Lawrence Knight was familiar with the whole “nine lives” spiel about cats, and he even believed it to some extent. When he was eleven years old his mom brought in a stray cat from the street that she decided to call Winky for their family to raise as their own. Lawrence was always slightly afraid of Winky, which only had one good eye and limped with each step, but his mother assured him the cat was perfectly healthy.
“He’s got at least four more lives in him, hon,” she used to say. He often wondered what took the first five.
In his nightmares, he envisioned Winky as an energetic kitten with two good eyes instead of just the one. The dreams were so vivid he felt like he was experiencing them in real life. Winky went from a perfect nine to an eight when he misjudged the distance between two neighboring roofs. He landed the three-story fall unharmed on all four paws.
Life eight was spent when Winky nibbled on a forgotten box of poisonous rat pellets. A somewhat wiser Winky used up number seven by pulling a shelf full of Christmas decorations on himself. Six was the time he got lost for an entire winter and returned in the spring with one less eye.
Another one of Lawrence’s nightmares proved his mother was more than a little generous when the front and rear tires of a beat-up Subaru rolled over one-eyed Winky. Three lives left, he figured.
The nightmares ceased after a while, but as time passed, Winky continued to grow old and fat. His mother found Winky belly up and wide-eyed staring at the living room ceiling. A trip to the vet confirmed Winky had eaten himself into a feline diabetic coma.
Lawrence grew up to become an illustrious bible salesman, driving from town to town hocking the most exclusive, most holy of holy bibles. He was never the religious type, although that didn’t hurt his sales. He knew how to put the fear of God into anyone unlucky enough to find him at their doorstep.
He’d long forgotten about the one-eyed cat from his childhood. Winky spent his last two lives in quick succession after the diabetic coma. He watched his mother choke back tears as she picked the limp ball of black fur from the pee-stained carpet and wrap him in a trash bag.
She later explained how even people take a leak when they die because their bladder shuts down with the rest of the organs. He confirmed this after his mother passed away from a heart attack. For some reason, the wet spot left in the bed stuck out to him when the hospice caregivers took her away.
Lawrence was on a route that ran him from the upper portions of Louisiana to the wide-open, dusty roads of the American southwest. His secondhand Mercedes pulled into the gravel drive that belonged to a double-wide trailer in the middle of Rhubarb, Texas. The town was home to around seventy people who occupied an assortment of trailer homes of similar size.
He gave the front door a hearty knock and waited patiently as the soft shuffle of footsteps approached the door.
“Who’s there?” asked a woman’s voice.
“Good afternoon, ma’am. My name is Lawrence Knight. I was just passing through and I wanted to speak with you about a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
An elderly woman in curlers and a nightgown pulled the door open just enough for Lawrence to see the pity on her face.
“Look, you’d be better off if you just keep on passin’ through on out of here.”
Lawrence flashed a smile and pulled the newest edition of his company’s overpriced Bible from his jacket pocket.
“Ma’am you seem like the kind who likes to be sure about a person before you trust them,” Lawrence said. “I respect that, it’s something I’ve come to find a lot of Texans believe in.”
The pitying expression on the woman’s face turned to a look of annoyance.
“I want you to know I’m one of the people you can be sure of.”
The gray-haired, sun-damaged elderly woman pushed her door open the rest of the way.
“And I want you to know I can smell bullshit from ten miles away. Tell me, holy man, how many Bibles ya sold today?”
Lawrence’s smile strained but never wavered. He was used to dealing with people who put up walls in front of him, but this lady had set up a full military base between them.
“I can assure you, ma’am, no bullshit here. I’ve sold more than I can count today to tell you the truth. And I attribute it all to the power - and quality – of every Bullet Bible.”
Lawrence felt a gentle pressure run along the bottom of his pants and found a cat weaving around his left leg. The scrawny black cat purred in delight.
“It looks like Blinkers likes you,” the woman said with a slight frown. “I guess that’s one good sign.”
The woman looked up to the sky and shook her head. She stepped back into her home.
“I guess when the Lord gives you a sign, you better listen. Come in, Holy man.”
Lawrence was surprised at the woman’s sudden change of demeanor.
“Thanks, Blinky,” he said as he stepped into the trailer home. He couldn’t help but notice the cat had one bad eye. For a moment he thought of the stray from his childhood, but he quickly shrugged the thought away.
To Lawrence’s disbelief, the woman purchased two Bibles from him during his visit. She told him she’d rather be safe than sorry about listening to a sign from God.
“We don’t get many visitors around these parts,” she said. “You sure you’re not Jesus Christ? I figured Jesus might not look like the old paintings in Church, but I had an idea of what I expected the rapture to look like, and sittin’ here in my livin’ room with some blue-eyed Bible salesman wasn’t it.”
