Estimated reading time — 7 minutes
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MISSING CAT, the poster said. It had a black-and-white picture of the cat in question, a generic-looking animal with mottled fur and a bored expression. It listed the cat’s name and description and gave a phone number to call. I silently wished the pet owners luck as I jogged by, but I didn’t slow down to examine the poster. It was a cat. It had wandered off outside, as cats do. For their sake, I hoped it found its way home again, but I certainly wasn’t about to go looking for it.
I was home toweling off in the bathroom when my wife Eiren said something through the door.
“What was that?” I called, opening the door as I rubbed the towel vigorously over my head.
“I said, have you seen Fusty today? The neighbors’ cat? Was he outside when you came back from your run?”
I only sort of knew that the neighbors even had a cat. Thinking about it, I could summon up a vague image of a cat that laid out on the neighbors’ porch railings a lot, watching the neighborhood. Whiskers, short hair, sort of a brownish color. Maybe the one I’d seen on the poster? I hazarded a guess.
“Is he still missing? I saw the posters up today.”
“No, Fusty.” Eiren gave an exasperated sigh. “The neighbors’ cat. The Garcias, right next door? The one up on the posters is Elvis. He belongs to the Morrises down the street. He’s been missing for a couple of days.”
“Oh, Fusty,” I said. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you right. Anyway, no, I haven’t seen him.”
“What if we have some kind of a cat-snatcher in the area?” asked Eiren.
“Then we’d better keep our cat indoors,” I told her jokingly.
“So you’re saying we can get a cat, then?” she asked.
“Wait. Are you the one who’s been stealing the cats? Am I going to find cats in this house?”
“No!” she laughed.
“Uh huh. We’ll see about that.” I walked out of the bathroom, calling for cats. “Fusty! Fusty, are you here? Elvis, meow if you can hear me!”
“What’s going on?” my son Aiden’s voice piped up from upstairs.
“Your mother’s a cat-napper and we have to stop her heinous crimes,” I told him. Eiren smacked me playfully in the arm.
“What’s ‘heinous’ mean?”
“It means your father is silly, and it’s dinner time. Wash your hands and come set the table,” said Eiren. Aiden disappeared down the upstairs hallway.
“You can’t distract me with food. I’ll find where you’ve put those cats,” I told Eiren. She ignored me entirely, which was a very reasonable response.
That was Monday.
MISSING DOG, the poster said. It had a color picture of the dog in question, a big yellowish mutt with a goofy-looking smile on his face. I recognized him, though I couldn’t have told you his name. He was often out in his backyard when I was jogging, barking through the fence and wagging his tail. I liked to think that he was happy to see me.
I did stop to read this poster. It said his name was Embo, he was the Carmichaels’, and that he had gone missing from their backyard. Probably jumped the fence. Dogs can jump a lot higher than people think. They mainly stay in yards because they understand what the fence represents, but if they see something they want badly enough on the other side, they’ll go over.
I felt badly for the Carmichaels. They had a son named Scotty who was in Aiden’s class at school, and who was doubtless torn up over his missing dog. He was probably spending the evening out looking for his dog, hoping to find him. I hoped he found him alive. Cars drive faster through our neighborhood than they really should, and things could easily end badly for a dog darting out into the street.
Or maybe there really was something going on, like Eiren had suggested. Three pets missing in just a few days? That did seem suspicious. Why someone would be kidnapping random suburban pets was beyond me, but people do strange things all the time. It wasn’t out of the question. I was suddenly glad we’d never gotten a pet.
Movement behind a nearby bush caught my eye, a flash of something dark moving suddenly. “Embo?” I called, moving slowly toward the bush. “That you, buddy?”
The shape had been about the right size for Embo, but the wrong color. He was some sort of yellow lab mix, but the shape I’d seen was dark, almost black. Still, it was late evening, and the shape was in shadow, so I told myself that it might be him. And if he’d been lost, he could be muddy, something like that. In any case, it seemed worth checking out.
“Embo?” I was nearly at the bush now. Everything was still. “Embo? You back there?”
My slow movements carried me around the edge of the bush and revealed…nothing. Just grass and leaves on the ground, the same as on the side I’d come from. Confused, I crouched down and looked under the bush, even poked my hand inside to rustle around. I hadn’t seen anything move away, but there was just nothing there.
After a minute of looking, I gave up and jogged home.
That was Wednesday.
AMBER ALERT, my phone said. Scott Carmichael, age 9, was missing. Last seen in his neighborhood the previous night. Shaggy blond hair, brown eyes, jeans and a t-shirt. Be on the lookout.
I picked Aiden up from school instead of letting him take the bus home. Obviously nothing was going to happen on the bus, but still. The school parking lot was jammed with parents who all had the same idea as me. A few people tried to make small talk, but mostly we just stared at the doors and waited for our kids to come out. The atmosphere was tense.
