Hernandez peered over the berm, watching and waiting for the enemy to advance. He glanced at his watch, noting they had another ten minutes to wait. To his right, the bleachers were filled with humans staring out at him, munching on popcorn and washing it down with cheap beer. Vendors circled the spectators like vultures, hawking their wares with their carnival barker voices.
If he’d have looked up, high into the changing leaves of the trees above, he would have seen something interesting.
In fact, no one noticed a cluster of kittens high up on a tree branch. They all shared the same intense look and posture, their ears twitching and flicking. All but one of them. The only pure black kitten out of the litter was more preoccupied, watching a caterpillar making its slow, laborious way across a twig.
“Professor Wiggle Bottom,” his mother meowed at him. He snapped his head to the left, twitching his whiskers in embarrassment. “Are you listening to me?”
“No, mama,” he admitted. His eight siblings made low purring noises.
“Please pay attention, my sweet. Today will be no easy task.” She took her eyes off him and scanned her litter; her children. She sighed and saw them for how young they really were. They were only a shade past nine months and she loved them dearly. She hated to throw them into the fire so early, but circumstances dictated that they would need every ally they could get this day.
Before she could continue, a voice blared through a megaphone from amongst the soldiers overlooking the berm.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the reenactment of ‘The Battle Of The Great Lakes.’”
Applause roared from the crowd gathered on the bleachers. When it died down, the emcee continued. “One hundred and one years ago today, the biggest and bloodiest battle of ‘The Freshwater Wars’ took place. There was a tremendous loss of life on both sides. The North won this particular battle, but it crippled them for the remainder of the war, which is why they eventually moved away from big military engagements and into guerrilla tactics.”
The mother cat drew the attention of her kittens back to her with a quick, high meow.
“We are the protectors of those down below,” she said sternly.
“What are we protecting them from, mama?” Druzilla asked. She was mostly black with a patch of white fur in the shape of a heart on her chest.
“From becoming possessed.”
“What’s possessed?” Coffee Bean asked. Bean’s fur sported patches of white so he resembled more cow than kitten; the fact that he was overweight aided the comparison.
“It’s when something bad gets into a human or animal and makes them act in dangerous and horrendous ways.”
“What does ‘horrendous’ mean?” Druzilla asked.
“It means bad.”
“Why don’t the humans protect themselves?” Boxxy asked.
“Because, my kittens,” Peanut Butter said, “the humans cannot see the ghosts. Only we can. We’ve been protecting the humans from possession since the beginning of time. I’ll tell you more about our history after the battle.” Peanut Butter looked over her kittens with love. “So it is up to us to ensure that they all survive.”
“Why does he have to be here,” Druzilla asked, giving a stiff nod in Professor Wiggle Bottom’s direction.
Peanut Butter sighed.
“Because this is the second year of their game and we will need every claw and whisker. These games they play draw the dead from the real war back here, like a lingering memory. Only a small group shows up in year one. They’re too far away to make it on time, but they hear the call all the same.” She looked at her children gravely. “The second year is always the worst. That’s when the horde comes.” She paused to nibble her front right paw. “It’s going to be hard,” she continued when she’d removed the piece of bark that had gotten stuck between two toes, “but with all of your help, we can win. Just stay close to me and obey what I say.”
Peanut Butter was saved from elaborating as One-Eyed Tom lept from a branch near them and landed behind her. Her kittens all sprang to attention at once, their backs curved and fur bristling. Peanut Butter meowed amicably and groomed herself while waiting for Tom to speak.
“They’re coming,” he said.
Peanut Butter hissed. Her kittens flinched back at her anger. She scowled at them to hide the sinking feeling in her heart. She knew her family wouldn’t make it out of this battle whole.
“Where are they concentrated?”
“The biggest horde is trailing the south. We don’t have much intel from the north side, but it’s not gonna be like getting milk out of a saucer.”
“Our main contingent will be in the south?”
“Yes, ma’am. We’ll take them as they cross the river. And our reserves will be up in the trees with eyes on any direction that needs reinforcements.
