Charlie had been missing for two days.
Smudge sat in front of her stone fountain. The backyard was dark except for the shine of a distant amber streetlight, but this caused no trouble for her sensitive blue eyes.
Several piles of herbs lay on the ground at her white paws. She picked up a small bundle of cat grass in her mouth, the last of her supply, and dropped it into the fountain. The dark water began to cast a soft glow on her long, white fur, tinting it orange. She added a bundle of thistle sprouts next. A scent reminiscent of rotten lemons wafted up from the fountain as the herbs combined with the water.
Smudge grabbed a pile of moon berries and carefully crunched them between her teeth, letting the bitter juice seep out. Leaning forward, she let the juice drip into the water, then discarded the berry shells on the cobblestone path.
Quickly, she ate a clump of chewy spiderwebs to counteract the poison from the moon berries. While she chewed, steam wafted up from the fountain with slow, creeping tendrils. The light the water emanated had continued to build, illuminating the cobbled path that wound between neatly organized bunches of colorful flowers and fairy statues. She used a paw to wipe remnants of the webs from her chin and whiskers.
“Grab me the-” she started out of habit and turned to her left. The spot next to her, usually occupied by her dutiful apprentice, was empty. Charlie had been missing for two days now. He was a rambunctious kitten but never strayed far and always returned to his people at night. He was a good cat.
Smudge shook her head, trying to clear the past-tense thought from her mind. He is a good cat, she corrected. And she would find him, no matter the cost. She had searched the suburban neighborhood trying to track his scent, but the trail stopped cold in a tangled area of bushes and grass trees, overgrown with weeds, in the park nearby. Now that the standard methods had failed, it was time she turned to magic.
“Holy Falling Cat, hear my prayer,” Smudge meowed over the water. The bubbling fountain stilled, and she peered into the potion. Warm steam rose up around her face, dampening her fur and collecting on her whiskers in droplets. Leaning forward, she lapped up the mixture. Bile rose in her throat, but she continued to drink the earthy mixture. It was necessary to drink every last drop for it to work.
When she’d lapped the last drop, she sat back on the bricks, slightly dizzy. The potion would guide her on the search through the neighborhood that night by strengthening the feline instincts given to her by The Falling Cat. Hopefully, enhanced abilities would lead her to Charlie. She couldn’t help but feel something terrible had happened, and she was determined to track him down before he got hurt. The potion would take its own toll on her body and mind, but her apprentice was worth the sacrifice.
Smudge left the backyard with wobbling pawsteps. She walked between her house and the fence, which led into the front yard. She looked at the street with blurry eyes. Multi-story suburban homes with generous, green front yards and towering trees lined the road. She made her way over to a bush near the street and sat beneath it, trying to clear the fuzziness from her mind.
Her blue eyes glistened in the glow cast by a streetlight. Night air filtered in through her pink nose, and her sides moved gently as she breathed in the dark scent of the evening.
Slowly, the spell began to work. Her feline senses increased, and mixed with each other. The sounds of small insects grew louder, prickling in her triangular ears, and colors began to shine in the darkness, illuminating areas where strong scents lingered in the midnight breeze. Faded figures, some on four and others on two legs, began to move about the neighborhood, tracing colored scent paths. The ghostly figures jittered and shook as they walked, bending with the evening breeze as it disturbed their scent trails.
Smudge watched the apparitions move about, waiting to recognize Charlie, or any other creature of interest.
After some time, a dusty, red van drove up the street and parked in front of the bush she hid beneath. The loud machine idled, tooting exhaust from its behind, which layered the air with dark, swirling clouds of stink. It was an acrid smell that threatened to burn her eyes.
The man who sat behind the wheel of the van lit a cigarette and rolled the window down. The smell was even worse than the van.
Smudge watched as the man got out of the van, cigarette dangling from his mouth. He wore a baseball cap and a sweat stained singlet. At the sound of his footsteps moving along the street, muffled barking came from the back of the van.
“Quiet, ya noisy animals,” the man said hoarsely, looking over his shoulder to check if he’d been too loud. He opened the back door and two large dogs jumped out. Their coats shone dark, oily, and slick in the warm, muted light. They were brown and black and had square heads with pointed ears. A disgusting chaotic scent, much different than the smell of the friendly neighborhood dogs, rolled off of them in threatening, orange waves.
The smaller dog shook himself. “So glad to be out of the back of that van. It smells like pee.”
The larger dog looked over at the smaller one. “You’re one to talk. You’re the one who peed.”
“It was only once.”
“That’s all it takes, obviously.”
“Quit your yapping,” the man said, shushing them.
Unlike the dogs Smudge knew, these wore no collars. They were slobbering, and their tongues lolled out of their mouths as they sniffed and investigated the area.
The man walked them up the quiet street, unaware of the moving scent figures that traced their own paths, leaving his own dark colored trail behind. Soon, a scent apparition of his own making would trace the path. He passed directly through a moving specter and it burst into droplets that rained silently on the ground.
