“It just happened again.”
I look up from the delivery schedule I’m studying and glance at my coworker. “What?”
Josh stares back at me, a frown wrinkling his brow. “I saw another cat. Another black one.” He gestures out through the windshield of the truck. “Scampered across the street right in front of me as I was coming back from the drop-off.”
I glance in the indicated direction, but all I can see is the rain, sheeting down out of an overcast sky, coming down so hard that it nearly hides the building that line the street. “Okay. And that’s significant because…”
“’Cause it’s gotta be the tenth one I’ve seen today.” Now Josh is glaring at me. “Ten black cats, crossing my path. In. One. Day.”
“Josh,” I begin, trying to find a way to say this without starting an argument. “It’s a city. Lots of cats in the city. And in this weather, how can you be sure they were all black? Besides, that black cat stuff is just a superstition. It doesn’t mean anything. Just a coincidence.”
Josh snorts, takes of his cap to run a hand through his gray hair, squinting out into the rain. “I don’t know, kid. Seems like more than a coincidence to me. I been doing this route for a long time, and I’ve never seen so many cats.”
Most of the time I hardly notice that he’s so much older than me, the product of a time that had a different view of the world. I suppose I can be sympathetic. “All right. Anything we can do about it?”
Josh leans back in his seat, half-turning away from me so that I won’t see the cunning gleam in his eye. “Well, I suppose you could handle all the drop-offs for the rest of the day.”
I just stare at him.
He shrugs, lifting his hands in a helpless gesture. “Hey, if I’m not out there, no more cats can cross my path, right?”
We still have most of the afternoon left on our shift, with a lot of deliveries to make. I spare another look at the rain cascading from the sky. Even with the engine idling I can hear the hiss and patter as it strikes the already wet pavement, the steady drumming on the roof of the truck’s cab. “You’re gonna owe me big time for this.”
Josh smiles, settling himself in more comfortably. “Sure thing, kid. I’ll buy you supper, how’s that?”
I shake my head, throwing the truck into gear and pulling away from the curb. “Not even close to enough, old timer.”
About twenty stops later, I’m seriously rethinking my charity. It’s not so much that it’s raining out as that I’m having to swim through the air. I haven’t seen a downpour like this for as long as I can remember. I make my way back to the truck from my latest delivery, shoulders hunched, stepping around puddles whose depths I can only guess, imagining that somebody out there is building an ark and gathering animals. But at least Josh isn’t worrying about cats anymore.
As I approach the truck, I can see the old man in the cab, sitting there with his head back, unmoving. Probably has the radio on, just chilling. He might have even nodded off. A slow grin forms on my face. This is too good to pass up.
I circle around the truck, slipping up close along the side. When I reach the passenger’s side door, I pause, checking the mirror. He’s still sitting there, eyes closed.
In a rush, I jump forward and bang on the door, hard.
The result is everything I could have hoped for. Josh starts upright so fast he slides halfway out of his seat, flailing around and clutching at the dashboard. By the time he steadies himself my sides are aching from laughter.
He slides the door open with a curse. “Kid, you nearly gave me a heart attack. You know I have a weak ticker. One of these days you’re gonna scare me one time too many, and I’ll drop dead.”
“Come on, Josh. That was priceless.” I wipe raindrops and tears from my cheeks. “Oh, man, I wish I’d thought to get that on my phone. Instant viral hit.”
Josh glowers down at me while I chuckle some more, then he shoves a stack of packages into my chest. “Fine, have your laugh. But do it while you’re working. Got these ready for you while you were out. At least one of us is still thinking of the job.”
I take the packages, cradling them in my arms. “Take it easy, old timer. Just having a little fun. Back in a minute. Try to stay awake this time.”
Grumbling under his breath Josh slides the door shut as I start off. I’ve only gone about twenty feet when I hear his voice, shouting to be heard over the downpour.
“Kid! You missed this one!”
I turn to see him jogging up to me, a slim box held in one hand, and I come to a stop.
“Probably knocked it off the stack when you had your little joke,” he says, glaring at me as he balances the package atop the packages I already hold.
“Well, you did kinda freak out.” I grin at him as he turns away.
“Yeah, whatever…” he starts to say, but his words trail off, and he stumbles to a halt and goes still.
