Bittie had always loved animals. She’d grown up on a farm in Kansas with cows, goats, a mule, rabbits. There’d been lots of dogs and lots of barn cats during her growing up. Years back, in her second hometown of Pawkuntsy, Ohio, she’d taken a puppy to the vet after it was hit by a car. Not able to afford to have it fixed up, she’d had it put down. Days later she’d gotten a thank you note from her office and an invitation to make her the first stop for veterinarian needs. Enclosed had been a sweet poem about The Rainbow Bridge, where you meet all your long-dead pets when you get to heaven.
Lord, that would be a crowd, she thought. If farm animals counted there’d be hundreds of critters coming across to meet her. She’d like to think it was true because she’d missed that hound dog of Daddy’s, Pete. He could tree a coon like no one’s business. She thought of her old tom, Zeek, that had hung in with her the longest. He’d been a mean cuss when he died. Never had been able to pet that cat but he missed not a single meal. One eye gone and one ragged ear. A real campaigner.
She hitched up the grocery bag on her hip. The bush to her right rustled loudly and out shot a black cat, his running legs making it look like they do. Like he had fifty. She hissed at him and laughed. The cat turned and gave her a go-to-hell glare and took off. He could've been Zeek from his younger days.
Lord, I’m tired, she thought. Last year she’d had a clunker that broke down but she couldn’t afford to fix it on her social security. Since then she’d been walking to the neighborhood grocery, three, four times a week, depending. That was all she could carry. Sometimes a woman or man that knew her would give her a ride but other times she had to slog it.
As she reached her porch, just about give out, she saw a black cat creep across her steps. This Satan couldn’t be the one she’d just seen, could it? “Heah! Git!” she yelled at it. The offending creature turned his back to her and his tail went ‘bbbrrrttt’ as he sprayed her porch rail.
You little bastid!
She climbed the steps and groaned as her bad hip gave her what for. Fumbling with the key, she sighed as the cool air from the window unit greeted her. Bittie set the bag down and dropped into her comfy recliner. What she saw next from the corner of her eye might not have been real. It was a cloud of black, misty but mobile. It seemed to walk on four legs across the room in front of her and disappear into the far wall. It looked like Zeek.
She rose and took the groceries to the kitchen and began putting them away. A pint of milk (anything more was more than she could carry), a few cans of soup and a loaf of bread. Thank God this was a country store that sold butter by the quarter stick. Bittie got out a leftover biscuit and warmed a bowl of collards in the microwave.
A furry something brushed against her calves and she jumped back quicker than she’d known possible. That black mist from earlier walked toward the stove, turned and blinked lazily at her then moved into the corner into oblivion. “Oh, Lord,” she prayed. “What do this ghost cat want from me?” It made her hop a foot in the air when the microwave beeped. Getting her bowl and biscuit, she eyed the kitchen floor as she left and watched every footfall on her way back to the den.
She turned on the noon news program but didn’t hear a word of it. Sudee was going to pick her up on Sunday for church. Maybe she’d ought to drop something in the collection plate. Usually she didn’t bother. The good Lord understood about fixed income, surely, but she was thinking the ghost cat might be a sign. Placing her finished lunch on the coffee table and ready to rise, she heard a “mowwrr,” from outside. Shaking her head in denial, Bittie carried the bowl and fork to the sink and rinsed them out.
The minute she was back at her recliner she heard it again. “Yoowwrr!”
Bittie considered herself a pretty brave woman so she stalked to the door. What she expected was that lean and hungry yellow tabby she’d seen roaming about lately. No, no. It was a green apple-eyed solid black and she’d have bet ten that it was sitting on a pair of nuts. The turd got up and walked from one side of her doorway to the other. She slammed the door, hand over mouth in shock. “Lord of mercy!’ she panted.
She took up a paperweight she’d gotten from a vacation she and Harold and the kids had gone on to Kentucky and opened the door. It was now at the end of the driveway and the insolent monster went from the tree at the left to the bush at the right. Then went back and did it again! That made seven times this black cat had crossed her path in the same day. Cocking back her arm, she threw the paperweight with all her might…
...and almost hit the boy from the end of the street. “Hey, lady! Watch out!” he yelled, jigging out of the way. His backpack was now hanging from one shoulder. Muttering things like “crazy” and “old witch”, he walked a little faster, looking back now and then. Bittie went inside and slammed the door, leaning against it with her heart about to burst.
She went into the kitchen and fussed about in cabinet and refrigerator, wondering what to fix for supper even though it wasn’t but one in the afternoon. A banging at the front door interrupted her thoughts and she went to open it a crack.
There on her porch was a woman whose name escaped her for the moment. She had a hand full of weave and a cock to her hip, sassy look on her angry face. Bittie looked around wildly at the street behind her. On the lawn across the street sat that damned cat. Insolent, he strolled to her driveway, turned and deliberately walked across behind the neighbor woman. Bittie's heart nearly gave out.
