By Michael James Hoarty
Each night, I cut a little bit of my hair off and leave it on the corner of the living room carpet to ensure that Harriet, my feline companion of 12 years, stays safe and healthy. I don’t know what happens if I neglect to leave hair on the carpet, but I’ve been doing this three years now and she’s never had anything more severe than the occasional hairball. The vets ask me how I’m able to maintain such a healthy cat. “It’s almost mystical,” I was told the last time I took her in for a checkup. I have no reason to believe my method does not work, so I continue on with it.
I was fortunate that my hair had grown close to my thighs around the time this started. I don’t remember exactly when, but it was after the period where I grew my hair out to impress a flirty coworker at a job I quit out of sheer hatred.
Two or so years later, my hair now goes just below my neck. I always cut from the bottom, and I’ve come up with a pattern to ensure my hair doesn’t look any nuttier than necessary. This works to varying degrees. I don’t think I look all that bad, but my forays into public are inevitably greeted with looks of contempt at worst, pity at best. I’ve gotten used to it, and I don’t have meaningful interactions to worry about. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been in public for any reason other than a walk to the library, or a trip to see the veterinarian. I work from home. I’m very good at my job. My bosses eventually relented and, as a compromise, let me work outside of the office because I refused to cut my hair. That’s how good of a worker I am.
There are people who live in my attic, shrouded in the darkness save for piercing, neon green eyes. Sometimes their mouths move and emit a fog of narrow yellow mist as their words escape. They once told me to give my hair to the cat if I wanted her to live. I thank them for this.
She has no use for my hair, and appropriately she does not do much with it, a sniff here or there. Consequently, I have a problem where I have built a thick mound of hair on the carpet. The people in my attic, the ones who demand I cut my hair for the sake of my cat, advise me that throwing it away isn’t a good idea.
Older patches of hair are crusted with webs of mold, the grayness turned into a jaundiced green with a smell, but it’s nothing incense can’t cover up. What matters is that my cat is safe. She sleeps on my feet every night and I wake up to her nuzzling my neck. She loves me, she reminds me I’m not alone, so this is the least I can do.
I shave pieces of my hair in no specific pattern, no desire for anything “stylish,” I go with my gut. Presently, I have a mullet with thin patches of hair sticking out like dead plants on my boil-puckered scalp. My cat is alive, healthy, and energetic; I couldn’t care less how insane I may look.
I run out of hair and it becomes time to rely on the kindness of strangers. I start in good faith, asking for donations. People aren’t keen on parting ways with their hair without a hefty bounty. Clarification that the hair will be for the good of my cat seems to further confound them. I go to hair salons and ask for all the shedded hair on the floor. I’m accused of being a pervert and a hailing of the police is threatened.
A man in the classified ads under “meet ups” is exactly what I need; long, curly hair. When I was a child, my father would tell me that prostitutes made for excellent errand boys. We meet at the hotel, a dingy little spot in a dark corner. He wears fishnets and a yellow shirt advertising a nearby wharf, showcasing a swordfish with an invigorating smile, midair above the waves. I offer to shake his hand and he laughs at me. I sheepishly confirm his assumption that I’m new to this. He says nothing about my patchy hair.
At first, I ask nicely. I explain I didn’t want to turn him off and, to his credit, he’s very patient in how he elaborates on transparency playing a vital role in these types of arrangements. He speaks in circles, providing himself plausible deniability, although I can’t imagine he thinks I’m a cop.
“I just want company while I sleep,” I say
“It’s fine, you can leave,” I say, gesturing to the door.
“Money,” said the man.
“You did nothing for me.”“I gave you my time.”
I take a light from the bedside table and swing it at the man. His eyes close and his head starts to spin in a fog of dust and glass. It takes him a moment before he wobbles and falls to the floor. He’s alive alright, mumbling an invented language. I hit him one more time, apathetic if he survives, and I take my golden scissors to his scalp, stuffing the hair in a duffle bag pocket. I throw two $20 bills on him and walk home feeling like a bank robber.
The guilt of my transgression is irrelevant to me. I’m hesitant, because his hair was more jet black than the photo promised (I was expecting a darker blonde) and having different colored hair in the safety corner could throw this safety net I’ve created off balance. If only I had noticed this beforehand, but the lighting in the motel hadn’t helped matters, and the people in my attic haven’t said anything.
