Disclaimer - unfortunately, as much as I would love to, I don't own cute little Nermal or anything out of the Garfield world.
Author - Midwich Cuckoo
Beta - Moviemom44
Author's note: Lyman was Jon's friend who disappeared from the comic strips in 1983. The creator of the Garfield strips, Jim Davies, when asked what really happened to Lyman, replied jokingly: "Don't look in Jon's basement". Which I did, not following his advice. And this is the result:
Nermal lay in the bed he inherited from Garfield, taking great delight in the fact that he was eating from the bowl that also used to belong to the orange lasagna lover. The bowl and the bed were situated in such a way that Nermal didn't even have to rise from one to partake of the other, just as they had been when their previous owner lived here. For a moment, a hope flashed through the mind of the grey kitten that Jon would buy him a new bowl, one adapted for his much smaller size. Devouring too much food could destroy his fine figure, thus also sinking his chances for keeping forever the informal title of 'the cutest kitten in the world', in which Nermal took great pride. If he did get a smaller food bowl, the old, gigantic one might make a good swimming pool--without water, of course; cats hate being wet--in which the kitten could spend hours luxuriating in blissful laziness, almost as though the spirit of the previous owner hovered there still, taking possession over the kitten's body.
What else could a cat need to wallow in happiness? A cozy bed and the fridge filled with treats that Jon willingly pulled out and put into the bowl at the mere suggestion of a 'meow' coming out of the kitten's mouth. In Garfield's time, the fridge was filled with lasagna, which the orange king of feline obesity loved so much. But now that calorie-laden dish had been replaced by health kitty snacks which were much more suitable for the cat whose life aim was to have his fur always glistening and his body thin, without a single gram of fat on it. Ah, heaven on earth.
Yes, this life was beautiful, the embodiment of the good life of a cat's dreams. It was like some benign cat god had their paw in his pie. Perhaps Bastet herself had mercifully blessed Nermal with the gift of being a midget, thus letting him preserve his kitten charm forever, making him the embodied spirit of kitty cuteness. And then there was Garfield's mysterious disappearance three months ago that resulted in Nermal being taken from Jon's parents' family farm and sent to Jon's home to replace the orange king of kitty obesity in an attempt to comfort their son and brother. Garfield's disappearance couldn't be explained by his simply running away; the cat was too used to his comfortable life with a guaranteed supply of lasagna to ever want to exchange the joys of the comfortable house for the hardships of life as a stray cat. Something bad--really bad-- had to have happened. Nermal felt bad for his older friend--well, his sadness was real, but weak and not long-lasting--but he was still grateful that fate had brought him here. He was definitely fed up with associating with those stupid farm animals--Booker, Bo, Lanoline and the rest of those primitive farm savages--who all lacked the necessary sophistication to appreciate his beauty. Now Nermal could warm himself in the warmth of the cozy house and in the warmth of the praises of all Jon's acquaintances who saw him.
Not that there were that many of them. Jon Arbuckle absolutely didn't lead the most vivacious social life. But those few friends of his who had the chance to become familiar with his newest pet were soon conquered by the innocent charm of the self-appointed cutest kitten in the world. Like Mrs. Feeny, Jon's neighbor who went into raptures over Arbuckle's new cat who was so well-mannered and, unlike Garfield, would never even think of destroying her garden. Nermal wondered lazily if Garfield's disappearance might not be related to the attacks he launched on Mrs. Feeny's plants, but after musing over this issue for a moment, he decided he didn't care even if that was the case.
What he did care about was the muffled noises he heard coming from the basement. He could hear them from time to time, especially at night when the silence made them spread out even more. Remote thudding, as if something--or someone--was beating something, like in an attempt to get out. This was, of course, Nermal's overactive imagination; nothing like that could happen, although he did have to admit those noises were annoying, especially when he was trying to sleep. He and Odie, both possessing much sharper hearing than humans, could hear it, although Jon didn't seem able to. He never reacted to the noise.
The sound of muffled thudding, very distant but still audible to acute cat ears, was coming from the basement just now. The last five minutes were spent to the accompaniment of the distant sounds that seemed to come from underground. Nobody endowed with less acute hearing could have heard it, but Nermal was able to catch the distant vibrations approaching his ears. Whatever it was, it was disturbing him, so after a few minutes, he decided to go check it out. He straightened himself up, stood up and stepped out of the bed, making his way toward the door leading to the basement. It was time to solve the riddle.
