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Land on Your Feet

      The young girl presses her nose to the cool car window. She exhales, and her hot

breath clouds the glass for only a second. She traces a small finger through the

condensation. The colors of the autumn trees fly by the car. Red, orange, yellow blur

together. The car slows as they drive up a quiet dirt road. The girl’s younger brother

yawns next to her in the back seat.

      The children’s mother unbuckles them and goes to unpack their suitcases from

the trunk. She pushes her hair out of her eyes with thin fingers. She’s no more than 18

years old. Their father stumbles out of the passenger side. A McDonald’s wrapper and

mini Jack Daniels bottle fall to the ground as the man peels himself from the passenger

seat. With a groan, he walks a few steps away to relieve himself. The children’s mother

shoots her husband a nasty look.

      “Can’t you wait till we get in the house?” She receives a grumble and a hand

wave in return. She turns to her daughter.

      “What do you think, Tracy?” she motions to the house. Tracy shrugs and looks

up at their new home. It’s much bigger than anywhere else they’ve ever stayed. She

wonders how long they’ll live at this house and why they left their old apartment so

abruptly.

      “There’s nothing out here, Sandra,” the children’s father complains as he looks

out at the property. The house stands by itself in an empty field with only one long dirt

road leading back to the small town miles away. The white paint falls off the window

panes, and the two massive pillars in the front of the house—flecks of white paint litter

the ground. One of the window shades is missing, and the plants next to the house are

dead. Even though it’s an unseasonably warm day in October, Tracy shivers.

      “Look how big this place is!” her mother says. “I’m surprised we can even afford

this.” She starts moving the few belongings they have into the house.

      “Where did Mark go?” Tracy asks as she looks around for her younger brother.

She had just seen him a second ago. Her mother struggles to carry a heavy bag while

her father lights a cigarette on the front porch.

      “He probably ran round back,” her father replies.

      “Go look for him, Trac. He’s probably exploring the new house,” her mother adds

as she takes a break from carrying a suitcase and gives her husband a resentful glance.

She debates on whether to start an argument so early in the day. Tracy, sensing a fight

might be near, walks around the house to find her brother. As she walks, she notices

the grass. The grass here is not green, like at the other places they’ve lived. This grass is

brown and brittle. Lifeless. It crunches beneath her small feet. She thinks that this is

not the type of grass she wants to lay in.

      “Mark!” she calls. No response. She hears nothing, not even birds in the

distance. She walks towards the swing set near the end of the backyard. This swing, she

notices, has no companion. She thought all swings came in twos, but this one is built

alone. The swing is slightly swaying back and forth despite there being no breeze.

Again, Tracy shivers. She slowly makes her way to the swing, mesmerized by the back

and forth movements. The motions grow more exaggerated as she glides closer. Her

heart starts to race. An overwhelming sense of dread fills her body, and a voice in her

head tells her not to go any closer. Yet, she can’t stop her feet from moving over the

dead grass. In the distance, she hears a faint high, pitched girlish laugh. She reaches

out her hand. She’s close now; any closer and the swing will knock her over…

      “BOO!” A voice near her right shoulder makes her jump out of her trance. Mark

is laughing at her.

      “Ha! You should have seen your face,” Mark snickers. Still startled, Tracy lowers

her hand and takes a step back from the now motionless swing.

      “Where were you? I was looking for you.”

      “I found a friend,” Mark grins and signals for her to follow. He crouches down

into the bushes and pulls out a mangy black cat. Tracy wrinkles her nose. The cat is

missing patches of fur and smells like decay.

      “I don’t think you should touch that. What if it has fleas or something?” Mark

shrugs. Their mother appears in the backyard, sweat glistening above her lip. She puts a

slender arm to her forehead and pushes her bangs away from her face.

      “Mommy, tell Mark to put that cat back.” The cat looks at Tracy with its green

slit eyes. Her stomach churns.

      “Mommy, please, please, can we keep it?” Mark wails and runs up to his mother,

cat in hand. He holds the cat up to her. Their mother looks at the cat then at Mark.

