From the author: My first published story, this appeared in Say, Why Aren't We Crying? Paul DiFilippo labelled it 'ribofunk' in a kind review.
Kress itched. That was his first sensation.
Thousands of pinprick fleabites covered his skin under the fur; itching defined the entire surface of his body. The horrible feeling built up to an intolerable crescendo and he shuddered helplessly. He wanted to scratch but couldn’t move his claws; he wanted to bite but somehow his mouth wouldn’t open.
He tried to shake his mane, bare his teeth, roar. Each failure frightened him. If he could only move he’d rip something apart with his claws, tear something with his teeth until blood spilled and his enemy stopped moving forever.
He whimpered deep in his throat.
Panic engulfed him and he thrashed, or tried to. His skin shuddered and his muscles twitched, but he stood immobile. He hardly noticed when the awful itching suddenly stopped.
“That’s fixed you,” were the first words he heard and he realized he still had eyes because he could see the man who had spoken. The man wore dark coveralls. Kress caught a scent of mixed peppermint and machine oil from his clothes.
“Time for the shed test,” the man said, then he turned and settled on Kress’ back.
Infuriated, Kress tried to attack this stupid man, but he couldn’t move. No crouch, no swirl of attack. Even his tail remained unresponsive.
“Hmm, no purr.” The man touched something on Kress’ belly, insultingly near his testicles, and suddenly Kress was flooded with the urgent need to purr. Kress relaxed and his mind clouded. With huge effort he barely lifted his eyelids to watch his enemy.
The man stood up and stripped out of the black coveralls. He flicked the material with approval.
“No shed,” he said. He folded up the coveralls and placed them in his tool bag. “All right, Mrs. Feeley, I’ve set up the couch for you.”
Kress saw a new enemy, a female by her scent. Tall and thin she wore a tan suit that matched Kress’ coat. Kress noted that she blended well into the stark room, like a gazelle hidden in the veldt. The pale brown parquet floor reflected the golden tints of the walls and mellow light played down discreetly, encasing the woman in a warm glow.
Mrs. Feeley sniffed. “Well at least it doesn’t stink. Some of the older models stink quite badly.”
The man said, “Yes, we’ve made improvements….”
“I don’t suppose you have other colors? This tan fur doesn’t match anything!” She looked at him and arched an eyebrow.
“This is the Kress model. They’re lions, and only come in tan.”
“Oh dear,” Mrs. Feeley said. “Well, I suppose the black stripes on its mane are quite nice.”
“Yes, well. He’s the finest creation we’ve come up with; just like the real thing. Now, I’ve loaded the instruction disc on your puter. You just need to remember a couple things,” he said. “You have to change the nutrient cartridge – it’s this white package here – change it every week with genuine HydroGro Feed for Couch, Kress Model. Now you may be tempted to buy the less-expensive stuff, but it won’t keep him looking so nice, and using non-authorized feed voids the warranty.
“Once a week, change out the waste receptor. It’s this green cartridge, here.”
Through his haze of enforced pleasure, Kress felt the man groping around his most private parts and he growled as well as he could.
The man laughed. “Oh you’ve got a feisty one, Mrs. Feeley; you’ll be the envy of all your neighbors.”
Mrs. Feeley nodded distantly then stepped around Kress and sat on him. “Very comfortable. Buster will just adore him!”
Her high-pitched voice stabbed at Kress’ ears. He hated himself for allowing a monkey to ride his back; he should rip her apart and roll in her remains. No lion ate awful monkey flesh but he’d consume her as an example. He should roar and the sound itself would kill her and remove her from his back. Hate and wild animal frustration poured through Kress. He could only growl just louder than a cub’s purr, and he couldn’t move his lips at all, much less open his jaws and snap his strong teeth at the woman.
Calming drugs washed through his bloodstream and Kress relaxed slowly. Tension released from his muscles and the woman gave a pleased laugh.
“Oh, I think he likes me,” she said. “Just listen to him purr. He’s just a great big kitty cat. I do hope Buster likes him.”
“Oh, he will, ma’am. We have 100% customer satisfaction. Everybody wants to own his very own living breathing lion couch.”
Kress’ ears moved sluggishly as he listened to the humans talk. The sedatives ultimately overcame his rage and he slept.
He woke to the distant discomfort of fingers pulling his mane. Small monkeys – no, young monkeys, he realized. The young screamed and chattered like any group of monkeys. He thought of his own cubs, boisterous creatures who lived to play with him. Protective feelings flowed through him and he purred like rolling thunder, his couch-body vibrating. When the young climbed up onto his seat and jumped up and down and leapt from his arms, he flinched, but his fused bones shook off the stress and he relaxed again.
After a while the young grew distracted and left him, all but one. This one stood in front of Kress and looked up into the lion’s face.
“I’m Buster,” the boy said. “I’ll take care of you.”
The boy brushed Kress’ mane and wiped the lion’s stiff whiskers. Kress felt the boy’s touch on his face and knew if he weren’t imprisoned, he’d lick the cub’s hands.
