MARK H. NEWHOUSE
The Curdle Cat slinks through the moonlit streets. He is silent, black, yet almost invisible, like fog. His ember eyes follow every movement of the flickering lights in the houses that are placed like neat matchboxes along the sides of the suddenly ominous black asphalt. He searches hungrily for a soul, a child’s soul.
It is Halloween.
The cat recognizes the house for which he has been searching. He remembers when he was a pet here, lying stretched in the child’s arms, purring as her fingers played through his soft fur. The memory of what he has lost makes his eyes narrow. He raises his ghostly face toward the moon, letting out a chilling wail that pierces the darkness. It is this desolate cry that has given him his name. It is a painfully, mournful cry that curdles the blood.
The cat leaps to a limb on a skeletal tree. From this perch he sends his cold breath down on all who pass below. Costumed children gathering candy from neighborhood homes look up, stare into his hollow eyes, and shiver with fear.
He does not move. They are not his target.
In seconds the children forget and are off again in a mad rush to get more candy, before the night is too thick, and their mothers call them inside.
Suddenly the cat picks up the scent of the girl who held him when she was a child. He thinks her name was Laurie. His memory after death is clouded. He is surprised to see how much older she appears to be. Dressed in jeans and black vinyl jacket, she is walking with two boys, none of the three in costume. They say they are too old to wear costumes, too old for Halloween…too old to be frightened.
The boys break away from Laurie. They dash behind two trees down the street. A group of younger children are walking toward them, chattering happily through their masks.
Laurie hides nearby, knowing what is going to happen. Her heart speeds and her tongue runs across her glossed lips in anticipation.
The cat feels the adrenaline surging in Laurie’s body as if it is his own. His eyes follow to where her eyes are aimed.
The young children, the age Laurie was just a few years ago, when she held the cat so tenderly, when she wanted the cat to sleep on her bed, are just passing under the twin trees.
The cat hears their sudden screams as Laurie’s friends rush out from where they have been hiding, waving their arms and throwing eggs.
Laurie laughs as their terrified young prey drop their bags of candy and run to their homes, screams lingering.
Laurie’s friends scoop up the bags and return to her laughing and bragging about what each of them did. She pops a toffee into her mouth, almost choking because she is laughing so hard.
The cat has watched it all. He hears the boys bragging, showing off for Laurie. He hears her laughing with them. His hair bristles, but he must wait. It is not time yet.
Laurie and her cohorts approach a house on the dimly lit street.
The taller boy, whispers to Laurie. He runs up to the porch, grabs a carved pumpkin and smashes it into juicy pulp in the middle of the road. The boy’s rage, as he pounds the pumpkin’s smiling face with his shoes, fuels the cat’s fury.
The cat’s stomach churns as Laurie slides her hand into this vandal’s fist.
The shorter boy walks ahead, hiding a grimace as he observes their clutched hands. His tongue runs across his chapped lips which repeat Laurie’s name whenever she can’t hear. In the darkness of his bedroom, his eyes reach out to her window each night.
Laurie knows the other boy is watching so she reaches up and kisses the vandal holding her hand, letting him taste her toffee breath. She pulls away when he tries for more. “Later,” she whispers, smiling slyly as the shorter boy walks quickly, to get even further away so he doesn’t have to hear them.
The cat feels all these things, and wonders how the child he knew could have changed so much. He recognizes the icy cruelty inside her, the anger.
It is almost midnight. The smaller children are safely asleep. The cat hears the contented sounds of house cats as they crawl into bed. It torments him to know Laurie grew tired of him, no longer loved him. He hates her for letting him loose to become what he is now, a forever homeless spirit lusting for revenge.
Laurie’s friends are prowling again. This time their target is a car. They swoop along its sleek sides with cans of shaving cream. They think it’s only a little fun, a Halloween trick-or-treat.
The car alarm screeches. Lights and windows open in the nearby house.
The boys escape, tossing the spent shaving cream cans into the gutter as they race down the street, Laurie forgotten for the moment.
The cat tenses, but it isn’t time yet.
Half a block away, the boys stop running, trying to catch their breath. They are laughing so hard they double over. “Did you see that old man running after us?”
Laurie rejoins them, scolding them for leaving her behind.
The vandal grins, grabs her hand and they are off again, roaming the streets, convinced they are the kings of Halloween.
A witch’s silhouette crosses the moon. It is midnight.
The cat hears the distant clank of chains and the crunch of locks as the doors of the cemetery begin to open. The real Halloween has begun.