“Any word from our envoys to the lynx or cougars?”
“No. And that scares me.”
“Damn. Okay. I’ll take the kittens to the northern edge. We’ll keep your back clear.”
One-Eyed Tom began to nod and stopped as a yowling cut through the din from below. It sawed through the leaves and hammered at Peanut Butter’s heart.
“Godspeed Butter,” Tom said and scampered down the tree, disappearing into a wall of approaching sound and smells.
“Come,” she said and bounded down from the tree, waiting at its roots. It was only Professor Wiggle Bottom that slipped on his way down and ended up smarting his chin on a rock. She watched him sit up and try to lick his chin. Coffee Bean bit his ear and tugged him towards the group.
“Do you feel that?” the megaphone man blared. “It is at precisely six fifty-five in the evening of September thirtieth that the southern army began their advance!”
Peanut Butter felt her fur spike as fear sunk its teeth into her belly. She growled and led her army of kittens underneath the bleachers and well behind the northern army. She linked up with Strawberry, a fluff ball she hadn’t seen since last year, and got her kittens to string out in a line until Mohinder, a fat tabby who lived down the block from her, was visible on the branch, high up on their left.
She meowed her arrival and watched her breath puff out in a quickly-evaporating cloud. Mohinder gave her a grave gaze and then tensed. Peanut Butter dipped her whiskers and began a throaty gurgle, running down the line to alert her kittens.
A series of snapping sounds rang out from the south. She saw Boxxy and Coffee Bean flinch as she ran by them. She’d just reached Strawberry when the voice behind them boomed:
“There was a firefight!”
More snapping sounds filled the air, followed by a whisker-twitching vibration.
They were coming.
The first specters shambled forward from between the trees. They were a grey that would be transparent in another ten years. She watched as something dropped from a branch and a ghost folded in on itself, like it was being sucked through a vortex. This pattern repeated itself a few times, but many specters advanced without harassment. Peanut Butter ran to the middle of her group of kittens and reared up on her hind legs, yowling. The ones closest to her turned to look as she dropped to all fours and dashed into the first row of advancing ghosts.
Her kittens followed.
They surprised the first ghoul and knocked it down. Peanut Butter dug a claw into each spectral eyeball and popped them like ectoplasmic grapes. She beckoned her group onto the next target.
“Knock them down and get their eyes,” she meowed as she lunged and hit a ghoul in the midsection. Its hand came down and a sharp burning sensation blossomed along her spine. Another nail tried to dig into her when her axis abruptly changed. Then, she was scampering horizontally up the ghoul and popping a claw in its eyes.
Peanut Butter looked up to see the second wave of ghouls and ghosts approaching. They moved with more purpose than the first wave of zombified ones. They were the reason she’d had to bring her kittens into the mix. She looked around and saw the last of the first generation ghosts zapping out of existence.
“Don’t attack!” she said, running down the line and trying to get her kittens in order; none of them were injured, she noted.
“Don’t attack,” she repeated. “Just stay where you are.”
She looked right and saw Strawberry and her squads keeping the ghosts at bay like their bloodlines had done since time out of memory.
A fake grenade boomed behind the northern army’s position, spooking the cats. Two ghosts rushed the line while above, tree branches shed leaves across the ground. The first ghost was taken out by two of Mohinder’s crew, but the second ghost made it through.
Another fake grenade went off and Professor Wiggle Bottom jumped out of line, trembling. A grey woman missing an arm surged forward. Coffee Bean darted in to fill the hole and leapt at the ghost. She climbed up it and slashed a line just above its eyebrows. Despite the upper quarter of the ghoul’s head sloughing off, it kept coming. Boxxy and Druzilla moved in to help when a “No!” resounded out like a whip crack.
“Do not lose the line,” Strawberry screeched, bounding along behind them, sporting a fresh facial wound. Blood seeped down that she occasionally licked off.
