Button Eye Fiction Contest – Runner up
The cat showed up on a Tuesday.
Miriam noticed it while she gardened. It was early in the morning, the best time of day to work outside. Still cool from the passing night while the sun crept its way up the sky, shining and chasing the morning away.
She saw it as she finally got a stubborn bit of pigweed uprooted. The flowering scent of dirt almost distracted her enough to miss it, but the movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention. As she shook the excess dirt from the roots, she watched the beastie pick his way carefully through the radishes.
Miriam had had to shoo several feral cats away from the garden over the years. They tended to use the raised beds as litterboxes. She knew better than to grow catnip any longer as well, or they’d never go away. They’d learned that lesson the hard way, that first year.
This cat seemed to be looking for something. He paused here and there to sniff, but didn’t assume the position that would make Miriam need to chase him away. She stayed very still as he moved from the vegetable patch to the closest flower bed. As she watched, the cat seemed to find a sunny place that suited him. He circled three times and then went to sleep, nose tucked under his long tail.
Miriam studied the cat while he slept. It was large, especially for something that was probably feral. Its fur was a deep black that almost shone blue in the sunlight. There were patches missing where he’d evidently gotten into fights before and his left ear had a notch taken from it. He was handsome despite the wounds.
It flicked that same ear at her when she set the pigweed on the pile of other plants for compost, but didn’t seem to mind when she went back to her task. Miriam decided if it wasn’t bothered by her, and it wasn’t going to use her garden as a litterbox, she wouldn’t mind it finding a place to nap in her yard. Robert had always teased her, saying she was just as stubborn as the weeds when she wanted to be, but here she was, changing her ways for this cat. Wouldn’t Robert be proud?
The cat was still there the next morning when Miriam went out for her walk. He was sitting by the bottom step when she came out onto the porch. She smiled at the sight of him down there, like a little sentry. Maybe he’d been a housecat at some point and her not chasing him off was signal for him to stick around. Miriam hadn’t had company in long enough that she didn’t mind him visiting.
“Morning, sir,” she said to him as she took the steps.
The cat paused in his grooming to look at her. It didn’t run away as she got on its level, just went back to cleaning its paw.
Miriam felt a shock of fondness for the cat’s bravery. Most ferals wouldn’t come within two feet of her; they’d flee as soon as they caught sight of any human. This cat clearly wasn’t bothered by her presence at all.
She walked down the dirt road connecting her house to the paved road, and smiled. Hopefully, the cat would be waiting for her when she got back.
He was on her porch when she returned from her walk, sleeping in a patch of sunlight. Miriam was glad to see him, especially as she’d stopped halfway through her trip to visit with her nearest neighbor, Mr. Grace, to ask for some provisions.
Since Mrs. Grace had passed away, Mr. Grace had collected cats. People just kept dropping them off on her property, or so he said, and he couldn’t bring himself not to care for them. Miriam had stood patiently in the man’s sitting room under the scrutiny of six or seven mismatched cats while he collected some food for her guest.
“Better you take him than me,” Mr. Grace had said with a smile as he pressed a bag into Miriam’s hands. “One less mouth for me to feed.”
He’d said that, but Miriam didn’t think he’d have left him alone if the cat did show up at his house.
“A good day, don’t you think?” Miriam asked her new companion once she got up on the porch. He stretched out once, toes extending, before curling back up. “Exactly.”
Miriam went inside, depositing most of the bags on the kitchen table. The light on the answering machine was blinking red, so she pressed the play button while she put things away.
There was a pause in the message, then a deep sigh. “Hi, Mom. It’s me. Just calling to see how you’re doing. I know what you said last time we spoke, but I really don’t think it’s the best for you to be out there on your own, what with Dad being gone. I know you like that old house, but—”
With a small noise, Miriam pressed the delete button on the machine. She’d heard enough of the same arguments from him over the past two years since her husband had passed away. She didn’t need to hear more of it. Miriam would rather die in her house than move into a nursing home. She could take care of herself well enough. Her and Robert had always done well enough for themselves, and there was no reason why she couldn’t do just as well on her own.
