by Barb Goffman
Someone had been in my house. I knew it the moment I pushed the front door open. The air felt heavy, tense, like a thunderstorm in the offing.
I scanned the room, glad for the bungalow’s somewhat open floorplan. The pillows on my comfy sofa remained fluffed. The yellow mums still stood tall in their vase on the kitchen table, their spicy fragrance filling the air. Everything was neat, as always. No drawers open. No mess on the floor. Things were exactly as I’d left them. Yet something wasn’t right. Nothing made it clearer than Sammy’s absence. My cat always greeted me when I returned home, butting his head against my legs. But Sammy was hiding, which made me wonder . . .
Was someone still in the house?
Call the police, a voice in my head whispered. And tell them what? Another voice whispered back. Everything looks fine. They’ll think she’s crazy.
With a cold sweat breaking out on my forehead, I carefully set the grocery bags down by the front door. Some of Sammy’s metal food cans clinked against each other. Church bells couldn’t have sounded louder. I froze and listened hard. No reaction came from inside the house. The only sound I heard was the refrigerator humming. I took three small steps to the coat closet beside me and softly laid my head against its closed door. Was someone inside? I had to take several deep breaths to keep my heart from thumping like a drum so I could hear through the door. No one inside.
Steeling myself, I eased the sliding door open and leaned into the darkness. Boots, umbrella, jackets. And my trench coat. Long enough for someone to hide behind. With a shaking hand I reached forward and yanked it aside as I jumped back. But no one leaped out at me. No one charged at me with an ax. The closet, as they’d say on cop shows, was clear.
That left the rest of the house to check.
I clutched the umbrella by its long wooden handle and slowly, silently, began creeping forward. Even in an open floorplan, there were places someone could hide. Behind the couch? I inched toward it, raising the umbrella like a bat, approaching the arm, my heart beating rapidly, and . . . nothing.
What about behind the kitchen island? I crossed the room to the kitchen, biting my lower lip, twisting my head to see around the island corners. Nothing.
Rolling my eyes, I walked into my bedroom, grabbed the door, and poked my head around it. No one was hiding back there. Feeling a bit silly now, I headed to the bedroom closet. Nope. No one in there. No one under the bed. No one crouched behind the shower curtain. No one waiting to kill me in the spare bedroom or the linen closet or my office. Some papers beside my computer had been shifted, but that surely was Sammy’s handiwork. The cat loved to walk on my desk, his tail swishing.
“Maybe I am crazy,” I said.
Sammy peered at me from beneath the tan leather couch that sat angled to my desk, his pale green eyes narrowed. Odd. He usually lay on the couch.
“Maybe you should stop listening to those horror books in the car,” he said. “They’ve got you spooked.”
Okay, he didn’t actually speak. But I knew what he was thinking, and he relied on me to voice his thoughts.
“I need to listen to those scary stories,” I told him as I put the umbrella away, then carried the groceries into the kitchen. “They get me in the mood for my own writing.”
I’d been working full-time as an author for nearly a decade now. I’d started out writing traditional mysteries, but over time I found my forte was suspense and horror. I’d become known as the woman who writes things other authors shied away from. Sadists who prey on the elderly. Predators who target babies. Sickos who hate dogs. And in this brand new book, I was focusing on a cat killer. Sometimes I couldn’t believe the things I wrote. The few friends I had hated my books. So did a lot of people on social media, as well as the last guy I went out with. But my books sold. They sold big.
They’re just fiction, I reminded myself whenever I began writing a distasteful scene. And I bought Sammy expensive food to ease my conscience.
I’d been writing one of those distasteful scenes earlier that morning—starting chapter one with a bang—before I took a break for errands. Now, I thought as I settled at my desk, it was time to dig back in. But . . . where was the file? I skimmed my computer’s desktop. I always saved my current project there. But the manuscript wasn’t there. Had I saved it in a folder by mistake? I opened the dog-book folder. Not there. I checked my ideas folder. Not there either. Not in temporary files. Not in my contracts folder. Not anywhere.
The file was gone.
