Updated: May 24, 2021
Only a corkscrew of dark hair spiked from under the child’s light summer blanket. As slow as the sun, came eyes over the blanket horizon. Wispy curtains caught the slight breeze through the open window behind his bed, making hula dancer shadows on the wall next to the closet. The eyes widened in cartoonish terror at the sight of the other shadow.
It was that cat again. Kaal Drogo, named after a Game of Thrones character. He was big and bold and dark, with lustrous chestnut fur and black tipped paws, tail and face, as if he’d been playing in the ashy hearth. He was okay in the daytime. Fun to play with even. He loved Pa’s laser pointer and went all goofy over catnip. He even joined little Zack on afternoon hikes through the woods behind the cottage, walking ahead of him like a king’s guard.
Then, late at night, when the moon shone like a lamp through the window, the cat would be there, staring at the wall by the closet. It’s shadow still, like a creepy Francis Bacon painting. The graceful black hula dancers swayed over and through it, but the shadow cat remained motionless.
Zack grabbed an ounce of courage, threw off the blanket, and clicked on his bedside lamp. Warm comfort flooded the small but tidy boy’s room. Kaal Drogo turned and looked at Zack for a moment, puzzled by the boy’s frightened expression. He padded silently to the bed, jumped up light as a feather, made himself into a catball, and went to sleep.
The next morning, five-year-old Zack came downstairs with his worn old green blanky clutched in a fist. He sat across from Zelda, his older sister and master tormentor.
“Zacky. You look like shit.” Said Zelda.
“Zelda! Language!” said their mom at the stove frying eggs. She plated the eggs, added toast, and peered down at her son.
“You really do look ill. Didn’t you sleep well, Honey?”
“No.” replied Zack sullenly.
His ma said, “Well, you’re going to take a nap after your bath. Can’t have you looking like a zombie.”
Zelda’s foot found it’s mark under the table and Zack cried out in pain. She’d put on her sneakers just so it would hurt more. She said, “Ha Ha. Only baaaaybies have to take naps!”
Ma spoke up, “Now Zelda, you were five once too. Be nice to your brother.”
“Whatever. I’m done eatin, I’m going out huntin.” She announced as she got up and grabbed her beebee rifle from the mudroom on her way out the door. “Bye Baaaaybie!”
Zack held back tears, his face turning red in the process.
Ma said, “Don’t let her get to you. They’re just words, water off a duck’s back. She’ll grow out of this mean phase, just hang in there.”
“Okay Ma.” Said Zack. He did not believe it was just a phase. His ten-year-old sister had more than just a screw loose, she was as unhinged as a ferris wheel in hell.
When Zelda came home that afternoon, she was in a good mood, which meant she’d been up to no good at all. After Zack’s nap, he went outside to play with his trucks.
His apple red tow truck was towing the headless body of a squirrel.
Zack shuddered as he looked around for his yellow dump truck. He found it. There were 3 sparrow heads, a chipmunk head, and the squirrel’s head in the dumper part and in the cab of the truck, a chipmunk with a Barbie head. Tears burned his eyes as he carried the tiny little bodies to his own secret cemetery in the woods.
He said nothing at the dinner table. Zelda smirked at him. She had green fire in her eyes, daring him to say anything. Ratting her out would only make her crazier, sneakier, and more-mean. “I guess I’m still not feeling so well” he said, “I’m going to my room.”
His dad, “Hey how’s about we go fishin tomorrow? Just us two.”
“Okay Pa, that’ll be great.” Zack tried to sound enthusiastic, but in his heart, he knew Hurricane Zelda would be jealous. That was bad.
That night sleep was a long time coming. When it finally stole his consciousness, he dreamt of a tiny army of creatures coming to tear him limb from limb then bury the parts in tiny graves. There were headless squirrels and chipmunks and birds. There were ravens with marble eyes, sparrows with spider’s legs, and worst of all- a huge vampire bat, when it swooped over the army to face Zack, he saw it had Zelda’s face.
Zack awoke shivering, his sweat soaked body cooling in the night breeze. The curtain shadows flapped softly on the wall. And there was the cat! Tonight, the eerie black form faced the closed closet door. It was six feet tall, with extra pointy ears and spikey Halloween cat fur, not even a shadow-whisker twitched.
“What’s it looking at?” wondered Zack to himself. “A ghost? A boogeyman? A Zelda-faced raven?”
Zack clicked the lamp on once again and Kaal Drogo gave up his vigil and curled up by Zack’s blanketed feet.
At seven the next morning Zack’s Pa came into his room to rouse him for fishing. “Hey buddy, how you feelin?”
Zack said, “I’m just tired, didn’t sleep much.” He had developed bruise-colored circles under his eyes.
“We can call off the fishin for a day”-
“No way!” cried Zack. He jumped out of bed and started rummaging in his dresser for underwear and a tee.
“Okay!” Pa laughed. “I’ll fix us some cereal.”
