Nick did warn me. He said that once I stepped inside, the world I once knew would be gone. I didn’t believe him…until it actually happened.
About a month after I moved back to California, my old friend Nick thought it would be a good idea for me to get out and- as he put it- let loose. See, my dad got a new job out in Michigan when I was ten and I had to leave behind everyone and everything I ever knew. It was already hard enough being the new kid once, but to be one again your senior year of high school was even harder.
Thanks to dad’s promotion, my family and I moved right back to the little unknown city of Placentia right here in sunny California. Luckily, Nick and I kept in touch over the years, so he and his girlfriend Karissa were able to help me make a smooth transition back in. Still, it was hard trying to fit in with my other classmates, especially since I was gone for so long.
And so there we were- Friday night, out past ten- standing in front of a little café in Anaheim called Alleyway Café.
“I don’t remember this place when we were kids,” I said.
“That’s because they built it about three years ago,” Nick explained. The two small bags he was holding caught my eye again.
I asked him on the way over there why he had them with him and all he said was that I would find out when we got there. I decided to hold off asking him about the bags again for a bit longer because there was something else that was bothering me.
I was confused why Nick brought me to a café that was already closed for the night. “And we’re here after hours because??”
“Just wait and see. It’ll all make sense in just a sec.” Nick then started walking around the building and headed towards the back. I followed him, but was stopped abruptly when he shoved one of the bags into my chest. “Here, put these on.”
“What are they?” I asked.
“Just put them on,” was all he said.
I looked inside and saw a black mask as well as a black fedora…with cat ears on it. “Uh Nick, what are these??”
He answered, “They go with your costume.”
“Costume?? What do you mean cos-” I stopped when I saw what Nick pulled out of his bag.
First, it was an orange mask, then a top hat with fox ears. He took off his baggy jacket and revealed how slick he was actually dressed. With the hat now on his head and the mask on his face, Nick looked like a fancy human-fox hybrid you would see in fan art or those anime shows.
“What the heck, Nick?! When you said to wear something semi-formal and easy to dance in, I thought that meant we were going to a party, not joining a cult!” I exclaimed, standing there feeling like an idiot.
While he was over there being Mr. Fancy Pants, I was in a black vest that was worn over my white grandad collar shirt, had on a pair of black jeans, and even wore the only pair of formal shoes I owned; which if I ever ruined, my mom would disown me. So yeah, I was mad.
“Okay, dude, calm down.” Once I was calm enough, Nick continued, “Look, I knew you wouldn’t come if I told you what you had to wear. See, this place, it’s not just a café.”
“Then what is it?” I asked.
“Put on the mask and hat and you’ll see.” As I put the rest of the gear on, Nick said, “One last thing. Once you step inside this place, the world you once knew will be gone. So no real names and no one is to know your life outside of here.”
“I thought the whole point was for me to get out and let loose. How am I supposed to introduce myself to people?” I asked. Nick didn’t say anything and just gave this sly smile. “Nick, c’mon! You’re not the philosophical type, why are you being one now?!”
I was already confused to what was going on, and nothing improved when Nick kept going, “Listen man, here, you become who you really are deep down. There’s a sort of magic to this place that brings it out of you,” he said.
And he honestly doesn’t think that was philosophical?? I thought. “Cut the crap, Nick!” I said frustrated. “What is this place and why are we dressed like we’re starring in a preschool show?!”
Nick didn’t say anything. Instead, he knocked on the café’s back door.
A slot opened and a pair of eyes peered out. “You’re late,” said the guy on the other side.
Nick answered, “Sorry, had trouble getting my pet to the vet.”
The slot then closed and the back door opened. We walked in where I saw the huge tenant dressed as a gorilla in a pro-wrestler suit. “Hey Sly Fox. Nice to see ya,” he said.
I was really surprised when Nick answered, “Nice to see you too, Kong.”
Kong then said, “You know where to go from here. Make sure your friend doesn’t get lost.”
Nick tipped his hat as he said, “Will do.”
We walked through the kitchen and made a left to go down a small hallway where there were four doors. One was the owner’s office, two were for the men and women’s restrooms, but the fourth one said Maintenance on it. That was the door Nick opened.
As we walked through, going down the stairs that I thought were leading to a basement, I turned to Nick and said, “Dude, I’m tired of asking and you not answering. Where are we and what is this place??”
