Shelby the rat skidded to a stop on the dew-slick grass when she saw a black cat. No, not just a black cat, but the jet black cat Jack, an insufferably arrogant cat that only ever ate, lounged, disdained, and occasionally partook in his sole hobby – mousing. And he was a savage mouser.
Hallowe’en was without a doubt the worst day of the year, and this one was already shaping up to break records. Of course, the stupid shindig yesterday wasn’t much better. Shelby knew better than to spend all night partying, but in her defence Ramón was there, and they danced and he was just so damn chiseled she could barely stand it. But she had a bit too much to drink, because she didn’t quite make it home and woke up under a shrub. And now she was going to die.
Unless she managed to sneak away, since Jack hadn’t seen her yet. She tucked her tail and back-pawed. And then stepped right onto a crunchy fall leaf, which tore, crackled, and shattered under even her meager weight.
Jack snapped his head in her direction. His eyes found hers, and then his pupils ballooned as he locked on.
Ah, balls, she thought.
She bounded away with a squeak, and the cat-in-black followed.
Shelby sprinted under a shriveled rosebush, but Jack gracefully sidestepped it. She dove into a carved jack-o-lantern (Terrible name, she thought) and Jack pounced on it, knocking it over. She crawled out its mouth, and his paw whipped after her and just missed. She leapt off the pumpkin and Jack meowed! fiercely, stuck.
Ha, dumbass, she thought.
Jack violently jerked his arm out of the pumpkin, tearing its face apart. The cat, his gleaming black coat draped in strands of orange gore, flashed all his teeth and hissed loud enough to set off the three closest murders of crows.
Aw, Jesus, seriously? she thought.
Shelby bolted as Jack pounced. He just missed her with his paws as she ran into the street. No, she didn’t look left and right. Yes, it was dangerous, because of humans and their dumb cars. She had other things on her mind. She sprinted across the street just as the Kelleys’ SUV drove up. She cleared it with tail to spare, but Jack wasn’t so lucky.
But he wasn’t all that unlucky either, as the Kelleys must have seen him. After all, everyone in the neighbourhood knew he belonged to the crazy lady. They slammed on their brakes, and the car squealed to a stop, as did the cat. The bumper juddered a whisker’s width from Jack’s nose, and for a moment, everything was quiet.
Serves you right, you dolt, Shelby thought, and then she slunk under the Bakers’s fence.
Jack drew back, sputtered indignantly, and slapped the bumper over and over and over, because honestly, the audacity of it all! These people almost pancaked him – him of all people! – with their careless humanness.
The Kelleys honked, and when Jack wouldn’t leave, they honked again, and finally just leaned on the horn. Jack scrammed just as other neighbours screamed at the Kelleys to shut up, and so Shelby had earned herself some reprieve.
But she wasn’t familiar with the Bakers’s yard, nor sure how to get to her home from there. Everything would be so much easier after midnight, but when she looked up she saw it wasn’t even noon.
Maybe I can just wait it out, she thought. And then her stomach roiled. More hangover than hunger, and with the adrenaline of Jack’s chase fading, she felt acutely thirsty.
She stuck to the begonias and peonies growing alongside the Bakers’s house, each of them losing a battle against autumn. Old Lady Baker was always puttering around with her plants, which meant a garden hose somewhere. Shelby crept along until she came to the end of the plants, and surveilled the back yard. And there it was, coiled in the grass.
She slunk towards the hose, sniffed at the head, but it was dry.
Blast it! she thought. Her tail swished back and forth.
She snuffled the ground, but it too was most unmoist. Then she side-eyed the nozzle. Could she trigger it? How hard could it be? Harder than it seemed, it seemed. When she pushed the handle she just ended up sliding the whole nozzle around. She realized she’d need to brace it against something.
She skulked around the garden until she found a stone, then rolled it towards the hose. She jammed it into the ground and braced it against the nozzle’s handle. Then she took a run at the trigger and slammed into it. It depressed!
