Feline by Phill-P; for more information, visit http://phill-p.deviantart.com/

Feline by Phill-P; for more information, visit http://phill-p.deviantart.com/

Stray

by Gregory M. Fox

Every scrape of the shovel against cement was like a howl of protest. A whole foot of snow in one night—more than enough to close the schools and most local businesses. The kids were playing in the yard while Dave struggled against inert and indolent nature, attempting to clear a path from the garage to the street before the next wave of snow made the task more difficult.

“Daddy! Daddy, look. It’s a kitty.”

Little Isolda danced in the snow like the first flower of spring. Her younger brother Sayer followed behind her through snow nearly up to his waist. He was bundled in so many layers that he could do little more than waddle. Dave had been watching his children frolic in the yard while he worked, and now he could see the small gray form of a neighborhood stray bobbing up and down in the deep snow around his giggling children.

“Look, Daddy,” Sayer said, “Kitty!”

“Careful,” Dave called out, “don’t scare it.”

“She’s so pretty,” Isolda said.

“He’s like a tiger,” Sayer answered.

“Hey, she’s not a boy.”

“Yes she is.”

“You just said she,” Isolda laughed. “See? She is a girl.”

Dave couldn’t help but laugh. “Why don’t we get something to feed it?” he said.

“Can we?” said Isolda. “Can we, Daddy?”

“Of course we can,” he answered. By now he had cleared about half of the drive, so he plunged the shovel into the snow bank and stepped into the house. He didn’t take off his shoes but went straight to the fridge, dripping melted snow on carpet and kitchen tile.

“Roslyn, honey, you gotta come out here and see this,” he said, pouring milk into a small bowl.

“Izzy and Sayer are playing with a cat in the snow. It’s adorable, you’ll love it,” Dave continued, and then he headed back out the door.

Both kids were laughing. Sayer had finally toppled over, well cushioned by snow and by his many layers. The cat, meanwhile, was perched on his belly, looking like a proud conqueror.

“Look, look,” Isolda said. “The kitty’s gonna eat Sayer.”

“I’ve got something the cat might like a little better,” Dave said, “so maybe Sayer won’t get eaten just yet. Here kitty, kitty . . . here kitty.”

The cat’s ears perked up. The stray was smart enough to know what the bowl in the man’s hands meant, and it bounded through the snow toward Dave. As soon as he set the dish on the ground, the cat was lapping up the milk. Isolda and Sayer crept closer and began petting their new furry friend.

“She’s so pretty,” Isolda said. “Just like a princess.”

“Well, I’m afraid your brother was right. I’m pretty sure she’s a boy.”

Sayer puffed out his chest. “See? I told you.”

“What do you want to call him?”

“Princess!” Isolda shouted.

“You can’t call him Princess,” Sayer said. “Only girls are princesses.”

“Says you.”

“I wanna call him Killer.”

“Daddy!”

“Alright, alright,” Dave said. “Why don’t you pick a regular name?”

“Like what?”

“Well, like Tom or Bob or, I don’t know, Whiskers.”

“Boring,” the kids said in unison.

Dave chuckled. Already his children thought they were smarter than him. “Fine,” he said, “I’ll leave the naming to you, as long as you promise to be nice to each other.”

“We promise,” they said dutifully.

Dave went back to work on the driveway, digging fiercely into the snow. He grumbled to himself while he worked, wishing he had decided to buy that snow blower now that they finally had a little extra money. But he was glad for the exercise anyway. It was good to work up a sweat every now and then. He liked his job in accounting well enough, but it was very sedentary, and he had been feeling increasingly flabby of late. By the time he reached the end of the driveway, he was panting, sending swirling clouds of his breath into the air. Feeling rather satisfied, he plunged the shovel into the snow and stretched, popping a couple of joints in the process.

The kids were still playing with the cat. Sayer was shouting, “Attack! Sic ‘em, Sushi. Come on, Sushi, attack!” but the cat, apparently christened Sushi, was content just to huddle close to Isolda who petted and flattered the cat like the princess she still insisted he was, “You’re so pretty, Sushi. You’re the prettiest kitty there ever was. Don’t listen to Sayer. He doesn’t know anything about cats.”

Dave laughed to himself. Roslyn should be seeing this; it would make her laugh. But where was she? Dave figured it had been at least fifteen, maybe even twenty-five minutes since he had told her to come out, but as far as he had seen, she hadn’t even peaked out the window. Leaving the shovel behind, he trudged back to the house to see what was keeping her.

The carpet was still sopping wet from his first venture inside, and it squished beneath his feet.

“Roslyn?” he said. “What are you waiting for? Come on out. The kids want you to see this cat.”

