Ellie never regarded the smell of cat food as pleasant but carrying the mixture of rainwater and tuna pate was downright nauseating. Ellie often left out food for the barn cats brave enough to approach her family’s ranch house, but to her surprise, no cat had come today to eat from her generous offering (wet food, not the average dry kibble).
Ellie initially attributed the lack of interest to the weather. The rain pelted the ground in thick white sheets, and Ellie knew it was a long, cold walk just for some kibble. That was why (a) she had put out the special tuna, and (b) why she now carried said tuna down the hill through the rain to the barn. However, as she watched the slurry of tuna and rain jiggle in the small bowl, Ellie regretted not bringing an umbrella. The cats probably wouldn’t even want this sludge. This was all probably a waste of time.
A chunk of cat food sloshed over the edge of the bowl and plopped onto Ellie’s boot. She groaned and watched how the pinkish material melted into the growing mud stains on her shoes as she walked.
Amidst the soaking rain and fishy smells, Ellie finally approached the barn. It was a decrepit building – to put it kindly. While Ellie’s mother rightfully called the old building a liability risk, Ellie’s father could never be convinced to demolish the dwindling hut. Despite his insistence on keeping it, Ellie knew he too questioned the integrity of the structure. He stopped keeping livestock in there two years ago – now it existed solely as the domain of a feral cat colony.
Ellie liked the cats; the ranch was often lonely, and cats were better company than most people. Over the years, the barn cats had multiplied and migrated, so it was difficult to track how many of them there truly were. Having once attempted to name each cat, Ellie resigned herself to a system of color-based nomenclature: all the orange cats were named Garfield; the black cats, Salem; the tortoiseshell cats, Franklin; the tabby cats, Luna; and so on.
Only one cat was blessed with an individualized name – an old graying cat named Rasputin. Rasputin earned his name after Ellie pulled him out of the river, a near-drowning that he miraculously survived. The series of notches and scars he had accumulated served to further support the immortality suggested by his name.
Ellie shamelessly favored Rasputin; he was like a senile old man. He often curled in Ellie’s lap, but would often forget where he was and fall off when he woke up. He would always get up with a feigned sense of dignity, as if he meant to fall, and then strut off back toward the barn. Ellie adored the way the cat looked at her, with soft green eyes that had the inclination of being wise, old, and yet utterly indifferent. Rasputin had never missed a meal, though, rain or shine. Even during a tornado watch, Rasputin always arrived precisely on time for his extra dinner.
Ellie gingerly coaxed the barn doors open with one hand. Why hadn’t Rasputin come for dinner? What happened to him?
Ellie stepped into the barn cautiously, her nose wrinkled, and her brow furrowed. Above her head, the rain tapped on the roof, but around her, there was nothing but silence.
“Rasputin, buddy? You missed dinner.” She spoke, setting down the bowl of food.
Ellie strained to hear something, anything aside from the rain tormenting the old boards of the barn’s roof. The barn cats usually greeted her, one way or another: meowing or hissing, howling or chirping, rubbing against legs or hiding away. But there was nothing.
Ellie reached out to her left, fumbling around for the light switch. With a hum, some of the overhead lights were still able to flicker on. Frankly, Ellie was surprised any of the lights still worked. It’s not as if any maintenance ever gets done around here.
Ellie stepped forward and squinted. The barn housed an entire colony of cats, and yet Ellie had still not seen a single one. Ellie clicked her tongue, eyes scanning from one grimy corner to the next.
“Rasputin?” She called. A gust of chilled wind tickled the bits of damp, exposed skin between the top of Ellie’s boots and the hem of her pants. Ellie shivered as she wandered through the barn, calling each cat’s name.
“Garfield?” She tried, wiping the water from her brow.
“Franklin?” The hum of the incandescent light above stopped for a moment, then continued.
“Salem?” Ellie’s eyes spotted a tuft of white hair caught in-between two floorboards.
“Luna?” Ellie reached down and pried up the fur with hands still wet from the rain. The white hairs clung to her fingers, spreading out like tiny cobwebs across her thumb. Ellie frowned; her jaw shifted ever so slightly to the right. What’s going on?
“Hello?” Ellie touched her hand to a ladder and squinted up at the loft. Perhaps she was too optimistic to hope that the cats had sequestered themselves in the loft, but what would be the alternative?
Ellie swallowed and reached up to a higher rung. The rain had made Ellie’s hands clammy and damp, but when she grabbed the wood, it felt different. A new kind of dampness with a new texture. Ellie hitched the heel of her boot into the next rung and pulled her hand into the light. Something dark lingered on her palm, shimmering in the threads of yellowish light. Ellie quickly moved her hand back to the ladder, eyes widening.