The whole hose thrummed with the water’s violent rush, and then the spring shot back and flung Shelby into the air. She spun twice and crashed, but when she rose with a grunt, she realized she had succeeded. The grass was freshly beaded with water. She lumbered towards it, already able to taste that refreshing liquid, but then a trio of squirrels tore onto the lawn. They chittered madly with their ridiculous teeth and darted after Shelby.
Damn it! Shelby thought, scramming away from the lunatics. The squirrels chased her all over the lawn and to the fence, which she crawled under. They didn’t follow her, so she took a breather, but it turned out this new yard was the home of the Chens’s Dobermann, Chainsaw. Chainsaw growled a single warning, sounding like his namesake, and then he lunged.
Shelby flattened her ears and ran like she’d never run before. Under garden chairs which Chainsaw knocked aside. Under a barbeque which Chainsaw leapt over and tipped. She sprinted towards a riding mower but at the last moment veered left. Chainsaw, too committed, slammed right into the machine, causing it to rock. He yelped once.
It was enough of a break for Shelby to slip under the next fence. Behind her the fence boards shook as Chainsaw slammed into them. He barked and tore at the ground with his paws. Shelby put another three yards between herself and the dog.
When she cleared the third she found a shrub and collapsed under it. Oh yes, this Hallowe’en was on track to break all records as the worst.
When she opened her eyes again she saw the shadows were longer, and she realized she must have passed out. This sent a chill through her veins, but nothing had eaten her. Then she heard the distant shrieks of children, all crying in unison. The trick-or-treaters were out. The little terrorists would be crawling all over the streets, making-believe they were monsters and never once realizing the real monsters were under the masks. All it would take was just one of them to spot a rat, and they’d all scream and throw rocks and stomp.
But then she noticed this yard had a bird bath. It was a three-foot-tall marble bowl on a carved column – well, okay, it was probably plastic – and as there were a couple hummingbirds there, there must have been water too. A bit of a climb, but… her stomach roiled and settled the debate.
Shelby scrambled up and startled the birds. They glared at her, but she ignored them and dunked her face in the water. It was so cool and refreshing, balm for her parched soul.
When she had her fill she looked down at the water, watching the playful waves ripple across the surface. She saw the reflection of the darkening sky, and there, she saw the mirror image of the full moon rising. Oh, how she hated that moon. It was the worst of all possible moons, especially on this, the worst of all possible days.
And then she saw the reflection of something moving quickly, quickly looming larger, and largely resembling an owl.
Shelby threw herself from the bird bath with a squee! and the owl whooshed by, talons just missing. It glided soundlessly and looped around for another pass, while she plopped to the ground with a burp. She had drunk too much water and felt the start of a cramp, but she put it out of her mind and once more cannonballed away.
The one time she looked over her shoulder she saw the owl diving, and she let out a panicked squark! Death loomed from above, but in front of her, perhaps salvation: a vast cave of shadows beneath a minivan. And maybe, just maybe, she saw the gleaming black eyes of another rat there, watching her approach. Safe harbour, if she could make it.
She dove at the last moment and felt the rush of talons ruffling her fur. But the owl pulled up, not wanting to slam into the van. Shelby hurtled under the vehicle and skidded to a stop beneath it, less running than bouncing, rolling, and flopping.
She could barely breathe. Her heart again hammered her ribcage and every muscle hurt, and for a moment all she could do was lay in the darkness. But eventually she caught her breath, and noticed the other rat had sidled up to her.
He sat up on his haunches and sniffed at her.
Yeah, I’m okay buddy, thanks, she thought. She rolled over and got up. The other rat snuffled her snout.
Yeah, thanks, she thought. She patted him on the shoulder and then stretched. That was a close one, wasn’t it?
He snuffled at her side, and then her legs, and then behind–
Hey! Shelby swatted his ear. Not interested, buddy! Jesus, at least buy me dinner first.
The other rat retreated, sniffed in her general direction. And then Shelby got the hiccoughs, so he lost interest.
