Winner of the 2011 WriterHouse short story prize, based on the theme “eleven”. I’ve also been told this story is a hit at coffee house open mic nights.
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The Eleventh Hour
© Bethany Joy Carlson
Cat stroked his whiskers. His green eyes were half-closed, his body draped languidly on the cushion by the fire. But Dog could see his posture of repose was a ruse. The tip of Cat’s tail moved each time Rabbit spoke.
“But, but, Cat,” Rabbit stammered. “Why do I have to do it? You’re so much smarter than I am. And Dog is much bigger. Even Parrot is bigger,” he said, peeking up to see the bird, perched on the back of the rocking chair. “And he can fly.”
“Craaawwk!” shouted Parrot. “Don’t start with me. Don’t start with me. Why I, why I oughta –“ Cat shot Parrot a glance, licked his chops. Parrot’s beak snapped shut with a clack. He shuffled over to the far end of the chair.
Cat lowered his lids, gazed at his paw pads. Flexed his claws, relaxed. He stared at Rabbit until Rabbit dropped his eyes. Cat’s voice was as smooth as cream.
“Rabbit, dear Rabbit.” he crooned. “No one is saying you have to do anything. I’m merely suggesting you have an opportunity to repay the friendship shown to you. Why,” he continued, his voice jovial, “someone might think you were ungrateful for the apples Parrot put aside for you, out of his own dish, no less.” Rabbit looked up at Parrot guiltily.
“Or for the carrots Dog hid for you in the pantry.” Rabbit did not dare look at Dog. Cat was almost laughing. “Someone might even think you were ungrateful for your freedom, these many nights I let you out of your cage myself.” Rabbit shuffled his feet anxiously.
There was a noise from the bedroom. At his station by the door, Dog pricked his ears. The bedclothes rustled. Then all was quiet again.
“Or,” said Cat, “Perhaps you have forgotten that it is the Man who has caged you, and not we?”
Rabbit squirmed. “No, Cat, of course not, no,” he squeaked.
“I didn’t think so,” said Cat, glancing at the clock on the mantle. His tail lashed once. “Nevertheless, it’s true that yours is a serious undertaking, a very serious undertaking indeed. So let us wait for a sign.”
All became quiet. Parrot tucked his head under one wing. Dog sat as still as a statue in the shadows. Cat’s eyes nearly closed. But not quite.
The gears of the mantle clock began to whir. Rabbit leapt into the air, swallowing a shriek. Parrot flapped his wings with a start, sending feathers flying. Heavily, the clock struck eleven.
“Well, well,” said Cat. “We have our sign.” Rabbit followed Cat’s gaze. On the clock’s face, the hands pointed to the hour. Cat turned to stare pointedly at the crown of Rabbit’s head. Rabbit looked up. His ears twitched.
His ears. Two vertical lines, each one like a One, at attention side-by-side like soldiers. Like an Eleven.
Rabbit’s eyes pleaded, but the others said nothing.
The fire died. The darkness deepened. Rabbit crept toward the bedroom door.