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May 27, 2024

Schrodinger's Mother-In-Law's Cat

By Tyler Willson

Tonight. He would do the cat tonight. And by Monday, he would be free.

He never liked the cat in the first place. He came with Marla's mother when she came to help out with the pregnancy. Then, along with Edna, the cat never left. Made itself at home in his own house. Helped itself to water from his toilet if its own dish was empty. Helped itself to leftovers on the counter or table if they didn't get put away quick enough. Relieved itself on the bathmat in his bathroom if the litter box did not get changed each and every morning. Scratched on the door when it wanted to come in. Scratched until it had worn the paint off the door and shredded the weather stripping. Scratched even though it was three in the morning and continued scratching even though nobody else in the house seemed able to hear it. Scratched until Will got out of bed and staggered downstairs to open the door.

But no more. The cat was going to die. A long, anguished and painful death. The way Will had suffered long pain and anguish since Edna brought him into the house. In the darkness of an old tool box in the garage, Will had placed a dish of antifreeze. He had studied up on the effects of antifreeze poisoning. Intoxication, diarrhea, vomiting, cramping, and finally death. It wasn't quick, but it was painful. Perfect for that damn cat.

It was easy enough to lure the cat into the garage. It was a sucker for raw chicken. More than once Will had asked Marla not to feed the cat chicken scraps as she was chopping it up for dinner, but she continued anyway. Now Will was grateful that she had trained the cat so well. He dangled the moist pink meat in his fingers and walked slowly backwards into the garage. The cat followed tentatively. It had to know how much Will hated it. He rarely allowed it to be in the same room with him, was usually chased out with a vicious kick if there were no witnesses. If there were witnesses, he would simply snarl and hiss at it and slap at it with his hand until it ran from the room. He took a lot of static for even that, but everyone knew exactly how he felt about that cat. Well, they had an idea how he felt. They just had no idea how utterly deep his hatred ran.

The cat was sitting next to the box now, and looking suspicious. Will decided that it would not jump into the box itself, so he brought the bit of meat closer and closer to the cat's reaching claws even as he reached his other hand towards the scruff of its neck. The cat's eyes darted back and forth from the tantalizing treat and the empty hand moving closer and closer. Will monitored its attention carefully, not wanting to break the spell of the raw meat. Then, he sprung the trap.

His empty hand flashed downwards and grabbed a handful of skin and fur. He only had to lift it up a foot and drop it in the box, but even so as he did the cat managed to get its claws into his arm. They opened up several long gashes in parallel lines up his forearm which were deep enough that blood immediately began dripping from them. Even so, Will persisted. He dropped the cat in the box with one hand and slammed the lid closed with the other. It was a heavy metal tool box, something he had inherited from his father, and which had been in his family for years. It had a worn radioactivity symbol and writing in some foreign language on the side that looked German to Will. Most important to Will, it had a heavy hasp on the lid and a large padlock chained to it. He worried for a moment as he listened to the cat struggle and snarl inside the box about whether it would spill the dish of antifreeze. Then he decided it didn't matter. Even if it did spill the antifreeze and get it all over, it would eventually lick the sweet liquid off its fur coat and ingest the poison. At least he hoped so. He had at least seventy-two hours for something like that to happen.

After a few moments, the clamor inside the box quieted. Will imagined the cat's evil green eyes shining in the darkness, waiting for him to re-open the lid so that it could renew its attack on his arm. He grinned with satisfaction as he instead closed the heavy hasp and inserted the padlock. The snick of the lock closing sounded like pure paradise to Will, and he decided to celebrate his weekend of freedom with a drink or six.

Besides his newfound freedom from the cat, he was also free of the rest of his family until late Sunday night. Even though the trip to the amusement park in the next state had been planned for months, Will informed Marla that he had been feeling a bit ill lately (a complete lie) and that wandering around the sun-baked pavement for hours would be intolerable (the complete truth.) She gave him that look that said she was altogether convinced he had something up his sleeve, but all too easily shrugged and conceded that since Edna was coming along she could handle it by herself.

As Will sat in his recliner watching some anonymous sporting event on the TV and sipping a rather oversized glass of Captain Morgan and Coke, (more Captain Morgan than Coke, truth be told) he couldn't keep his mind off the fate of the cat in the box. Had it licked up any of the antifreeze yet? Or was it simply huddled there, too upset to think of either drinking or grooming and waiting for him to open the lid? Was it sick and dying? Or alive and well and building up a serious grudge against him for imprisoning it? As the liquid in his glass went lower and lower, the images in his increasingly befuddled mind became stranger and stranger. The cat was immune to antifreeze, and instead was turning into some sort of mutant beast like in a comic book. Any minute now, it would tear through the metal walls of its prison and come seeking revenge.

