The brown mass in the pot bubbled merrily while the little snow leopard stirred. He glanced at the tablet on the counter to see if he had overlooked the instructions on how long he was supposed to keep agitating the mixture, but the last line on the page said, "Gently heat the mixture to a light boil and continue stirring until it is done."
"How the heck am I supposed to know when it’s done?" groused the feline. He continued sweeping the spoon through the boiling mixture for another minute before it occurred to him that the recipe might actually span more than one page. Keeping the spoon moving with his right hand, he reached across with his left and swiped the tip of his finger across the tablet. The recipe page swept aside to reveal that there was another page. The lone instructions on the page were:
Don’t read; stir.
Plonq sighed and obeyed. He was used to recipes written by snobbish cooks who seemed to adhere to the philosophy that something as simple as "doneness" should be self-obvious. The snow leopard assumed that the boiling mass would let him know when it was ready to be panned, perhaps by changing colour, or bursting into flame and singeing his remaining whiskers.
Plonq babysat the mixture for several more minutes, and just as he was beginning to suspect the recipe was toying with him, the mixture suddenly thickened. The change was so abrupt that he let go of the spoon and stepped back defensively, but the gooey brown mass in the pot appeared to be more concerned with holding the spoon upright than attacking any nearby snow leopards. He quickly shut off the gas and moved the pot to a cool burner to avoid burning the bottom. Plonq watched the spoon slowly settle toward one side of the pot while he edged carefully around the stove to the tablet on the counter. He had seen The Blob when he was a cub, and even though he was dubious over the thought that he might have created predatory alien life in his kitchen, he chose to err on the side of safety. He flipped to the next page to see if there were more instructions.
"Remove the mixture from the heat," The snow leopard did not feel particularly smug about having gotten that part right in spite of not reading the recipe, since it had been largely an act of self-preservation. "Place the mixture in a grease-lined, corrosion-resistant baking pan. The mixture may be reluctant to relinquish its hold on the spoon at this point, but you must not display any sign of weakness in front of it. Show no mercy with a spatula. Place the panned mixture into an oven preheated to three hundred and fifty degrees and bake it until it is done. May God have mercy on your soul."
Plonq hesitated for a moment before he decided not to bother flipping to the next page for more instructions, since he had a hunch it would just be a veiled insult on the next page. There was little doubt that it would let him know when it was done. With a sigh, he grabbed the spoon and lifted it experimentally. As he had expected, the pot and all of its contents came with it. He gave it a couple of shakes until the pot fell free, clanging noisily on the stove. He held the mass over the greased baking sheet and grabbed a spatula to begin the process of un-glomming it from the spoon.
Was it his imagination, or did it tighten its grip on the spoon as he moved the spatula closer?
A few minutes, and many more epithets later the sticky mess was spread in a baking pan and ready for the oven. Although Plonq managed to avoid any major injuries during the transfer, a disturbing quantity of his fur had been claimed by the mass in the pan. He shoved the pan into the oven, quickly slammed the door and set the timer for thirty-five minutes.
The little feline grabbed the dry-erase marker hanging from the refrigerator door and put a tick next to "Christmas baking [ ]" on his magnetic white board. He purred softly to himself when he saw that he was nearly through his entire list of Christmas obligations. He pondered on the last few items and debated on which one to tackle next. Prank call Santa Claws sounded like a nice quick hit on the list. The fat old bastard would be pretty busy with his final preparations, so he could probably catch him off-guard. Plonq suppressed another purr as he remembered the previous year’s prank call.
"Ho ho ho! Who is this and how did you get my direct number? Somebody is going to get on my permanent naughty list if I ever find out who you are!"
The snow leopard decided to tackle "Drink a lot [ ]" on the list first, since drunken prank calls were always more fun. He found that he was much less nervous and more creative after a few drinks. He toddled out to the hall and fetched his favourite scotch glass. After a quick browse of his selection, he poured himself two claws worth of Dal Whinny and wandered out to the living room, taking the bottle with him. Plonq had just splashed the first taste of scotch over his tongue, and was enjoying the pleasant burn when there was a polite, but firm rap on the door.
