A small blade cut around the edge of a can of tuna. The distinct motor hummed cheerfully and attracted the attention of Muffins.
The cat’s head peeked around a corner and into the kitchen. Its stubby nose sniffed the pungent air. Every morning the air smelled a bit different.
“Just cauterizing some moldy eggplants,” said a man in a white lab coat. In his left hand was a cup of coffee and in his right was a soldering gun. He took a sip of the coffee and smiled at his cat.
The cat meowed and entered the room. Muffins was a longhaired breed whose white fur matched the lab coat of her owner. She walked towards the can opener, which stood on the end of a crowded table.
In front of the can opener laid a pile of overdue electrical bills. The man swept these onto the floor in annoyance with his right knuckle and beckoned Muffins up to the open spot.
The can opener sensed Muffins’ presence. A metal spatula from the machine scraped the tuna out of the can and dropped it into a blue bowl. A claw then took the empty can, rotated, and dropped the can into a wastebasket. Next, the claw grabbed a new can out of an opening at the base of a separate cylindrical container, and wedged it in place next to the blade to be opened later in the evening.
This automatic can opener was one of hundreds of machines in Dr. G Louis Manzaro’s home. Most of the machines were for Dr. Manzaro’s experiments and studies. One such machine in front of him was injecting mysterious liquids into a row of decayed purple fruits.
“You see,” he said, glancing at his cat as it ate the tuna, “The gasses released by the mold react with the compounds in the serum. And the serum bonds with the solder, so the reaction stays inside the eggplant.”
Muffins seemed to nod as she ate the tuna.
“Yes, I agree. Hopefully this time it will explode. Well—here we go.” Dr. Manzaro set to work on soldering the openings. The great hissing sound and odor from the soldering added to the already noisy and smelly kitchen, which, like all of the other rooms in the house, had been transformed into its own type of laboratory.
While Dr. Manzaro finished his experiment, Muffins finished her tuna. It was a high-quality brand, but it was never quite like a real fish.
A few minutes later, Dr. Manzaro sequestered the experiment in a containment chamber in the wall of the kitchen enclosed by reinforced glass. He waited for an explosion, but none came. He waited still longer, and none came. After about a half hour of waiting, he concluded in disappointment that the eggplants were likely a dud, but that it probably wasn’t safe to take them out and examine them in case the explosion was still delayed. Thus, he took the opportunity to feed his newest pet.
He exited the kitchen and went into the living room. Muffins followed.
The distinguishing feature of the living room was not the rotating conveyor belt, nor the piles of wires connected to pulsing circuit boards, nor the digital monitors crunching numbers. No, the thing that stood out was a steel door with no handle, connected to a panel mounted on the wall. All other rooms had free entry.
Dr. Manzaro placed his right hand on the panel, which scanned his fingerprints. A moment later, the digital panel read “Scan completed. Open?” He touched a green confirmation box that said “Yes.”
With a slow hiss of air, the door slowly opened outward and revealed a short hallway, more of a cabin, only around 6 feet long and 7 feet high, with another similar door on the other side. A florescent panel in the ceiling cast light into the cabin. The walls were lined with vents, and the air was dry and stale.
On a hook next to the panel outside the cabin was a hooded winter coat. Dr. Manzaro put on the coat over his lab coat, as well as a pair of thick gloves that were in the coat’s inner pocket. He then stepped into the cabin and reached for the handle on the inner side of the door. As he closed the door, Muffins jumped through the crack and joined him.
“You want to come?” he said, as Muffins curled up to his leg. “I told you, I’m not sure it’s ready for kitties.”
Muffins purred and stayed put.
“Well…it has been a successful first week…”
Muffins swished her tail back and forth.
“…and I suppose my tests have shown that you can withstand the pressure and cold…and I guess you are curious about what I’ve been hiding…”
Muffins cocked her head and meowed.
“Oookay. I guess it will be fine. Everything is in order. Little Muffins finally gets to see my new experiment!” Dr. Manzaro reached down and patted her on the head. Yes—he was silly to worry—Muffins hadn’t hurt herself around any of his other experiments, and this one should be fine, too.
