Fiction Issue - First place
They had been at war for weeks. It seemed serious this time; change blew on the tepid Georgia wind, and we took notice. They'd fought more this season, and the worst bit came at the end of September. The house shook for hours under the baleful gale. We peered across the street, hoping for answers, but the gray shutters folded back like wings, revealing nothing. The front steps gathered early fall leaves.
The Walkers remained mysterious in their anger, and kept to the house. In recent years, we had only seen the wife through the kitchen window, face like a wad of wet dough folded around suspicious black eyes. The husband left sometimes to get groceries, his eyes cast down and impossible to search. Otherwise, they remained entombed – we saw the awful cat more often than its owners.
We almost forgot them in between the tempests, which came a few times a year, and mostly at night. We could hear them from the street, screaming like banshees. About what, we couldn't say, but we did know this: With the battles came the holes. Sometimes, there'd just be a few; other years, a dozen rings of fresh red mud sprung up across the lawn like pustules, one for each night of screaming. Mr. Wilder, the Walkers' across-the-street neighbor, told us it was the old man who appeared at night with the shovel and dug like one possessed. What he was looking for, Wilder couldn't say. After a few nights of this, the Walkers would quiet down, and we'd talk of other things: Mrs. Sorensen and the UPS man, or Mr. Sorensen's trouble keeping a job, and whether cheapskate Jack Miller would finally buy Girl Scout cookies this year.
This time, though, they kept at it much longer, even in daytime. Crashes punctuated the yelling, and glass shattered so often that Mrs. Miller wondered that they had any dishes left. Some mornings, broken furniture crowded the curb – that had never happened before. New holes appeared until the yard was honeycombed, and the man no longer left for groceries. In fact, the front door opened only once. It was a Saturday, and nearly everyone gathered in Wilder's driveway for beers and Braves talk. It was then that we forgot baseball altogether; we stared at the door, anxious for answers, for a glimpse inside. Why did they fight so ferociously?
But answers weren't forthcoming. The couple stayed inside, and the gray cat, the one the kids called Scratch, slithered down the steps like a stream of dirty water. Our children shuddered. Scratch had hurt all of them, pouncing unannounced from under cars as they played, always hungry for a bit of flesh. They feared the cat as only children could: It became mythic, not easily dismissed by a mother's broom. Everyone gave the thing wide berth. Scratch's attacks were calculated, and its eyes held a malevolent intelligence. One summer, Mrs. Miller found dead squirrels on her front steps for weeks. Entrails dripped down her stairs, and dull eyes stared up from her welcome mat. It got so she'd only use the back door. Wilder reminded us the squirrels had come right after Mrs. Miller reported a Walker domestic disturbance, but we told him to hush. How could a cat know such things?
Mr. Sorensen, the dour mechanic six doors down, made noise about poisoning the thing, but Mrs. Sorensen worried that dogs would stumble upon the bait. So, Scratch continued to reign. Sometimes the cat wasn't seen for weeks, and sometimes it was everywhere, leaving thin scars and shredded garbage in its wake.
This day, Scratch wasted no time. It bounded across the street, and the children drew against us, shaking like cornstalks. Scratch disappeared into a hedge, reappeared, was gone again, and then bounded onto the hood of Wilder's Buick. The cat's nails scraped against the paint, spraying the asphalt with blue shavings. Wilder shouted and threw a beer bottle at the thing, but his aim was bad. The bottle landed beyond the driveway with an impotent thump, and Scratch let out a happy hiss. The cat reeled back and leapt straight into the air – six feet, at least, though Wilder later estimated 20. Children scattered, screaming. Scratch touched down briefly by Wilder's mailbox, then swooped away, back to the Walkers' porch. The front door banged open, and he disappeared into the darkness.
Mrs. Sorensen shuddered and leaned in against her husband; he remained unmoved, frowning. "Something needs doing. That's what I've always said. Bunch of grown folks scared of a pet."
"Take on the job, then," said Wilder, brave after his beer-bottle projection. "If you ain't scared of the work."
Jack Miller snorted at that, and it was too much for Sorensen. He stomped off to his house, his wife tripping hurriedly behind. We followed suit, rattling our beer bottles into Wilder's trash can, thinking about dinner, faintly embarrassed by our fear. Almost everyone stole a glance back, though, to make sure the cat wasn't trailing behind.
Only Wilder had been in the neighborhood when the Walkers moved in. A native south Atlantan, Wilder had inherited his own house when his father, who'd worked at the Clorox plant, died of bad lungs. Wilder said the couple – it was he who'd told us their surname – had come in the 1960s. Even in the early days, they'd kept to themselves. He'd see Mr. Walker driving to work and puttering around the garage. They'd exchange an across-the-street wave, but never spoke. The Walkers hadn't attended neighborhood barbecues, but neither had they fought, or dug holes. They'd appear on Sundays in stiff church clothes and leave in their Oldsmobile, but they didn't go to DeKalb Baptist like everyone else. Wilder wasn't sure where they worshipped, but he said they'd be gone for hours, and come back sweaty and tired-looking. "Catholics, maybe," Wilder said, tipping a beer. "All that strenuous kneeling."
