Everybody in the town of Kass knew about the Gatto house; a nickname given to the old man who apparently lived there. Gatto was somewhat of an enthusiast when it came to animals. He was a bit of a recluse; his sightings few to begin with – nobody getting a good enough look at him to remember what he looked like - but they got dramatically less frequent until a few years ago when they just stopped. Parents generally had a hard time teaching their kids to avoid the house when walking home from school on account of the wild animals living on the property seemingly alone. In 2004 the mall in Kass experienced their first zebra, when it jumped the Gatto fence and took a stroll through the parking lot.
Kass is a smaller town and inside lived a smaller community where residents generally spent their whole lives. Steve was born in Kass (like most others) and spent the majority of his time trying to escape it. His parents expected him to take over his grandfather’s automotive shop when he died, and guilt was often a force used to sway Steve to come back from whatever breakout attempt he planned. Trips to Belize, Japan, and Spain were met with voicemails about how the business couldn’t survive without him, and when Steve’s parents passed away a few years after his grandfather, he decided to put his dreams on a permanent hiatus.
Steve lived on his own most of his 20’s and resided in his grandfather’s old farmhouse on the edge of the town, where there boarded an expansive forest. His grandfather was an avid large game hunter, and spent the last retired years of his life in the woods with his .30-06 Springfield. Growing up his grandfather taught him about hunting, how to handle a gun, and all types of animals. Because of this, Steve was called on several times to shoot a roaming cougar or put down an animal that had gotten out of hand from Gatto’s preserve.
It was a typical Friday evening in Kass; a hot and muggy sundown with the absence of the cool night breeze making the air around him stagnant and dry– he choked on it as he was locking up the store door. “I need to get the hell out of here,” he always thought to himself. He turned from the large wooden door and shoved his heavy key ring into his old jacket, and headed down the dark road towards his farmhouse. He walked briskly; killing the 20 minute walk by thinking of all the TV shows that were on that night when suddenly his head whipped around, eyes narrowed and ears honed in on the sound that caused his mind to sharpen.
He stood silently for a minute, convinced the jingling he heard were the plentiful keys in his pocket, the ones shacking him to his life in Kass. His eyes darted around the perimeter of the forest, and swept back over the grass and down the road leading to the small building with the wrapped porch in the distance. He shook his head and continued walking towards it when he heard the noise again. He stopped in his tracks, cracking of twigs and gravel under his shoes echoed in solitude.
When he continued to walk, a feeling made him look towards the edge of the woods, and he could barely make out a white movement that stopped in-between two trees and watched him from over 100 meters away. “A doe? A coyote?” Steve’s head swam with curiosity while his heart hammered in his chest. Why was he so scared? The white mass started to move towards him, followed by a small jingling as Steve was glued to the road, watching the animal come closer to him.
It was a cat - but it wasn’t a regular cat. It trotted up to him causing Steve’s thundering heartbeat to gradually slow, like a wave of calm washed over him. The animal stopped at his feet and looked up, eyebrows seemingly raised as it questioned why he was alone at night – tail casually thumping rhythmically. “Whoah…” The cat was as big as a wolf; it’s legs long and slender, and it’s body was lean and muscled like it had never seen the inside of a house. Its eyes were red and its ears were pointed and large, almost like a horse. A piece of twine was around its neck; 3 antique looking keys hung from it, each a bright red, blue and green.
Steve sidestepped the animal, walking backwards toward his house, and gingerly stepped one foot behind the other as the cat padded along beside him. “Go home! Stop, stop following me!” His efforts were in vain, as the cat lightly stepped down the gravel road in unison with Steve’s footsteps until they reached his house.
A few weeks had passed since Steve found Baron - as he began to call him – and he started to realize what it was like having someone else around. The cat stayed outside the house for the first few days, disappearing at night and returning in the morning to the porch. Gradually Steve started letting Baron inside the house, where he ended up sleeping on the floor of Steve’s bedroom. Baron liked to be touched, and liked to be petted, but whenever Steve reached for the 3 small keys around his neck, Baron would hiss loudly and bolt out of the house into the woods.
