And we’re off! Given the nature of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) there will be typos and errors galore in these posts. That’s the nature of the beast. They’re “zeroth” drafts, not ever first drafts. They’re hemorrhaging words onto the blank screen. If we’re lucky there will be some sort of resemblance to proper grammar and story structure, or at least enough so that the reader can follow along.
To use a baseball analogy, it’s not like I’m trying to pitch a no hitter and strike out twenty-seven batters on eighty-one pitches. It’s much more like I’m trying to survive slogging through a long, long season in the low minors, playing in every game and making it to the end alive. Surviving, and learning from the experience. If I happen to have an occasional hitting streak or good game along the way, so much the better.
And there really is a destination to this story. That was my great insight over the last week. You may see it coming in advance, or not. And I may or may not hit it. But there is a target.
Today was a good day to start writing this story.
The cat’s claws dug into his leg as he sat trying to read. As always, she seemed to be upset that the dog had gotten fed before her, despite the fact that the routine had been established that way for years. It was still an hour before her feeding time and he had given her a nibble of his chicken sandwich during his lunch, but that meant nothing. As with all cats, she seemed to live only in the moment. At the moment, she was hungry.
Tom gently dislodged her claws from his leg, idly scratching behind her ears. He stroked her back and made soothing sounds to her until she relaxed and shifted her weight, curling up into a ball. Soon she was starting to purr loudly as only a cat her size could, her eyes closing to slits.
The purring abruptly stopped as her head snapped up from a snoozing position. She was new fully alert, her eyes and ears tracking something that apparently hovered somewhere a few feet in back of Tom’s head. He craned his neck around to try to see what was there, assuming it was some sort of fly or insect. He couldn’t see a thing no matter how he squinted.
The cat again dug her claws into his leg and then jumped the yard or so off of his lap and into the bay window. As soon as she landed safely, her eyes locked again on the mysterious target. Keeping her head still and focused, she slowly lowered her butt to the ground and wrapped her tail around her. She settled, but did not relax, staying ready to spring.
While the cat often acted odd (as all cats do) this was beyond the norm, even by her bizarre standards. Getting more curious by the moment, Tom slowly stood and moved away from the chair to get a different line of sight on the catnip induced event that was apparently taking place right before him. Carefully walking around the room, he squatted down at different points to see the room from different angles and against different backgrounds. Nothing magical, fascinating, or threatening appeared. With the winter sun low in the south there was a beam of sunlight dodging through the trees outside and finding its way through the window, but it illuminated only some random dust, floating aimlessly.
As he completed his circuit of the room with nothing visible, he heard the cat make a series of guttural chirping noises and then a long, low, warning growl. When he looked at her he saw that she was now in a crouch, her butt wiggling and vibrating, ready to pounce. Her eyes continued to flick back and forth across a small volume of space a few feet out in the room and a bit above head height.
Tom started to step toward the spot, closing his eyes while raising his hands to see if there might be something there that he could feel or touch even if he couldn’t see it. Was there a cobweb or something there? Was it possible that an air current eddy of some sort was doing something that was lost to his vision? Could it be that another of his senses could succeed where his vision was failing?
It was just as he closed his eyes and stepped forward in front of the cat that she screamed and leapt. Her extended claws slashed at the throat of the unseen enemy just as Tom’s bare arms blindly occupied that point in space.
The cat’s formerly graceful leap turned into a wild tumble after her claws raked across Tom’s hands and arms. She managed to twist around and land with some dignity before scooting off into the laundry room.
Tom’s eyes flew open wide as he felt the pain from a dozen long scratches. Letting out an involuntary yelp, a tension relieving roar, and a few choice curses, he hurried into the kitchen. Trying not to drip blood on anything, he stuck his arms under a running stream of cold water in the sink. Muttering threats which sometimes changed to short, shouted warnings in the general direction of the cat, he kept rinsing the scratches until the bleeding stopped. It took a few moments for him to gingerly pat his arms dry and put some antiseptic on the cuts. Then he went looking for the beast that had maimed him.
He found her next to her empty food bowl in the laundry room, calmly grooming herself as if nothing had happened. The temptation for revenge or punishment was strong, but he slowly calmed himself as he realized that in her mind she had done nothing wrong. In addition, by this time, she probably had no memory of even scratching him, so any punishment would seem to her to be totally random, unconnected to the act he wished her to learn from. He took a few deep breaths, reached onto the shelf above the dryer for a can of cat food, and picked up her bowl from the floor.
