Barking Mad

Written by Kerry Elizabeth Blickenderfer Black

For my friend, Laura Lindsey, and for my darling Dylan Black, who explored with me the village

October, 2012, begun, and completed April, 2013


It took a short time to unload the boxes from the Uhaul truck. Sabrina deposited them in their new living space, the basement apartment of her mother-in-law’s house in the little village of Barking, Pennsylvania. She sighed and contemplated unpacking the belongings carefully wrapped in pages from the local newspapers and deposited into many sized boxes gathered from grocers and free-standing pharmacies close to what was once home.
Just as Sabrina was about to sort the boxes into the appropriate rooms, her children burst into the apartment with their customary cacophony. The eldest, Carmine, was a sturdy boy of 14, more mature than his age, with perpetually messy golden brown hair and a shy smile. His little sister, Jasmine, had pale hair that waved in its own direction, seeming to have a life and mind of its own. Jasmine was the baby of the family at 11 until their little brother, Peter, was born almost two years ago.
They raised a ruckus over some imagined affront, each accusing the other. Even Peter was gesturing with busy hands as he babbled. Without a word, Sabrina reached down and grabbed a box labeled “C.” She handed it to her eldest and sent the two boys to the small room which they would share. She then turned to Jasmine whose crossed arms and pouting lip indicated that neither she nor her complaint would be dismissed so easily.
“None of this is easy for any of us, Jazzy,” the tired-looking mother said, adding, “please, let’s try to work together as a team to make this place ready for us to live. You start school Monday, so that only gives us a couple of days to get it all ready.”
Jasmine narrowed her blue eyes in an angry pinch of her face. “I don’t want to get it ready. I don’t want this stupid, new house. I do not want a new school. I will not make new friends. I hate it here, and I am not going to help you. I am not a part of this team!” Her firm tone became whiney as she added, “And, you never listen to me, Mom! Never! You don’t even know what Carmine did to me!”
Sabrina closed eyes swollen from lack of sleep and worry, and she ran a hand through her own graying strawberry hair. She sat cross-legged on the ground in front of her middle child and motioned for Jasmine to do the same.
“Please tell me what is going on.”
Jasmine remained on her feet, regarding her mother with stormy, shielded eyes. “I already told you,” she said, crossed her arms, and turned away.
Sabrina blinked back stinging tears but stood to hug her little girl. “I love you, Jazzy.” Jasmine remained stiff, unresponsive.
She shrugged away from her mother, scooped up a box marked in red sharpie with a “J,” and walked to the room that would be her bedroom.
None of this was easy for any of them, indeed. They had a house, a charming middle-class split level in a good school district, but with the down-turn of the economy, her husband, Dennis Parker, lost his job and after many financially desperate months, the bank foreclosed. It was heartbreaking to see the mounting desperation growing within her husband as he pursued and was rejected for the few available positions.
She offered to get a job, but Den said, “No. You should be home with the kids.”
Truth be told, she loved the time with the kids, loved seeing their growing minds and bodies changing at what seemed an impossibly rapid rate. Besides, any position that she would acquire would not earn enough to make a measurable difference in their situation.
Such determination to provide an income lead them back to his childhood village where he took a job at the recently-reopened, small coal mine where his father and his grandfathers for several generations worked in the cramped spaces, digging deep in the earth for fossil fuels.
But digging has a way of unearthing more than intended.
Den never wanted to work in the coal mines. Like many young men, he wanted to forge his own path. He, in fact, never intended to return to this quaint village of his formation, with its company-built rows of brick houses and little store along the railroad tracks parallel to the Allegheny River at the base of Coxcomb Hill. Den loved his mom, but she could visit them, he reasoned, and his father died ten years ago.
Still, Den’s mom offered them her entire finished basement, with a promise for autonomy and privacy. They put up walls to configure the space for their needs atop beige Berber carpeting. A small bathroom and a reworked bar converted into a tight kitchen made home. Because it was so much smaller than the space from which they moved, the family sold a good number of their belongings, including heirloom furniture of Sabrina’s inheritance, for some money. Bright paint colors, they hoped, lightened the environment and cheered its inhabitants.