We finally got to the bottom of the stairs where two little lit lamps were on each side of a fancy blue door. On this door was the sign Nick mentioned earlier.
The placard read:
Once you step inside this place The world you once knew will be gone. Here your true colors will be shown For all to see before the dawn.
I didn’t know what that meant at the time. All I knew was that it was part of the riddle my friend- now looking like a fox who stepped out of A Christmas Carol- told me about earlier.
Nick then put his hand on the knob and finally answered my question with, “My friend, welcome to the secret underground club known as The House of Strays!”
He opened the door, revealing the hidden world.
This was unlike any nightclub I had ever heard of before. For starters, who would play Backstreet Boys at an adult club? Everyone there was dressed as some kind of animal. I think there were even some dressed as bugs and mythical creatures too, for some weird reason. If anything, this place looked more like a bigger and more elaborate high school dance than an adult night joint.
Everyone seemed to be happy to be there, whereas I wasn’t as excited. “Dude! Are you freakin’ insane?!” I started yelling to Nick. “If my dad finds out we went to an adult nightclub, he’s gonna be flippin’ mad!”
“Relax, dude,” Nick said so cool. “This club was made especially with high schoolers in mind.”
I gotta tell ya, that was not the response I was expecting. “It was??”
He tipped his hat to me then pointed where we were heading. “C’mon, I’ll tell ya on the way.” As we started walking towards the bar, Nick began the explanation, “See, about four years ago, there was this kid at our school, Jimmy was his name. Good kid, never hurt anyone, but got labeled as one of the weird ones.
“Well, one day the school bullies found a notebook of his where he wrote all different kinds of short stories and ideas. One of them was about a club where everyone dressed up as their favorite animal- styled to reflect their personalities- and no one was to say who they really were. Mostly because the magic of the club would show who they were underneath. Anyway, the bullies ragged on the poor kid over the idea. Teasing him and calling him a bunch of names I’d rather not repeat. It was a pretty brutal time.” Nick got quiet and looked sad.
“What happened to the kid?” I asked him.
Still looking sad, Nick answered, “A couple of days later, police found his body in the Santa Ana River Trail over by Angel Stadium. In one hand, he had his notebook with a Rosary bookmarking where his idea for the club was and in the other hand…an empty bottle of prescription sleeping pills.”
I would be surprised if no one was shocked by that. Kid was so tormented that he felt there was no other way out.
Nick didn’t say anything for a few seconds, felt like forever though. I think he was paying respect by giving Jimmy a moment of silence.
Eventually, he kept going, “Everyone was so heartbroken by what happened. The bullies transferred to schools outside of the city- one actually went to a different state- and all did what they could not to repeat what happened.”
Now at the bar, Nick and I took our seats on the stools when I asked, “So how did this place get built? It must have been a hard battle to convince the city to let it happen.”
Nick chuckled and said, “Did you not hear the part where I said this was a secret underground club? Jimmy’s dad fought hard to have this place made in honor of his son. He believed in Jimmy’s idea of a place where all were on the same level, everyone could show who they really were, and bond with others just like them…But the city wouldn’t allow it. They felt sorry for what happened, but thought it was ridiculous idea, especially since it mostly involved high schoolers. So, with some recruited outside help, Jimmy’s dad got the little café built as a cover-up for the club that was made underneath.”
“Wow. Pretty impressive,” I said. I decided to ask my friend something that just came to me, “I do have a question for you. Why did you pick a cat as my animal? Couldn’t I have been a dog or a bull? Something a bit more manly.”
“C’mon man, that’s not realistic,” Nick said.
“Not realistic?” I pointed to a guy I spotted on the dancefloor, “That dude over there is dressed as a freakin’ dragon and you’re telling me that me being cast as something more masculine is unrealistic?!”
Nick said, “Look, when the kids of our high school found out about this place, we all made a pact to stick fully to what Jimmy had in mind. That meant choosing an animal that best fit our personalities. Or at least, who we really are underneath.”
“So you get to be a cool looking fox and I’m the animal everybody likes to make memes about. Great.” I was not happy about that.
“I think I more than proved to you that I am as tricky as a fox,” Nick said.
“Oh yeah, how so?” I asked sarcastically, still upset.