The stairs leading to the basement were cold and slithery and the kitten's small paws slipped on them a couple of times. The door was ajar, leaving just a little fissure which the tiny grey body of a midget cat could push through. Jon must have forgotten to close it before he went out for one of those dates which always ended up a complete failure, leaving Nermal alone in the house. Odie was actually at home, too--his barking could be heard from the garden--but stupid as he was, the dog was not perceived by the cat as 'company'. What could such a drooling idiot whose favorite amusement was endless attempts to catch his own tail have to do with someone like him? The darkness that surrounded Nermal when he started to climb down the steps was unpleasant, a bit like being swallowed by a huge monster with its breath smelling of mustiness. The kitten felt the first sting of uneasiness, but boldly fought the feeling, refusing to admit it even to himself. It was just a basement, your average run-of-the-mill, cold, rundown basement and the biggest secret it could ever possibly hide from the world was probably Jon's forgotten collection of polka records or something like that, something safe and not threatening to anyone in any way, unnoticed by the vigilant eyes of others.
Nothing could have prepared the kitten for the sight that spread out before his eyes when they had adjusted to the darkness filling the room. The inside of the basement did look like all basements in the world--old pieces of furniture too worn out to be kept in the living areas but still good enough, or perhaps with too much sentimental value, not to be tossed in the dump--small jars filled with preserves--everything just as one would expect from an ordinary suburban house basement. But there was one additional element that was so unexpected in such an environment that for a short moment Nermal blinked, thinking his own imagination was playing tricks on him. Even his long, beautiful eyelashes couldn't shield him from the sight. His eyes widened and even the vain kitten, had he been able to see himself in a mirror just then, would have rejected the idea that his big eyes were beautiful. It was such a frivolous notion, under the circumstances. The image that made them go wide with fear refused to disappear no matter how much Nermal tried to make it do so by winking and blinking. It just stayed right where it was--the darkest secret of Jon's basement. Now Nermal knew what caused the noises.
It was a man--a thin, extremely emaciated man--tied with ropes to a mattress he was lying on. His bindings were tight enough to limit him to weak, small movements of his head and limbs. Speaking appeared to be impossible for him, because even though he was opening his mouth, no sound was getting out, other than a weak whisper resembling the rustling of autumn leaves. A wide, red scar across his throat seemed to have something to do with it. The man's long, tangled, brown beard and long, wavy hair, darker than the beard, looked like they hadn't seen shampoo for a couple of months. The prisoner was dirty, reeking of body odor that hadn't been washed off in months. The odor of urine was also present in the room. The sleeves of his shirt--if one could call the worn out rag that was nearly falling off of him a shirt--were pulled up to reveal skinny hands covered with numerous bruises, some, judging by their color, were fresh while others were old. A warm blanket was pulled up to his chest, protecting him from the cold of the basement and providing ironic evidence of concern for the prisoner's well-being. Some food items were lying around the edge of the mattress but the incarcerated man's tied hands wouldn't let him reach them. Someone must have gone down there to feed him or let his hands free so that he could feed himself, otherwise he would have been dead long before the kitten discovered him. Nermal suddenly knew who that caretaker had to be. In a flash of enlightenment--there was no chance he could be wrong about this--he knew that there could be only one person who could be caring--if it could be described as such--for this man. And it must have been the same person who put him in here. Nermal knew who it was, although the identity of the man lying on the dirty mattress remained a secret, still hidden from him.
He couldn't do anything with the knowledge though--he was only a cat--but he came nearer to the man to take a better look. The grey kitten approached the prisoner, letting out an almost inaudible purr, partly to calm the man down and partly to cheer himself up, reassuring himself that everything was going to be OK. It had to be. After all, what could he have to do with this man in rags being kept prisoner here, who was now looking at him with a strange look on his face, an odd mixture of hope, sadness and disappointment that the first living being (apart from his tormentor) he saw here--maybe even after years of being locked in here and tied down unable to move--was just a cat sitting on his chest now and purring, staring at him with big innocent eyes, unable to help him in any way.
The mouth of the man in rags opened one more time, but the only sound that came out was the tiniest whisper, not much stronger than the most delicate breath of wind:
He spoke with visible effort. Speaking loud enough to be heard seemed to be painful for him because he had to recover before he spat out his next words.
"I thought you were him--", he started in his thin, reedy voice. His bloodshot eyes, sunken deep in their sockets, were filled with tears. He must have cried recently because tear tracks grooved clean paths on his dirty cheeks. The flesh showing there was much lighter since his skin, not having seen the sun for a long time, was deathly pale.