The hardest part for Jasmine, even worse than leaving her friends and her school, was losing her cat, Poe. Poe was a domestic short haired black cat, stealthy, sleek and beautiful. Grandma did not like cats, was, in fact terrified of them for no reason that she would explain. Although the idea was that the households would be independent, the thought of a feline living so close to her own living quarters sent Gwendoline Parker into a state. Jasmine unpacked her box and found one of Poe’s cat nip-laced mice. She threw herself onto her unmade bed, curled crying in a little ball around this precious remembrance.
Carmine, meanwhile, entertained his little brother and continued to unload the “C” marked boxes and sort his belongings. His room would remain tidy, because he would part with anything that did not fit within the confines of the dimensions without emotion or reservation.
So the younger Parker family set up housekeeping in the bottom parts of the elder Parker household. Soon all of the beds were made and topped with cheery-colored quilts. Sabrina washed and placed the dishes in cabinets alongside all of the other necessary kitchen items. A pot of beef stew and a couple of apple-scented candles made the house smell of home. The cardboard boxes were broken down and placed into and alongside the red recycling container.
Thus, Den came home to find a house in much better order than he’d hoped. He lingered in the doorway and took in the sights and smells, unwilling to track his work-dirt into the newly ordered environment when little Peter spotted his daddy. With a squeal of joy, the toddler ran, his right arm pumping, to his daddy. He stopped short of the customary hug, turning his chubby cheeked face up to view his father with confusion. Den’s face and clothes were darkened with dirt. To Peter, there was something quite ominous in this otherwise familiar personage. He backed away, then turned and hid behind his momma.
All was put to rights in Peter’s mind, though, when his momma gave daddy a welcome home kiss. She showed him the rubber floor tray for his shoes and such. A shower and change of clothes made daddy look like himself, and momma even hummed a familiar tune, “Beyond the Sea,” while she ran a load of laundry.
It was during this hustle that Peter noticed the black cat looking through the window at them. “Poe!” was Peter’s excited screech, but everyone was too busy to notice the child’s enthusiasm.
After dinner and a brief time viewing television in their little living room, the family went to their beds. However, everyone in the household had a restless night with troubling dreams haunted by change and disappointment. Peter was particularly troubled and sought the comfort of his parents’ bed, snuggling between their two, warm, protective bodies. When he ran the short distance to their room, working his chubby legs and right arm, he was uncomfortably certain that the cat was watching through the windows again, its golden eyes glowing in the darkness.
In the morning, the disappointed father was off to work, his children and wife crabby from lack of sleep in their new surroundings. But with a rugged determination, he marched off with a Calvanistic work ethic mirrored by his wife, who added just a touch of optimistic, though sleepy, enthusiasm. She rallied the troops and set to work finishing the unpacking and preparing. Grandma Gwendoline stopped by their back door with a sack of McDonald’s fast food to share an impromptu lunch break.
Everyone was surprised by the speedy transformation. They enjoyed a cozy, cramped, yet charming home. With an episode of “Super Why” as background noise for the rest of the family, little Peter hummed the ABC song with Pig from the show, dipping French fries into a small circle of ketchup. The adults discussed the new accommodations while the older kids ate, absorbed in their own thoughts. Peter’s cheerful ditty stopped when he again felt the stare of yellow eyes from the window.
It was with some fear that he turned to meet the unblinking gaze. If this was Poe, it was not the gentle kitty with which he was friendly. This cat was bigger than their pet. This cat did not seem to like them at all. Seemingly all at once, Peter started to cry, pointing his chubby finger at the window, repeating, “Poe kitty.”
They misinterpreted Peter’s outburst.
“We all miss Poe!” cried Jazzy. She ran to her room, slammed the door, and buried herself among her many throw pillows.
Carmine and his grandmother stood awkward, helpless, and still. Sabrina comforted the littlest child, rocking him in a cuddling embrace until he at last dozed in her arms.
Once asleep, she lay Peter on the couch and asked her eldest son to check on his sister. She then took a seat on the floor in front of the toddler to resume the visit with her mother in law. She ran her right hand through her hair and sighed.
Peter’s reactions in this were misinterpreted by his family. Everyone, through the eyes of hurt or guilt, thought that the child missed his beloved pet.
“You know that I don’t like cats,” began Gwendoline with an odd expression on her handsome face, “but if you think that it would be good for the kids to have their pet back. It is okay with me.”
