Lisa Criss Griffin: Staying Behind

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Staying Behind

By Lisa Criss Griffin

The rumbling roar of jet engines overhead caught the attention of the man standing alone in the middle of the eerily quiet city street. There was no traffic, and no pedestrians other than himself. The usual cacophony of city noises had disappeared along with the city residents. As far as he knew, he was the last man standing within the city limits.

James watched the airliner pass overhead as it struggled to clear the silent skyscrapers surrounding him. His two boys were on that plane. He felt his throat constrict as he recalled how close they came to not making the flight.

The flights leaving the city had dwindled to a handful of planes over the last few days, and seats were increasingly hard to come by. The fighting over seats on the planes had turned deadly very quickly. The airport terminal looked like a war zone. People with authentic tickets for the last flight out had to pick their way through corpses just to get to the gate.

Their plane was the last flight out of the city, probably for a very long time. James’ older sister Lila was a flight attendant on the flight, and she was the only reason he had been able to procure the seat. He had been forced to make a devastating choice due to the airliner’s weight restrictions. James could have retained his seat, but the twin toddlers would have had to stay. It wasn’t a difficult choice for him. Those little boys had their whole lives in front of them. He was determined to give them a chance to survive. He would never callously abandon them here in the city, all alone, the way their biological parents had done.

The two little twins cried pitifully when he had to debark the plane. It broke his heart to see the terror in their faces along with their small arms outstretched towards him, begging him to come back. Lila gazed at her younger brother through the tears welling up in her eyes. She cried openly as she hugged James goodbye and promised him she would look after his boys. They certainly stood a better chance of surviving somewhere else.

James rubbed his hands through his sun-streaked blond hair in relief as the plane cleared the downtown area and banked westward. It was a lovely, clear day that held no hint of the horrors stalking the city. He took a moment to enjoy the warmth of the sunshine on his weary face.

The recent rash of natural disasters plaguing the planet was mind boggling. The order to evacuate the city had caught everyone by surprise, although it shouldn’t have. It was merely another place on the growing list of impending casualties.

He was enormously fatigued and needed to find a safe place to hide before the sun went down. James was not certain he was the only person left downtown, and his harrowing experiences with highly desperate people over the past week made him cautious.

He strolled over to a solid looking high rise and peered up towards the penthouse. The building itself was stout with thick concrete walls. It would have to do. The electricity had been shut down citywide, so he had to take the stairs all the way to the top.

An hour later, he found himself slogging up the final staircase. The gray exit door loomed enticingly just a few steps above him. James pulled the heavy metal door open and fell into the lobby in relief. The door clanged shut behind him with a note of finality.

After a few moments, James stood up and scanned his surroundings. He found himself in a posh penthouse restaurant. Most of the outer walls were floor to ceiling windows. The views of the city and the ocean in the distance were breathtaking. He thought it morbidly marvelous that his final moments would include this panoramic vista.

His stomach grumbled in rebellion over his involuntary fast over the last two days. James made his way to the kitchen, salivating at the thought of food. He scavenged the pantry shelves and found a loaf of french bread, some fruit and a lovely bottle of dry white wine.

James selected a table with an amazing view. He popped the cork, filling his glass with the fragrant wine. A low rumble reverberated through the building as he sipped from his glass. The tremors were increasing in frequency. He had expected this and it no longer concerned him. The boys were safe. What happened next was out of his hands.

He pulled off a piece of the bread and savored the flavor as he chewed it. Somebody sure knew how to make bread, he mused in satisfaction. He almost choked as something unexpectedly rubbed up against his leg. James jumped up in surprise, causing his chair to bounce across the carpet. A black blur shot across the floor and into the kitchen.

Intrigued, James made his way into the kitchen, looking for whatever had accosted him at the table. He searched the room thoroughly. Whatever it was, did not want to be found. He sighed and opened a couple of cabinets out of curiosity. He removed a can of tuna, pulled open the pop-top and dumped the tuna on a plate. He carried the plate back to his table, deciding to place it on the floor several feet away. Now he waited.

James took a sip of wine after another tremor rattled the building. He saw a furtive movement by the kitchen. He focused on the view of the ocean while he watched the creature slink from the kitchen out of the corner of his eye.

James pulled off another piece of the delicious bread and popped it into his mouth. The creature stopped, then resumed stalking the plated tuna. The smell of the fish enticed the small animal, beckoning to it with an irresistible aroma. It padded up to the plate on the floor and looked up at James with hesitant light blue eyes before taking a bite of tuna.

“Hey, kitty,” James cooed gently.

The tiny black kitten turned his head and met James’ eyes before resuming his feast.

“That’s a good kitty. You are a sweet kitty, aren’t you?”

The kitten chomped his tuna with gusto, shooting James a quick glance in reply.