One evening Steve was just locking up the shop, making sure the doors were locked as Baron waited outside. Steve started letting Baron inside the shop to mill around, customers astonished and perplexed by the large animal; some of the older men in Kass would claim Baron was a large dog, or wolf mix. Some speculated the animal came from the Gatto house, and was some extinct animal. Steve would laugh this off, but in the back of his mind he always wondered if it were true. When Steve clicked his tongue to call Baron, he animal took off down the road, stopping every few meters to sit on its haunches and thump its tail – waiting.
Baron eventually led Steve to the other end of Kass, near the lake where the Gatto house was. Steve did not want to go near it, it was falling apart and the visible animals present in the fenced yard were enough to stay away from. As Steve approached the house, glowing eyes came through the fence outlining the property. Baron darted up the path and scaled the fence with ease, like he was half his original size, and perched on the top of the fence waiting for Steve. Something told him to follow Baron, as he made his way to the fence to push it open. Chains rattled and Steve jumped back. Shrieks of startled animals cried out into the night, and suddenly stopped as fast as it started. The fence was locked by a bright red padlock.
Baron leaned down from his perch on the fence post, a gleam in his eye as he made eye contact with Steve. He lowered his head, as if bowing, and exposed the dainty keys swinging from the twine around his neck. Steve extended his hands outward slowly, so he wouldn’t startle the cat, only Baron stood steadily as Steve unhooked the red key from its crude knot and slid it into the padlock. The fence creaked open, as he walked inside the property, and made his way up to the front door. Steve was suddenly very aware there were animals not normally found in Kass, including a leopard in a tree, and a buffalo lying on a bed of straw, both eyeing him but saying nothing. With his heart beating, he cautiously stepped to the front door and tried to open it – but was met with a deadbolt. He felt silly for a split second as he checked the lock for a corresponding coloured key, but the lock was a warn brass metal, and Baron was aloof on the porch, not helping.
Steve crept around the porch until he was met with a back door, and it whined softly as it swung open. Dozens of eyes glowing from every room and crevasse watched Steve as he blindly made his way through what appeared to be the kitchen, unaware what he was looking for. The overwhelming feeling of calm was back, and for some reason he was not afraid. He pulled a string to a bare light bulb, and a flash lit up the room. The kitchen was full of creatures which darted out of view as soon as the light was pulled, Steve could only make out fur and tails for a split second, but he felt the eyes watching him. Baron jingled his way through the hall and headed upstairs while Steve followed. “I wonder if Gatto is in the house, or even lives here,” Steve thought, as if the thought never occurred to him. He climbed the stairs after Baron and was faced with three bedrooms, all three of the doors padlocked with coloured locks. Baron glanced at Steve, with his raised eyebrow, and seemed to have a small smirk on his face.
The padlocks in order were blue, orange and green. Steve glanced down at the cat who was sitting beside him and the keys around his neck – there was no orange key. He took the keys off Baron’s neck and tried each key in the orange lock but none would fit. He then fiddled with the green key as he pushed it gently into the green padlock and turned the knob.
It was a bathroom. Steve screwed his eyebrows together and looked around, expecting a room full of mysteries, but instead was greeted with an older 1.5 piece bathroom. The ceramic was old and the wall’s paint was chipped but otherwise the room was normal and devoid of animals. He walked back out and took the last coloured key from Baron’s rope and inserted it into the corresponding blue lock. He pushed the door open and screamed.
The walls of the room were covered in chalk drawings, toys scattered all over the floor, and there in the middle of it, cross legged and playing with a mouse, sat a small boy. The boy’s head whipped around and looked at Steve, startled for a second, then the expression turned jovial.
“You’re here!” the boy stood up and made a show of brushing the dirt from his pant legs, as he scooped the mouse up and put it on his shoulder where it crawled into his hood. Baron walked into the room gracefully towards the boy and sat down, tail thumping side to side as it leaned into the boy’s leg as he scratched the cat.
“Who are you, why are you here?” Steve had millions of questions as his brain tried to piece together what he was seeing. “Do you live here? Did someone lock you in here?”
“Nope!” The boy walked to the window and opened it, showing Steve how he got in. Steve cautiously walked to the window and looked down; a lattice lined the old brick making a perfect ladder up to the second floor window.
Steve used both hands to rub his face, pressing his eyes for a moment before speaking, “Why do you come here, where are your parents?”
“I live with my Nan. I liked the animals so I come to play. There’re also lots of cool toys here too. The animals are really nice, they’re my best friends.” The boy smiled like he wasn’t aware there was a leopard out front.
