Reproduction without permission of the author is prohibited.
When a fluffy white kitten was thrust under his nose, Dr. Frederick Maniphesto was forced to cease contemplation of the glossy 8" x 10" portrait that stood on his desk of his cat, Ulysses. Ah, Ulysses. A noble feline. Dead now, long dead. Killed, brutally killed; back broken in the snow by a Siberian Husky. Still, Dr. Maniphesto treated all animals with the compassion they deserved. Even dogs, yes, even dogs...
Blinking, the doctor focused his eyes beyond the white blur of the kitten. A short pudgy bald man held the kitten at armís length. Next to him stood a tall buxom woman, made even taller by the dyed blonde hair piled high on her head and sprayed into place.
"Yes?" Dr. Maniphesto said, curving the outer corners of his lips into a smile.
"Weíre the Fieldings." The womanís voice was as soothing as a dentist drill. "Sid and Angie. And thatís Fluffy."
"Fluffy," Dr. Maniphesto repeated. His pale blue eyes met those of the kitten. Fluffy, he thought. Typical pet name. Demeaning and humiliating. Was simple dignity too much to ask? From these people, he supposed so. Look at that man, holding that kitten like a fashion accessory, like a womanís hat.
Sid gave the kitten an insistent shake. "Well? We have an appointment."
"Yes, of course," Dr. Maniphesto pushed his chair back and rubbed his hands. "Please have a seat. And please, hold onto Fluffy for the nonce. Plenty of time for the mind meld later in the session."
Sid snapped the kitten back, cradling it like a football against his pilled polyester shirt. The worn translucent fabric strained at the seams, flattening his chest hair into whorled patterns. A deep breath would pop the button at his throat. "Sorry. Weíve never consulted a pet shrink before."
The kitten, unperturbed, opened its mouth in a wide yawn. Its pink tongue flicked over the sharp triangles of its teeth as it kept its yellow-green eyes fixed on Dr. Maniphesto.
"We prefer the term animal empath psychotherapist. Itís got a lot more syllables," the doctor said.
Sid and Angie sat in stony silence.
"A joke. Sort of." Dr. Maniphesto cleared his throat and shuffled files, cursing himself. Why did he feel compelled to make inane chatter? It set no one at ease, least of all himself. "How did you hear about me, if I may inquire?"
Angie clutched her purse to her bosom, sitting tense and erect at the edge of her chair. "Well, last year, Chester Jr. was having some trouble adjusting to his new school. Right, Sid?"
"Yeah," Sid said. "We move a lot." He glanced at Angie, shifty-eyed. "Because of my job."
"Jobs," Angie said through thin lips. She patted an imaginary stray hair into place. "Yes. Well. The other kids always seem to make fun of Chester Jr., taunt him, you know, the way kids do."
"Itís good for him. Toughens him up," Sid said.
Angie smiled cheerily. "Thatís the theory! Anyway." She adjusted her purse. "With all that happened last year, the school suggested we take him to see your sister, Dr. Hilgarten. Well, actually, it was part of the court order. But she helped Chester Jr. oodles." She glanced around the shabby office. "Must be nice to have a famous sister, especially the best-selling author of How to Get Your Child to Grow Up Really Really Fast and Face the Brutal Realities of Adulthood. She mentioned you, and then when I saw that clipping about you on Sidís desk--the one with the circus bear--I remembered how she said you were tops in your field--" She stopped herself.
"--if you can call it a field," Dr. Maniphesto finished with a bitter chuckle. "Go ahead, you can say it. Thatís what she always says. She tends to denigrate that which she doesnít understand."
"Jealous much?" Sid smirked.
"I wouldnít be surprised. After all, Iím forging ahead, breaking new ground, while she follows in the footsteps of others. Maybe her tritely fascist pronouncements ride the waves of popularity and the talk show circuit now, but soon, soon, the tide will turn." He rested a pale bony cheek on one palm and tilted his glittering eyes toward the ceiling. Catching himself, he removed his hand and sat up straight. He twisted his mouth into his most encouraging and sympathetic smile, the one he had practiced in the mirror until it felt almost natural. "What seems to be the nature of the problem?"
