© Joanna Parypinski
It was a mangy, gray cat with dark markings around its eyes and tail; with one mustard yellow eye like a lamp in the darkness and one empty, shriveled socket; with a long, jagged scar running down its face to the mouth, raising it in a permanent sneer and revealing several razor-sharp, spit-glistening teeth; with a limp that favored its back left leg, which was twisted out of shape like a gnarled tree branch; with matted tufts of fur that were clumped and missing in patches. This cat owned the graveyard.
Any sign of the cat outside the cemetery was bad news. It had been spotted once or twice, wandering the long dirt road that led into town, like a phantom, skirting the edges of the woods, watching people through their windows with its one lamp-like yellow eye. Some people thought it was bad luck to let a black cat cross your path. The people in Black Creek had a different superstition: seeing the cat meant bad luck. Seeing the cat meant death.
Stories ran rampant, like they do in small towns.
Jeremy arrived in town about two weeks ago, out of the blue. One day the postman was just making his rounds and he looked down the street to see this kid standing in the middle, all alone. Way the story goes, the postman called out to the kid—couldn’t have been older than five—to see if he was lost. But the boy just stared at him from about fifteen yards away, watching him. So the postman, what else is he gonna do, he goes over to see if the little boy needs help. Up close he notices the kid’s got fluffy jet-black hair, fair skin, and these wide blue eyes. The kid smiles at him, and that’s it, the postman’s done in. It’s just about the darned cutest kid he’s ever laid eyes on, that’s a fact.
Nobody could figure out where the kid came from; no one in town had ever seen him before, so he was handed to the local police, who sought out missing kid posters but found nothing. It was like the kid had just dropped onto the earth with the mind of an infant, five years into the life he never should have had. He didn’t speak to anyone, just stared with those wide blue eyes and smiled that heart-crushingly adorable smile.
Well, Jeremy—that’s what everyone decided to call him—he got nowhere to go, so he’s staying with the Carvers, who are just delighted and already have one autistic daughter and are thinking maybe Jeremy’s got some sort of disability as well, on account of the fact that he hasn’t said a word since he dropped into town like a bird whose wings have been clipped midflight.
About a week after Jeremy showed up I knew I was going to die.
You only heard about what the cat looked like in Black Creek; it was something of a legend, notorious in its own right, but a legend that was almost certainly true. How else could you explain different people of different ages from different times reporting their vision of the cat to the finest detail? All the stories matched. Everyone knew what to look out for, but none had ever really seen it. None who are still around, anyway.
I knew I was going to die because I was out for a jog—beer belly starting to get the better of my old couch potato self—one evening. The sun was setting after a dismally gray day, a thin band of fog in the air, and I was heading back towards home on the edge of that long dirt road that cut straight through town. Nothing around me just yet but field and forest, the houses were coming up ahead, and I turned my head to the right, looking across the road towards a small copse of trees. One yellow orb gazed back at me from the shadows, a dilated pupil centered in the watchful lamp, and I stopped my jogging so abruptly I nearly stumbled over my own two clown feet.
Panting, sweat cold on my tee-shirt, throat aching with the fevered inhale-exhale of chilly autumn air, I watched the cat emerge from the shadow of a tree. It looked just how everyone said it would look, down to the finest detail. Matted gray fur, dark splotches around its eyes and tail, a long scar maiming the face, and a deformed back left leg that left it limping on the other three.
It watched me as if it understood the significance of its visit, and its ruined lip was raised in a sort of challenging sneer. The last dying rays of the sun flickered against yellow, dagger-like fangs.
We stared at each other for so long my legs started to go numb and I thought it had locked me in some sort of trance, but I blinked and discovered that I still had the use of my limbs, and I started jogging again, though my heart had never really slowed to its normal pulse. I counted to five in my head and told myself that when I looked back, the cat would probably be gone. That’s how these things always turn out.
I looked back.
Jeremy’s not the first funny kid we’ve had in this town. Her name was Celia, and every time I saw her I got this uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, as if someone had just dropped a brick of lead on top of my bladder. She was a weird one, all right. Her hair was a long, stringy, sort of discolored blond, but it looked gray in the darkness. It hung in scraggly strands down the sides of her pale face, and her sickly hazel eyes stared out accusatorily at anyone who passed by. She had a scruffy, slept-in-an-alley look about her.
She’d been adopted by the Dixon family when she was a tyke, and like Jeremy, she never said two words to anyone. But I guess we’ll never know what was truly wrong with her because two years ago Celia and her parents burned up in a house fire. She was only eight years old.
I started to think maybe I was losing my marbles when I saw her a few days ago. I tell myself it was an hallucination, some kind of mind trick, something, because that girl is dead and no way is it possible I could have seen her. But I did.
I was taking out the trash, hauling a big old black garbage bag to the side of my house where the cans were; it was a clear night with a big yellow moon, a sickly mustard color the same as the eye of the cat. I was still pretty spooked about having seen the damn thing on my evening jog, so every time I turned a corner I expected to see something dark skulking in the shadows, slinking around the edges of the house the way cats slither around like furry snakes on legs. Only this time it wasn’t the cat I saw, or at least wasn’t as much of the cat as I expected.
