The Thirteenth Cat

Delilah loved cats. She had twelve already, all of them strays that had followed her home. They were reds, blues, tabbies, tortoiseshells, calicos, every color imaginable. Except pure black. Her parents wouldn’t let her have a black cat, though Delilah thought it silly. Her friend, Carlton, was terrified of black cats. Of course, he was also terrified of ladders, cracked pavement, and umbrellas. Delilah thought that silly as well.

She didn’t think it was so silly when Carlton banged on her window one night in the middle of a rainstorm. Putting her book down and crawling across her furry comforter, she pulled open the window. An icy blast slammed into her face and she recoiled. “What?” she hissed.

“I need to talk to you,” Carlton hissed back.

Delilah scowled, but backed up. “Just don’t drip on my cats. They don’t like the water.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Carlton scrambled in and shook water from his short hair like a dog. Delilah eyed the water droplets on her floor with distaste. Thomas, a large tabby on the edge of her bed, also glared at the water drops.

Delilah crossed her arms. “What do you want?” she asked.

Carlton glanced around nervously. “Is anyone listening?”

“Well I won’t be if you don’t hurry up,” she said.

“What about them?” Carlton gestured toward the seven cats on Delilah’s bed. She gave him a pained look, but didn’t say anything. “I’ve got a problem,” he finally muttered.

“Mhmm.” Delilah crossed back to her bed and sat down. When Carlton moved to sit next to her, she pointed at the desk chair across from her, and he slunk into it, water still dripping from his clothes. He glanced around again, then leaned forward. “Are you sure no one can hear us?” he asked.

“Yes!” Delilah rolled her eyes.

Carlton took a final look around, swallowed, and leaned as close to her as he could. “I think I’m cursed,” he whispered.

Delilah raised her eyebrows. “Oh?”

Carlton gave her an injured look. “I’m serious! Yesterday I accidentally walked under a ladder, but I was late to class, and I didn’t have time to walk back under it or anything! Then in English the teacher told us to start reading on page 666 in our textbook, and right when I opened my book the lights went out! And on the way home I saw this cat in the ditch and I almost—”

Delilah sat up straighter. “Cat?” She interrupted. “What ditch? Where?”

Carlton blinked. “Uh, down by the department store. I just caught a glimpse of it, but there was definitely a cat there. It was kind of a dark brownish color, or maybe it was just muddy. Anyway, it ran off when it saw me.” He shrugged.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Delilah yelped. She looked out the window at the black spitting rain. “The poor thing! It must be half drowned by now, and so scared!” She gave her friend an accusing look. “You should have told me right away! I might have been able to help it.”

“Sorry!” Carlton slumped. “Hey, if you want we can go look for it tomorrow. Okay?”

Delilah glanced out the window again, frowning. She couldn’t very well dash out to find the cat right now. She sighed. “Okay, tomorrow before school we look for the cat. I still wish you had told me earlier!”

Carlton shoved a hand through his hair. “I said I was sorry. But I really need you to help! I swear I’m jinxed or something!” He gave her a beseeching look.

Delilah resisted the urge to roll her eyes again. “So you walk under some ladder and then the lights go out at school when you open your textbook. How is that a jinx? Can’t the school just have an electrical problem?”

“But it wasn’t just that!” Carlton gave her a bug eyed look. “When I got home tonight, my lucky horseshoe had gotten twisted upside down! And nobody had gone in my room all day, so they couldn’t have just knocked into it by accident.”

“I suppose it would be too far-fetched to think the nail had just come loose and the horseshoe slid upside down?” Delilah asked, only a little sarcasm leaking into her tone.

“The nail was still tight! I couldn’t even turn it right side up again without pulling the nail out and reattaching it!” Carlton’s eyes got even bigger.

“Alright.” Delilah raised a hand in defeat. “So what do you want me to do about it? How am I supposed to ward off some curse you think you have?”

“I don’t know!” Carlton wrung his hands together. “But we have to do something!”

“Like what?”

Carlton opened his mouth, but didn’t seem to know what to say. His brows furrowed slightly, and for a long minute it was quiet except for the howling wind and rain outside. Delilah stroked Thomas’s head, and Elsie climbed into her lap as she waited. Finally Carlton rolled his shoulders in a shrug. “I don’t know! I just…” He trailed off.

