The pitter-patter of tiny feet across the floor forced Alan awake, cold sweat beading on his forehead. In the distance, he heard a faint meow, followed by more rapid footsteps.
“Sgt. Pepper?” he whispered, tip-toeing to his bedroom door and creaking it open.
Alan gazed into the dark living room, trying to make out the shapes of the couch and recliner, the television and coffee table. A tiny black shape suddenly dashed around the corner, squeezing between Alan’s legs and into the bedroom behind him. He began to turn around, but something in the living room caught his eye. A silhouette.
The silhouette of a person with long, brown hair and a forest-green dress.
“M . . . mom?” Alan stuttered.
He blinked, and she was gone.
Another meow, this time from his bedroom. Alan turned around and re-entered the space, coming face-to-face with a lanky black cat perched on his bookshelf. The cat blinked its bright yellow eyes at the boy, purring softly.
“Sgt. Pepper, you’re too loud,” Alan whispered. “What are you doing, running around so late?”
Sgt. Pepper meowed a third time, gracefully dismounting from the shelf and trotting back into the living room. Alan shook his head, climbing back into bed.
“Alan?” he heard his father call from the other end of the house. “You okay, kid?”
“I’m fine,” Alan responded. “Sgt. Pepper just woke me up.”
“Okay,” his dad said. “Good night.”
“Good night, dad,” Alan answered. He turned to a photograph of his mother on his night stand, waving at it. “Good night, mom.”
“Alan,” a voice whispered. “Alan, wake up.”
Alan’s eyelids drifted apart, and in the crack of the bedroom door, he thought he saw his mother’s face. As his eyes focused, her visage evaporated into darkness.
Soft taps against wood, picking up speed, and then meowing, in the darkness.
Alan sighed. “Hey, Sgt. Pepper.”
Yellow eyes glowed in the crack of the doorway, close to the floor. Tiny white teeth appeared, and Sgt. Pepper meowed again.
New footsteps, louder, heavier, and the black cat scampered away. A few seconds later, Alan’s father gently opened the door, entering the bedroom. “Everything okay?”
Alan sat up, rubbing his eyes sleepily. “Sgt. Pepper keeps waking me up. It’s like he wants something.”
His father glanced at the picture of Alan’s mother, propped up on the boy’s nightstand. “Is it the cat, or is it something else?”
Tears welled up in Alan’s eyes. “I miss her, dad. I miss her a lot.”
“I know, kid.” Alan’s father wrapped him into a bear hug. “Me, too.”
In the distance, a heavy thud, followed by more meowing.
“Dad, why does Sgt. Pepper run around like that?” Alan asked.
His father sat on the bed, wrapping an arm around Alan’s shoulder. “Well, my grandmother told me a story a long time ago. According to her, our ancestors in Egypt angered the demon of chaos, Apopis.”
“What did they do?” asked Alan.
His father shrugged. “No clue. Ancient deities tended to be fickle, though.”
Alan giggled a little, and his father continued.
“Anyway, our ancestors made a deal with Bastet, the cat goddess. In exchange for our shelter, Bastet came to a simple arrangement with Apopis. If, every night, Bastet beat Apopis in a foot race around the space Bastet now called home, the souls of her human hosts would be spared another day.”
Alan’s eyes widened. “Wow. Is that why everyone in our family has cats?”
His father nodded. “It’s just a superstition, but it’s a long-running one. Regardless, we now always keep a cat in the home. Personally, though? I think our ancestors just really liked cats. Can you blame them?”
Alan grinned. “Thanks, dad. I feel a little better.”
Their gazes connected, and his father smiled back, but Alan could still see the grief in the man’s eyes.
“Well,” his father said, “good night, kid. I gotta get some sleep before work tomorrow.”
He stood and turned to leave, but looked down at the photograph once more, chuckling. “You know, she always hated that dress.”
This time, Alan snapped awake to silence. For some reason, his heart pounded in his chest, and his t-shirt was soaked in sweat. Trembling, he slid off the bed, sneaking toward his bedroom door. He hesitated, glancing back at the photograph of his mother on his nightstand, and his eyes drifted to the alarm clock next to it.
Beyond his sight, somewhere in the living room, Sgt. Pepper meowed.
“There you are,” Alan whispered.
He eased through the crack in the doorway, trying to stay as silent as possible. Something small darted through the darkness at the other end of the hallway, and Sgt. Pepper announced his presence once more. Alan pressed himself against the wall, trying to stay out of sight. The cat was up to something, and he was going to find out what.
Another shadow flickered past his view of the living room, this one much bigger than before. Alan froze, his blood running cold. For a moment, all he heard was his heartbeat. Then, another meow, calling from the kitchen. Alan inched ahead until he reached the end of the hallway, peeking out into the living room.
