Munkustrap stirred awake as the sun filtered through the back seat car window. Yawning and stretching wide, he licked his lips before shaking off some of the dew that settled on his fur. The car was shared with his two brothers, well, when they weren’t off chasing queens and kittens. This morning, it was his alone which is how he preferred it. He took a few moments to get his fur in order. Young toms should look presentable at all times. A particular tuff of fur on the back of his head would not stay down. He knew he would grow into it. But for now, it bothered him as it lay differently from the rest of his fur.
Finally, he hopped up the backseat of the car and tiptoed through the broken back window onto the trunk. Gazing out, he looked over the Junkyard he and his family called home.
There was a chill and a somber feeling in the air this morning. Their leader, Larryarrybots, had passed suddenly. A human had struck him with her vehicle days before. The Jellicles never even had a chance to get his body back for a proper sendoff to the Heaviside Layer. Some of the older queens had said to the kittens that the Everlasting Cat would still accept good cats. While Larry had been a great cat and a wonderful leader, Munkustrap still wondered if that was an old queen’s tale just to sooth the little ones.
And Larry had been a great leader. While Old Deuteronomy was their spiritual leader, Larry had been the practical one that protected them and watched over the tribe day to day. Munku truly looked up to him, eager to help out with the daily routines ever since he had been a kitten. Now that he was gone, there was a clear void left in the tribe and with Munku. Old Deuteronomy would choose a new leader soon enough. Until then when Munku could shadow the next leader, someone had to do the work.
Bounding off his home car, Munkustrap set out into the Junkyard to start his day.
The first order of business was to check on the kitten nursery.
Under the protection of a tarp, a group of coolers were set up on their sides and filled with blankets. The newest kittens were kept in the plastic ones while the older kittens stayed in the styrofoam models until they were old enough to find their own abodes.
Munku ducked under the tarp and smiled at the sounds of tiny mews that greeted him.
Jellylorum’s ears perked up at his entrance. She had been the nanny cat for him and just about every other young tom and queen in the tribe. Reaching out, she stroked his head in greeting, “Good morning, Munkustrap. Chilly morning, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” he gazed over the little ones wiggling around in the cooler. “Do you think we’ll need more blankets for them? I can sneak some from a nearby store.”
“I don’t think that will be necessary. If it gets too cold tonight, I’ll move all the older kittens here.”
Munku strode over to kittens and smiled warmly at them. This new litter was only a few days old, the last one born under Larryarrybots’ watch.
The last ones that he would name...
Their little eyes hadn’t even opened yet. That would still be a few more days before that happened.
Munku gently stroked a little white one’s head, “Is she still not responding?”
“I’m afraid not. I believe Victoria will be deaf her entire life,” Jellyorum nestled around the group. “But that never stopped a Jellicle before.”
“Very little can stop a Jellicle.” He gently picked up a small tabby with a brown streak across his nose trying to blindly escape his shelter. Munku placed the boy back with his siblings. “Pouncival was named correctly.”
“Oh yes! He’s already quite feisty. He keeps pushing Jemima away from the milk.”
“Larry was good at picking names,” Munku didn’t mean to sound so sullen, but it came out that way.
Jellylorum stroked his ear. When she got his attention, she said quietly, “It’s okay to miss him.”
“I know,” Munku swallowed hard. “And I know the next leader will be good too.”
“I’m sure he will.” Jellyorum bowed her head towards Munkustrap. Her eyes were warm and knowing.
Munku paused and stared back at her. What was she suggesting? Him? The leader? That couldn’t be right. It usually went to the oldest tom or the best fighter of the tribe. Though, it was not unheard of for a strong queen to take up that role. Munku was none of those things. He wasn’t that great in combat. He wasn’t confident or sure like Larry had been. Besides, the oldest tom was Macavity who was also the best fighter. He should, by default, be the next leader.
Though, while Munkustrap cared for his older brother, Macavity never seemed to be Jellicle leader material. He often clashed with Larryarrybots on ideals and the direction of the tribe. It was… concerning for Munku. But Macavity never went too extreme, always backing down. He wasn’t much different from the other young toms or teenagers like their youngest brother Rum Tug Tugger. It was normal for teenage toms and queens to push their luck with the older cats.
