Warning: The following story contains scenes of violence that may be upsetting to a younger audience. Reader discretion is advised.
“Dad, are we lost?”
“No, sweetie. Of course not.”
“Where are we then?”
“In the car.” Tom chuckled as Abby rolled her eyes at him from the backseat in a perfect imitation of her mother. Alongside him, Susan was staring straight ahead, a tiny muscle working in her jaw – a clear sign she was annoyed. “Don’t worry, this road has to come out somewhere.”
Except Tom was worried. The trip had started well enough. They’d left Durban that morning for a much needed weekend away in Port Edward, and seemed to be making good time. But, somewhere on the last leg of the trip, Tom must have taken a wrong turn. The barren two-lane road stretched on, no end in sight.
“Well, at least we’re going the right way,” Abby offered from the back. Beside her, baby Jo slept contentedly on his car seat
“How can you tell?”
“Because, daaaad,” she dragged out the last word in the way only a ten-year-old can. “We’re following the river. And all rivers lead to the sea.”
She had a point. The road was indeed following the course of the broad, muddy waterway alongside, both nestled between endless verdant hills, and would take them to the coast eventually. But with little over an hour of daylight left, they needed to find a place to stay for the night with increasing urgency.
“Still no cell reception,” Susan huffed. “You know, Tom, if you hadn’t insisted on being such a man and stopped to ask directions – “
“Stopped where! We haven’t seen a single person for hours!”
“Well – “
“Guys, look! Did you see that sign?” Abby shrieked, starling baby Jo awake.
Susan leaned back to retrieve the howling infant. “What’d it say, Tom?”
“Port St Johns, 3 Km. Sounds like a town. We’ll definitely find a place to stay the night there. See, Abbs?” he grinned at his daughter in the rearview mirror. “Never doubt your old man.”
Nestled in the crook of the valley, where the river flowed into the sea and surrounded by lush vegetation, the town didn’t lack for impressive scenery. It did, however, seem to lack inhabitants. As they drove down the lone tar road, they saw not a single person or car. Nothing. The few establishments were shut tight. The place was deserted.
It must be the time of year, Tom figured. It was the second week in March, slap between the peak December-January summer rush and the winter sardine run. When the tourists packed up and went home, the place probably shut down. Still, there had to be somewhere they could stay.
“Look, Tom! There’s a guest house over there.” Susan was just as tired as her husband and eager to find a convenient dry nesting place for the night.
“I’ll take a look.” Tom parked in the deserted lot and approached the ramshackle old building. His wife may not have been pregnant, but he would take any room the inn had to offer. And, failing that, the stable would do. It’d have to – when it came to accommodation in Port St Johns, this place seemed to be the only game in town.
In what passed for the reception area, Tom found an old man – presumably the proprietor – busy hammering a wooden plank over one of the windows. Curious. “Help you?” the man asked, not looking up from his task.
“Um… yeah. We’re looking for a place to stay. My family and me. We got lost, see, and – “
“Sorry, no can do. We’re closed.”
Tom was taken aback by the man’s abruptness. Weren’t small-town folk meant to be friendly? He decided to be assertive. “Look – “
“No, you look, mister. Let me give you the lay of the land hereabouts.” The man put down the hammer and squared up to the interloper. “This here’s a tourist burg. Peak season, the place is packed. We do enough trade to last us through the lean months. But times in between? It becomes a ghost town. We don’t take kindly to strangers wandering in the rest of the year.” His icy tone, and the glare accompanying it, gave his words a distinctively threatening feel.
“Okay. Could you at least direct me to somewhere that is open, then?”
“No can do. There’s nothing for you here, son. I were you, I’d get back in my car and hightail it on outta here. You don’t want to stick around, not tonight of all nights.” He then picked up his hammer again and resumed his task, signaling the end of the conversation.
Tom paused to collect his thoughts back outside. Dark was closing in fast, he was exhausted, and further driving wasn’t an option. Not with two young kids in tow. He was just wondering if they could sleep in the car when a voice startled him out of his troubled thoughts.
“You lost?” On the front porch of the dilapidated building, an old African woman sat in a rocker. Not old, Tom amended to himself, ancient. Between the endless folds and wrinkles of her chestnut face, two milky white eyes stared sightlessly out at him. He was certain she hadn’t been there before.