He closed the door, turned, and stepped to the other door in the end of the cabin next to a similar panel to the one outside. Here, he scanned his hand again, and a different option popped up: “Pressurize?” He touched the box that said “Yes,” then stepped back.
A deep churning noise of generators starting filled the cabin. Air flowed out of the vents on one side and into the vents on the other. Each pass of the air circulation made the room seem a bit more oppressive, as if invisible hands were pushing down on the shoulders of Dr. Manzaro and Muffins. This weight grew heavier until it reached a set limit and stopped increasing.
“I wouldn’t lay down,” said Dr. Manzaro, in a voice that had become much deeper and raspy. He glanced at his cat and smiled. “It will be hard to get up again. Just brace yourself, and you’ll get used to the pressure. When I get tired, I like to think of the super-heavy Oxygen isotopes giving me a nice bear hug.”
With the cabin at its designated pressure, the generators slowed down and the air became still again.
Dr. Manzaro took a few deep breaths with long pauses between each. The air was heavier, but simultaneously heartier; it wasn’t necessary to breathe as often, as the richness of the Oxygen permeated the bloodstream and sustained the body with longer-lasting energy. It was like every breath was a bite of chocolate cake rather than a nibble of lettuce. The isotopes were Dr. Manzaro’s greatest invention, as well as the excuse to get his newest pet.
“One step at a time, Muffins,” he said, trudging two of his own forward to the door. He grunted and lifted his hand to the panel, scanned his hand, and pressed a button that said “Open.” “Someday I’ll add voice activation,” he muttered. “Let’s go, Muffins. You were the one who wanted to come.”
The cat meowed and it sounded like a growl. Her legs were shaking and looked ready to collapse. She meow-growled again, then took one, then two, then three steps forward. Her momentum made it easier to keep moving, and she followed Dr. Manzaro out of the cabin.
Dr. Manzaro closed the door behind her. All light vanished. It was quite cold and completely dark. He stood for a minute and let his eyes adjust.
Muffins’ eyes adjusted much more quickly than his. She saw two dim lights in the darkness up ahead. One of the lights was small and red, and seemed to be attached to the wall on the right. The other light was like a pale, glowing, yellow orb, drifting about of its own accord. Enraptured by the moving light, she plodded towards it.
Behind her, Dr. Manzaro waited and squinted into the darkness. Especially in the heightened air pressure, he did not want to step on his cat. Soon he heard a slight crackling sound accompanied by tiny sparks a little ways in front of his feet. The sparks were being set off by Muffins as she moved forward.
“Excellent,” he chuckled. “The magic of a shag carpet. No extra light needed.”
He moved in step behind Muffins, who had turned into a little ball of static electricity.
The sparks sent off by Muffins seemed to attract the attention of the yellow orb of light. The light stopped drifting and became still a few feet above the ground.
As Muffins approached, she could detect a form behind the light. The form first revealed two rows of long, pointed teeth like daggers. Next came a pair of beady eyes and glistening skin to complete the form’s face. Finally, small fins protruding from either side of the form revealed its identity. It was a fish.
“This,” said Dr. Manzaro, seeing his cat stop in front of the tank, “is Grimwold. He is a very special fish.”
Muffins halted right in front of the glass. She gazed at the light. She gazed at the fish. How beautiful. How hideous. How delicious.
Grimwold briefly lost sight of Muffins when she stopped. There were no more sparks of light that illuminated her presence. Then, very gradually, he saw the outline of her face from the light of his lure. She was much bigger than the other fish he devoured.
“A fish like Grimwold normally lives deep under the sea,” said Dr. Manzaro. “This room and tank simulate his natural environment. This keeps him comfortable in light of his changing diet. You see, his breakfast never stays the same…” Dr. Manzaro turned to his right and lumbered over to the red light that was attached to the wall.
The light came from a round, red button. The tank stopped a few feet in front of the wall, where there were steps that lined the wall to the lip of the tank. Wires attached to the button led up the wall to a switch at the top. This switch controlled a sliding metal panel in the back of the tank that opened when the button was pressed.
