Halloween is upon us and to help get you in the haunting spirit, we’re sharing a frightening tale. Check out this scary story about ghost cats living in Eastern State Penitentiary, by local writer Kevin O’Brien.
by Kevin O’Brien
I descend into the wall…I know every inch of this place…the lights ahead are bright and seep in from the ceiling like an ever present force as my eyes are drawn to the end of cell block 3…I stare up at the infinite sky above…so quiet…so alone…I imagined what it might be to live a lifetime under such a small segment of sky…I walk a bit further and see the remains of countless lives…left to rot. I’ve been here before in cell block 3 of Eastern State Pen, but never have I been alone for this long in the daylight. There’s usually dozens of folks on a walking tour…seeing Al Capone’s Cell and hearing the story of the nation’s first “modern” penitentiary. Built in the late 1700’s it is a monolith dead in the center of Philadelphia. They walk and look into each cell…flash their pictures. Listen to the stories of the countless souls that went insane in the prison’s early years…they buy the expensive souvenirs and then they leave thanking heavens that they have never had to be a prisoner in a place like this…they don’t know shit. They most likely live in a prison far worse than this one…and pay dearly for it, I am sure. This prison has been here for generations and although it is no longer used to house inmates it will remain here for generations to come. I almost never get to enjoy the sunlight in peace…without those silly and inept people falling all over themselves to see the horror of prison life. Once a year during Halloween they turn it into a “haunted house”…that goes on into the night…during October I am relegated to the unopened zones.
This place was left to rot for close to two decades…man those were the days. My father was one of the first in here after they closed the joint. It didn’t take long before there were many of us. But now I’m all that’s left. I dart thru and old crawl space and back out into a basement. I can’t smell anybody down here…this space isn’t open to the public…no chance of seeing anybody down here. If it weren’t for the fact that the lazy fuckers that run this joint never empty the trash I’d almost never eat. I scored FOUR TUNA SANDWICHES yesterday…I love the lazy idiots that run this ruin. That tuna will keep me going for a week! Down here the shadows fall in long deep lines that seem to cut the very matter of this stone palace into infinite darkness…down here I see everything. No footsteps to bother me…almost nothing these days. But it wasn’t always like this…there was a time when we lived everywhere…when we ran the joint…now I feel like a ghost in a castle. Back then I got laid twice a day…and fine pussy! I haven’t impregnated a lady in over a week…even then I had to sneak out and getting back in wasn’t easy. I miss the days when we were a nation.
My father was a proud man. He used to saunter around the place; he had more women than yoo could count! I was his fifteenth kid inside the walls…God knows how many he had out in the city. He loved this place as I do, but he loved it and ruled it with the gentle touch of a good father…don’t get me wrong, if anybody got out of line he’d come down like a ton of bricks…yoo wouldn’t even know where from…he was black like me…he lived deep in the void of these shadows. He saw in the pitch black as I do, but thru his eyes this place was a wealth of life. He was an exquisite hunter. He would disappear outside the walls for less than an hour and return with fried chicken, fish, meat of all kinds…I always was amazed at his hunting prowess…it’s the very thing that has kept him in power for so long. I watched him return as I got older and ventured closer and closer to the main gate where if one was brave enough they could squeeze under and face the outside world. I followed my father as he slinked towards the gate. I watch him glide under the opening without losing a step even tho it was quite a small space. I ran to catch up. I peered under the gate to see if I could still watch him but I couldn’t see anything. It wasn’t pitch black but it was foreign and smelled strongly of humans. Then a loud noise rumbled past and scared me back away from the opening…damn the outside seemed dangerous. I slowly crept back towards the opening. More loud and big and fast looking machines past by. In a little over an hour my father had returned with a rat in his mouth. He saw me lying there sleeping by the opening and woke me…
“Hey kid…” He set down the fresh rat carcass and laid his paw in my head, “hey kid…what are ya doing waiting here for me? Yoo know I always come back…are yoo interested in the outside world? Is that it?” I yawned and stretched and licked my ass before answering (according to tradition).
“It seems dangerous out there…I saw the noisy rolling machines…they look scary.”
