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A Panther Inside
by Mike Velichansky
William Thir wrote in his journal, late at night, while the glow of the computer screen -- the only light in the room -- made his pale face seem translucent and sickly.
He wrote, for the first time in more than a week:
I've figured it out! I was up late reading, and that's when I saw it.
The biographies at the back.
Written by NEIL GAIMAN, lives in America, four.
Colorist, ROBBIE BUSCH, one.
Illustrator, STEVE PARKHOUSE, two.
Lettering, TODD KLEIN, many many.
There are more, more, more, more. No time to look now, have to write it down. Because I've figured it out!
My vision is getting kind of blurry; it's getting a bit hard to read now. I can still write though, I know where the keys are, I don't usually make mistakes.
Why can't I write?
My damn cat is yelling outside.
"No food for you, bitch!" William turned and yelled. He blinked a few times -- the screen was hard to read.
I don't know why she won't help me anymore, I mean, it's really not fair, is it. I can't let her in now, though, because I've figured it out and I don't know what they'll do.
The exception makes the rule.
They have cats, meow, little furry mammals, domesticated carnivore, Felis domestica, that's what the Big Book says. Webster knows too, I think.
The exceptions make the rule. They don't all have cats -- but look, look: so many of them do.
Yes, yes, Ellison hates cats, hates the little bastards. (They're so soft...) But I hate them too! Why can't I write? She won't help me anymore!
Wouldn't you hate it if you found out that you were nothing but a translator -- that your dreams aren't your dreams, but those of the soft furry ones?
Maybe that is good though. Some of my dreams scare me... Do they hate us? No, no, they love us, too. Sometimes cold, sometimes warm... Or maybe the translators ruin the message.
I still miss them, though, even though they are scary now and then... (The dreams, not the cats.)
William stood up and sat down again. He blinked.
"My legs are weak," he said to the computer, explaining himself. He stood up again and walked slowly to the kitchen. He drained something dark and fizzy and CAFFEINATED -- woohoo! -- and then splashed some cold water over his face. He walked back to his room -- it looked eerie with only the computer on. Still hard to read the screen.
He rubbed his eyes, and wrote:
She's left. I can't hear her calling anymore. I'm going to follow her. But first, I'll tell you what I think, because I don't know what will happen to me when I go to them.
The stories -- they come from the cats. They're everywhere, slinking around, dark, sleek, fast, furry shadows at night. Like the stories themselves. Some of the stories -- the shadows of the big cat that is in the heart of each little cat -- scare me. I've read them, and they scare me then, too, but it's also good. Maybe I've had some of those, too... I've never written them. Is there a panther inside my cat? (My cat? Everybody knows the cat walks by itself.) It's hard to translate what they send, and now I'm tired, because she hasn't sent anything more...
I drank some soda -- maybe I'll wake up a bit. It's no fun being awake, but I'm going to follow her, and maybe they won't see me.
I'm going to go now.
William stood up again. He opened the door and peeked out. It was dark... There were dim lights in the distance. The streetlights created small puddles of luminescence on the asphalt, which kept his eyes from adjusting to the darkness outside.
"Kitty?" he said. He saw, barely, orange movement. Back behind the house, over the fence, into the wood. William stepped out of his house and shut the door. The cold air helped him wake up as it brushed over his chest and legs. He shivered and his vision went WEIRD. But then it was OK.
"I'm just tired," he said, and wished he could write something. Instead, he walked over the grass, ducking, trying to be careful. The grass was wet and cold, and then his bare feet became wet and cold, and dirty too. A rock cut into his foot, waking William up suddenly.
Jump over the fence -- thud -- it hurts without sneakers to absorb the shock. Oh well, nothing to it. Which way? That way! She doesn't move so fast anymore, she's is old and fat now, sleeps most of the day.
Walking through the woods sucked -- twigs everywhere. But it only took a minute, and then the woods ended and William was a few hundred feet behind the shopping mall.
Urban desert. For some reason, tons of cement had been poured over the ground. Here and there, small green plants grew from cracks -- they looked small and weak, but they were, in fact, CHAMPIONS, the strongest and most determined of all of the little plants that had been smothered underneath the cement.
Up ahead, they were gathering. Can they hear me? (And can the plants hear me too, William thought.)
William crawled forward on hands and knees, trying to stay low. Where had they come from? Household cats, stray cats, hunter cats that fed off the malls Rodentia. They seemed strange in the moons pale light.
What were they doing?
They were sitting there, or laying there. Together, on top of a cement dune, not making a sound, not doing anything. Just... sitting.
Looking? Yes. William could see their bright eyes, green, yellow.
They're not human eyes, you know.
Yes, you know that, but they're not -- who knows what they're thinking behind those alien eyes. Are they dreaming for us, dreaming of blood, steel, love-machines, birth, death, torture, madness and hate, fear, hope, joy, desire and despair...
He also wrote:
Imagination: what else is left for the soft, furry, cute, pretty, loving, sleek, fast, hateful, vicious, small hunters now, with only a very few big hunters left?