“Uh… no – “
“Oh, I t’ink you are. Don’ worry, I know a place you can stay. You and your family.”
How had she known about Susan and the kids? Even if she hadn’t been blind, the car wasn’t visible from the porch. Tom was about to decline when he remembered the old man’s words. There’s nothing for you here, son. In terms of accommodation options, there were none in Port St Johns, it seemed. “Okay. Thanks.” He replied reluctantly, not about to look this gift horse in the mouth, toothless though it may be.
“Up over on tha hill, yonder. Small green place. Can’t miss it.” The woman replied, pointing vaguely to the east. She held out a small, silver key. “You be safe there for tha night.” As if summoned by her words, a black cat emerged from beneath the rocker and began twirling between her legs.
“Thank you. I’m happy to pay. How much – “
“Oh, don’ worry. You will pay. Later.”
As he walked back to the car, Tom thought he heard her add something, but when he turned back, she appeared to be fast asleep, the cat resting on her narrow lap. It had sounded like, Don’t feed the strays.
A tingle ran the length of his spine for no reason he could identify. “I’m just tired, that’s all,” Tom muttered to himself. But that wasn’t all, and he knew it. Something about the encounter with the old woman had given him a grade A case of the willies.
The house was easy to find, perched atop the hill as it was, and just as small as advertised. Tom supposed it had been green once, probably back when the old woman still had the use of her eyes and a mouth full of teeth, but the paint had long since faded and peeled away.
It did have a quaint, rustic charm though. The view of the estuary and the endless ocean beyond, bathed in the light of the spectacular sunset, was quite something. Inside, there was an open-plan living room with a small kitchenette in one corner. Through a door to the right was a bedroom. Abby claimed the former, expressing a desire to sleep on the musty couch. Her parents and baby brother would take the bedroom.
After a quick dinner of cold chicken and mashed potatoes, Abby went outside to play in the last of the daylight while her parents washed up. They were quickly summoned by their daughter’s hysterical shrieks.
“H-he b-b-bit me!” She wailed, pointing to the large black cat disappearing into the trees.
“It’s okay, sweetie. It’s just a small scratch,” Tom consoled his daughter, hoisting her up onto his hip as he did. He peered at her offered palm. “It’s not even bleeding much. Come on, let’s go inside and get it cleaned up. It’s nearly time for bed anyway.”
“Tom, what about rabies?” Susan asked in a lowered voice as she trailed her husband inside.
“I wouldn’t worry, hon. Did you see the size of that thing? It’s definitely not a stray.” As he said this, Tom flashed on the old woman’s parting words. Or, at least, what he’d probably imagined were her parting words. The tingle returned. “It’s got to be someone’s pet. It’s being fed well enough.”
Susan hoped her husband was right. She cast a wary glance over her shoulder before closing the sliding glass door and locking it behind her.
Later that night, the family slept soundly while the full moon gazed down on the still, silent town below. No, not quite still. An observer might have noticed some movement in the shadows. A twitch here. A flicker there. Barely perceptible at first, but steadily progressing until eventually, it seemed as if the shadows themselves had come alive and were flowing down Main street in a black tide. But, of course, there was no one to observe. No one but the moon.
Tom and Susan came awake together, disturbed by Abby’s shrieks for the second time in a matter of hours. Baby Jo, in his cot next to the bed beneath the window, awoke as well and began howling in tandem with his sister.
“It’s just Abby, hon. Probably a nightmare. I’ll go see.”
When he walked into the living room, Tom saw his daughter not in her bed on the couch, but standing before the sliding door, palm pressed to the glass. As he watched, she lowered it, leaving a bloody handprint behind. “Oh, sweetie – “ He stopped cold as she turned around. Abby’s eyes had the blank stare of one who’d been hypnotized. Her mouth hung slack and she swayed gently back and forth in place. Behind her, through the glass, Tom saw what at first he could barely credit.
The porch was covered with cats. Thousands of black cats, bathed in the pale glow of the moon, stretching back as far as the eye could see. A seething, swirling feline mass.
Susan, having quieted the baby down, came out of the bedroom and joined her husband. She let out a little yelp of surprise and rushed forward, kneeling down beside her daughter. “Abby, what happened – “
Her words were drowned out by the sound of breaking glass from the bedroom. Baby Jo began to cry again, the sound cut off abruptly by an earsplitting feline wail, followed by silence.