“Ah, they aren’t that bad…yoo just got to pay attention to them…always watch where they are…always know where yoo need to go…it’s good that yoo want to learn this now, because someday yoo will have to go out there. “
”Why will I have to go?”
“I won’t always be here son. Yoo think yer one of 30 kids because I love kids. No, its cause lots of us die all the time. We die and nobody but us cares. That’s why I want yoo to learn about the outside because I want yoo to be able to survive on yer own if for any reason I should die.” I didn’t understand what he was talking about…not death, but he looks so young and agile I couldn’t imagine why he would die anytime soon.
“I know yoo won’t always be here, but yool be here for a long time to come right?”
He looked at me as I asked this question in a little unhidable distress. He pulled the rat over to where I was sitting. It was almost a third his size. Its mouth was open in supplication and it’s little eyes looked out into the nothing.
“Let’s enjoy some of this before I gotta bring it in to the rest.” This has never happened to me, usually I’m in the third or fourth group that is allowed to feed on something…even then it was only a rare occasion that I got any fresh meat on the bone. I began to salivate while slowly moving towards the rat. My father began chewing on its guts leaving the hind leg for me. His face was nearly inside the animal eating. I pulled at the tender flesh of the hindquarters. Blood filled my mouth. I yanked and pulled at the meat trying to rip a chunk off. In an instance I was thrown thru the sky and I landed on my feet two feet away. I couldn’t even turn to see what happened before my father was on top of me…all the fur on his face was covered in blood. On his whiskers strips of small intestine hung.
I was trapped.
“You need to learn that nothing is certain son…there is no point in this life that we are immune to death or worse…the key to alluding these destinies as long as possible is to be keenly aware of the world around yoo….yer never going to learn that in here…but remember…in here is all we got.” I wiggled free and stood straight looking at my father with suspicious eyes. “Look kid, yoo got nothing to fear from me, I’m just telling yoo that if this nation is ever to live on we must learn to be as keen as our kind in the wild…cause I guarantee yoo that outside those walls is wilder than yoo sometimes think, but it’s where the food is…the food in here is shit…we ate all the rats two years ago…now some of them eat the roaches…a few venture out but most just wait for me…I’m gonna trust yoo to change that. Understand?”
“All right, help me carry this in…yer eating with me, right there in front of everyone…but yoo carry it in with me…this is important…yoo will understand that later.”
“Thanks dad.” This father…how am I so lucky to learn from this man…even tho the outside scared me to death I was going to have to do it sometime…even if it’s just to make the old man happy.
As I grew older and more accustomed to going beyond the walls sometimes with my father and often on my own I saw a world that was as frightening as I had believed it would be as well as more rewarding and plentiful than I’d ever imagined. It was the night after I had arrived in the den with my father and our rat. After that he brought me out with him. The first few times we didn’t go far. There’s a restaurant just past a parking lot…they share an alley with a fast food joint. The dumpsters there are crawling with vermin. I tagged along behind him thru the streets of Philadelphia. We hunted together often. It was much easier to get rats and sometimes birds when there are two. Except in the rare circumstance it was always my father that dealt the deathblow. It was amazing the prowess and respect he had for his prey. He had no anger towards it…this was simply an action that had to be done. Sometimes he wanted to go alone. That didn’t bother me. We were lucky that the restaurants and fast food joints kept piling up the trash…attracting the vermin that we love so dearly. I never had to go to far from the safety of the walls to find good rat. I’d wait under a dumpster over by where the London Grill is. They had new rats every night. All yoo have to do is be patient. My father taught me that. Remember that everything will come to yoo if yoo are patient, the rats couldn’t see worth a damn. Yoo must get them on the first lunge. If not it isn’t worth continuing. He told me not to get into a battle with prey. If something can battle yoo it isn’t prey, it becomes an opponent. These rats have diseases that will wipe us out if were not careful.