“Kid,” Steve started, “this is not a safe place for you, and these are uncared for, large wild animals. You could get seriously hurt being here.” Baron trotted over to the window ledge and lay down, casually taking in what was left of the sunlight and the conversation.
“Nu-uh, I care for them. I come by every day to feed them! I lay out straw and fill bowls and sometimes I even brush them when they come close. Nan comes sometimes, but she mostly hates the mice so I get to come by myself.” He beamed as he grasped the mouse from his hood and held it proudly in the palm of his hand towards Steve. “They won’t hurt you, or each other. Nan says they’re a family.” The boy watched Steve for a minute and a hint of a smile spread over his lips. “I bet you wonder what the keys are doing around Winter’s neck, eh?” Baron’s ears pricked up and took note once more.
“That’s what I call him, since he’s as white as snow!”
“Listen, do you know where the key for the orange door is?” Steve shifted his weight to one leg; he was getting tired of the questions he asked coming back with unsatisfying answers. He just wanted to know what was going on.
The kid looked at him puzzled, “You have it.”
Steve held out his hands exposing the three keys: red, blue and green. “I don’t have it, these are the only ones I have, and none of them will fit into the door. Bar-Winter took me here, I’m assuming the keys mean something, but the only door I can’t open is the orange one.”
“I couldn’t find the orange key when I was getting them together. I tied the ones I could find. He told me you already had the orange key.” The boy looked over at Baron strangely.
“Who told you… who told you I had the orange key?”
“The cat spoke to you?” Steve sighed and struggled for the words. “I don’t have it.”
“Cats can’t talk! I had a feeling, kind of like he let me know without talking to me. I put the rest of the keys on the string and figured you’d come by sometime. I don’t really know anything else; I learned to tie the knots from Boy Scouts.” He smiled and leaned up against the window ledge, his golden hair catching the glint from the moon.
Steve ran his hand through his own blonde hair and squeezed his temples as he tried to think this through. “I don’t have any other keys. The keys you tied to Baron’s neck were the only keys I got.” As if on cue, Baron strolled over and raised his head to nuzzle Steve’s hand which was inside his pocket. “Baron, look,” Steve started pulling out the contents of his pocket, “gum, a twist tie,” as he pulled things from his coat, his hand grasped his key ring and he held it out, “and my keys to the store. See? Nothing!” He looked at the boy who was looking into his palm, and his own eyes trailed down to see.
In his outstretched hand laid his key ring. The key ring that bonded him to Kass and to a life he hated. The light from the moon hit the ring and a glint caught Steve’s eye. The ring had several keys on it that belonged to his grandfather; ranging from his store keys, farmhouse keys and miscellaneous others that were just on the ring when funeral director gave them to him. Looking down he saw a small antique key he never noticed before. It was painted orange. His heart began to race as his brain sprinted to put together what was happening. “How did a key to Gatto’s house get on my grandfather’s key ring?” At this point Steve was just talking so his brain wouldn’t go into shock and give him a panic attack.
He stepped out of the room and stood in front of the orange door. Sweat trickled down his face, slipped off his chin and dripped to the floor. He took the orange key and opened the lock, pushing the door as he walked inside. Before his eyes could adjust to the room, Baron slipped past him and jumped onto a table against the wall. The room was large, probably a master bedroom, and mostly empty besides the table and an older bed. A layer of dust caked over the table, making it hard to make out anything that was on it.
Baron had hopped up onto the table, sending an atomic cloud of dust into the air, settling onto his snow-white fur. Steve walked to the table and noticed only three things on it: a ripped piece of paper, a photograph, and an old notebook. Steve picked up and fingered the piece of paper; all that was on it was a phone number scrawled in faded ink. He set it down and picked up the photograph. The boy came up beside him to look.
“That was my grampa,” the boy pointed to the older man in the photograph who had his arms around a teenage boy and a young woman, “and my dad.” The photo was yellowed and curled with a single tack hole on top, like it had been pinned to a bulletin board for years. Steve’s heart leaped and hammered inside his chest. His throat was dry and his skin was clammy and on fire. Steve turned the photograph in his hand exposing sturdy penmanship in black ink: Family – 1962. “I don’t know who that lady is though.”
Steve swallowed hard. “That lady is my mother.”