No answer.

He entered the kitchen. Empty.

“They’ve named it Sushi of all things,” he said, setting the empty bowl on the counter. “It’s really cute.”

Nothing. The whole house was stubbornly quiet.

“Honey, come on. You don’t have to be outside long, just come take a look,” Dave called out.

He was unsure whether to be angry or concerned by the silence, but a dread was already growing in his gut. Leaving a trail of gritty, icy footprints, he moved from one room to the next. The bathroom was empty; he went upstairs to their bedroom and to the children’s rooms, finding all vacant; then back downstairs.

“Roslyn?”

Silence.

Cold.

It was the cold that caught his attention. He hadn’t left the door open; he could hear the heater running; but the room was still noticeably chilly. Could the heater be broken? He was on his way to the basement when he noticed it. A window was open in the family room. The screen was gone. He looked through that empty expanse toward the woods on their back property.

“No.” In an instant, he knew what had happened. “No!” He charged out the door and around to the back of the house where he nearly toppled over his kids.

“Daddy? Daddy, can you help us find Sushi?”

“What?”

“He’s gone,” Sayer said. “He’s gone, daddy. Where did he go?”

“We were making him a house,” Isolda said, “and he just disappeared.” The little faces, flushed pink from the cold looked up at him imploringly.

He cast an anxious look toward the woods. “Look,” he said, “This cat—”

“Sushi!”

“Yes, Sushi. Sushi is a stray, not a pet, you know. His home is in the wild.”

“Oh.” Isolda looked down, crestfallen. Sayer continued to stare up at his father in confusion.

Dave sighed. “Alright, if you want to find Sushi, then following his tracks is probably your best chance.”

His children’s faces brightened. “Thanks, Daddy!”

“But even if you find him, he may not want to stay with you.”

“Okay”

“And don’t go too far. Stay close to the house, alright?”

“Yes, daddy.” The children were already prancing around the yard, looking for pawprints

“Good. Now I have to go . . . check on something.” Dave mumbled the words to himself as his own eyes scanned the snow. He found the prints right beneath the window. Right where he expected they would be—leading into the woods.

***

Roslyn took a deep breath. Air as cold as death rushed into her lungs, reminding her that she was alive. She had started running just to put some distance between her and the house. Dave would be looking for her soon enough, and it wouldn’t do for him to find her just sitting in the back yard. The snow beneath her feet spurred her to run faster. She left the well-trimmed path and dove into the thick of the woods. The branches and brambles whizzing past seemed to part in front of her as though the forest was opening its arms to embrace her. Now she was running just for the pure delight. Surrounded by the sounds and scents of the forest with the crisp winter wind flowing through her hair, a familiar pleasure had crept over her. She began leaping and bounding over fallen branches, scurrying through the brush. Birds chirped in greeting and trees waved their arms in welcome. Animals with mirthful eyes sprang from their cozy hideaways to run along beside her. Life was all around her and coursing through her, tempting Roslyn to lose herself to the forest.

***

She was not easy to follow. Her trail skirted around trees and under bushes, even crossed and re-crossed itself several times, giving Dave the feeling that he was going in circles. Worse, he knew that every moment he struggled to follow her path, his wife was moving farther away from him.

He had known something like this might happen someday. She had told him what she was and had even showed him once. It had terrified him so much that he vomited. That seemed to amuse her. Sometimes she joked about it, teasing an uneasy laughter from her husband. Other times she mentioned it with an edge in her voice, almost as a threat. More often, a quiet melancholy would grow over her.

Laying beside him in bed, she would ask, “Can you love me? Can you trust me?” He would always answer yes. But then, in the dark hours of the night, she would rise from his side, walk into the family room, and stare out the window at the trees with her hands against the glass. In the morning, that was where he would find her, every muscle tense, as though she were about to spring through the glass. Any time she went for a walk in the woods, he accompanied her, saying—only half-truthfully—that he just liked her company. Once, he had woken up at three o’clock to find the bed empty. He wandered into the front room and found Roslyn with her with her hand on the door knob.

“Where are you going?”

“I just wanted to take in the night air.”

“Why don’t you come back to bed.”

She had stared at him so fiercely that night. It wasn’t her fault, Dave would tell himself. It was what was inside her. But she had chosen him, she had built a family with him, and he would help her any way he could. The kids didn’t know. How could he explain it? Of course, he had always wondered if they were like their mother, but so far there hadn’t been any signs. “Please let them not be like her,” he whispered under his breath.