As he went into the kitchen to feed her, his cell phone started to ring and vibrate in his pocket. Setting the cat food and dish down on the table, he fished the phone out and checked the caller ID. Why would his home security company be calling him?
“Hello?” Tom asked as he answered the call.
“Mr. Tiernan? Sir, this is Jason from Home Protection Monitoring. Our system has detected a disturbance at your residence. Are you alright?”
“What? Yes. I’m fine, nothing wrong at all. What’s going on?”
“Sir, the system detected a situation a few minutes ago that potentially indicated that you might be in injured or in danger. When you didn’t respond to the text messages that we sent, we’re required to try to contact you by phone. That’s the purpose behind this call.” As Jason spoke, there was a faint but regular beeping sound in the background every few seconds, indicating that the call was being recorded.
“Text messages? Alarm? I don’t understand. Hold on.”
Pulling the phone away from his ear, Tom looked at the screen and saw that there were indeed unread text messages waiting. He tapped the icon and saw three requests from the security company in the last ten minutes, all asking him to contact them immediately. In the hubbub over the cat’s insanity he had completely missed them.
“Hello? Are you still there?” Tom asked, resuming the call. “I see your messages now. I’m sorry I didn’t call, I was just having a disagreement with my idiot cat. Is that what this is all about?”
“Mr. Tiernan, our system was initially triggered by some shouting and noise at your location. Once the alarm threshold was triggered, the system took a look at the video, an alarm was triggered, and we began trying to contact you.”
Tom paused, weighing his response carefully. On the one hand, he knew that his children had enrolled him in this home security program after his wife had died. He didn’t want to appear any more ignorant than necessary about how it worked and what he had agreed to. On the other hand, now that the system had been triggered, he found it disturbing to realize how much of his privacy he had given up in the bargain.
“Justin? Julian? Sorry, in all the confusion I missed your name the first time around.”
“It’s Jason, sir.”
“Okay, Jason. I appreciate the call and I don’t want to sound petulant, but isn’t it just a bit extreme to be going on high alert like this just because the cat scratched me? When I got signed up for your system I understood that it would be there if there was a fire, a burglary, or if I were having a heart attack and hollering for help. It seems that triggering on a cat scratch indicates that an adjustment needs to be made on the system’s triggering sensitivity.”
“Sir, you are absolutely correct, but we didn’t have an alarm triggered by a simple cat scratching. The initial triggering event was a series of loud, sudden shouts by you.”
“Right, the cat scratched me and I yelled at her. I got that part, but still, that shouldn’t trigger an alert, should it? Doesn’t your system have ways of double checking what’s really going on before it goes ballistic over a false alarm?”
“Yes, sir, again you are correct. First, the shouting tripped the autonomous audio monitoring alarm at your home. That in turn released limited access to your cached video files from the security cameras in your home. When the system reviewed that video, that’s when the alarm was issued and the text messages began. When those text messages were not acknowledged, the alert was escalated and passed on to my department for follow-up. Because of all of that, I’m talking to you now. As long as you’re alright, I can go ahead and delete your surveillance data at this end and re-set the privacy protocols on your system.”
“Fine – but I’m still unclear about something. What was it in the security video that triggered your system to treat this as a threat or a problem? Shouldn’t the video records have had the opposite effect? All they show is me being scratched by the cat, yelling at her, and dealing with some scratches.”
“Sir, that is correct. If that’s all that it was, the system should have downgraded the problem and cancelled the alert. I currently do not have any details on why the system reacted as it did. If you wish to know what the triggering event was, with your permission, I can personally look at the security images and ask the system for a log of the threat calculations.”
“I would appreciate that, Jason. Please go ahead, I want to make sure that the system is working correctly, and right now it seems to me to be out of balance.”
“Yes, sir. Please stand by while I get the data from your home system.”
For a minute Tom could hear only the faint sound of Jason’s breath, some clicking from the remote keyboard, and the steady, slow beeping of the required call recording notification tones.
“Mr. Tiernan, um… Is anyone else there with you? Or have they been?”
“No, just me and the cat. Why?”
“And there hasn’t been anything strange or odd going on aside from the cat scratching you?”
“No, not at all,” Tom said, starting at last to grow impatient. “Can you please tell me what’s going on?”
Now it was Jason’s turn to pause for several seconds, long enough for Tom to wonder if they had gotten cut off.
“Hello? Are you still there?”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Tiernan, I’m here. It’s just that there’s something very, very strange showing up in the video data from your home. That’s clearly what triggered the software to issue the alert for your residence. I just don’t understand how you don’t know about it.”