Problems arise. The day after, I wake to a breadcrumb trail of hair intermingled with a brackish fluid. Harriet is sitting on my work desk, her paws stretched forward, her eyes exhausted. Checking the living room, all of the hair from the day before is gone, save for a few flakes. Harriet must have consumed some of the mold. I consult the voices in my attic and they tell me throwing away any old hair will only exacerbate the current condition. I’m advised to sit in front of Harriet and hang onto her paws. She nestles them into me. More vomit, just a small drizzle with no coughing, no warning, and it lands on my feet.
The vet shakes his head. “No clue,” he says. Blood samples, a whole physical, I shell out thousands to have Harriet rigorously investigated. “The good news is, I don’t think she’s ill in any terminal sense,” the vet tells me. “I know it’s unpleasant for both of you. It must be terribly frightening to witness. But it should pass.”
“How can you say that if you don’t know what it is?”
“From experience,” he says, his hesitation discouraging.
I meet another person under the guise of sex. He has the perfect shade of hair, we could practically be related. This time, I arrive with a plan. I tell him I’m into bondage, that I want to tie him up. He agrees. I use bungee cords and I shackle his hands and feet to the bedpost, as he’s built up a healthy chunk of muscle and would easily win if we were to fight back. The way the ropes and chains shake as he screams, the possible upending of their integrity, has me nervous. Is this supposed to be erotic? I wish I had drugged him or knocked him out. I didn’t expect so much strength. I can feel him start to get loose so I run out with him half out of his cage and with ~34% of his hair remaining. He promises to kill me.
Harriet’s health issues improve, thank god, but she’s more lethargic than normal, not as playful. She mostly likes to lie around with me, which is good enough when removed from the anxiety provided by the abnormality. She especially likes when the sunlight pierces the curtains and she can bask in the rays. All interest in her toys has been lost. Maybe she has outgrown them, it happens. I purchase some new ones and they get lost in the mail. I’ve since brought home the hair of three people and she immediately eats it, carefully cuts it apart as though they’re steak, and wears a look of serenity as she swallows. I grow enough hair to cut a smidge off, but all she does is follow the strands with her eyes as they fall onto my mound, in which the mold is starting to grow as a web cast across the errant fibers, keeping them from any hope of escape.
I see someone whose hair I stole in the obituaries. I read the obituaries each morning because I like to guess whether or not the respective perished and I would have gotten along. This was a woman. I had done it the same way I did the others– request bondage, shave head, leave without paying. She actually was the first to not even put up a fight, she just let it happen and stared at the cartoons on TV. “I like being bald, it’s fine,” she had said, bored. I don’t remember having to knock her around in any way, but she’s in the paper two and a half days after our meeting and she’s in the paper because she’s dead. I urge Harriet to feast on her hair, but she has no interest, as if she knows the fate of the woman whose head it came from. I am certain of my innocence, but I know people will have questions for me.
The people in the attic tell me I’m guaranteed my freedom if I smear blood on the floor in the shape of an octagon. They remind me that, should I be caught, Harriet will have no one to care for her. I’ve read stories about police being cruel to animals. When I ask if there’s something specific I’m meant to look for, they tell me blood is blood, and beggars can’t be choosers. To begin, I break a glass and step on it, then I lay down and rub my leaking feet along the wall. The dizziness I get from the blood loss provides a hint of euphoria.
A doctor who I hate lives near me. He had treated me poorly, mocked my skinny bones and my balding head and told me I had a sick brain. Orange colored papers were shoved in my face with demands for my signature. He strikes me as a collector of gurneys and tongue compressors. His last name is Pyrathimoniaz which makes him easier to find.
The lights are off and I break in with a wire. Ancient medical technology is framed on his wall. A glass case holding a skull sits on a mantel above the giant television. His ceiling looks like skin’s response to poison and the wet mold drips into a bucket, a very nice, pricey bucket. Perhaps I will make use of it.
He’s whistling to himself when he walks through the door, carrying a bag full of tall vegetables. Eager to get things over with, my move is quick, a shard of glass is shoved into his belly, six times seems to do the trick. He’s still alive, but I was close enough to his kidneys to put him in a state of what I believe is shock. His teeth chatter and each time his teeth meet, small trickles of crimson hit his lips. The bucket fills quickly, so I run and grab two more. Once the bleeding has stagnated, I take him to my apartment. Awake now, he is telling me he is infected and I allow an inventory of his medical supplies– after all, I do want him alive until there are no more red cells to gather. He agrees to my terms. We take the elevator. The hallways are mercifully empty.
