don’t care. Anyway, she’s not that pretty she said. Meow.

Anyway, my fellow scientists thought she was crazy really, but they wanted the money, so they agreed to do it and because I’m the only woman, and have a cat, they decided I should do it.

I only have one cat anyway she said, and he’s an ass, I have no intention of getting more, especially not now she said, mysteriously.

I told her the pub had a cat once, but it got run over, and she told me she didn’t need to know that.

I had to experiment on cats, it was awful she said, and started crying then, but it was more of a whimper. I knew you weren’t allowed to just touch women now, or ever, so I dug out an old tissue from my hoody pocket and handed it to her.

I thought you weren’t allowed to test on animals anymore? I said and she told me you’re not allowed to test makeup on animals, which is a shame because some of them are ugly she said, joke! she said, but she was still crying.

This tech lady thought cats secretly ruled the world she said and she’s given a TED talk once so I started to believe her.

I mustn’t have looked convinced because she said haven’t you noticed how they’re everywhere? In our homes, on every street? Watching us. They’ve made us their slaves she said. The Egyptians worshipped them she said, they knew how powerful they were.

I’d only known that one cat that was stupid enough to get hit by a car but I nodded.

I didn’t know scientists were interested in cats I said, not that I knew any scientists.

Yes, she said, I know it sounds crazy, but it’s only as crazy as people trying to make invisible cloaks she said and I nodded but really I was thinking what the fuck?

Well that doesn’t sound so crazy now I said smiling anyway, glad she’d stopped crying.

We were just two normal people having a normal conversation, only one of us was wearing giant mittens and a huge scarf, indoors. I felt a little underdressed.

I’d been testing all these serums she said, to see if we could make humans more cat-like, but things went wrong she said, getting straight to the juicy part of the story, sparing me a montage that would have been a weird mix of animal torture and her working late into the night eating pizza.

Wrong like how? I said, interest piqued.

Like this she said, and took off her scarf and mittens.

Oh, I said. Her neck appeared to have a layer of soft fur and her hands weren’t hands at all.

Kitten fingers she said, waggling them at me.

I like them I said, shocking myself, but it was true. There was something about them. Someone else might have vomited or screamed or jumped up or passed out maybe, but I was somehow hitting on her a little. You never know what your kink is till you see it.

Thanks, she said, but that’s not the point.

She was right, it wasn’t like we were on a blind date and she just told me she had webbed feet. This wasn’t a date. I didn’t know what this was but if what she was saying was true, and she was the woman on the news, then I was harbouring a fugitive, which to be honest, is on most people’s bucket list.

So now they’re after you? I said. Yes, she said. Why though? I said.

Because they think I’ll tell people what we’ve been doing she said. Or what I’ve been doing she said. But really, I think it’s because of how they treated the whole experiment, and me, like it was beneath them, like it was a joke she said, starting to cry softly again.

We’re just a joke to them she said, and I didn’t know if she meant cat women or women in general, but I suspected it was both.

And will you tell? I said, because she was telling me after all.

No, I just want to be left alone she said, putting her scarf and mittens back on.

Why are you telling me? I asked, wanting desperately to be special.

Because you seem kind she said, and stopped crying.

I can’t reverse it she said, I tried. They just want to hide me away, or worse she said.

You were on the news I said, they’re looking for you. Do you have a phone? I asked.

I threw it off a bridge she said.

I always wanted to do that I said.

It’s overrated she said. I couldn’t use it anymore anyway she said, waggling her kitten fingers again.

Can you go to the tech lady? I asked, they must have told her.

No, she said. I’m not her property. I don’t trust her anyway she said. But I do have an idea, but I need help.

I’ll help you I said, because I had nothing better to do, but also, there was something about her I liked, and I didn’t know what that said about me, but I wanted to find out.

What are you thinking? I said, assuming she might want revenge on the men she worked with.

There’s a singer she said, who I know really likes cats. I was thinking of going to her. It’s the last place they’ll look and she might take pity on me, give me sanctuary.

And then what? I said, disappointed someone else would soon be doing the harbouring.

