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“On the Backs of Cats” – Fiction by Kathryn McMahon

detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights – Hieronymus Bosch, 1515

A couple fights to survive through their dystopian world of mutant rats & hyper-surveillance in “On the Backs of Cats,” Kathryn McMahon‘s fantastically frenetic flash fiction from our Fall 2018 issue.

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MY BOYFRIEND HAS A CAT NAMED KALASHNIKOV and the three of us go hunting at midnight. He brings his taser, I bring my magic whistle. Kalashnikov listens for the unique squeaks of rats with human ears growing out of their spines. Grenadine-pink test subjects that escaped during The Spills and roam the alleys eavesdropping on every conversation.

To pay rent, we sell the ears to collectors. What they do with them, no one knows. Ear-bearing rats are squishy, naked things, and I feel bad killing them. I tell my boyfriend this every night before we head out.

He has a glass eye that he records me with. I think he records his bar fights too because for him, routine is not enough. When we go to the pub through the crack in the museum wall, we hold hands by rotting dromedary bones and watch combinations of couples and talk about who in each pair would be better in bed. We never ask them to join us, though our lust is harmonic.

At home, I dance for him. He records me then too. It is exothermal, watching him watch me. But does he play back the audio, not just what I do with my hands? “I said I like that it’s only us. Are you listening?”

“Mmhmm.”

Before we go hunting, he shuts off the lights, draws the curtains, and it’s his turn to dance. So beautiful, rough-edged and pale. Taking off his clothes, he pumps up the music pissing out of the ham radio and holds it over the shelves of ears waiting to be sold, white and brown and black. So many extra ears, but for whom? My boyfriend claims the rats were released intentionally. He says the government is always listening, but I’m not convinced.

I lean back on our half-torn mattress. “Just because the ears are full of silicone wires, it doesn’t mean they care what they hear.”

His rollie is crisp red in the shadows, and he blows smoke away from me. “Oh, they care.”

“What, about how much we fuck?”

“They’re pervs.”

“You have theories about everything.” My boyfriend is an inventor and sometimes I wonder if I am another invention. A cog. A circuit. After all, he forgets I was the one who cobbled together the rat whistle.

“What’s mine is yours,” he says, gyrating and squeezing the curve of my belly.

Mmhmm.

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