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I dropped my bags on the hard concrete as directed. The pinched up little woman in front of me scowled. “Well, what’s the matter? Not fancy enough for you? hmm?” She gave me a sickly sweet smile and waited.
“No ma’am. I’m just feeling a bit sick after the trip.” I didn’t know what else to say, so I just waited, hoping that I hadn’t offended her in some other way. “Oh? Good. here at Foggy Fields, everyone pitches in, and does a fair share of the work, flaking out of your job due to a so called sickness will not be tolerated. Discomfort and pain? Good things, they build character and make you stronger.” Now the thin stooped woman was briskly walking across the cement porch around the house. I grabbed my bags, scurrying to catch up to her.
She stopped abruptly, almost making me run into her, but I stopped just in time. She glared at me, signaling that she was preparing to speak. I stepped back and straightened up. she gave a small nod of approval.
“My name is Zabeth Riling, Mrs. Riling to you. I presume you are Mercedes Ligota, daughter of Dermea beth?” She saw my quick nod and continued. “Over there is the pig run. The coop’s over there, and that’s the barn. Beyond that, we have a full 5,000 acres. Your job is to wake at 7:00 every morning, feed the horses, muck the stables, and put the hay and salt out for the cows, after that, if you are able to finish, you can attend a few hours of afternoon class.
“Now, if you go up that staircase, and up onto that landing you’ll find a door, It leads to your room. Dinner’s at 7:30 sharp, so you have a few hours to relax. Don’t be late.” With that she shoved a cold key into my hand, then turned and strode away, walking remarkably fast for such a tiny, shriveled up old woman. It was actually starting to freak me out a little, watching her hobble across the yard so quickly, with her apron flying, so I turned to the stairs.
They were rickety and old, but the idea of a warm bed was becoming more and more welcoming by the moment. Back at my house, my room is always perfectly how I like it. Daddy bought me a fantastic rug last Christmas. Deep red, with a cozy, cabiny feel to it, it was the perfect thing for my hardwood floor. My bed was even better, it had dark wooden posts on all four corners, and it was a nest of comforters, quilts, flannel, and pillows, and more than anything, that’s what I long to see now, Besides Daddy, of course. I miss him terribly.
I tried the first step. It shuddered beneath me, making me cling to the railing, petrified. But it's now or never, I have to go up. I loosened one arm a bit, starting the climb. The top looked awfully far away. With every step the warped wood moaned and creaked, but I finally reached the final step. The landing looked no safer than the stairs, but I'm too far to give up now.
Stepping lightly across the boards, and dodging the ones that were too far gone to trust, I took out the ancient key and stuck it into the lock. It went in without much trouble, but wouldn't turn. I rattled the door, but it remained firm. I sat my things down, sighing again. Sometimes, the only way to get what you want is by force. So force is exactly what I used. I stepped back until I bumped into the railing, then took four running steps at the door, and hit it with a flying kick. Unfortunately, my former attempts to open the door seemed to have worked better than I thought they did, because when I hit the door, it opened easily, letting me crash to the floor.
Man! Somehow, every single time I fall, it’s always on the same knee. No matter what side I start the fall, it ends the same way every time! There was already a bruise the size of a golf ball beginning to show, bright pink. Groaning, I pulled myself up. At least the bed looked decent. Nothing compared to mine, but still. I ripped back the quilt, but to my dismay, I discovered that I was not the first to inhabit this space. A whole colony of roaches the size of my fist scattered when the light hit them. Without thinking, I shrieked a little, hopping backwards. My desire to sleep was instantly demolished. This room will have to be completely cleaned and sterilized, but I guess that can wait.
I decided to walk down to the barn and see if I couldn’t find someone kinder than Zabeth to talk to. Back where I live, there’s never anyone around to talk to, just me and daddy, but I don’t get lonely much. At school, the kids are nice and all, but they are all just…boring. Also, they already have their little groups of friends, I’m not really needed.
I opened the door, breathing in the cool breeze. Now to descend the stairway of doom, I carefully tried the first step, it looked safe enough. It held. I continued easing along down to the fifth step, then jumped the rest.
Maybe the barn could hold something interesting for me. The yard was descripit. The grass grew weakly in little patches, and each step I take is punctuated by crackling acorn tops. In the middle of the yard the washed-out, gray, leaning house stood proudly. Across from the house, now looming over me, was the gigantic barn. It was not red, like I expected, but a dingy slate-brown. The wood panels were falling off the side, and the dirty tin roof looked like it was ready to fall in on the next person who walked under it.
