The Challenge Master

[Prompt: You poked the cat. ]

     Gary, the self proclaimed Challenge Master, stared anxiously at the new trial before him. He had a long list of accomplishments under his small belt. ‘Don’t climb the tree’ had bagged him the neighborhood record for highest branch reached at the park. ‘Don’t swim in the canal’ produced his pet frog, Pete, who now assisted Gary in grossing out girls. ‘Don’t play in the dryer’ ended up revealing the perfect spot for hide and seek, Janice hadn’t managed to find him yet that summer. 
     ‘Don’t play on Mr. Murphy’s grass’ had probably been the most difficult test so far. Gary gained accomplishment by organizing a neighborhood game of flashlight tag after dark. No one had been caught, the cover of night lending to a quick retreat when Mr. Murphy turned on his sprinklers. Gary’s reputation had spread to the next neighborhood after the that. One might assume the notoriety was going to the young boys head, and they would be right on target.

     Gary knew he couldn’t continue with run-of-the-mill tasks if he wanted to remain alpha of his neighborhood. The playground at the park revealed whispers of a new reputation building, that of the mysterious Billy Thompson. Billy had already made it to the branch just below Gary’s in the tree. There were rumors that soon, Billy would be the new Challenge Master. Gary didn’t know Billy personally, all he knew about the boy was that his family had moved to the neighborhood at the start of the summer. Supposedly Billy had been at camp for most of the break, but upon his return he’d been encroaching on Gary’s reputation. They had yet to meet formally, but Gary had already convinced himself he could best Billy in any situation. But he needed to prove it to the rest of the neighborhood. And that is why he found himself standing outside Mrs. Hammond’s yard. 
     Mrs. Hammond was a widow. Although Gary wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, he knew crossing Mrs. Hammond was a very bad thing. Gary had weighed the consequences carefully, but regardless of Mrs. Hammond’s meaningless title, he’d reached the conclusion that the ultimate challenge resided in her yard. 
     The dilapidated yellow house was in need of various repairs. The siding hung crooked in areas, paint was peeling, and every screen on the building needed replaced. The disrepair was invisible to Gary, his young life has never known it to be any other way. A stranger might have felt uneasy approaching the overgrown yard, but for Gary, it wasn’t a big deal.
     As Gary stood at the neglected picket fence, his eyes skimmed the yard, searching for his target. He purposely skipped his sight past the familiar sign posted in the middle of the yard. But his attempts to ignore the handmade sign fueled his need to read it for the thousandth time.
     Don’t poke the cats!
     The deeper parts of Gary’s mind rationalized that Mrs. Hammond’s sign was to blame. It was a blatant challenge that screamed for his attention every time he rode his bike down the street. For three years Gary had respected the sign and the multiple cats that were always grooming themselves on the porch. Gary preferred dogs, after all. But now the sign was like a neon light drawing a moth to the glow. Gary knew he was the only kid in the neighborhood that would dare to defy the proclamation. This was his chance to secure the title of Challenge Master for good.

     Gary glanced at the front porch. There was no sign of Mrs. Hammond in her rocking chair. Six possible targets lounged around the large porch, though. All the cats appeared fat and lazy to Gary, further validation in the ease of the task ahead. Rubbing his hands together, he glanced around before hopping over the fence and then dropping to his belly in the tall grass. 
    Gary poked his head up above the grass to survey the situation. Six pairs of curious eyes stared at him from the porch. He quickly ducked his head back into the safety of the blades and waited, hoping they would forget about him and go back to grooming. After three minutes, Gary couldn’t hold still any longer, so he began to inch his way in the direction of the porch, dragging his body across the ground to stay hidden. The house loomed above him, he figured he was near the porch so he raised his head hesitantly. 
     The growling met Gary’s ears before his eyes cleared the grass. Gary was about two feet from the edge of the porch, and he found himself staring into the menacing green eyes of a large, orange cat. The cat’s ears were turned backwards and it’s tail twitched from side to side. Gary was surprised at the deep sound the relatively small creature was emitting. He swallowed nervously, keeping his eyes on the cat, he raised up to sit on his knees so he was about level with the cat. The cat didn’t budge, but it wearily watched every move Gary made.
     “Here Kitty,” Gary said softly, lifting his hand out in front of his chest to test the cat’s reaction.
     The cat shifted its weight from side to side and its tail began to twitch faster, the growl morphed into a an angry yowl. Gary’s eyes flickered to the front door, but it remained closed, no movement from within that he could see. He let out a sigh of relief and turned his attention back to the cat.
     But the cat was gone. Gary looked down the porch, eager to find his object of interest. He turned his head from left to right and craned his neck forward to get a better view. The back of his neck tingled and Gary gave a yelp of distress, jerking his head and hitting it against the porch rails in the process. Groaning, he reached to the back of his neck and felt something fuzzy. As Gary quickly maneuvered away, he fell backwards onto his bottom. He looked up to see the orange cat sitting atop the railing. It’s tail hung down, still twitching, but the growling had subsided. The cat’s ears were now perked forward, the cheshire grin apparently amused at Gary’s reaction to the brush of it’s tail against his neck. 
     Gary let out his own growl as he angrily composed himself, standing to stare levelly at the cat once more. The cat continued to smile, it’s curious green eyes watching intently. Gary smirked at the ball of fur, and with a swift movement of his arm, he raised his hand and poked the cat on top of the head. At least that’s what he intended to do. 
     When Gary’s hand was within reach of the cat, a paw struck out and scratched Gary’s hand, leaving three perfectly straight lines of evidence. The cat hissed loudly after contact and then jumped down, skittering across the porch and darting underneath a couch.
     Gary grabbed his hand and shielded it against his body reflexly. Looking down, he examined the battle wound. The scratches weren’t too deep, although they’d broken the skin and there was minimal blood, he wouldn’t have a permanent scar. Scowling, he looked at the couch and then threw his uninjured hand into the air, celebrating his success.
     But as his hand reached its apex, the growling began again. Gary pulled his hand down and looked about. Five sets of eyes peered out of the grass, each set rumbling angrily. Gary’s sight jumped from one heckled raised cat to the other, concerned for his immediate safety. Letting out a yell, he ran through the tall grass towards the fence. He could hear the cats behind him, their spits and yowls proof of their serious threat. Gary darted over the top of the fence, his foot caught and he rolled to his hands and knees as he landed hard against the sidewalk on the other side. 
     He looked back over his shoulder to see the cats retreating to the porch once more, the big orange one sneered at him from his new perch on the steps. Gary stuck his tongue out at the orange cat and then got to his feet and brushed himself off. He looked down at the scratch marks and smiled to himself. He had proof of the cat poking encounter. There was no question he was the Challenge Master.


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