She went back to the kitchen and got out a plate and shook the can of wet food onto it, nose scrunching at the stink. How cats could handle the smell of it was beyond her. She brought it outside and left the plate about a foot away from the cat. He didn’t twitch until she’d retreated behind the screen door.
Once she was safely away, Miriam watched while the cat sat up, nose twitching as he sniffed in the direction of the food. It was the same color as his fur, dark black. His eyes, though, she could see, were yellow. He sniffed at the plate for a while as if suspicious of her generosity, but eventually started eating.
“Be careful, though,” Mr. Grace had said. “Feed ‘em once and they won’t ever go away, y’know.”
Miriam watched the cat slowly eat his offering and smiled.
Once the sun started making its way down, Miriam went outside. She sank into the rocker on the porch with a sigh, looking out at the land in front of her house. The vegetable beds were close to harvest and the flowers were flourishing. She’d have to bring some over to Mrs. Grace, now she didn’t need so much. As thanks for the cat supplies, too. She smiled a bit when she saw the first yellow blooms of the evening primrose open now the sun was setting.
Their strong, sweet smell filled her nose. She’d planted them close to the house so they could be enjoyed during the evening as they sat and relaxed. The larger, white moonflowers would take a while longer to open their blossoms, but they always brightened her mood.
The night bugs and birds trilled their songs to one another, a symphony of call and response, while the other animals that woke up at dusk prepared themselves to either hunt or be hunted. It was a chorus Miriam had gotten used to over the years, more so since Robert had passed and she was left all alone. She closed her eyes and sat back in the rocker he’d made for her and let the sounds of the night flow over her.
Startled, Miriam looked down to her feet. The cat sat there, looking back up at her. Its yellow eyes seemed to glow in the porchlight. A small breeze picked up, setting the flowers to dancing and whispering amongst themselves.
“Hello,” she said to the cat. “A fine evening we’re having, aren’t we?”
The cat tilted its head as she talked to it. It made it seem like it was actually listening to her.
It meowed again and then surprised her by jumping up into her lap. Miriam kept her hands up as it kneaded at her legs. A rough, low purr started up and she smiled, delighted. She hadn’t expected him to warm up to her so soon. The cat settled down, eyes closed, and Miriam let herself relax as well, looking out into the yard as the moon started to rise and spread its soft glow.
They’d never had pets, since Robert was allergic to pet dander, but Miriam had always imagined having a small dog or cat that cuddled with her as she rested at the end of the day. The warm weight of the cat on her lap truly was lovely. If he could see her now, how he’d laugh, say she was a natural at it. Instead of the tough, bitter chew the thought would usually bring, Miriam examined it fondly. Maybe she really was gentling. Robert would be proud.
The cat didn’t seem interested in following her when Miriam went inside for the night, but he was waiting for her when she came back outside to start her daily list of chores the next morning.
It didn’t hesitate to eat when she brought out another can of food for it, and it followed her when she went out to the beds. Miriam reached out a hand for him to sniff. While he rubbed his cheek against her fingers, he didn’t seem very interested in being pet. He sat or lay next to her as she worked. He seemed as content as she was with the silent companionship.
After a few more days of eating meals together and working next to one another in the yard, the cat finally followed Miriam into the house. She’d driven to town to pick up bowls and food and a cat bed and a litterbox—just in case. The cat seemed aware of what was his immediately. He fit himself seamlessly into the fabric of her life, like he’d been there years instead of just a week. He eschewed the cat bed for a spot at her feet in her bed, but Miriam didn’t mind. The warm weight of him was a comfort during the long, often cold nights. They worked well together.
The only place he seemed not to like was the cellar. Whenever she went down there for canned vegetables or preserves, he always stood at the head of the stairs, waiting for her to climb back up to him. He never wanted to go down with her. Maybe he didn’t want to feel trapped in an enclosed space. Miriam didn’t mind if he disliked the cellar. She would never force him somewhere he didn’t like.
Besides, she understood not wanting to go down there; the cellar was the one part of the house she herself disliked. It was dark and damp, the stairs leading down cramped and old. There was only one light for the whole place and Miriam always felt like she was suffocating when she was down there. Any reason to go to the basement as few times as possible was just fine for her, honestly. Robert had spent more time down there than she’d ever wanted to, tying up fishing lures, building furniture, and working on other such projects. She was happy enough leaving the cellar to his memory.
