Monday, January 26, 2015

Cat Scratch Fever

It was a scorching hot evening in the middle of August. I was 12 years old. My family lived in a duplex on a dead end street in the middle of town. At the end of the street, the pavement turned into gravel and the gravel road led to an abandoned gold mine. Past the mine was a baseball park. It was a kid's paradise.
After dinner, around seven o'clock the neighborhood kids would gather in the street and decide what we could do to pass the time until it was too dark to play and our folks called us indoors.
The older children often decided what we'd play and then delegate roles to the younger children. This night, it was decided we would play Kick the Can.
We told some of the younger kids to find a good can while the rest of us divided into teams. Often times, it was boys versus girls and tonight was no exception.
Finally the proper can was set into place and we quickly farmed out the little kids among the two teams. The object of Kick the Can (the way we played it) was one team is “IT”. The other team runs off and hides in strategic locations. The team that is “IT” must find the other team—stray too far from the can and the team that's hiding will find a way to “Kick the Can” declaring victory.
If the can is kicked, the team that is “IT” must be “IT” again until they are able to successfully keep the can from being kicked AND hunt down and capture the hiding team. If members of the hiding team are captured, they must wait in a holding pen until the game is over.
The holding pen is a small fenced in garden in the Cat Lady's yard.
Most of the older children couldn't care less about winding up in the holding pen. Often times, you could nibble on choice produce in the garden like cucumbers or radishes and many of us carried a bit of salt in our pockets for such an opportunity.
However the little kids were terrified of the Cat Lady and cringed at the thought of having to sit in her yard for even a moment.
On this particular night, my sister wound up in the pen early. From my hiding place, I could see Jonah, a hefty 13 year old, marching her across the street towards the Cat Lady's house. No thanks to me and my wild imagination, Sophie was probably hating life, recalling all the horrible things I have told her about the Cat Lady.
I decided to give myself up so I could go to the pen with her. Jonah spotted me wiggling out of my hiding spot feet first and grabbed my ankles for a good yank.
“Ouch! Idiot! You made me scrape my stomach on the pavement!” I shoved Jonah when I got to my feet. I lifted up my shirt a little to reveal angry, dirt filled red streaks on my stomach.
Jonah laughed, “Quit trying to flash me! Nobody wants to see your training bra!” I ran at him but he had anticipated it and he caught me by my arm and tugged me towards the pen.
I could hear random kids giggling at Jonah's remark from their hiding places and I went red with embarrassment. I jerked my arm out from Jonah's grip, hopped the short fence of Cat Lady's garden and sat next to my sister.
Sophie was eating from a handful of raspberries in her grimy hand, “Want some?”
“No.” I folded my arms around my knees and winced at the fresh pain under my shirt.
“How did you get caught so early?” Sophie wondered.
“I gave myself up for you so you wouldn't get scared and go home crying to mom.” I wiped at my bangs that kept sticking to my sweaty forehead. Sophie looked at me gratefully and continued eating her dirty raspberries.
“Cat Lady's back door is open a crack. Do you think she's spying on us?” Sophie pointed towards Cat Lady's house.
I followed her worried gaze and saw that indeed the Cat Lady's door was open a bit. A mischievous thought entered my mind, “Sophie, let's look through the crack in the door and see what her house looks like! We can tell all the other kids!”
Sophie looked stricken, “What? Are you crazy? I'm not going near her house!”
The temptation to know something none of the other kids knew was strong. Cat Lady's house was always shut up. Every window had shades drawn. Nobody was ever seen coming in or out. There wasn't a single person that knew what Cat Lady looked like. The only movement from the house was the occasional cat that watched us from under the blinds.
Easily I escaped the pen without notice and made my way to the back door of Cat Lady's house.
I dropped to my hands and knees so as not to be seen by the kids wandering the street looking for hiders. When I got to the door, I looked back and saw Sophie's panicked face staring back at me. She motioned at me to come back and I put my finger to my lips and shushed her by shaking my head.
Slowly, I put my hand in the dark crack of the open door and pushed the door open a little further.
The linoleum on the floor was old and every inch of it was covered with a greasy looking film and cat hair.
A disgusting smell permeated the air coming from the house. A cat came around the corner from a dark room and made its way over to me mewing the whole time. I shooed at it with my hand, “Get! Get!” I whispered through my teeth. But it kept coming. As it came out of the shadows of the house and into the light of the cracked door I saw that its mouth and whiskers were covered in something bright red.
“Oh shit.” I stood up and grabbed the door knob and pulled it closed.
I ran back over to Sophie in the garden, “Come on, get up! Get out of here!”
Sophie stood up and with some difficulty started scrambling over the wire fence. I risked a look back over my shoulder and noticed several cats staring at us from under the blinds of the window to the left of the back door.
All of their faces and whiskers were covered in the red stuff.
“Oh my God, Sophie! Look! Look at the cats!”
Sophie whimpered and looked where I was pointing. Then she thrusted herself over the fence, tearing her shirt on a rusty bit of wire. Once her feet hit the ground she busted into a run.
I followed her as she sped toward a cluster of kids in the middle of the street.
Jonah spotted us, “Gabe kicked the can, guess we're IT again!” he shouted.
Sophie and I were both out of breath but I managed a few words, “The Cat Lady is being eaten by her cats!”
Sophie nodded enthusiastically, “We saw them! We saw the cats with blood on their faces!”
Not one kid laughed or doubted us. They just stood there dumbstruck. This is the way of kids, to believe without question.
A couple of the little kids began to cry and ran off towards their homes. Sometime after, some parents trickled into the streets. We told them what we saw and they started talking in hushed voices to one another. A grown up called the police. Shortly after, an ambulance showed up and a couple of police cars. The neighborhood was crowded with people as the paramedics forced their way into the cat lady's house. We watched as the paramedics went through the door and then ran back out with hundreds of cats at their heels.
People on the street screamed as the cats emerged and scattered every which way.
Eventually the paramedics went back inside with a stretcher and returned moments later with something on it. Something covered with a dark blue blanket. My mother reached down and tried to cover my eyes but I pushed her hand away. Just before the body was completely inside the back of the ambulance, Cat Lady's hand slipped out from under the blanket. It was old and gnarled covered with dried blood and a series of deep scratches.
“Sweet Baby Jesus” my dad whispered.
Eventually, the neighborhood stopped talking about the Cat Lady that was being eaten by her brood of felines. And soon enough, I stopped having nightmares featuring blood stained cats staring at me from the Cat Lady's house. One day, after being on the market forever, a family moved into the Cat Lady's house. The family had a young girl named Lettie who always came out after dinner to play in the street with us. Nobody told Lettie about what had happened in her house. It was just an unspoken rule among us kids. It was wordlessly agreed upon that what happened to the Cat Lady happened. There was nothing little Lettie could do about it. Lettie probably wondered why nobody wanted to come inside for snacks though. She always offered and we always declined. Probably thought it was her and we were happy to let her think that.
--original story by Sadie Hartmann copyright 2015

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