“Today we have a miniature trout. How long will this one fare?” Dr. Manzaro pressed the red button, and a digital timer in red digits appeared next to it and began counting.
A sliver of yellow light appeared in the back of the tank. This sliver began to come forward as Grimwold and his glowing lure moved back towards it. The two lights drifted closer and closer together. Then, in an instant, the sliver vanished.
The timer on the wall stopped. Dr. Manzaro turned his head in expectation and gave a deep hoot of excitement. “Wow! Only 15.43 seconds! A whole minute faster than the seabream! And yet…so many questions. How much longer will the trout last without an injection of bioluminescence solution? Was this trout abnormally curious about Grimwold’s lure? Was Grimwold himself hungrier than normal? Could Grimwold have been overstimulated by Muffins’ static electricity? Hmm…so many questions indeed…” Dr. Manzaro gazed into the tank at the anglerfish in thought. A few moments later, he shook his head and turned to head back to the door. “Better to think about these things in a friendlier environment. Plus, I need to check on those eggplants. Come on, Muffins.”
The cat moaned, still looking in the tank. There was no way to get to the fish. If only she could get her paws on that light…but she was just too heavy, too tired, too far away.
Dr. Manzaro called again, and Muffins turned reluctantly away from the glass. Shuffling through the shag, she created a pathway of sparks to the door that led to the cabin.
Behind her in the tank, Grimwold spotted the light and swam towards it. The flurry of sparks was so bright and tantalizing. The tip of his lure touched the glass and he could go no further.
A tall rectangular light appeared in the dark and blinded Grimwold’s vision. Two shadows disappeared into the light, and all became dark again.
* * *
The next morning, Muffins awoke in the living room. During most nights she traipsed around the house, exploring this at that room, smelling this and that scent, watching this and that machine work away at whatever it may be doing. But the previous night was spent entirely in the living room. In and out of naps, she would look to the steel door and pat it with her paw, hoping that it would open.
The noise of the can opener rung from the kitchen. She battled her instincts to head towards the lovely sound. That wasn’t the food she wanted. She planted herself in the ground and let go a low meow.
After a moment or two the can opener’s hum stopped. Time seemed to tick in slow motion. Muffins’ belly growled. It wasn’t right to go without breakfast. The fish would have to wait.
She rose and trudged toward the kitchen, doing her best to drag her feet like she did in the mysterious dark room. Eventually she reached the edge of the living room and ducked her head into the kitchen like the morning before.
Dr. G Louis Manzaro was in a similar position as the previous morning, coffee in one hand, cauterizer in the other. Except this time the line of moldy fruits behind him were cantaloupes, not eggplants.
“There you are!” he said. “A little late this morning. You don’t want to miss this—I think I found what was missing.”
Muffins walked over the pile of overdue electrical bills still laying on the floor and hopped up in front of the can opener. The opener went through its automatic procedure, and soon Muffins was munching on the canned food.
“So,” Dr. Manzaro continued, “This is why I think cantaloupes will succeed where the eggplants failed. You see—”
KA-JOOOOONK -Ka-Ka-Ka- …kaaaaaaahhhh…
“Great. Just great!” Dr. Manzaro cursed and slammed the soldering gun on the counter. The reason for his reaction was that the “KA-JOONK” and noise that followed was the sound of the electrical power shutting off in the house, with all of the machines grinding to a halt.
Both the noise and Dr. Manzaro startled Muffins, who hopped to the ground, then stood still nervously in the silence.