I saw her in the thin space between the side of my house and my neighbor’s, which consisted of two little walkways leading to our respective backyards with a thin line of grass separating them. She was on that strip of grass more than halfway in, staring at me with a slightly cocked head as if listening for something. There she was, with her stringy blonde hair which looked silver in the moonlight, with her pale face and hazel eyes and wearing a ratty gray dress.
All I could do was stare. Stare and stare, because this girl was dead and I knew there was no way she could be standing in front of me, looking half-dead anyway. After a moment she closed one eye in a gruesome wink that distorted her creepy eight-year-old face, which looked somehow ancient and young at the same time. Then she stepped back into the shadows and melted out of sight.
I had to know if she was really gone. So I cautiously strode over to the sea of shadows under the roof of my house under which she’d vanished and blinked to adjust my eyes to the darkness. And I looked.
I get a feeling sometimes that Jeremy’s not stupid; he’s just lost.
The fog swept in yesterday like a sea tide, thick and strong and gray. It blanketed everything so bad I could hardly see out my window. When that happens, everything here seems gray. The grayness makes me feel like I’m waiting for something, but I can’t say what. I just know there’s gotta be someplace better than this. Probably someplace worse, too.
The only thing I could see through the fog was the faint yellowish orb in the sky that must have been the sun; it glowed dimly through the gray, blurred and obscure.
You know, they say cats are the guardians of the underworld.
Two weeks after he showed up, bright-eyed and serene, Jeremy drowned in the river. I guess what happened was the Carver family had been down there when the fog rolled in, strolling through the forest and along the water’s edge. It seemed like a perfectly wholesome family outing, to go down by the river for an afternoon, maybe bring a picnic lunch and watch the water stream lazily down the bank and watch the clouds roll overhead. But the Carvers never got to eat their picnic lunch; the basket was still sitting by a clump of trees when they found the bodies, floating bloated in the silent stream. Well, they found Mr. and Mrs. Carver all right, and everyone’s talking about them spotting the daughter further down the river later on, and nobody’s seen Jeremy’s body but they suspect it’s just a matter of time, or that the river just swallowed him whole, rushed him away to someplace beyond, and we’ll see no more of him.
It’s a shame, right, but Jeremy was one of those funny kids. Maybe he’s better off where he is now. I don’t think he ever belonged here anyway, like Celia didn’t. They both had other places they came from, and went back to, I imagine.
Still, I kept thinking I saw his pale face with those vivid blue eyes in a transparent reflection whenever I looked out a window, as though he was standing right behind me, or when I looked in mirrors, or just whenever I get that tingly feeling that makes me glance over my shoulder to see if there’s a shadow scuttling around behind me. But I don’t ever really see him; I just think I do. Or hope I do. Maybe I hope he’s not dead. Not for any altruistic reason, of course; I’m not an altruistic man. Never pretended to be. Back in those cold steel cages in prison, I never pretended to be sorry about killing that boy.
He did look sort of like Jeremy.
I have no justification for why I do the things I do. I was terrified out of my wits that there would be nothing, and even more terrified that there would be something. Either way, I couldn’t control myself.
I looked back.
The cat was still there when I turned around on the side of that road, still watching me with that one blazing yellow eye. My blood turned to ice; everything went fuzzy and cold, my body feeling close to what I’d felt when the other inmate had pressed a knife to my throat and pulled the blade. But then, there’d been so much red, so much liquid red. Now there was nothing but the gray fog. So what I did, I gave that cat one last look, one last look at its mangy gray fur, and I bolted as fast as my stone-cold flesh and out-of-shape muscles would allow. I feel like the cat was laughing at me as I ran because it knew, it knew I couldn’t really run, and I was starting to realize that too.
Celia was still there, too, standing by the side of my house when I looked. I don’t know what I expected; I probably expected that I was hallucinating. But there she was, still standing in the shadows, and there I am, watching her squint at me through one beady eye that reflects the mustard yellow streetlamp behind me. And I think this is it, she’s come for me. Because cats are the guardians of the underworld, right? Only she didn’t do anything, she just backed up into the shadows, and I went inside and didn’t think about how I was going to die. Or about the fact that maybe I was already dead.
Two days after Jeremy Carver drowned, two years after Celia Dixon burned up, I came home from a morning jog to find the cat sitting on the floor of my kitchen. Its mangy gray fur clashed badly with the white tiled floor, and my heart thumped heavily in my chest as soon as I saw its one lamp-like eye upon me. There was a mild cramp in my left leg, so I limped into the kitchen and staggered against the wall, gripping it in terror. The cat flicked its pink tongue around jagged yellow fangs.
She came for me, all right. I was hoping it would be Jeremy to take me to the cool water to float away, but it was Celia, it was the cat, and for maybe the first time since I busted prison I was really sorry I killed that boy.
I don’t know if the oven was left on or what, because there was smoke everywhere, thick black smoke. Bright orange flames. Everything burning. I know it’s my time, and where I’m going, there is no water.