Angieís small eyes filled with tears. She grabbed a tissue from the box on the desk, her long chipped fingernails clicking on the cardboard. Through her sniffles she said, "Our little Fluffy, sheís--"
"He, dear," Sid interrupted.
"He. He doesnít behave like an ordinary kitten."
As they spoke, the kitten squirmed out of Sidís arms and jumped onto the desk, perching itself in a regal manner on the corner. Dr. Maniphesto inwardly applauded Fluffyís maneuver. He sensed a bold and uncompromising spirit within the kittenís tiny frame.
Sid indicated Fluffyís new position with the practiced gesture of a game show hostess. "See? Ever since he followed Chester Jr. home--"
"Not quite, dear," said Angie. "Remember that first day? She--"
"--was so delightful. How could we turn her out? Chester Jr. ordered, I mean begged us to keep her."
"HIM. True. He chased his tail, batted pieces of string..."
"Remember how she got caught in that paper bag? Now look at her."
"HIM." Sid shuddered. "He just sits and glares. Positively glares. Iíd call that glaring. Look at him now. Now heís really glaring at me."
Dr. Maniphesto had to admit the kittenís eyes did burn with a fierce unwinking fire, unusual for an animal his size.
Angie patted Sidís knee. "Youíre being a bit paranoid, dear. She doesnít glare any more than Chester Jr. does. And thatís well within the bounds of normality, according to Dr. Hilgarten."
Sid brushed her hand away, "Oh yeah. That cat is perfectly normal. Thatís why weíre here."
"Iím only saying--"
"Hah!" Sid exclaimed. "You donít know. You havenít woken up in the middle of the night to find him in the study. Iíd swear heíd just been reading my files. Clippings scattered everywhere, a cigar burning in the ashtray, the top of the brandy decanter rolling across the desk. There he is, lying in the middle of the mess like the Sultan of Cheyenne."
"I think you mean Siam, dear."
"Siam, Wyoming, the former Yugoslavia, whatís the difference? Iím not talking geography here. The point is, what about my stuff? What about the steady depletion of my brandy and cigars?"
Angie sneered. "Thatís right, blame the kitten. You know what the doctor said. Youíre not even supposed to have that poison in the house. ĎFor the guestsí, he says. As if..."
"Okay, okay. I didnít want to come here at all. You know where I wouldíve taken him," Sid folded his arms and snapped his mouth shut, settling his head into his neck like a turtle. He jiggled his left foot, concentrating his cold black marble eyes on the flying tassel of his loafer.
Dr. Maniphesto felt the blood drain from his face. His lips moved, but no sound emerged.
Angie sighed and shifted in her seat, futilely pulling her short skirt down over her fat thighs. "Sid doesnít mean it, Doctor. He exaggerates. He gets overwrought. We all love Fluffy. But sheís become so hard to love. Sheís so distant--she never curls up in my lap anymore, or nuzzles my ankles when Iím doing the dishes. I donít know--maybe she needs more cat-toys, or a different diet..."
"Yeah," Sid burst out, stammering with the rush of words, white spittle spraying from his thick lips. "He needs to cut out the drinking and smoking!"
Angie rolled her eyes and sucked her teeth, but Dr. Maniphesto nodded at Sid to go on. Fluffy swished his tail and twitched an ear, as if at the buzzing of a gnat.
Sid glowered at Angie. "And donít tell me you havenít seen him in the neighborhood, Angie. With the other cats. Looks like theyíre having little communist cell meetings, the way they skulk away when anyone comes near. And theyíre all afraid of him. Dogs, too. Great big St. Bernards tremble like chihuahuas at his approach. Iíve seen it! Our little Fluffy." He laughed harshly and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "And then thereís Tiger, that big tomcat down the street. I saw him flee, actually fleeing--he fled!--behind some bushes when I let Fluffy out of the house. One minute, Tiger was there, on the lawn across the street, cool as a cucumber, licking his paws, the next he was cowering behind the azaleas. Fluffy knew he was there, too. He padded right over, lifted his tail, and sprayed. Tiger didnít even whimper..."