“Well, I got you here, didn’t I?” he pointed out.
He got me there. All I could say was, “Crap.” Nick started laughing. “What’s so funny?” I asked.
“Mostly your reaction. But back to the other thing, it’s not that bad being the cat. I picked it for you because…I feel that’s who you are underneath.” I gave him a look that showed I didn’t believe his b.s. “Look man, I know that’s not what you wanted to hear, but just…just hear me out.” I waved my hand out for him to continue. “I can see what you mean about cats being a joke with all of the videos and memes out there. But just look past all of that. Remember, before the internet, cats were usually seen as the cool and mysterious type. For dude cats, they were kings when it came to the ladies. Why do you think they’re called Tomcats and not Tomdogs? I know you better than you think. There’s a cool, smooth-talking alley cat in there somewhere. Just let this place work its magic to bring it out.”
“And hopefully that happens soon!” I knew that voice. I only heard it for a month, but it was one I couldn’t forget so easily. A girl dressed as a fancy girl fox showed up. “You’re starting to bring everyone down with your emo teenage boy persona.” Yup, that was Karissa alright.
“Hey there Ka-” I was interrupted when she quickly put her gloved finger on my lips.
“Ah, no! No real names! I’m sure Sly Fox already told you.” Karissa freed my mouth and stepped back to pose. “You may call me Lady Vixen.”
I did my best to go along. “Okay…Hey…Lady Vixen.”
“Ugh! You’re no fun!” she said.
“Kind of hard to when you’re a guy and dressed like a cat,” I told her.
“And that’s your problem,” Karissa started saying. “You’re only seeing the downside of this. Have fun with it! Loosen up! Speaking of which.” She tried to unbutton my shirt, but I backed up and put my hand over my chest. “Seriously?!”
“Look, you know I come from a strict home. Loosening up isn’t exactly something I’m good at,” I reminded them.
“I get that, but you can’t keep living your life that way. And last I checked, you’re not at home. So now would be a good time to see just how loose you can go.” Those words Karissa said hit me in that moment. Even what Nick said meant something to me.
So, I took my hat off and revealed my slicked back brown hair. I then messed it up where it became wavy again. After putting the hat back on, I removed one button on my shirt. I felt proud of myself in that moment.
Nick and Karissa on the other hand weren’t as happy. “Ah, geeze! It’s like being with a middle school girl! Man up already!” Frustrated by what she said, I just started unbuttoning my shirt until my chest was almost fully exposed. “Ah, that’s more like it. Welcome to the party!” Karissa- finally happy- said.
Nick caught something hanging around my neck. “Hey, what’s that?” I looked down and saw the necklace; forgetting before that my closed shirt was covering it up. “Why are you wearing a chick’s necklace?” he asked.
I’ll admit, I was caught off guard and freaked out a little. “Oh! It’s a…ummm…it’s the necklace Danielle gave me before I left.”
Both Nick and Karissa were surprised. Judging from the looks on their faces, it was the good kind of surprised. “Wait a minute!” Karissa said. “Who is this Danielle?? She must be pretty special if you’re wearing her necklace.”
Nick answered, “Danielle was this old friend of ours. Dude here had a huge crush on her when we were kids. The day he left, she gave him her favorite necklace to remember her by.”
“We were supposed to stay in touch and we did for a few years…But then…one day she just stopped and I never heard from her again. It was almost like she disappeared,” I added.
“Yeah, I found out later that she and her family suddenly moved,” Nick started saying, “and I looked for her everywhere, but got nothin’. No one knows why they just left without saying anything.”
“Still, thanks again for trying.” I smiled when I thought about Danielle.
I remembered her as if I just saw her yesterday. She was kind, full of life, tougher than all of the boys on our school’s playground, and her long brown hair was always put in pigtails.
I looked at the charm that was on the necklace. She loved animals, so naturally the charm was a pawprint. There was even a little blue stone in the middle that matched her eyes.
I did want to know what happened to her and even catch up for old time’s sake.
Remembering where I was, I knew the necklace wouldn’t be safe left out in the open. “Well, better put this away.” I took the necklace off and put it in one of my vest pockets.
“You still have a crush on her?” Karissa asked. “Wait, I take that back. You clearly do if you’re still wearing her jewelry.”