He also imagined the family arriving home unexpectedly and having to explain the dead or dying animal in his toolbox in the garage. He could see Edna's face screwing itself up into that gorgon-like expression of rage he had only seen (thankfully!) once or twice since meeting Marla. Now that he thought about it, he realized that one of those times had been when she caught him punting the cat out of his bathroom. She really took abuse of her cat more personally than she would abuse of even her own person. How would she react to his macabre scheme?

He was certain he did not care to find out. To steady his nerves on that point, he picked up the phone and dialed the number for Marla's cell phone. They had just arrived at the hotel and were still checking in; she didn't really have time to talk, and the kids were already changing into their swimsuits right there in the lobby so they could go jump in the pool. Will hung the phone up and refilled his Cap'n and Coke, forgetting to add any Coke at all this time. At least he was feeling good on that point. No unexpected returns to worry about for now anyway.

The game dragged on and on, until Will wondered why he was watching it anyway. He started idly flipping through channels, interspersed with swigs of the Cap'n -- now straight from the bottle, as there was no longer any need to lie to himself and even include Coke in the equation. As he flipped through the channels he thought he caught his own last name, but his reactions being a bit retarded by his friend Morgan, he went a few channels past before his hand got the message to stop. He had to carefully go back to find the program in question, but when he did he was more than a little disturbed to find what its subject was. Apparently Einstein had an associate who shared his last name, and that together they had discussed some sort of experiment involving a cat and a locked box.

Will tried to follow the extremely technical details of the program, but found his eyes were getting much too heavy to be able to accept input on a topic as foreign to him as quantum mechanics, whatever that meant. He pulled a blanket over himself, allowed the remote to fall to the floor and was soon snoring with the nearly empty bottle of rum tucked securely under his arm.

The screeching noise startled Will from his medicated stupor with a suddenness that set his heart to pounding frantically. The world swam before his eyes, and for a few seconds, he was terrified to think that he was having a heart attack. He pressed his hand to his chest, wondering if it was possible to give oneself CPR. He could feel his heart pumping through his shirt, but as his drunken mind struggled to full consciousness he could feel the rate of his pulse receding and he took a few deep breaths to calm himself down. He looked up at the television and found the source of the screech. The station had gone off the air and was now displaying a multicolored test pattern. He muttered under his breath insults and curses for whatever idiot decided it was a good idea to broadcast such a strident sound in the middle of the night. He hunted around for the remote control, finally finding it well under his recliner, and turned the TV off. The sudden silence in the dark house seemed much louder by comparison, and Will shivered with a sudden feeling of foreboding. He was still clutching the bottle of rum, and he polished it off in an attempt to banish the feeling. As he swallowed the last bit of the fiery liquid, he jumped again at what he swore was the sound of a cat meowing.

The sound brought back with unpleasant suddenness the memory of his crime. Was it possible that even if it were still alive that he could hear it all the way in here? The living room was on the far side of the house from the garage, and the heavy steel box should be nearly sound proof. He tipped the bottle up once more, and was highly disappointed to remember that he had just emptied it. He looked at the smiling pirate on the label and cursed him for abandoning him in his time of need. He tossed the empty bottle at the trash can, but missed by a rather large margin. He didn't bother to pick it up and try again. Instead he staggered into the kitchen to see if there was any more Captain Morgan in the liquor cabinet over the fridge. Unfortunately, there wasn't. Fortunately, the Captain's cousin Jose Cuervo was.

Will hated tequila, but right now he needed something to banish the feeling of dread that seemed to be pouring out of the garage right now. He never thought he would be so remorseful for killing something that needed killing as much as that cat. And yet, he found himself jumping at sounds, and turning suddenly to follow shadows that seemed to dance through the darkened kitchen. After a good long pull from the bottle of tequila, Will walked around the house turning on every light. It must just be the darkness and emptiness of a home so normally filled with noise and life. When he finished, he turned the TV back on and found an old cheesy sitcom with a particularly loud and obnoxious laugh track to banish the silence and emptiness of the house.

And yet, the dread remained.

Finally, Will decided that it was time to face the cat. Checking the clock on the microwave he saw that it had been nearly six hours ago that he had shut the cat in the box. Not nearly enough time for the poison to have done its work, but it should be enough that he could see evidence of sickness. He shouldn't even need to open the box -- he could shake it and see if the cat made any noise inside. If it sounded healthy, he might even decide to abandon the whole enterprise and take the cat to the shelter tomorrow. He could concoct a story of a stray dog, or a speeding driver, or something. Anything would be better than the horrible feeling he was practically swimming through right now.