He moves toward Laurie.
It is the cat’s curse to suffer the sensations Laurie feels, so he knows the girl, staring at the moon, has suddenly felt a fingernail of cold fear rush down her back.
“Did you feel that, Dan?” Laurie asks the tall boy.
“Feel what?” The boy holding her hand sneers.
The cat relishes the fear growing inside the girl. He glares at Dan and Laurie’s clasped hands. He exhales suddenly into the boy’s face, the smell of rotting flesh and dry blood.
“Don’t do that,” the boy shouts, throwing down Laurie’s hand.
“What,” Laurie asks, “I didn’t do anything!”
The boy rubs his face with his free hand, the other clutching his stolen bag of candy. “You breathed on me! Get a mint!”
“Forgive me for living!” Laurie stomps away.
“I’m sorry,” the boy says too low for her to hear. His eyes search in vain for the menacing creature that he suddenly senses is dangerously near.
The cat hurls his body at the boy’s face, his paws cleaving the air and his throat releasing a blood-curdling cry.
The boy screams and drops his candy bag to the ground.
Laurie turns just fast enough to see the boy running away, the echo of his terrified screams remaining long after he is out of sight.
The cat feels Laurie’s fear harden like a knot around her throat. She tries to call the second boy, but no sounds escape. The cat remembers how the poison gas filling his lungs, when nobody came to claim him, silenced his cries for her in the last seconds of his existence.
The second boy is appraising Laurie, suddenly standing in the middle of the street all alone. He smells opportunity. He hurries toward her, eyes full of hope. He looks past her, on all sides, to see if his friend is lurking near, ready to spring at him if he makes a move. He wants to take her hand in his own sweaty paw, but knows he must be cautious. As he approaches, he doesn’t see the fear that is growing in Laurie’s eyes.
Suddenly the boy stops walking. His nose has picked up a strange, pungent scent, the cat’s scent, the smell of the dirt of the graveyard, bone and flesh, a musty thickness that envelops his skin like an ever-tightening shroud, clogging his nostrils and burning his eyes. He coughs, a painful fit of coughing, but he doesn’t leave. This is his chance at Laurie, now that Dan is gone. He won’t be driven away!
He moves toward Laurie again, fighting the acrid smell, stifling the hacking cough. His eyes are on Laurie. She looks so vulnerable.
The cat rubs his petrified fur along the boy’s legs. Even the thick armor of jeans does not protect from the harsh scraping of wire hairs against the boy’s hairless flesh.
The boy reaches down, raises his pant leg, tries to scratch away the invisible thing that is scraping his flesh like steel wool. He stares in puzzlement. There is nothing there.
The cat only wants the girl. The boys are nothing to him, insignificant impediments, nameless souls for some other ghost to harvest. But this boy is stubborn. He refuses to leave.
The cat steals forward and punctures the boy’s shin with a sharp nail that can penetrate metal.
The boy stares down at his uncovered leg, dismayed to see a thin trickle of blood. “I’m not leaving,” he shouts to the unhearing night, to the demon that is torturing him. “I’m not leaving!”
His cries frighten Laurie more than any other sound she has ever heard because she does not see his attacker…only the boy, terrified eyes darting in all directions, hands struggling to hold up his pants legs while fighting off the invisible demons.
The cat strikes again and then again, just deep enough to leave tiny, unstoppable, trails of blood on those pale, hairless legs.
The boy backs away, his eyes still locked on Lorie, but now in fear. A fever is rising in him and he hears his own heart pounding. He searches wildly around for his invisible tormentor, flailing his arms to protect his flesh.
The cat, losing patience, lets out a shrill wail.
The sound of all that pent-up loneliness and pain fills the boy with excruciating fear.
The sound stretches endlessly and echoes hollow tin as the second boy finally giving up on his hopes for Laurie, runs away. The candy bag, long forgotten, is lying on the asphalt road, as he scrambles toward the house he hates, but will now hide in every Halloween.
The cat turns his attention at last toward Laurie. The girl is in his eyes.
He makes himself a shadow, allowing her to see his slinking shape.
Laurie is unable to move under the spell of the cat’s empty eyes.
The cat is consumed by his need to get even, to pay back those who had abandoned him when he was no longer a cute kitten. His mouth waters, blood red saliva dripping from his lips. He is close to taking the girl’s soul.
