The Thaw by Dennis Stein


“The cat is dead…why doesn’t he just wait until spring?”

Pam sighed deeply, sliding her mug of tea away, and lowering her face into her hands at the kitchen table. She didn't need her friend's words to confirm the fact that her husband had clearly lost his mind. They could both see him outside through one of the kitchen windows, toiling away at the edge of the family pool. It was early March, and the temperatures were still frigid during the night, although the days had been very sunny.

He had been out of sorts for a month now, after the disappearance of the cat one evening, the tragic ending only serving to heighten his grief when the cat was discovered frozen into the ice on the surface of the pool. Hemingway, Hemi for short, had obviously fallen in somehow and drowned. They had owned different pets through the years, but for some reason, this black male cat had been his. It followed him everywhere, like his shadow, waited for him to return from work, and lounged with him on the sofa as he watched television. No day was complete until the cat had climbed up on the bed at night to 'tuck Daddy in'.

Pam had watched as he fretted day after day when the cat didn't return. It had seemed to drag every day down, her husband distant and staring out the window in the kitchen toward the backyard almost every day when she arrived back home from work.

He had become short-fused, talking through possible scenarios as to where the cat might be, or what might have happened to him. Pam had tried to be patient as he spoke, trying to understand where he was taking these thoughts. She had loved the cat as well, but for the life of her, she could not unravel why her husband couldn’t let go, couldn’t accept the death of his feline friend.

Now, she watched as he surgically cut down through the ice in the pool with a chainsaw, its motor revving loudly as ice chips flew around him. She looked away quickly, trying not to wonder what the neighbor must be thinking as he cut into the frozen surface of the pool to remove the cat's body.

Perhaps it was all about having some kind of closure, she thought hopefully. Maybe once he was able to give the cat a proper burial, all of this would end. She had seen him endure tougher things in the past, but for whatever reason, this had left him damaged. He was broken. Whatever hold this animal had on him, it was obviously much deeper that she had been aware of.

He hadn't even wanted the wretched thing. It was a kitten when they first went to see it, a rescue at a family member's home. Her husband had complained about the idea of taking it in but over the next year, the cat and her husband had become pals. Inseparable. The young kitten matured, and became a household fixture, his daily routine not shaped by humans, but adhered to none the less.

*

This obsession with extracting Hemi's frozen body from the pool gave Pam the creeps, and she tried her best to ignore it. But out he had gone, fetching the chainsaw out of the garage, all the while wearing a strange, almost feverish look on his face, and mumbling incoherently to himself. He had not slept well in days, and Pam knew it. He had tossed and turned during the last few nights since discovering his beloved cat's corpse frozen into the pool ice, and Pam couldn't ever remember seeing him this fixated on something. She had dared not say anything negative to him about the whole affair, instead trying to offer fairly muted support to him or divert his attention.

But it hadn't mattered, and here he was, refusing to accept his pet's fate, as though he could perform some act of God, and bring him back. She felt helpless but was getting more worried by the day about her husband's mental state. He had no love of the cold, so seeing him out beside the frozen pool in sub-zero temperatures was further proof he was definitely not himself.

"Maybe he should get the cat stuffed." said her friend absently, watching the ice chips fly from the chainsaw.

Outside opinion was no longer welcome. Pamela poured the remainder of her tea into the sink, glad to turn her attention away from what was happening outside.

"Ok, don't mean to be bitchy, but I have to get dinner going..." she said, rubbing her temples to add emphasis to her subtle point.

Her friend took the hint. "Sorry. I should have been long gone. I’ll catch up with you in the morning." She drained her tea and left.

Pamela exhaled deeply and returned to watching out the kitchen window.

Then the chainsaw suddenly stopped, and she watched in horrible fascination as her husband pulled a large block of ice, containing a blur of black in it, from the frozen surface of the pool. He struggled the large block over the side, dropping streams of water droplets which caught the last rays of the afternoon sun. For an instant, her eyes focused on the block, and the inert carcass of the cat frozen within. It was a terrible sight, one she wished she could un-see. Even encased in the ice, it looked as though the animal was walking, as if he was trying to escape the slushy, freezing waters of the pool in his last desperate moments.

She stepped away from the window, trying to stop the thoughts swirling in her brain, turning to preparing the evening meal for them in a vain attempt to block the image of the frozen cat from her mind. Hopefully he would simply bury Hemi. Then things would finally get back to normal.

Dinner went on in near silence, her husband’s eyes lowered but distant, lost somewhere with his thoughts. He spoke little and ate about the same. Bedtime was similar; he had come to bed without barely an ‘I love you’, rolling over to go to sleep. Pam watched a movie on the television while laying in bed, to distract her from thinking about the events of the day. Tomorrow will be better, she thought. Tomorrow was his day off. He would bury the animal and become who he was before all this had happened. She melted into sleep herself, leaving the TV going at a point in her movie that she would have trouble remembering the next morning.