“Nah,” I said, “that was years ago. It was just a kid crush. I honestly wear it in Danielle’s memory since no one knows what happened to her. So as you can see, I’ve clearly moved o-”
Then, as I turned to face the dancefloor…I saw…her.
Standing in the middle of the dancefloor was this girl, high schooler from the looks of it, who was dressed as a masked cat with a 1920’s getup. I think this type was called a flapper.
Anyway, I saw her talking to a couple of other people and somehow heard her cute laugh. She had long red hair, fair skin, red lips, and a figure that would turn any guy on. I dated a lot of girls back in Michigan, but not one left me speechless like this one did.
“Hey, dude, you okay?” I thought I heard Nick say. I’m pretty sure he even snapped his fingers in front of my face to see if I would react. I didn’t.
“No use babe. Poor guy’s another victim fallen under Bearcat’s spell,” Karissa pointed out.
Nick said after looking over and seeing she was right, “Good luck there man. Nearly every guy has tried to get with her, but she just won’t budge.”
I don’t know what happened, but I suddenly became more confident and felt suave. “That’s cause she hasn’t met me yet.”
That cool and smooth-talking alley cat Nick said was probably in me, well, he came out for some fun. Without saying another word, I walked over to Bearcat who had now just finished rejecting another guy.
“I saw you from across the way,” I started telling her. “And I gotta say, you are the most beautiful girl here.”
“That has got to be the weakest pick-up line I’ve ever heard,” she said.
“Who said anything about it being a pick-up line? Maybe I’m just pointing out the obvious,” I said, turning on the charm.
“Oh really? Is that all? You’re not expecting me to now go weak in the knees and fall head over heels in love with you like every other girl you talk to?” she playfully asked.
I smirked and said, “Well, maybe not head over heels.”
The two of us laughed at my little joke.
“So, you expect me to believe there’s no angle?” she asked.
I walked behind her and whispered in her ear, “Doesn’t everything have an angle?”
I heard her chuckle. She turned around, pressed herself up against me, then whispered softly in my ear, “Only if you see it that way.”
We only just started talking, but I was beginning to feel something. Even though she decided to play along, there was this strength showing that she wasn’t going to give in so easily. I could tell right away she was one in a million.
After putting herself down, she started talking again, “They call me Bearcat. It’s 1920’s slang for a fiery woman. Suits me, don’t you think?”
“Sure does,” I answered.
“So, what do they call you?” she asked.
Crap, I forgot that part, I thought to myself. “I’m uh…” Nothing came to me right away.
Just then, the DJ announced they were going to play the club’s favorite song, “Stray Cat Strut” by the band Stray Cats next. It was one of the very few songs my parents loved from their time that I actually liked. This girl was bringing out a whole new side of me and this song described, not only that new persona, but also how I felt like a stray at times when I got back to California.
I gave a sly grin and said, “Just call me Stray Cat.”
“Stray Cat, huh? Would that have anything to do with the fact that the DJ just announced the song was going to play next?” she asked like she was about to catch me in a lie.
“Well, why not? I’m a bit of a stray and am dressed like a cat. Perfect fit,” I said confidently.
There was now sincerity in Bearcat’s eyes. “I know what that’s like, being a stray.”
“Really? How so?” I asked.
“Oh, you’re definitely new here. No one is to know anyone’s real identities,” she said.
Somehow, I kept forgetting that important detail. “Right, sorry.”
“No worries. But you are right about one thing…Stray Cat is a perfect fit for you. It’s cool and goes with your suave looks,” she pointed out.
“Oh, so you like my looks?” I playfully asked. “Well, how about my moves? Do you like these dance moves?” I asked while sliding and dancing around her.
“Slow down, Stray Cat. I’m afraid you’re going to have to do better than that to impress me,” she strongly said.
Luckily enough, the DJ did as they said and played my song, “Stray Cat Strut.”
“Well, how about giving me a chance then?” I slightly bowed and gave her my hand.
She seemed to be for it because she took my hand and said, “Alright.”
I never thought I would ever say this, but it was a good thing my mom made me take dance lessons. A couple cousins of mine were getting married about a couple of years ago and she wanted me to learn in case I met cute girls who wanted to dance with me. I also picked up a few moves from watching movies and YouTube videos. So, I was definitely brave enough to take this challenge head on.