The ghost soaks in Laurie’s terror. He smells the odors of fear, the terror of knowing she can’t escape whatever it is that is hunting her, the invisible Halloween creatures that have frightened the others away. He savors this panic welling up inside her. He wants to taste each moment of it…to make the torment last until the last second before dawn when he will snatch her soul and drag her to be with him forever.
On Halloween, the ghost cat is allowed to reshape into the being he was before they led him away with the thick rope into the gas chamber, the last room of his life.
He moves toward Laurie, his eaten away corpse concealed now by flesh and black fur.
He rubs his restored body against her ankles as he did when he was hers.
She looks down startled. “Where did you come from?”
He circles her ankles again. He has time to play this game of cat and mouse.
Laurie reaches toward him.
He arches away, snarls, his teeth and claws threatening to tear into her. “Now! Do it now!” screams his brain.
She pulls away her hand.
Cat and mouse…. He approaches again, concealing his knife-sharp claws.
“Nice cat,” she suddenly says, “I won’t hurt you.”
He stops moving. Her voice is timid, child-like again.
“You’re a nice cat,” she says in a soothing tone.
He backs away, his fangs hidden by twisted, ash-colored lips.
“You don’t have to be afraid of me,” the girl says. “I won’t hurt you.”
He is surprised to feel her hand drop down on his back with the lightness of a breeze. His breathing stops.
Laurie’s hand ruffles his fur as it slowly moves up and down his back.
“Doesn’t that feel nice?” she asks. “I’ll bet you’re afraid too.” She lets out a little sigh. “I was really scared,” she says, “until you came along.”
The cat, feeling the once familiar sensation of her fingers soothing him, slowly taking control of him, stretches out under her hand against his will, his body begging for more.
He wants revenge, to hurt her as he has been hurt, but something inside him is being reawakened by the unexpected gentleness of her touch…the satin texture of her voice.
“I once had a kitten,” she says, “He was beautiful. I loved him a lot.”
The cat tries to pull away. He doesn’t want to hear this! It’s too late!
“Don’t worry,” the girl holds him. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
The cat can afford to be patient. He lets her continue.
“I called him Pepper, because he was black…like you,” the girl says, still rubbing his fur. “It was a long time ago.”
I hated that name, the cat thinks, but he really didn’t.
“I used to love that kitten, especially when I’d sneak him into my bed,” Laurie smiles at the memory. “I’ll bet you’ve never slept in a bed your whole life, you poor thing,” she says. “I wish I could take you home with me.”
The cat tenses. The liar, he thinks, fury building inside. She is so frightened she’ll say anything!
“I still miss my Pepper….” The girl frowns. “I was so angry when my parents told me we couldn’t keep him. I hated them!” A tear rolls down the girl’s face. It smudges her make up. It falls on the cat and sizzles like a burning coal. “I still do! I hate them. I hate them.”
The cat peering deep into Laurie’s soul, knows she is telling the truth. He realizes now Laurie had never wanted to abandon him. In plumbing her soul, he sees she has been abandoned too.
The ghostly cat is surprised to feel the hate, that had been knotting inside him for so long, begin to cool. He had wondered how someone could love a pet, a kitten or puppy, and then abandon them when they were grown. He had hated her for that! He had hated her for thrusting him into a life of starvation, a life of hiding from predators that lurk in dirty alleys and gutters…terrifying, heartless creatures such as he had become. He had cursed her for that, and for the last days in the animal shelter, for the last agonized breaths of his fading body as he had sucked in the gas in that hollow room that echoed the last beats of his screaming heart.
He had come back to lure her to the end of Halloween, to torment her with fear, to keep her soul with him and the other damned spirits forever, but he now knows the girl is already fatally wounded. She is not the same Laurie that had held him so lovingly in her arms, had laughed and sung in the once warm and happy house.
He feels the endless depth of her pain. He knows that like he was before her, she has been abandoned, left to survive on her own. Her soul screams of parents too busy warring with each other to feel Laurie’s anguish, to hear her cries.
Halloween is nearly over.
Laurie sits in the gutter, another stray.
Pepper lets Laurie hold him, stroke him. He feels his corporeal body slipping away. He trembles, tries to resist, struggles desperately to hold onto life, to hold onto Laurie.
He unleashes a final, terrifying, keening wail of heartbreaking pain, his paws turning to smoke, unable to hold her, unable to help her. He slips away, knowing he is already forgotten, tormented that Laurie must remain behind, wandering alone in the streets, raising her hollow eyes to the unanswering sky, and letting out a chilling, mournful cry… like a Curdle Cat.