My short story “Fruit on the Forest Path” was originally published in Trembling With Fear, run by the good folks over at @horrortree. 1000 words. (Do you love cats? Do you hate cats?)
FRUIT ON THE FOREST PATH
Janie made her way past the final house on the block, a black-shingled Victorian whose resident, an old widower, was a shut-in. His eyes, it seemed, were multiple, set in a herd of mostly feral cats that watched from the perimeter like gargoyles atop the stone columns marking each length of iron fence. Other than their suspicious yellow eyes, they showed no movement, and Janie felt relief as she entered the path to the cover of the woods.
The path was a refuge, the solitary route she took home from school when life felt too much. Silence hung like a cottoned fog and the outside world faded to rumor, a million miles from squabbling parents and jeering classmates. Her shoulders relaxed some as she burrowed ahead.
The trees had already surrendered to autumn, with all of the sycamores and oaks baring themselves. Janie pushed through their leaves, each footfall muted by the smothering quiet.
She stopped near a bramble and spoke aloud just to test if her voice would be swallowed. “Hello.”
She turned to either side. “Hello?”
“Are you a cat?” A melodic voice.
“Uh,” she checked herself, “no. I’m a person.”
“All cats are persons. They’re just person-cats. What kind of person are you?”
“A human person.”
“How do I know you are telling the truth?”
“Tell me where you are and I’ll show you.”
“Exactly what a cat would say!”
“Well I don’t really know how to convince you that I’m not a cat unless you look at me.”
“Did the cats see you come in here?”
“Mr. Harkleroad’s cats? Of course they did. There’s like a million of them.”
“Oh, great. You’ve probably led them right to me. Please go.”
“I could help you. Where are you?”
“Prove you’re not a cat first.”
“How do I do that?”
“What word means to understand another person’s plight?”
Janie gave the obvious answer. “Empathy?”
A relieved sigh. “You’re not a cat.”
“Cats can’t use that word.”
“Can’t use it? Can’t say the word empathy?”
“Can’t, won’t—cats are selfish. It’s all I-I-I, me-me-me. Never a thought about anyone else.”
“Okay, so I’m not a cat. Where are you?”
“I’m hiding from cats, girl.”
“Okay,” said Janie, spinning about, “where?”
“My wing is broken. I can’t move very well. Stuck, really.”
“You’re a bird?”
“An owl, girl.” Now the voice made sense. Exactly the voice an owl would have.
“My step-sister is a vet! I can get you help!” Her heart swelled.
“Is she good, your step-sister?”
“The best. I can take you if you’ll just tell me where you’re hiding.”
Silence. A snow flurry blitzed down. There wasn’t much place for an owl to hide. Janie poked a scraggly blackberry with a sneaker, careful to avoid the unpicked fruit, ruptured and hanging like offal.
“You see the burnt trees?” asked the owl.
Janie knew the ones. Ahead was a stand, three of them blackened by a decades-old lightning strike. She’d always wondered if it had hit only one, with the others catching fire, or if its electric fingers had spread wide to touch all three in one go.
“They’re right in front of me,” she said, approaching. “Which one are you in?”
“The big log on the ground.”
Janie spotted it, thick with char and set askew beside the leftmost tree. She followed it upward and matched the fracture-lines. It had been a towering tree, still was, and even though fire had gutted it the wood held. “You’re…in there?”
“Where else would you go if you couldn’t fly?”
“I guess in there.”
“Well that’s where I am.”
“Can you hop out?”
A shuffling from inside, moaning. “Ugh, it hurts too much. Can you reach me?”
Janie considered the trunk’s empty hole, what would be a tight and claustrophobic fit. “I’ll run home and get a pry-bar. I bet I can break this longways. My dad left his toolbox behind.” She turned to leave.
“No-no-no! Please!” cried the owl. “Cats hunt at nightfall.”
Janie turned back to the hole, somehow blacker than the sooty wood that held it. More flurries fell from the greying sky, low and bulbous. She knelt by the log to look inside.
“There you are,” said the owl, though he remained in darkness. “And not a cat at all.”
“How far back are you?” asked Janie, uneasy about navigating the narrow tube.
“An arm’s length, perhaps a touch more.”
Janie sat back on her calves, felt the moisture on the ground wick into her jeans, and looked around at the woods. Dusk. She exhaled nervously and let her backpack droop to the ground.
“Quickly, please, or I’m a goner,” urged the owl.
Janie zipped her jacket to the top and eased onto her stomach, bringing her face to the threshold.
“I’m so relieved, girl. What was your name?”
“Janie,” she said, shuffling on her forearms into the maw.
“Lovely name. I’m lucky you came along.”
Her shoulders rubbed the sides and she kept her face low to avoid bumping her crown on the tunnel’s ceiling.
Outside came a scratching. “Did you hear that?” she asked.
“I only hear you.”
“I’m afraid I’ll get stuck,” said Janie, pressing inward. “My arms are pinned. I don’t know if I can reach you.”
A zipper tore opened outside. Her backpack. “Who’s out there?”
She kicked in blind fear at whatever had come and tried to push out. “I can’t move! I’m scared!”
“Oh, that’s loud,” said the owl. “The cats will be coming for sure now.”
Something scratched at her ankles and she shook it away. “Ow! They’re here!” Another scratch, and another. “They’re hurting me! Help!”
The owl was silent.
“Hello?” Janie pleaded.
She brought her eyes forward and strained them into the void.
Blackness lifted from over orbs of gold, and the slits that divided them spread wide.