Pam returned home the next day, relieved to be finished the work week and looking forward to the weekend. Today had been sunny and warmer, a hint that green grass and new blooms would soon be coming.

She walked around the corner of the garage toward the house, her purse slung over her shoulder, a jacket curled in the crook of her arm. The side door of the garage was open, and she quickly peered in. Her husband sitting on a stool next to his workbench, a cold beer in his hand. She stepped into the open doorway, and he looked up at her with that strange feverish look in his eyes. There were pieces of disassembled medical hardware on the workbench.

“Hi.” she said, “what’s going on?”

“Just working on something. Something I read about on the internet.” he replied quietly.

“Did you bury Hemi?” she asked.

He hesitated, lowering his eyes again suddenly. “Not yet. The ground is still frozen.”

Pam knew this couldn’t be true. She had stepped gingerly across the small piece of lawn next to the driveway just moments ago, to avoid getting her shoes muddy. The frost had definitely come out of the ground. She let go of the thought, instead asking the obvious.

“So where is he?”

Her husband slowly raised his hand, pointing at the noisy old refrigerator next to the doorway where she was standing. It was his beer fridge. Realization struck her and her eyes widened slightly in alarm.

“You put a dead cat in the fridge??” she asked incredulously.

“In the freezer,” he corrected.

She didn’t utter another word; she just turned, wanting to get into the house and away from this scene as fast as possible. Once inside, she set her things on the kitchen counter and simply stopped dead, her mind racing. He was going mad, he must be. ‘Who puts a dead cat in the freezer, and for WHAT??’ she thought.

Then she noticed their laptop on the breakfast counter. The browser was open to a strange page full of diagrams, and an email in another window. She stepped slowly toward it, focusing on the device in the pictures. Phillips Heartstart. It was a defibrillator. But this web page displayed some kind of torn down modification of the same medical device she had seen on her husband’s workbench. Her eyes turned to the email, from a man in Haiti. It gave instructions on some strange procedure that her terrified eyes could only skim in absolute horror. She left the kitchen, headed straight up to the bathroom and locked the door. Leaning on the vanity, she looked at herself in the mirror, shocked by the paleness of her complexion. A tear streamed down her cheek as she tried to calm herself, tried to understand what was happening.

Later, she stood in the kitchen, unsure what to do. She held a cigarette which had almost burned out, the long, curled ash still hanging on. She had quit smoking six months before, wrestling with the withdrawal in an attempt to make her lifestyle healthier at the urging of her husband and friends. But this evening, she really needed it. It had been several hours since she’d come home and had finally managed to bring herself back down to Earth. Her husband had not come in from the garage.

She stepped back over to the laptop again, this time holding the power button down until the screen went dark.

‘What was he doing? Did he really think this would work?’ It was crazy to even think about the details of what she had seen in that email. A word from the text flashed into her brain. Re-animation.

The kitchen door opened, and she swung around, startled. It was the man she knew as her husband. He seemed different. His eyes were bright, and his facial expression was cheerful. He took a swig of his freshly opened beer, and actually began whistling as he stepped over to the fridge, looking inside absently.

“What should we have for dinner, babe?” he asked.

She could only stare at him, wondering if he had been playing a joke on her. He seemed back to normal; he didn’t even mention the lit cigarette still in her hand, nor the smoke wafting through the air in the kitchen.

“Uh, I don’t know. I thought maybe we would order in?” she stammered quietly, watching his every move. She waited for questions about the smoke. But they never came.

“Okie-Dokie,” he replied happily, taking another sip of beer. “I’ll be back in a few minutes—just order whatever you want.”

With that, he left the kitchen, disappearing into the garage through the side door. The interior of the garage glowed with warm light in the gathering dusk outside. What the hell was he doing?

She cracked open the window, listening for any sound coming from the garage, but heard nothing. This couldn’t be happening. She stayed put, trying to decide what she should do, or whether she would do anything at all. Her nerves were on fire again, and she lit another cigarette from the pack she had kept in her purse for the last six months, now unwrapped. She hauled the smoke in deep as she tried to relax. What she’d read on that website was medically and physically impossible but she could no longer take it. A cold sweat moistened her forehead, and she walked out the kitchen door toward the garage, determined to confront him and end the insanity.

Nearing the open garage door, where the light from inside traced a perfect slanted rectangle on the concrete walkway, Pam could hear her husband talking to someone. The cheerful sound of his voice made her shiver suddenly, and she stopped, uncertain if she wanted to proceed further.

Forcing herself forward, she peered slowly inside the door. Her husband was seated on a stool, beer in hand, looking down at something on the floor. She took another step forward, sucking in frozen breath at the horror that met her eyes. The stink of death filled her senses, her mind threatening to come unhinged as she watched the cat, still dripping wet with scraggly fur, sitting at her husband’s feet. It listened to his every word, unmoving. Pam finally unlocked her lungs, screaming long and loud in the panic and terror that gripped her, as the black abomination on the floor turned its dead gaze in her direction, letting out a quiet, brief meow…

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