I don’t know she said, I just need to go somewhere safe, where I can work out what to do.

Ok I said.

Really? You don’t think I’m mad? She said.

I don’t know you yet I said, but I believe you. I’ll have to get someone to look after the bar though.

She purred then and it startled us both. Thanks, I mean, she said, looking embarrassed.

I’ll keep an eye on the news so we know if they’re on to you I said. The purring got louder and she tried to mask it with a cough.

I found someone to cover the bar and as soon as it was dark, we set out for the singer’s house. To help her blend in I wore as many clothes as I could find, including mittens. I felt like a kid, which was not a bad thing.

On the drive she told me more about the men she worked with at the lab.

They think women who own cats are all crazy cat ladies she said, they think we’re lonely sexless eccentrics she said. I told them they were wrong but they just laughed.

I’m sorry I said, apologising for my gender.

They want it to be them that cure cancer, not me she said.

Men don’t like women who have cats, it’s a witch thing she said.

Right I said, but witches aren’t real, and she waggled her kitten fingers at me and said don’t be so sure.

Even before witches, cats had a bad rap she said, they were associated with the devil and sex and lust she said, licking her paw. They represented female sexuality she said tilting her head and looking at me and I had to admit I did want to stroke her neck.

But it’s mostly the witch thing I said.

Probably she said, but they’re supposed to be men of science, but they still don’t trust us. And I didn’t know if she meant us women or us cats, not that she was a cat, she was 15% cat maybe, but I read somewhere humans share DNA with other things, fruit even, so I was maybe 15% banana for all I knew.

They thought witches turned into cats she said and I tell her I know and she’s impressed so I don’t tell her I saw it in a movie.

Of course, I didn’t really believe it, until this happened, she said, flexing her paws.

Maybe witches were scientists really, I said, trying to cheer her up, because she seemed a bit sad. She would never be able to open a Twix on her own.

In a way, I guess they were she said, looking thoughtful. We use a lot of things from nature she said.

Like cats I said.

Well not usually but yes, she said.

The Egyptians worshipped a woman with a head of a cat she said, but I don’t think the world is going to be into a woman with kitten fingers and a fuzzy neck though, do you? She said.

I was, so it might though.

What were you trying to do? With the serum? I asked. What was the serum?

So many questions she said, I’ll get to all that. She yawned then and I was sure I heard a tiny purr again.

Thank you for not mentioning Cat Woman she said then, a little sleepy. We’d been talking a lot, well she had, and she wasn’t used to talking to people. She was used to being alone in a lab with only a cat maybe.

Did you know the guy who created Cat Woman thought men were dogs and women were cats she said sleepily, he thought women were hard to understand like cats, mysterious, unreliable, he was an ass, but dogs are dumb, so maybe he’s right.

Why did you agree to do it? I asked, but I knew she probably didn’t have much of a choice.

The more I researched cats and the more time I spent with them the more I saw what the tech lady meant about them being powerful. I just needed to bottle that somehow.

Please don’t tell me anything gross now I said.

Nothing gross, she said, just complicated science stuff involving their DNA. I appreciated that she kept it simple.

What did you think it might do? I asked

I hoped it would make me more cat-like in my abilities, give me nine lives maybe, but it only changed my appearance, and it serves me right, I guess she said.

The men probably knew something bad would happen I said.

Yep, rather me than them she said, of course now they need me.

We arrived at the singer’s house, a huge gated mansion, and I had no idea how we would get in.

Don’t worry she said, I have a plan.

The whole ride over she’d been talking but also thinking up a plan, because she was very smart and could multitask, she was, after all, three things now, a woman, a cat and a scientist. I was still just a boy, pretending to be a man, worrying I had a thing for cats.

The plan was we would pretend we were from a cat charity and needed help with a new project. She would be our new ambassador.

Are they gay cats? The singer said and we said they could be.

Only when her staff had left us, happy we weren’t going to murder the singer, because she paid their wages, did the mittens come off.

After the initial shock had worn off, Kitten Fingers told her story.

She’s mad, the singer said, about the tech lady. She told us she dated a tech billionaire once, so she knew what they were like. How could she do this to you?