Unknowingly, he followed several other apparitions on their marked journey and together, they moved toward the park at the opposite end of the road by the cul-de-sac. He was going right near the place where she had lost Charlie’s scent.
Could the man have something to do with Charlie’s disappearance? Smudge’s strengthened instincts told her it was worth investigating. She would have to hurry before he returned, or the potion’s side effects rendered her useless. She could already feel a gentle, yet persistent pressure building beneath her ears.
Smudge crept up to the van and sniffed around. The heavy, toxic smell of gas and cigarettes lingered, making her eyes water.
Above, the driver’s side window was rolled down. She looked down the road to make sure the man was still headed toward the park. When she was sure he was far enough away, she looked at the window again. Bracing herself, she hunched down and jumped through the window, landing on the driver’s seat with a plop.
The car was full of discarded food wrappers, water bottles, and soda cans. The van stunk of rotting food and, worst of all, dogs. Clouds of color overlapped each other, crowding for Smudge’s attention. After investigating the garbage on the floor in the front seat, she jumped into the back area.
Smudge sat and willed the scent clouds to disentangle from each other. A small window led to the back of the van where the dogs had been kept. She stood on a seat, peering into the dark. Normally, it would have been too dim to see, but the potion’s effects continued to give her enhanced abilities.
The stench of dog urine clouded the area and stuck to the stained, trash-covered floor. But, beyond that, beyond the sickening stench of canine pee, was feline. She stuck her head farther into the opening and breathed deep, trying to focus on the scents and order them in her mind. Slowly, the smells began to separate and she could clearly smell it: the familiar tang of cat.
Dogs barked nearby, yanking her from her concentration. She looked out the window to the street. The man was returning. He carried the handle of a cage in one hand. There was a huddled shape inside, and a fear smell rolled off of it in waves of crashing blue.
She jumped down from the car and hid under the nearby bushes, wanting to get a glimpse of who was in the cage. Her heartbeat pulsed through her body, and the pressure in her head made her wince in pain.
The man opened the back door and threw the cage inside. He motioned at the dogs to get into the van but they stood, sniffing.
“What’s that?” the man said to the dogs. “Smell something?”
“Cat!” barked one of the dogs. He slowly moved toward where Smudge was hiding, nostrils flaring.
Smudge sat still, focusing hard to not make a sound. Even her breathing ceased as she willed the large dog to give up. She’d been careless, staying so close. Now, she was stuck.
The dog pointing in her direction started to growl.
Fur bristling, Smudge pressed herself farther back into the bush.
“Come on out,” the dog said, interrupting his growl.
“We won’t hurt ya, sweetheart,” said the other.
The first dog laughed. “Yeah. Much!”
“Leave me alone!” Smudge meowed.
The dogs barked and growled as they tried to press inward, but they couldn’t reach her under the thick branches. Their jaws snatched and drooled, and low growls emanated from their throats.
Smudge let out a deep, rumbling yowl, warning them to stay back.
“So, it is a kitty,” the man said. He went to the back of the van and grabbed an empty cage.
“Step back,” the man said, but the dogs pressed forward. “Back!” he shouted and hit one of the dogs on the flank, causing him to reel backward with a whimper. The other dog backed up, not wanting to receive a similar smack.
The man ushered the dogs into the back of the van and walked over to the bush. He dropped to the ground until he was at eye level, lying on the sidewalk, and stared in at her. “Here, kitty kitty,” he said and crawled closer.
Smudge batted at the man, claws flexed. She could smell his sweat and the cigarettes on his breath. The warmth of his breathing filled the space with an ugly dark color and stank.
She batted at him again, but he grabbed her outstretched paw and pulled her toward him. Smudge panicked and dug her back claws into the dirt, trying to find purchase, but he was strong and large and dragged her out of the bush.
“Here, kitty kitty,” he repeated, and she hissed and spat while he picked her up.
She scratched at him, but her claws found only the thick fabric of his jacket and stuck there.
He held the empty cage in one hand and Smudge’s front leg in the other. They fought as he tried to wrangle her into the metal cage. She lunged forward up his chest, scratching with her back legs, trying to ignore the thudding pain in her head. Her front paw unstuck from his jacket, and she flailed as she lost footing. He tried to hang onto her, but she scratched the side of his face under his eye.
He reeled, cursing, and dropped the cage. With his free hand, he grabbed Smudge by the back leg and held her, dangling. She spun and clawed, trying to get a hold of her captor’s arm.
Bending down, he grabbed the cage and tried to force her into it. Smudge yowled in pain as her back leg bent at a wrong angle. She flailed further, doing everything she could to get out of the man’s firm grasp. His grip loosened slightly, and she bit down into his hand.
He cursed and let go. She fell to the ground and hit head first, unprepared for the drop. She stumbled, dizzy from the pain of the potion and the pain in her leg.
The man cradled his hand. The dark red stink of blood pulsed into the air while the dogs barked furiously in the back of the van.
Smudge pulled herself up the sidewalk as fast as she could go. Pain seared through her mind and body as she made her way back home, dragging her leg. The pain rendered her delirious. She moved on, fearing the man’s wrath.