A cat dashed through my legs, and stopped right in front of me. I stopped abruptly and glared down at the cat. It had white on it’s stomach, and each foot was white. His front two paws had little white slippers that came up only about an inch and a half on him. The back paws had white about halfway up his legs. meow. The cat rubbed against my legs, then, quite unexpectedly dug its claws into my leg. If that wasn’t enough, the cat also started vigorously gnawing on my knee. I howled in pain and shook my leg hard. the cursed cat let go and stood beside me. It stepped forward and crouched, preparing to leap onto me.
“ARGHHH! Get OFF of me, you devil cat!” The cat started toward me again so I tried to give it a good punt. It leaped out of the way just in time, and I narrowly missed. The feline from hell quickly rebounded, and came back at me. This time my foot made contact and I sent it several feet away. The cat thumped to the ground and got back up instantly. It hissed, sending chill bumps down my spine. Damnation, it was fast. the barn door went flying open. A boy came out, yelling. He threw himself between me and the demon. Finally, I was tired of dealing with it.
“STOP! How DARE you injure my cat!” he roared down at me.
“Me?! I was just standing here, when your satanic cat ran up and shredded my legs!”
He now had his hands on his hips and glared at me with one eyebrow raised.
“Like this cat would ever hurt anyone. We got him two months ago, and he’s just started having the courage to come out in the open, and now, thanks to you, he probably won’t be coming out of the barn for another two months.” I hated the accusatory curl In his voice. It grated on my nerves.
“I’m glad, good riddance.” as I said this, I stuck my nose in the air, and folded my arms over my chest, the snootiest look I could muster. I hoped that would aggravate him.
“He probably didn’t really even hurt you. He wouldn’t hurt anybody.”
“OK then, let’s see you pick it up, if it’s so harmless!” His eyes narrowed, he knew he was caught.
“Fine.” He stepped forward, reaching for the cat. It saw him, and started running, but he was fast. He grabbed it, straightening up at the same time as fast as he could. He tightened his arms around the cat and squeezed. My god, he’s going to get it. The cat started to growl, low and dangerous. Then it began to squirm and hiss.
“OK!” I cried. “OK, just let it go, it’ll shred your face!” But he looked determined. the cat started to writhe. He almost dropped it, but recovered, grabbing it again. Now somehow, the cat had gotten turned around, with it’s feet in the boys face. All of a sudden, the cat went completely limp. The boy grinned, but his smile soon faded, for the cat had now let out a long low meow, accompanied by a hiss. The battle was not over yet. The cat started kicking the boys face with all it’s might. He yelled, and swiftly dropped the cat. It dropped to its feet, meowed smugly, and disappeared up a tree. The boy looked over at me with his eyes wide.
Suddenly, I realized how hilarious the situation really was. I started to giggle, then chuckle. Then, before I knew it, I was guffawing uncontrollably. Every single funny thing that has ever happened suddenly flooded back to me. The boy glared at me, which made me feel pretty stupid, but who needs him? I kept laughing. His expression softened. Then he began to chuckle along, and before I knew it, we were laughing, and slugging each other like we were old friends.
“Look.” He said, pointing to the field. I scanned over the tall brown grass, past heaving bulks of cow and into the field near the pond. There was the damned cat. It was slinking through the undergrowth. Stopping every once in a while to check over it's shoulder. It looked like it was hiding something. I had to see.
“I need to go check that out. See ya' round.” I turned on him abruptly and started walking towards the field.
“Wait up, I'll come.” He trotted up beside me. Now we were briskly jogging, because the cat had also picked up speed.
“Anyways,” The boy said between gasping for air. “My..name..is..Hils.”
“Hello, my name is Mercedes.”
He grinned, then grimaced, because he had hit his foot on a large rock. We were now about 20 feet from the cat. It slowed down. We had to stop now if we didn't want the cat to know we were there. I leapt into a bush, and yanked Hils down beside me.
“Ohf! That hurt!”
“SHHH. The cat!” I placed my hands on the bush, and parted the leaves. Hils leaned in beside me.
