From time to time I'll post a seasonal short story I've written.  Here's a little Halloween tale.


Cat Trick

Jack stopped and sneered.  “You think I’d sit through two hours of that rubbish?”

Her boyfriend’s words hit Carrie like a slap in the face.  She wrenched her hand free from his and glared at him, her heart pounding.  “Rubbish?  Jack, I’ve been preparing for six months!  This is a state competition.  First prize is a thousand bucks plus a four-year scholarship, and my teacher thinks I can win.  That’s not rubbish.”

“It’s two hours of stupid people singing stupid songs for stupid judges, and I’m not going.  Now let’s get home.  I’ll catch hell if you’re late.”  He grabbed her hand and pulled her forward.

She stumbled along, trying to keep up with his long strides.  From far ahead came the dim glow of a few porch lights, left on for the final straggling trick-or-treaters.  She tripped, caught herself, and forced Jack to stop.  Turning her head to the side so he wouldn’t see the tears beginning to mist her eyes, she whispered, “Do you love me?  Or are you just using me, because I’m... convenient?”

He took a deep breath, let go of her hand, and shook his head.  “Okay, you want the truth?  No, I don’t love you.  In fact, I’m totally sick of you!  You ignored me all night at the party, you constantly hound me to...”

She stepped back.  “Huh?  Well maybe I’m sick of you, too, and I’m sick of this conversation.  Let’s go.”  She cocked her head to the side.  “Wait.  Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

A mournful wail broke the still of the night.  “There!”  She ran a dozen yards ahead and pointed.  A black cat peered down at them from its perch in an ancient oak tree.

The tree, its gnarled branches casting a web-work of shadows, marked the path to a long-abandoned mansion.  The cat leapt to the ground and rubbed Carrie’s leg a few times before darting down the dark lane toward the house.  It disappeared in the shadows, but just as quickly returned, rubbed her leg again, and once more trotted down the path.

“It wants us to follow it,” she murmured.  “And look.  There’s a light on in a window.  That’s weird.  Nobody lives there.  I’ve never seen a light before.”

“Ignore it,” Jack growled.  “I just want this awful night to be over.  And while I think of it, I want my ring back.  It was my grandfather’s, and I’m sorry I ever gave it to you.”

“Huh?  Somebody needs help, and all you think about is your damn ring?  That cat wants us to follow it.  I’m going to see what’s wrong.”

His jaw dropped.  “Are you nuts?  You don’t know who might be there.  It could be some weirdo.  You could get mugged.  Come on!”

The cat meowed.  She took a step toward the house and looked back at him over her shoulder.  “Well?  Are you coming with me?”

The light of the full moon glistened on his sweaty forehead.  He rocked back and forth on his heels a few times before clearing his throat.  “No.  I’ll wait here.  If you’re not back in ten minutes, I’ll go for help.  Carrie, I have to say, you are the dumbest person I’ve ever known.”  He strolled over to a broken-down rail fence and leaned against it, his arms folded across his chest.

She picked her way along the rutted drive, the cat keeping a few paces ahead until they reached the house.  The door hung ajar, crooked from the hinges pulling free of the rotted wood frame.  The cat slipped inside and disappeared.  Carrie followed, grateful for the light that emanated from a room down the hall.  The wood beneath her feet creaked with every step, and the boards sagged in a way that made her wonder if she’d fall through and land in a putrid cellar.

She took a dozen steps and froze in the lit doorway.  The room had once been regal, with a glistening chandelier hanging from the ceiling, and a heavy oak table spanning a third of its length.  Now, cobwebs wafted in the breeze that drifted in the door, and ornate carved chairs lay scattered in wild disarray, bleeding spongy innards through wounds in their upholstery.  A single crystal hung from the chandelier on a gold chain, glowing with an intensity so bright it made her eyes water.  Blinking away tears from the glare, she scanned the room.  Whoever lived here had an obsession with pentagrams.  Five-pointed geometric shapes of every size and color lined the walls, the floor, and even the ceiling.  Some were crude patterns drawn with wide brush strokes of black and red paint.  Others were exquisite carvings of wood so polished that they shone like glass.  Largest of all, black inlay marked out a star of five points centered under the chandelier.

Dust lay deep over most of the floor, traversed with random paths marking the passage of rodents.  Something dark and formless lay in a far corner.  Holding her breath, and reminding herself that she was here on a mission of mercy, she crept across the room.  Halfway there, she guessed from the shape that it was a person, curled on its side in a fetal position.  She ran to it, and stopped a yard away, pressing her hand to her mouth to keep from retching.  It was an old, old woman, but one who had been dead for decades.  Her corpse had turned to a mummy, its cheeks sunk so deep into her mouth that they formed pits on either side of her face.  The thing’s eyes had long since been eaten by rats, leaving empty black sockets.  She gulped down the burning bile that spewed up from her stomach and spun around in a frantic search for the door.

A motion caught her eye, a black streak appearing out of nowhere and landing on the table below the chandelier.  The cat stood up on its hind legs and reached for the glowing crystal, but fell short.  It dropped back to all fours and mewed, fixing Carrie with a plaintive stare.

