I sunk my fingers into Sorrow’s black fur. She let out a hiss. A neat little claw took a swipe at me. ‘You can’t stay here,’ I told her. ‘I need to use my keyboard.’
The black cat finally drew herself up, back arching, hackles raised.
I returned my eyes to the bleary screen. The essay only contained a single sentence.
I tapped my fingers on the desk, awaiting the demons of inspiration. There was an unopened letter close to my escape key. I already knew the sender from the scrawled letters of my name on the front. If my uncle had something to say, it should be an apology. And that slim envelope couldn’t possibly fit an “I’m sorry” inside. Yet, what irked me the most was that he hadn’t messaged me online, he’d gone out of his way to find my new home.
‘I need snacks,’ I said, abruptly.
Sorrow glared at me from her new spot by the tower of books.
I shouldered my bag and snatched my keys from the dresser. I sidestepped another black cat that had settled on The Witch Is Inmat on my porch.
‘Sorrow is not seeing anyone today,’ I told the snoozing shadow as I hopped down the stairs.
‘Hilarious,’ it snarked.
I snapped around at the voice. But the black cat appeared mid-yawn. It hadn’t spoken.
I was almost out the front gate when, yet another black cat streaked past. I felt it bristle against my leg, before it ducked into the undergrowth of the blue-dipped agapanthus.
By the time I’d reached the corner store, I was a bundle of nerves. Seven more cats, looking like spilt ink, had darted out in front of me. One even having the gall to flick its tail, and smirk in my direction as it sauntered off the river path and into the trees.
‘It’s just a bit weird, don’t you think?’ I told the cashier.
She gave a bored shrug and a snap of her chewing gum. ‘Must be a conspiracy,’ she replied.
I rolled my eyes, and threw the almond fingers into my bag, along with a tin of sardines for Sorrow.
I kicked at the pebbles of the path as I made my way home. Listening to the sound of splashes as the stones skittered along the bank and into the murky water of the winding river.
By the trunk of a thin, naked tree, I noticed a slinking shadow. Its paws falling silently as it moved towards me.
I grew still, watching as the trees relinquished more creatures.
The black cats had returned.
They weren’t shy of me – several pressed up against my legs to usher me from the path. And if I tried to derail their movements, I was greeted by loud hisses and nips at my shins.
I was guided over the small wooden bridge, not one cat looking at the coiling fat fish in the water below. We moved like a single organism over the hill’s crest and down into the misty valley where the town cemetery was buried out of sight.
I held my breath, trying to refrain a snigger at the black cats that had lured me to a cemetery. Should I be wary of a bone-rattling skeleton emerging from behind a headstone? Perhaps a Victorian-garbed ghost would glide through me, sending chills to my core?
All around were crumbling tombs and headless angels, the grass had grown too long, and the gnarled trees possessed more lichen than leaves. It wasn’t just the townspeople that had forsaken the dead.
The sweet mildew stench barraged my nostrils as the cats pressed me further down the cobbled path. I heard the small voice before I saw the culprit. The central crypt ruined but wholly, with an iron door of creeping ivy, was harbouring something with a voice.
A wiry pale hand stretched through the door as the cats ushered me closer.
‘Please, please.’ The being whispered.
I felt pressure against the backs of my knees as the shadows pressed their claws, forcing me to kneel at the crypt’s door.
My mind was whirring like the cogs in an automaton. How had I wound up here?
Human eyes peered at me from the darkness. A swathe of red hair, white ribbon lips, and bruised fingernails – she couldn’t have been more than thirteen.
And the markings that bloomed on her skin – I’d known them before. What they entailed. What sad stories they illustrated.
‘What happened?’ I asked. ‘How did you get stuck in there?’ My hands were shaking as I fumbled with the door’s lock.
The coven of cats had assembled about to watch me. Some lazing on the roof of the crypt, others draping over the stone angels like fancy stoles. Several lay close, bellies on the cobbled pavement, tails flicking.
‘I ran away from my stepfather,’ she rasped. ‘This is my punishment.’
‘How long have you been here?’ I cracked the tab from Sorrow’s sardines.
‘I’m not sure,’ she replied.
‘And the cats?’ I slid the metal tab into the keyhole, hooking it up and turning it slowly, awaiting the gentle clicks.
‘They live here.’
Her eyes widened. A small smile spread across her face as the lock’s arm popped free.
I heaved the door wide, it squealed with age and torment.
The girl helped pull me to my feet. Her grip was fiercer than the iron, and her fingernails left crescent marks in my skin.
‘Ow,’ I hissed, yanking my hand away.
Her eyes grew dark and her smile became haunting – pointed canines profoundly gleaming.
I stumbled back, scouring the ground for a weapon.
She hissed at me. Fingers outstretched. Her feet did not touch the ground as she encroached.
I wanted to cry, to bury my face in my hands, and curl up into a ball. My heart thundered.
A furry shadow clawed at my side, leaving a deep red stain on my denim shorts.
I whimpered as I noticed crimson pawprints all around me. I could smell the thick metallic stench of the blood trailing from the crypt. Yet, the girl I’d freed wasn’t marred by any wounds. All I could see on her pale skin were old puckered scars, some so great they made me wince.
‘Oh,’ I breathed. I moved back towards the iron door, stepping slowly down into the darkness.
‘What are you doing?’ she screeched. Her spirited hands pinched at my shirt, trying to pull me away. Icy fingers grasping at my hair.
Her true body lay at the base of the steps. I could only see the silhouette of her broken frame – the darkness had never been so kind to me before.
As soon as I touched the girl’s wrist, the vengeful spirit dissolved into the misty surrounds. A final screech lingered.
I used a knife to pry open the lid of sardines for Sorrow’s dinner, sharing pieces of the slim fish to her and the black cemetery cats that had followed me home. The news hummed in the background.
The body of thirteen-year-old, Maeve Williams was found today. Her stepfather has been arrested…
I sighed and switched off the television.
Several cats closed their eyes – at peace. They’d all found a place in my apartment. Some atop the shelving of potted plants, others sprawled on the windowsills, more intertwining like coiled pythons on the flattened rugs.
With permanent marker I wrote “Return to Sender” on the letter, before slipping it off my desk and into my bag. I pulled out the crushed almond fingers, flipped open my laptop, and sat down to write my essay with Sorrow by my side.