“You’re programmed to like me. I wish.” The boy paused. “I wish you’d like me no matter what.” Then the cub reached under Kress’ belly and turned off the purr switch.
Small fierce bodies pelted him in pretended attack. He roared, mildly, then fell on his back. They scuffled over his stomach; the smallest cub took a stance on his throat and mewled a challenge. Kress engulfed his son with his forepaws and swiped him clean with his tongue.
Kress lounged with his pride in the shade of the trees. The sun beat down and stripped color from grass and plants until the whole world wore the lions’ tawny color. Kress watched over his family while the grasses swayed in the evening breeze, his lambent eyes staring arrogantly at the men who walked heedless into his territory. The men wore bright-colored clothes and talked loudly and made excited noises when they saw Kress’ pride. They ignored Kress’ warning grumble, and they ignored his roar when he jumped to his feet. Men laughed and pointed smooth sticks at him. Kress knew that for a threat. He roared again to warn his family, who lay shock-still in the heat. He charged at the men when they stepped too close. Great pain flared through him and then darkness blinded him. He knew no more.
Kress startled awake with his muscles bunched to leap at his dream enemies. The lunge pushed him perhaps two inches forward on Mrs. Feeley’s expensive parquet flooring.
If he’d been able to open his mouth he would have panted; instead he flared his nostrils and sucked in drafts of air, then blew it out again. He’d moved. His stiff legs hadn’t bent, the movement happened when he’d dreamt of the attack.
Kress purred and thought about attacking his enemies: first stalking, then the leap. He imagined bringing down a juicy zebra by jumping on the fleeing creature. He remembered the time he fought a brother lion to gain his pride. Kress felt his muscles ripple. That had been a fierce fight. The females had licked his wounds for days afterwards, ignoring the torn body of the former king of the pride. Kress had gained his family because he was strong, and he could leap.
He moved just a few inches at a time, bunching his tireless muscles and imagining that he was leaping.
The wall-sized window framed a view of golden sky and white sun. Kress kept his eyes fixed on the sight and managed one last leap to reach the window. He pounded against it, and met unbreakable hardness. Frustrated, he pounded again and again. Each time he hit the wall and rebounded back. His body bruised and the skin split in some places; blood dappled his coat and the wall. Frustrated, he growled, deep in his throat, a serious sound. If he could move his claws, he’d rip the window apart.
He still crouched by the blood-smeared window when Mrs. Feeley returned from her shopping. He heard the scratch of her key in the lock, and he heard the door swing open. She chattered busily at her companion, Buster – Kress could smell him. The woman dropped her packages and shrieked.
“Buster, get away from that,” she said as Buster climbed onto Kress.
“Wow, it moves by itself.”
Kress closed his eyes.
“Mom, he’s crying, look.”
“Get off that thing now! And it doesn’t cry, only people cry.”
Kress bore the indignity of being manhandled back to his former position. Clarence wore a different set of coveralls, but he still smelled of peppermint and machine oil. The man cleaned the blood from the lion’s coat, and sprayed new skin on the cuts. He searched under Kress’ belly and said, “Here’s your problem. Somebody turned off the purr. That has to stay on, Mrs. Feeley. It releases chemicals to keep your couch sedated. And it’s a massage function; don’t you feel great when you sit on him?”
Clarence wiped at Kress’ eyes with his handkerchief. Kress blinked and purred.
“Sit on it!” Mrs. Feeley’s voice scratched at Kress’ ears and he growled lightly. “I’ll never sit on it again! Why, if it weren’t for the party tonight I’d return that couch right now!”
“We’ve never had one do this before, Mrs. Feeley. Remember, you didn’t buy a couch with a lion skin, you purchased an actual lion. You can feel his heart beating and his lungs drawing breath. He has memories and a personality…”
“_Programmed_ memories,” Mrs. Feeley said.
“From his own experience, ma’am. This one is truly unique. He’s warm, Mrs. Feeley, and alive, and he’ll last you ten years if you take care of him. Please, keep the purr turned on, okay?” Clarence climbed to his feet and frowned up at Kress. The lion managed a mild growl.
Mrs. Feeley stood next to Clarence. “Well, as long as it’s safe for the party.”
“Safe as houses, Mrs. F, safe as houses.”
Four wooden bowls had been nailed to the floor. Each one received one of Kress’ paws. He bunched his muscles and leapt, but he couldn’t hop out of the bowls. The bowls kept him in place.
Buster sat on him and stroked his fur, especially around his ears, and Kress purred. Buster whispered so only the lion could hear.
“Today’s my birthday and you’re my present and you’re neat but you’re a couch for _her_ to show off,” he said. “I’ll get lots of gifts and stuff, but it’s only _her_ friends here, my friends weren’t invited.”
Buster rubbed at Kress’ belly and said, “Why do I have to be here? I’m stuck.” He switched off Kress’ purr. “So’re you,” and he looked at the lion’s feet in the bowls. “So are you.”
The cub wandered off and Kress felt the enforced calmness wash out of his body. The doorbell started to ring and his eyes followed the guests as they arrived; his nose catalogued their scents. His skin crawled in anticipation.
