by Robeena Barton (Barcat005@gmail.com)
Do you know how they say it was like herding cats? I had that job once. Well, it was more like being a prison guard for cats but a fair amount of herding did go on. If you’re thinking I had a typical cat-sitting gig, let me assure you this was a whole other level.
The job posting was for a private cat shelter this couple had set up in their house, and there had to be fifty cats there at any given time. There were more than a dozen downstairs, including the four cats in the private living area, another fifteen upstairs, and around twenty kittens in the attic, plus between two and four in the infirmary.
The house was a big, gothic Victorian at the top of a hill in the middle of the woods. It took forty minutes to drive there, mostly on winding roads with nothing but trees and the occasional driveway. You only passed one other property on the isolated road they lived on, and that one was out of sight before you turned into their driveway. There was an equal amount of nothing in the other direction, which eventually reached a dead end.
I didn’t mind the drive, it was beautiful, and there was virtually no traffic. My main gig was restaurant work, with lots of noise and stress, so I relished the chance to get in my truck four days a week and just cruise to work with nothing but my thoughts to keep me company.
I have no idea how old the house was, out there with almost no neighbors. The road was well-maintained blacktop, and their property had immaculate landscaping. The main building had lots of stained-glass windows, heavy wood floors, and crown molding everywhere, but I never figured out if it was newly renovated or constructed recently and just made to look old. The other houses that were out there were set far back from the road, behind a cover of trees, so I had nothing to compare it to in the neighborhood, either.
On my first day, the woman, Mrs. Walker, told me some people didn’t like how quiet it was. It was incredibly quiet and very dark at night. She told me some people had asked to work in pairs after the quiet had gotten to them, but she couldn’t afford to pay two people for one shift, so if it started to bother me, she told me to let her know right away because she would have to replace me. I thought that was kind of a rude thing to say right off the bat, but I had worked for plenty of temperamental, rude bosses before, so I didn’t make too much of it.
Mrs. Walker took me on a tour of the house and explained the job to me. There were four shifts a day except for Sunday, which only had an early morning and evening shift. Each shift consisted of one person making a round of the house, scooping all the litter boxes, cleaning any messes you found, dispensing medication any of the cats might be on, doing a headcount, and generally taking care of the feline residents.
That first day, I couldn’t imagine why people freaked out, just because it was quiet at the house. I mean, a shift typically took a couple of hours, so how bad could it have been?
Pretty bad, it turns out. The cats were awesome, for the most part. Cats are a lot like people, so if you get enough of them together, you’re going to have the usual assortment of bullies, morons, and just plain assholes, but mostly they were pretty cool. There were enough shifts, and the house was large enough, that even with close to thirty litter boxes the smell wasn’t bad at all, and the work itself wasn’t particularly hard. I liked working by myself, and the kittens were a nice perk. The quiet did get to me, though.
The house had some noise, clocks ticked, floorboards creaked, soft paws skittered everywhere, and occasionally Mrs. Walker would answer the phone, so you didn’t feel as though you were the last person on earth. The problem was that you never felt alone at all.
Have you ever had that feeling that someone was right around the corner or in the next room, even though you didn’t hear anything? Well, that was pretty much all the time for me at the Cathouse. The house was so quiet that you could hear anything that did make a noise, like a door opening downstairs, or a cat jumping on a counter down the hall, but I found myself constantly feeling as though something was creeping up on me as I went from room to room.
I thought, at first, I was just hearing or sensing the cats, but there were plenty of times I raced around the corner to find an empty room, not a whisker to be seen, that I had been sure someone was going to be standing in. I chalked it up to just being in a big, strange house, essentially on my own, with an overactive imagination. That worked for the house, but it was a little harder to convince myself nothing was wrong when I was walking the grounds outside.
As soon as you stepped outside, the silence pressed down on you. I kept expecting to hear birds, little animals in the underbrush, or trees swaying in the wind, the usual noises when you’re outside, especially in the woods. I had been hiking enough so that I knew what woods were supposed to sound like. These woods had, nothing. It was like stuffing cotton balls into your ears the minute the door closed behind you. I worked for the Walkers in the fall and winter, so, okay, fewer animals, less noise, but this level of silence was oppressive and unnerving. The only time there was any sound outside was on rainy days. Even a soft rain sounded like a waterfall in that unnatural silence. The rain was a normal sound, though, and you could forget how quiet it had been the day before. You could tell yourself it wasn’t that bad. I even appreciated the downpours that left me soaked as I went around the side of the building to dump the trash or enter the infirmary.
The grounds had the opposite effect of the house. Inside, I felt watched and hemmed in, like I was in the middle of a crowd all the time. Outside, I felt completely alone, there was no presence of any life at all. The only actual difference you could see was the cats, and I thought that explained it.
The Walkers had divided the cats into zones, which I named in prison terminology. I had strict protocols for doing headcounts in each area to make sure everyone was where they were supposed to be, so the prison analogy made perfect sense.
Kittens were in the attic, so, obviously, that was Juvie. New arrivals were in roomy, multi-level cages, or solitary confinement. The second floor was Gen Pop, which was the second most populated. Then there was the Infirmary, which names itself. Last, there was what I liked to call the Mental Ward.