Other than that, living with the cat was easy.
“You probably need a name,” Miriam said one morning a few weeks after the cat moved in. They were both eating their respective breakfasts. The cat looked up at her, whiskers twitching as he licked his mouth. It always seemed as if he was truly listening to her when she talked to him. It was one of the things she liked best about him.
“You must already have one though, huh?” she continued, stirring homemade granola into her yogurt. The cut strawberries left streaks of red as she stirred, making her breakfast look like it had trails of blood in it. “It would be rude of me to give you another.”
When he’d decided she had nothing else to say, he went back to eating. Miriam did the same.
That night, she picked up the phone that had started ringing before her evening walk.
“Mom? Good, I’m glad I got you. You didn’t call back after the message I left.” Her son’s voice was accusing, annoyed. She could hear her grandson’s high, fluting voice in the background, asking what daddy was doing.
“I’ve been busy,” Miriam said. The cat doubled back from the front door and twined around her legs. He was obviously as impatient to leave as she was.
“Well.” A pause. “Have you thought any more about what I said?”
“I have no interest in going to a nursing home, James. You know that. I’m fine out here. I’m hale and sound of mind. There’s no reason to leave.”
Another one of those deep sighs. Miriam wondered where her son developed such a stressful personality. Certainly, not from her or Robert. “Mom. Please. It’s not a nursing home, it’s a retirement community. Plenty of older people choose to move to retirement communities. Leaving that aside, you’d be closer to us. To Benny. Don’t you want to be closer to your grandson?”
Miriam frowned. He wasn’t playing fair. “You could always bring him out this way. You were the one who chose to move so far.”
“Mom, I don’t want to go over that again. You’re out there in the middle of nowhere by yourself, all alone, living in that house full of memories of dad. That’s not healthy. You have to know that.”
The cat sat on his haunches and pawed at her leg, looking up at her with his head tilted. Miriam looked down into his bright yellow eyes and felt her annoyance settle. She’d found that the cat was good for her impatience.
“Thank you for your concern, James, but I’m happy here. I love this house, and I love the memories of your father. Please respect my decision.”
They were both quiet for a while, silence thick between them.
“Okay, Mom. I’ll call you later.”
Miriam set the phone back down in its cradle and set out the front door, cat trotting right at her side.
The scratching started a month after the cat arrived.
Miriam hadn’t really been paying attention at the time, but when she thought back on it, it was a month to the day.
The first time she heard it was when she was in bed, dozing off. The cat had started accompanying her on all her walks, and they’d gone further than usual that day, venturing to parts of the country she hadn’t been to since before Robert fell ill. She was the good sort of exhausted, slipping quickly into sleep.
She woke only when the cat started hissing. He was no longer in his place at her feet when she opened her eyes to see what was going on; he was standing on her chest, hissing at the wall above her head. He was heavy on top of her, far heavier than she’d expected. It was a little hard to breathe under the weight of him, and she was surprised him climbing onto her hadn’t woken her first. It was only after she’d pushed him off that she heard the scratching beneath his rumbling growls.
It was coming from in the wall behind her headboard. It sounded a little like something was crawling inside the wall, nails skittering along the supports, truth be told.
Miriam sat up and the cat moved to her side. His fur was puffed up, making him look bigger, scarier. Miriam was almost more afraid of him than whatever was in the wall. She’d never seen him look so angry in all the time he’d been at her house. Not even when another stray tom happened by.
“It’s okay,” she said softly. The scratching paused, then picked up again, faster. “It’s probably an opossum. They get in, sometimes. Through the crawlspace, then into the walls. It’s just trying to get back out again.”
As she tried to soothe the cat, the scratching moved. It went up the wall, then back to where her headboard was pressed. It went lengthwise around the room, then finally seemed to realize it had to go back down to escape. They listened as the scratching got quieter and quieter before disappearing altogether past the floorboards.
Once the noise was gone, Miriam risked reaching out to run her hand down the cat’s back. His fur was still bristled, but he stopped that awful growling at her touch.