"Now who could that be?" he mewled, putting the bottle of scotch on the end table and grunting himself out of the chair. Plonq slipped his feet into his tattered slippers and shuffled out to the front hall, scratching himself absently through his baggy sweatpants in thought. He was not expecting company, so he had not dressed for company. As he approached the door, the visitor knocked a second time.
"Who is it?" he called in a tone that he hoped conveyed the right degree of polite annoyance at being interrupted.
"It's just Death."
"Plonq's not here!" yowled the cat immediately.
"Plonq, we have a matter of urgent importance to resolve. Please be a good lad and let me in," said the voice on the other side of the door. There was something in the tone that touched Plonq at a visceral level, and he felt his fur stand up from the nape of his neck to the tip of his tail.
"I am afraid you have the wrong apartment," he called back, hoping that his voice did not carry the quaver that it felt. "I have no urgent issues to resolve this evening but to search out the bottom in this bottle of scotch."
"Nay, I fear we have an appointment," said the voice again. "I’m being polite you know. I don’t really need you to open the door for me, now stop being such a child and let me in." It was spoken with no great volume, yet the words carried such command in them that Plonq caught himself only as his hand was on the door knob in mid-turn. He whimpered and willed it to stop. To his relief, he still remained master of his own hand.
"Are you sure you’ve got the right place?" he said plaintively. "I mean, I’m feeling pretty good at the moment. Spritely even. I was thinking of going for a walk to donate some spare meat to the orphanage down the road." There was a rattling sigh from the other side of the door.
"There is no orphanage down the street," Death replied. "Look, you can make this easy or you can make this hard. This is a very busy night for me, and I’d rather not spend it all arguing with plump little snow leopard who is afraid to live up to his obligations. If you hadn’t wanted to see me then you would have used fresh tuna in your chocolate and tuna loaf."
Now Plonq did open the door. He pulled it open until the chain stopped it and peered out at his unexpected visitor. The snow leopard was surprised to discover that Death was, well, a snow leopard. It was every bit the stereotype that one associates with death; tall, skeletal, long hooded black robes and a tall scythe. Plonq could not decide whether to think of Death as "he" or "she", since neither the hollow voice nor the skeletal build lent themselves to a particular gender.
Steeling himself, Plonq yowled angrily, "The chocolate and tuna loaf is still in the oven. Here you got me all shook up over nothing. Good evening, madam… or sir, or however you prefer to be addressed!" He slammed the door and locked it again for good measure. There was a very long pause on the other side of the door, though when he pressed his ear to it the snow leopard could hear the rustling of robes, and a bony finger flipping through pages. There was another moment of silence before the voice across the threshold exploded in Death’s best approximation of a thunderous roar.
"Are you shitting me? You were supposed to have baked that thing three hours ago! What the hell is your problem, boy?"
"I didn’t have any molasses," replied Plonq, his tail trashing angrily. "Have you seen the crowds at the mall today? I’m lucky that I even made it home today, let alone three hours later than I’d planned." He suddenly noticed that he was still clutching his glass of scotch. He punctuated his last statement with a solid swig of the amber gold.
"Good grief! The molasses is in the cupboard by the sink, behind the kosher salt!" said Death in exasperation. "Seriously dude, you need a girlfriend or something to help organize your kitchen. You don’t even want to know what is growing in the back of your refrigerator!"
"Mental note: clean out the fridge," thought Plonq. Out loud he said, "Whatever! How could you know where I keep the molasses, but not know that I hadn’t even eaten the loaf yet?"
"Well, fine," said the sepulchral voice with a touch of bony petulance in its tone. "I’ll reschedule you for now and come back in about three hours. But let’s have none of these childish antics when I return."
"Buh!" said Plonq, taking another swig of scotch. "In your dreams. You’re nuts if you think I’m going to eat that loaf now."