Munkustrap pulled back from Jellylorum’s touch, turning away from the kittens. “Has the morning milk been brought to you?”
“Skimble is bringing it.”
“Skimbleshanks is in town?”
“He got in last night, dear. He came when he heard about Larry, and he plans to stay the week. Apparently there’s terrible weather on the northern line, so the timing worked out for him.”
“I’ll have to say hello then. I’m off. Let me know if there is anything I can do.”
Jellylorum shook her head, “Don’t be so hard on yourself, young one. You are worth far more than you give yourself credit for. Certainly more than those brothers of yours.”
“I… I appreciate that.” Clearing his throat, Munkustrap turned and left the kitten nursery, stopping long enough to greet Skimble as they passed.
Munkustrap took a long breath as he climbed out of the corner of chairs and couches where many of the elderly cats stayed. He’d spent the last hour with Gus, listening with intent as the old tom relived his theatre days. Munku grew up with Gus’ stories. When he was a young kitten, he would sit with his brothers as Gus would dramatically act out each part of the story. Munku would imagine himself as the hero of the story. Heroes were not flawed like him. They were brave. Gus made them all sound wonderful and strong.
As kittens, they would gasp and hide their eyes at Gus’ growls at the scary parts. All of them, even a baby Tugger, would stick out their tongues at the gross kissy parts. And Gus would make them laugh, his own chortle ringing out into the night.
Now, Gus was taking a turn towards the end. Munku knew it would still be a few years. But it was hard to see someone once so dynamic now live most of his life on a couch as food was brought to him, watching the days go by.
Climbing up on a pile of old tires, Munkustrap laid out as the noon sun basked down on their home. The morning chill had burned away, but it still wouldn’t be a warm day.
“Hey!” a familiar voice called out to him.
Glancing down, Munku saw his friend bound towards him, “Good afternoon, Alonzo.”
“Is it? Is it really?” Alonzo hopped up and plopped down beside him. “The way you’ve sulked around all morning makes me think otherwise.”
“Come off it,” Munku tucked his paws under himself. “I’m not that bad.” He paused, “Right? I’m not.”
Alonzo scoffed, “You are. You look miserable. But, you know, in an understandable kind of way.”
“Thanks for that,” Munku made sure that his sarcasm was laid heavily in his words.
The two of them settled into a comfortable silence watching the other cats mosey about their day. The river birds hovered overhead, waiting for the afternoon ships to come into port. They could see humans rushing back and forth in the distance just past the fence. Their vehicles sped over the bridge crossing the river. It all seemed so normal even though Munku didn’t that way.
Alonzo broke the silence. His voice was soft, barely louder than a whisper, “I feel it too, you know.”
“The change. We all feel it.”
“Is this what it’s always like?” Munku sighed heavily. “Always this strange and nervous?”
“Nervous?” Alonzo cocked his head. “I’m more scared than anything.”
“Scared? Scared of what?”
Alonzo lowered his eyes. His whiskers drooped, nearly scraping the tire where they sat.
Munku waited for him to find the words.
“I...Well, I…” Alonzo shifted his eyes to his friend, “We’re the fighters now. Are we ready?” Then, the verbal floodgates opened. “I mean we don’t have a leader right now! What if another tribe hears about this? What if they attack? Skimble and Asparagus and Bustopher are getting older! Not that Bustopher was ever that great of a fighter, but he sure can sit on a person until they give up. But that means it’s up to us and, yeah, we’ve been training but we’re barely adults and now it’s our job to protect the tribe and you and I have never been in a real fight so what if we fail miserably and that’s the end of all Jellicles and-”
“ Stop .” Munku seized him by the arm, holding him firmly. He stared at Alonzo, intently and fiercely until the cat started to relax in his grip. Slowly letting him go, Munku said, “The tribe will be fine. It’s… true that the experienced fighters are getting older, but we are not unprotected. We have Macavity, Bombalurina, Coricopat, Griddlebone, and Growltiger. They might not be much older, but they’re more seasoned than we are.”