After dressing, Zack raced down the stairs. He dumped milk into his bowl and ate his rice crispies before they had barely any time to snap, crackle, or pop. After eating a slice of bacon, he got up and found his old sneakers in the mudroom, he ones he could wear in the stream. He shoved his bare left foot into a shoe…and let out, “AAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!” when his foot slid into something incredibly slimy and cold. He pulled out his foot and strings of glutinous mucus stretched obscenely with it. SHE had salted some slugs apparently.
Pa peeked in and said, “Ok Buddy Boy, I’ll meet you in the shed.”
Zack was determined not to let his witch of a sister ruin his day. He washed out both sneakers and put them on wet, the slug remains gone but not forgotten.
It had been a wonderful day. He only caught one trout himself, his pa caught three. And no Zelda. Ma made his favorite meal that night, fried chicken with mashtators and corn on the cob.
That night, he fell asleep heavily, his only dream one of slugs that quickly faded into non-memory as he awoke for a midnight pee. He peeked his eyes over the blanket, saw the shadow curtains dancing on the wall… but no cat. He turned on the lamp and swung his legs around towards the hardwood floor. There was Kaal Drogo! Now it was staring at something under his bead!
“Nonononono….” Zack moaned. “Not under my bed?!”
“Darn it!” I thought as the boy turned on the light.
The tip of my tail twitched uncontrollably. My whiskers bristled. I told myself it wasn’t his fault. He was completely unaware of the ghosts that only I could hear, and only in shadowland. In the light, the tiny high-pitched voices petered out. I sighed and thought to myself, “Well, he’ll be safe another night, he’ll be leaving the light on again.” I hopped up to the bed and catballed. Zack’s bladder eventually won out over the boogeyman under the bed. He knew if he wet it, Zelda would have a field day.
After he left the room, I heard a soft, “pssst.’
Huh? I stretched out to peer under the bed. “Who’s there?”
“Come with me outside.” Said the small squeaky voice from boogeyman’s land.
A small brown furball skittered across the floor and out the door in two seconds flat. I followed. The tiny mouse hopped up and out my catdoor.
Outside he asked me, “Why do you scare the boy every night?”
Surprised, I said, “I’m not scaring him, I’m protecting him! From the ghosts in the walls!”
“Those ghosts won’t hurt him, they were my family once, when that horrid girl was eight, she started killing them. First it was traps. Awful things that just about decapitate you. Then there was sticky paper that caught your feet so you couldn’t run away. I’ve heard stories from my cousins that she would watch the stuck mice die- slowly with no food or water. One day, she poisoned some peanut butter crackers. My brother brought one home to our burrow in the wall and all my family died long and painful deaths.”
“That’s ghastly! How come you’re alive?” I asked.
“Allergy. Name’s Blimey by the way” said mouse as he extended a teeny paw.
I shook my pinky finger with his paw and said, “Now I feel just terrible. I didn’t mean to freak the boy out. He’s always been kind to me. We go hiking together.”
“That girl child is out of control! She kills for pleasure- “
“I’ve spied her stalking the neighbor’s dog! When it comes close to our side of the woods…”
“Kaal, my friend, I’ve seen her studying YOU, when you’re asleep on the porch. Sometimes she has a bbq lighter in her hand, sometimes a switchblade.”
I couldn’t suppress a shudder and asked. “What can we do?”
“I have an idea. You can talk to ghosts, right?” the mouse asked.
“Yes, all cats can.” I replied.
As we headed off into the woods together, Blimey explained the plan he’d been brewing. As we crossed a clearing our shadows flowed over the grass like rorschach inkblots come alive. I noticed how scary they looked, prickly like painted black thistles, and I felt badly that I’d been freaking the poor boy out night after night while listening to ghost mice.
When our shadows became one with our bodies, we knew that time was right. I called out into the night,”Oh lonely spirits, cheated from death, and wronged in life, come forward to me for release.” I repeated those words three times. Then gauzy pale shapes oozed out from trees, logs, bushes, even from an old empty snail shell. As they glided over, they took the shape of their living selves: chipmunks, squirrels, a skunk and her 5 babies, countless birds- so many they blurred the moonlite. Together, Blimey and I spoke of the evil girl that had taken their innocent lives away, leaving them to wander the woods unfulfilled and in confused limbo. Purgatory.
We left the ghosts excited and eager to help.
By the time we got back to the house the sky was turning from black to indigo. I hopped up to the foot of Zack’s bed. I could hear the ghost mice in the walls chattering away but the tiny voices no longer worried me, in fact, now they made me sad. Blimey squeezed under the closet door to his home through the hole in the baseboard, just behind Zack’s skateboard.
Zack came half-awake as I formed my catball. He ever so slowly peeked out from his summer blanket. It had smiling yellow duckies all over it. Clutched in one small fist he held fast to his old, tattered security blanket. He breathed such a sigh of relief, you’d have thought he had the lungs of a ten year old. Only the curtain shadows painted the wall, barely visible in the early morning, still, with no breeze to orchestrate them.
At the breakfast table Ma said, “Zack, you sleep okay? You look much better today.’
I smiled as I sat by the stove, hoping for a bit of leftover sausage. I made my eyes big and didn’t blink so they’d tear up a little. Works every time.