She pulled a wad of cash from her purse and carefully counted it twice, licking her thumb each time to make sure none of the bills stuck together. Lawrence thanked her and headed on to the next town. The woman stuck her Bibles under the coffee table for safekeeping and never-reading.
Lawrence was halfway between Rhubarb and Elmore when a soft meow came from the back seat. He whipped around to see boxes of Bullet Bibles stacked on the seats, but no cat.
By the time he reached Elmore, the sun had dipped below the horizon. He checked himself and his bibles into the El Hermano motel. His bedtime ritual was counting his sales, which helped him fall asleep on his most profitable days.
Lawrence dreamed of selling all across the world, trading cases of bibles for strings of pearls, rare jewels, and crystal-clear diamonds. Emeralds as green as envy. The most envious shades of green from anyone who saw his success.
Emeralds that sparkled like a green abyss in the sun. Emeralds that sparkled more than the brightest diamonds.
Emeralds that sparkled like the green eye of his worst nightmares.
The dreams returned just as vivid as twenty-five years ago. The black cat had slunk its way back into his psyche like a nearly healed scar torn back open.
Winky the one-eyed cat. Although, the cat appeared different to him this time. Instead of the overfed, unconscious cat he last remembered, this Winky was wasting away to nothing. Its black fur clung closely to its ribs and its head was almost skeletal.
Lawrence dreamt he could feel the cat growing heavier on his chest, despite appearing to grow thinner and thinner. He couldn’t look away from its emerald eye. Lawrence’s breathing became more and more labored as the weight of the cat began to crush him.
“Help me, God!”
He screamed and gasped for air as he woke from the nightmare, drenched in sweat. The dark motel room was empty, which Lawrence expected, but was relieved to affirm. Like a young child afraid of the unknown, he made sure to check the underside of the bed and inside of the closet.
He peeled off the damp t-shirt he was wearing and switched on the lamp that sat on the dresser. As he dug through his pajama shirts, he noticed tiny specks of blood on his discarded shirt. He analyzed the little red stain on the front of the shirt and instinctively reached down to his chest. He felt a dull sting from the thin red lines.
Falling back to sleep was the last thing Lawrence wanted to do for fear of another fever dream, so he flipped on the television and settled on a late-night talk show rerun from Halloween years past. The topic of discussion was superstition, and the featured guest was one of those gaudy fortune-tellers of television fame.
“Do you believe it’s bad luck if a black cat crosses your path?” the black-tie host asked.
The fortune-teller, engulfed by her shimmery purple tunic, reeled her head back in laughter.
“Let me put it this way, there’s as many black cats in this world as there are people. Of course we’re going to see them cross our paths. It’s an old wives’ tale, that one.”
The ironic timing of the television program wasn’t lost on Lawrence.
“Okay, so say I’m going about my day and I don’t have a black cat cross my path just once… say, I don’t know, I see one cross my path ten times. Should I worry then?”
“The same cat, ten times?” the psychic asked. “Oh, lord. Pray for the man who does.”
“Not good, huh?”
“I’d be sleeping with one eye open,” she said.
Lawrence killed television. He shuffled into the bathroom and looked at the scratch along his chest and stomach through the grimy mirror. The scratch was in the exact same place as the one Winky gave him when he was fourteen.
Lawrence was tired of watching his mother ail over the sick cat which never seemed to die, so he took Winky into the backyard while his mother was at work to get rid of him. He remembered how heavy it felt as he cradled the furball through the overgrown grass and through the woods.
When he was certain no one was around, the put his hands around the cat’s neck and squeezed. A muffled meow was all the noise Winky could manage before Lawrence squeezed tight.
The cat kicked his legs violently and slashed through the air with its claws. One final angry swing caught Lawrence across the chest and stomach before the single green eye glazed over and the cat stopped moving altogether.
Lawrence debated whether or not to leave the cat out in the middle of the woods where it would surely rot away or be eaten by coyotes. He thought about his mother blaming him for letting the cat out of the house in its condition. He feared she would never forgive him.
Would she know I did it? Lawrence figured his mother would think the cat finally died of natural causes.
He carried Winky’s body back to their house, which felt twice as heavy as it had alive. The weight of the guilt had manifested inside of the big, furry waste of space.
He laid the cat on the floor just as he had remembered it had been following its diabetic coma, then hurried back to his room to find a change of clothes. If his mother saw the blood or the scratch, she’d start to ask questions.
Lawrence had hardly changed into an evidence-free shirt when his mother walked through the door. When he came into the living room, his mother was kneeling on the floor next to the motionless cat. She could tell it was dead without even touching it.
