And thanks to the dozen or so of you who are still on Livejournal to read these things when I post them! I love to write, but it is always more fun when I get to share it.
In keeping with my tradition of giving these things uninspired names, I call this one:
Date with death.
Plonq added that simple line to the bottom of his list of past Christmases. The little feline usually did not bother himself with the larger questions of the universe, but he sometimes wondered in the quieter moments if the purpose of his life was to serve as a warning to others. When bad – usually self-inflicted – things happened to him, others could experience them vicariously, wince sympathetically and say, “There but by the grace of Dog…”
It was good to have a purpose, he supposed, but he sometimes wished that he could be the model of envy for others instead.
The snow leopard set aside his list and pulled out a well-worn Moleskin book that bore the simple title Christmas Regrets. The book was singed from both heat and chemicals, and the cover was mottled with strangely disturbing stains. When he cracked the spine, the pages emitted the distinct aroma of futility and despair. He glanced down the list of entries, wincing occasionally as his eyes landed on some of them:
• Do not set yourself on fire.
• Do not get punched in the stomach by a reindeer.
• Do not get abducted by aliens.
• Do not mock the Happy Fun Ball.
• Do not underestimate the speed of an enraged rhinoceros.
• Avoid the Norovirus cookies.
Plonq felt a little silly about the last item on the list, since they had been specifically labeled as such. Still, given the quantity of alcohol he had consumed before and after the cookies, he was not completely convinced that the cookies had been the sole cause of his distress that year. He sighed, picked up his pen and carefully added a new entry to the book.
• Do not get the Grim Reaper drunk.
He closed the book, and replaced both it and the pen back on the end table for another year.
“There will be no new entries this year,” he said aloud to nobody. “I am not taking any chances. I will be doing nothing – nothing – for Christmas this year.” He swept up one of his startled cats and clutched her to his chest, gently stroking her head until she settled in. “Nothing,” he growled softly. He planted himself on the Davenport and patted the cat – an act that he considered close enough to nothing to be safe.
For the next twenty minutes, the only sounds in the apartment were the drone of the refrigerator, the soft purr of a cat, and the growingly animated thump of a snow leopard’s tail tapping on the sofa cushion next to him. His mind was racing over the best way to do nothing for Christmas. Everything that came to mind was technically something, which would send him afoul of his plan. He began to wonder if he was being too ambitious. Perhaps it would have been wiser to set his sights lower, to do very little or nothing of consequence for Christmas.
The tail thrashing stopped.
Nothing of consequence – the phrase had an achievable ring to it. In fact, Plonq considered it to be one of his fortes.
“It’s settled then,” he said, purring in time with the cat in his arms. “This year I shall do nothing of consequence.” As an added bonus, his new, less ambitious plan meant that he could leave his apartment without feeling like he had failed his goal. He gently set the cat on the cushion beside him and mewled, “I shall endeavor to leave no lasting impression on people with whom I interact.” He patted the cat on the head and then rose to his feet, tapping his fingertips together in thought.
“No gifts, no cards.” He felt a momentary twinge of regret that it also meant that he would not be sending an anthrax-laced letter bomb to Santa Claws, but he was willing to accept the other’s lifting of the restraining order as an implicit truce. “I suppose this means that I can’t do a turkey this year,” he said sadly. “Nor a ham, roast, duck, goose, or anything interesting.” He paused in thought. “I guess chicken would work, as long as I don’t get too fancy.”
The little snow leopard felt like a great weight had been lifted from his fuzzy shoulders. If he was hoping to accomplish so little before Christmas, he figured that he had best start on it as quickly as possible. The first thing was to create a list to ensure that he followed the path of least resistance and smallest accomplishment. He grabbed a sheet off the top of the laser printer out bin, and after checking to ensure that it had nothing embarrassing or incriminating on the back, he grabbed his traditional Christmas pen and toddled out to the kitchen.
Plonq poured himself a cup of coffee after giving it a quick sniff to ensure that it had not reached toxic staleness yet, and then sat at the table, cradling the coffee cup in both hands. Hoping that the coffee would inspire him, the snow leopard took a few sips of the vile brew. Almost immediately, his first list item came to mind. He placed the cup on the corner of the page, partly to hold it, and partly because no list was complete without a coffee ring. He unfolded his reading glasses, perched them on the end of his muzzle, picked up the pen and began to write.
Having established the goal that I shall endeavour to accomplish as little as possible this Christmas season, notwithstanding the minimum necessities for the maintenance of a bearable lifestyle, this shall be my roadmap to realizing the benefits – or lack thereof – predicated upon the implicit assumption that these selfsame goals must provide overriding governance for all actions taken hereafter. To this end, the following list shall create the framework of this aforementioned resolution.