Sabrina smiled. She did think it would help to have a warm, familiar, comforting presence in the house with the kids. “Oh, that would be wonderful! I promise, the cat will only stay in our portion of the house.” She smiled. “Jazzy, in particular, will be over-joyed.
Outside, dogs started to bark and howl. The winds picked up a bit, sending dirt from the railroad eddying toward the rows of houses. It passed through the empty lots where some of the track of homes lost buildings to past fires, looking a bit like an adolescent mouth losing baby teeth. Gwendoline took her leave via the back door which would be their private entrance and exit. The basement door would remain closed and locked, separating the two households, the stairwell used to display books.
Sabrina smiled at the thought of welcoming Poe into the household. She used her cellular telephone to call the friend who had sweetly but somewhat begrudgingly taken on the care of little cat and arranged for its homecoming. Meanwhile, the dogs continued to bark. Peter slept through their woeful sounds, and the two older siblings had a heart-to-heart, coming to terms with their new circumstances.
After getting the older kids off to school the next day, Sabrina met her friend, Heather. The college chums talked over tea, Peter running about chasing one of Heather’s many feline companions. Poe curled in a ball at Sabrina’s feet from the moment that she took her place at her friend’s charming table. She was surprised that Peter not only shied away from Poe when first he saw her.
With a slight smile and a warm word of thanks for taking on their little cat when the family did not know what else to do, Sabrina took her leave. She set off for home where the older kids would be surprised after their first day of school to find Poe restored to them.
They pulled into the gravel drive and parked in front of their residence. Sabrina noted the autumnal beauty of the hill of surrounding trees that provided an effective shield, hiding the village from most who drove by heading to New Kensington. Ash and maple, oak and pine trees, many soon to lose leaves and thus losing color when the next wind blew through, stood like silent centurions, their arms at the ready to protect or attack.
The river which sandwiched the village, with its piers and loading areas, made its own noisy way toward the convergence of the three rivers that formed the point at which the city of Pittsburgh stood. The railroad tracks were at the moment silent, though when the freight trains came through, most of the houses in the village of Barking shook. The train whistle became such a part of the residents’ lives that it was barely noticed. However, all of these sounds were foreign to the newly placed family, so all served as intrusive reminders of their changed circumstances. The familiar street sounds were absent, since there was little road traffic in this protected community. Just river sounds, the occasional train, and the seemingly sudden chorus of the neighboring dogs’ concert barking contributed to their new environment.
Sabrina brought the cat carrier in to their house, set up the litter box and food station, and after washing up, filled a Sippy cup with chocolate milk. The cat remained huddled in the carrier, eyes golden marbles glowing in the darkened space. Sabrina coaxed the small feline out, setting her tense body on her lap, but the cat was apparently quite unnerved by yet another new home. Poe ran away, scratching Sabrina with her back claws when she leaped from her lap. Sabrina sighed, hoping that they would all adapt soon. She closed her eyes in a silent prayer, a prayer interrupted by Peter’s frightened cry.
“Poe, Poe, No!” He seemed to scream, pointing his chubby finger at the casement window. Sure enough, the black cat was looking in with yellow eyes.
“How did the kitty get outside?” Sabrina asked, more a question for herself than for the toddler. He looked confused and upset. “Mommy will get her. It is okay, Peter,” she said, thinking that there must be a window opened somewhere. She would check that the screens were placed securely.
“Here, kitty, kitty, kitty,” she called out the front door, her voice high-pitched. The neighborhood dogs barked with enthusiasm. “Poe, kitty, here…” She heard a tiny meow, but it sounded like it was behind her. She turned to look when a blur of black fur rushed past her jean-encased legs. Peter was standing on the couch, sucking his thumb, his wide eyes wet.
A quick check of the windows in all of the rooms revealed screens that would need attention. She used the universal fixit tool, duct tape, on two. Poe curled on a peace pillow on Jasmine’s bed, purring. Peter still stood on the couch when Jasmine returned to the room. She picked up her little boy, snuggling him onto her lap, and sang his favorite song, “Spiderman,” until he reluctantly fell asleep.