“See?” she whispered to him. “It’s alright. Let’s go back to sleep.”
The cat didn’t seem to be soothed. Instead of going back to his usual spot by her feet, he curled up next to her on Robert’s empty pillow. She laid down and breathed in deep, taking in the musky smell of him.
Whatever was trapped in her walls couldn’t seem to find its way back out.
Miriam heard it scratching its way in and out of various rooms over the next few days. Unlike the previous times squirrels and other small animals had found their way in, the scratcher tended to follow her and whatever sounds she made throughout the house.
Each time the scratching started, the cat would puff up and growl, hissing and spitting at whatever spot the scratching stopped at. He followed it wherever it went, but never scratched back at the walls to try to get to whatever it was. Maybe the sound bothered him more than anything else.
It got to the point that Miriam had to call the only exterminator in town to come out and take a look. She’d feel bad if whatever it was died in the walls. Then it would create a God-awful stink she’d have to deal with. Hopefully, John would be able to remove the thing and help it get back to its own home.
John spent a while going through the cellar and crawlspace and attic, poking cameras and metal wires through the walls. Miriam followed him from room to room as he worked, curious despite herself.
“Well, I don’t know what to say,” John told her after two hours and no results. He took his hat off and rubbed at his bald head. “I can see claw marks, that’s for certain, though none I ever seen before. No critter’s there now, though. You sure you ain’t got more cats? Maybe some kittens?” He nodded at the cat sitting next to Miriam’s feet knowingly. Robert had been the one to deal with him, whenever they needed to bring him out. She’d forgotten how patronizing he could be when talking to womenfolk.
“Just the one,” she told him firmly. “What do the claw marks look like?”
He still had the monitor to the inspection camera in his hand, so he held it out for her. “Take a look for yourself.”
Miriam took the monitor. She’d watched him feed the camera and metal cable through an overhead light fixture in her bedroom. It must’ve been in place still because she could immediately decipher the small, cramped space between the ceiling and the attic floor.
John was right. There were long marks left by something everywhere the camera could see. They were jagged and deep, in rows of three. John reached over to the device in her hands and directed the camera to face the north wall.
Miriam screamed, dropping the monitor. Luckily, John had had one hand on it, so he was able to keep it from falling and breaking.
“What on Earth!” he shouted, looking down at the monitor. “What’s got you so spooked? See a dead ‘coon?”
“There, uh, there was something. A weird face, or something,” Miriam said. The cat leaned its weight against her leg and she could feel her heartbeat finally start to slow from the racing panic it’d been in. Frights like that weren’t good for her at her age.
John gave her a strange look. “Well, it’s not there now. Maybe a shadow played tricks on your eyes.” He tilted the display her way, showing that he was right. Where before she’d seen something, some dark and twisted thing with huge, dark eyes, there was nothing.
“Must’ve been,” she said weakly. She went out into the living room to wait for John to pack up, hand held lightly against her chest. The cat followed quickly behind.
“Let me know if it comes back,” John said at the front door. He had his bag in hand and his hat firmly back in place. “Or if it starts to stink. Then you’ll really know it’s died. I stopped up the hole you had in the crawlspace, though, so if it was somewhere else today, it won’t be coming back.”
“Thanks, John,” she said with a small smile. She followed him out of the house and decided to spend the rest of the day in the garden getting her bearings back. There was another call from James before she went out, but Miriam decided to ignore it and let the machine answer him. She didn’t have it in her to argue with him just then. This was her home, and she’d stay in it as long as she could. That’s what they’d always planned, her and Robert. Nothing would change her mind, now.
Despite John’s assurances, the scratching started up again that night. Miriam sat up in bed immediately, looking at the wall opposite in quickly growing dread. The cat stood from his new place on Robert’s old pillow and growled.
Miriam put her hand on the cat’s back, soothing herself more than him. “It’s okay,” she told him. “It’s just a trapped animal.”
He didn’t say anything back, of course, but when he looked up at her, she had the feeling he was asking her who she was trying to convince.