I look at him, frowning, wondering why he’s just standing there in the rain. Then I glance past him: between Josh and the truck, a small form is crossing the street. Even in the gloom, I can tell it’s a cat. Strangely, it doesn’t seem to mind the rain sheeting down around it. The animal just strolls across the street. As it passes in front of the truck, the headlights illuminate it, showing its coal black fur. For just an instant, it seems to pause, and I see a flash of luminous green eyes as it sweeps its cause across Josh and me. It has to be my imagination, but I could swear that there’s something in that gaze, a sort of knowing look…
Then it turns away, gives a violent shake, spattering drops everywhere, and darts away.
Josh still doesn’t move.
“Josh,” I say, but he doesn’t seem to hear me. I raise my voice. “Josh!”
He flinches, looks over his shoulder at me. There’s a strange look in his eyes, too, and I realize that it’s fear.
I shake my head. “It’s just a cat, Josh. Get back in the truck. I’ll be back soon.”
He nods slowly, starts walking.
I turn to get back to work, trying to keep telling myself what I told Josh. It’s just a cat. Nothing more.
When I rejoin Josh at the truck, all I can think of is finishing our route and knocking off for the day. Josh is silent as I climb into the cab, take my seat, and grab the delivery schedule. “Hey,” I say, running a finger down the sheet. “Just one drop left.”
Josh still doesn’t respond. I glance over at him, half expecting him to be asleep. But he’s just sitting there, staring out at the rain.
“You okay, Josh?”
He blinks, stirs. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m good. Let’s get going.”
I start the truck moving, navigating the waterlogged streets by memory and instinct, throwing the occasional glance at Josh. He seems to have been really spooked by this cat stuff, and I have to admit that there was something eerie about it. But I’ve always found cats to be a bit strange. I mean, this is today, not five hundred years ago. A cat is just a cat, not some omen of disaster and doom. The worst they can do is scratch up your furniture.
Still, I can’t wait to put this day behind me.
We reach the last drop-off, and I slip into the back of the truck, looking for the last parcel. I’m already anticipating the end of the shift. I think I’ll take Josh to that bar and grill he likes so much and we’ll get some burgers and beer. That sounds like a plan.
Then I find the package, and frown crosses my face. “Hey, Josh old buddy, I’m gonna need your help with this one.”
Josh turns to look back at me. I point at the box, which looks large enough to hold an oven. He sighs, leaves his seat. Together, we wrestle the package out of the truck and strap it to a dolly. As we work, rain pouring down on us, Josh keeps glancing around. I know what he’s looking for, but I can’t bring myself to tell him to stop, even though he’s freaking me out, too.
Finally, with the box in place, I wheel it up onto the curb, grunting and straining, start to drag it toward the entrance for the freight elevator. Then a handwritten sign catches my eye. Out of service.
“Great,” I say. “Just great.”
Josh sees the sign, too. “What floor?”
I double check the form. “Third.”
He shakes his head, looks up at the building. “Let’s get it over with.”
Working together, we wheel the dolly in through the entrance and across a small, dingy lobby to the stairs. With a lot of sweat and effort, we drag it up three flight of stairs, one step at a time. Josh takes the top, pulling and maneuvering the dolly, while I lift the large box from below. We’re both winded by the time we push through the stairway door into a long hallway, dimly lit by rain-streaked windows at either end.
“Three-fifteen,” I say, panting, and nod in the right direction.
Josh nods back and starts to pull. I put my back into it, helping to keep the thing moving.
About halfway down the corridor, another hallway meets the one we’re in. As we approach the intersection, I see a flicker of movement. Peering past the edge of the package, I see a small form, perched in the shadows at the corner. My eyes narrow; sure enough, it’s another cat.
It’s just standing there, looking up and down the hall, like someone waiting to cross a busy street. Its tail flicks back and forth, an idle motion that makes the whole thing seem more like a complete coincide, sort of like it’s trying to put me at ease. But then it turns its head toward me, and I seem a gleam of brilliant green as it catches my eye, and that strange feeling is back in force.
I glance at Josh. His back is to the cat; he hasn’t seen it. I very briefly debate pointing it out to him, then nix the idea. No sense worrying him. It’s not important.
Even so, I nearly jump out of my skin when the cat steps away from the corner, saunters across the hall just a few feet behind Josh, and disappears down the opposite passage, giving me one last glance.
As we draw even with the intersection, I look down the gloomy hallway, but there’s no sign of the cat. I shake my head. Probably just went home. Maybe its owner was waiting for it with the door open. There could be a thousand explanations. I just need to stop thinking about it.