Technically I did it to myself, Kitten Fingers said.

Well you’re safe here the singer said, although I was supposed to be going skiing, but you could come with me she said and then got really excited at the idea. Yes! She squealed. You should come! It’s the perfect place to hide she said, and we had to admit she was right.

You’d be hiding in plain sight I said, because I’d heard that was a thing.

I’ve never skied though, Kitten Fingers said, looking nervous.

Oh, don’t worry, the singer said, no one actually skis.

So, it was decided, we were going skiing, or not skiing, if what the singer said was true.

I kept tabs on the news to see if there were any developments but the story had gone cold.

Once we were safe in a snowy mountain resort I didn’t even know existed because I was not rich, Kitten Fingers decided she should lay low for a few days, see if she could work out an antidote. She turned her room into a makeshift lab while we hit the slopes. I wanted to stay and help but she pointed out I wasn’t a scientist and would be better off keeping the singer entertained. In the evening she joined us for drinks and fondue, always in her mittens in public. If anyone stared or was suspicious, none of us noticed.

No one bothered the singer. She thought it was because she was in a big coat all the time and incognito herself but I think it was more a combination of the two giant bodyguards that followed her around, and the fact she wasn’t as great as she thought she was.

Then there was an incident. Some milk went missing from the kitchen, a man got scratched.

People started to talk. Someone alerted the news.

Kitten Fingers fled, leaving her scientific notes, and me, behind.

There was no way to contact her after she threw her phone of that bridge, she was just gone.

The singer tried to reassure me she’d be ok, tried to get me to stay, I think she was lonely, but I needed to go after her. Also, fondue isn’t as fun as you think.

Her story was back on the news again then, as if they knew she was on the move. The tech lady was on every channel, appealing for her to come home, she said nothing will happen to her. They said she stole something valuable.

I tried to keep ahead of the news and police. I wanted to find her before they did but I was too late.

I saw her on the news being put in a police car. The fugitive has been caught they said. No one ever knew what she did or why she was running, other than me and the singer, but the country was relieved. The snow had started to melt.

I went to the police station to see her. I’m a friend I said, but I thought about her soft neck and I was more maybe. The tech lady was there too. She said she was sorry. She knew what she did was wrong. She’d just gone power-mad she said and shrugged. It happens I said.

The tech lady paid her bail and took us back to the lab. I thought I was getting a tour maybe. Or she was taking Kitten Fingers to get her things. She’d fled, maybe she’d left snacks in her desk drawer or a plant needed to be apologized to.

We pulled up at the lab, a big imposing grey building that said I’m dull on the outside because we need to keep all our money for the crazy shit that goes on inside.

They’re going to kill me Kitten Fingers whispered to me then, while the tech lady buzzed us in.

The tech lady heard though, because it was just the three of us, stood outside a building, in the middle of nowhere. You could have heard mouse fart.

It’s kinder this way the tech lady said, to Kitten Fingers, but also me.

You can stay she said, to me, because Kitten Fingers had no choice. Stay, they both said.

Someone buzzed us in and we were taken into a small clinical room. You couldn’t swing a cat in here I wanted to say, but knew it wasn’t the right time.

A man joined us. He didn’t say hello or ask about our journey or if we watched a show he liked, so I guessed he was a bad man.

The tech lady made Kitten Fingers lie down on the table, she looked at me like, I don’t know why cats make such a fuss, this isn’t so bad.

I watched them give her an injection, the same one they give cats to put them to sleep, forever. I know because it said on the bottle sleepy time for cats and had a picture of a cat in a jaunty night cap.

As Kitten Fingers was dying her hands returned to normal and her neck fur vanished.

I’m afraid we have to kill you too the man said then, coming at me with the needle.

Just as I was about to be stabbed in the neck, Kitten Fingers was there suddenly behind him. She picked up a laptop and bashed him over the head.

I always wanted to do that she said.

The tech lady looked at us both and ran.

You’re alive! I said. Because she was alive.

Just she said.

How? I said.

I think I might actually have nine lives she said.