The yowling is incredible. It’s also coming from the foot of his cot. That’s the only reason Winters wakes up. If he was at home and not freezing in Belgium surrounded by Germans, he’d think it was a raccoon. The racket is compounded with the clatter of bottles and gear. Something is trapped in his foot locker, and Winters doesn’t particularly want to figure out how any animal is left in Bastogne, why it decided to take shelter with him and whether it’s rabid or not, but he would like to sleep if at all possible, and so he gets up, crouches down and opens the foot locker.
He stares. A scrawny Persian cat stares back at him, paws still pressed up against the neck of Nixon’s latest bottle of Vat 69. Winters smiles, possibly for the first time all week, and reaches in slowly. The cat goes limp against his hand, and Winters scoops him up, curling his fingers in the long fur. The cat’s heart is racing, and it’s shivering. Winters presses the cat against his shoulder, nestling its head in the crook of his neck. It’s a strange moment, one of several he’s had in this war, a flash of normalcy in the midst of the greatest insanity of the modern era. The cat squirms a little; Winters moves his hands to support its hindquarters.
“So,” the cat says at last. “I would like to make it known that this is really far more awkward for me than it could ever be for you.”
Winters goes very still, his hand resting on the Persian’s back. The cat twists on his shoulder and blinks up at him.
“Any chance you could get my Vat 69 open?”
Roe’s eyes snap open before the second syllable is out of the unseen soldier’s mouth. Medic! He pushes out of his crouch, leaning against a tree that’s still impossibly whole, and races toward the voice. No one’s shelling the line, and he makes it over pretty fast. It’s Joseph. Joe Liebgott. He’s clutching a cat. No one’s bleeding, but Liebgott looks good and spooked, which could mean anything. “What is it?” he asks, already reaching for his kit.
“It’s Hoobler!” Liebgott babbles.
Roe frowns. They’re alone in the foxhole. “Where?”
Liebgott shoves the cat forward. “No, I mean, it’s Hoobler!”
“Hey, watch it!” the cat snaps, back legs dangling, claws out.
Roe squeezes his kit in one hand, still frowning. “Put him down,” he makes himself say.
“Don’t don’t don’t!” Hoobler begins struggling. “It’s goddamn freezing down there!” Liebgott just holds him there, slack-jawed.
Roe swallows, and runs a hand over his face. “How… when did this happen?”
“Like hell if I know!” Hoobler pipes up. “One minute I’m on patrol, watchin’ for krauts, next I know I’m swimmin’ out of my uniform and everything’s gotten fucking huge!”
“He jumped into my foxhole,” Liebgott supplies. “Nearly took my goddamn ear off.”
The cat seems to shrug. “Sorry about that.” His back legs kick at the empty air. “On second thought, maybe you should put me down.” Liebgott lowers Hoobler to the ground; the moment his paws touch the frozen earth, he dashes back to Liebgott and tries to climb his pant leg.
Liebgott looks up at Roe, brow knitted. “Shit, Doc, what’re we gonna do?”
Roe meets his eye. He taps his knee, willing some word of comfort or reassurance to come out, but he’s come up completely dry. “All right,” he says finally. “Just. Keep it quiet. Let me know if anything changes. And stay calm, all right?”
“Okay,” Liebgott says, sounding profoundly unconvinced.
“Hey.” Guarnere thwacks Johnny Martin amiably on the shoulder. “Listen, I heard you had some cigarettes. Was somebody shitting me or do you have any cigarettes?”
“No.” Johnny’s face looks even more doleful than usual. “I did, though, until Popeye came and drooled all over them.”
Both of Guarnere’s eyebrows crook up. “Come again?”
“You didn’t hear about this? Popeye’s turned into a cat. Hoobler too.”
Guarnere snorts. “No fuckin’ kidding.” He shifts his weight from foot to foot for a moment, then stops and eyeballs Johnny. “You’re really not kidding.”
Johnny sighs. “Nope.”
“Fuckin’ hell.” Guarnere shakes his head, and looks around them. “Fuckin’ Belgium.”
“Yup,” Johnny agrees.
The barrage is brief this morning. The Germans must have troubles of their own. Still, half-hearted firepower is still enough to send everyone straight for cover. There’s no such thing as too protected in this place.
“Speirs! Somebody get me Speirs on the double!”
Muck clutches his gun in one hand and his helmet in the other. “Can’t, sir.”
Harry Welsh frowns at him. “Why not?”
“He’s up a tree, sir.”
Welsh blinks, the pause lasting a second too long. “Meaning what?”
Muck takes a deep breath. “We think he’s trying to throw himself at the artillery and destroy it before it hits.” Welsh continues staring. Muck sighs. “He’s stuck in the branches, sir.”
Welsh huffs. “Well, send Shifty to climb up and get him down.” He kicks at the ground, gun-metal cold and just as stiff. “Damn it! This is no time for this!”
Babe glances sidelong at Muck after Welsh stalks off. “He doesn’t know, does he?”
Muck shakes his head once. “No, I don’t think he does.”
“You know,” Lip decides, after a thoughtful pause. “It’s kind of funny.”
“It’s really not,” Nixon insists, huddled between Lipton and Buck Compton, and still a Persian.
“It really is,” Buck agrees, breaking a long silence on his part. He chuckles, and shakes his head.
Lip grins a little. “The doc thinks it’s hoodoo or something,” he says slowly.
Nixon cranes his neck to look up at him. “What, Doc Roe?”
“When did he say that?”
Lipton shrugs. “Perconte heard him say it.”
“He didn’t say anything about how to make it go away, did he?”
“The men love it,” says Buck. “Except Speirs. He keeps griping about how he can’t fight the enemy when he doesn’t have any damn thumbs.”
“A dog I could get!” Nixon exclaims. “I’m a dog person. I love my goddamn dog. Why cats? Honestly, why cats?”
“Least it’s a cat with a fancy fur coat,” Lip deadpans. “Bet you’re warmer than any of us.” Buck chuckles again, and reaches behind Nixon’s ears. Nix rears up and tries to swat at him. He overbalances and lands flat on his back.
“You could have been a Siamese,” Buck points out. “Or one of those hairless cats.”
“I never saw a sorrier, scrawnier tom than Skinny Sisk,” Lip agrees.
Nixon shakes off a scum of grit and snow. “I hate you both,” he grouses, licking his paw and swiping it behind his ear. Buck and Lipton both laugh.
Malarkey watches Don Hoobler stagger past the rations line, back to two legs and his normal shape, if slightly off-kilter. “You think it’s over?” he asks.
Luz tracks him with his eyes. He snorts, shaking his head. “When is anything ever over out here?”
“If it’s nice,” Penkala interjects from in front of them.
Malarkey looks down at his feet. “Bit of a shame though, if it is,” he says, and lifts his head with a little smirk. “Wonder what old Sobel would have turned out like.”
Everyone in earshot allows himself a snicker, each of which dissolves into giddy laughter the instant Luz issues a dead-on proclamation against weekend passes, shoddy personal upkeep and hairballs.
There are generally things Luz isn’t thinking about when he wakes up with a thatch of fluffy black hair up his nose. That a cat would dig its claws into his jacket and tell him to wake the fuck up and get his fuckin’ gear before some jackass steals his fuckin’ boots for himself is one of those things. The cat’s got a thin, squinty face, and Luz thinks it probably could be Guarnere. He tries to unhook four sets of claws from his jacket, without too much success, while Bill continues to rail at him.
In the next foxhole over, Luz is pretty certain he hears Skip Muck giggling.