A chill crept up my back, and I wheeled around, examining my office and the living room beyond. Had someone been in the house after all?
Don’t be silly, Zephyr, a voice in my head said. It’s a technical glitch. The manuscript got erased somehow from the computer. Check the cloud. Your copy will be there.
And it was. God bless modern technology. I saved a new copy to the desktop, made sure it was there, and began to type.
Early the next afternoon, I returned home again and got a whiff of myself as I peeled off my windbreaker. Boy, was I ripe. At least today’s sweat had come from exercise, not fear. I ran seven miles every other day. My doctor encouraged me to pound the pavement since I spent so much time sitting and typing. But I’d run even if it weren’t good for me because the activity often freed my muse, and I’d return home with good ideas for the next scene in my book. Today was no different.
In fact, I had such a great idea that I didn’t even bother showering. I rushed to my computer, and—what the hell? The seat of my leather chair was all scratched up. Clawed in parts. Practically ruined.
“Sammy!” I yelled, turning around. He lay under the couch, staring at me, his pupils dilated. “What gives, Sammy? Since when do you wreck the furniture?” Other cats did, I knew, but Sammy had always limited his destruction to his many scratching posts.
I was so pissed off, I couldn’t even bring myself to come up with a response from him. Channel your anger into your writing, a voice in my head said. So I did. Over the next three hours, a devastating scene poured out of me, as if I had experienced it and wasn’t simply thinking it up as I wrote. It was a perfect follow-up to the torture scene I’d written first thing this morning with people eating live cats. And I’d been so engrossed, I’d barely noticed that my chair was now quite uncomfortable. I’d have to get a new one.
I took a quick shower and headed out to my favorite office-supply store. One new leather swivel chair coming up. And while I was out, I bought two new scratching posts, too.
“Sammy,” I called as I opened the front door an hour later. “Look what I have for you, baby.”
Silence. Was this a new habit for him? No more rubbing against my legs when I returned home? The thought made me sad. He’d been my best friend since my mom died seven years ago. In fact, Sammy had been Mom’s idea. Right before the cancer killed her, she urged me to buy a baseball bat for protection—I’d started getting death threats; my books had taken a darker turn—and a cat for company. That’s how Sammy became part of the family. It was a relief to have him to talk to. I’d never been good with people, but Sammy and I hit it off the second we met at the shelter. Until now. What was going on with him?
I set one of the new scratching posts in the living room, the other in my office. I spotted Sammy peering at me from under the couch again.
“Well, I’m home,” I said. “Not that you care anymore.”
“Since when do you guilt trip me?” Sammy asked.
“Since when don’t you love on me when I come in the door?” I said.
Hmph. I shoved the clawed chair into a corner, then headed outside to get the new one from the back of my SUV. As I stepped off the porch, I stumbled. Not like me at all. I looked back and noticed a corner of the welcome mat (with the perfect saying on it: Go Away) was tucked under itself, leaving the surface uneven, which must be why I nearly fell. At least there was an explanation for something today. I quickly smoothed the mat out, grabbed the chair, and carried it over the threshold.
“This is not for you,” I told Sammy as I wheeled the new chair to my desk. “If you must ruin furniture, use the old chair. Now, who’s ready for dinner?”
That lured him out. He followed me into the kitchen, and I dished out his favorite meal, Chicken of the Sea solid-white albacore. I wasn’t above bribery to make him love me again, and I could swear I heard him purring while I whipped up a veggie stir fry. After dinner we both returned to my office. I always did my second author job—social media—in the evening, after I met my daily writing quota.
I settled into my comfy new chair, and Sammy stretched out on his usual spot on the couch, where he could keep an eye on me and most of house. It seemed the tuna bribe had worked. Yay. It would be the perfect thing to tell my fans about on Facebook, except I never shared such personal details. I’d have to come up with something else.