She tried to smile at the cat, but she couldn’t help thinking about what she’d seen in the walls. A face, that was for sure, twisted and black, clumps of stringy hair, dark bruises, mottled grey skin and wide, black eyes. Time and imagination had filled in the details she hadn’t really seen, but she knew her eyes hadn’t been playing tricks on her. Her mind wasn’t addled, either. It had been frozen, staring back at her. Thinking about that thing being in her house was enough to make her shiver in fear.
“It’s just an animal,” she said again. Right after she finished the thought, a moan came from the wall where the scratching was. She bit her lip hard as her mouth snapped shut. “My god, what was that?”
The moan came again, long and low. It was stretched out, thin, like it was being pulled from deep inside something far away. It seemed to echo throughout the room, as if it was coming from everywhere at once.
“What the hell,” Miriam whispered. The cat let her pull him close. He was shuddering as badly as she was, but she couldn’t tell if it was from fear or rage. He was spitting with each hiss he let out.
The scratching got more insistent. Miriam could see bits of plaster raining down in clouds from the wall, like whatever it was, it was going to claw its way through to her.
“Go away!” she screamed, holding the cat close. “Leave us alone!”
The moaning and scratching stopped abruptly.
At the silence, the cat stopped spitting quite so furiously. His fur still stood on end, but he seemed to be listening for something.
“What the hell?” Miriam asked again. She let go of the cat to wipe at the sweat dripping down her face. Her frantic heartbeat was still pounding hard in her ears. “What was that?”
A sudden, loud crash made her jump. It sounded like something had pushed down one of the wooden racks in the basement. They were both silent for a few minutes, waiting to see if anything else would happen. There was nothing.
“I have to go check that, don’t I?” Miriam asked the cat weakly.
The cat looked up at her. His face plainly said she was being stupid and she should call the cops, but it would take them far too long to get out there. Miriam wasn’t going to cower in her room like a weak, old woman, helpless without a man to save her. This was her house, and she’d take care of whatever it was that was trying to frighten her, no matter how distorted it might look.
When she got off the bed, the cat jumped down as well. He brushed against her legs before leaving the room ahead of her. Miriam took comfort in the cat going with her. It might be ridiculous to feel braver because of a cat, but that’s where she was.
Another crash sounded. Maybe whatever was in the walls had found its way back out again. Miriam hesitated on the stairs to the ground floor. What if the thing with the twisted face had found its way out? The thought made her shiver.
The cat jumped off the last step. If she was going to be foolish enough to go look herself, there was no point dragging her feet.
Miriam set her jaw and made her way down the stairs. The cat led her through the living room and dining room, passed the blinking red light on the answering machine to the kitchen and the closed cellar door. She opened it as something glass shattered loudly.
There was a flashlight just inside the cellar door that Miriam kept for emergencies. She wasn’t sure if this was the sort of emergency she’d planned for, but she picked it up all the same. She turned it on and followed the beam of light down the stairs. As she made her way down, she looked back to see the cat pacing at the top step, fur still standing on end.
“You could come with me,” she hissed at him. He didn’t step paw on the wooden stair.
There weren’t any more crashes or smashing on the way down, but Miriam could hear something rustling, like whatever it was, it was moving back and forth across the floor. She swept the flashlight down the steps but there was nothing to see yet. She’d cleaned out the cellar after Robert had died, not wanting to let things get cluttered up in his absence.
Once she got down to the actual cellar, she could see what had happened. A few of the boards in the left-most wall had been smashed outward and one of the wooden shelving units had been knocked down. There were jars of preserves broken open on the floor. In the flashlight’s beam, the fruit looked like lumps of odd-colored flesh in soupy puddles. It looked like something had smeared its hands through it though, leaving patches of bare concrete behind.
Another one of those hair-raising moans started up. Miriam spun around, flashlight illuminating the corner opposite the stairs. She had to cover her mouth with her other hand to keep from screaming.
There was something in the cellar and it most definitely wasn’t some lost rodent.
It was shaped vaguely like a human, but its skin was grey, with dark, bruise-like patches all over, and it was too tall. Its hair hung off its scalp in mottled hunks and its limbs were too long. There was red dripping off its hands. Whatever it was, it was facing away from her; as she watched, its head jerked to the side and fell back, revealing the same gaunt, twisted face she’d seen before. It had long, jagged teeth in a dark, slack-jawed mouth. The moan was coming out of that mouth. Its black eyes fixed on Miriam.