“Can you give me some details, Jason? I have no idea what you’re talking about. Is there something going on outside that I need to know about?”
“No, sir, it’s inside. And it appears that you were looking right at it. Let me send you the video file and you can see what I mean. It should be on your phone in just a second.”
Tom lowered the phone and tapped the icon to put Jason on speaker. An icon appeared and started blinking, indicating that the video file had been received. Tom tapped the icon and the video began to play.
“This starts about ten minutes before you yelled,” Jason said, “but as you can see it’s a time lapse with only a frame a second. It will slow down as we get to the triggering events.”
Tom watched the panoramic view from the corner of the vaulted ceiling as he sat reading. Suddenly, a black spot appeared, hovering in the air in the middle of the room. Tom could see the cat jumping up onto the window sill and staring intently at it.
The spot grew until it appeared to be a yard or so across. It reminded Tom of the holes that Wile E. Coyote tried to use to get the Road Runner. At first it appeared to be solid black but as the video frame rate slowed to a crawl and he looked closer, Tom could see vague forms and shapes on or within it, like an oil sheen on a puddle of water.
“What in hell is that?” Tom asked.
“I don’t know, Mr. Tiernan. If you didn’t see it, I don’t know what to tell you. It was right there in front of you.”
As the video frames clicked by, Tom saw himself walking around the room, bobbing and weaving, looking up toward where the hole was hovering. He could see the cat staring straight at it, ready to pounce. Then, as Tom raised his arms and moved toward it, the cat leaped against him, scratching him and knocking his arms away from the object.
As he was scratched and pulled his arms down, the object vanished.
Tom was stunned. He felt the world spinning. He grabbed for the table for support. His knees buckling, he managed to pull a chair out before collapsing onto it. As he set the phone down on the table he could see that the video display had been frozen on a frame showing the instant that the cat struck his arm.
“Mr. Tiernan, are you still okay? Are you seeing this also?”
Tom gasped for breath once or twice and caught himself as the world whirled around him. Long forgotten emergency training kicked in from nowhere, forcing him to focus on his breathing until his head cleared. His stomach was turning and he was sure that the amount of adrenaline being pumped into his system would make him explode.
Finally he became aware that someone was calling him. He distantly remembered that he had been talking to someone. Forcing his eyes to focus again, he realized that the voice was coming from his phone.
“Mr. Tiernan, please respond if you can hear me. I’ve called the paramedics and they should be there in a few minutes. Please let me know if you can hear me. Mr. Tiernan, are you there? Can you hear me? Mr. Tiernan?”
“I’m here, Jason. I’m still here. I just had a moment there, but I think I’m better now. I’m breathing.”
“Mr. Tiernan, I’m glad to hear you. I haven’t ever lost anyone before on this job and I don’t want you to be the first. I want you to stay relaxed and just sit there until the paramedics get there. Your vitals spiked off the chart there for a few minutes and you really had me worried.”
“Okay, Jason. I’ll just sit here and wait. But first, while we’re waiting, can you still see the last image that was showing from that video?”
“Yes, sir. I can.”
“Jason, I need you to immediately seal all access to that file and all of the records relating to this incident. I’m sorry that you’ve seen it, but you must trust me when I say that it’s absolutely critical that you not allow anyone else to see it for right now. Can you do that?”
“I can do that, but can you tell me what’s going on? What in hell is that thing? And what is that other thing inside of it?”
Tom looked at the image and then looked down at the cat who was now rubbing against his legs, still anxious for dinner. Tom reached for the cat bowl and cat food, opening the can and dumping the contents into the bowl. He leaned over and set the food down as the cat pounced on it.
“Mr. Tiernan, are you still there? Are you still OK? What’s going on? For God’s sake, what is that thing, and what’s it doing in your house? Hello?”
“I’m still here, Jason, I just had to feed the cat before things get even crazier around here. I can hear the paramedics’ siren, they’re almost here. We’ll all be fine, just make sure that you lock down that data and don’t talk to anyone other than me. Can you do that?”
“It’s done, Mr. Tiernan. Nobody but you and I have access to that data right now.”
“Thank you, Jason. The paramedics are here, so I’ll be hanging up for now. As for what that thing is? I don’t know how to give it a name or describe it.”
Tom broke the connection as he took a deep breath to steady himself. He could see the paramedics coming up the walkway. He hit the icon on his phone giving the command to unlock the door. One more time he looked at the image on the screen and the hundreds of razor sharp teeth in view around the edge of the hole. He blanked the screen and locked the phone.
“But it’s back.”