Delilah gave a heavy sigh. “You disturbed me in the middle of the night, woke up my cats, and dripped all over my floor for ‘I don’t know?’” She crossed her arms and gave him a sour look.

Carlton gave her another beseeching look. “I needed someone to talk too!”

“Fine.” Delilah slid off the bed and padded over to the window. “But I can’t help you right now, assuming you actually need help and it isn’t just a string of coincidences. If you still think you’re cursed in the morning, maybe we can think of something when we go find that cat.” She unlatched the window again and shoved it up, the frigid rain accosting her face again. Carlton looked like he might argue, but then just slumped over to the window and scrambled out. Delilah slammed it behind him.

Flopping back on her bed, she looked at the cats arranged across the comforter. “Do you think he’s cursed?” she asked them. Thomas twitched an ear and Elsie washed her tail. “Yeah, I doubt it too,” she told them.

But as she switched off the light, a little part of her wondered. Carlton was certainly paranoid, but he’d never been this bad before. Maybe there was something more to his string of coincidences than just coincidence. An uneasy shiver darted down her spine.

*                      *                      *

“Look, maybe the cat just got out of someone’s house and went back home last night,” Carlton said. “Anyway, we’re going to be late to school!” He clutched the straps of his backpack, glancing nervously around at the sunny sidewalk. The rain had washed everything clean, and the clear scent of wet earth still wafted up from the ground into Delilah’s nose. Delilah had always liked the smell of the air after it rained, and didn’t mind having to squelch through ankle deep puddles in her cat hunt.

Carlton wasn’t nearly so exuberant. He had dark circles under his eyes, and was obviously still under the shadow of his “curse.” His greeting to her that morning had been a wide-eyed account of how he’d woken to his horseshoe flipped upside down again, after he’d re-nailed in last night. He also said all four burners on the stove had been on the fritz that morning, and his lucky four leaf clover was missing. Delilah had suggested a practical joke as the cause, but Carlton was clearly convinced otherwise.

Delilah pushed aside some cattails and peered farther into the marshy ditch she was in. “If you’re so worried about school, then go ahead,” she called back to Carlton. “I’m not leaving until I find that poor cat!” She slogged through a few more puddles, halfheartedly attempting to stay on the drier patches of earth.

“But, what if something happens?” Carlton’s voice quavered slightly.

Delilah rolled her eyes, though her back was to him. “Nothing’s going to happen to you. You’re not under any curse.” She paused and glanced back at him. “Seriously, it could just be somebody from school having fun with you. Or, you know, coincidences? Or both.”

Carlton shook his head vigorously. “That’s not it! Ever since I walked under that ladder, I swear I’ve had bad luck plaguing me!”

Delilah sighed. “Whatever,” she muttered. “Have it your way.” She splashed through more puddles, mud sucking greedily at her shoes with every step. A flicker at the edge of her vision caught her attention. She froze, then splashed toward it, crooning softly the way she did with her other cats. The cattails rustled again, and she caught another glimpse of something. Then a tiny mew whispered over the marsh to her ears.

Delilah moved forward, keeping her movements slow as she approached the trembling plants. Finally she reached the clump of reedy stalks and crouched down in front of them. A face peered cautiously out, large orange eyes finding hers as it let out another mew.

“You poor thing,” Delilah cooed, carefully holding her hand out to the cat. It sniffed her hand, then delicately stepped forward and rubbed its muddy face across her palm. Delilah reached out her other hand and the cat allowed her to lift it up onto her knees.

“Did you find it?” Carlton called from the sidewalk. The cat tensed slightly and looked around her shoulder to see where the noise had come from. Delilah ignored Carlton, stroking a hand down the cat’s back until it settled again. It was covered in brown sludge and bits of plant matter, but Delilah realized it was actually quite healthy under all the grime, and young as well. She used her already muddy hands to try to scrape away most of the mud, and was rewarded with a low purring.

Wrapping her arms around the cat, Delilah cautiously lifted it and stood up. Her new friend didn’t try to claw out of her grip, so Delilah turned and began picking her way back through the marshy ditch. Carlton had moved to the edge of the sidewalk and was craning his neck to see her prize better. “Hey, you got it! Is it alright?” he asked.

