They put up a tall fence covered with black tarp and topped by barbed wire, surrounding Lake Collette at the center of Juniper Valley, so that no one could see what they were doing. Two of the three local cop cars were stationed 24/7 at either end – one to the east, one to the west. This all went on for three days while some unknown, official body did what needed to be done, then, overnight, the black barbed-wire fence was gone, replaced with one of the normal chain-link variety.
A few middle school kids dared Kevin Whitter to apply a pair of wire cutters and sneak in. My little half-brother knew Kevin; the kid claimed to have seen unmarked vans and a bevy of sunglass-wearing government agents with automatic weapons surrounding a team of scientists in hazmat suits, dragging the carcass of a monster out of the water. The monster had ten legs, the skin of an alligator, and the body of a squid. Or the body of a shark. Or matted fur, or feathers, or teeth.
It changed per telling. And it was all bullshit. I’m guessing Kevin Whitter either chickened out before doing the deed, or else was picked up by the cops as soon as he approached the fence.
At the end of the three days, some early risers in Juniper Valley reported witnessing unmarked cars heading east on Skylark Road, towards the highway and the air force base and the Palmdale airport. Whatever government agency was operating behind the blockade, searching the lake, they were gone without a trace by the time the sun was up.
And whatever they found, they weren’t telling. The cops were clueless; all they told us townsfolk was that, due to a bacterial infestation, we were not to swim in the lake until further notice.
I will never swim in the lake again. And I hope to God they killed them all.
I stayed in Juniper Valley during the summer, with my father. He and my stepmother loved it there, loved the isolation and the small-town lifestyle. Though I would hesitate to even call Juniper Valley a “town.” It’s an unincorporated cluster of ranch-style homes planted like a pimple amongst the Sierra Pelona Mountains.
In the ’90s, the population of Juniper Valley and the surrounding hills was eight hundred and change. There was one general store in town, one gas station, one church, and one dirty little inn with a bar/restaurant. Anything else one might need could be found in Palmdale, a 45-minute drive east, through miles of gridded power lines and golden flatland, dotted with silos and scrap metal.
The town resembles a bowl, with Lake Collette at the basin, and streets and houses arranged around the edges, along the slopes of the surrounding hills. Calling Lake Collette a “lake” is also stretching things a little bit. It’s a sag pond, right on the San Andreas Fault, which cuts straight through Juniper Valley. During droughts, Lake Collette would drain to a glorified puddle, a mossy marsh of waist-high weeds.
There were quite a few rainy years during my childhood. Lake Collette would remain a proper body of water then, even in the midst of the hot, dry summer. I’d look out my bedroom window at the lake, below the dim circles of light cast by the two street lamps on Skylark Road, pitch-black like a tar pit. On moonless nights it seemed depthless, and I felt as though it could be a kilometers-deep well. A black hole. It could suck me in, swallow me whole.
I grew up. My months in Juniper Valley became skull-crushingly boring. My dad and stepmother worked, my half-siblings went to summer school, and my friends were seventy miles away. The nearest library was almost as far, and the rabbit-eared TV picked up three channels: local access from Palmdale, the Bible channel, and assorted infomercials.
It was my step-grandmother who told me about the Willfell Animal Sanctuary. She went to church with the lady who ran the place, a retired park ranger named Kathy. The shelter was a non-profit funded solely by donations, with an all-volunteer staff. Kathy owned an acre of hillside land off Skylark Road, just west of town, a fifteen-minute walk from my father’s house.
I was thirteen the first summer I volunteered at Willfell, and I went back every summer after. They loved me there. By “they,” I mean the only two staff members: Kathy, an earthy woman in her sixties who functioned as CEO, manager, accountant, and primary caretaker of the animals; and Jacques, a 27-year-old autistic man who cleaned cages and walked dogs as part of a government-subsidized program. And I fell in love with the animals. There were about sixty of them, homeless dogs and unwanted cats.
There were two huge kennels in Kathy’s large backyard: one for dogs, one for cats. Further back, rabbit hutches. And at the far end, against the sturdy fence, a tiny stable that housed an elderly racehorse and a fat little donkey.
When pounds in Palmdale and Lancaster received animals they had no room for, they’d give them to Kathy. She’d drive her rickety, old, windowless van east to the highway, then come back hours later with new furry charges. Sometimes, she’d function as a poor man’s dog catcher – agencies would direct her towards residences from Juniper Valley to Acton, asking her to remove starving, nearly hairless dogs from gardens and pull emaciated cats out from under cars. These were the highway strays, abandoned on the 14 by individuals who no longer wished to be pet owners.