The back of the house had a large, wrap-around porch they had screened in and divided into separate rooms, with cat flaps installed in the doors so the residents could have free rein, or they could be locked out of specific areas. The Walkers had built perches and decked it out with lots of rugs, cushions, and padded chairs. The Mental Ward had the most furniture of any place in the house other than the main living area. The rest of the house had the usual bathrooms and bedrooms, but other than rugs and cushions there was very little furniture. That made sense since the only occupants of said rooms were on four legs with no opposable thumbs.
The cats in the Mental Ward weren’t quite feral, but they were a little too wild for Gen Pop, so they all hung out on the porch until the Walkers felt they could be trusted indoors.
By the time I arrived on the scene, the Mental Ward cats knew the drill, and they mostly tolerated me as the bringer of food and cleaner of litter boxes, but every so often one would freak out and shred the nearest pair of ankles or launch himself at your head for no particular reason, so you always had to be on your guard.
I said the Mental Ward was the last zone, but there was one more. The first floor of the house was where the Walkers lived with their four actual pet cats. This part of the house was completely normal, and you could easily forget the rest of the house was a weird cat foster home with a rotating population of the young, old, abandoned, or disabled felines of the area.
The Walker cats themselves were as sweet as pie, and I always stopped to pet them as I went about my round, but they were prisoners too, of a sort. They weren’t allowed in any other parts of the house, or outside, so I had to do one final headcount when I finished my round, and I cleaned their litter boxes while I was at it. What’s two more litter boxes after twenty-six, right? So, that was the job.
The longer I worked there, the stronger that sense became that I was being watched. As I said, the upstairs had very little furniture, and there wasn’t anything on the walls, but I got a little obsessed with the idea that the Walkers had installed cameras to monitor the people they hired. It made sense considering this was their actual home, and if I was anything to go by, the caretakers were strangers. The problem was that I didn’t see how they could have hidden them, and there were no cameras anywhere that I could see. I just had that feeling, overwhelming at times, that the cats and I were never the only ones in those empty rooms.
I had been working for the Walkers for about four months, and for the last couple of weeks, I had been getting the distinct impression I was on borrowed time. Mrs. Walker had taken me aside at the end of my shift a couple of times to tell me I took too long, and she wasn’t paying me to play with the cats, just feed and clean up after them.
To be fair, I was starting to have favorites and maybe linger too long to give them extra attention. I had started wearing headphones to combat the silence, too, which Mrs. Walker seemed to hate, but never told me not to wear. I liked the job, and the money wasn’t bad for the small number of hours and easy work, so I made an effort.
I stopped listening to music and got through my round as quickly as I could, but Mrs. Walker told me it was still too slow, and I should be doing the whole house, which had to be over 6000 sq. feet and fifty cats, in under an hour. I knew that was impossible unless I started neglecting things, which I wasn’t willing to do, so I resigned myself to getting fired at some point soon. When I was fired, I wasn’t surprised that it happened, but I could never have prepared myself for the way it went down.
I had just finished the foster cats and was about to start in the main living area when Mr. Walker called me into the living room. Now, I thought Mr. Walker was a bit of a prick because he had made a big deal a month earlier about how I couldn’t back my truck out of the steep driveway when the ground had iced over. When I let him try, he slid and busted out my taillight on a tree. He pulled forward and tried again, and got down to the bottom of the drive and the road. Then he tried to be overly solicitous, offering to drive me home and get a friend to pick him up, which was more than a little creepy. He didn’t offer to pay for the taillight.
Anyway, Mr. Walker called me into the living room near the end of my shift and told me Mrs. Walker wanted to speak to me when I got done with their cats, and pointed to the closed door of the room she was in. I felt like I knew what was coming, but I wasn’t going to get all emotional in front of the prick, so I said, “Sure,” and headed out to finish my work.
I grabbed the water dishes and went to clean and fill them in the bathroom down the hall when I heard hushed voices from behind the closed door. I thought Mrs. Walker was on the phone, which was fairly typical for her, but try as I might (like most teenagers would I thought the conversation might be about me), she was talking too low and soft for me to make out what she was saying. I stalled and took as long as I could to sweep and empty the last litter boxes, but eventually, my job was done, and I headed to the door.
There was no more talking when I stood on the threshold, but I thought she might still be on the phone, so I knocked softly, and I heard Mrs. Walker say “Come in.” I opened the door, and I should mention here, this door was always closed, and I had never seen the inside of this room before. I was completely unprepared for the sight in front of me.
The room was very typical in dimension and style. It was a medium-sized square, with soft, pale wallpaper, and dark blue, plush carpet. There was a dresser against the far wall, a couple of end tables, and a rocking chair in one corner. In the center of the room, there were cushions spread out on the floor, and Mrs. Walker was kneeling on top of them. There should have been lots of space in the room, but instead, it was cramped and crowded. Everywhere you looked, there were dolls.