I skimmed Twitter for five minutes and Facebook for ten—my limit—looking in vain for inspiration for a post. Ultimately I typed off a quick “Thrilled that so many of you are enjoying my newest book, Tortured Innocence.” And I included my name as a hashtag. Then I switched over to email. My inbox was filled with the usual amount of fan mail, hate mail (obvious from the creative subject lines, such as “Die, Bitch, Die”), and normal, never-ending spam—except for one email that caught my attention. Its subject line read, “Nice orange tabby.”
My mouth hung open. Very few people knew I had a cat. I never mentioned him publicly. Never shared pictures of him. I kept my private life private. With a growing sense of unease, I clicked the email open.
“Just because it’s fiction doesn’t make it okay. People who write about cat torture should face the same agony. Your time will come, hypocrite.”
The last guy I went out with—a disastrous blind date last week—had called me a hypocrite when I’d said I liked cats. Dan had known I was an author before we met, and I think he went on the date just to give me crap about my books. When I mentioned my next book would involve cats, he got vicious. Life was too short to deal with horrible people, I’d thought, so I thanked him for a lovely meal, set money for my unfinished dinner on the table, and left the restaurant.
I’d thought that would be the last I’d hear from him, but apparently not.
I clicked reply, ready to fire off a response. Then a voice in my head weighed in: Don’t engage. That’s what he wants. Don’t encourage him.
You’re right, I thought. I moved to delete the blank email when I noticed the name in the to line. It was my name. What the hell? The only way my name could show up in the to line when I hit reply was if I was the original sender.
With goosebumps marching up my arms, I clicked back to the original message to inspect the sender information, and there was my name and email address. Son of a . . . So Dan apparently was some kind of computer whiz and had gotten creative to freak me out. What an asshole. He—
I stopped short as I focused on the subject line once more. Nice orange tabby. I’d never told him that. Never even said I had a cat, just that I liked them. The only way Dan could know about Sammy—and that he was an orange tabby—is if he’d been in the house.
My thoughts drifted back to the prior day, how I’d thought someone had broken in, then decided I’d been scaring myself for no reason, my imagination spurred on by the horror book I’d been listening to in the car. But I didn’t imagine Sammy not greeting me at the door yesterday, as he usually does. He’d been hiding when I came home. And he’d been agitated today, destroying the chair. So maybe Dan really had been in the house.
“Is that what scared you yesterday, Sammy?” I whispered, swiveling around, looking for signs of Dan. “Is that what got you so upset today? Did Dan sit in my chair?”
And, I realized, two more important questions loomed large. Had Dan been in the house again today? And was he still here?
I grabbed a large dictionary off a shelf—not much of a weapon, but at least it was hard and heavy—and tiptoed to the storage closet in my office. You’d probably have to be pretty small to hide in there, but better safe than sorry. With the dictionary lifted beside my head, ready to be thrown, I yanked the closet door open. And exhaled. No one was in there. Whew. Just reams of paper, boxes of toner, other office supplies on the top shelf, and what I’d come for, my baseball bat.
I curled my fingers around it and, with Sammy at my side, searched every inch of the house. No signs of Dan. No signs of forced entry. All the windows and doors were secure. Unless he were a magician, Dan couldn’t have—
My eyes flew wide as I remembered tripping off the front porch that afternoon because the edge of the welcome mat had been curled under. I hadn’t even paused to wonder how the mat had gotten bent like that. But now that I thought about it, that couldn’t have happened naturally. Maybe I shifted it somehow when I was leaving and didn’t notice, but it seemed more likely that someone must have moved the mat. I didn’t keep my spare key under it, but if someone were searching for a key, that would be a likely place to check.
I flipped on the outside light, and with a flashlight in one hand and my bat in the other, I stepped out onto my front porch. I had a swing out there with a couple of pillows on it. The swing was creaking back and forth in the cool autumn breeze, as if someone had just eased off it. I looked around. Couldn’t see anyone. Couldn’t sense anyone. I returned my gaze to the swing. I kept a spare key inside one of the pillows. Slowly I unzipped it and felt inside. The key was there.
But had it been taken out, used, and then returned? I couldn’t tell. Swallowing hard, I grabbed it, then turned around and stared out into the darkness. Raising the bat high, I hoped I appeared fearsome to anyone who might be out there. I won’t let you scare me, you jerk.