They stood like that for a while, as night crept in. The trick-or-treaters were out in full force, and every few seconds they heard the shrill battle cry of the sugar addict, “TRICK OR TREAT!!!” The little maniacs did everything with extra exclamation marks on Hallowe’en, and the streets became a terrifying land that honest animals didn’t dare to tread.
So Shelby and the other rat were stuck for the foreseeable future. And since it was getting colder as the night dragged on too, she started shivering. By the time it was fully dark out, the youngest trick-or-treaters retired. That meant the worst ones would be out in bigger numbers. They weren’t so much treaters as trickers.
The other rat started shuffling to the edge of the minivan, apparently tired of waiting.
Maybe it’s not a bad idea, Shelby thought. She didn’t want to get caught outside with a bunch of teens running around.
The other rat sniffed the air at the edge of the minivan’s shadow and poked his head out. He sniffed some more, and turned back to her, indicating the coast was clear. Shelby breathed a sigh of relief.
Then an inky mass of black dropped down on him, tearing him clean in half.
Shelby let out a forlorn squee!
The shadowy mass lowered its head, and looked under the van. And again, Shelby found herself looking into Jack’s eyes. The other rat was already forgotten, as the cat crouched and assessed the minivan. It wasn’t about food with him – Jack would never deign to eat something as lowly as a rat. For him, it was about the sheer joy of the slaughter.
Shelby didn’t know what overcame her. She let out a torrent of squeaking and charged right at him, her jaws snapping and her claws swiping at the air. Jack’s eyes widened and he let out a miserable mreew! He leapt clear away from her.
Jack stared at her as though he had seen a dog ghost. One paw was in the air and his tail twitched nervously. Shelby kept her eyes locked on his, and then she… well, she made a noise. A kind of grunt, or bark. It was a little hissy, since her lungs were small. In any case, it was a strange noise and it unsettled Jack, and he flinched and moved a couple more feet away.
Shelby backed out down the drive way, keeping her eyes on the cat. She put good distance between them, but she knew it would only be a matter of time before the psycho overcame his shock and reset to factory defaults. Still, there must have been a solid ten feet between them before Jack dared a step in her direction. That’s when she bolted.
Jack followed, at first keeping pace but then indulging his instincts and resuming the hunt. Shelby ran unnoticed by a group of trick-or-treaters, but when they saw Jack they shouted “Black cat! Black cat!” and startled him anew, which gave her some elbow room. And then, the damned full moon actually helped out for a change, because in the distance Shelby saw the little house on the corner where she lived. She dashed for it.
But when she looked over her shoulder Jack was gaining on her. She scurried up the driveway of the house and ran at the side door, but of course it was closed and she had no way of turning the knob. She slipped into the back yard and Jack leapt over the fence.
She thought she might be able to make it into the shed, but she’d been running around all day and Jack was a well-rested, well-fed house cat. She realized she wouldn’t get there in time, and then Jack pounced. Shelby stood by awaiting her fate.
And then the sky nudged the moon an inch to the left, signalling midnight had come and gone; the day was officially over. Jack sailed through the air with his claws out and Shelby caught him by the scruff of his neck, with her once-again human hand.
“Bad cat!” she said, shaking her index finger at him.
He flailed about half-heartedly and mewled most piteously, but in truth he liked being carried around by humans so it didn’t bother him too much. Something about the arrangement was just so proper.
“I swear, I’m going to put you up for adoption.”
She dug out her spare key from under a garden gnome’s hat and unlocked her side door. A part of her was worried about the neighbours seeing her naked – a minor consequence of the wererat’s curse, which was arguably the least useful curse – but after the day she had, she thought, Screw it.
Inside she set Jack down, filled his bowl with kibble, and petted him once, because psycho-or-not, he was her fur baby. She swore off liquor, prepared for bed, and then noticed the trees in her front yard were draped with TP. She sighed.
“Worst day of the year.”