She enjoyed the warm lump of a growing boy, curled and precious, chubby soft. In gratitude for her blessings, Sabrina closed her eyes to pray. “Dear Lord, thank you…”
These meditations were interrupted, though, when the black cat leapt onto her lap, frightening Peter awake. The cat jumped back down, leaving scratches on both people. She quieted Peter and her own thoughts. The cat was gone as quickly as he came, invisible in the shadows.
“I am sorry, buddy. I don’t know what has gotten into that kitty,” mother reassured child. Peter did not look convinced, however.
Later that afternoon, Jasmine screamed with delight when she saw the little black cat curled on her bed. “Oh, my fur face!!! Mom, Poe!” She was so excited that she could barely articulate. She hugged the purring cat as she skipped about her already cluttered room. “I missed you, I love you! You are the best kitty ever!” Poe’s purring sounded like a mini outboard motor. Everyone home smiled at their mutual enthusiasm.
That is, until Carmine dropped his book bag on his bed to find that the cat left something intended for the litter box on his floor. He grumbled loudly, but cleaned the mess himself. When Den came home from work, he discovered that there were scratches on the couch upholstery.
“Poe could not do that kind of damage,” Jasmine argued. “She has no front claws.”
Parental crossed arms and firm faces on parents expressed disbelief without a word. In indignation, she retreated to her own room with Poe, glaring at any who disparaged her little friend.
That night, most of the family slept poorly again, troubled by strange, foreboding dreams, bothered by the urgently howling dogs, and listening to new sounds within their house, a scampering, scurrying, and shuffling. Peter was too frightened to make his way to his parents’ room, so he cuddled onto the bottom of his big brother’s bed, curled in a fetal ball, sucking his thumb.
When they rose in the morning, the jaws of the adults dropped. Greeting them was an unprecedented mess. The upholstery was shredded, the stuffing pulled like taffy across the small living space. The cheery curtains lay in ribbons on the floor. Sabrina stood frozen, taking in the scene. Den went to the children’s doors and knocked.
Everyone was stunned by the amount of damage, but Jasmine was indignant. “Poe was with me all night. She slept right beside me. I had my door closed all night.”
When no one seemed convinced of the logic that she presented, Jasmine stomped off, tears biting at her eyes. She muttered ominously under her breath.
After she was prepared for the trip to the bus stop, Jasmine gathered up the cat’s litter box and feeding bowls. She would keep everything in her room with the door closed since everyone was so willing to blame her little cat “who would never do anything like this,” she swept her hand toward the devastation.
“My door is to remain fastened from now on. Poe will be safely kept inside for her own protection from ‘traitors.’”
Sabrina cleaned up as best she could. She fashioned covers from sheets and unpacked a different set of curtains to hang. After vacuuming and dusting and her other daily tasks, she gave Heather a telephone call.
Heather knew cats. She’d been raised on a farm that always had cats. She could offer some advice, Sabrina was sure.
However, her friend seemed surprised by the apparent alteration in Poe’s personality. “She was quiet and timid. I barely knew that she was here,” Heather explained, adding, “Maybe it is just the adjustment to another new home. Give it time.”
Hanging up, Sabrina knew that time was one thing, replacing all of the damaged items quite another. Then, Peter screamed. Sabrina ran to where her baby boy was standing atop her freshly made bed, pointing and crying. “No! Poe! No, no, no, Poe!” he cried.
She picked him up. He clung to her, whipping his head to scan the floor. She felt his trembling. She looked at the small closet where Peter pointed. He screamed. “Poe hurt me!” He cried.
He lifted his ironman t-shirt to reveal fresh scratches on his stomach.
She washed them up, got him some chocolate milk in a Sippy cup, and set him on the couch to watch an episode of “Daniel’s Neighborhood” on PBS. Daniel sung a song about trying your hardest.
Sabrina tried to force her mind to work. Lack of sleep and worries were producing quite a headache, one that was not reacting to regular otc methods. The headache made sensible thought difficult to come by.
She walked to Jasmine’s door. It was securely closed. She opened it to find her daughter’s art projects littering the floor, a little pile of laundry beside the small hamper provided for such a thing. Strangest of all, though, there was the cat, stretching and yawning on her bed. Jasmine closed the door and tried to push it open, wondering if the latch was faulty, but it held. She tried to push from inside as well, but it remained closed. Jazzy’s window was locked. No other exit from the room.
Then, she heard another scream, and she ran to the living room and her child. His hand dripped blood as he stood on the couch.