Tom rushed back into the bedroom, telling his wife and daughter to stay put. He emerged seconds later, wild-eyed and frantic, grabbing the broom from the kitchenette and leaving abruptly though the back door. He said not a word, only held up his palm like a traffic cop, ordering his wife to halt.
“S-sweetie. S-stay h-here, okay? Mom will b-be right b-back.” Susan instructed her daughter as terror gripped her heart. She stumbled into the bedroom. The scene flashed before her in a series of still images, like a gruesome slideshow. The broken window. The empty cot beneath. And the smear of blood running up the wall and over the windowsill.
Through the broken glass, she saw her husband emerge from the side of the house. He ran towards the undergrowth, where he stopped, frozen beneath the searchlight of the moon. He dropped the broom. He fell to his knees. He raised his hands to his face and covered his eyes. His mouth was working but Susan couldn’t hear what he was saying. Tom’s words were drowned out by the sound of tearing, of gnashing teeth and sharp claws, coming from the bushes.
As she watched, transfixed in horror, the shadows detached from the foliage and swarmed over her husband, a black sea of fur and claws and fangs.
Susan turned from the sight, slamming the bedroom door behind her. Although her mind gibbered at her in terror, threatening to freeze her in place, the practical, logical part that remained had the final say. Get out! Now! It screamed.
She scooped up her still comatose daughter, grabbed the car keys, and made a mad dash for the vehicle in the driveway, not expecting to make it but knowing she had to try.
She managed to bundle Abby into the passenger seat and get round to the driver's side before the cats descended. She only just managed to shut her door in time. Hands trembling, she took several tries to get the key in the ignition. When the car eventually started and the headlights bathed the long, steep driveway, she could not believe what she saw.
Every inch of the surface was covered in cats. Black cats. A teeming blanket of hungry shadows.
“Hang on Abby, it’s going to get bumpy.” Susan put the car in gear and hit the gas.
The car shot down the driveway, a horrendous crunch and crackle emitting from beneath the tires. The vehicle didn’t stay on the driveway for long. It lost traction and veered off to one side, careening down the steep hill and smashing into a tree.
Susan hit her head on the steering wheel and blacked out for a moment or two. When she came round, she saw a tide of black streaming in through the broken windshield. The last sight afforded her was of a big, black tabby, possibly the same one from earlier, perched on her daughter's chest. It was eating her face.
Susan’s mind snapped then. She began to scream uncontrollably. The sound was cut short before long, and silence descended on the small town once again.
The next morning, the sun rose as fierce and proud as always over Porst St Johns. If any of the year-round residents noticed the town’s rodent population had decreased drastically overnight, or that any pets left outdoors had gone missing, it went unremarked as they unbarred their doors and unboarded their windows. These things were expected on rare days when Friday the 13th coincided with the full moon. Such was the price of living in one of the most beautiful places in the world, and it was deemed well worth it.
Out in the countryside surrounds, countless old women slunk back into their villages as the fiery orb in the sky was cresting the horizon. If any of their families noticed their absence is the night, or that the number of livestock in the fields had diminished somewhat, it went unremarked. These things were expected on rare days when Friday the 13th coincided with the full moon, and perhaps explained the local’s superstitious dread of black cats. Such was the price of living in one of the most beautiful places in the world, and it was deemed well worth it.
At a certain quaint old guest house in the center of town, the elderly proprietor and his wife enjoyed their first cup of coffee of the morning out on their back porch, overlooking the river mouth. The muddy brown water mixing with the pristine aquamarine shade of the sea was a sight to behold, especially backlit spectacularly by the rising sun as it was.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” The woman remarked after a while.
“That man that came round yesterday. Think he and his family got out in time?”
“I hope so. I tried to scare the fella off as best I could. He seemed to get the message.”
“And if he didn’t?”
“Hush, woman. Nothing we can do about that now, is there?”
The pair sat in companionable silence a while longer, enjoying the view and the cool morning breeze, before the woman spoke again. “When’s the next one? You know…”
“Not for a good many years. We’ll be long gone by then, I should think.”
“Thank God for small mercies.”
“Oh, come now. It’s not that bad. It’s the price of living in one of the most beautiful places in the world.”
“And it’s well worth it,” they finished together.
Because it was.