“She’s fine, just muddy,” Delilah said, slogging out of the ditch and up the grassy slope to the sidewalk. “Her name is Niari.” Delilah smiled down at the cat, who gazed up at her with intelligent orange eyes.

“You named it?” Carlton blinked down at her. “Wait, you aren’t keeping it are you? You’ve already got like twenty!”

“I do not,” Delilah corrected. “I have twelve. Niari will be my thirteenth.”

“Thirteenth?” he echoed, his eyes bugging.

Delilah scowled. “There is nothing wrong with thirteen cats. Honestly, I don’t know—”

“AAH!” Carlton jumped back as she came level with him. “Get it away from me! It’s black!! Thirteenth and black!”

Niari hissed and jumped out of Delilah’s arms before she could think to stop her. The cat glared at Carlton, her back arched, tail puffed out. Or maybe not at him, but at something just next to him…

Carlton tried to bolt away from the crouched feline at the same time Delilah lunged to catch hold of her. Niari sprang lightly away from Delilah’s grasp and bounded across Carlton’s path. He staggered, nearly tripping over the darting black shape, and pulled himself to a halt. His face was deathly pale and he was quivering like he might collapse at any moment. Niari stopped at the curb of the road, cocked her head to one side, and eyed Carlton again. Her tail twitched, then she sat down and began cleaning a front paw as if nothing had happened.

Delilah looked between the two, trying to decide whom to go to first. She decided Carlton looked like he was in bigger need of help, and walked over to him. “You alright?” she checked, reaching a hand out to steady him.

He made a couple strangled sounds before finally finding his voice. “Cursed. Told you.” He finally hissed out.

Delilah sighed. “I think you need something to drink. Do you have any water?” She had some in her backpack, but she was loath to share it unless she had to.

He nodded, still rooted to the ground. Cautiously, he eased out of his backpack, moving as if afraid it might suddenly disintegrate or explode. He opened it and started to paw through it for his water when a startled look crossed his face. “What is it?” Delilah asked, feeling slightly apprehensive.

In answer, Carlton reached into his backpack and held up a somewhat squashed but recognizable four leaf clover. He gazed disbelievingly at the ragged plant. “I—I thought it was gone.”

“Maybe you just missed it.” Delilah shrugged.

Carlton shook his head. “I looked everywhere! I emptied my whole backpack and sorted through every object and every bit of dirt! I swear, it wasn’t in there this morning.” After another moment of staring at it, he put the clover back in his backpack and pulled out his phone.

“Now what?” Delilah asked.

“I’m asking my mom if my horseshoe is still upside down,” Carlton responded.

“And?” She arched a skeptical eyebrow. After a few seconds, Carlton turned the phone to her, displaying a photo his mom had apparently taken of his room. His adored lucky horseshoe was on the wall, its ends pointing precisely skyward.

“She probably just re-hung it for you,” Delilah said.

Carlton looked down at the phone again. “She also says the stove is working again. Maintenance guy couldn’t find anything wrong with it when he came out.”

“Weird,” Delilah admitted.

“Yeah…” Carlton frowned down at the phone, then looked around. “But, if everything’s working again, that means something got rid of the curse…”

A meow sounded at their feet. They both looked down to where Niari was rubbing against Delilah’s legs, purring loudly. Delilah looked up at Carlton. “Maybe two curses make for no curse,” she suggested.

He looked skeptical. “But that can’t work. If I got bad luck from the ladder, then what about when we read page 666 in class, or my horseshoe being wrong?”

She shrugged. “Maybe those were caused by your first bad luck, or maybe they just weakened it. Maybe some luck is stronger than others.” Delilah crouched down and petted Niari’s head, listening to her contented purring. “After all, she’s my thirteenth cat, and she’s black.”

Isabel Nee loves reading, writing, science, birds, and mythology. She sporadically practices archery, and is known to research rare genetic disorders which she then inflicts on her characters. Isabel has had prose and poetry published in elementia magazine and Showcase Selections ~ 2016. She is currently writing a YA fantasy novel, and hopes to some day become a professional novelist. Isabel lives in Kansas where she hatches chickens and (she would like to think) great ideas.

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