Then I stormed inside with the key, slammed the door, locked it, and pushed a table against it. Tomorrow I’d change the locks.
I awoke the next morning bleary. I’d barely slept, having had a terrible argument with my friend—ex-friend now—Jeanine after I blocked the front door. Dan was her cousin. He’d moved to town a few weeks ago, and Jeanine had begun badgering me immediately to go out with him. Eventually I’d agreed, though romance wasn’t high on my agenda. After the disastrous dinner, she’d prodded me for details, and I’d merely said he wasn’t my type. No use hurting her feelings. But after I realized last night that Dan had broken in, I called and gave her a piece of my mind. Why had she set me up with someone who clearly wasn’t right in the head? Someone who was a huge jerk and now, apparently, a stalker? She actually defended him, saying that while she could imagine him losing his temper—he loved animals—he’d never break into my home. Never.
“And maybe you wouldn’t have this problem if you didn’t write such appalling things,” she snapped.
That had been the final straw. I cursed at her and hung up. Our friendship was over. For the next ten minutes, I stomped around the house, alternating between muttering and yelling, slamming doors, and punching the couch cushions. I grabbed the baseball bat and nearly swung it, aching to destroy a framed photo of Jeanine and me that sat on the bookcase beside my office closet. But I stopped myself, dropping the bat. Sure it would feel good to shatter some glass, but I might miss some shards when I cleaned up and Sammy could get hurt. I couldn’t risk that.
Now in the morning light, I was certain I’d made the right decision to end my friendship with Jeanine. But it still upset me terribly, and after a night of tossing and turning, I had a cobwebby brain to boot. Not good for writing. But I was a professional, and a professional writes, so I slurped down two cups of coffee and forced myself to focus. I wrote a vicious scene in which fur flew—literally. I’d nearly finished it when the locksmith arrived. While he did his thing, I texted Maggie, the only real friend I had left, and asked her to meet me for lunch. I needed to talk about what had happened with Jeanine. A half hour later, with a new key in hand for the front and back doors, I was off.
“Don’t worry, Sammy,” I called just before heading out. “You’re safe now.”
I met Maggie at her favorite restaurant. The booths were soft and private, the wait staff was always attentive without being overbearing, and their head chef had his own Michelin star. I never cared much about food, but at least what they served here was tasty and healthy. Yet today I couldn’t enjoy it. I nervously rubbed the white tablecloth with my thumb while I waited for Maggie to select her meal. I’d quickly chosen smoked hummus with walnut-crusted seitan, but Maggie always liked to try something new. And she seemed to be taking longer than usual to decide, focusing intently on the menu. Finally after I’d downed my second glass of Diet Coke, she chose the lasagna cruda, we ordered, and I leaned forward to unburden myself.
I filled her in on everything that had happened recently, including the date with Dan, my fight with Jeanine, and how I’d feared someone had broken in two nights ago, but had come to think I’d scared myself over nothing.
“Turns out, it wasn’t nothing,” I said.
Wrinkling her nose, Maggie shrugged.
“What does that mean?” I might have said it a little loudly. A man at a nearby table glanced my way.
Maggie sighed, straining the buttons on her blouse. “I’m sorry, but maybe you’re being a little dramatic. Yeah, you had a bad date, but you don’t have any evidence someone broke into your house.”
My eyes bulged. “Hello? What about the welcome mat? And the deleted computer file? And the email about my orange tabby?”
Our meals arrived, and after taking a bite, Maggie starting ticking off on her fingers. “You might have moved the welcome mat yourself when you stepped on it. You said that yourself. Your file could have gotten erased through a computer glitch. You thought that yourself. And the cat reference—someone could have spotted Sammy through the window. He does sit on the sill sometimes.”
“Maybe. But how do you explain the use of the word hypocrite in the email?”
Maggie flapped her hand, as if my concern was ridiculous. “That’s a normal word. Anyone could have used it. Anyone who knows you’re writing a book about a guy who tortures cats and then sees a cat in your window could think it.”