Dr. Maniphesto held up a hand, "Okay. So, what youíre telling me is that little Fluffy is not the adorable ball of fluff he appears to be, eh, Mr. Fielding?"
"Damn right!" Sidís voice had risen almost an octave.
Dr. Maniphesto said nothing, regarding Sid with the cool appraising eye of a waitress preparing to mop up a particularly disgusting spill. Sid fidgeted under his gaze, and said in a calmer tone, "Listen, Doc, that kitten is weird, but you know, I didnít really mean to imply..."
"I should hope not. Most distasteful. But let us say no more about it, Mr. Fielding."
"Call me Sid."
"Sid? So Chester Jr. is your step-son?"
"No. Why do you ask?"
"The common--never mind. I do try to understand the family dynamic. Too bad Chester Jr. couldnít be here with you today..." He raised his eyebrows in a question.
Angie and Sid exchanged glances, and Angie spoke. "We thought it would be best if he didnít come. Just in case... well," She took a breath. "If, for some reason, we had to part with Fluffy, for a little while. For his own good, of course."
"Chester Jr.ís or Fluffyís?" Dr. Maniphesto didnít wait for an answer. "You say Fluffy followed Chester Jr. home one day. That in itself is somewhat unusual behavior for a kitten, you realize."
Angie sank back a bit in her chair, crossing her legs demurely at the ankles. "Well, she didnít exactly follow him home. She was in a box, strapped to his bicycle." She paused. "There were airholes."
"He found Fluffy in the park and brought him home," Sid said gruffly, his face and the top of his head growing flushed. "Thatís all the doctor needs to know. He doesnít care about the damn shoebox. Obviously, there were airholes."
"No, dear. Chester Jr. didnít find her in the park, it was in the parking lot at King Kullen. He was returning bottles for the deposit."
"Fluffy was returning bottles?"
Angie tittered. "Of course not. Chester Jr."
"Yes, Chester Jr.," Sid said through gritted teeth. "He was in the park, not the parking lot. He was playing baseball with his new found friends." Sid reached back and kneaded the fat at the base of his skull with his stubby fingers. "Heís a normal all-American boy. We have Dr. Hilgarten to thank for that."
Angie smiled tightly and re-crossed her legs. "Are you saying returning bottles isnít normal?"
"Not when itís carried to extremes. Not when it becomes an obsession."
"Chester Jr. is not obsessed with returning bottles!"
"I didnít say he was."
"Please!" Dr. Maniphesto said, louder than he had intended.
Angie cut her eyes evilly in Sidís direction and then smiled sweetly at the doctor. A smear of lipstick colored one tooth. "Anyway, last Sunday afternoon, Chester Jr. came home and showed me this box, and I said whatís in the box? and he lifted the top, and there was this tiny ball of white fluff."
Sid grunted. "Thatís why we named her Fluffy."
"Him. Heís just as darling as can be." Angie pursed her lips, speaking in a cutesy baby voice. "Heís just a big ball of fluff, isnít he? Heís all fur." She reached over and scratched Fluffy under the chin.
Fluffy tilted his head back and scrutinized Angie through slitted lids, licking his chops.
The doctor felt his eyes moisten. "My catís all bone. Heís dead."
Sid said, "Sorry to hear that, Doc. But weíre not here to discuss your dead cat."
Angie mutely offered up the box of tissues. The doctor waved them away.
"Of course not. Well! I think Iíve heard all I need to hear. Fluffy?" He raised his hands and nodded to Fluffy. Fluffy walked straight over and Dr. Maniphesto placed his fingertips on Fluffyís head. "See? I picked the right job. Animals like me." The doctor grinned, enjoying the sensuous feel of Fluffyís silken fur.
In a moment he had achieved his trancelike state. Linked together in a stillness like a caught breath, man and kitten seemed to pulse with one heartbeat.
Gradually the doctorís body began to tremble until it was racked with spasms, and his facial muscles twitched.