“What happened?” she asked him.
He replied, “bad kitty! Bad, bad, kitty, momma!”
Sabrina looked around. She saw no animal in the room, but the injury to her son was real. Poe rested in Jazzy’s room, so she could not have done the damage. She picked up her son and walked back to Jasmine’s room. The cat was noisily lapping water from the water bowl that Jasmine placed close to the feeder. She closed the door securely and washed and bandaged Peter’s scratched hand, wondering what on earth was going on.
She grabbed the broom from the kitchen and carried it in her right hand, Peter hanging from her left, and she looked about for something. Perhaps another cat came into her home when she opened the door the other day. Perhaps she’d unintentionally invited into her home a feral animal.
She was still looking in corners when there was a knock at the door. Gwendoline and a neighbor, Mimi Taylor, brought a casserole for dinner, Mimi eager to meet her new neighbor. Without a word, Gwendoline took in the changed environment, noted the bandages on her abnormally clingy grandson, and observed the darkness beneath her daughter-in-law’s eyes. She was too discreet to mention anything in front of a new acquaintance, however.
Instead, she made introductions and small talk over tea. Mimi complimented Sabrina’s flaming locks, their charmingly transformed home, and sweet, well-behaved baby.
The couple left just before the children returned from school. Jasmine ran to her room and closed her door, but Carmine shared some stories of the bus ride to school, the teachers that he liked, and the awfulness of the school lunches.
“Can we carry lunches from now on?” he asked, looking hopeful.
“I will look into it, but we qualify for the free lunch program.”
Carmine resented this proclamation, but he, too, noticed his mother’s altered appearance.
She was normally a smiling person, gentle and hopeful. Her Irish-pale skin and hair betrayed her emotions, from embarrassed blushes to ghostly pallor when ill. Today, she looked unwell. There was a confusion to her normally gentle movements, and Peter clung to her like a koala bear to a eucalyptus. Carmine stretched out his arms to his brother, who refused to leave his perch.
Carmine noticed Peter’s bandaged hand and guessed what happened.
He became angry, angrier than was his nature. He stormed into Jasmine’s room, bursting through the door without a knock, and began yelling.
“Poe needs to leave.”
After a startled second of silence, Jasmine responded with a vehement outburst of her own.
Peter on her hip, Sabrina interceded. “I don’t believe that it was Poe.”
Both children looked at her, mouths hanging agape.
“How can you think that, Mom?” asked Carmine.
Sabrina explained her theory of the rogue cat. Carmine’s mouth dropped open. He shook his head, trying to make sense of this insane thought. Carmine joined his mother and siblings, armed with brooms and long-handled toys, in a thorough search of the apartment for the feral creature suspected of causing so many troubles.
Their search turned up no such creature, and Carmine was too much of a gentleman to press his mother further. They all pitched in to prepare a dinner which was ready when Den came home.
Den was not in the mood for conversation. He was not in the mood for eye contact or eating, watching television, or anything outside of getting a shower and going to bed.
The rest of the family eyed each other, agreeing without speaking that they should all likewise retire for the evening to their own rooms and their own silent pursuits. Sabrina read to her children from Mr. Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland before she kissed them all before washing up for bed herself.
As she pulled on her burgundy robe, Sabrina found Peter swaying, sleepy in the hallway outside of the bathroom.
“Pwease, momma, I sweep wit you?” Sabrina could not resist the chubby, outstretched arms, and she hugged him to her, inhaling his sweet little boy scent, a mixture of baby magic lotion, Johnson’s shampoo, and cookies. He curled around her shoulder and sighed.
“We have to be very quiet and allow Daddy to sleep, please, darling,” Sabrina explained, and the toddler nodded into her neck.
Stress and lack of sleep made falling into slumber easy. Sabrina nodded off just after Peter began a gentle snore that complimented his father’s more robust nighttime chorus. However, it was not long before she found herself alert, awake, chilled.
At the foot of the bed, she felt the light pressures of something climbing into their bed, slowly, cautiously, making its way toward Peter.
Sabrina sat straight up, intent upon frightening the cat from her bed. Instead, nose to nose, she looked into the glowing amber eyes of an animal much larger than a domesticated cat.