Darkness. Serene, unadulterated darkness.
Alan crept into the living room, his stride more confident now, as he angled toward the couch.
Suddenly, Sgt. Pepper barreled around the corner of the kitchen entrance, darting into the living room and turning sharply at the edge of the couch. Before either human or animal could adjust to his appearance, Sgt. Pepper collided with Alan’s shins, toppling the boy and sending the cat ricocheting face-first into the coffee table. Alan landed on the carpeted floor, dazed for a moment.
“Oh wow,” a soft voice whispered above him. “That looks like it hurt. Are you okay?”
Alan rolled onto his back and saw his mother standing above him, smiling.
“Mom,” he gasped. “I did see you.”
“Of course, kid,” she responded, leaning over and offering her hand. “Here, let me help you.”
He glanced over at Sgt. Pepper, who was still lying on the ground, unmoving. Absently, he reached up. His mother’s grin widened as she leaned further forward, but at the last second, he snapped his hand back.
“Why did you call me ‘kid?’” he quietly asked. “That’s what dad calls me.”
Her smile faltered.
Alan looked closer at her. The face was his mother’s. She had her long, brown hair, and the forest-green dress he saw a few nights ago.
His breath caught in his chest.
No, he saw that dress every night.
“You hated that dress,” Alan whispered. “She hated that dress.”
She straightened up, softly chuckling. “I knew I should have used a different picture. You humans are so damn sentimental.”
Blinking, her eyes shifted to bright red, the pupils stretching into vertical, serpentine slits. She smiled again, her teeth now long, thin and sharp.
Apopis, Alan thought.
“Bastet’s disciple lost tonight’s race,” Apopis said. “Your soul, and your father’s, belong to me.”
“That’s not fair!” Alan insisted, crawling backwards. “He ran into me. I got in the way.”
“Rules are rules,” Apopis tisked. “He was supposed to beat me, and he didn’t. Don’t make me come get you.”
Alan scrambled to his feet, looking at the spot where Sgt. Pepper had been lying. The cat was gone.
“Please, please,” Alan begged. “My dad has been through so much. Just take me.”
The creature masquerading as Alan’s mom inverted its limbs at the joints, dropping to the floor and crawling swiftly toward the boy. “I will take you. And then I’ll go into your father’s room, and I’ll tear out his heart, just like your mother did when she died.”
Alan ran around the couch, but Apopis slithered over it, snagging the boy’s ankle with one hand.
“Dad! Dmmm–” Alan attempted to scream before Apopis covered his mouth, muffling his voice.
“We have things in Duat, in Hell, that live on your flesh, your pain. They’ll be so happy to have a little one to feast upon again.”
Sgt. Pepper sprung from the darkness, yowling as he clawed at the demon’s face. Apopis hissed, releasing Alan and retreating further into the living room. Before the creature could recover, Sgt. Pepper planted all four paws on the carpet, offering a low, chilling growl.
The growl reverberated through the living room, and Alan felt the ground shake beneath him. He struggled to remain standing, but failed, dropping to his knees. Similarly, Apopis collapsed onto his stomach, unable to move. A white light shone through the living room windows, blinding Alan.
“No!” he heard Apopis cry.
The light dimmed a little, and Alan saw a silhouette standing behind Apopis. The figure reached down, grabbed the disguised demon by the hair, and jerked upward. The outer layer of the creature, the skin that made it look like Alan’s mother, ripped away, revealing a giant, red-eyed snake curled up into a vaguely humanoid shape. Hissing once more, Apopis trying to escape, but the silhouette grabbed him by the throat, dragging him backward into the light.
The demon screamed as the light intensified, turning its green skin black, and through acrid smoke, Alan caught a glimpse of the newcomer’s face.
“Mom?” he whispered.
She glanced at him, offering a soft, sad smile, and winked. Continuing her journey, she pulled Apopis into the light. The white energy faded away, leaving the living room in blackness, reducing its occupants to one boy and one cat.
Alan stood, dumbfounded, staring into the empty room for a moment. Then he heard a faint purr, and looked down to see Sgt. Pepper rubbing himself against the boy’s legs. Kneeling, Alan pet the cat, a single tear running down his cheek. The tip of Sgt. Pepper’s tail flicked back and forth, and he closed his eyes.
Behind him, Alan heard his father burst into the hall, rushing to the living room. “Alan? What was that? Are you okay?”
“I’m okay, dad,” Alan said, wiping his face. “Sgt. Pepper and I were just spending some time together.”
“Oh, really?” his father laughed, leaning to pet the cat. “Can I join?”
Sgt. Pepper swatted his hand away, then laid down, contorting to groom between his legs.
Alan’s dad sighed.
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