      “Why, don’t we give him some food and water outside and see if he likes us. He

might have another family. If in a couple of days he’s still hanging around, we can keep

him.” Judging by its state, Tracy doubts this cat belongs to anyone else. Mark

contemplates his mother’s words. After a minute of thinking hard, he nods in

agreement.

      “Mr. Cat, stay right here. I’ll be back!” He runs into the house to grab water since

they had yet to buy groceries. All they have are fast food remains in their car.

      

      Over the next couple of days, Mark spends all his time caring for the cat. Tracy

finds her brother’s attachment to the cat unsettling. Their father also dislikes the

creature and says for the second time that day that he’s not spending any money on

that “damn cat.” On the fourth day, Mark brings the cat into the house.

      “Mommy, I don’t want that living with us,” Tracy tells her mother with a pout.

      “Sweetie, don’t worry about it. The cat makes your brother happy.”

      “His name is Shadow!” Mark yells from the other room. Sandra smiles, pleased

that her son has found something to entertain himself. She hopes this move will be

their last. Remembering her mother’s warning that she’ll never land on her feet, the

smile fades from her face.

                                                                ***

      Tracy lies awake that night. She can hear the cat purring a few feet over on her

brother’s bed. She sits up to look at Mark and sees two green slits staring back at her.

She immediately closes her eyes and pulls the covers over her head. The following

morning Tracy wakes to see her brother’s empty bed. ​Probably already playing with it​,

she thinks bitterly to herself. She walks down the creaky steps and finds her mother and

father arguing in the kitchen in hushed voices.

      “Mommy, I’m hungry.” She softly tugs on her mother’s shirt. Sandra gives her

husband an exasperated look before looking down at her daughter. Tracy jumps as her

mother gasps and grabs her arm. Crouching down to her daughter’s level, she holds her

arm in her hands as she examines her daughter’s small body.

      “Tracy, what happened?” Tracy looks down at her arms to see them covered in

thin scratches. She rips away from her mother’s grasp and hides both arms behind her

back. Fear creeps into the young girl’s chest, and she begins to cry.

      “The cat,” she wails. Her mother looks concerned. Mark comes in, holding the

cat in his hands. Tracy sobs harder.

      “What’s going on?” Mark asks. The young girl lifts a shaky finger and points at

the black cat in his hands.

      “Did the cat scratch your sister?” Sandra demands.

      “Shadow would never do that,” Mark protests. “He was sleeping on my bed the

whole night!”

      “Look at your sister’s arms! How did this happen?”

      “I dunno, maybe ​she​ did that.” Sandra shakes her head.

      “The cat sleeps outside tonight.” Mark starts to protest, but their father cuts in

and raises his voice.

      “Listen to your mother,” he warns.

                                                                 ***

      That night Tracy has a hard time falling asleep. Her mother stays with her

stroking her hair until she finally drifts off. Sandra assures her daughter that the cat is

outside and that it’s not coming in. Tracy dreams the cat is clawing at the window,

peering in at her with its green slit eyes. She tries to push the cat off the ledge, but it

won’t budge and slinks into her room. Its claws are out, and it tries to scratch her eyes

this time. She yells to Mark for help, but he just laughs and points. Tracy wakes with a

start to the morning sunlight streaming through her window. She rubs her eyes. As she

drops her hands from her face, she sees the faintest trace of blood on her fingers. Her

heart starts to race as she jumps out of bed and runs to the bathroom. She looks in the

mirror, heart-pounding and screams.

      “MOMMY!”

Her mother runs to the bathroom and, upon seeing her daughter puts a hand over her

mouth to stifle a gasp. Like her arms, the day before, her daughter’s face is now covered

in tiny scratches. Tracy looks at her mother’s horrified face. She wants to say

something to demand her mother make this better but can’t get the words out. She

stares at her reflection, eyes wide. Her innocent, childlike features are gone, now

altered into something sinister.

      “MARK!” Sandra yells. “GET UP HERE NOW!” Mark runs up the stairs, breathless

by the time he reaches the top. His eyes widen when he sees his sister.

      “Did you let Shadow in last night?” Sandra tries to keep her voice steady.

      “N-n no.”