Alonzo side eyed him, “No offense, but your brother and his two cronies don’t give me much of a sense of safety.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Opening his mouth a moment, Alonzo quickly closed it. Considering his words, he tip-toed through his sentence, “I know you love your older brother. It’s just Macavity is… um… you know.”
“I know,” Munku stated adamantly. “But that’s just teenage cat stuff. He’ll grow out of it. Hopefully before he’s chosen to be the next leader.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“He’s the oldest of the younger toms, the best fighter-”
“You are serious! How are you seriously serious about this?” Alonzo sprang up and paced around the tire. “No one is going to stand behind him. He’s no one’s favorite. I’m not even sure if he likes being in the tribe.”
Munku rose up too, “Being the leader is not about being liked. It’s about being respected. It’s about putting the tribe… the tribe before yourself.”
“See?” Alonzo pointed at him. “You couldn’t even finish the statement. You don’t think that Macavity should be leader either.”
Munku batted his paw away, “Enough! It’s not for me to decide. The choice will fall to Old Deuteronomy when it is the proper time.”
“Sure hope it’s sooner rather than later. I don’t think I’m ready to fight.”
“We will if we have to, Alonzo.”
“I… I know...”
“You two are so loud, you know that right?” a third voice piped up from behind them.
Munku grimaced and rolled over to see Tugger and Mistoffelees perched on the garbage above him.
His younger brother was a nice cat but a terror. Quickly coming into his own as the new hot teenage tom of the junkyard, Tugger absorbed this new found confidence and owned it well. Which was probably why Mistoffelees and some of the older male kittens often shadowed him. Misto was a bit shy, but had brilliant flashes of sass and confidence when needed. Munkustrap didn’t think Misto (or anyone) needed to follow Tugger about. But it also wasn’t his place to say anything.
Munku pursed his lips, “You were out all night.”
“You should try it some time,” Tugger smirked back at him as he slid down the garbage. “Alonzo, why are you hanging around with this guy when you can hang out with a tom that can actually get a queen.”
Alonzo rolled his eyes, “I don’t need any advice from someone who’s barely a year old. Munku and I are doing just fine in that department, aren’t we Munku?”
Munku blinked quickly, ignoring the heat rising behind his whiskers, “Y-yeah! Yeah…”
All three of them shifted their gaze to him. Did they really all have to stare?
Alonzo’s face scrunched up in confusion, “Munku… you’ve… been with a queen, right?”
“Nope!” Tugger bounded onto their tire and wrapped up his big brother in a side hug, “He’s still as fresh as the kittens in the nursery.”
“Stop touching me,” Munku smacked at his paws.
But the damage had been done. Alonzo’s eyes were wide in concern, “Oh no! This is no good! Munkustrap! We have to get you a queen.”
Munku rolled his eyes, “I can get a queen! I’ve just been busy!”
Above them, Mistoffelees giggled at the show.
Munku snipped back, “What are you laughing at? You haven’t mated with anyone either.”
“At least I’m not old,” Misto retorted making Tugger laugh.
Alonzo kept on, “Munku is not old! He’s just late, alright! Leave him alone! There’s nothing wrong with being a late bloomer.”
“Please stop talking,” Munku covered his face, trying his best to ignore the ever growing knot in his throat. “I need to check the perimeters.”
“Look! You’re chasing him off!” Alonzo cried over the others’ laughter.
Munku hopped down, trying his best to ignore them, “I’m not being chased off! The perimeters need to be checked!”
Tugger hollered after him, “All work and no play makes Munku really boring!”
Oh how Munku really wanted to shout back at him. But he needed to be the bigger brother. He needed to set the example. He needed to stay down so his little brother could shine.
Besides, it would be easier to pounce Tugger in his sleep later when he least expected it.
The sun was setting over the Junkyard. Munkustrap laid out on the fence that overlooked both where the Jellicles stayed inside and the river on the outside. He enjoyed feeling the breeze ruffle his fur and watching the ships move in and out of the pier. Most of the cats didn’t like coming up here since humans would pass by on the sidewalk below. But it was growing dark, and the humans would return to their homes soon.