1) Procure a good cup of coffee.
2) Procure a chicken of average nature and proportion.
3) Procure accoutrements with which to render the aforementioned chicken into a tasty, if uninspired, meal.
4) Although it may be required to interact with other individuals in order to accomplish these procurements, make no attempt to leave a lasting impression.
5) Avoid eye contact.
6) Pay with cash.
7) Buy lots of alcohol.
8) Floss the cats.
In truth, the last item had been on his mental to-do list for some time now, but Plonq felt that there was no harm in formalizing it in a written list. The cats seemed to feel no sense of urgency over the lack of flossing, but it was one of those unpleasant rituals he had to perform occasionally to remind them that he was much bigger.
He pondered over the list, nibbling idly on the end of the pen. He was suddenly brimming with unambitious ideas that he could include on it, but he was reluctant to add anything else lest the list become inherently self-defeating.
He rose and snatched the list from the table in a single motion; there was no time like the present to begin doing virtually nothing. The cat peered out the window while he folded up his list. The sky was the colour of brushed slate, and eddies of dry snow danced and whirled down the street in a frigid ballet. It was definitely coat and toque weather. The window rattled slightly in its casement as the wind briefly gusted; perhaps a scarf was also in order. Just because he was built for it did not mean that Plonq had to like the cold.
A few minutes later, shielded from the elements under the protective aegis of layered clothes, Plonq stepped out into the street and blinked. Almost immediately the moisture on the tip of his exposed nose began to freeze, and the snow leopard was glad that he had taken the time to don an extra sweater.
“Bleah,” he said sourly as he coaxed an extra notch out of the zipper on his tight winter coat. He took a quick stock of his surroundings before he turned left and began trudging down the icy sidewalk toward the nearest grocer. The store was one of the two anchors at a strip mall a few blocks from his house. Serendipitously, the anchor store at the other end of the strip was a liquor outlet. If he stayed true to his plan, he could buy everything he needed in a single, elegant loop without the need of doubling back and risk leaving somebody with a lasting memory.
He managed to purchase an appreciable quantity of Christmas liquor and leave the store without incident. In fact the transaction happened so smoothly that he allowed himself a single, unadvisedly smug thought of, “That went well.”
It was then that Plonq spotted the Santa Claws, and he felt an icy claw of foreshadowing run down his spine. The bull was standing by the exit doors of the grocery store, wearing an absurdly undersized fake beard and a red hat perched on one of his horns. He was placidly chewing and ringing a cowbell, pausing only to grunt a thank you to people who put money in the plastic globe suspended in the stand next to him.
“I will have to avoid him,” thought Plonq, as he unhappily noted that the bull was positioned strategically in front of the store’s only exit. He considered leaving the store through the entrance doors after he was done shopping, but that had earned him a stern look of disapproval the last time. It also only occurred to him once he was already in the store with a basket in his hand that he could have just skipped this store entirely and gone to the one a couple of blocks away. “Ack!” There was nothing for it now but to buy his groceries and deal with the Santa as the need arose.
As usual, the little snow leopard started in the vegetable section and worked his way back toward the meats. As an obligate carnivore, Plonq typically avoided most vegetables and grains, but Christmas dinner needed sides; a cat did not live by chicken alone! He inspected and rejected a number of vegetables, some because he did not know what they were, and others because he did. He especially avoided any vegetables where the internet recipe started with instructions like, “First prepare a 13-litre inverted hydraulic condenser pot and hone your kohlrabi knife…”
Fortunately, the store was kind enough to put suggestion cards at the head of many of the vegetable bins. He paused by the potatoes and read the little hand-written note. “Looking for a boring vegetable? Look no further than the Russet Potato, which technically isn’t even a vegetable. Whether you want a forgettable side dish, or bland filler for a main course, the Russet is your boy. Serve these skin-wrapped balls of flavourless starch any time you don’t want any distractions from your main course.” Plonq loaded three of them into his basket. He also grabbed three of the yams in the next bin. He knew that he would regret the yams the next day because they did horrible things to his system, but he could not imagine a Christmas dinner without orange-halibut yams with a browned-marshmallow crust.
He grabbed a bag of the “add water and shake” stuffing he had bought in previous years. Once he had learned how to avoid the chemical burns during its preparation, it had become one of his preferred side dishes when he needed something quick and innocuous.
To his surprise, the cranberry sauce posed a much tougher challenge. His mother had taught him that the mark of a true cranberry sauce was one that retained the shape of the can when removed. With the recent move toward sauces made from whole, fresh, real cranberry that was becoming a tricky criterion to meet.