The creature had now stopped in front of large oak tree. It was backing up slowly, taking its time, but never letting its eyes leave the tree. The cat abruptly bolted forward. Making my head jerk, and crash into Hils'.
The cat jolted across the grass, heading straight for the large oak. What was it doing? Was it going to dodge out of the way at the last minute? Was it going to run straight up the tree?
The cat showed no signs of stopping, it even seemed to speed up. The cat was now only a short way from the tree. It gave a terrific leap......And bounded straight into the thick trunk. It's head thumped against the tree, and it limply fell to the ground. Oh god. I hadn't liked the cat, but I didn't want it to die. We rushed over, crouching beside it.
“Is it dead?....” Hils sounded miserable. I shivered.
“I dunno, I guess I'd better check.” I tried to sound brave.
“Let me do it. It was technically my cat anyway.” He moved towards the cat, but I just shook my head and pushed him back. Hils looked close to fainting. I leaned down and gently stroked the cat's fur with my forefinger. It was soft, softer then I expected. It was also very clean, cleaner then most of the barn cats. Not a single mat or clod of dirt anywhere. This was a peculiar cat.
It was obviously dead, it chest had ceased to rise and fall. I swallowed, and my breathing became heavy. I carefully wedged my hands underneath the cat, and started to lift. Poor thing, I could see a bit of dried blood on it's head.
“And it was the first animal that they allowed me to have.” Hils sniffed, dragging his feet beside me. “We got him two months ago. The whole time, I've been trying to coax him out to me with all kinds of food, just hoping it would stop being so darn shy.”
Hils paused and pointed to a skinny tree. “we'll bury him there. That's where we put all the dead animals.”
I stopped abruptly. Five inches from my foot was a large hole.
“unfortunately, they don't stay there long. coyotes, you know?” Hils gave a dry laugh. “Wait! Before you put him in, could I hold him? Very quickly? He was my cat, And I never got to hold him.” Now I felt bad for the cat, and Hils. I gave a quick nod, and moved toward him. With the cat in my outstretched arms. Hils slowly put his arms around the cat, cradling it tenderly. He slowly rocked back and forth, and I think I might have seen a tear fall.
Hils stopped rocking and froze. He tipped his head sideways, then looked at me. Now I heard it too. A low whine, occasionally rumbly. Coyotes? Here? In broad daylight? I looked around-No. It couldn't be, because the sound was coming from.......The Cat! I looked over at it. Hils looked confused, but then his eyes lit up knowingly. He slowly looked down.
All of a sudden, the cat was transformed into a hissing, spitting tyrant. It arched it's back and dug it's claws into Hils. It wouldn't let go. It swiped at his face. I really thought the whole thing was very funny, but I forced my face into a frown, and tried to pull the cat off of Hils. He Howled in pain, and just started running.
“YOU SAID IT WAS DEAD!” He screeched as he blindly surged forward. I sprinted to catch up with him. He was almost at the tree now, when the cat let go. Hils had stopped running, but the cat continued to fly forward.
The last thing I saw was Hils' horrified expression. That's when everything went black. Now, I was back home. Daddy was whistling from the kitchen. I was at the table with a soggy bowl of cereal in front of me. Daddy came in with a steaming pile of bacon.
“Hey, girl. Sleep ok?”
I pushed the cereal aside and nodded, stuffing down the delicious, juicy bacon.
“Good. Now Hun, Let's talk about what I told you last night,” The bacon now felt thick and heavy in my stomach. I stared blankly at the beautiful sunlight Streaming through the window, then at the cool, green linoleom. I couldn't recall what we had talked about before I fell asleep, but I know it was unpleasant.
“I'm going to visit your aunt Marie. I don't know when I'll be back, but you just try to be good, and keep going to school. Also, Don't forget about the dogs. If the fighting up north gets any worse, then I'll ask some friends of mine to get down here, and look after you. Trust them.” he scooted out of his chair. Then kissed my forehead. I don't want him to go, But I know that he has to.
Very quickly everything changed. The light flickered, suddenly pulsing scarlet. Now I know what's going to happen. I scream. Daddy's eyes have gone dark. He sighs. A dark stain pooled through his shirt. Blood. Gunshots rattled in my ears. I need to save him. I try to run forward, but everything seems to be slowing down. He's sinking away from me. I try to fight it, but the kitchen is fading, from pulsing red, to black. My feet are knocked out from under me, letting me crash to the floor.