He'd seen the wife, who even then was quite fat, often enough in the beginning. The couple had once kept hens, and Wilder saw her in the side yard, throwing out their feed. She'd watch them scratch and cluck, leaning over the wire gate so far that her head disappeared behind her expansive bottom. But Wilder had never seen them slaughter one; Mrs. Walker collected the eggs, of course, but the birds were allowed to grow old and pass peacefully. Wilder saw her bury a few under an oak, tears streaming down her ruddy face as she dug.
The rest of us had never seen any hens. She hadn't kept them in 15 years, Wilder explained. Not since the cat had come. Old cat, we said. "Old Scratch," Wilder chuckled. "Tore those chickens to bits. I saw the man outside one day, scooping up the slaughter. And yet they let the damned thing in the house again at evening time. Can't figure some folks." Mrs. Walker wasn't seen much after that, and the side yard grew thick with milky weeds. "Shame," said Wilder. "Nothing like a fresh egg."
The holes that now marked the yard weren't chicken graves. They'd popped up now and again over the past 15 years, Wilder explained, but sporadically, and were mostly confined to the back yard. Now the holes had taken over the front; there was more mud than grass. We wondered if the house might collapse. We wondered what the hell they were doing.
Patterson, a plumber who was serious about his property value, slipped a note under their door, asking them to throw down some grass seed if there was to be "further landscaping." That night, the roof of his convertible was torn to ribbons – black canvas scraps were still floating on the breeze when he came out for the paper. Patterson looked out into the road and saw Scratch lying on the asphalt, green eyes slit against the sun. It was then he decided to stop writing notes.
The Walkers kept up their screaming until the day before Halloween. We listened to the crashes and crying as we carved pumpkins and assembled our children's costumes. The police were called four times, and came once. We rode the line between two counties — Fulton and DeKalb — and neither wanted to claim us as its own. When the cop finally showed, he spent several minutes knocking before the door swung open. The woman answered the door, dressed in a pink nightgown with frills at the neck. She wore her white hair in plaits, like a schoolgirl. The cop said something, and she snorted and gestured widely — come on in and see for yourself, the look said. There was another brief exchange. Then Scratch appeared at the threshold, twining itself around her meaty legs like a swath of gray silk. The cop grew silent. He stared down for a moment, motionless, then bent to the cat. We all held our breath — would he lose an arm? An eye? But it yowled docilely, and allowed a scratch between the ears.
"How many beers have I had?" asked Wilder.
As the officer descended the steps, the old woman looked out with a measured glare. She tapped a finger against her temple, just once, then slammed the door.
"Excuse me, officer?" called Mrs. Sorensen. She was a pretty brunette, and the faint worry she wore didn't detract from her looks. Most men listened when she talked.
The cop glanced uninterestedly down the driveway and waved. "Everything's just fine," he said vaguely. "Just fine." He seemed dazed.
"I don't see how everything can be fine," Sorensen grumbled.
"Just fine," the cop said again, and with that he drove away.
We stared in disbelief, watching the taillights as the cruiser disappeared onto Moreland Avenue.
"That figures," Miller snorted. "Whoever made that call is in for squirrel guts or ripped trash bags."
Mrs. Sorensen looked more worried than before.
Halloween fell on a Saturday that year, and Wilder woke up late, a hangover slipping over his shoulders like his worn bathrobe. He took longer than usual with his coffee and newspaper, and didn't manage to get his trash outside until 10. Wilder stepped out and noticed how cold it was. The hairs on his legs prickled uncomfortably, and he wished he'd taken the time to put on pants. He stepped gingerly onto the asphalt, intent on making a quick dash for the can before Mrs. Patterson, who had too much free time, caught him in his boxers. Wilder had almost reached the can when he noticed the figure on the curb in front of the Walkers' place. It was the old man himself, and he looked worse for wear. His balding head was set in his palms, and his clothes, torn and dirty, were spattered with vivid red stains.
"Holy shit," Wilder whistled. "You OK?"
The old man looked up and let out a strange laugh. "Finally dead," he said. "Blown to bits."
Wilder was dumbfounded. It was lucky that Mrs. Patterson caught the scene from her kitchen window, because she called Miller and Sorensen and the rest right away. She dialed the police, too, but no one counted on that, and soon everyone crowded the street. Miller, who'd been a Navy medic, knelt before Walker and pressed his fingers against the bloodstains.
"You hurt?" Miller peered into the man's pale eyes. Walker's face was taut, like he didn't have enough flesh.
"I'm fine." Walker gazed at his reddened hands. "It's not my blood."
Sorensen finally showed up among all the commotion, unaccompanied by his wife. "What in the shit?" he asked. No one answered.
"What happened?" Miller put a hand on Walker's elbow.