"I thought it was him and it's just a frigging ordinary cat," he repeated to himself, closing his eyes. From under his eyelids, two silent tears trickled down his face. The next minute, during which the man desperately tried not to burst into hysterical tears by taking fast, spasmodic breaths, was the longest minute of the kitten's life. He sat calmly on the man's chest. He ceased purring, sensing it wasn't the time for such a display of tenderness. He wasn't offended at being called 'an ordinary cat'; as vain and haughty as he was, he still understood this wasn't a good time to expect this stranger to praise the cuteness he was always so proud of.
"Maybe I'm crazy to talk to you like you understand me, kitty," the man tied to the mattress mumbled as he looked at the pet still sitting on him and staring at him, "but it's not like anybody could hear me here. It's good to see someone's face, even if it's just an animal's muzzle." The man smiled slightly. "Someone else's face besides his"--he quickly corrected himself, the hurried tone of the correction striking a discordant note within the monotone of complete hopelessness that returned to his voice once he'd recovered from his initial hope that the first living creature other than his tormentor to see him was someone who had arrived to help him and not just a mere animal as he now realized it was.
"You are Jon's new pet, aren't you?" Nermal couldn't reply, but he let out a short, confirming 'meow', still looking into the eyes of the man under him. The man let out a short humorless chuckle that reverberated in the dark basement. "Yes, you must be. After what happened to Garfield..." The imprisoned man swallowed with great effort, causing the red scar on his neck to move. He concentrated completely on the small cat towering over him like some feline monster waiting to sink its teeth into his face. The time spent in Jon's basement in this pathetic condition must have taught the man distrust toward others, even if those 'others' were just innocent looking home pets.
"You are Jon's new cat. I am Lyman. Lyman, kitty. Jon's friend. Jon isn't such a wimpy dork who wouldn't hurt a fly, you know, kitty? I bet he strokes you and gives you Whiskas or whatever it is you like. But he isn't a nice person. No, not a nice owner for the nice kitty. He has an inferiority complex. No wonder--he's just a loser. Jon Arbuckle--the king of losers. He hates it, of course, and he wants to forget about this by being very manly. And this is what our Johnny boy imagines as being manly; torturing an innocent man who can't even defend himself. I thought he was my best friend. Until one day he gave me those sleeping pills and imprisoned me here. I can't call for help. He cut my throat...my vocal chords are almost completely severed."
The man who once was Jon's best friend fell silent. Speaking overtaxed his strength. The man and the cat looked at each other in silence. Nermal knew he should leave the basement and return to his cozy bed, to the warmth of the house upstairs, but he just couldn't. Something kept him in this place, like invisible glue held him fast to the man who revealed the horrible truth about Jon Arbuckle to him. He looked down at Lyman who just lay there with silent tears seeping from his eyes again, pouring down and vanishing in the bushy strands of his long beard. His lips moved, he seemed to be trying to say something, but his damaged vocal chords lacked the strength. The kitten pricked up his ears, trying to catch his words with his acute sense of hearing.
"Jon is a psycho, as crazy as a hare but nobody knows," mumbled the man in a voice just barely above a mere whisper. He was speaking to himself and to the kitten as well. "He's like Albert Fish, John Gacy or Ed Gein. Nobody would have thought they were killers. No, Jon isn't a killer; he's too weak for that. Just a loser. But I begged him for death many times, kitty. Many, many times." He coughed. "Every time he fails at something--like a date--he comes here to torture me. I thought he was my best friend," he repeated. "But he's a bad man. Bad for his friends, human and animal alike. He killed Garfield. I saw this myself. He crushed his head on the doorstep. He told me later he found it funny to pretend that he just disappeared and that he was very sad about it. He laughed like crazy when he told me about it. This poor animal found me here and that's why he had to die. Jon forgot to close the door to the basement. He's careless, but then again, why shouldn't he be? I can barely speak. Jon apparently thought Garfield--an animal--could somehow tell others about what he found. He must be crazy. Yes, I must be crazy, too, talking to a cat, but who cares..."
