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Mystery

The black cat shot from the Kowalczyk’s hedge across my bow like a cannonball. At the same instant, the crack of a bat sounded, and ten-year-old Brian Kowalczyk nearly beaned me with a line drive hit off his younger brother Steve’s pitching. As Steve scrambled after the ball, Brian grinned sheepishly and waved. “Sorry, Mr. Stevens!”

After my years in Nam, I don’t startle easily, and anyway, no harm had been done. I waved back and said, “Nice hitting! Who’s cat was that?”

Brian shrugged and took a practice swing as Steve scampered back to the imaginary mound, ball in hand.

I’d never seen a black cat in our neighborhood, so it was either a stray or somebody’s new family member. I should know. Every afternoon, I did a half-hour march around the area to keep my heart and my doctor happy. This had been my routine since my wife passed away two years before, and along the way I talked to people, so I knew everyone, dogs and cats included.

Then again, it was October thirty-first. Maybe somebody had planted that cat to scare me.

Okay, not really, but the thought was amusing. Leaving the baseball game behind, I walked on, enjoying the Halloween decorations in the windows of the near-identical split levels, the jack-o-lanterns by the doors, the ghosts fluttering from tree branches, the plastic gravestones standing in the lawns. The sun burned in the clear autumn sky. The kids would have a great night for trick-or-treating.

Oddly, when I came to the end of the block, that black cat was waiting for me. Or no. This one was bigger with a white locket on its breast. It eyed me as I slowed, smiled, and said, “Hi there, little—“

It bolted down the sidewalk, then turned and glared at me.

Fine, I thought. Be that way. Still watching it, I reached the curb. Just before I stepped into the street, it charged me and strafed my feet. At the same moment, a sky blue SUV streaked by, blasting the neighborhood with sonic vibrations presumably regarded by the driver as music. Stunned, I watched the vehicle vanish down the street. The cat bounded after it before ducking into Mrs. Golino’s daylily beds.

I had a momentary urge to follow and see if it belonged to the Golinos, but no, that wasn’t possible. Mr. Golino loved to regale folks with stories of his allergies: dust, tree pollen, peanuts, goldenrod, and cat dander.

So where had it come from?

No telling. I looked both ways three times before crossing the street. Down the next block, I saw Paul Twenebo perched on an extension ladder, lopping dead limbs off the big maple in his front yard. The tree had already dropped most of its foliage, but a few red leaves clung to it. Wearing goggles and attacking the wood with a hand saw, Paul looked sinister, like he’d stepped out of a horror movie. Downed branches littered his lawn.

I would have called a greeting but didn’t want to startle him. Two near-misses were enough for one day. He heard my footsteps, though, and as the next branch fell glanced back and waved. “Hey, Mr. Stevens! Ready for trick-or-treating tonight?”

“Laid in half a ton of candy,” I replied.

As he laughed and returned to his work, I caught movement in a smaller tree on the opposite side of the walk. Before I could react, a skinny black cat leaped from the yellowing foliage and all but landed on my shoulder. Startled, I twisted out of its way and lost my footing. As I fell, a yelp sounded above, and Paul tumbled out of the tree. He spilled onto the walk a few paces ahead. His ladder and saw crashed between us.

I scrambled to my feet. “Are you okay?” I asked, hurrying to Paul to help him up.

“Whoa,” he said. He stood and brushed off his knees and examined his palms. “I sure hope the missus didn’t see that. She didn’t want me up there in the first place.”

“What happened?” I expected him to say the cat tried to kill him, but he hadn’t seen it.

“I guess I didn’t have the ladder placed right.”

The demonic beast was nowhere to be found now, so I didn’t mention it. Once assured Paul wasn’t hurt, I went on my way and noticed, with a backward glance, that he had repositioned the ladder and returned to the fray. Brave man.

But me, I was starting to go nuts. Everywhere I looked, I saw sinister cat eyes peeking from the bushes. But can you blame me? Three black cats, on Halloween, each precipitating a near-disaster! This wasn’t just coincidence. It was an ambush, a coordinated attack. Where would the next one be hiding? In a tree? In a flower bed? Around the corner of a house? Inside an open garage? Under a car? I kept my eyes peeled for any sign of unusual activity, any movement in the shadows, but saw nothing. Unfortunately, when you expect an assailant hiding nearby, you readily miss the one waiting in the open.

 Which the stout black cat with the white rear paw was. It strolled by innocent as a child as I was passing Martin Couture’s excessively fertilized, emerald green lawn. I didn’t notice it until it rubbed against my leg. Sucking in a sharp breath, I nudged it away with my foot. “Scat!” I commanded.