The dolls were of diverse sizes and styles, from small harlequin clowns about 3 inches high to large fabric ragdolls with yarn for hair. Most were realistic, porcelain children in elaborate dresses or suits with ringlet curls or little sailor caps. The only thing they all seemed to have in common was the ability to sit or stand on their own. There were no dolls that were lying on the floor or leaning against anything, except for the dolls that were sitting in the rocking chair. I’ve seen doll collections before, even whole rooms devoted to them, but what made this room particularly disturbing was how the dolls were placed.
Every doll in the room, whether on the furniture or fanned out in almost a complete circle, with only a narrow walkway to the door and a clearing in the center, was facing Mrs. Walker. Some were staring at her sides or back, but she was surrounded by dolls that were all looking straight at her as she kneeled in the middle of the floor. There must have been hundreds of dead eyes, staring at her in silence. For some reason, the first thing that occurred to me was to look for a phone, which I did not see anywhere in the room.
When I opened the door, Mrs. Walker whipped her head around with red, crying eyes and stared at me for half a minute in what seemed like disbelief. Then she yelled, actually yelled at me, to get out. I complied, gladly, and it didn’t even occur to me to wonder why she had called for me to come in and then acted so surprised when I did. I was about to just leave, not even waiting to hear if I was fired, when Mrs. Walker called through the door, “Stay right there!” and she would be out in a minute.
I thought extremely hard about not doing that, but as soon as the door had closed, I started questioning if I had really seen what I thought I had. Even if I had seen it just that way, so what, so people were weird and dolls were creepy, what did that mean? I dithered long enough that the door opened, and Mrs. Walker stepped out and shut the door behind her.
She looked completely normal. I had been sure that her eyes were red and watery like she had been crying, but I didn’t see any evidence of it now. Her voice was steady, and she didn’t act like anything odd had just occurred. Instead, she gave me the talk in the hallway that I had been dreading until just a few minutes ago, telling me that she had given me a chance, but it just wasn’t working out.
I mostly listened, but all I could think about were the dolls on the other side of the wall. At that point, I wasn’t worried about not coming back anymore. I was looking forward to it.
Then she said the worst part, “So, this will be your last shift, I’m afraid. I’ve left my checkbook in the sitting room there. If you will fetch it off the dresser and bring it to me in the living room, I’ll tally your hours and write your last check.”
Please keep in mind, both of us were standing just outside the room in question, and it made no sense to ask the person you had just fired to grab your checkbook and bring it to you instead of getting it yourself. I knew this, but the strangest thing happened, I wanted to see the dolls again. I can’t explain why: I don’t know if it was morbid curiosity, a need to prove I could, or some other compulsion, but I wanted to go into that room.
So, while Mrs. Walker went down the hall to the living room, I opened the door and went back inside the doll room.
I carefully made my way down the narrow strip and into the center of the room. I stood there with all the dolls staring at me, and I had another very reckless idea. I thought I should kneel, like Mrs. Walker had been doing, right there in the center where my eyes would be level with the dolls facing me on the dresser. There was one particular doll, sitting on the dresser in a pink satin frock with lace at the hem and around the high neck. She was blond, but her eyes were deep brown, almost black, which I thought was unusual. Usually, blond dolls have blue eyes. Maybe that was why I noticed hers.
As I peered into those dark, plastic depths, I felt like I was in a staring contest with a cat. Cats usually avoid locking eyes with you, but when they do, it’s almost always a challenge. The first one to blink or look away loses, and you can never win a staring contest with a cat; they will always outlast you. That’s what this felt like. As if looking away or blinking would be losing, somehow.
After a few seconds, it occurred to me that a staring contest with a doll that never blinks is crazy and stupid, and I was neither, so I tore my gaze away. As soon as I did, it felt like a long time had passed. I wondered how long I had been standing in a room full of dolls and whether Mrs. Walker would think I was up to no good. I picked my way through the army of dolls on the floor, being careful not to knock any of them over, reached out, and grabbed the checkbook sitting on the lap of the doll in the pink dress.
I turned around to head back to the center of the room and the pathway to the door, and as I did, I will swear, on my dying day, that I saw eyes move to follow me. I knocked over one of the dolls on my way out, but at that point, I just wanted to be on the other side of the door as quickly as possible, and I didn’t turn back to pick it up. I left the room and closed the door behind me.
When I got to the living room, Mrs. Walker was lying on a settee with her eyes closed. She looked up as I entered the room and frowned.
“I’m afraid I have the worst headache suddenly. I hope you will excuse me if I sign your check and ask you to leave?”
I said no problem because the last thing I wanted to do was stay in that house a minute longer. It seemed like it took ages for her to write the check, which was double my usual amount, and I was out of the door before the ink was dry.
I never saw Mr. or Mrs. Walker again, never went back to that house, and never figured out anything about what happened that day. Maybe it was nothing, a creepy hobby, and an over-active teenage brain. Maybe I narrowly escaped a fate worse than death. I’ll never be sure.
I’ve had a lot of jobs since then, and I live on the other side of the country now, but sometimes I feel those eyes are still with me, just under the surface. Are they still watching me whenever I’m alone? Will I ever be able to leave, just forget, the dolls in the Cathouse?