Second Place winner in our "Black Cats are Good Luck" contest
Afternoon brings the sun to the yard where it spills across cracked concrete bristling with weeds and a bench peeling like sunburned skin. A small black cat jumps onto a cushion stained by algae and age, turns, turns, turns until his bony frame finds comfort. Parts of his coat have gingered over summer: his flanks glow like honeycomb under the sun’s stroking hand.
The yard is one large enclosure - protecting the cat before the world fell, it now imprisons him, cruel weather chasing him into a house dust-shrouded and cobwebbed. He’s only alive because of a dripping tap, the bag of kibble he shredded open. Only a few softening biscuits remain.
Afternoon brings the sun to the lane where it transforms rampant brambles to gemstones and coppers Nell’s knotted cinder-toffee hair. Feeling exposed by the glare, she creeps like a rabbit between concealing curtains of Virginia creeper. She can’t smell them - just the green blood of crushed leaves – but she knows they’re never far away. Her eyes are ever-darting as she plucks and devours warm berries.
She’s drawn to sudden movement as she passes a weed-greened yard. A sinuous stretching beyond mesh that stretches along the old brick wall, creates a roof over the narrow space. Something unexpected, beautiful in this brutal new world. She’s encountered nothing but them for weeks. Since the car broke down and they came. Since her parents screamed for her to run, then just screamed.
The cat ignores her approach; washing languidly, flicking his tail like an inky snake. Tears burn trails down Nell’s grimy face, she scrubs them with a crusty sleeve. The cat stands up when she curls her fingers through the mesh, she can see the outline of ribs through his dark fur. He’s just an arm’s length away, blinking at her with amber insouciance, but Nell sees something behind it.
Pain. Loss. Need.
She knows those too.
Nell pushes on the warped wood gate, finds it unyielding. She growls, thumps it with her fists. She’ll help this skinny cat. Help someone. Worming bramble-purpled fingers further through the mesh, she feels a bolt at the top of the gate, tries to slide it. Time and weather have stiffened the metal, bowed the surrounding wood. Sweat streams down her face, her back as she stretches and strains, on her tiptoes, the ever-present fear of them forgotten. The proximity of the sun-warmed fur, the thought of how it would feel against her face, drives her.
Nell’s fingertips burn and blister as she works, works at the metal until it squeals and scrapes. She pushes on the gate until it gives, grinds across the nettle-studded concrete, and she stumbles inside.
Nell rests her head on the mesh, exhausted, realises she’s safe – relatively – in this place where a cat survived what has taken so many. She turns her face to the sun and wobble-smiles, tears running into her hair. Then something soft pushes against her hand.
She drops to a crouch in front of the bench, meets deep-yellow eyes with her own misty blue ones. Her fingers shake as she gently strokes along the side of the cat’s face, feeling warm velvet, then over the ridges of his spine. His tail curves like a shepherd’s crook, his front paws pad and pad on the mouldy cushion beneath him. Nell feels the painful tension of the last weeks leave her muscles, puddle at her feet. She feels the enduring fear retreat, a mouse cowed by the cat’s strength. For a moment, Nell just lives.
The back door of the house unlocked, Nell presses past, the cat at her ankles, twirling. It’s chilly inside and smells only of fust and trapped air – nothing worse, nothing dead, not them. She lets out a long breath, locks the door behind them. They move through a main living room – books and cold-black TV, a mug fluffing blue-green on a coffee table, a pattern of pawprints in the fine dust. Cat hair wafts from everything she touches and Nell spots thicker, woolly areas where the cat obviously sleeps. A crocheted pillow by a fireplace full of ash, a pooling of chenille curtain on the windowsill, a blue cardigan discarded on a floral sofa.
On the mantlepiece are a row of framed photos turned sepia by dust. A black kitten upside down in a pretty teenager’s arms, the girl’s smile wide as the sky above. A slinky black cat wearing a Christmas hat and mortified expression, golden eyes slitted and promising revenge. A chunky black cat sprawled on a woman’s blanketed lap; she’s been caught unawares, is knitting something the same moss-green as her eyes, her hands blurred. She has a long grey-spattered brown plait over one shoulder – the cat is teasing the tufted end.
Uninterested in continuing any kind of tour, the cat headbutts Nell’s leg, leads her into an old-fashioned kitchen: lemon-yellow cabinets, plates on the walls connected by lacy webs, a deep sink. Water drips from brass taps, algae frothing from the plughole. Nell turns the cold one; tepid, metallic water sputters out, she gulps and gulps, chases berry-sourness from her tongue. There’s a dented tin bowl on the floor, she fills this for the cat. He’s anxiously pawing at the cupboard below the sink, managing a rusty meow.
Nell squats, opens the cupboard, let’s out a loud gasp. It’s almost full of packets and cans, lots of cans. Many have faded tabby faces on the label, but there’s also beans, soup, fish, fruit. Nell reaches inside. Two stomachs growl in tandem. The cat paws her arm, chirrups, and Nell laughs. It’s the first time in a long time for both.
Coiled side by side on the sofa, Nell and the cat eat tuna with abandon, fingers and whiskers slick with oil pearls, then the cat cleans the tins with a scraping tongue. Sated, Nell lays down, curling around the blue cardigan. She wonders about the person who wore it, perhaps dropped it on the couch after a long workday. It was certainly someone who loved their cat, protected him from the dangers of the old world. Tomorrow, Nell will clean and tidy the house, herself. Make it feel like a home again. She’ll polish the photos and empty the fireplace. She’ll be sure to leave the cat’s favourite sleep spots as they are. Tomorrow. Her body aches now, her eyes grainy and the sofa is squishy and seems to hug her.
Clearly feeling the same way about chores, the cat climbs onto the cardigan. He turns, turns, turns until his newly-plump tummy finds comfort. His back pressed to Nell’s chest; his deep purr seems to enwrap her heart. She recalls something about black cats bringing good luck. This morning, she would have thought it impossible to find anything good in an empty world. To find anything to love.
As she drifts to sleep, Nell imagines the Army coming to help them, taking them to a safezone for people and cats, and other animals that have stayed alive against the odds. She imagines striking out with the cat tucked in a backpack - he’ll hunt rabbits and she’ll fight them off, keep him safe. Her bramble-tuna-sticky fingers buried in the vibrating softness of belly fur, Nell is certain of one thing – the world is less empty now. The cat’s whiskers twitch as he concurs.
JP Relph is a working-class writer from North West England. Her writing journey began in 2021 with Writers HQ and is mostly hindered by four cats and aided by copious tea. She loves murder programmes, zombies and Marvel. A forensic science degree and a passion for microbes, insects and botany often motivate her words, which have recently appeared in Molotov Cocktail, Cutbow Q, New Flash Fiction Review and others.
Twitter - @RelphJp