The two of us danced together like we had been doing it for a long time. We were pretty much nailing it. My dance style was sharper and swifter whereas my partner was graceful and smooth. Yet somehow, together, we were pretty awesome.
You could tell just by watching Bearcat that she had some training in dancing by how fast she moved and professional she looked.
I could hear the girls cheering for me while the guys were howling at Bearcat. My moves were so smooth I’m pretty sure I made a couple of girls swoon. I did see a guy pass out from Bearcat being so close when she was dancing by.
For the last part, we reconnected where I then spun my dance partner into me. As I dipped her, she wrapped one of her arms around me while her other hand was on my chest. Our eyes locked. I swooped her back up as the song ended and everyone applauded us.
The next song played, but Bearcat and I didn’t dance.
As everyone was being distracted by the music and their dance partners, the two of us were still looking into each other’s eyes. It didn’t matter that she was wearing a mask, the lighting showed me the perfection- the beauty- of Bearcat’s face.
Without saying a word, I leaned in and kissed her.
When we finished, she smiled at me and said, “Not bad, Stray Cat.”
There were about four rooms towards the back of the club where groups could go to talk without the blasting of the music to ruin their conversation. How do I know this? Because Bearcat and I ended up in one of the rooms.
She was sitting on my lap as we were making out on one of the fancy red couches. It was harmless enough, but my parents would have killed me if they found out. I didn’t care though. Here was this awesome girl- who I was told never got with any other guy- and she chose me.
That feeling I mentioned earlier? It grew the longer I was with Bearcat. From the looks of things, she felt the same way.
Everything was going great until we got to the part where I started to kiss her smooth neck.
That was when I thought I heard Bearcat say, “Oh no.”
“What is it?” I asked, trying to catch my breath.
In her hand was the necklace Danielle gave me when we were ten. It must had been poking out of my vest pocket while we were dancing and she just now saw it.
I thought Bearcat was going to make fun of it or point out how girly it was for me to have a necklace like that. Instead, she looked shocked. Almost like she’d seen it before and was surprised that I had it. Bearcat then looked at me and made a face like she knew who I was.
I’ll admit, I was worried. “Bearcat??”
She didn’t answer. Instead, she put the necklace in my hand. “I’m sorry! I have to go!” she shouted as she jumped off of me and bolted for the door.
“Bearcat, wait!” I put the necklace back in my vest pocket and chased after her.
Man, she must have been a member of a Track and Field team cause she could run fast. I did what I could to force my way through the crowd on the dance floor in order to catch up to Bearcat. After finally getting through, I kept going until I made it to the exit where Kong was still guarding the door.
I had a feeling he knew why I was there. “She just went out,” he said.
I went through the door only to find that Bearcat was long gone. There was no one out there in the empty back area of the little café.
I was about to close the door when something out in the distance caught my eye. “Hey Kong, I see something out there. Hold this door open so I can see it. I’ll be right back.”
After Kong took the door, I went out and saw what was shining in the light. It was one of the silver bracelets Bearcat was wearing. I picked it up and had a good look at it.
Deep down, I hoped I would see Bearcat again and find out who she really was. I let out a sigh realizing something. Nick was right. Once you stepped into that club, the world you once knew would be gone.
My name is Connor O’Malley- better known as Stray Cat- and that night was just the beginning of my time at the famous club you’ve never heard of called The House of Strays.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
This is the first ever version of THE HOUSE OF STRAYS, a Young Adult Short Story about how a high school senior begins the journey to find himself in a secret underground club where everyone dresses incognito and don’t use their real names. This version of the original story is all told from his point of view.
Tay Summerlin is an artist and author from sunny Southern California. Ever since she was a child, storytelling has been a huge part of her life and she expresses that passion throughout all aspects of her work. Originally, Tay graduated from Fullerton College (AA Degree) and Cal State University, Fullerton (BFA in Entertainment Art/Animation) with the intent on becoming a Storyboard Artist in Animation. What she never expected was to discover a hidden love for telling stories through writing. The more she wrote, the more those who knew Tay came to realize just how much potential she had as an author. All then encouraged the young storyteller to continue writing and from that brought forth her very first YA novel. From her art to her writing, Tay uses the skills she gained over the years to create fun and entertaining stories for all to enjoy.