“My god,” she said into her own hand. She felt frozen in place, fear weighing her down like lead weights. She wanted to run, but she couldn’t.
The thing’s mouth dropped open further and the moan turned into a loud, gasping noise, like it couldn’t breathe. It stepped away from the wall but it didn’t turn around. It moved backwards, head tilted back on its crooked neck, eyes fixed on her as it advanced.
Miriam stumbled back, cried out as she stepped on something sharp, as she skidded through something sticky and wet. She fell amongst the broken jars, just barely managed to keep hold of the flashlight as she went down. The beam arced along the ceiling but Miriam quickly focused it back on the thing.
It was closer, but it’d paused when she fell. As she watched, its nostrils flared and its breath rattled again in its throat. It was smelling her, sniffing out where she’d hurt herself. Fat globs of drool spilled from the corners of its mouth, sliding across its cheeks and forehead, into its lank hair.
Miriam let out a moan of her own as she tried to scramble away. She couldn’t get up, kept slipping in the spilled preserves and her own blood. The hot pain from her foot brought tears to her eyes.
The flashlight shook in her hand as she fought to distance herself from the thing. It kept moving closer, though. Slowly, steadily, arms bent at the elbow the wrong way, hands reaching back, fingers long and blotchy, still dripping.
Her back hit the opposite wall of the cellar and Miriam cursed.
“Go away!” she shouted at it, frustrated by the tears dripping down her cheeks. “Leave me alone!” She didn’t know what it was, but she knew it was going to hurt her, same as she knew she couldn’t get up and run away. Its twisted face looked…hungry.
There was an agonized scream from upstairs that made her flinch and then a blur of black that knocked the flashlight from her hand. Miriam shouted, scrambling to go after her only source of light. The scream turned into a low, horrible growl which twisted together with a high-pitched screech.
Miriam rolled onto her belly and grabbed the flashlight, ignored the glass scraping at her arms. She picked it up and aimed it to the place the thing had been. It wasn’t there.
She shone the light around, panicked, heart pounding all the way down to the tips of her fingers. The growl and screeches abruptly stopped and were replaced by a cracking, wet noise. She finally located the source.
It wasn’t the thing with the twisted face. That was slumped on the concrete floor, limbs splayed out. There was a gaping, red hole where its jaw and throat had been. Miriam focused on the black mass crouched next to the thing’s unmoving body, tried to ignore her breathing that was loud enough to echo throughout the cellar.
It was black, with bristling fur and long, claw-tipped fingers. Its face was pointed with rough rips in its skin that looked like scars. In its open mouth were crooked, jagged fangs. There were patches on its fur that looked wet. Its jaws snapped shut and it chewed what was in its mouth, filling the cellar with loud crunching. It looked up when she pulled in a gasping breath and she could see its eyes were wide and yellow.
Miriam felt another scream build up in her throat. It stopped short when the new monster tilted its head and let out a sound.
A low meow.
“Cat?” she breathed out.
A loud purr replaced the sound of chewing.
As she watched, the huge shape twisted and curled in on itself, shrinking. There were several pops, like joints being realigned. At the end of it, the cat sat on the basement floor. He hopped over the corpse and went to Miriam, climbing into her lap and purring.
Miriam hesitated for a moment, then put her hand on the cat’s head. It only shook a little as she pet him.
“Good cat,” she said weakly. She continued to pet him as he kneaded at her uninjured leg, purr getting louder. Miriam wasn’t alone—she’d forgotten that. She hadn’t been alone for a while, now, no matter what anyone thought.
A. Poythress has been published at The Rumpus, Thresholds UK, The Lit Pub, Asymmetry Fiction, The New Southern Fugitives, and won honorable mention in both the 2021 Fractured Literature Ghost Flash Fiction Contest and 2020 The Ghost Story’s Turn the Screw Flash Fiction Competition. They primarily write surreal horror and fantasy focused on women and queer-identified people. They have an MFA in fiction from Columbia College and are enrolled in Oklahoma State University’s PhD program for English and creative writing.