The ghost reached down and swatted Coffee Bean. She hit a tree trunk fifteen feet away and was given the gift of seeing stars, stunned. Peanut Butter growled and launched herself, scratching empty air. The ghost sprinted to the fallen Coffee Bean. It reached down, lifted Bean’s head in its hand and looked into her eyes. Then, the ghost whirled into a black tornado that touched down in Bean’s iris. The tornado was pulled in. Bean twitched once then exploded in ribbons of innards and gout of blood; Peanut Butter was covered.
She felt her heart deflate and a lump rise in her throat. She choked it down. She’d cry later when there was time.
She shook the gore out of her fur and glanced around. Two ghosts were being battered back by Drew and Boxxy, while a third was finding resistance from Professor Wiggle Bottom and Strawberry.
Far to her left, she heard a cry.
“Go,” Strawberry said, her fur mohawked along her back. “I’ll watch them here. Save the rest.”
Peanut Butter gave one final glance at the battle around her and bounded off.
She arrived in time to see Zeus attack the face of an overzealous ghost. He popped it out of existence and then another. And another. She watched as Zeus took the offensive, leaping from ghost to ghost, paws and claws flashing in the fading light; Mohinder following dutifully behind, cleaning up the kitten’s mistakes. Because of this, he was too far away to save Zeus.
The kitten went after one ghost too many. He pounced on a ghost pulling itself along the ground, both legs gone above the knee; he’d mistaken it for easy prey. The ghost shot its arms out, grasped Zeus by the head and body and snapped his neck.
Mohinder shrieked and went on a rampage, killing two dozen ghouls before one reached out and snapped his neck.
Peanut Butter looked out over the killing field and saw Mohinder slump lifeless to the ground. She mewled and batted a paw down her nose. She looked up to see dozens of ghosts approaching, rapidly filling the gaps their fallen had left. They approached the line of cats, but held back.
The battle lines had been drawn and the two forces watched each other.
The stalemate was broken by the barking voice in the megaphone.
“At seven-fifteen that evening, the south advanced in full, causing a massive retreat from the north.”
The air was filled with a pungent cordite odour followed by a single thunderclap that rolled over everything. The dusk sky was filled with an explosion of bright light. More thunderclaps bellowed. Colors exploded from the sky. Peanut Butter saw only two cats gawking, the rest were in a tight line, ready to pounce. She drew in a breath and joined them.
The overhead exploded with color and two ghosts made their move, advancing to the hole Mohinder had left. Peanut Butter pounced on the nearest one, attacking its exposed intestines. She tangled its feet and tripped it up. As it hit the ground, One-Eyed Tom burst from the forest and gouged its eyes out.
Peanut Butter looked up to see Tom’s team flooding into the area. They filled up the gaps from her fallen comrades. Tom looked back at her and said,
“Got word from our envoys. The Lynx are up ahead, chewing up the rear of their horde. We’ve already secured the south. Figured you could use some help.”
“Thanks,” she said, flicking her tongue out to wipe her chops clean. “I’ll be back.”
One-Eyed Tom nodded and ran up to Mohinder’s ranks, twenty cats following him. Peanut Butter darted right, going to her line and purring encouragement to her kittens, trying to ignore the missing faces. She linked up with Strawberry and passed on Tom’s information.
“We’ll hold ‘em off,” Strawberry said, elated.
“Yeah,” Peanut Butter agreed. “I think we will.” She licked Strawberry once on the forehead and then jumped into the line beside Professor Wiggle Bottom.
“Are you doing alright, my sweet?” she asked.
“Yes, mama,” Professor Wiggle Bottom said.
She smiled at him, and together they took out the closest ghost.
Private Hernandez ran through the woods as the fireworks exploded overhead. Soon, other actors would follow him, but he was instructed to be the first. He didn’t mind. The job sucked and it always felt like something sinister was watching him during these reenactment gigs.
He shuddered and stopped some one-hundred meters from the chaos behind him. Up ahead, he saw a horde of cats, more cats than he’d ever seen in his life. They were all jumping around and swatting at the air in some kind of frenzy. Laughing at the absurdity of it, he thought that maybe he’d stumbled upon some secret cat cabal ritual.
If only he knew.