"You’re not even going to taste it?" demanded Death incredulously. "After all that work, I can’t imagine you would just throw it out without at least trying a nibble."
The thought had crossed Plonq’s mind, but he dismissed it with a thrash of his tail and a firm flick of his whiskers. "Not a chance," he said. "As soon as you’re out of here, it’s going straight down the garbage chute. That includes the pan it’s cooking in and the bowl and utensils I used to mix up the ingredients."
He had been expecting another retort from Death, but the entity on the other side of the door was quiet for a very long time. Plonq wondered if Death had left, but when Death finally spoke again there was a rasp of resignation in the voice.
"Can I at least come in and use your bathroom? I knew this would be an all-nighter and I hit the coffee pretty hard today. I was going to use it after I, you know, harvested your soul and stuff but it looks like you’re off the hook this time and my undead bladder is still full." Plonq cracked the door again and peered dubiously out at the tall, dark figure.
"Doesn’t it empower you or something if I invite you into my abode?" he demanded dubiously. It was hard to tell from the skeletal expression, but he was pretty sure the figure would have been grimacing if it was able.
"That’s a vampire," it said flatly. Plonq stared for several heartbeats before his sense of empathy got the better of him and he unhooked the chain.
"Fine, come in and use the toilet, but no harvesting of souls." He stepped aside to allow Death to enter his apartment. "And please put the lid down when you’re done again so that my cats don’t drink the blue water. I don’t need you harvesting them tonight either." As Death swept by him, tattered black robes fluttering in the air, Plonq caught a faint wisp of incense, cedar and cinnamon. He had been expecting Death to smell of fetidness and rot, but Death smelled surprisingly nice.
Then he remembered a bit about ancient Egyptian mummification and he suddenly found the smell a bit less pleasant.
As soon as his guest disappeared into the bathroom, Plonq closed the front door and retired to the living room again to refill his glass. He held up the Dal Whinny and gauged how much drunk he could get from the remaining third of the bottle. It was starting to look like he might have to break out the Glennfish as well before the night was through. The little feline was just taking another sip of scotch when there arose a fearful clatter and sharp vulgarity from the bathroom. There was some more frantic cursing and shuffling before he heard the sound of the toilet flush, and a skeletal hand fumbling with the door. Death emerged looking as sheepish as Death can look.
"I’m so sorry," said Death without preamble. "I leaned my scythe up against the sink while I was doing my, uh, deathly business and when I stood up to grab it, it caught on the hem of my robe and went right over into your shower curtain." The tall figure began to fret. "Oh, this is so embarrassing. I usually take so much care in avoiding property damage when I do my thing, and here I’ve made a mess of your bathroom." In spite of the situation, Plonq felt a twinge of sympathy.
"There now," he said. He placed a reassuring hand on the tall figure’s bony shoulder and guided Death into a chair. "It’s okay, the curtain already had a few claw holes through it, and I have been meaning to replace it for some time." He pressed his half-empty scotch glass into Death’s bony hand. "You’re having a rough night. Why don’t you just sit down for minute, take a sip of Dal Whinny to soothe your nerves while you recompose yourself?"
Death turned its empty gaze to the glass as if noticing it for the first time. It looked at Plonq, then back at the glass. "I came here to harvest your soul this very night," said Death with a growing air of incredulity in its voice. "And not only do you invite me into your home, but you seat me in the very heart of your abode and present me with your finest liquor."
"Oh, that’s not my finest liquor," said Plonq with a self-effacing giggle. "Second best maybe." He paused a beat, "Third." Death stared long and hard at the glass in its bony grip.
"I shouldn’t," it said with a hollow wistfulness in its voice. "Not while I’m on duty." It chuckled, which raised the hair on Plonq’s back again. "Not that I’m ever not on duty, but I mean not on one of the busiest nights of the year for me. Do you know how many suicides there are on this night?"
"No," said Plonq.
"Well I do," said Death with a forlorn rattle. It raised the glass and drained it down its muzzle in one quick draught. The snow leopard had been half expecting to see the liquid come spilling right back out through the bones, but the scotch vanished into the robes. "I do."