I swallowed some hummus, trying to not be defensive.
“Well, who knows the topic of my new book? I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve told. You, Jeanine, my agent, and my editor. And I told Dan, stupidly. Only you, Jeanine, and Dan live here. Did you tell anyone?”
“No. Believe me, it’s not something I want to talk about.”
“What does that mean?” I’d never noticed this tone from her before.
She set her fork down, her mouth drawn in a thin line. “I’m sorry, Zephyr, but you don’t make it easy to be your friend sometimes. Writing the things you do. When you first started writing horror, I thought it was a random book and you’d return to writing plain old mysteries with non-gory murders. But no. You actually enjoy the sick stories you write.” She wiped her mouth with her cloth napkin. “You want the truth? When I read your new book about the guy who rapes babies a few weeks ago, I nearly threw up. And yet I’ve hung on. Been your friend. You can’t imagine the number of times Jeanine and I have defended you over the years, and now you’ve blamed her for trying to help you. Cursed at her?”
My mouth hung open. I hadn’t mentioned the cursing. So she’d spoken to Jeanine already.
“You think Jeanine tried to help me? You think setting me up with a guy who broke into my house, terrorized Sammy, and tried to scare me to death is helping? Are you kidding?”
“Jeanine tried to help you by setting you up with a nice man who might distract you from the terrible thoughts that run through your brain,” Maggie said. “We thought that maybe if you had some goodness in your life, it would be reflected in your books. And once again, you don’t know Dan did those things.”
“Really? Then how do you explain the email coming from me?”
“Maybe you were spoofed. Or maybe someone finally got so fed up with your revolting books and decided to try something—anything—to get you to stop.” She stared at me so hard I thought her eyes might pop out of her head, and it all became clear.
“You? You did it?” Maggie’s son was good with computers. I bet he could have taught her how to spoof me. “You scared me to death.”
“Me?” Her face flushed. “I didn’t do anything. Now you’re getting paranoid.”
“Am I?” Tears flooded my eyes. “I thought you were my friend. I can’t believe this.” I sprang from the booth and tossed money on the table. “Don’t worry about having to defend me anymore. We’re through.”
She stood and laid her hand on my arm. “I hate to say it, Zephyr, but maybe it’s for the best. You’re not the person you used to be. I hope you can find a way out of the darkness in your life.”
The tears I’d been fighting escaped my eyes, and I stormed off, sped home, and went straight to my computer. I signed onto Facebook and unfriended and blocked Maggie and Jeanine. Then I unfollowed them both on Twitter, erased their numbers from my phone, and sank onto my office couch, sobbing. I hadn’t cried that hard since Mom had died. I’d been friends with Jeanine and Maggie for years. What was I going to do now? Without the two of them, I had no close friends, no one to do things with, no one to confide in. I only had three old friends from college whom I spoke to maybe twice a year, and a few acquaintances I knew from my Horror Writers of America meetings, which I attended sporadically at best. I wasn’t friendly with the neighbors. I had no family nearby. I was alone.
Except for Sammy, I realized. I still had Sammy.
Wait a minute. I swiped the tears off my cheeks. Where was he? I’d been so upset when I came home, I hadn’t noticed his absence. Sammy might have been spooked by what had happened over the last couple of days, but he always comforted me when I was upset, crawling into my lap, snuggling close. Until now.
“Sammy,” I called, my voice echoing through the house. “Sammy!”
No response. I headed out to the main room, checking his favorite spots. He wasn’t lying in the ray of sunshine on the shag area rug, right below the back window. He wasn’t perched on the front windowsill, watching the birds that liked to taunt him. He wasn’t even sitting in the cardboard box he’d commandeered last week after I’d emptied it out.
This wasn’t normal. “Sammy, you’re scaring me,” I called. “Where are you? This isn’t funny.”
But still he didn’t respond. And I began to wonder if maybe Maggie hadn’t spoofed me. Maybe Dan was behind all these tricks after all. Had he broken in again? Is that why Sammy was hiding now?