“I’m fine Ma, feel great today.” said Zack.
“You get all that gunk out from your toes?” asked Zelda the Rotten.
Zack gave her major stinkeye but said nothing. Wise lad. Safer to keep quiet. Avoid her wrath.
Zelda announced, ”I’m going out to the woods, going huntin.” She grabbed the beebee rifle on her way out and I saw the bulge of her switchblade outlined in the back pocket of her cutoffs. Sausage forgotten, I followed Zelda outside. Her eyes squinted to cruel slits and I followed her gaze. The neighbor’s dog! Just a pup really. Zelda veered off to the left of the yard, the unsuspecting pup sniffing along the right side. Oblivious! Typical dog I thought.
Later in the day, just before suppertime, Zack found a crucified rabbit in the middle of his sandbox. Dried blood crusted its mouth like garish clown paint. Where its eyes should have been bristled tufts of grasshopper’s legs, sticking out like pointy sea anenomes. It had been disembowled as well, the gorey cavity held a baby’s face. Zack swatted away the dozens of lazy green flies greedily lapping the wetness. The young boy gently took the rabbit off the sticks, the doll eyes thankfully closed as he carried it into the woods. I followed.
The cemetery covered more earth every time I visited it with the boy. It grew like a malignant tumor.
Zack softly wept and whispered a little prayer over the small new mound “May your poor little soul find peace in the darkness of death. May you play happily with all the other animal souls in heaven.” The boy knew all animals went to heaven. “Know that someone cried for you.” This was a boy who cried for roadkill.
That night he found a smiley face on his pillow, shaped from small worm-like intestines.
He threw his pillow out the window. I silently wished the sweet child a good night and went to meet Blimey at the designated location. The two of us watched the dark yard and waited. As the moon rose, so did the shadows. Before long, the pale wisps of ghosts were dancing with the blackest of shadows. The yard was a beautiful ghoulish ballroom.
Blimey and I went to Zelda’s window. On this balmy July night her window was open. Soft pink curtains draped its frame, dusty lavender in the night. Blimey stood on the windowsill with a long branch in his paws. I took my place in front of the closet. My shadow six feet tall, then eight as I stood up on my hindlegs. Blimey reached with the stick to the shelf over the bed. He snagged a figure off the shelf, it was a blue bear in a police uniform, a piggy bank. It crashed to the floor, a cacophony of jangling and tinkling coins woke the girl.
“Whaaaa…?” she said sleepily. “Oh my god!” she said, spying the shadow, creepy and huge and silent. She gasped. Then said, “Oh, it’s just you! You stinkin cat, get out of here!” She reached down and threw a piece of pottery at me. I didn’t even flinch. (Stinkin? Really? Moi?)
I slowly turned around.
As I came towards the bed, I was a shadow. But when I looked out the window at the moon, my eyes trapped the light. I was now a shadow with glowing eyes.
Zelda said, “Stop that! What’s going on? You’re crazy… I should have stuck you ages ago! Put your dumb head on the little twerp’s transformer!”
She reached down towards her denim shorts in a heap of clothes on the floor. A three-foot shadow, viper-fast, darted out from under the bed and sunk it’s tiny but razor-sharp teeth into the evil girl’s palm, just under her thumb.
She pulled her hand back, shocked. Blood spattered the pink daisied quilt, the droplets as black as our shadows. By then I was on the bed at her feet. I stared without blinking, my eyes golden headlamps.
“You don’t scare me cat!” she spat at me. She tried turning on the lamp. Her hand came away quickly from the knob, “UGH!” she said as she wiped the icy-greasy intestines on her blanket. When she turned back to me, I could tell that she saw them now. Ashy pale grey shadows swarmed in the air behind me. Zelda whimpered piteously.
My shadow danced with the ghost of a skunk, her baby ghosts danced around our feet. Blimey danced with his dead relatives across the floor and the rest of the ghosts kept coming. From the walls, from the closet, from under the bed. Squirrels, chipmunks, rats, rabbits. And many species of birds.
Zelda covered her eyes, “not real, not real, not real. Dreaming.”
I pounced onto her chest, knocking her back against her sweat sodden pillow. I said to her, “You’re not dreaming Zelda. If you ever wish to sleep again you will never touch that switchblade and rifle again. Touch your nasty tools and the ghosts and the shadows will dance in your room every night.” This was a lie. After this night, the ghosts would be freed from purgatory and suffering.
Although I’d not spoken out loud, I’m a cat after all, I know she heard me loud and clear. She started screaming.
The next day was peaceful around the house. Pa had driven Zelda away in his old rusty Buick. When Zack asked where they were going, Pa said, “Zelda is a little sick. She’s going to a special place until she’s better. I know we’ll all miss her but it’s for her own good.”
Zack said, “Oh yeah, I will sooo miss her.” He had to turn away because he could not suppress a grin.
Eight hours later, just before supper, Pa came home with a gift for Zack. A puppy! A scruffy grey terrier mutt with a tail that wouldn’t quit. Zack would never learn about the Shadow’s Ball, but I knew he deserved a happy life. It started now.