The snow leopard, who had seated himself in the other chair by this point leaned across and patted Death gently on the knee. "It must be hard," he said gently. "I mean, being feared and hated everywhere you go. I just can’t imagine going through life, er, unlife like that. Well, not entirely anyway." He refilled the other’s glass.
"Oh, not everybody fears and hates me," said Death thoughtfully taking another sip of the scotch. "This is very good, and you’re right, I think I needed this. Anyway, there are those who welcome me as a friend." Another swallow of scotch disappeared down the gaunt figure’s throat. "But it can be really hard too, especially when it comes to the children, and especially tonight."
Plonq shuddered. "I can’t even imagine," he said. He glanced around for a nearby glass, then shrugged and took a slug directly from the bottle. "I hate my job too sometimes," he said, hoping that it didn’t come across sounding too lame.
Minutes turned to hours, and by midway through the bottle of Glenfish, the apartment was alive with roars of drunken laughter.
"You’re serious?" demanded Plonq. "You’re saying he talked for real jusht like in Team Americat?"
By this point Death’s cowl was thrown back carelessly, its boots were long discarded and it was sitting back splay-legged in the chair opposite the snow leopard.
"Bwa ha!" whooped Death in a drunken bray of laughter. "No, he was in a coma when I showed up to harvesht his soul and I didn’t really feel like waking him to talk to him. I really had no use for him, or his father for that matter."
Another half a bottle disappeared.
"Death roulette," slurred the snow leopard, slamming the thick phone book down on the table. "Flip to a random page, pick a random name and we show up at their door and ashk if they have any Grey Poupon or something shilly like that."
"You’re evil," said Death approvingly. "This is a total abuse of offish and wrong on every level. I love it! You pick first!"
Like a dream slipping from lucidity, the night blurred into dawn and Plonq awoke with a start. Two things immediately occurred to the little feline at that moment; he was not dead, but kind of he wished that he was. The room was spinning unpleasantly and his head felt like Santa’s gnomes had set up a workshop in his frontal lobe. Plonq sat up, groaned, and fell back in bed again. Not only did his head hurt, the rest of him hurt too. He felt like he had spent the previous evening running a marathon through brambles. Also his bed smelled of incense.
"Mental note: drink less next Christmas."
Had he remember to prank call Santa last night? Plonq struggled to remember, but his brain kept conjuring silly non-sequiturs such as trying to talk like Kim Jong-il from the movie Team Americat, and… and why were there a half-dozen jars of Grey Poupon on his end table? And why were his back and arms all scratched up like he’d been sleeping with a rose bush?
After about thirty minutes of self-pity the little cat finally managed to drag himself out of bed and got unsteadily to his feet, suffering only a couple of dry heaves in the process. It troubled him that he had no memory of the previous night because he was not normally prone to drinking himself to oblivion. He wondered if he could stomach coffee, then decided that no coffee wasn’t even an option.
Plonq stumbled his way laboriously out to the kitchen and froze on the threshold. He vaguely remembered putting a loaf in the oven the previous evening, but had no memory of removing it.
To his puzzlement and relief, the empty loaf tin was standing in the dish rack, apparently empty and washed. Of the loaf there was no sign.
Then he spied the note on the table.
It was written in a curious, unfamiliar script. It read, "Sorry to sneak out without waking you but I have a lot of work to catch up on today, and your little cat snores were really cute so I didn’t want to wake you. Coffee is ready to go if you just hit the switch. Don’t be a stranger. Merry Christmas!"
The note was simply signed with a stylized, capital D with a little heart drawn out of bones over it.
Memory of the previous night still eluded the cat, but he knew he couldn’t avoid it forever.
He stood very still in the kitchen doorway, holding the doorjamb for support and staring at the note while memories tickled at the corners of his mind like a hairball in the gullet, stirring and churning its way to an explosive release.
Plonq stood there staring at the note for a very, very long time.