I awoke to a heavy pounding in my ears. My head ached and my blood rushed. What happened? There was something warm and sticky on the back of my head. My surroundings were blurry, but Hils slowly came into focus.
“God! I thought you were dead!” Hils was a mess. His eyes were wide, and there were scratches all over his arms and face.
“What happened?” Hils now looked uncomfortable.
“When I was trying to shake off my cat, you fell into one of the coyote holes, and bonked your head. Don't worry, you've only been out a few minutes.” Good, so it was a dream then. Daddy must be ok. He's probably off with Marie and that bunch, safely tucked away in the mountains. I would have known if he'd been injured. Surely they would have called or something.
I chuckle. That insane cat, And we'd been reduced to tears by it minutes ago. Speaking of which...
“What happened to the cat?” Hils now squirmed. He looked guilty. I just chuckled.
“Come on! Tell me!” I laughed at how strange he looked, but the seriousness in his eyes made me think he's not kidding. I stopped laughing.
“Did it die? Hils! Answer me!” He looked down, then to the side, and finally met my eyes.
“No-At least, I don't think so. I am not completely sure what happened.” he fidgeted.
“Tell. Me.” I stood up. So did he.
“It went into the tree.” Hils looked uncomfortable.
“What do you mean? Like, up into it?” I couldn't understand why Hils was so freaked out.
“No,” He shifted around. “I mean, Inside the tree. I don't know. I saw you fall, so I didn't see the cat really clearly, but it hit the tree, and kept going. I was so jittery though, I could have just not seen it well enough.” This was bizarre. Had Hils bumped his head as well? I'd once heard of something like this happening, but it wasn't real. It was just an old episode of the Twilight Zone.
“We need to check this out, Come on!” I was still a bit dizzy after my fall, but I could run ok, and this hint of adventure was luring me in. We hurried the short distance over to the tree. The cat was nowhere to be found, but the tree stood there, right in front of me, suspiciously inconspicuous. I slowly brought my hand up to the tree. The bark was rough and hard, like any other. Now I realized that I've been holding my breath for ages. I breath out, my heart racing. Hils glances at me, his face has many scratches, but he faintly smiles, and nods. I chuckle, Wouldn't it be Hilarious if the cat catapulted out of the tree, and latched onto Hils? I snorted.
Now or never. I began to press my fingers into the bark. It started to sink in! My fingers pushed through the bark like sludgy pudding. Gasping, I snatched my hand out of the tree, clutching it to my chest. My heart skipped a beat. Could this really be happening? The tree almost looked like it was fading, flickering, and growing brighter all at once. The cat was inside. I felt a tug inside of me. It felt like all I ever want to do, or the only thing that will ever make me happy, is if I reach in. My only purpose in life is to do it. At first, I try to resist, but I can’t, I give in. Now I’m feeling so lovely warm, and syrupy. My hand moves forward almost on it’s own. Hils is saying something, but it sounds tinny, distorted. That doesn’t matter now, though. My mind is hypnotically peaceful. The bark is warm and gelatinous, but it doesn’t break away as my hand pushes through. The inside has the consistency of pleasantly warm water. It flows over my hand gently. This lovely feeling was so rudely interupted by a grappling on my hand. Something cold and hard and leathery squeezed my hand.
I jolted out of the trance, my exquisite surroundings popped like a bubble. Hils had one of my arms and was pulling with all his strength. I followed my other arm with my eyes, and was shocked to discover that it was lodged in the tree. My feet stumbled, letting all the way up to my shoulder enter the tree. The leathery thing that I now realized was a hand was still scrabbling and tugging. I screamed, pulling with all my might. The hand was all of a suddenly still. It had stopped squirming, but it still held tightly.
With one more pull, my arm came loose from the tree. I slowly pulled it out. At the end of my hand, a leather gloved hand was attached. Not knowing what to do, I kept pulling. The hand squeezed, but did not let go. Attached to the hand was an arm, covered in a brown, wool sleeve, after that was a shoulder, then a neck, and finally, a head. The head belonged to a tall boy wearing a pith helmet and thick goggles. His eyes were completely hidden, but he was grinning broadly. I glanced at Hils, who shrugged. We helped pull the boy completely out. The boy was probably a few years older than us. He dusted himself off, offering his hand, first to me, then to Hils.
To Be Continued