The garage light came on weakly. The newfangled compact fluorescent bulbs always took a minute to come up to full brightness, and he hated the sickly light they gave until then. He went down the few steps into the garage, and walked across the floor. The smell of the litter box assaulted his nostrils, and gave him just a small bit of encouragement. If the cat was dead, he could get rid of that horrible thing and not have to smell it every time he came out here anymore. The box sat right where he left it, although it looked somehow... different. He took another long pull from the tequila bottle, hoping it would help his eyes to focus better in the dim light. (Or, better yet, make them not focus at all?) The box on the floor sat there stolidly, though Will was sure the radiation symbol painted on the side also looked somehow... different. More there perhaps? Less worn, less touched by age.

That was it! The box looked as if it had been gone over with a polishing rag. Gone were the grease smudges and dents and dings that it had acquired over the years as Will, his father, his grandfather, and who knows who else had carted it around to various repair jobs. It fairly shone in the dim light, the only thing still looking as he remembered it being the padlock.

That feeling of disquiet suddenly returned with a vengeance, and Will found himself scrabbling madly at the top of the tequila bottle as his panicked brain demanded more anesthetic to ward it off. When he finished another good long pull of the bitter liquid, Will felt a bit light-headed and decided he had better sit down before his friend Jose showed him to his seat unwillingly. He managed to drag out a dusty camp chair and get it unfolded before he collapsed into it, facing the box.

He sat and stared at it for a while, his alcohol-soaked mind running through the possible explanations for the apparent refurbishment of his tool-box. It didn't get very far. He decided to consult Jose again. He was no help either. Will decided to get closer. Not being too confident in his ability to walk, he slid the camp chair closer. He was now sitting close enough to reach out and touch the box, but the waves of dread he felt pouring off of the newly shiny surface were now almost tangible. He stared at it for a few moments, mesmerized by the way the light played off of the shiny surface. The writing on the side was clear and easy to see, and something told Will that it was not German, but Austrian. How he knew that, he had no idea, but at the same time he got the idea that he could also read it. He snorted laughter as that idea staggered through his mind, and shaking his head, he sent another shot of tequila after it.

The laughter seemed to somehow break the spell of doom and gloom that the box had seemed to have been casting over him. He decided he was being stupid, and that he was letting his inebriated imagination wander much too far and wide tonight. What was there to be afraid of? It was just a stupid old box, and inside was just a stupid old cat that was probably retching itself to death about now. Will decided that the time had come to stop being a baby. After a quick swig of liquid courage, he reached out a hand and grabbed the handle on top of the box.

He flinched as his skin made contact with the metal. It was hot, and seemed to be vibrating slightly as if a weak electrical current were running through it. Will almost snatched his hand back, but then, feeling a bit foolish he hardened his resolve and kept it there. The metal was definitely hot, though not enough to burn the skin. And the odd vibration could not be dismissed as imagination. Something odd was definitely happening, though he could not quite wrap his mind around what it might be. Remembering his purpose in coming out to the garage, he steeled himself (and ensured that his feet were, in fact, firmly planted on the floor...) and strained back on the handle.

Will had fully intended only to rock the box back a little, just enough to let it fall back to the garage floor with a thump. Nothing too energetic, just enough to ensure that if the cat were simply sleeping inside it would wake up and make some noise. Hopefully enough to terrorize it and make it snarl or hiss or something loud enough that he could hear it and make a guess as to its status. What happened was something entirely different. When he pulled on the handle, the entire world seemed to slip sideways like a car on an icy road slips sideways when the wheels lose traction. Bracing his feet more firmly against the floor had no effect, as the floor itself was slipping with him. Will felt terror welling up in his throat again, and he dropped the tequila bottle and grabbed at the handle on the box with both hands, as it seemed to be the only solid thing in the universe. Indeed, even the shape and color of everything in the garage, with the exception of the locked box were losing their focus and cohesion and began swirling and slipping into incoherence. Will closed his eyes and gritted his teeth, a scream of terror locked in his paralyzed lungs. His feet suddenly lost contact with the floor, and his butt lost contact with the chair and he seemed to be hanging over a pit with nothing to support him but the handle on the box. The vibration and heat increased until the pain in his hands became unbearable. Will hung on grimly, preferring the searing pain in his hands to the unknown fate awaiting him at the bottom of whatever pit had opened up beneath him. The pain increased in intensity as the vibration became a real electrical shock, eventually becoming so strong that his hands convulsed of their own accord and he lost his hold on the box and slipped backwards into oblivion.