“They know I’m going to pay, and they can’t wait one more lousy week!? I don’t have time for this,” Dr. Manzaro continued, placing his cup of coffee on the counter and fumbling in his lab suit pocket for his cell phone. “The power company does not realize the work that I’m doing here. My experiments are sensitive! My experiments are important! My experiments are successful!” His hand shook as he searched for the power company’s number in his contacts. “Those fools,” he said. “They need to know more about my success. That I can’t be bothered by these interruptions. That I am Dr. G. Louis Manzaro, inventor of isotopes, exploder of cantaloupes—“ He paused. “Hello? Hello, is this Miranda? Yes, Miranda, I think you know why I’m calling. How do you know? Maybe it’s because you SHUT OFF MY POWER!” He waited for a few moments and listened to the tech service agent. A second later he stopped breathing and gave a short gulp. “Oh,” he managed. “You’re saying a fuse blew and that’s what shut everything off? I suppose…I suppose that could be the case.” After a hasty apology and some rushed assurances that the electric bill would be paid soon, Dr. Manzaro hung up the phone and sighed. “It’s been a while since the fuses have blown,” he muttered. “Now where was that box again?…”
He used his phone as a flashlight to navigate out of the kitchen and into the living room.
Muffins followed him and saw him leave the living room and head into the room next door. She was going to follow him, but sensed a trickle of air from a familiar spot—the steel door was slightly ajar.
Muffins ducked her head into the crack and pushed the door open with her body. The door moved freely with no magnetic seal in place. She hopped into the cabin and walked to the other side. When she pressed her paw on the opposing door, it opened freely as well.
She stepped into the other room and onto the shag carpet. It was still cold, but the air pressure was normal. In the black she saw a sole pale light bobbing left and right, up and down. Its movement was frenetic and impulsive. Grimwold was unused to these conditions.
She purred and pranced over to the tank. As she moved, little sparks flew from the tips of her feet.
These small bits of light attracted Grimwold, who rushed over to the front of the tank and greeted Muffins at the glass.
Immediately, Muffins paced back and forth in front of the glass, wondering how to get at Grimwold. Static illumined her body with each movement.
Grimwold darted in double pace with Muffins. His craving for her increased with every flash of light. He wanted her, needed her, but the annoying barrier blocked every pass he made at her face. The unnatural, nervous energy he felt pulsing through his body made him more frantic every second.
Soon, Muffins decided to pace the full length of the tank. She walked along the glass, her head always pointed at Grimwold, when at some point she realized that Grimwold could move no further. She put out her paw and found that there was a shaggy step rather than a pane of glass. Upon this step she hopped, and saw Grimwold follow her to her left. Thus she continued hopping up the steps, the dance of sparks in her wake, until she reached the pinnacle of the staircase. Here, the lip of the tank formed a tiny ridge that lined the edge of the carpet.
Muffins turned her whole body to look down into the tank at Grimwold.
Grimwold approached the water’s edge and looked up at Muffins.
Muffins stood on all fours, her body the length of the carpet between the tank and the wall. Her tail swished back and forth against the switch attached to the wall. She reached out her right paw and gradually descended it towards the water. It was hers. Just a little closer and she would have the light and have the fish. Oh, what a glorious light…
Grimwold inched towards the outstretched paw. His lure dangled in front of his quivering jaws. He could see the outline of the enticing creature’s body. It was his. Just a little closer and he would snatch it into his grasp. Oh, what a delicious meal…
The tip of Grimwold’s lure emerged out of the water.
The tip of Muffins’ paw came down and touched the lure.
At that moment, the switch at the top of the staircase switched on with a surge of electricity as the power returned to Dr. Manzaro’s home.
An ensuing burst of electricity jumped from the switch into Muffins’ swishing tail. In a flash of light, Muffins and Grimwold were connected as the electricity shot through Muffins’ body, out through her paw, and into Grimwold’s body.
After the shock, both Muffins and Grimwold went blind with pain and confusion. Grimwold backed away into the depths, barely alive, full of betrayal and doubt.
Muffins cried and mewed, stumbling down the steps as she fled in terror. She yelped in fear with each spark that hopped from her body as she staggered through the shag carpet toward the cabin leading back into the living room. Right as the pressure began to grow in the room, she collapsed into the cabin, and the door closed behind her.
Dr. Manzaro appeared at the other side and looked down at her in shock.
“Well!” he exclaimed, gazing at his cat’s body, which was now one big puffball of white fur. “It looks like you got the news: the balance of power in the house is restored.”