Over the next hour Steve and the boy sat and went through the notebook, which was more of a journal kept by their grandfather on his animal acquisitions, breeding and observation reports. They learned he was a genetic engineer who worked in a government lab doing DNA experimentation, and more than once he took home the failed experiments. He had a government grant that was used to care for the animals, research, and the cost of keeping them, as well as a city permit allowing him to house the animals on the outskirt of Kass. The journal outlined his research notes, but most of it was equations and terminology that went over Steve’s head.
“This must have been his last research book,” the boy flipped through more of the pages, running his thumb over etched drawings of animals, and stopped at a page. “Hey, look, this is Winter… er, Baron.” Steve took the notebook from him and stood up to look at it under the moonlight through the window. The first page hosted an aged photo of a white animal in a nursery being bottle fed by a woman in a mask, as well as scribbling of height and weight. Steve scanned the pages and saw two words he recognized: Serval and Cougar. He looked down at Baron who was sitting on the floor watching him. Baron was pure white, long ears and a feline face. He wasn’t a large domestic housecat; he was a hybrid of two wild animals. His eyes glanced back to the page and noticed a word circled: albino. Baron was an accident – a failed experiment.
Steve walked over to the torn paper on the desk, after completely forgetting about it. He drew his cell phone from his pocket and dialed the number, not knowing what to expect. The boy stared up at him wide-eyed from his position on the floor, arm draped over Baron. The phone rang twice before a woman picked up. “Uh yes, hello,” Steve began, until the woman interrupted him.
“Auto King Limited, who am I speaking with please?” Steve exchanged looks with the boy, taken aback.
“This is Steve?” He shrugged at the phone while looking at the boy, who was now standing beside him.
“Hi Steve, we didn’t think you would call, we’ve been waiting to hear from you! I’ve faxed the paperwork to your store, and whenever you’re ready you can send it back. I’m confident you will find our offer competitive. I’ve also created an addendum to account for the animals as per your inquiry. Please let us know by next Thursday if you would like to renegotiate the acquisition, we look forward to doing business with you.”
“I’m sorry; can you just explain what you mean? What store? What acquisition?”
“This is Steve Gatto, correct?”
“No I’m sorry, my name is Steve Lume… there must be a mistake.” He glanced at the boy again who looked as though he was in shock.
“Oh right, yes I see that now. There is a note here that Gatto was your mother’s maiden name, my apologizes, Steve Lume yes, sorry again about that. The paperwork is for the acquisition of your automotive store in the town of Kass. We also received your message about the animals, and the addendum added will make sure they are all put into animal preserves as requested.”
“I’m sorry, can I just ask you who you spoke with in regards to all this?” There was a silence on the other end of the phone, as a chair shifted.
“Why, Mr. Lume, we spoke with you.”
2 weeks later the last of the moving trucks had come and left from the farmhouse, and Steve ran his hand over the red sold sign on his lawn. Mark and Cynthia were standing on the driveway packing the last of the suitcases into Steve’s old Ford. Baron sat, tail thumping rhythmically between them, sniffing the air every time Mark took a bite of his Oh Henry bar.
“That’s all of them Steve,” Mark skipped up to him, handing over a bottle of water. “You promised to call when you got there, don’t forget!” Steve ran over to the car to help Cynthia with the suitcase she was struggling with.
“Let me help you with that Cynthia,” Steve scooped the bag up and fit it into the back seat and closed the door. Baron ran up and slipped into the front passenger’s seat, eyes wide and eager to get on the road.
“Now, don’t you be calling me that,” Cynthia tucked a loose strand of silver hair behind her ear as she looked over at Mark licking the melted chocolate off his fingers, “family calls me Nan.” Steve laughed and gently squeezed her shoulder.
“I will call you when I get to the airport, and my flight will be a couple hours so I’ll try to call when I arrive at my new place.” She brushed Steve’s golden hair out of his eyes before kissing him on the cheek. “Mark, come say goodbye to your cousin.” Steve ruffled the same golden hair and waved goodbye as he got into his car.
“Well,” he said aloud as he fiddled for his car keys, “I hope you like Scotland.” Baron looked at him in agreement. He started the engine, and drove down the road, passing the Town of Kass sign for the last time. Out of the corner of his eye he saw what looked to be a buffalo lumber into the woods. Steve laughed as he zoomed past, the red, orange, blue, and green keys jingling from his new, lighter keychain.