William woke up. He'd been dreaming that he was writing something, but now he couldn't remember.
William looked down, and saw his cat next to him. He sat down, knees to chest.
"Hello kitty," he said sadly.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't be here, I know." The cat, visibly orange even in the darkness, rubbed her side against his leg, and then swiped at his toe as an afterthought.
"Ow," William said. He was so tired, the pain didn't feel right. "Kitty, don't scratch."
He got up and walked back to his house. The cat followed him for a while, darting in between his legs, then sat down on it's haunches, head up, proud. Later, it would come back inside and moan pitiably, begging for some treats. (She didn't get any, though, because of the future.)
"Why won't you give me any more ideas?" he asked.
Inside, William wrote:
Muses. And, of course, they were always fickle...
William wanted to sleep. Things were getting WEIRD -- and he preferred that on paper. He leaned forward and closed his eyes, trying to sleep. The light of the screen bothered him, but he didn't want to open his eyes, because if he did, he might miss the chance to fall asleep.
"William, William, you silly man," a soft feminine voice said. (Soft and cold.) William opened his eyes and turned in his chair. A woman stood three feet away. She seemed to shimmer, and he couldn't make out her face properly. His eyes were rebelling against him! Mutiny!
He shook his head, trying to get his brain in order. He still couldn't see very well.
"Hello?" he said, and thought that he was dreaming, which really wasn't fair, because he was still tired.
The woman gave a strange, throaty sigh.
"You should sleep William, the things you are writing in your journal are like the ravings of a madman. And you are only a little mad yet."
"I can't sleep. I need to write something."
"You've already written many things."
"My journal doesn't help. Only the stories help. Then I can sleep."
"So write," she said, and lifted her arm, pointing to the screen.
"I can't," William sobbed, "they won't give me ideas anymore!"
The woman laughed. "You think the cats are the source of your strange waking dreams?"
William felt a little foolish. "It made sense... Sort of..."
"You are tired William. And you are wrong. They are what they are, little carnivores, cold and beautiful."
"Then... why do so many dreamers have them?"
"Because, William," the woman said, and kneeled down in front of him. He thought he could make out her face, but it still seemed foggy. "Because you are weird, William, and your peers are weird. Strange humans, living with their head in the clouds, building cloud castles -- little children mimicking their father, with almost as much glee, with almost as much beauty and horror."
"And the cats," she went on, "they are weird too. You are attracted to them because in some small way they mirror your own hearts."
"Were do the stories come from?" William asked, his head spinning.
"The same place you come from, and the same place you go to when you die... They come from you." The woman leaned forward and kissed William. Her lips were cool as ice, but he felt a warmth spread over his body. William shivered.
He turned around, cleared his screen, and began to write -- there were so many stories, too many! Never enough life to write them all. He pounded away on the keys, forgetting the woman, who was already gone, and the cats, who were still sitting on the cement dune.
She walked through the fence. Her motions were slow, graceful, and did not hint at any power -- they merely stated the fact.
She was a beautiful woman, entering the woods.
"Why am I here?" she wondered, and laughed at herself, for it was the same thing the humans asked.
She was a woman with a strong, lithe body, and the head of a large cat.
"I am here because they are here. They make me, and I make them make me." She remember when they had worshipped her, long ago, in a hot place.
She was a panther, black, deadly, a vision of beauty and death in one.
In a different place, almost new, where the sun was not as cruel and the water not as precious, she was but a minor thing, to the side -- she rarely had any part in the games of the others. Except for few who had time now to dream in their waking hours.
Then she was but a minor thing in the grand scheme, to the side of the games of the others, a daughter with nine faces -- in a different place, were the sun wasn't as cruel and water not as precious.
The panther walked out onto the cement dunes, translucent in the moonlight.
They still worshipped her now, everywhere, in their own strange human way, and that was all right. She would not vanish like the old Gods, who were themselves children.
The panther sat down amidst the house cats. No sounds, no motions made. They were nothing special, really, no different than the other creatures. But they were strange and cold and beautiful, and mirrored her heart, a little.
There had been one, in a new place, who had thought of her some.
Let these tiny gods play, she thought, like the small hunters play. She had to exist because she did, the same as everything else. And that was fine.
Before the sun came up, the cats -- with slow, lazy motions -- walked back to their private places. Still no sound was made. The panther was gone, but all the cats knew it had been there, and did not question this, because cats, still the hunters, do not question their senses.
At 6:23 a.m., William Thir went to sleep, exhausted, having written the first story in over a week.
Story copyright 2001 by Mike Velichansky firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustration "Panthress" copyright 2001 by Romeo Esparrago email@example.com
Authors Note: The names listed at the beginning are from the biographies at the back of "The Sandman, vol. 2: The Doll's House" (DC Comics, 1995). Malcolm Jones III, Dave McKean, Chris Bachalo, and Michael Zulli also worked on it, but were not named because they did not mention ownership of (or the sharing of quarters with) Felis domestica, and I cooked the evidence.
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