Fluffy remained immobile, inanimate, clutched in the doctorís feverish hands like a gigantic wad of cotton from the top of an aspirin bottle.
The office had vanished to Dr. Maniphesto. This was no ordinary mind meld, no mere sense of companionship and understanding. This was enlightenment, revelation, completion. The t-tops of his brain had been blasted off, exposing his mind and being to the cool cosmic breezes of the universe. All his life, heíd been driving down the service road at 40 miles an hour in an old Chevette, now he was cruising the highway at 95 in a Camaro. Worlds opened before him, flashing promises like road signs. His mind tingled as if it were a piece of velcro finally pressed into place. If he were a jigsaw puzzle, Fluffy was the missing piece...
All at once, Dr. Maniphesto relinquished his grip with a tearing motion, as if he had been holding onto a red hot electrical wire, and fell back into his chair, gasping.
Fluffy yawned and stretched luxuriously and began licking a paw.
The doctor lay in his chair, saying nothing, a sheen of perspiration and a half-smile on his face.
"Well?" insisted Sid and Angie. Angie reached for Fluffy, who hissed and backed away.
Running a hand through his hair, Dr. Maniphesto shook his head in wonder. "Thatís no fluffy little kitten at all. Thatís one crotchety old bastard."
"What?" Angie and Sid cried.
"Little "Fluffy", or I should say Lieutenant Commander Thiok-Ul, known as the ĎOld Maní to his crew, is captain of a starship, and leader of the third expeditionary force from the Zirog Galaxy. A seasoned veteran of the spaceways."
Dr. Maniphestoís pronouncement was not met with the stunned silence he had expected.
"Wow, what a relief," said Sid, not sounding much relieved.
"Yes," said Angie. "We thought you were going to tell us he was possessed by the devil. We were afraid we were going to have to hire an exorcist and who wants to go through all that trouble and expense again?"
"Again?" Dr. Maniphesto asked without interest.
"Itís a long story. So whatís the cure?"
Dr. Maniphesto tapped his pen against his teeth. "You donít seem to understand. There is no cure."
Angie blotted her eyes with a crumpled tissue. "You mean our little kitten has to live the rest of his life like this?"
"You mean I do?" Sid interjected.
"Surely there are drugs, treatments, electro-shock?"
Dr. Maniphesto feigned patience. "Let me clarify. Iím not saying your cat is crazy--the victim of some alien Napoleon complex. Iím not saying little Fluffy THINKS heís a starship captain. Iím saying he really is one." He really really was, and Dr. Maniphesto had discovered him! He didnít care if the Fieldings believed him or not.
Sid produced a vulgar sound with his lips. "So whereís his spaceship?"
"Parked in another dimension. He comes from a civilization whose science and technology are far in advance of ours. Just the fleeting glimpse I had of its non-Euclidean geometry is giving me a headache." Dr. Maniphesto massaged his temples. Ah, but what a lovely headache it was. The best headache heíd ever had. "Captain Thiok-Ul was here on routine reconnaissance when his crew mutinied, destroyed the communications unit, and all hell broke loose. Seduced by the indolent life of your average pampered housecat, his men refuse to obey orders. He canít complete his mission, and he canít fly the ship home alone. Heís stranded here, and heís not happy. Apparently, this is how they lost the first two expeditions."
Angieís mouth fell open. "You mean all housecats?--"
"Maybe. Maybe theyíre descendants from some ancient invasion. Maybe we all are."
"Maybe YOU are," said Sid.
"Now Sid..." said Angie in warning.
Incredulous, Dr. Maniphesto shook his head. "Please, Mr. Fielding, are you telling me you would find it easier to believe that your cat was possessed by demons than that heís an alien? These are modern times."
"Look, Doc." Sid flung his arms wide, and with a dull pop the button at his collar finally flew off, almost hitting Fluffy. Fluffy batted it away in mid-air, then crouched, watching from behind the telephone like a lioness surveying the veldt. "I donít care whatís wrong with that freaking cat. He could be the second coming of Elvis for all I care. All I want is him OUT of my brandy and cigars, I want my wife to stop whining, and I want my kid to keep pretending heís normal like everybody else has to."