"Is it your son? He looks a bit like you, a bit heavier perhaps..." The voice was heavily accented, sounded like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Only older, weaker, less real.

"I am not sure. He was only a boy when I last saw him." The voice was pleasantly familiar, from a deep crevice of memory locked away in the mists of childhood. His foggy brain screamed that he knew that voice, but it was impossible -- that person disappeared without a trace, no longer existed.

"Whoever it is, he seems to have recreated the experiment, if in a sloppy and inexact way." The foreign voice again. Will wanted to quote lines from The Terminator to it, but his voice did not yet seem to be functional. Still, the terror were gone and had been replaced by a sense of giddiness. He would have broken out in laughter had he been able to find his voice.

"Well, his mother always distrusted my work, and would most likely have steered him away from those pursuits. I would be surprised if he even knew about you." That voice. Will knew that voice. The face that matched it seemed to be floating just outside his consciousness. Why could he not place it? It seemed as familiar as his own...

"A foolish woman then. I never understood what you saw in her. Yet you were too headstrong..." Will laughed again at an image of The Terminator using a cane to walk, dentures falling out as he told the police officer he would be back.

"Wait... I think he is coming around. He seems to be trying to speak." Indeed, Will felt the tickle of vibration in his voice box, and realized that he was actually making sound. He decided to try and open his eyes and succeeded. The faces of two men coalesced out of the haze. One face, older and sickly. The other finally making the connection with the memory of his voice complete. Amazement, shock, disbelief all competed for space in Will's consciousness, all struggled to leap to the forefront and inform the first words out of his mouth. Hilarity came from behind and won by a mile.

"Are you Sarah Connor?" Will asked the grizzled old face and exploded in hysterical laughter. The faces continued to stare at him with interest, tinged with a bit of worry. He tried to stem the laughter, but only managed to squeak out a badly mangled "It's not a tumor..." before collapsing in full body laughter once again.

"Is it possible to lose your mind in transit?" The familiar voice said again, the worry evident in his voice. The accented voice answered, just as full of disdain: "Of course, anything is possible. An infinite number of possibilities with an infinite number of outcomes. He could have been a raving lunatic before entering the rift, or the transit through space-time may have torn his mind loose from its moorings. Especially considering the clumsy manner in which he set up the experiment." The disgust in the voice served at least to cool Will's hysterics.

"Wait, who are you calling clumsy?" he managed to gasp, then, turning to the familiar face managed to ask the question it presented him: "Are you really my father?"

When Will finally had full control of all his faculties the two men quizzed him unmercifully regarding the circumstances of his arrival. He seemed to be in some sort of scientific laboratory full of various and sundry instruments whose purpose he could not hazard the first guess. His father's assumption had been absolutely correct regarding his mother's suspicion of science. Particularly after the disappearance of her husband as he worked in his lab late one night. She always told her son that his father had died in a construction accident, rather than face the shame that he had deserted her. She never shared with Will the confusion at the door locked from the inside on the laboratory, the security guard who swore that nobody came into or left the lab all night long. All of these things were too painful for a suddenly single mother of three very young boys to face, and so she lied, and stood by her lies to her death bed. Will was the oldest, yet only three years old at the time and so neither he nor his brothers ever thought to question their mother's version of events. Never considered looking for any family on their paternal side, as their mother told them their father had been raised in an orphanage and had no family. Yet here he was, in a lab with a man whom he addressed as father. Will sat on the floor and considered the revelations he had just received. Not only was his father still alive, but so was his grandfather, and they were together.

"So, if you are my father, why do you look like you are my age? If I had to guess, I might even put you a little bit younger than me." Will looked quizzically at the man his memory shouted was his father, but which his intellect argued against just as strenuously.

"We are no longer connected to the space-time continuum as you know it. We no longer age. We don't get hungry, or thirsty, or sick, or have any physical afflictions at all. Our bodies are effectively in stasis. Time no longer pulls us forward." His grandfather answered, and Will was not comforted by the answer.

"I have no idea what the space-time thingy is, but does this mean I won't get sick or hungry or thirsty again too?" asked Will. The old man nodded, his face becoming even more haggard and old.

"Unfortunately yes, I am afraid you are trapped as I and your father are." Will felt a chill down his spine at the word 'trapped'. He had been considering a lifetime without illness and finding it rather appealing.

"What do you mean trapped? Never getting old, never dying? Isn't that what it's all about?" Will asked, not sure he wanted to hear the answer. The old man gestured hopelessly around the laboratory.