The man tied to the dirty urine-scented mattress suddenly stopped speaking, but this time it wasn't because of the effort of using his cruelly damaged vocal chords. In Nermal's head there danced a vision of Jon cutting Lyman's throat with a knife to prevent his once best friend from calling for help. The kitten tried to shake it off, but it was too vivid and he was unable to get rid of the mental picture. He knew he'd never be rid of it, even if he came back upstairs and pretended he'd never heard any mysterious noises from the basement and that Jon was just a harmless dork still mourning for his fat orange cat which disappeared without a trace. There was no way to let others know about the mystery of Jon's basement--he was only a cat, after all. He was a cat who couldn't do anything to liberate Lyman who had spent who knew how long down here and who now was pricking up his ears to catch some distant noises coming from near the basement door. Those noises--which Nermal even with his acute sense of hearing didn't catch because he was so fascinated with Lyman's story he was concentrating completely on the man on the mattress--could mean only one thing: someone was coming down the stairs. Lyman let out a tiny moan of fear, a look of pure panic appearing on his emaciated face. He was well used to this routine. Nermal jumped off of the man's thin chest and froze stiff on the ground, not knowing where he should go. There wasn't much in the way of hiding space. Jon--because it couldn't be anyone else--would find him instantly. And then...maybe a couple of days later some of his friends would propose a new pet to Mr. Arbuckle, visibly out of sorts after the loss of his second cat in such a short time.
The steps were coming closer, the sound getting louder and louder, resonating in the basement. Certainly Jon failed again at his newest date or was dumped by his latest girlfriend and decided to come back home earlier than Nermal expected and spend some quality time with his once best friend Lyman, venting his frustration and his long-hidden sadistic instincts on his prisoner. Nermal looked around in desperation at the old furniture and other items filling the basement. There was junk everywhere, but nothing that would provide a good hiding place for him, even as tiny as he was. In a last rush of hope, the kitten ran to the corner, flattening himself on the floor near a big, empty jar that the label indicated had once held pickles. If Jon didn't turn the light on--there was a lonely lightbulb hanging from the ceiling--he had a chance. A small one, but still he might manage to flit on his short but fast legs past Jon while he was busy with Lyman and make his way to the fissure in the door...if Jon didn't close it, which seemed the most obvious choice. The kitten's heart was beating in an insane rhythm as he lay there, waiting for the proper moment to get away from the basement and its horrible secret and back to his comfortable bed of cozy softness that he would lie in and try to drown out the thoughts about the secret of Jon Arbuckle's real self that nobody ever suspected. Only a couple more minutes at best--perhaps when he took to doing to poor Lyman whatever he typically did to relieve the tension caused by his being a loser who failed at everything--then maybe he'd have a chance to run away...
The steps on the cold cement floor got louder. Another moment and Jon was in. His face, which when in the presence of others revealed nothing of the darkness of his soul, but rather could be called the face of a sympathetic loser, was now tense and although he didn't say anything, his clenched teeth and unmoving eyes fixed on Lyman said everything. Nermal, scared as he was, could see his expression in the glow of the lightbulb, which, as he feared, his owner had turned on. He knew his chances of escape were slim. When Jon came closer to Lyman, he kicked him in his stomach, a sort of sick foreplay in his sadistic game which might last who knew how long. Lyman whimpered in pain and started to whisper something in an imploring voice which the kitten didn't listen to as he was concentrating on his own goal; he thought this was his chance. He dashed out, trying to run as silently as possible on his soft legs covered with delicate fluffy fur. Jon couldn't have heard him. Could he?
The crazy man turned away from his victim and looked at the kitten. His pupils dilated dangerously. In his sick mind, he perceived the kitten as the enemy who must be dealt with here and now, before he could tell others about what he saw. He took a couple of steps toward the kitten who tried to run away to avoid his fate, but Jon was much faster. The poor cat desperately tried to search for a way out, but Jon barricaded the path to the stairs and the freedom the cat in the trap sought so fervently. The basement was small. Jon knew the cat and mouse play couldn't last for long. So did Nermal...
Two weeks later...
Mom Arbuckle hung up the phone and let out a weary sigh, discretely wiping a tear with the tip of her finger. Poor little Nermal. She spent so much time with the kitten and didn't suppose she would ever get attached to any pet as much as she had to him. Other farm animals were just that--farm animals, no more, no less. With a heavy heart, she had given her pet to her son in the hope that it would help him shake off the sadness after his previous cat, Garfield, had run away and probably died--the fat orange cat would never have set out on such a long trip on his own, giving up all the conveniences of life in a house with his owner. He just disappeared one day, the same way that years ago Jon's best friend Lyman vanished without a trace. Police never found him. First Garfield and now Nermal. Jon told her Nermal had run away two weeks earlier and showed no sign that he was ever coming back. Too much time had passed and no one had seen him. Mom Arbuckle didn't know what happened to poor Nermal, the cute kitten she liked so much. She thought neither she nor her irresponsible son--who could have been more careful when it came to his pets--would ever find out what happened to Garfield and Nermal. There was no way she could find out. Indeed, if Jon could have heard her thoughts he'd have agreed with her. Nobody would ever find out. Jon Arbuckle's basement kept its sinister secrets well.