      “Do not lie to me, young man. I will get your father involved.”

      “I swear! I didn’t! He was outside all night.”

      “How do you explain your sister’s face then?”

      “I know Shadow didn’t do that! ​She​ must have done it.”

      “Tracy would not do this to herself, Mark! How dare you accuse your sister of

something like this.” Tracy, still staring at herself in the mirror, her tears now silently

streaming down her cheeks, stinging when they pass her cuts, turns to look at her

brother in disbelief.

      “Not Tracy,” Mark continues in a shaky voice. “Violet.”

      “Who the hell is, Violet?” Mark shuffles his feet and looks at the floor.

      “She said she’d stop hurting her,” he says in a small voice.

      “What are you talking about?” Sandra demands, in disbelief that her son would

go to such great lengths to get himself out of trouble.

      “It’s not my fault!” Mark wails. “She told me she’d stop scratching Tracy if I took

care of Shadow!” The fear Tracy felt when she walked towards the swing on that first

day is back. The high, pitched girlish laugh fills her head as if the owner of the laughter

is standing right next to her. She wants to run, but her feet are glued to the floor, her

eyes on Mark. Sandra crouches in front of her distraught son and tries to look into his

eyes.

      “Who is hurting your sister?” She tries to say in a soothing voice. Mark screams

and runs down the stairs slamming the door behind him.

      “Mark!” Sandra calls as she runs after her son.

      After coaxing her son to return to the house, he refuses to speak to anyone.

Sandra gives up trying to get him to talk to tend to her daughter’s wounds. That night

Sandra makes sure her husband removes the cat outside and double-checks that all the

doors and windows are locked. She leaves her bedroom door ajar and keeps the door to

her children’s room open. She stays up late into the night listening. At one point, she

thinks she hears her son talking to someone, but when she looks into the room, she

sees both her children sound asleep. At around three in the morning, she drifts off to

sleep next to her snoring husband.

      Sandra wakes early, groggy from the night before. Her husband is still breathing

softly next to her, oblivious to the world’s problems. She walks down the hall to her

children’s bedroom. Poking her head in, she sees both her children sleeping peacefully.

Breathing a sigh of relief, she walks down the stairs to make coffee and grab the paper

from outside. Stepping out onto the front porch, Sandra shivers in the cool late October

air and wraps her pink sweater tighter around her lean body. She feels something soft

crunch beneath her toes. Looking down, she inhales sharply. The cat lies lifeless at her

feet. It’s neck at an unnatural angle like it fell from a great height. Its green eyes still

wide open, looking at her in surprise.

                                                                        ***

      The next day Sandra makes plans to move her family away from this house. She

calls the landlord.

      “I was wondering when I’d hear from you, Mrs. Portney,” he tells a shaky Sandra.

      “Let me guess, you want to break the lease?”

      “Um, yes… That’s why I’m calling.” Hearing the confusion in her voice, the

landlord continues.

      “We can’t get anyone living in that house for more than two months. Something

about strange things happening.”

      “Yes, there have been some unexplained things,” she offers, unsure if she should

go on.

      “There are stories about that house. The owners say it’s haunted by a young girl

who died there back in the 50s. I keep telling them they ought to tear that place down.

But they say they don’t want to disturb her spirit.” He lets out a throaty laugh. Sandra

clutches the phone to her ear. She does not find this funny.

      “Young girl?” she asks after a while.

      “Huh? Oh yeah, stories say Viola was her name, or was it, Violet, maybe?

Anyway, I’ll be down there tomorrow, and we can fill out the paperwork.” Sandra hangs

up the phone.

                                                                        ***

      As the family drives away, far away from the house, Mark asks again where

Shadow went. As always, Sandra tells her son that she’s not sure and that he might

have gone back to his real family.

      “But I’m his real family,” Mark pouts. Tracy looks out the window then back at

the house as it gets smaller the further they drive. She turns to her brother.

      “Maybe he fell and hurt himself.” She offers. Sandra glances at her daughter in

the rearview mirror.

      “No,” Mark shakes his head. “Cats always land on their feet.” Tracy shrugs. She

knows this cat didn’t.  

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