"Trapped, like a cat in a locked box. This is now the entirety of our universe. The door may as well be painted on the wall. It will not open, nor can we penetrate it or the walls. If I was a religious person, I would call this place Purgatory. As a scientist, I simply call it what it is: a rift in space-time created by a foolish experiment that we all seem to have recreated unknowingly." Tears sprang to the cloudy blue eyes, and the old man hid his face in his hands and sobbed. Will looked to his father for something, some refutation of the bleak prognosis and received only a confirming nod of his head.

"It is true. In here there is no passage of time. The clock on the wall mocks us, as does the calendar beneath it. We seem to breath, but only out of habit. I once tried to commit suicide by covering my face with plastic, but soon realized that it was hopeless."

Will felt panic clawing at his throat for the third time. However, this time he felt a coldness that belied the hopelessness of the situation. He had made a successful career out of cleaning up the messes of others, and this seemed like a situation that called for his special talents.

"Tell me again about the experiment that brought us all here again. I want to be sure I understand." The old man continued sobbing softly into his hands, and Will turned to his father. "Can you explain it?" His father shrugged. "It was only to be a thought experiment, a way to explain quantum mechanics and the behavior of atomic particles. He proposed it to Einstein as a ridiculous case only to help understand the way in which the very act of observing quantum particles changed their behavior. It was only later in life that he began to understand that it may actually have a real world application -- that the act of confining a conscious entity in an enclosed space with an uncertain and random means of death might be enough to affect the space-time continuum. He decided to try it, but not with a cat. He tried it on himself." Will looked over at the frail old man who was no longer sobbing, but listening intently to the conversation. The old man nodded and continued.

"I was dying of tuberculosis anyway -- the doctors had informed me that I had only months to live. I decided that I had nothing to lose. I said farewell to my family and friends and created my experiment with me as the cat and my lab as the box. I was only locked in for a couple of hours before the particle detector was triggered and the vial was broken." He gestured towards an odd-looking device on the counter. The hammer was frozen in the very act of smashing a glass vial filled with a greenish liquid. Shards of glass hung in the air around the hammer, and small streams of green liquid were spraying in all directions away from the cracks in the vial.

"I am not exactly sure what I expected to happen. What happened was that my physical existence was frozen in time, while my mental processes continue as if nothing happened. Then, after an eternity alone, suddenly a man appears in the lab with me. My son, reading over some of my notes has taken it into his foolish head to recreate my experiment and is consigned to the same static rift in space-time." Understanding began to dawn on Will. His father's disappearance while locked in his lab now made perfect sense. He had recreated the conditions of the experiment exactly, and had experienced the same result.

"So how did I end up here? I wasn't performing any experiment, I was just trying to kill an annoying cat." Will watched the faces of his father and grandfather as they puzzled through this question. Finally, his grandfather shrugged his shoulders.

"I suppose that since I created the rift, your father's experiment opened it wider, and you just got close enough that you slipped in." The despair in the old man's voice was evident, and Will felt his temper rising.

"So how do we 'slip' back into it and return to our proper time and place?" He asked, a bit impatiently. His father's eyes narrowed angrily.

"One of the most brilliant thinkers of the modern age, and his son have been puzzling over that for what seems to have been decades in real time, and we are no closer to a solution than we have ever been. And unless you know something about quantum physics that we don't, I suggest you not act as if you are going to do any better than we have." Will looked from his father's angry face to his grandfather's resigned face and snorted in disgust.

"So I guess we just sit here in purgatory for eternity because you guys are simply too brilliant to see the answer then?" Scorn filled Will's voice as he stood up and strode across the lab while reaching in his pocket.

"What are you doing? What do you mean the answer?" his father's voice suddenly had a tinge of hope in it. Will ignored him and pulled the key from his pocket. The key to the padlock he had used to seal his mother-in-law's cat inside the box he had just spotted in the corner of the lab. As he approached it, he heard very faintly from inside the box that noise that filled his sleepless nights: the tireless claws of a certain black cat on the inside of the steel box.

Will woke up in the recliner, an empty bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey in one hand, and a black cat smelling strongly of antifreeze curled up on his chest. He smiled at the cat and stroked its sticky fur. It purred roughly and pushed its head against the pressure of his hand. In the kitchen, the sound of movement told him that either his father or grandfather was awake and looking for their first breakfast in decades.

Setting the cat gently on the floor beside the recliner, Will Schroedinger, grandson of Erwin and son of Robert went to help.

Schroedinger's mother-in-law's cat followed, hoping for a scrap of something.

Article © Tyler Willson. All rights reserved.
Published on 2010-01-04
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