She gasped, then gathered her courage. “Get out of my house!” Sabrina said with as much strength as she could manage, her every protective instinct on high alert. “Get out and stay away from my family!” She was not yelling, but there was a force behind each word pulled from maternal protectiveness.
The cat’s translucent whiskers stretched wide, but instead of a cat sound, the creature laughed. It laughed a guttural, cruel, deep laugh like a rockslide. Its eyes glistened with malice in the small light cast by the nightlight, and then it turned, seeming to shrink into itself, the horrible laugh still echoing through the room. It jumped from the bed, shrinking still further, disappearing into the shadows, its mirthless, pitiless, throaty sound at last dying away.
Sabrina reached over to jostle her husband awake, keeping her eyes on the darkest shadow where last she saw the animal. “Honey, please wake up,” she implored. He rolled away from her, saying, “No, I don’t want to go back, please.” Den’s gentle snore revealed his return to slumber. She slipped out of bed, careful not to disturb her sleepers.
With determination and focus, Sabrina pursued the creature who invaded her home. Slipper and robe-less, with goose flesh and rapid pulse, she checked on her older children. Carmine rolled over in his bed. Jasmine stayed covered, but Poe raised her head from Jassy’s pillow, blinking at Sabrina. With a soft thud, Poe jumped from the bed and made her way to the entry, but Sabrina did not want the cat’s touch. She closed the door softly before Poe could reach her.
The rooms were illuminated by moonlight. A strange, cooked cabbage-like smell filled them, but otherwise all seemed to be normal. As she searched for what seemed increasingly like the product of an overly active imagination, Sabrina convinced herself that dreams could invade the half-awake mind and play tricks.
Her heart slowed to a regular pace. Each possible hiding place revealed nothing out of order, nothing hiding or mocking from the shadows. It was easy to push an uncomfortable thought from an unwilling intellect. So, she quietly returned to bed, careful not to wake the sleeping boys, and resumed her uneasy half-sleep.
The alarm sounded the beginning of a new day, and Sabrina was determined to make it a good start. She sang the Snow White song, “Whistle While You Work” as she prepared breakfast for her family, enjoying herself as was her nature.
Carmine and Jasmine, still sleep groggy and a little grouchy, found their moods lifting as their mother kissed their heads. She presented plates of delicious sausage and eggs with sides of buttered rye toast and jars of jelly. They even added their breath to the whistle interludes of the song, making their mother’s smile stretch across her weary face.
Den stomped in with booted feet, scowling, and yelled, “Stop making such a racket! What is wrong with you all?” Everyone froze, shocked by the unpleasant interruption to their fun. “Good morning, love,” Sabrina smiled, adding brightly as she held out a full plate, “breakfast?”
He widened his eyes, looking at her as if she were half crazed. “I don’t have any time. I have to go to work.” He put a finality and emphasis on the word work as her glared at his wife, his frustration and despair poured into the single syllable of the word. He then turned without a glance at his children and left, slamming the door behind him.
Silence fell in the converted kitchen. The good feelings fled Den’s anger, and all three were too stunned to say a word of confusion or comfort. Sabrina felt a lump in her throat and a sting in her eyes that threatened to erupt in tears, tears with which she would not burden her children. The kids wordlessly grabbed their backpacks and left without brushing their teeth or saying goodbye.
Outside the door, Jasmine screamed, leaping back into the house. Sabrina ran to the entry to find Carmine stooped over, looking at the mat outside of their door. Covering the “l, c, o” on the grape vine welcome mat lay a fat white rat, pink eyes staring, red mouth open in a silent scream. There was no apparent cause for its death. Carmine looked up at his mother, eyes shadowed and old-seeming.
“We have to go, Jasmine, or we will miss the bus.” Jasmine seemed reluctant to pass the corpse, but Sabrina agreed and helped her to gingerly step around and make her escape. She smiled at her children, mustering reassurance, and wished them a good day. They left without responding.
The mournful barking of the dogs accompanied their walk along the train tracks to the bus stop. Sabrina watched until the pair disappeared around the corner into an enveloping morning fog before she turned her attention to the unwelcome sight.
No need to save the mat. She felt inhospitable at the moment in any case. She tried to think of anything other than what she was doing, folding the rat in the rubber-backed mat. She slid the mess into a white garbage bag and pulled the red drawstrings closed.
