"What's that on you?"
Chrissy looked down to where her sister was pointing. "I think that's a cricket!" She picked the bug up with her thumb and forefinger and held it in front of her sister. "Yes, I'd say it's a cricket."
Belinda examined the bug. "A cricket, eh? I hear it's good luck to find one in your house."
"I wonder if it's good luck to find one on your jeans as well?"
Chrissy dropped the cricket to the ground. "Probably not. Good Luck is usually very specific about its rules and whatnot."
"That it is." And the two sisters left the playground then and began the walk home, talking about Good Luck and its rules the whole way.
Later that night, after supper and homework and a particularly gruesome bedtime story from their mother, they whispered to each other in the dark of the bedroom.
"I didn't like that story much, Belinda."
"No, I have to say I didn't like it, either. I don't care for stories with bad endings."
"Do you think that the monster really ate the children or do you suppose they escaped at some point?"
"I don't want to think about it. Let's get some sleep."
They lay in the quiet for a bit, both contemplating the vague ending of The Monster Who Loved Children.
"What's that sound? Do you hear it?"
Chrissy sat up and listened. "It's a chirping."
"It's a cricket."
"Oh! Cricket in the house! Good luck!" Chrissy jumped out of bed and started searching for the cricket.
"I think it's outside, not in here."
"Hush, Belinda. I can't follow the sound if you talk."
The girls were whispering, afraid to let their mother - who was very strict with rules and regulations pertaining to nighttime - hear them up and talking.
So Chrissy and Belinda soft-shoed across the room in their stocking feet. They cocked their heads and listened like cats on the prowl for a renegade mouse and every time they thought they figured out where the chirping was coming from, the sound bounced and jumped and moved to another side of the room.
"Well, it's certainly in the house, not out of it," said Belinda.
"I don't know about that, Belinda. I think it's coming from the window."
"No, I'm sure it was coming from behind the dresser."
"No, over here..." Chrissy was pushing the window upward.
"Don't, Chrissy!" But she had already moved the window up and was scanning the screen, looking for a cricket hanging onto the mesh. Belinda came running, wanting only to get her sister to close the window, lest the draft come in and float under their door and into the hallway and down the stairs and into the living room and crawl right under their mother's blanket, chilling her bones and whispering to her that the upstairs window was wide open and her daughters were awake and out of bed.
Belinda tripped over Chrissy's shoe. As she tripped, she put her arms out to brace for the fall, but not wanting to fall onto the floor and shake the living room ceiling in the process, she instead propelled herself forward, arms outstretched, hoping to end up against her sister, who would break her fall and keep her from tumbling to the floor. Except that's not what happened at all. Instead, Belinda's momentum carried her too fast toward Chrissy and she crashed into her sister, which made her sister crash into the screen, which made the screen push out of the window frame, which, made Chrissy go forward and out with the screen and, Belinda being a force in motion that would stay in motion, she sort of tumbled into Chrissy who was already tumbling after the screen and they both sailed out of the window and they both fell hard to the ground below.
They ended up entangled in a crop of vines and leaves and assorted weeds. The screen was torn and when Chrissy tried to untangle herself rom it, the ragged pieces of metal bit into her arm like small cat scratches.
"Of all the bad luck...."
"What in the world were you thinking, Chrissy?"
"Me? You're the one who came flying at me like a crazy helicopter!"
"I tripped over your shoes!"
"You should have just let me get the cricket."
Belinda brushed soil and dried leaf crumbs from her pajamas. "What were you going to do with it when you got it?" She was whispering fiercely; she was mad enough at the whole scenario to yell, but they had fallen right outside the living room window.
"Bring it in the house, of course!" Chrissy looked at once frustrated and sad.
"The luck! Belinda, we have to find a way to get Good Luck to come in our house. This was it, the cricket was it!"
"Shhhhh..." Belinda put a finger to her sister's lips. "Mother is right behind these blinds here." She glanced at the window.
Chrissy choked back a sob. "Haven't you had enough of Bad Luck, Belinda?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"Yes, you do. Start with grandfather and work your way down to right now, with us lying here all scratched up in the garden."
It was true, of course. Bad Luck had plagued them like an airborne, invisible disease for years and it was as if they were only now noticing, like a furnace had been leaking all their lives and they had just gotten a whiff of the poisonous, gassy smell that lingered in their home. And once you notice something like that, then you notice it in retrospect as well. Yes, yes, that smell has always been here now that I think of it.
Their beloved grandfather had, many years ago, stepped on the bottom of a rake and the handle shot up, hit him in the head in such a way that it knocked his brain out place and killed him. That was the first bad thing they remembered. And it wasn't just all death and horrible things happening to people ("I shudder when I think of the day Aunt Polly was hanging the clothes..."), it was a black cloud of defeat that engulfed their home and family, the way nothing at all would grow in their garden except weeds and viny plants and creeping evergreens that looked like dangling-armed ghosts ready to pounce. It was the way the trees always looked like the tail end of autumn, nearly naked except for a gathering of brown, crumbly leaves here and there; or the way the their mother never felt well enough to leave the house or how appliances broke down every other day and the mailman twice tripped along their walk, once breaking his ankle; how their friends stopped coming over after they all, in turn, fell ill or broke a favorite toy or, in the case of Sally Hanson, an arm, while visiting, or how a sense of weirdness pervaded the house, from the horrific stories their mother told them every night to the way she always seemed cold and aloof, even toward her own daughters.
Belinda knew this, had all along, but rarely gave life to these thoughts, unlike Chrissy, who took every flight of fancy she had and made them into living, breathing realities. She was convinced there ghosts living in the basement and gremlins under the eaves and that black cats brought bad luck and....