Ellie swallowed, and then gulped again. She filled her lungs with air and let it out slowly. Then she climbed the rest of the way to the loft, ignoring the wet warmth accumulating in her palms, smudging onto her pants, and decorating the wooden ladder with dark, abstract patterns. Ellie pulled herself onto the loft, crawling on her hands and knees and taking short breaths. Everything was wet. The wetness seeped through her hands and knees. Dark stains crawled across her clothes and arms. Ellie felt the oozy warmth like it was seeping through her skin itself.
Finally, Ellie’s eyes flicked forward across the loft, and it was there she finally saw the cats. Ellie stopped breathing. She crawled forward slightly but stopped when her hand landed on another clump of fur. She could not tell what color the fur had originally been. Only that it was wetter, darker, redder. She could not even tell where the fur of one cat ended, and where the fur of the next cat began. At this point, she was barely sure that the wet lumps strewn across the loft had once been cats.
Some animal must’ve gotten in. But then again, the loft was only accessible by ladder. What kind of creature can climb ladders and kill so viciously? Ellie shifted backwards. Did it even matter? She needed to leave. There was nothing left for her here but blood and fur.
From below, Ellie heard a small meow.
“Rasputin?” Ellie whispered. Although the loft allowed space for standing, Ellie crawled toward the edge and peered over. Sitting next to the entry, by the food bowl, was the small shadow of a cat. Ellie felt her heart stutter with some mixture of concern and cynical relief.
“Rasputin, stay there.” Ellie muttered, finding her way once more to the ladder and white-knuckling her way down. Ellie turned toward where the cat had been but found the space empty. The food bowl was also empty, though the fishy smell persisted. Ellie leaned into the wall. Her body was trembling from the dampness, from the chill, from the sight of a spider traversing the length of a single dismembered paw.
Ellie wanted to leave. She did. But that small meow indicated the faint chance that Rasputin could have survived this massacre. Ellie didn’t have to be alone again. Rasputin would be okay and Ellie’s biting loneliness could be kept at bay just a little longer. Wasn’t that why she saved him from the river? Wasn’t that why she fed him all these years? Wasn’t that why she trudged all this way through the rain?
Ellie’s body quaked so violently that the wood behind her groaned again. A shadow on the wall in front of her reacted to the noise, convulsing downward toward the floorboards. Ellie froze. She thought she heard the small food bowl clatter next to her, but when she glanced downward, everything was still. Ellie breathed in deeply – but the smell of souring, processed tuna caught her breath in her throat. One of the lights above flickered. Then it gave out.
No, Ellie thought, I need to leave.
Then she heard it again, the soft meow. A pair of green eyes emerged in the darkest corner of the barn, fixating on Ellie. The eyes seemed as if they were disembodied, floating even – but they also seemed wise and… indifferent. Ellie hesitated.
“Rasputin? Is that you?” She asked, the shadows around her shifting. Ellie stepped closer to the pair of eyes, one hand clutching at the wet edges of her shirt. The eyes blinked slowly, then closed again, never reappearing. For a moment, everything silenced – the hum of the lights, the creaking of the wood, even the rain appeared to cease its torrent on the roof. Ellie felt as if even her own heartbeat had paused. Then, as if time started again, all the small sounds began to murmur in the background once more.
Ellie edged closer to the barn doors, scanning the shadows for movement. At last, when she reached the door, she flung it open and ran out into the rain. She ran away from the barn, from all the small bodies, from the sick feeling burrowing deep in the pit of her stomach…
Ellie ran until she reached the ranch house once more. Panting and dripping, she finally turned back to look at the barn. Although Ellie swore she left the lights on, the windows of the barn looked dark in the distance. The old building had an appearance of sadness, emptiness, or perhaps loneliness.
Ellie would beg her father in the following days to tear down the old barn, but every time the subject came up her father grew more rigid and angry. When Ellie returned to the barn a week later, the bodies of the cats had vanished, but bits of blood and fur still decorated the floor of the loft. Within a month, a new cat colony had begun in the old barn. Ellie began to leave out food every evening, but most days she brought the food back inside, untouched.
One evening, as Ellie retrieved the small food bowl, she swore she saw a pair of green eyes watching her from afar. Ellie stared back into that indifferent expression, wondering whether it felt lonely too. Ellie tentatively set the bowl of food back down and walked back into the house. When she checked again in the morning, all the food had been eaten.
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