They hadn’t told Aiden’s class that Scotty was missing, so Eiren and I didn’t talk about it, either. We had pizza for dinner and cuddled on the couch as a family while we watched movies. Aiden must have known something was up, because ordinarily he’d never have put up with that much physical contact from his mother and I anymore. He’d gotten too cool for cuddles in the last year or so.
In the middle of the movie, I saw Aiden’s attention shift to the front door. I followed his glance, but didn’t see anything.
“You expecting someone?” I asked him jokingly.
Aiden smiled and shook his head. “No! I just…” his smile slowly faded as he thought. “I just thought I saw something, Dad. It was just a shadow, though.”
I thought about the bush the previous night, and I turned to look at the door again. It was only a door, though.
I let the movie recapture my attention. Eventually, I carried Aiden up to bed. I had to extract him from Eiren’s arms, though. She’d locked on and fallen asleep. If she hadn’t woken up and let go, I don’t think I would have been able to pry her loose.
That was Thursday.
Eiren woke me up with the news. “Get up! Get up. Aiden’s missing.” Her voice was tightly controlled, tinged with hysteria. Adrenaline shot through my veins, and I was instantly, totally awake. We went to Aiden’s room together.
He wasn’t there. His window was latched and the doors to the house were still locked. His shoes were still by the front door. His sheets were tucked up like he was still sleeping in them, like he’d never gotten up at all. It was as if he’d just vanished directly from the bed.
We searched the house together. We checked all of the main rooms, then went down to the basement and did a systematic search. We checked behind every shelf, shook every box. We called out his name, hoping to hear a cry for help, even a giggle that would suggest that this had all been a stupid prank. Apart from us, the house was silent.
We looked in every cupboard, every closet. When we reached the second floor, I looked at the pull-down stairs for the attic.
“He can’t have gotten in there,” I said.
“We have to check,” insisted Eiren. Her eyes were wide and her breathing was ragged. I knew we’d find nothing—we both knew we’d find nothing—but I pulled down the stairs and climbed into the attic anyway.
It was empty, nothing but dust and insulation and mouse droppings. The light of the bare bulb cast strange shadows around the unfinished space.
“Aiden?” I asked, just in case, but I heard nothing but the hum of the air conditioner.
“He’s not up here,” I called down to Eiren. There was no response.
I turned to look down the ladder. She wasn’t there.
Shadows danced for a moment in the edge of my vision, and I turned quickly to see what cast them. Pain exploded as I hit my head on an exposed beam, staggering myself. I fell to one knee, eyes watering, and that was when I saw it for just a split-second.
I saw all this in an instant: it was dark, chitinous like a cicada. Its—skin? shell? casing?—was a mottled brown, almost black. It had sharp, serrated legs, six of them. It stood upright on the hindmost pair, which bent backwards like a dog’s. It was taller than Aiden, close to five feet tall. It gave an impression of hunger, of anger and of teeth. It looked at me in that flash, and I felt scrutinized. It saw me.
Then it was gone, a millisecond later, seen only through sharp pain and watery eyes. I could believe I had imagined it, except that Eiren was gone. No stain, no blood, no sign, just absence. Aiden, too. And Scotty, and Embo, and Elvis and Fusty. All taken, all gone.
I scrambled through the attic to where it had stood. Nothing marked its presence, no dust had been disturbed by its passage. But Eiren and Aiden had been sliced from the world, all trace of them as gone as the creature I’d glimpsed.
I stumbled down the stairs and made my way outside, somehow believing that perhaps they had only been taken from the house, that they were not outside our world but simply outside. What I found there only made things worse, though.
The neighborhood was alive. People ran from their houses and were gone in mid-step. Men and women called out for their spouses, for their children, their frantic cries unanswered. As people realized what was happening, they retreated to the dubious safety of their houses, shutting the doors and drawing the windows behind them in an effort to hide. I did not bother. My house had already failed as a sanctuary.
I tried to gather people together to somehow fight back, but two people disappeared from our group in an instant and the others scattered. I called the police, who sent a car over. I heard its siren approaching, and then a crash. The siren’s still sounding. I suspect that if I went to look, I would find an empty car still running.
I don’t know why I haven’t been taken. I don’t know what they want. I don’t even know how many there are. I haven’t seen any since the attic. Only ideas of movement, glimpsed at the edge of vision. And the absences, which speak to their presence.
I’ve given up. I can’t think of anything else to do. Nothing but sit here and wait.
I can almost see their flickers behind me. I won’t look. I don’t know the game, but I won’t play it anymore.
I love you, Aiden. I love you, Eiren. I hope it didn’t hurt.
Check out Micah Edwards’ collection of published anthologies and novella, now available on Amazon.com:[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row css_animation=”” row_type=”row” use_row_as_full_screen_section=”no” type=”full_width” angled_section=”no” text_align=”left” background_image_as_pattern=”without_pattern”][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_column_text][/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_column_text][/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_column_text][/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
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