He had been trudging through the woods for about fifteen minutes now and after his exertions already that afternoon, he was getting winded. He really did need to get more exercise. With wet socks and cramping legs, he wasn’t sure how much longer he would be able to keep up the chase. It was then that he broke into a small clearing at the northwest corner of their property. The first thing that caught his eye was his daughter’s bright purple jacket. His children were standing on the opposite side of clearing, looking startled. The next thing he noticed was the blood. The trail of footprints he had been following led right into the clearing, where the blanket of snow had been ravaged by some turmoil, and the pure white world was streaked here and there with stains of bright red. In the center of this chaos was a cat, tearing at the flesh of a small creature.

“Daddy . . . Sushi is eating something.”

Fear, anger, exhaustion and sorrow swept through Dave all at once. He rushed forward madly; he scooped up snow and hurled it at Sushi while shouting, roaring, grunting. The panicked animal darted off and took cover in the brush.

Dave collapsed on his knees before the torn remains of a white rabbit. “Why? Why did you run? How could you . . .”

“Daddy?”

Dave looked up at the disconcerted faces of his children. They were already shocked and a little disturbed by the ferocity of what they had taken for a playmate, but they had never seen their father like this. Realizing how strange his actions must appear, Dave called his children over. “Kids there’s something I have to tell you. This is going to sound strange, but—”

“What’s going on out here?” Dave looked up in disbelief. Roslyn was walking towards them from the direction of the house. Wrapped in a long white coat with her brown tresses hanging about her face and eyes glittering like the snow, she looked like an incarnation of the forest itself.

“Isolda, Sayer, you’ve been out here in the cold an awfully long time,” she said.

The two children, provided an opportunity to turn away from the grisly image of death and the mysterious actions of their father, sprang up and bounded to their mother.

“Momma, Momma,” Isolda said, “We found a cat and I thought it was a girl, but Daddy said it was a boy.”

“And we named him Sushi,” Sayer chimed in, “and he killed a . . . a . . .”

“A rabbit,” David said. He had risen to his feet and was staring at his wife in disbelief.

The children were oblivious to the tensions which passed above their heads as they prattled on about the adventures they had with Sushi, until finally Isolda tugged on her mother’s sleeve and asked, “Momma, will the bunny be okay?”

Roslyn patted them on the head and said, “Go back to the house, kids. Your father and I will take care of everything.”

Still as confused as ever, Isolda and Sayer waddled back toward the house.

“I told you we should have called him Killer,” Sayer muttered.

Roslyn watched them go until a curve in the path took them out of view. When she turned back, Dave was still staring at her, dumbstruck, with questions in his eyes.

Roslyn smiled, then crouched on the ground and said, “Here kitty.” The small grey form crept hesitantly out of its hiding spot. “Everything’s alright now. Come here, little fella. Here, Sushi.” Skirting the edge of the glen to avoid Dave, the cat scampered over to Roslyn. “What a good cat,” she said, scratching under his chin.

“I thought . . . I thought you were . . .”

“Because of this little guy?” Sushi was purring softly now. Roslyn scooped the cat up in her arms, held him close to her chest, and scratched him behind the ears. “This little guy would never attack a full-grown woman.”

Dave looked back at the ground and in the tumult of blood and trampled snow, he now discerned the tracks of a barefoot human scattered among the others. Only he couldn’t see where they had come from, only that they came from the center of the glen and disappeared into the woods. So it hadn’t been her.

“You . . . I thought I’d lost you.”

She flung an icy glare at her husband. “You thought I would leave my children just like that? Abandon you without a word?”

“I don’t . . . I don’t know.”

There was a tense ferocity in Roslyn’s hard stare and clenched jaw that reminded Dave of the terror he had felt the first time he saw what she really was. He expected her to lunge forward at any moment and attack him.

Instead, she simply stopped petting the cat, gripped its head with one hand and gave a sharp twist. Dave winced at the sound of vertebra separating from vertebra. The cat went limp.

“You know what I am, Dave. But you still don’t understand me.” She thrust the body into his arms. “Take care of this.”

Then, almost tenderly, she picked up what was left of the rabbit’s body and walked toward the house.

The crunch of Roslyn’s footsteps withdrew into the distance. Dave looked down at the limp body in his arms and the lifeless eyes staring back at him. Once, perhaps, they had been capable of showing happiness, fear, sadness. Now they only showed a tiny, dark reflection of Dave’s paralyzed figure. Snowflakes were falling—he would have to shovel the drive again in the morning—and the cold was settling into his bones.

Head Shot - Fox

About Gregory Fox

Gregory M. Fox is an author, artist, and educator from South Bend, Indiana.  His fiction has appeared in small journals, and he also authored the e-book A Breath of Fiction, a collection of 200 flash fiction stories from his blog of the same name.

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