With my permission, he stitches himself up in the room, applying blue liquids to his wounds while hissing through the pain, cursing himself for not being properly acclimated to his threading. All the while, I throw the buckets onto my walls and smear them with my forearm. The people in the attic are pleased. I use a hammer to smash the bones in the doctor’s feet and I split his kneecaps into thirds. Out of guilt, I hand him a pillow and a blanket. Later, I wake him by stabbing his feet and putting his blood into suction cupped bags.
Harriet takes an immediate liking to the doctor. She nuzzles her head against a preexisting sore on his leg. She purrs when the doctor pets her. This infuriates me. Harriet sleeps on my feet each night, no exception, and to find her snuggled against the doctor one morning, after a rather filthy nightmare no less, makes me assume the gods are testing my patience to keep this man alive. The people in the attic are careful in saying that, if the doctor dies, it must be a true accident, a result of too much blood loss. You will know we know because you will know, they say, so stop yourself and think before you cut deeper than you know is necessary for your purpose.
The doctor plays fetch with Harriet; she generally grows a bit bored with the game when we play, but she’s fully engaged with the doctor. She brings her ball back to him and pokes him with her paw to get his attention. I watch this happen for ten rounds, aghast at this betrayal. Neither the doctor nor Harriet pay me any mind.
“I’m a cat person,” the doctor says when he notices me in his periphery at long last. “I had a friend named Kashka, she lived with me for 18 years. Good amount of time for a cat to live. Died two years ago and I haven’t been the same since,” he says. “I feel less lonely here. Consider my blood a form of gratitude if it keeps Harriet alive.”
I cut his arm and smother on a modest amount. His neck looks so cuttable, as if there are snacks inside. I crave the privilege to watch his life be steadily siphoned into a nameless uncertainty.
The people in the attic tell me that the detective walking out from a silver SUV in my complex’s parking lot is coming to speak to me. They tell me not to resist, to let him in, he will understand. My job is to reaffirm that I had nothing to do with a death that I had nothing to do with. Don’t worry about anything else.
The detective is a handsome, Columbo looking guy. His face exudes suspicion and trickery. The first thing he does when I answer my door is sniff like a particularly shameless dog. He tips his cap and says hello. He tells me he doesn’t want to bother me, but he has some questions. He puts a lot of forced laughter into his prelude, emphasizing that there is no shame with “paying for a good time.” He even admits to regularly doing this himself, as if this is supposed to bond us, as if he has a greater cause for why he sees escorts.
“There are over 60 suspects. I know it sounds like a dirty word, but we do need to do our diligence.”
“Of course,” I say. All the while, the doctor is fully prone, Harriet curled up on his back. The blood on my blue walls has turned them black, with the occasional fresh red spot from recent fine tunings. He is still wearing his yellow outfit, he is not hard to see. The detective scans the room with his lips pursed and his brow furrowed. He asks me routine questions then says “Good enough for me. We will not meet again,” and he shakes my hand like I had just purchased a car from him.
Harriet’s hairballs become more frequent, multiple times a day, and then they start to show blood. She yelps in pain when I attempt to pick her up. She spends most of her time sleeping under my bed. Her nose is dry enough to sting. I shave off every hair I can from the doctor, and he does not resist, but I have to go back to other, less fortunate means. As long as blood remains on my walls, I can do this with impunity.
Our veterinarian has a resting look of concern. The people in the attic stay silent when I ask if my cat will be okay. Different people are starting to whisper different answers to me as I watch the doctor rub a stethoscope over Harriet’s stomach.
“She’s 12, you said?”
“12,” I answer.
She nods. “I’m going to have to run some tests. Everything I’ve done so far hasn’t led me to a confident conclusion.”
“Will she be okay?”
“I can’t say anything with confidence without the test results. I’ll draw the blood and prescribe some muscle relaxers and antibiotics for her, both in small doses, because if they work, we’ll have a better idea of what we’re dealing with. In the meantime, I wouldn’t worry until you hear more. This could be a whole host of things, only some of them are scary.”
The people in the attic have nothing to say for me. Screaming and pleading with them doesn’t help, it never has. I ensure I lock my doors the same way, I dust the cat castle, check to make sure my fridge is closed all the way, and I take the vacuum around the apartment twice, all per instructions from the attic dwellers.