“Poor little fella. It has been a while since you’ve eaten. You go right ahead, I won’t bother you.”

James refilled his wine glass and resumed his enjoyment of the panorama just beyond his table. The ocean looked choppy. He supposed the tremors could be responsible for some of it, but he could also see the hint of a dark cloud bank creeping over the edge of the ocean. It was a reminder that his time was getting short.

The kitten rubbed against his leg, then turned and placed his velvety paws on James’ calf, asking to be held. James looked into the kitten’s upturned fuzzy face and smiled.

“Yes, you can come up here,” James chuckled.

He reached down and lifted the furry fellow into his arms, enjoying the contact with the purring feline. James held him gently against his chest with one hand while he sipped his wine with the other. The kitten was soon fast asleep, safely snuggled in the crook of his new friend’s arm.

James sighed and petted the kitten’s head gently. He was glad he wouldn’t be completely alone when the time came. He felt momentary guilt over the kitten’s impending fate but realized the little fellow was also no longer alone and hungry, no matter what happened. James relaxed and enjoyed the view while he finished his meal.

He could see the wind picking up. Trees were beginning to bend and whip around. Bits of paper, trash, and loose leaves danced with abandon as the strong breeze funneled them through the narrow spaces between the buildings. James looked out at the ocean and realized the dark cloud was no longer out to sea. The sunlight faded and was replaced with the thudding of wind-driven rain against the building. He thought he felt another tremor, but it was becoming difficult to tell the difference between the storm band from the hurricane and the quakes.

He rose, the kitten snuggled carefully to his side. The kitten looked up at him, blinking sleepily.

“Hey, let’s go find someplace a little safer to try and ride out this thing, okay?”

The kitten answered him with a trusting yawn. They went back into the kitchen area, which was centrally located. James came across a walk-in freezer and a walk-in refrigerator. He started to open the door of the refrigerator and immediately slammed it shut. The stench of rotting food was unbearable.

He was almost afraid to open the freezer door. He cracked the door open and sniffed. It was still cold in there, and nothing smelled rotten. He cleared away a small area and covered it with a pile of clean tablecloths he had seen earlier. It would do for a bed, if needed. He added some bottled water, wine and a few other snack foods that looked good. And the rest of the canned tuna.

The kitten had returned to finish off what was left of the tuna while James made his preparations. James allowed him to finish before scooping him up in his arms. The kitten greeted him with a wet snuffle on his cheek.

“Well, I guess I should at least give you a name.”

The kitten mewed in response.

“Hmmm…Mr. Mew? Mr. Mew? Yes, that fits!” James chuckled.

The two of them walked over to a window and looked outside. It was difficult to see anything beyond the adjacent buildings. He could hear a roaring sound in the distance. That couldn’t be good…. James and Mr. Mew had only taken a few steps away from the window when the building began to rock and shake violently. James fell to his knees, clutching the kitten carefully.

He watched helplessly as the building adjacent to them cracked in two and partially imploded. Several other skyscrapers swayed wildly. They crumbled, collapsed and were gone. His high rise creaked and groaned loudly, but miraculously it remained upright. James’ building appeared to be the sole sentinel remaining as the earthquake ended.

The man and the kitten watched a huge wave rolling in from the ocean. James was not able to tell how tall it really was, but it seemed to be getting higher the longer he looked at it. James clasped Mr. Mew and ran for the freezer. He had barely shut the freezer door behind them when something slammed the building. The entire building felt like it was moving backward as it slid off the foundation. The force of the jarring knocked James off his feet. He hit his head on something and everything went black. The deafening roar faded away as he slowly submerged into a serene place made of darkness and silence.

~~o~~

Something rough and wet was licking James’ cheek. He opened his eyes and blinked several times, seeing only blackness. The thought that he might be blind horrified him. He was frankly surprised he was still alive. Maybe he wasn’t, and these were his first moments in hell. It sure wasn’t heaven. He groaned and moved his limbs carefully. Everything seemed intact, but he hurt all over.

“I would suggest we get out of here,” a disembodied childlike voice stated.

“What? Who are you? Where are we?” James asked groggily.

He wondered how long he had been unconscious. And why was a little kid talking to him?

“We are still in the freezer. I was wondering if you were ever going to wake up. I was beginning to have my doubts,” the childlike voice said.

“Wait. Who the heck are you, and how did you get in here?” James wondered.

There was no answer, then James heard a small, exasperated sigh.

“It is me, Mr. Mew.”

“Cats can’t talk!” James snorted. “I must have hit my head harder than I thought.”

“I beg to differ,” Mr. Mew said calmly. “Has it ever occurred to you that we choose not to talk to humans? That there might be excellent reasons we don’t speak to you in your language? Reasons that are centuries old?”