While there was still a feeling of sadness in the air, there was healing and warmth too. Many of the house cats like Jennyanydots had come out to be with the rest of the tribe. Normally, they would only see them a few times a year like at the Jellicle Ball. But the sudden passing of a leader with the looming choosing of a new one was a time to come together. Already songs were being shared with food and friendship.
“Room for one more?” a soft voice called up to him.
“Sure,” Munku smiled down to Demeter.
Being born in the litter after him, Munku couldn’t remember a time where Demeter wasn’t in his life. Though far more shy than her older sister Bombalurina, she had always been someone for him to confide in.
Hopping up and sitting beside him, she stated, “You’re not okay, so stop acting like it.”
She had always been straight to the point too.
“No, I’m not,” Munku pushed himself up, stretching a long moment, before settling beside her. “I don’t know. I… hmm.”
“I hope this is about Larry and not about the Tugger thing,” she snickered. “He’s just being a little prat.”
Munku rolled his eyes, “So that’s gotten around, huh?”
“You should actually blame Alonzo too. He’s not helping to quash rumors by trying to spin your tomhood in a positive light,” she held up her hands like it was a show, acting out Alonzo’s motions.
Munku groaned but couldn’t help but to smile a bit. He could either wallow in embarrassment, which it was embarrassing, or he could try to move on. He couldn’t stop it now, and there were far more important matters at hand. “Those two are such a mess.”
Demeter paused a moment before saying in a bit of a sing song voice, “I haven’t done it yet either.”
“Yep. Not a single time.”
Munku awkwardly looked at everything else but her, “Well it’s, um, more common for queens to wait than toms.”
“That’s not the reason,” she crossed her legs and leaned back on her paws staring at the last waning rays of sunlight. The streetlamps began to flicker on around them. “I haven’t found the right tom yet for…” Demeter dropped her voice low in a joking matter, “....The First Time!”
Munku chuckled and shook his head. Looking over, he stopped.
Demeter’s eyes were fixed on him, holding his gaze. Slowly, she turned her head to face him to give him her full attention.
And Munku’s mouth suddenly went really dry and he forgot how to breathe. Did… Was Demeter saying that she…? With him…?
As she licked her lips, Demeter lowered her head and leaned towards him. Towards his face!
“Macavity!” Munku panicked as his voice cracked.
Demeter’s head snapped up in confusion, “What?”
“What… What are your thoughts about who should be the next leader!?” Munku mentally told himself to shut up. This was not how things were supposed to go with a queen! Why was he still talking? “I mean tradition states that it should be a tom like Macavity, but who knows who Old Deuteronomy will choose! So who do you think? I think Coricopat would also be a good choice too with him having powers and all so maybe him and his sister could share it! What are your thoughts!? Ha! Come on now! Ha ha!”
Demeter still looked confused.
And Munku really hated himself at the moment.
Finally, she giggled but it was a very kind sound. Relaxing, she turned to face the river again. Then suddenly, she lashed out and punched him in the arm, “I think I’m going to the party. Maybe another time, Munku.”
He rubbed his arm where he struck her, not knowing what to say back. So he simply answered, “Goodnight, Demeter.”
After watching her bound away into the night, Munkustrap covered his face. He groaned as he flopped back on the fence.
What was wrong with him?
Munkustrap was exhausted by the time he headed back towards his car home. He’d stayed on the fence until he was too cold before retreating back to the warmth of the Junkyard where the other Jellicles were celebrating Larry’s life with songs and stories.
He wasn’t ready for that yet. He wasn’t sure when he would be ready, but he knew tonight was not the night.
Hopping up onto the trunk of the car, he climbed towards the broken back window-
“Bah!” someone sprang out at him.
Munku scrambled back and sprawled to the ground. Landing on his feet, all of his hair stood on end as he readied for a fight.
But when he heard the familiar laugh of his older brother and his friends, Munku sighed, “Macavity! Don’t do that.”