"Sid--" Angie hissed.
Dr. Maniphesto leaned back. "I see," said the doctor. "Itís as I suspected. Neither you nor your wife has the Captainís, or Fluffyís, if you prefer, welfare at heart."
"But Doctor!" Angie protested.
"Quiet, Angie. Let the Doc speak. What do you propose?"
"I propose to take him off your hands. I think it would be best if I kept him here for observation. Indefinitely."
"Dr. Maniphesto." Angie sniffled, stiffening in her chair. "I love Fluffy. And so does Chester Jr.. My husband wonít admit it, but he loves her too."
Dr. Maniphesto took one of Angieís hands, stroking it as he spoke, calling upon whatever charm he had ever possessed. Didnít he used to have quite a way with the girls in junior high? Before the incident? Before he had discovered the abilities that had set him apart? "Please, Mrs. Fielding, be reasonable. Be honest. You knew something like this might happen when you came here today. The charade is over. We are talking about a starship captain, not a kitten."
Sid snorted again.
Dr. Maniphesto ignored him, gazing into the shallow brown pools of Angieís eyes so that she could not look away. "My dear Angie, you and your husband are unfortunately not equipped to provide the kind of intellectual stimulation the Captain needs. Have you read Nietzche? Of course you havenít. This is a cat with a will to power, and he demands respect. I offer him that respect, and the opportunity to write his memoirs. You will never be able to communicate with him on the level that I can--a dose of catnip is not going to do it for him. Please. Think of the future! Think of posterity!"
"Whatís in it for us?" Sid asked.
Dr. Maniphesto withdrew his hand from Angieís with a lingering touch. Turning to Sid, he said, "A small honorarium. In the interests of science. How does the sum of fifty dollars sound?"
"Make it one hundred and youíve got a deal. Youíre lucky. Iíd ask for more if I didnít think you were a crackpot."
"Done." The doctor pulled out his checkbook and began writing. He and the Captain would be long gone by the time the check bounced.
Angie smiled bravely with trembling lips. "Chester Jr. will be so disappointed, but well, you are the Doctor. I suppose you do know best." Sid and Angie rose to leave.
Dr. Maniphesto waved them a cursory goodbye and was preparing to pour two snifters of brandy when into the office burst a wiry young skinhead about 11 or 12 years old, wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt, a plaid kilt, army boots, and a glazed fanatic look in his eye.
"Chester Jr.!" Angie screeched as he almost knocked her over.
"Out of my way, Mom." Chester Jr. stood in the middle of the office, his hands on his hips, glaring first at Angie, then at Sid, appearing to take no notice of the doctor, who stared at the boy in horrified fascination. Something in his stance, his attitude, reminded Dr. Maniphesto of himself as a boy.
Chester Jr. lips barely moved as he spoke in a low bitter voice. "What are you doing with Fluffy? Youíre having her put to sleep, arenít you? Just like you did with Dillinger." Before anyone could react, he strode to the desk and Fluffy sprang into his arms, almost knocking over one of the brandy snifters. Watching the leap, Dr. Maniphestoís stomach clenched, but he managed to catch the glass and set it down. Feeling dizzy he emerged from behind the desk. "Captain?" he called.
Angie chattered nonstop, trying to stroke Chester Jr.ís arm as he nimbly and with practiced grace eluded her touch. "Dillinger was never alive, honey, remember? He was just a fluorescent green stuffed dachshund. You only thought he spoke to you. Your Uncle Howard won him for you at the county fair when you were three, remember?"
"What the hell did we pay Hilgarten for?" Sid muttered.
He and Dr. Maniphesto edged toward Chester Jr., the doctor continuing to call to the kitten in a low voice.
Chester Jr. ignored all of them, nuzzling Fluffy, caressing the soft white fur, nodding and murmuring in the delicate little pink ears.
"You nearly choked on his button eyes," Angie babbled, "and all his insides were coming out. We had to get rid of him."