Stop scaring yourself, a voice in my head urged. Sammy’s under the couch in your office again. It’s just a new favorite spot for him.
That had to be right, I thought, nodding repeatedly as I hurried back into my office and peered under the couch. But Sammy wasn’t there.
“Sammy, come out,” I yelled as I stood up. “Please! Stop scaring Mama.”
I strained my ears, listening for his paws on the floor, padding along, coming to calm me down. But I waited in vain.
Call the police, a voice in my head whispered. And tell them what? Another voice whispered back. That her cat is hiding in the house? She can’t tell them there’s been a break-in. Everything looks fine. They’ll think she’s crazy.
I broke into a sweat, realizing that once more I needed to search the house. I tiptoed to the office closet to grab my baseball bat. I reached my hand out and . . . wait. The door wasn’t fully shut. Hadn’t I closed it yesterday? I blinked, trying to think back, but I couldn’t remember, too distracted by the whoosh of blood roaring through my ears.
Focus, Zephyr. Swallowing hard, I inched toward the door, craning my neck forward like a turtle emerging from its shell, and tried to listen as hard as I could. I heard nothing. Just my own heavy breathing. Surely Dan wasn’t hiding in the closet. He couldn’t be. I reached forward, grasped the knob, and pulled the door open.
“Mrrow!” Sammy yowled.
I screamed as he jumped from the closet’s top shelf, his claws slashing my neck and cheek before he bounded off. I stumbled backward, tripped over the bat—which I apparently hadn’t put away last night—and lost my footing. I windmilled my arms but couldn’t keep from falling. It all seemed to happen so slowly. “Sammy,” I yelled as I banged my temple against the sharp edge of the desk, then collapsed onto the floor, my head slamming hard against the wood. I slapped my hands against my stinging skin. Blood coated my right palm at my temple and my left-hand fingers at my throat.
Too much blood. I’m losing too much blood, I thought, after lying lightheaded for a few moments. I tried to rise, but the room spun and vomit rose in my throat. I threw up, then clunked my head back against the floor.
As I lay there, growing more and more woozy, I realized that if I died, Sammy would be in trouble. He had no food in his bowl. He’d run out of water in a day or two. And since I cut ties with Maggie and Jeanine, no one would come to check on me, so no one would come to check on Sammy.
I tried to crawl toward my phone but didn’t make it more than a few inches before I drained my energy. Besides, I realized, the phone was on the desk. How would I reach it?
“Meow,” Sammy said from behind me. He swished past my feet, then jumped up onto the desk, beside my computer. If only I could get him to push the phone to me. But that wouldn’t work. Cats were smart, but they didn’t do things like that.
“I’m sorry, Sammy,” I said, my voice weak. “I’m so sorry.”
He stepped onto the keyboard. A pop-up screen appeared, asking, “Are you sure you want to delete this file?” My eyes widened as I watched Sammy delete the cat book. Then he somehow opened a new file in Microsoft Word and began stepping on the keyboard again.
“I tried to get you to stop.”
I watched Sammy’s words appear on the screen. I must be hallucinating, I thought. Sammy couldn’t type. He was a cat for God’s sake.
“Maybe Dan did break into the house, and everything I’m doing now is a hallucination,” Sammy typed. “Or maybe you’re finally seeing things clearly.”
My head swam. Had Sammy deleted the original file? Shredded my chair so I wouldn’t write? Sent the hypocrite email, which is why it came from my account? Had he purposely jumped at me from the closet, scaring me, slashing me, hoping something like this would happen? No. That was insane. It was the type of thing I’d write, not the type of thing that actually happened.
Yet here we were.
“But if I die, Sammy, then you’ll die, too. No one will be coming for us.”
“Think of all the cats that will be saved when your book isn’t published,” Sammy said. He jumped down from the desk and nuzzled against me. “All the evil people who won’t get bad ideas from you. It will be worth it.
“Besides,” he said, biting my cheek, “I’ll have food for quite a while.”
"Crazy Cat Lady" was published in the debut issue of
Black Cat Mystery Magazine
(Wildside Press, September 2017)