The Cat Lady

Before I moved into the house, a charming young family lived there. The father, it seemed, was absent; but the mother was a cheerful, attentive creature who always had dirt on her hands and who looked like she lugged wood or worked in construction.

When I visited the place, she was in the backyard fighting with a small herb garden, wearing a pair of worn overalls and a kerchief on her head to keep her hair back. A girl of about thirteen with mud on her knees and a wild smattering of freckles on her face was leading her younger brother, a blonde boy with one deep dimple, in a complicated obstacle course around the back yard. The dog trotted excitedly at their feet.

I stood off to one side, watching and waiting for them to take some notice of me. I wondered how they could not see me there, tall and dressed in black, supremely out of place in this cheery green yard. The boy noticed me first. He came at a half-trot toward me, staggered to a halt three feet away. Blue eyes widened and the wild, laughing expression vanished from his face. He craned his head back to peer up at me, and made a quiet, whimpering noise in the back of his throat. He was afraid of me.

His sister came running over a moment later. She didn't freeze in terror but gave me a curious look and turned in place, shouting, "Mother, there's a man here!"

By this time, I'd dropped down to a crouch before the terrified boy. Even sitting back on my heels, I was as tall as he was; but it was obviously not my height that scared him so much. He watched me like a hawk, like I was some kind of monster, like I was going to pounce on him.

"Ah. Mr. Hwic?" The mother watched me with a different kind of nervousness and fear. I was too close to her son, I'd extended one hand to him in greeting and smiled at him, trying to prove that I was any different from any other man. But, of course, most men aren't six and a half feet tall, and most men don't find themselves tongue-tied when they're brought face to face with a skitterish child.

I pulled away from him, slowly straightening and smiling down at the flustered woman. I think she was embarrassed to be such a mess, bits of her garden still sticking to her hands and her clothing. She looked down to her watch and her eyes widened, she forced a grin up at me.

"Oh, dear, you're right on time, aren't you? Want to see the house? It's kind of a mess, I meant to clean up, but -" she continued to chatter aimlessly as she lead me in through the back door, advising me to kick off my shoes in the mudroom, warning me as we stepped over the buckle in the kitchen floor.

Much of the house is the same now as it was them. Outside, it's the same cheerful shade of shell pink, I've never taken the time to paint over it. The bathrooms are unchanged, I haven't even bothered to replace the cracked sink on the first floor, the one that always leaks and leaves a pool of water on the chipped tiles. The only rooms that have changed drastically are my bedroom, painted a deep green over the old pastel blue, and the rotten floor of the living room has been replaced.

I haven't even touched the dining room. I haven't had the guts. Boxes of things they left behind are mixed with things I've never unpacked and probably never will. We're leaving our marks. Someday, that room will be filled with boxes, a museum of people who have lived in this house.

I remember thinking then [though now I laugh whenever someone else voices the thought] that this would be the perfected haunted house. It was a maze. There was one hall in the house, downstairs, from the door to the kitchen. Otherwise, rooms all lead into one another. Two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a den all lead into each other, upstairs, and downstairs the dining room opened up into the kitchen, into the living room and then the tiny, closet bathroom. And there were nooks everywhere, where a person could settle with a notebook and a pen, or a good book, or a manuscript.

Absentmindedly, I asked the woman why they were selling the place. Her answer was awkward and vague, shifting from something about the size of the place, then something about the schools nearby, something about her ex-husband. None of them were very convincing, but it wasn't any of my business anyway. Then she was ushering me back out into the yard, the tour apparently finished, and she was offering me a deal very slowly and carefully, as if from memory. Someone had advised her, she was taking great pains to get it exactly right.

When she was finished, looking to me to accept or decline, there came a small tug on the hem of my shirt. I looked down into a pair of bright blue eyes, the little boy still afraid of me but so determined to say something that he'd dared to come closer. His mother blinked down at him and told him to run along, but he shook his head and waved me in close. I settled beside him again, bemused, an ear lifted for him to whisper into.

"It's haunted," he said quietly and shyly, looking up to his mother. It had been too soft for her to hear, she stood wringing her hands and looking puzzled.

"By what?" I asked, in a voice just as soft. My fingers settled against my knee, tapping out a light rhythm. I realized I was nervous. I believed him, perhaps; at the very least, I took him seriously.

"She's old, and she usually stays in the dining room singing a song that goes -" here he solemnly hummed a few bars of 'Old Man River,' then slipped back into his story. "Usually she doesn't do anything or anything, but sometimes she'll stop me and she's really scary. She offers me candy, but I don't eat it, because daddy told me a story once about a girl who ate some seeds and got stuck in Hades. She also asks my name, but I don't give her that either. She might come after me, you know?"

I nodded dumbly, watching the intent and focused expression on his face. He reminded me of someone I'd met in a bar once, who'd come up to me and looked me in the eye and asked, "What are you?" They both looked at me in the same way, that stranger and this boy, as if I should have understood what they meant on a primal, instinctive level.

"It's the cats that're the problem," he finally whispered, as if imparting great pearls of wisdom. I was surprised his mother hadn't stopped him yet - his voice had risen slowly and steadily to a normal level - but something about the widening of her eyes, the way she watched and listened, casting furtive glances in my direction, made me think that this child didn't usually speak much. It was a treat for her to hear his quiet, serious voice.

"There're at least five of them. There's the old sleepy one who doesn't see too well and who sits t the bottom of the stairs and'll trip you up, if you're not careful. He's alright, just push him and he should let you alone. There's another cat, a girl-cat, she's...she likes to sit up in high places and look down on people, like a queen in her throne. And sometimes she scratches, if you put your hand near where she's sitting. She does it just because she's mean. She's real pretty, though, skinny and long like you."

He paused for a moment, looking me over again, as if he'd just remembered that he was supposed to be afraid of me. He picked up one of my hands and pulled at my fingers, turning it all about. Some part of me thought that he recognized it as a spider, he was looking for the eyes. Finally he looked up at me again, lips pressed together.

"You're not afraid of cats. There are more of them, um. There are two friendly ones who'll want to sit on you and sleep in your bed, but if you let them do it once, they'll do it again and again, so you've got to be stern. And the last one's just a little kitten and sometimes it sits in the kitchen and cries until you put down a saucer of cream."

Satisfied with himself, he fell silent and stared hard into my face, waiting for a reaction. I didn't know what to say, I had never seen anything supernatural in my life and had never expected to. So I blinked silently over at him until he frowned impatiently back at me.

"You'll see her, then. She's not bad, just a little scary. I don't think she'll scare you. No one else sees her, but you will. That's why I warned you." He was almost slipping into a whine now, waiting for me to agree, to reassure him, he was still waiting for that glimmer of understanding from me.

"I've never seen a ghost before," I replied quietly, smiling an apology, "What makes you think I'll see her?"

Amused and perplexed, he pulled his eyebrows together and stared into my face, "Because of what you are." After that, his lips pressed into a tight line and he wouldn't say another word.