I’ve seen others who have been bitten by rats. My father had thrown a cat out of the colony because a rat had bitten him. My father said that he had rabies and he had to go. He chased the injured cat for an hour around the old prison. They wailed at each other, my father was patient. He never actually attacked. He just kept chasing and showing that he in no way was getting tired. He’d pace around the injured cat. Waiting for that second the he can catch it off guard. The young cat was strong and usually fared well beyond the walls. But injured the cat was no match for my father, even as he grew old. Eventually, exhausted and near death the cat weakly limped out thru the small opening under the gate. I found his body in the middle of Poplar Street the following evening. Hit by a car. I never asked my father about it because I knew it was difficult for him to do.
It was the only time anybody had ever admitted being bitten and it was the end of many of the hunters leaving the walls. It was okay tho. My father and I had become so adept at getting prey that we would go out twice and sometimes three times a day. At first we did this because we had the largest pride in the colony so we assumed responsibility for getting food. Our family grew over the years, as did all of the families. Soon it was hard for us to keep up with the demands of food that the colony required. Somehow we kept it up tho. Thru cold winters and car filled summers. I never went to a human tho. My father said that they poison yoo and they can’t be trusted.
He remained agile for many years. He aged gracefully and although his reflexes slowed he was still a great hunter. He always brought home enough food but in the colony there were many new young men who were running and playing all the time. They got larger and stronger every day. They sometimes complained that they didn’t get enough to eat. This wasn’t true. Every now and then my dad would get caught in the play and it would quickly become more vicious. My father could defend himself fine. It wouldn’t be that way for long tho.
One day my father said that he preferred hunting alone. He hadn’t done this in awhile. I knew his hearing was getting worse. A bicycle almost hit him a week earlier. He laughed it off, but I really didn’t think he’d want to hunt alone after that. I agreed and pretended to go on my merry way. I saw him pass the restaurant and up the alley. I stayed close to the prison wall and watched him pass the dumpsters. Up the alley past the trashcans and the loading lock. I followed at a safe distance. I knew he couldn’t hear me, but he was still keenly aware of his surroundings. It wouldn’t be advised to follow him closely. He walked and walked…unlike when he was hunting…he didn’t seem to be looking for prey…he seemed to have a destination. It seemed out of character. I saw him pause. Before he looked back I was behind a parked car’s tire. I had studied him hunt so many times he’d never see me this far away. He moved to cross the street and a car whizzed past him just before he moved. My heart was in my throat. He was frozen in his tracks. He looked left and right and crossed the street. He climbed up onto a trashcan, up onto the stone steps of a building, up onto the rail and over onto a window flowerbox. I had a perfect view of him and his back was towards me. What in the hell was he doing? I heard him meow a few times. The window opened and an old but vibrant human man leaned forward thru the opening. My father bent his head in supplication and a hand reached out and gently petted his head. I was overwhelmed with confusion. The old man disappeared for a moment and returned with a bowl of milk and another bowl filled with cat food from a can. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. My father had his head buried in his bowls of food so I crept out from the street corner onto the street opposite my feasting father. The human saw me and made a sound and gestured towards me. I froze. My father’s face looked up from his bowls of food and saw me looking up at him from across the street. His face was this time not anything like the bloody face of my youth. He was now covered in milk and fat. I turned and walked as quickly back to the safety of the colony.
Before I had made it back to the relative safety of the prison walls my father had overtaken me. He was waiting ahead of me near the prison’s gate. He had tried to wipe the milk from his mouth but there was still some near the corners of his face. I looked at him from the opposite side of the street. There we stood like statues. Neither of us wanted our world to change, but change was inevitable. His eyes seemed much more tired now. I could no longer see the young man that fed a colony of dozens, which has grown to over a hundred…now I only saw an old man who was getting older. I slowly approached him. No matter what he was my father and I do love him, but it was hard for me to not be angry with him.
“Yoo told me never to trust the humans…so what has changed?” I tried my best to hold back my emotions, to be the man that he raised me to be…but what did that even mean anymore?
“This one is different…yoo don’t understand son.” My father’s voice had even slipped into an elderly decrepit sound.
“Yes father, yoo are right, I don’t understand. Yoo told me one thing and then yoo turn around and do another.” I was getting angrier.
