Charlie had been missing for two days.
Smudge the cat sat in front of a bubbling stone fountain. Her backyard was dark except for a distant streetlight, but this caused no trouble for her sensitive blue eyes.
Several piles of herbs lay on the bricks at her fluffy, white paws. She picked up the small bundle of cat grass in her mouth, the last of her supply, and dropped it into the fountain. The water darkened. She added a bundle of thistle sprouts next, and a sour smell wafted up from the fountain as the herbs combined with the water.
Several moon berries lay on the bricks. She picked them up in her mouth and carefully crunched them between her teeth, letting the juice seep out. The juice had a disgusting, bitter taste. Smudge leaned forward, mouth open, and let the juice and the berry shells fall into the water. She ate a clump of spider webs to counteract the poison the moon berries held. While she ate, steam began to waft up from the fountain with slow, creeping tendrils.
Her apprentice, 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 shake the past-tense thought from her mind. He is a good cat; she corrected. And she would find him, somehow. She had searched the suburban neighborhood trying to track his scent, but the trail stopped cold at a park nearby. Now that the usual methods had failed, it was time she turned to magic.
“Holy Falling Cat, hear my calls,” Smudge meowed over the water. The bubbling fountain stilled at her words and she moved closer to peer into the dark potion. Steam wafted up around her face, dampening her fur and collecting on her whiskers in droplets. Eyes closed, she leaned forward and lapped some of the mixture. The taste was horrific but necessary. Bile threatened to rise in her throat, but she continued to drink.
Consumption done, she sat back on the bricks, feeling slightly dizzy. The potion would guide her on her search through the neighborhood that night, by strengthening the feline instincts given to her by The Falling Cat. Hopefully, the enhanced abilities would lead her to Charlie.
Smudge left the backyard with wobbling paw steps. She walked between her people’s house and the fence, then into the front yard. She looked around the street with blurry eyes. Houses lined the road, multi-story suburban homes with generous, green front yards and towering trees. She made her way over to a bush near the street and sat beneath it, trying to clear the blur from her mind.
Her blue eyes glistened in the glow cast by a distant amber streetlight. Night air filtered in through her pink nose, and her sides moved gently as she breathed in the smell of the evening.
After some time, a dusty van drove up the street and sat in front of the bush she hid beneath, idling, tooting exhaust from its behind. It was an acrid smell and 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 car.
Smudge watched as the man got out of the van, cigarette dangling from his mouth. He wore a baseball cap and a singlet. At the sound of his footsteps moving along the street, a 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 seen. He opened the back door, and two large dogs jumped out. Their dark coats shone in the warm streetlight in streaks of muted orange. They were brown and black and had square heads with pointed ears.
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 in Smudge’s neighborhood, these two wore no collars or leashes. The dogs were both slobbering, and their tongues lolled out of their mouths as they sniffed and investigated the area. The man walked them up the quiet street toward the park at the opposite end of the road, by the cul de sac.
Could the man have something to do with Charlie’s disappearance? Smudge’s strengthened instincts told her it was worth investigating. Perhaps, the potion was working.
Smudge crept up to the van and sniffed around. The heavy, toxic smell still lingered, making her eyes water.
Above, the driver’s side window was still rolled down all the way. Bracing herself, she prepared, hunched down. She jumped up through the window and landed on the driver’s seat with a plop.
The car was a mess, full of discarded food wrappers, water bottles, and soda cans. The van stunk of rotting food and, worst of all, dogs.
Smudge hopped into the back seat and smelled the air. Lingering on the edge of her senses was the smell of feline, but she couldn’t tell who, only that it had been recent. Underlying the smell of cats was the rank scent of fear. She sat, trying to identify the smell while listening for the man’s return.
After a short while, she could hear the dogs barking. She looked out the window at the street. The man was returning. He carried the handle of a cage in one hand. There was a huddled shape inside.
She jumped down from the car and hid under the nearby bushes, wanting to get a glimpse of the cage.
The man and his dogs came up the street until they were back by the van. The man opened the back door and put the cage inside. He motioned at the dogs to get into the van but they stood next to the van, sniffing.
“What’s that?” the man said to the dogs. “Smell something?”
“Cat!” barked one of the dogs. He moved toward Smudge, nostrils flaring as he inhaled.
Smudge sat still, and even her breathing ceased. 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, hopefully out of their reach.
“Come on out,” said one dog.
“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. They were too big. Jaws snatched and drooled, and low growls emanated from their throats.
Smudge let out a deep, rumbling yowl.
“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 smacked one of the dogs who reeled backward with a whimper. The other dog backed up, not wanting to receive a similar smack. The man put the dogs in the back of the van and walked over to the bush. He dropped to the ground until he was 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 and ready. She could smell the stink of his sweat and the cigarettes on his breath. The warmth of his breathing filled the space and stank.
She batted at him again, and he grabbed her outstretched paw and pulled her toward him.
Smudge 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 pulled.
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, him pulling and her trying to get away. She lunged forward, scratching with her back legs. Her front paw unstuck, and she flailed. She reached up and scratched against the side of his face.
He reeled, cursing, and dropped the cage. With his free hand, he grabbed her 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 screamed in pain as her back leg bent at a wrong angle, and she flailed. His grip on her loosened slightly, and she bit into his unprotected hand.
He cursed and let go. She fell to the ground and hit head first, unprepared for the drop. She stumbled, dizzy from the impact and the pain in her leg.
The man was cradling the hand she had bitten, and she could smell the metallic scent of blood. The dogs barked furiously in the back of the van.
Smudge pulled herself up the sidewalk. Pain seared through her as she made her way back home, dragging her leg. Everything felt fuzzy. She moved on, fearing the man’s wrath.