The doctor nurses Harriet. I feed him with smoothies I make from randomly chosen ingredients in my pantry. He always says “thank you” and seems to enjoy the beverages. I keep my cuts short and sweet, and I’ve taught myself how to stitch, albeit with some slop. A quarter of his body, at this stage, is made up from the black scab of sewing needles. Neither of his feet have soles any longer, and I am working on amputating each of his toes as we speak; four down, six to go. He takes care of the tourniquets and the gauzeing of the wounds, often with assistance from me, my oven, and my fire poker. Indeed, an odor of burnt flesh has started to mingle with the smell of Harriet for my apartment’s default aroma. Weakness is overtaking him and his days may be numbered. Adequate self-care is not something he has the life force to perform. I do not anticipate him being alive for much longer.
He cares for Harriet. When she goes near him, her ailments seem to vanish into thin air and she becomes her playful, energetic self. For this reason alone, he is worth keeping alive, as much as I wish I could end it for him. By now, shutting off his lights would probably be a kindness. I start to wonder if perhaps he has cast a spell upon the apartment, some lure for Harriet, a curse for me. A zero sum game where she is only allowed to live happily if she’s in his possession.
The people in the attic are telling me different things, providing mixed messages. Asking them to speak one at a time only aggravates this present nature. They speak over themselves to a point where I am unable to even make out words. Their voices meshed together sound like a blender of screams and panicked begging.
“Did you do anything to her?” I point first at the doctor, then at Harriet, who is sleeping on an arm he can’t move because I sliced too many nerves on a draw.
“As I told you, I’m a cat person,” he says with a smile. “I have natural charms. Nothing harmful. Nothing strange.”
“Can you tell me why she’s sick?”
“No,” he says, “Because she’s perfectly healthy. I know this to be true. You will too, soon.”
A call from the vet the next day confirms his assertion. The vet says they can’t find anything wrong in the tests. Her best guess is that Harriet may have been dehydrated, and she encourages me to ensure she’s drinking extra water. Medicated wet food is also suggested as a means of keeping her stomach happy. She tells me to keep my eyes on it, but to put my worries in the garbage.
Harriet is hissing at me. I’ve never heard her hiss before, but even the lightest touch on her fur sets it off. She is shedding. When she’s around the doctor, her hair looks more balanced.
“Save her,” I plead.
“I am,” he says. “I have.”
The doctor dies when I cut his wrists for the sixteenth time. I’m surprised he made it as long as he did given the number of wounds I inflicted. I’m not even sure he was dead initially, as the man will often stay completely still for hours at a time, but a muffled, illegible bunch of words before his head tipped over seems to be a clue. With the man dead, I dig deeper, scavenging the last of the juice from his insides.
Harriet mourns him. She coos and nuzzles him as if she could bring him back to life. The people in the attic are hushed when I ask if I broke any rules, even though I feel their watchful gaze. They are binary: they either answer “yes” or “no” and they are not being consistent. When I demand answers, they only dig deeper, speak at a higher pitch. Their frequency pops my ear drums into bloody pods and how I wish I knew how to retract my inquiries.
Harriet sleeps on my feet again for the first time in weeks. The following morning, I wake to her lying dead on the jaundiced stomach of the doctor, her body resting peacefully on the new rot-induced bulks. My walls look like a shoe shine explosion, there is still a mound of hair that practically crosses the length of the living room, and suddenly it all seems quite pointless. I pick Harriet up and her body is in rigor mortis, her fur dry like a chalkboard. The people in the attic let me mourn before they told me it was because I didn’t follow the rule. I ask which I broke. I insist that I didn't mean to kill the doctor. They won’t tell me what rule I’ve broken, or how I broke it.
I stroke Harriet’s coarse fur. She and the doctor wear similar looks of peace. This angers me and I carve apart his dead face, lopping off the skin and smearing it onto the walls as if this would be enough to resurrect Harriet. I straddle him and stab until everything human remaining from him is no longer. I sit back down and pet Harriet. Already she looks like she’s decaying. Bones show through ever-shedding furs.
“Find a path forward for your life,” The voices will say, and now, with Harriet gone and nothing left to defend, I finally can say, “Or what?”
Michael James Hoarty is a writer who lives in Chicago. He can be found on Twitter and BlueSky at @forbiddensign.