“Things change son, one must do what he has to in order to survive. Feeding over a hundred mouths has taken its toll on me. The food that the human gives me keeps me strong and allows me to give all the food I catch to the colony.” I thot about what he was saying and it was true; I had noticed that he wouldn’t feast before the rest anymore. He would come in, drop the prey and allow the others to attack it as they wished. I was distracted by the other cats’ gluttony so I failed to notice that my father hadn’t been eating for weeks.
“How did yoo know to trust this one? How did yoo know that he wasn’t going to kill yoo?”
“He’s lived there for years son. I’d made friends with some of the house cats that he has. He’s got some fine feline pussy in that shithole pad son. We’d talk thru the screen window and eventually I came to meet their owner. He’s the only human that was ever able to sneak up on me. When he first gave me food I was wary, but when his cats began to eat it I could hardly pass up a fresh bowl of milk….if yoo would like I can introduce yoo.” I didn’t know yet, things were changing to fast.
“Father, I need to think…I’m going hunting…alone.” I walked slowly down the sidewalk with my heart pulling in more directions than I had ever felt. It seemed as if everything had changed, but at the same time I couldn’t help but empathize with my father who had been such a good leader for the colony for so long…it seemed as if he had only had the colony first and foremost in his mind…but none the less…a human?!? A few years back my father and I had watched as a car ran over an injured friend of ours. When the human stopped and got out of his car. I began to run towards our fallen comrade. My father stopped me.
“There’s nothing we can do for him now…hopefully this man has a heart.” Instead of picking the injured cat up, he kicked it a few times…I was guessing that this was to finish it off but it was merely as an affirmation that he didn’t care at all for this cat. The cat wailed one last time as the car drove off. That night my father and I had hunted in complete silence. From that night on I regarded the humans as heartless creatures…selfish and nihilistic, to be apart from them is to be a step above…more divine. And now I watch as my father laps up the milk handed to him from the killers’ fridge…kept nice and cold…how could he? The world seemed to be such a larger and emptier place so suddenly. As my mind went around and around in it’s dizzying array of thots and counterthots I didn’t realize but I was walking indirectly back to the very spot where I had seen my father with the human. I skulked down the sidewalk with my eyes straight ahead when suddenly I heard a noise that snapped me right back into reality.
“Pssst pssst pssst.” It was the same noise that the human used to try to lure me. I looked up and there he was. Sitting in his window. He had a grey tabby on his lap, it was fat and content, he was fat and content, the both of them looked like a beautifully neutered picture of bliss without feeling. The human greeted me toward the window. I stared up without moving. I wasn’t afraid of this human. I looked at him nothing like my father had. I cannot rid myself of the contempt I feel towards him. I approached slowly. I was beginning to spook his pretty little house cat. I could see the fur on the back of her neck rise. I could see the fear in her eyes. She could see the killer in me. She could see that I wouldn’t roll over for some bullshit. As I got within a few feet of them she clamored out of his arms and ran into the depths of their home. I looked up at him and said,
“I am free. Yoo are a slave. My home is much larger and much more loving than yours is. I wish that yoo weren’t a part of my life.” Of course he couldn’t understand me at all. I peered towards the bowl of milk. It did look good. I decided that I might as well take a quick drink. When I lapped some of the milk, filled with nutrients and flavor I felt the calculating touch of human fingers on my neck.
“Oh, yoo are such a pretty man, yoo look just like yer father…” the human softly said as he pet me. In less than a second I had turned and slashed a long gouge down the humans wrist and in the chaos knocked the bowl off the windowsill and it smashed on the sidewalk. I jumped from the window as the human retracted his arm in pain. I darted across the street almost getting hit in doing so. I looked back from the alley entrance and saw the human grasping his bleeding wrist looking at me. I walked into the alley without looking back. I headed towards the familiar dumpsters of home.