"BELINDA!" she shouted this and her Belinda clamped a hand over her sister's mouth. "Do you want her to hear you? Do you want mother to have an absolute caniption when she sees us out here at night, in our pajamas, with a broken screen? She will kill us, she will."
"Belinda," she whispered after prying the hand over her mouth loose. "Black. Cat. Bad. Luck." she said this slowly, deliberately, giving each word enough weight to sink into her sister's head. And then Belinda remembered, they had seen a black cat a few times roaming around their yard. The last time they saw it, just a few days before, they had snuck into the weedy garden at midnight to investigate a noise. The cat, who had a rather large, twitching bug between its teeth, dropped its prey and hissed at them. The girls ran inside the pantry door without looking back. The cat had given them the willies.
"You think that cat we saw is giving us bad luck? But the badness has been around since we were little, Belinda..."
"The cat did look old. He certainly wasn't a kitten."
"True. Maybe. I don't know....."
A noise erupted from inside the house; the sound of something being dropped an shattered. And then....
"OH! Did you hear that? It sounded like a cat!" They crawled through the weeds and brambles to the living room window. The blinds were drawn and they could hear clatter of things being knocked over. There was a small slat of space where the blinds met the sill, just small enough for the two girls to peer into and see...
"What in the world?" Belinda cried, not worrying about who could hear her. The girls stared into their own living room, stunned to see a cat inside their house. And it wasn't just any cat, no; it was also about five times the size of a normal cat, perhaps the size of a tiger or lion. The cat was running to and fro, jumping from couch to chair to television to coffee table, swiping vases to the floor and kicking photos and flowers around the room and carelessly tipping over anything its way while letting out screeches that like metal scraping against metal. Its long paws looked like crooked sticks beset with black, wiry hair and they flitted this way and that in an effort to catch something that was eluding its grasp.
"Belinda - mother" The girls ran to the back pantry door, no longer taking care to be quiet or clandestine about being outdoors. They ran through the pantry and through the kitchen and down the long hallway into the living room.
The cat was mid-pounce, claws extended, about to swipe at something on the couch when it spotted the girls. It changed gears and landed deftly on the floor instead. The cat immediately hunched its back up, raised its hair and hissed at the girls.
"I don't think it likes us much, Chrissy."
"I don't think I like it, much."
She was nowhere to be found. Chrissy called out for her and when she did, the cat arched its back even higher and hissed even louder and then bared its teeth. It looked as if it were about to leap right onto Chrissy when it became distracted by movement on the coffee table. The cat flicked its head to the left and twitched a bit as it eyed a cricket writhing around on the table. The cricket was obviously injured and the cat was just waiting for the right moment to snatch it up in its paws.
"The cricket. It's the cricket!" Chrissy made a movement toward the coffee table before Belinda could stop her. The cat, which seemed to have become even larger and darker and whose growls and hisses grew to monstrous proportions, leaped at Chrissy, its claws aimed for her neck. Belinda, realizing what was about to happen, threw herself toward the animal and knocked it down before it could slash Chrissy. She landed atop the cat and immediately it started scuffling with Belinda, pushing its legs against her, nipping at her arms and legs, scratching at her pajamas.
Chrissy was close to swiping the cricket up off the table when the cat untangled itself from Belinda and pounced onto the table and, in one swift, balletic move, pushed Chrissy away with a heavy paw, rolled its long, rough tongue out and swept the cricket into his mouth. Belinda gasped,Chrissy screamed.
The cat stared at them, slowly backing away as it did, its gaze never wavering as it backed up to the wall.
"You ate our good luck! I hate you!" Chrissy lunged at the cat, beating it with small, ineffective fists as Belinda yelled for their mother. The girls were both bleeding from several scratches and their pajamas were torn and ragged. Belinda kept yelling mooother, mooother, moooommmmmmy come here! and Chrissy grabbed, held her tight by her forearms. As the cat glowered at the girls, and as Belinda tried to find something in the room with which to kill the beast of a cat, it started choking; a small, hairball sort of cough at first and then a definite hacking cough and then a retching, as if the cat was disparately trying to lodge something from its throat, not just a piece of food or a clump of hair, but, from the look in the cat's yellow eyes, something that was hurting it, burning it, causing it great pain and terror.
Chrissy had picked up a heavy statue of an owl - a statue she loathed because it seemed to stare right through her whenever she looked at it - and was ready to bring it down on the cat's head when it let out what sounded like a bark, its mouth wide open and in that gaping, choking maw was the cricket, crawling its way from out of the depths of the cats throat, and seemingly larger than when it first went down. Chrissy was too far into her swing to stop, even though something in her mind was telling her to do just that, and she swung the owl down, striking the cat between its ears. It stood its ground for a brief flash of a second, stunned, and the closed its mouth and fell to the floor. Chrissy thought she hear sirens but realized it was her sister screaming, loud wailing screams that should have woken the dead. She went to her sister, hugged her, told her it was going to be alright, the cat was probably dead and they would scoop up the cricket and find their mother and everything would be fine, just fine, a-ok.
And then Belinda saw the cricket, held tight between the teeth of the cat, half in and half out of its mouth, blood from the cat's wound streaming down onto it. It was still.
"The cricket is dead." She walked over to the cat, who had stopped twitching and dying and was now just a lump of hair and blood and claws. She bent down to remove try to remove the cricket from between the cat's teeth, clamping her forefinger onto the poor insect's head, trying to ever so gently pull it out from the mouth without tearing it in two...
The cat opened its eyes.
Belinda screamed. Not just because the dead cat had opened its eyes, but more because the eyes were not the yellow of the cat who had just chased them around the living room, but a greenish hue, flecked with gray. They were big and wide and familiar.
They were her mother's eyes.