Peter was still asleep, so Sabrina decided to borrow her mother-in-law’s gardening spade, heading to the back of the house. The trees were thick, the hill steep. Finding a thin-trunked sycamore, Sabrina dug a deep hole in the loamy earth and dropped the white bag with its dead white rat into it. As she covered the grave and patted the dirt flat, she noticed that the dogs were strangely silent. Somehow, their silence was unnerving. Sabrina hurried to return the spade before the baby woke.
With hands folded around a warm mug of Chamomile tea, Sabrina enjoyed a quiet moment before her son woke. Instead she answered a knock at the front door.
“Hello, darling!” Gwendoline and Mimi sought admission. They offered a box of donuts from a shop in Tarentum.
“You are up early,” Sabrina said, offering cups of tea. They accepted and sat around the table, munching on donuts and making small talk. Sabrina paid partial attention. It was not her intention to be rude, but the headache was worse today. She felt an overwhelming desire to curl up and sleep long and deep, without the persistent dog barking, without odd happenings or phantom animals.
Mimi said, “To protect the miners, pray to St. Barbara. She was miraculously swallowed by the earth when she was trying to get away from her overbearing father.”
Sabrina stirred from her reverie. “What’s that? What are we talking about?”
Peter walked into the room, rubbing his eyes with tiny fists, hair askew, Thomas the Tank Engine jammies a bit too big. The visitors greeted him with high pitched voices. He turned toward his grandma and her friend, but stopped. We stood rigid, pointing his chubby finger with evident distress, eyes bulging.
Sabrina regarded her littlest son, eyebrows curious. She then turned to where he pointed.
She stood, then wavered. A vision of her husband, bloodied and battered, reached for her. His mouth moved, but no sound escaped. The back side of Den’s head, crushed and irregular in shape, jutted at an odd angle. His right arm fell limp from his distorted shoulder. The smell of earth and the tang of iron overwhelmed her.
Her hands slammed on the table as she fell, unconscious, to the ground.
Grandma pulled Peter to her, turning his head to her chest. She cuddled and cooed. Gwendoline did not see what upset him, but she understood the need for comfort.
Mimi tended Sabrina, who when she fell in her faint, injured her head. When she came to, Peter was calmer, but Sabrina was determined. She pushed Mimi away, ignoring the rag for her bleeding forehead.
She telephoned the mine. Near hysteria, she asked, “Is Den alright?”
The receptionist sounded bored. “Why? There is no reason to suspect anything else.”
Gwendoline, with Peter sniffing in her arms, sucking on his center fingers, stood in front of her daughter-in-law. “Honey, what is going on?” she inquired with a gentle voice, her concern etched onto her face.
Sabrina hugged Peter to her, eyes closed.
“I have to go to the mine,” she said at last, fixing her eyes on Gwendoline. “Can you keep Peter, please?”
Gwendoline did not question. “Of course. Peter, you and I get to stay together for a little while.”
Sabrina fought back tears. “I just have to check to make sure that Den is okay.” She was shaking uncontrollably.
“I will give you a ride if you like,” said Mimi from the kitchen table where she’d remained. Such was the sense of urgency that no one questioned any further the particulars.
“Thanks,” Sabrina said, shaking with relief. “I could walk, but getting there faster seems like a good idea.”
“I am sorry, but you can not enter the mine,” the security office told Sabrina in a condescending tone. She would not be dissuaded, however.
“You must call my husband immediately,” Sabrina insisted, raising her voice until all within the offices were aware that Den Parker’s wife was having some sort of fit.
“Miss,” the receptionist whispered, “please calm down or we will have to call the police.
Sabrina burst into tears, yet she refused to leave.
Minutes passed. A member of management took pity on her obvious distress. He asked that Den be contacted and brought immediately to the offices to calm his wife.
They radioed him. Angered by the interruption of his work day, fearful that the commotion would cost him his job, Den left his subterranean station and went to the offices. The small group of co-workers decided to take an early lunch break. They left as well.
Thus, Den was in the office, receiving tearful hugs from his wife, and his unit ate lunch outside when the cave-in that would surely have claimed their lives occurred. Den not only did not lose his job, but his resume was reviewed. The company promoted him to better utilize his computer knowledge.
The phantom cat did not appear again.