Lawrence was startled when his mother began to laugh as she hovered over the dead cat. Tears rolled down her cheeks, which formed a painful smile.
“Look, hon,” she said. “He’s still winking at us.”
Lawrence found it difficult to put on his salesman persona following a night of fractured sleep and waking nightmares, but he gave it a shot, he had a quota to meet. Home after home, trailer after trailer, he was turned down by wary townspeople.
He was ready to call it a day when he pulled into the long, lonesome driveway of the last stop in town, Rancho Verde. The parched landscape seemed hardly hospitable to any living creature, and the home on the property appeared less welcoming yet. Small mounds of dirt dotted the ranch’s property as if a metropolis of armadillos had settled beneath the surface.
The mismatched plank boards which made up the home’s outer walls whistled in the stinging Texas wind. Lawrence grabbed the bible from his passenger seat and fought with the door of his Mercedes as the wind forced against it.
He proceeded to the front porch, when a sharp hisss cut through the wind. A skeletal cat with a sheeny black coat crouched next to the steps with shoots of hair sticking straight up on its back. Lawrence shooed the cat away with his foot, though it didn’t scamper away without a quick swat at his pant leg.
The door to the apartment stood ajar and inside the place looked unoccupied.
“Hello?” Lawrence called into the dark room.
He gave the door a gentle nudge and watched it swing open. Inside the home were remnants of an old West family’s belongings, with almost no sign of modern influence. Despite his better judgment, his curiosity lured him further into the room.
Aside from the sunlight emitting through the discolored window panes on either side of the home, a certain greenish aura refracted in the room. Lawrence unlocked his phone to use the light to illuminate the room.
On top of a kitchen table in the center of the room, he found a rusty sieve and various spades, shovels, and picks. He lifted the sieve and watched the long-undisturbed sand granules sift through the bottom. The sieve reminded him of the time his mother took him to a jewel mining tourist stop as a young boy when they were traveling through the Rocky Mountains.
A tiny stone dropped from the sieve and skipped along the floorboards. Lawrence set the sieve back in its place and decided he’d overstayed his welcome, but he noticed something glistening through his peripheral vision and the curiosity flooded back.
He knelt down to the floor and spotted the tiny green emerald against the dusty wooden floor. The emerald gleamed with as much ambition as a stone five times its size and was enough of a distraction to make Lawrence forget about his pitiful day of sales. It felt small in his hand, but its clarity presented no qualms. He’d never seen something so beautiful, let alone held it in the palm of his hand.
He hardly noticed he was no longer alone in the home.
Watching him from the door frame was the silhouetted body of a mangy black cat. Despite his inability to make out the features of the cat, Lawrence could feel it staring at him.
The cat stood its ground, intentionally defying his commands. Lawrence stood up from his crouched position and felt the cat’s line of vision follow his movements.
He whipped around and saw the metal sieve settle on the ground like a coin in its final revolutions of a good spin. Another black cat sat perched atop the kitchen table. Lawrence cursed himself when he noticed the emerald was gone. He spotted it on the floor next to one of the chairs and set to retrieve it.
Out from under the table a black paw reached out and swiped at Lawrence’s hand, which drew blood. Lawrence swatted the cat away, but not before the cat managed to knock the emerald between the floorboards.
A fit of anger struck Lawrence like never before. He took the spade up off the table and began hacking at the wooden planks. The rotted wood chipped away and splintered with ease against the sharpened edge. Beads of sweat collected along his forehead as he yanked and pulled up the floorboards one by one.
His eyes grew wider and wider with intense wonder as a green hue cast itself across his face. At last, he’d gotten to what lay beneath the house. Clusters of emeralds of all levels of clarity, shapes, and sizes seemed to cover the ground below.
He laughed with a wicked sense of pleasure and jumped into the trove of precious stones below. He had struck rich. The emeralds would afford him the life he always dreamed of. No more traveling from town to town selling words he never believed in. He would travel the world like a king.
Lawrence grabbed shimmering handfuls of the gems and shoved them inside his jacket pockets, but when he realized the pockets were insufficient, he tore off his jacket and used it as a nap sack.
The scorching evening had fallen into a black desert night. Lawrence collected all he could carry and threw the sack of emeralds up on the floorboards above him. He hoisted himself up through the hole he’d chiseled and froze.
He was surrounded by eyes, greener than emeralds and far more intense. The eyes floated around like spirits in the pitch-black night air. Lawrence chuckled as the eyes danced around like a brilliant ballet of gemstones, drawing closer and closer until the only thing he could see was one emerald eye.
The eye from his childhood. The eye of a black cat he couldn’t seem to shake. One cat that never died and never would. His demon, his tormentor - Winky, the black cat from Hell.