“Did you throw a rock at my son?” the woman demanded to know.
“Huh?” Her bugged eyes went from the mother to cat. It almost seemed to smile and slowly blinked both eyes. Bittie came to her senses and glared back at the woman. “No, it wan’t no rock. It was a paperweight and I was throwing it at that fucker right there!” She was getting louder and louder and pointed. Where had he gone? His furry ass was nowhere to be seen.
The boy’s mother looked at where Bittie pointed then back at Bittie, eyes narrowed dangerously. A long-nailed finger with a pumpkin painted on its french tip jabbed in Bittie’s direction. “Lissen, you goony old bat, I better not have him tell me you threw nothin’ else at him or you and me gonna go to bang city, you hear---”
Bittie slammed the door in her face, fuming. In all the years she’d lived here she hadn’t ever had no trouble with the folk on this street. Now, because of that, that...thing. That devil…
She hurried to fix a cardboard box with lots of packing tape around every square inch. Cats know when you’re looking for them. Bittie wasn’t fooled into taking the box outside to wait for him. Oh, no. She sat down with the tv and radio off and waited to hear him caterwaul again. She’d be ready for him this time.
Bittie dozed off in the recliner.
No telling how much time passed but she heard him “wowerrr” out on the porch and sat straight up. Her breath sawing, she crept slowly from the chair and reached for the box with quiet hands. “I’m coming. Hang on, you hoodoo. I’m coming,” she promised, just under her breath.
So as not to scare him, she opened the door, box in one hand, packing tape in the other. The cat waved his jaunty tail as he went in front of her to the end of the porch and sat to watch a wren in a tree. Her days of feeding strays were past. Couldn't afford it.
Stepping carefully, not even daring to let the sole of her slippers slide, Bittie slammed the box down on top of the cat and faster than she’d managed since she was a girl, flipped it over and slammed the four flap lids down.
Did he ever put up a fight! Hissing and spitting and throwing himself around in the box, he threatened to get loose and escape. Bittie was having none of it. Cackling, she wound the tape around and around the closure, dumping him this way and that way as she sealed the box shut but good!
She had her government phone in the pocket of her sweater and dialed her daughter. “Mama?” came the voice of Sherell.
“You got to do somethin’ for me!” she yelled into the phone.
“What is it, Mama?” came the tinny voice over the speaker. “I got to pick up the kids.”
Furious growling came from the box at her feet. It flipped and flopped and she heard a tearing sound, saw the cardboard part and tips of claws appear. Bittie booted the box and it flew two feet away. “I don’t care what you got to do! You get over here right now and carry this cat with you.”
“What? What cat?”
“This sonofabitchin’ ghost cat! Get your ass over here right now. Drop him off at the school for all I care. Just come get him.”
Thank God Sherell didn’t live but five minutes away. In the time it took her to get there, Bittie had kicked the box a few more times and was rewarded with “yowrrrr” more than once. Sherell pulled up and got out, looked at the bouncing box and crossed her arms. “I ain’t getting that thang nowhere near my children.”
Bittie was so wound up she raised a hand as if to slap her daughter. “Yes, you are! If you want to live to see tomorrow or get one earthly thing I got in this world when I pass, you will put that box in your car and I don’t give a damn where you let it out!”
Sherell stared at her with hands on hips for a long moment. “You are losing your mind, Mama, swear to Jesus.” But she took up the riotous cardboard and threw it in her trunk. With one last worried look directed at Bittie, she got in her Nissan and pulled away. Bittie sat down on the porch and put her head in her hands.
It was a relief to have it gone and that night Bittie went to bed with a sigh of thankfulness and said her prayers. They weren’t answered. Sometime in the night she felt a leaping on the side of the bed. Light footsteps crept toward her and she opened her eyes just a bit. A swirl of smoke and little paws moved over her belly that turned to ice. It walked all the way over her then came back and settled on her chest, purring, it’s face inches from hers.
Through her narrowed gaze she regarded Zeek. “What I ever did to you but feed your empty belly and put out your water? Why you feel you had to come back and torment me like this?” She could barely see the cat sitting on her through the moonlit curtains. Then as she reached up to hold and stroke him as he'd never allowed her to do before, she saw her own arms were mist.
As she and Zeek rose up through the ceiling he was all she had to hold on to. Higher they went into something like clouds. His missing eye winked open, green as a Granny Smith apple and where no ear had been one twitched into being. She could hear his cat voice now. "I didn't know people hands felt so nice," and he butted her with his head.
"Where we going?" she asked as her feet turned toward the ground and the clouds faded to a green lawn.
"You'll see," Zeek said. He jumped down from her arms. She was going to need them because coming across a brightly painted bridge was old Pete.