After our grandmother got married for the third time, she started taking us to Harry’s place, an unfinished building tucked behind some disintegrating tennis courts in the bad part of town.
The property itself was not much to look at, a skinny mid-century row house sat on a withered plot of piss yellow grass. Our grandmother planned to start her new life there. We were a part of it too, whether we liked Harry or not.
They had met at the minor league baseball stadium, where Harry worked as an usher. He was a thin man with taut skin, sporting a deep leathery tan and bristly salt and pepper mustache.
We never saw his eyes because he always wore a pair of aviators, even indoors. My brother and I often speculated what was beneath those silver lenses, but they were impenetrable.
Harry had purchased the “fixer-upper,” as he called it, even before he and our grandmother had met. He claimed to be constantly renovating the place, though we had marked zero progress over the span of many months.
The interior was all exposed plywood and naked beams, the floor, walls, and ceiling bare except for itchy pink swathes of insulation.
My brother and I would chase each other around the house, darting through the woodwork, hiding in the empty spaces between rooms.
Since the water had never been turned on, there was no working toilet. We went in the backyard otherwise we held it. Harry promised it would all be taken care of soon, that when it was finished we would hardly recognize the place. We had little trust in Harry, even though he sometimes let us try his cigarettes if we promised not to tell.
The house was sparsely furnished, a small table with some rickety mismatched chairs to eat takeout from, a secondhand coat rack by the entrance where Harry hung his sweat-stained cap. There was also a television set and a lumpy old couch, which suited us just fine.
We took the opportunity to watch the movies that our mother would never allow us to see, being naturally curious about mature themes. If it had an “R” rating, we were happy to indulge ourselves.
My fair skinned, blue-eyed brother, who was younger, preferred erotic scenes, while I was partial to violence and gore.
For hours we sat on that couch, glued to the carnage, maniacs gouging out eyeballs with dripping hypos, bashing in skulls with the claw end of rusty hammers, hacking open chest cavities with enormous meat cleavers, topless women screaming down dark corridors pursued relentlessly by madmen in masks.
Since they spent most of their time upstairs, both our grandmother and Harry remained oblivious to our viewing habits, just as we were ignorant of the goings on behind their unpainted bedroom door, always kept locked.
Our only company was the cat Harry brought over from the shelter one day. An orange tabby, he was a rescue that had lost his right eye during a fight. Thus he was christened “One-Eyed Jack” and we were warned not to aggravate him.
My brother tried to pet him once and got raked across the throat, three symmetrical red lines. One-Eyed Jack did not like people, but it seemed he especially hated us. If we happened to cross his path, he would hiss and arch his back, the lone yellow eye boring through us until we slowly backed away.
We lived in constant fear of Jack. He would often hide up in the rafters, ready to pounce on unsuspecting victims below. To top it off, my brother and I were both allergic to cats. When our eyes started to water and swell, we knew Jack was close.
Somehow our grandmother came to adore that cat. She was the only person he allowed to touch him. One-Eyed Jack purred as our grandmother tickled his chin and stroked his belly.
We were mystified by her ability to soothe the beast. Our inability to do so only made us more afraid of him.
Fear turned into resentment when Harry made us clean out the litter box, a never-ending chore that we were condemned to carry out as long as Jack ruled. He was King Cat, ourselves nothing but lowly chamber maids. Our grandmother said it was good to have responsibilities.
We took every opportunity to escape, like when the boy next door invited us over. He was only a few years older than us, but much taller. We never learned his name because he never spoke.
He would poke his head out a window and motion us inside with a wave of his hand. We played video games in his dark attic bedroom, bathed by the flickering lights of the virtual death matches playing out on the screen.
When the boy’s parents pulled into the gravel driveway, the sound alerted us to quickly sneak off, as the boy was forbidden to have company. One day a “For Sale” sign sprouted in their front yard and we never saw them again.
During one especially long day, as we waited for our mother to retrieve us, a despondent Harry shuffled in through the front door. After he hung up his cap, he turned to us, tears dripping from his aviators. My brother asked what was wrong.
He told us that Jack was dead.
It was sort of a let down when we heard the news. By account of our legends Jack was invincible. Harry had found him in the street all bent up and mangled from being run over. It looked like he had been left out there for a while.
Jack never saw what hit him, which we supposed was all anybody could ask for. Harry told us the cat was on the back porch in a burlap sack. He instructed us to bury it.
I took a shovel out of the toolshed then followed my brother down the block to an overgrown, litter-strewn lot.
I tried to dig a grave for Jack, but the ground was too hard, full of rocks and clay. The burlap sack emitted the semi-sweet, sickly smell of decay. We didn’t dare look inside.
My brother suggested simply throwing it in the garbage. We found a dumpster in a nearby alley. I held up the heavy lid. My brother tossed the sack inside. I let go and the lid slammed down.
The noise startled my brother. I laughed at his high-pitched scream, told him he sounded like a girl.
He shoved me against the dumpster, told me to take it back. Instead I lifted the lid again and forced my brother inside. I closed the lid and sat on it, feeling the reverberations of my brother pounding on the thick metal.
After a while the noise stopped. I hopped off the dumpster and cracked the lid, peered inside.
My brother was gone. So was Jack’s burial sack.
I ran back to the house. My grandmother was sitting next to Harry in the kitchen eating some Chinese food from Styrofoam boxes.
My grandmother asked why I was crying. I told her what had happened and she rolled her eyes, scolded me for making up stories.
I persisted. Harry smacked the back of my head, told me to shut up, to quit being cute, that I didn’t have a little brother.
An orange cat hopped onto the table. My grandmother tickled his chin. The cat stared at me, two eyes meeting mine, one blue, the other yellow, not blinking, mouth pulled back, grinning.
Matt Lee’s writing has been featured at Tragickal, The Blue Pages, SOFT CARTEL, and Philosophical Idiot. He has also written, produced, and performed in numerous works for the stage. He tweets @Gallows_Ticket. For more info visit mattleewrites.com.