Walker stared at his shoes, which were crusted in mud. "I finally got that goddamned cat, is what. Shot it! It wasn't ready for me."
"What about your wife?" Mrs. Patterson asked. Curlers still snagged her dark hair. "Oh, she's dead, too."
Miller tightened his grip.
"Didn't say I did it! She died on her own. I woke up this morning – been sleeping on the couch for years – and headed to the bathroom. I saw the bedroom door was open – odd. She don't trust me. That door stays locked. And then I saw her laying there, mouth hanging open, eyes glazed over. She was big, but healthy. What got me was her damn cat. It was perched on her chest, claws sunk into her nightgown, and it was grinning at me, just like it always did after something nasty happened. That's when I took my chance. I went back into the den and got the gun – I had secrets, too – and I shot a hole the size of Macon through the critter's head. Finally! The bullet tore through it and smashed the headboard. Wood went everywhere. And what did I see? Her damned hiding spot, that's what. It was there all along, in that headboard."
Miller peered at him. "What was there?" He looked over his shoulder at Sorensen, also a former serviceman, and nodded at the house. "Might want to check it out, Daniel."
Sorensen scowled, but acquiesced. He headed up the driveway, mumbling fiercely under his breath.
"What was there?" Miller sounded urgent.
"The money," said Walker. "Hers and the cat's."
Walker sighed. "We came here for a fresh start. After our son died, I mean. It was all right at first. Didn't socialize, but that was how she wanted it. She was Pentecostal-raised, and got religion again after our boy passed. She thought the neighborhood was, well – there was drinking, and too much gossip."
Walker went on. "I wasn't much for it, but I loved her. It wasn't a bad life. Then, her father died, and she got an inheritance: a 100 grand, and his awful cat. She got real strange then. I'd lost my job when the plant closed, and I expected she'd offer the money, but no. She hid it and wouldn't tell me where. She took to sitting with the cat, talking to it, petting it – but she never spent a cent. It was enough that it was hidden. I got work, and a little money when my sister passed. But then my niece's husband died, and she needed help. Edna wouldn't budge. Even when Edna's own sister got cancer, she still wouldn't part with the money. That's when I started digging. I tore up the house; I looked everywhere, but came up dry. That cat always stopped me somehow. Once he tripped me and broke my ribs, another time he knocked my insulin into the trash – little devil."
"What did you want the money for this time?"
"To escape." Walker sighed. "I'm old. Can't work. I thought I'd leave the two of them together, finally. It's what they wanted." He looked to the house. "It's what they got."
Sorensen appeared, pale and frightened, at the foot of the drive. "Dead woman, dead cat," he said hoarsely. He clutched at the collar of his coveralls as if he was holding them up.
"And what else?" Miller asked.
Sorensen looked down, shook his head. "Nothing. Nothing." With that, he shuffled crablike up the street, not responding to Miller's shouts. His front door slammed like a bullet.
So Miller went to see the house for himself, and was still inside when the police finally came. After surveying the mess, they took Walker away quickly, and nearly arrested Miller for wandering around the crime scene. The blue lights were still flashing around the curve as Miller told his tale.
"Well?" we asked.
Miller said the house was filthy with dust. The scene was pretty much how Walker described it – the cat splattered across, well, everything, and the old woman didn't have a scratch on her. "She died badly, though," Miller said. "Her face was contorted, like she'd seen something terrible." One of the cat's ruined green eyes had landed on her breast, and it stared straight at the hole in the headboard. "The headboard – that was the only off part. The money wasn't there. It wasn't like Walker described it."
"Maybe Walker snatched it," Wilder offered. "Maybe it wasn't ever there to begin with."
"Maybe." Miller frowned, and looked up the street at Sorensen's place. "Maybe not."
The Walkers' house went on the market but remained unsold, the realty sign pathetically positioned between two of the holes. Walker wasn't charged, but didn't return. The neighborhood went on like usual, except that we didn't see the Sorensens anymore. Mrs. Sorensen didn't even answer the door for the UPS man, and word came her husband was out of work. Their fights grew louder; twice, Patterson heard him shout whore. The children swore they heard crying in the late afternoons, soon after Sorensen's truck pulled in the garage.
Miller, always careful in his conclusions, walked over there one evening to take in the scene. It was Thanksgiving when he mentioned that the Sorensens' back yard was full of holes. He'd seen Mrs. Sorensen under the full moon, leaned against a shovel, dirt streaking her forehead like ash. Sorensen stood in their doorway, outlined by the kitchen's glow. Sorensen's face was obscured by shadow, but one thing was clear: There was a smoky gray cat twined around his legs, yowling. Mrs. Sorensen looked up at her husband, love and fear meeting on her face, and Miller, suddenly uncomfortable, hurried home. Whether they had seen him, he couldn't say. But the next morning, he found a disemboweled mouse on his porch.
"Thought Sorensen hated cats," Wilder mused.
"Can't figure some folks," Miller said. Soon, we spoke of other things.