Chester Jr. sneered. "Hah! Like Grandma? Well, you canít take Fluffy away from me!" He clutched the purring Fluffy to his spindly chest, spinning and gliding as the others circled around him.
Although the office was warm Dr. Maniphesto shivered, feeling the cold grip of ice around his heart. What was going on? This pipsqueak of a boy was not a fit companion for a starship captain. In a low ominous tone that matched Chester Jr.ís he said, "Give me that animal. Itís for his own good. You couldnít possibly understand. Your parents and I know best. He needs me."
Chester Jr. grinned tightly. "I need him. Weíve already bonded."
"Thereíll be other pets. You can bond with them."
Chester Jr.ís humorless grin widened, almost splitting his narrow face in half. "Youíre the one who doesnít understand. I mean weíve actually, literally bonded. Weíve formed a symbiotic relationship. If weíre separated for more than twenty-four hours, Iíll die! And so will he!"
"Nonsense! I learned nothing of the kind from the Captain."
"Youíre a fool, Doctor. Do you honestly think you could know him like I do? Mice!" he spat. "You are all mice to us! He was only playing with you, using you, draining your psychic energy like a battery, painting pretty pictures for you all the while. You provided the catalyst, the extra boost of psi power we needed to attain our ultimate destiny. Thanks to you, he and I are one. Weíre in tune. Kind of like romantic love, only far deadlier."
Bouncing on the balls of his feet, Dr. Maniphesto challenged, "What do you know of romantic love?"
"Oh, youíd know if it happened to you," Chester Jr. answered with a smug little laugh. "Right, Fluffy?
Fluffyís purr had grown into a soft rumble, vibrating throughout the room. His eyes glinted with a sharp intermittent light that flashed also in Chester Jr.ís.
"He hates to be called Fluffy," Dr. Maniphesto growled.
"Not when I do it!" Chester Jr., threw back his head and laughed with pure delight. "Youíre jealous. Youíve always yearned for the kind of communion Fluffy and I share. Maybe once it was possible for you--but itís too late for you now. Too late! The odds are one in a billion billion. Ha! All around us, music plays, the sky brightens, the air smells sweeter, the birds are singing. The angels are dancing!"
Sid whispered to Angie out of the side of his mouth, keeping his eyes fastened on Chester Jr. "What kind of drugs did Hilgarten put him on, anyway?"
Angie shrugged. "Just the usual. The same ones they give all the kids at school."
"Drugs have nothing to do with it," Chester Jr. snapped. "Together Fluffy and I are a different, better life-form. More than human, more than...kitten, or Zirogian, or whatever. We are unified in a way your puny brains cannot even begin to imagine. Not even you, Dr. Maniphesto, with your primitive empathic abilities. Or whatís left of them."
With a despondent howl, Dr. Maniphesto lunged forward, making a grab for Fluffy, but before he could even touch him, he was thrown backwards by an invisible force and slammed against the bookcase. He slumped to the floor, stunned.
When the doctor looked again Chester Jr. and Fluffy stood engulfed in a wavering glow shimmering with rainbow colors like a giant luminescent soap bubble. Their eyes had begun to shine with a steady metallic light.
While Sid stood frozen, Angie put out a tentative hand toward her son, but the bubble rose, rose and dwindled out of reach.
Numb, Dr. Maniphesto watched from the floor as the bubble shrank and floated up and through the office window. The Fieldings ran after it as he creaked to his feet, but by the time he leaned against the windowsill, looking out, there was nothing to be seen. Only the darkening sky.
Angie wailed. "Chester Jr.! Oh, my little Chester! Sid! Heís gone!"
Sid said nothing, still staring up into the clouds.
Dr. Maniphesto returned to his desk and collapsed, his face in his hands. "Ah, Captain. Why? We had so much to learn from each other." He trembled. So cold, so cold. All the universe had been wrenched from him. He was alone again. Alone in a dark eternal emptiness, with not even the illusion of connection to sustain him. "Ulysses..." he whispered.