“Everything all right?”
I give a little jump at the sound Josh’s voice, and look up to see him staring at me over the top of the huge box. “Yeah. Yeah, everything’s okay.”
He nods. “Then push the box already. We’re almost there.”
“Got it.” But as I put my shoulder to the package, I can’t help but take one last look down that empty hallway.
Josh and I step out of Harvey’s Pub, comfortably full after consuming more rare burger meat and Irish stout than a person probably should, but with a much better outlook on life. Night has fallen, and the rain’s finally let up, though there’s still a low, heavy overcast. The city lights reflect off the thick clouds, bathing the streets in a reddish glow that makes it almost as bright as if there was a full moon out.
Josh lets out a burp, adjusts his belt and sighs. “There now, wasn’t that worth a little running around in the rain?”
“I suppose.” At this point, with a long, hard, and kinda weird day behind me, I’m willing to be generous with my forgiveness. “But if we spot a strange number of ladders leaning against walls tomorrow, or if a mirror breaks, then I get to freak out and hide in the truck, while you do all the legwork.”
“Fair enough,” Josh says with a laugh. “Well, I’m off. Got a liter of scotch and a comfy bed waiting at home for me.”
“I hear that. Say his to the missus for me.”
“Will do.” Josh splits away from me, headed for his car, parked a ways down the street. I watch him walk along for a few seconds, my mind unwillingly returning to the sight of those cats. I still think it was a coincidence, just a bunch of strays or housecats, driven into the streets by the rain. But I can’t quite forget that look those eyes…
With a shudder, I shake off the creepy feeling that’s trying to settle over me. After all, nothing happened, and the day is over. Time to get some rest, and get ready for the next one.
I start to cross the street, checking left and right. Then I notice that Josh has stopped walking, and is standing very still, right in the middle of the block.
“Josh?” My voice cuts through the quiet night, echoing faintly off the buildings that line the street.
Josh shows no sign that he hears me.
“Hey, buddy, you all right?” I walk toward him, coming up from behind, and look over his shoulder.
Not twenty feet away, a small shape moves against the greater darkness. It’s another cat, black as shadow, sauntering along with what seems like a world of disdain for how its appearance might make someone feel. And it’s coming straight for Josh.
My friend just stands there, frozen. I can’t imagine what’s going through his mind, but it’s a sure bet he’s terrified.
I start to move forward, thinking that I’ll scare the cat off, chase it away. Even thinking about it makes me feel silly, but if that’s the worst that happens, I’ll be okay with it. But as the thought crosses my mind, the little cat looks at me. I can see the light from the overcast sky reflected in its gaze, like two pools of liquid fire. Something about that gaze stops me where I stand, holding me in place, unable to move a muscle. It’s like getting a message from God, sort of, a warning that I’d better not interfere with whatever’s happening.
So all I can do is watch as the cat gets closer and closer. Josh doesn’t do anything either, his eyes locked on the cat. Then, when it’s just a few steps away, the cat stops, flicks its tail once, then turns aside and walks off. My gaze follows it as it passes under a parked car, crosses the street, and disappears into the darkness.
Once it’s gone I feel a surge of relief, and a little embarrassment. I draw in a breath, let it out slowly. What was I thinking, letting the sight of a black cat get to me like that?
“Hey, Josh,” I say, taking a step toward him and clapping him on the shoulder, fully intending to rib him about being freaked by a small animal.
He starts violently under my hand, lurching away from me so suddenly that stumbles into a nearby wall. In the lambent glow of the sky overhead, I see his face twist in a rictus of pain, and his hands clutch at his chest.
“Josh!” I’m beside him in a second, grabbing his shoulders, not sure if I should try to get him on his feet or lower him to the ground.
A low wheeze escapes his lips, and he slumps in my grip, sagging to the pavement.
“Hold on, Josh.” I have my phone out in a second, hitting the emergency call button. “Stay with me.”
But even as the call goes out, I can tell it’s too late. Josh is staring up at the sky, his eyes fixed in his head, chest motionless. I just stand there, dazed, unsure whether it was me or the cat that killed my friend. Either way, I guess he was just scared one time too many.
Something touches my leg, and I start and shy away. Glancing down, I see a little black cat. It glances up at me, that strange, knowing look in its eyes, then it rubs against my leg again, arching its back as it does.
And then, with a flick of its tail, it walks away, sauntering into the darkness.