It didn’t scat. It purred, circled me, and rubbed against me again, so persistently friendly that I halted to avoid stepping on it. And that’s when the attack came. A little red sports car zipped by and fired a hubcap at me. The disk spun across my path, barely missing both the cat and I, mowed a great arc across Martin’s lawn, spitting grass tips as it went, careened into Mrs. Wilson’s yard next door, and struck her garden gnome, nearly decapitating it. Plaster dust sprayed everywhere. A moment later. Mrs. Wilson exploded through the front door, screaming. She rushed to the gnome and ran her hands over the poor, injured thing. Then she screamed at the retreating car, “Get back here! You break it, you buy it! Don’t you dare run off!”

But it squealed around a corner and was gone. The cat, of course, vanished before I could finger the real culprit.

“Did you see that?” Mrs. Wilson wailed at me.

“Almost got hit by it,” I told her.

The way she stroked the statuette, she probably wished I’d thrown myself in front of the hubcap. I didn’t bother explaining that soldiers aren’t called to sacrifice themselves for plaster gnomes.

I had to finish my exercise without dying, if possible. I moved on, twice as alert now, mistrusting every leaf rusting in the breeze. I took extra care rounding the next corner. No cats, no cars, no vans, nothing. All quiet on the western front.

Until an explosion of spitting and hissing broke the silence. Black cats five and six racketed by, embroiled in a feline turf war. They chased through Mrs. Sasaki’s columbine and ferns like enemy pilots engaged in a—pardon the cross-species metaphor—dog fight until, tangled in a hissing ball of black fur, they rolled over my feet. Mortified, I stood as still as a military statue but looking rather less heroic until they charged back through the ferns and vanished. Just as I breathed a sigh of relief, a mud dauber, one of those incredibly stupid wasps that sting if they fly into you, zipped by my nose. Clearly it was in league with the cats.

I had to escape this onslaught. I had to get home, lock the door, and pull down the blinds. I picked up my pace and wished I had brought my gun with me. Somebody needed to teach these monsters a lesson! Expecting more cats to pounce at any second, I narrowly missed the big green beach ball that sailed in front of me and into the street with little Ruthie Sorenson racing after, oblivious to everything else. As it sailed by, a huge black cat materialized from nowhere, shot passed her, and slammed into my ankles. I went down hard, right in front of Ruthie, who spilled over me, wailing and stretching her tiny arms in vain as a passing F150 ran over her ball.

Somehow, the ball escaped unharmed. I helped Ruthie up. “Stay here,” I told her. “I’ll get it for you.” I kept watch for more cats or vehicles until I was safely out of the road and the ball restored to the child. “Why don’t you play in your back yard?” I suggested. “That way the ball can’t get run over.”

She nodded solemnly and, sniffing and hugging her ball, trotted off. As I watched her go, a strange notion took root. No longer obsessed with cat attacks, I became lost in thought and, without realizing it, reached the end of the block and stepped into the street.

A sleek black cat flashed by my feet, forcing me to stop just as I heard the squealing brakes. A white Chevy rolled by while its driver, a young woman dressed all in black, cussed me out. In a daze, I wondered if she was a goth or just dressed for a Halloween party.

I stumbled on. The world, I mused, was far stranger than I could have imagined.

I was two doors from home when the ninth black cat crossed my path at an easy pace and yowled like a ghoul. The sound froze my blood. I stared after it as it passed by, until something struck the sidewalk with a strange clatter. Now what?

I picked up the object. Ice. A hailstone the size of a golf ball. I looked up. The sky remained that crystalline October blue. Where had this come from? And how had the cat known?

Didn’t matter. My strange notion was right. The cats weren’t attacking me. Maybe something else was after me, but not them. They were protecting me!

I reached my driveway to find one last black cat sitting there, having a bath. It looked up at my approach and yawned. I bent down and scratched it behind the ears. “So what are you here for?” I asked it.

It blinked at me.

I supposed I would find out soon enough. I started for the front door.

The cat mewed gently.

I looked at the animal.

I looked at my front door.

A whiff of rotten eggs seeped from a window.

I turned and went the other way, paid Mrs. Kowalczyk a visit, exchanged a few pleasantries, and asked to use her phone. Then I called the gas company and told them to get out here before my house blew up.

Good kitty.

November 02, 2019 02:48

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2 comments

Sue M
16:40 Nov 06, 2019

Dale, Congratulations! This is a winning story!! I loved the walk you took us on from beginning to end. You are clearly a very talented writer. Sue

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Dale Lehman
18:09 Nov 06, 2019

Thank you, Sue! I'm glad you enjoyed it!

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