It didn’t take long before I had killed three rats. I was feeling stronger than ever. Soon I would be the one that the colony depended upon for their food. I would prove myself worthy by catching more food by myself than the colony had ever seen one man bring home. My father would be proud and he wouldn’t have to lower himself to taking from the hands of humans. I had more food than I could carry. I had to bring it back in two trips. As I squeezed below the door I looked around me and saw the human. He was across the street watching me. I thot little of it. We were safe within our fortress. My father, and now myself turned this home that had been a place of confinement and horror by so many humans, into a NATION. We helped one and other. We lived hard but lived by the truth.
I had been greeted as a great warrior. My father was so proud of me. I allowed him to eat before the rest. He didn’t have much, just the little he needed. I felt like I had the power of ten thousand cats. I felt the surge that responsibility and prowess give. I wore the mantel of the new leader of this colony and I felt more than up to the job. It was my fault that my father had ever had to go to the humans. I should have taken the lead months if not years ago. I would make sure that everyone was well taken care of now.
The very next morning I was woken by a loud noise that I had never heard before. I darted towards the direction of the noise like a centurion called to battle. I darted down the corridors beginning to wake up in the morning light. I pass the broken cell doors hanging on rusted hinges, the smashed windows, the caving in ceilings. The sound repeated a few times and then just in time I arrived at the front gate to see it open ever so slightly. Light poured in from the edges of the door that hadn’t opened in twenty years. There was the human. He stood there with a number of other humans. They spoke with each other rapidly. They walked into our space…their heavy footsteps echoed thru our fortress. I watched as they walked thru and into the main courtyard. The human that had fed my father put a large bag that he carried on his shoulder down to the ground and emptied it. Inside there were four large steel bowls. Into two bowls he poured food and into two he poured water. All hundred of us watched in amazement as he did this and then left as unceremoniously as he came, taking his friends with him.
The colony came pouring out of each crack and crevice to the food. Yoo would think that they had never eaten before. They went wild for it. This right after I had brought them the feast of a lifetime. The humans came back day after day, continually replenishing the food. I never partook. My father didn’t either, but my father still visited the window. The colony was growing yet again due to its being well fed. Most of the cats soon lost fear of the humans. They would come up to them as they left the food. They would rub against their legs waiting for food like infants. It disgusted me to see. I watched my colony get lazy… I had taken to hunting alone. As the weeks passed and the colony required my food less and less I stayed away longer. I sat under the green dumpster. My father who rarely left the walls of the prison now crawled out from under the gate. He looked across the road at me. He knew where I was. His gaze was fixed upon me although I knew that there was no way he could see me, his eyes had lost the far sight months and months ago…before the humans started visiting. He slowly walked towards me. The face he wore was one of resignation. I wasn’t sure at all what he was doing. He paused in the road. A Coca Cola truck was bearing down on him. He stood still…he stared at the truck as it approached. I could hear his words echo in my head, “Always know where they are and where yoo have to go.”. I came out from below my dumpster and cried out for his attention. He slowly looked back at me …his clouded eyes linked directly towards mine. The truck hit him with such force it killed him instantly. Two or three cars that had behind the truck ran him over as well…the job was done and done well. It was an inauspicious ending for a man who had cared for hundreds. I picked up my rat and darted back into the darkness of the alley.
Then one day the humans began taking the cats away. They brought cages and took them only to bring them back a few weeks later, but different. The females weren’t interested in sex anymore. And the men had no balls. The food kept appearing every day. I kept to myself and watched the neutered colony slowly die off. They ate and ate. No more children came from us. I had no sons of my own to teach how to care for the colony. As the cats began to disappear more and more humans came. They cleaned up the vast halls. They hung placards and signs explaining the variety of uses this prison had…about the prisoners who had once lived here. They set up a gift shop and they began charging admission. Recently they actually had an art exhibit here…imagine that! It was called “Ghost cats” they put plaster of paris cats all over the grounds of the prison. It made me both laugh and cry. Now it is only I that live here among the ghosts, both real and plaster. I still hunt here and there, but with all the trash these humans leave around it is easy to live without hunting. I miss the old days. The old man was right…nothing is certain…no matter how strong something seems there is always a weakness…an illusionary aspect…everything changes, always.
I hear a tour coming closer. I scurry into the darkness’s ever-loving arms and wait for the next change to come.