His salvation was also, fortuitously, the cheapest one on the long shelf of cranberry sauces. It bore a plain white label with the simple moniker Cranberry Sauce on the front in a sixteen-point sans-serif font. Intrigued, the snow leopard picked it up from the shelf and read the fine print on the back of the tin.
A fine product Luan-Wong Chemical Company in Sauhang Province. Contain only the finest freshest ingredient. Contents: Water, Sugar, Glucose, Fructose, Sucrose, Polyethylene glycol, Sodium Alginate, Acesulfame-potassium, Methyl-p-hydroxybenzoate, Potassium Bisulphite, Sodium Ascorbate, Calcium Carbonate, Polydextrose, Red Dye #3, Red Dye #4, Artificial flavour. May contain trace amounts of nuts or food. Guarantee to retain shape when remove from can.
The dubiously-worded guarantee sealed the deal. Plonq quickly dropped the tin into his basket and walked away from the shelf, giving the ingredient list no further thought. It was better that way. All he needed now was an uninspired chicken and he would be set. The cat hefted his basket and marched purposefully toward the meat section.
Many journeys start with a firm intent, but life is fraught with side roads and distractions. The best laid plans can be waylaid by an unexpected detour; something shiny here, a vendor giving out free food there.
“Oooh,” purred Plonq, all other intentions forgotten as he turned and toddled toward a sign that read, “Free Samples.”
“Good afternoon, sir,” said the aproned chameleon standing behind the movable counter. One of her eyes flicked down to glance into his basket of food. Plonq shuddered slightly, and figured that he would never find that not disturbing. “You look like a gentleman who is gathering ingredients for a fine Christmas dinner.” She gestured to the freezer behind her sample station and continued her pitch. “Have you ever considered preparing chicken instead of turkey for the traditional dinner?” she asked. “Chicken is the moister alternative, and packs more flavour per bite than a comparable quantity of turkey. It also has less environmental impact, making it the greener choice.”
Plonq could not stop starting at her eyes while she spoke. While her left eye appeared to be giving him its full attention, her right eye was darting about as if it had a mind of its own. One moment it was peering intently from fluorescent fixture to fixture on the ceiling as if it was receiving telepathic messages from them, and the next it was staring fixedly at the electric skillet on the counter beside her. Then it slowly turned to face the snow leopard before snapping backward to stare into the freezer, and then back at the lights again. He wondered briefly if she had a disorder, or if she knew that it was weirding him out and was doing it intentionally. It suddenly occurred to him that she had stopped speaking and was apparently awaiting a response from him.
“Mmmm, chicken,” he said tentatively.
She seemed to take that as an acceptable answer and she launched back into her spiel. “Here, try it and then look me in the eye and tell me that it is not the best chicken you have tried today.” She handed the snow leopard a Dixie cup with a nibble’s worth of lukewarm roasted chicken in the bottom. Plonq tossed the chicken piece whole into his mouth and pinched the cup flat between his thumb and forefinger while he masticated. It tasted like… chicken.
“How is this chicken different from any other chicken?” he asked. “I mean, besides costing half again as much.”
“An astute question, sir,” she said. Her eyes darted about frantically when she said that, and he wondered if it was the chameleon equivalent of an eye-roll. “Tell me, do you like white meat?”
“Yes,” said Plonq, licking his muzzle and looking wistfully at the rest of the samples.
“Then you are in luck,” she said cheerily as she handed him another sample cup. “Our chickens have more breast meat than any other chicken on the market.” She waited until he had finished the sample and then asked, “Do you like dark meat?”
“Yeth,” said Plonq, who had his tongue buried in the bottom of the sample cup, licking up the last molecules of chicken juice from the bottom.
“Excellent!” said the chameleon, “then you will be pleased to know that our chickens have three-hundred percent more drumsticks than most chickens on the market. If you like white meat or dark meat, this is the bird for you!”
Plonq blinked. He slowly counted on his fingers before he slowly said, “So your chickens have six legs?”
“Six legs and three breasts,” said the chameleon. “We use a mix of gene splicing and selective breeding to produce chickens with no backs, and extra legs to support the added weight. These are all happy hens raised in a free-range environment. They bulk up quickly and consistently, and when they reach the peak of flavour and optimal size, they gently die in their sleep. Every bite tastes of happiness and love.”
“… what do they look like?” asked the snow leopard hesitantly. “That sounds pretty horrifying.”
The vendor shrugged. “Pretty much like any other chicken,” she said, “minus the features and wings, of course.” She paused. “And also the extra breast and legs.”
“So why do they cost so much?” demanded Plonq. He was staring at the samples again and trying – with mixed success – not to drool.