Her panic broken by the creature, Carrie noticed something she hadn’t seen before, a pile of clothes on the table.  She fingered a shirt, held it up to the light, and noted with surprise that it sported a designer label not more than a few years old.  Likewise, the pants looked new, barely worn.  Even the shoes were modern sneakers.  She wrinkled her nose at a pair of men’s underwear, badly soiled.  Her heart thudded in her chest.  Where was the guy who’d worn this stuff?  And why had he left all his clothes, even his shoes, behind?  With a quick second glance down at the messy underwear, another question passed through her head.  What had scared him so much before he vanished?  She squinted hard, trying to peer into every dark corner, and wondering if she had the courage to check out the two doors on the far side of the room.  With a shivering sigh she picked up the pants and was pulling a wallet out of the pocket when the cat let out a piercing squall and leaped up toward the glowing crystal, again missing it.

The creature sat down and looked at Carrie, then the crystal, then Carrie, back and forth, making an obvious plea.  With a trembling hand, Carrie reached up and wrapped her fingers around the bright jewel to unhook it from the chandelier.  The instant she touched it, a bolt of electricity shot up her arm and filled her body.  The world shifted and blurred as she lurched forward, tearing the charm from its chain.  It clattered to the table.  Through a haze, she saw the cat grow.  It stood on its back legs and reached up, its front legs turning to arms as its fur coalesced and became skin.  At the same time, she realized that she was shrinking.  In seconds, the table top lay only inches below her head.  She stood on four short legs covered with black fur.  She opened her mouth to scream, but only a shrill mewling came out.

“Whew!  I don’t believe it!”

The voice startled her and she jumped back.  A young man, naked, stood beside the table.  He was leaning over the stack of clothing, sorting through it.  A tremble of fear traversed her body, and a pitiful meow escaped her mouth.

“I really am sorry,” the man mumbled.  “In a way, I mean.  But you understand.  I’ve been stuck in this cat body for three years, since some guy lured me into this place.  I’m not sure what the deal is, but here’s what the last guy told me.  Once a year, on Halloween, that thing lights up from sundown until midnight.  If you can get someone to touch it while it’s lit, bingo, you’re out.  I guess I wasn’t very good at fooling people.  It took me three years before I got lucky tonight.  Maybe you’ll be better at it.”

He leaned forward and reached out his hand to stroke her head, but she shrank back, away from his reach.

“It’s not so bad, you know.  You can’t ever leave the property, but there’s a spring in the cellar with good water, and tons of mice live in the crawl space under the floor.  You’ll do okay.”

He dressed, looking down at the floor the whole time.  When he finished, he headed toward another door at the far end of the room.  “I guess I’ll just sneak out the back way.  I imagine everybody thinks I’m dead, so I’d better ease into things, if you know what I mean.  Get my head together.  Three years of catching mice in the dark, and eating them raw and warm, does things to a guy’s head.  Nasty things.  Ugly.  Oh, that old lady on the floor?  The last jerk told me she was a witch who got into stuff she shouldn’t have.  She did some spell to make a half-human, half-cat servant.  Something went wrong.  It killed her, and left this Halloween mess behind.  Damn shame, isn’t it?”  He slipped through the door and vanished.

The shivering that racked her frame gave way to a surge of adrenaline and the clarity of mind that comes only from mortal fear.  She had no time to waste.  Carrie crept forward, toward the pile of clothes on the table.  Everything she wore lay in a jumbled heap, with the still glowing jewel on top.  She pawed through the pile until she found what she was looking for.  Taking Jack’s ring in her mouth, she leapt off the table, crossed the floor, and ran up the path to the road.  When she reached the old oak tree, she set the ring on the ground and climbed to the first branch.

Jack was still leaning against the fence.  She meowed, and when he looked up, she jumped off the branch, trotted a few feet down the path toward the house, and stopped to look back.

“Hey!”  He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Carrie!”  His voice echoed and died away.  He shouted again, “Carrie!  You okay?”

She ran to his feet, did a quick circle around his legs, and shot back toward the house.

“Damn cat!”  He picked up a rock and threw it.  “Carrie, you stupid idiot!  Now what?”  He stood still, rubbing his chin.  Finally, he turned away from the house and ambled back toward the road, muttering under his breath.

At the sight of his shuffling retreat, her last qualms vanished like mist in the wind.  She dashed to the tree, snatched his ring from where she’d dropped it, and ran to him, circling in front to cut off his path to the road.  He drew his foot back, ready to kick, and she raised her head to let the bright moonlight shine on the ring.

He put his foot back down and bent over for a closer look.  “Hey!”  He snatched at the ring.

She jumped back.  He took a step toward her, and she spun around and trotted toward the house.

“Damn cat!” he screamed.  “Give me my ring!”

She broke into a run, with him right behind, panting and stumbling over the rough path.  When she reached the door, she paused and waited for him to catch up.  With the golden ring clenched between her teeth, its emerald stone flashing in the moonlight, she let out a sweet meow and padded inside.  Come and get it.