Macavity’s laugh echoed with Growltiger and Griddlebone’s voices joining in. The three cats were rarely apart. Their little followers weren’t around tonight.
“I’m sorry, but you’re too easy,” Macavity slid down the back of the car. Confidence and looking good while doing it was something he and Tugger shared. “Why are you moping home so early. The party is just getting started.”
“I’m… I don’t want to go.”
Macavity gauged his expression before turning to his friends, “Go on ahead. I’ll catch up.”
Growltiger and Griddlebone snickered as they slunk away. Munku swore he heard one of them snide about ‘Little Kitten Munku and his lack of mate.’
Munku gritted his teeth, too weary to snap back at them. “Macavity,” he waved his older brother off. “I really don’t want to talk.”
“Why?” Macavity leaned in close. “Breaking easily is not a good look on you, soft little Munku.”
Munku’s ears pressed back, “I’m not breaking. I’m tired.”
Macavity regarded him carefully before softening his expression. Forcefully, he pulled Munku into a hold and stroked the top of his head, “You’re such a silly little boy. Mother would dote on you so much if she was still around.”
Munku struggled against his grip, “Let me go!”
But Macavity was too strong, “That’s why it’s good you have such a nice big brother to look out for you. Soft, stupid little kitten.”
“I’m not stupid!” Munku wriggled out and shoved him away. “I’m… I’m not!”
“Is that what Demeter thinks then?” Macavity cooed back at him.
Munku felt his paws go limp, “You… saw that?”
“Sadly, yes. I was coming back from a snack at the pier. You screamed out my name. I had no choice but to watch your failure.” Macavity touched his chest, “It nearly broke my heart to see such a sad display. You must be dying from the embarrassment of it all. It’s your fault, really. You always worked as Larry's pet and never socialized with the queens. You have no one to blame but yourself.”
Yes, that was right. Munku felt like that a lot. Ever since he’d been a kitten, Macavity constantly pointed out his flaws, but it was his older brother’s way to help. How else would Munkustrap know what was wrong with him? How else would he be normal? Obviously Tugger and Macavity were doing something correct. They had friends. Tugger was already the most popular of the three of them. Macavity was the oldest so he had his own place.
And there was Munkustrap, the middle child.
The one who only had himself to blame.
Ears back as far as they could go, Munkustrap whispered, “I’ll.. work on it.”
“Yes, you should. Tugger and I need your support. It’s what you’re good for. Now,” Macavity eased him up and turned him towards the car. “Off to bed with you. I’ll see if I can put in a few good words at the party. I promise to make you sound stronger than you are.”
“Thank you. Goodnight, brother.” Munkustrap hopped up their home car and climbed into the floor of the back seat to stay the rest of the evening. Tugger usually took up the entire back seat when he actually stayed there. Macavity always got the driver’s seat.
And the floor was Munkustrap’s place.
Macavity watched and sneered in pleasure watching Munkustrap slink away with his tail between his legs.
Maybe he should be more flattered to have a younger brother who was so ideal and gullible. Munku wanted to see the best in him, in everyone. But Macavity didn’t care about those traits. In fact, it made it so much easier to control Munku especially now that uptight Larry was dead. Munku’s grief was prime for the grooming.
It’s not that Macavity didn’t love Munkustrap. It’s just he loved Tugger more, and Munku was a bit too good.
...Too good in other ways too. Like being a candidate for the next tribe leader. Though, Munkustrap was still a long shot. He would be the youngest tribe leader in Jellicle history if he got it.
Macavity turned towards the party, listening to the hideous sounds of the other Jellicles singing. Let them enjoy this time. This would all be his soon enough. His years of hard work were finally coming together.
Larry’s sudden death sped up his plans. It was no matter though. Macavity was ready to make his move. He needed to act quickly before Old Deuteronomy arrived in the next few days to make his choice.
And as long as Macavity kept Munkustrap under his thumb, then Macavity had no one else to fear.
Rounding the corner of some trash, Griddlebone waited for him.
Macavity grinned a toothy grin and bared his claws, “Let’s get started.”
“Not too hard, darling,” she cooed back at him. “And certainly don’t get my face.”