“Oh, silly me,” said the chameleon as she handed him another sample cup. “Their bones are denser than those of a normal chicken.” She made air quotes around the word normal. “As a result, their bones are a third of the thickness of a normal chicken bone so that you get a much higher meat to bone ratio in our birds. You aren’t paying for all that bone and wasted space like you have in conventional hens. Ours are meatier. Lots of meat. Full of meat. Meat all the way down. Meat. Meeeat.”
“I’ll take one!” said Plonq emphatically, all but drowning on his own drool by now.
“Excellent!” said the vendor, clapping her hands excitedly. As she spun to fetch a frozen chicken from the freezer behind her, Plonq considered scooping up two more of the samples to eat later, but he noticed that her spastic eye was uncharacteristically fixed on him while her back was turned. A moment later she turned back, grunting slightly with effort as she held out a sixteen-pound chicken to the little feline.
“That’s a chicken?” mewled Plonq in disbelief as he took the enormous bird in his arms. After a couple of failed attempts, he finally found that it would just fit in the basket if he positioned it with its frozen legs sticking up in the air. It looked a bit less disturbing when he overlaid it with a mental image of crispy skin and a side of potatoes.
He was in such a pleasant mood as he was paying for his purchases that the snow leopard even allowed himself to be talked into buying a couple of environmentally-friendly cloth bags for his groceries. If he had been physically capable of such, the cat would have been whistling a happy tune as he left the store. He settled for a rumbly, off-tune hum in the back of his throat and a self-satisfied swagger in his step. Surely this was going to be the best non-Christmas ever.
Invariable, the descent to hard reality always comes faster than the slow rise to the apex of happiness. The spiral began the moment he left the store and found himself nearly muzzle to muzzle with the store front Santa. He froze in mid-stride and mid-hum as the enormity of this new complication quickly sunk in.
He had forgotten Santa.
Worse, he had made eye contact.
“Ho ho ho, bro,” mooed the Santa, in a tone that the snow leopard clearly heard as mocking and derisive. The large bull rang his copper cowbell and puffed out a great cloud of steam from his rimed nostrils. “Cold one today, eh? Care to make a donation to the Benevolent Society for Headless Calf Orphans? We’re raising money to buy a furnace to keep the wee ones warm on days like this.”
A noose of panic encircled his heart and began to tighten; it was already too late to pretend that he had not noticed the Santa. If he had slunk out of the store with his head down instead of strutting like he coughed up golden hairballs, he could have brushed past the bull and joined the anonymous ranks of preoccupied shoppers. Now he had to either actively not make a donation and be remembered as a cheapskate, or make a donation. How much could he donate and be quickly forgotten though? If he gave too little, he would be a cheapskate again, but if he gave too much then he might be remembered as the generous patron of the orphans’ new furnace. Fight. Flight. Panic. The urges ran unchecked through the little snow leopard while his pulse raced and his brain froze.
“You all right, sir?” asked the Santa, waving his bell-free hand in front of the little feline’s muzzle. The response had the desired effect – that is, if Plonq had been the bull instead, and the hand had been a red blanket.
“Gah!” he said aloud, pointing frantically behind the bull. As the startled bull turned to look, the snow leopard coldcocked him and ran. He ran as only a snow leopard can run in the snow, dancing over drifts and leaping over fences as he cut a straight line toward his apartment. A bag of bottles clinked against his left flank while a mutant chicken bounced off his right as he made good his escape. The feline stopped at the threshold of his building to catch his breath and listen for pursuit, but it looked like his distraction had paid off.
Gasping in breaths of cold air and feeling the first pangs of guilt, the little cat slowly waved his access card past the reader and quietly slunk into the comparative dim of the lobby.
“So much for not making an impression,” thought the little cat wryly later. He took a mouthful of chicken – which was not nearly as moist as the girl at the store had promised – and picked up his soldering iron. Since he had already failed in his resolution of keeping a low-profile Christmas, he decided that Project Letter Bomb: North Pole was officially back on the table.
Pushed carelessly to one side of the table was the morning’s newspaper, whose cover bore the bust of a familiar, if disheveled storefront Santa and the headline, “Storefront Santa Assaulted by Mystery Cat.” In finer type below it read, “Robbery Not a Motive.” There were boxed quotes in the story from key players as well. “Every year this happens to me. Every. Year.” There was another quote from the constable who first arrived on the scene, “I’m sure we’re all guilty of wanting to slug these guys, but come on – it’s Christmas!”
The feline felt a bilious knot of guilt over the headline further down the page that read, “Orphans to spend another Christmas in the cold.”
Although he normally waited for a while before updating his journal, Plonq put down the soldering gun and fetched his book of Christmas Regrets. He had learned an important lesson this Christmas, and he wanted to put it on paper while the memory was still fresh and raw.
• Avoid the grocery store.