“You aren’t making sense. Wait… this whole conversation makes no sense!”

“You do know that we were worshiped by some of the greatest human civilizations to ever rule on earth,” Mr. Mew continued. “Have you ever wondered why people believe cats have nine lives? And what about the myth about black cats being magical or evil?”

James squelched a cold rush of fear.

“Are you evil?” James whispered.

“Of course not,” Mr. Mews answered. “Are you?”

“Well, no,” James replied. “But I am seriously worried I might have hit my head too hard.”

“Well, you may have. Obviously, I have found it necessary to violate my oath of silence to get us out of here. The global disasters that have been plaguing the earth over the last three years are decimating both of our species. I do not intend to die in the dawn of this lifetime. I only have a few more lives left.”

James sat up slowly. His head was swimming. He felt disoriented and slightly nauseous. Something soft and furry nudged his arm encouragingly. He still couldn’t see anything, and rubbing his eyes didn’t help.

“Can you see anything?” James asked.

“Of course,” Mr. Mews replied.

“Where is the door?”

“Over there,” Mr. Mews stated. “Can’t you see it?”

“No! I can’t see anything,” James said.

“Oh, yes. It would be too dark in here for human eyes.”

“So…I might not be blind?”

“Probably not,” Mr. Mews answered. “The door is to your right. The freezer fell over, so I hope you can get the door open.”

James crawled to his right, ignoring the throbbing in his head. He put his hand out in front of himself and reached out to feel for the door.

“You have a couple more feet to go,” Mr. Mew observed.

James shuffled forward. His hand met cold metal. He felt his way along the wall, mapping the door in his head as he went. He found the door handle and grasped it with both hands.

“Wish me luck.”

“I wish you success,” Mr. Mew replied.

James turned the handle and pushed. The door opened slightly and stopped. A shaft of light entered the freezer.

“I can see!” James exclaimed excitedly.

Mr. Mew purred as he swirled his tail around James’ forearm in affirmation.

“Can you get it open enough for us to get out?”

“I’ll try. I’m going to kick it, so back up. I don’t want to accidentally hurt you.”

Mr. Mew backed away and sat down. James got into position, raised his legs and kicked the door. It opened a little more.

“Ugh. There is something blocking the door. It may take a few times.”

James kicked the door three more times, each kick opening the door further. He studied the opening to see if he could squeeze through it.

“One more time!” he told the kitten.

He put all his muscle into the final kick. There was a cracking sound and the door fell open. James and the kitten looked out of the doorway, amazed to see open sky.

They carefully crawled out of the door and were struck by the realization they were precariously perched on a pedestal overlooking the remains of the city. Most of their building was gone. There was a jagged circumference about fifteen feet in diameter surrounding the freezer. It was all that was left of the penthouse restaurant.

“Damn!” James whistled in amazement.

The kitten rubbed up against his hand. James picked up Mr. Mew and held him close, petting his head fondly. The kitten purred in delight. James felt the animal stiffen slightly and turn his head back towards the freezer.

“What is it? Do you hear something?”

The kitten stretched up and placed his paws on James’ chest, peering over his shoulder. The sound of chopper blades reverberated in the distance. James put Mr. Mew down and forced himself to crawl back into the freezer. He found the edge of a red tablecloth and pulled it out from a jumbled stack of debris. He backed out of the freezer carefully, the tablecloth clenched in his hand.

He stood up and began to wave the red tablecloth, praying someone in the chopper would see it. The helicopter continued moving away. James’ heart began to sink.

“Over here! Over here!” he screamed, waving the tablecloth in desperation.

James climbed on top of the overturned freezer and waved the red tablecloth frantically.

“Here, over here!!!” Mr. Mew shrieked, his fur standing on end.

The helicopter seemed to pause, then turned back towards them. It flew straight for them, eventually hovering over the man and the tiny black kitten.

James picked up Mr. Mew and tucked him safely into his shirt. He carefully slid off the freezer as a rescuer made his way down to them with a Stokes basket. Within a few minutes, the two of them found themselves safely stowed inside the helicopter.

The copilot looked at James closely and retrieved a small photograph wedged into his console. He turned back towards James after studying the picture.

“Are you…James Colton?”

“Why yes! How could you possibly know that?”

The copilot held up a small photo of James and Lila.

“Our flying philanthropist, Lila, sends her love. You are one freaking, lucky little brother!!!”

James leaned back in his seat, pulled the kitten out of his shirt and looked into the feline’s intelligent blue eyes.

“We’ve got family waiting for us who will absolutely love you, Mr. Mew.”

The little black kitten mewed softly in reply as the helicopter banked and headed westward.

***

Copyright 2020 Lisa Criss Griffin

All rights reserved

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Please visit Lisa on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/authorlisacrissgriffin/

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