Mrs. Feeley led a clutch of her friends over to Kress. “And this is the couch!” she said, sweeping her arm up in a grand gesture. “Please sit, it’s very comfortable.” The women giggled and hesitated, nudging each other forward. One woman edged up to Kress and sat. Her companions, not to be outdone, also positioned themselves on his back.
“Sit with us, dear,” one of the women said. Mrs. Feeley shook her head.
“I must attend my guests. Oh, James! How nice that you’ve come,” she said, turning away.
Mrs. Feeley wore a stylish dress flowing with dyed marabou feathers. Kress’ eyes followed the feathers as they floated; his predatory instincts aroused. He imagined stalking her, then pouncing and capturing a mouthful of the feathers. He jumped a bit and the women sitting on his seat laughed nervously. They patted his mane and marvelled at his gorgeous golden eyes.
“Oh Buster, come here, sit with us,” one of the ladies said, right next to Kress’ ear, and he twitched irritably.
Buster sat under Kress’ chin, and Kress purred for him. The lion felt a moment of pleasure when the cub reached up and scratched his ears.
“Happy birthday, Buster.” The women smiled and laughed but Kress ignored them. The cub scratched his ears and chin and he relished the touch. He purred with contentment.
Mrs. Feeley sang, “Happy birthday, Buster!” and Kress’ eyes, relaxed in pleasure a moment before, popped open. The room lights had dimmed and the picture window was blacked and Mrs. Feeley approached Kress slowly, carrying a cake with several burning candles.
Kress growled a warning but no one noticed; all the humans except the cub were singing. Mrs. Feeley stopped in front of Kress. Smoke filled his nostrils and wax dripped onto him. He would have screamed and he did leap. His muscles bunched and thrust in an awkward hop, and he fell over. He knocked Mrs. Feeley down on top of her cake with the burning candles. He felt the struggling bodies of two women he’d pinned to the floor. The cub lay motionless, crushed by his leg. One of the candles rolled towards him and was stopped by his arm. The flame burned his fur and his skin. Kress twitched and shuddered.
Kress woke, purring and growling and smelled the man Clarence. He bunched his muscles and pounced, moving just a fraction of an inch. The man laughed and patted his nose.
“I’m just here to fix you up before they ship you out,” he said. “Some of these burns will scar.” The man whistled off-key as he slathered ointment on the lion’s skin.
The treatment brought cold relief from the searing pain. He relaxed and purred.
“Lucky for you the Feeleys are well-known philanthropists.” Clarence spoke the word like he was spitting. “They couldn’t order you destroyed without raising one heck of a ruckus.”
Kress twitched when the man’s hands strayed onto his belly and the purr switch.
“Gonna remove that,” he said and pulled. Kress felt a curious itching and longed to lick this new wound. “You won’t be getting the chemicals anymore, so you might as well be _au naturel_.” Clarence held a small modular circuit in his hand. He tossed it up and caught it. Kress tracked its arc.
“If you’d killed the kid I woulda been forced to destroy you. Instead I’m taking you to the … the ….” Clarence pulled out his clipboard and read the destination address. “The Meg Jones Retreat for Abandoned Animals.”
Kress stood under the spotty shelter of an oak tree in the kennel’s yard. The grass tickled his paws, and he clawed the ground and smelled the delicious odor of soil and roots. Golden sunlight warmed his tawny coat and he slept for great stretches of time.
He dreamt of being alone in his golden desert, surrounded by wind, his cubs gone. In his dream, Kress roared ceaselessly.
Now and again a thin young woman would sit on him, talk at him, change his feed and waste cartridges. She never groomed him, and she did not smell like the cub.
The cub never visited Kress. The lion waited and mewled, unable to calm the empty spot in his stomach. He stirred, ears and nostrils twitching, hoping to scent the boy.
Long before his burns healed, he did catch the cub’s scent on the breeze. Hope surged through him and he strained for the cub’s voice or a glimpse of the young monkey. Instead, the thin woman stepped into view. She carried a cage which reeked of the cub, and something more. The woman set the cage by Kress’ feet.
“Buster sent you a gift,” she said. “Someone to keep you company while you’re here.” She opened the cage and extracted a ball of tawny fur.
“Kitty kitty kitty,” she crooned, stroking the ball. Kress stared at the creature which still smelled a little like Buster. The kitten meowed.
“I’ll leave him here for you,” the woman said. She settled the kitten onto Kress’ seat, then she walked away.
The kitten ran up and down Kress’ seat, then climbed to his shoulders. He tangled into the lion’s mane and pretended to fight with Kress’ tail. He curled up in a niche formed by Kress’ arm and seat and soon napped, purring in his sleep.
As the kitten grew, the other cats of the place swarmed on Kress, their sharp little nails barely touching his hide. He purred for the company, and they purred along with him as they reclined on his shoulders, his arms, his seat. They played a game where he growled, then bunched up his muscles and leapt. The cats scattered, fearing an attack from their king. They came back slowly and perched on him again. They licked their toes, their tails; they licked Kress and groomed him.