That first summer, I meet Jane Kitornes.
Jane was a friend of Kathy’s, a retired Navy nurse who worked as an at-home caregiver and took in homeless cats. She visited Willfell at least once a week, sometimes bringing large bags of cat food. Jane was a rough lady. Tanned, sinewy, wrinkled beyond her years; only ever seen wearing stained wife-beaters and baggy fatigues. She’d never married, had no family I knew of, and seemed to prefer the company of cats to humans. Kathy considered her an asset – she’d take in twenty cats at a time, accepting responsibility when we had no more room.
She owned a half-acre a few miles southwest of town, off a shabby two-lane road called Oak Tree Lane. Oak Tree Lane snakes between grey-green hills before dead-ending deep in the Angeles National Forest; rusting mailboxes stick out of the ground like flags at the head of dirt roads, leading to remote ranches and groves and campgrounds.
Jane’s cottage was at the end of one of these dirt roads, in a little clearing carpeted with knee-high weeds and prickly shrubs, surrounded on three sides by gently-sloping hills. She’d take me there, sometimes. There were always cats everywhere.
Cats inside and out. Cats on the sofa, cats sitting atop Jane’s washer, cats sunning themselves, stalking field mice and butterflies, sleeping and fighting and screwing. I’d spend hours at Jane’s house with her cats, helping her clean up and clean litter boxes, cuddling kittens from the occasional litter.
Jane liked me. Since she obviously felt little need for human companionship, I took this as the highest of compliments. Every summer, on the first day I’d see her, Jane would break out into the biggest, brightest smile that Kathy swore she reserved only for me.
“You’re like me, Marlena,” Jane would say, as I stared out the window of her 1979 El Camino. “You can cut through anyone’s bullshit and see their soul. That’s why you love animals so much. Your standards for souls are higher than most.”
The earthquake hit the winter of my junior year. I remember waking in the middle of the night, roused by the “thud” of my precariously-placed math book falling off my desk. The mild shaking lasted about 3.5 seconds, then I realized I’d experienced an earthquake, rolled over, and fell back asleep.
My dad, his family, and Juniper Valley were hit a bit harder. Positioned on the San Andreas Fault and closer to the epicenter, structural damage was rather extensive. And, as the area was experiencing a rainy winter, rocky mudslides closed roads and isolated remote dwellings. The mess had been cleaned up by summer, but I noticed broken sandbag barricades and new, violent cracks along Skylark Road.
Lake Collette looked more robust than I’d ever seen it, but was surrounded by a chain-link fence. The water had taken on a greenish tinge, and hosted islands of thick, yellowish scum. For now, it was closed to the public.
I returned to Kathy and the Willfell Animal Sanctuary – with a driver’s license this time, which secured me a new responsibility. Kathy’s windowless van still hadn’t broken down, but she was sick of driving it all over the valley. So she handed me the keys. I enjoyed it at first. Rambling through golden plains until I saw the boxy developments of Palmdale or Lancaster; rescuing filthy, unloved creatures from the clutches of abusive owners or uncaring bureaucracy.
Jane Kitornes had all but disappeared. Her last nursing charge had passed away, and she was rarely seen in town – only at the general store, Kathy told me, and rarely. I think Kathy and I were the only people in Juniper Valley who noticed her absence. I missed Jane. I missed the way her face lit up when she saw me, and the warm summer afternoons spent in her backyard. I called her landline once. It had been disconnected.
Soon, the cats started appearing.
My third day back, I was sitting in Cathy’s office when I received a phone call from a talkative old lady in town. There was a cat in her backyard; it had been sitting in the lower branches of her oak tree for hours.
“I think it’s someone’s pet,” she said. “It’s too chubby to be a stray.”
This, in and of itself, was not an extraordinary event. Everyone in town knew Kathy ran a shelter, and would infrequently call her in lieu of animal control when an unknown animal became a bother. Sometimes said animal would be a neighbor’s lost pet; other times, a runaway that had wandered from Palmdale. Kathy always made an effort to find the owner. Rarely, a feral, abandoned highway stray would make it to Juniper Valley. These poor creatures were always half-dead things with matted fur and exposed, pustule-dotted skin. They usually had to be euthanized. Or died before the local vet got the chance.
At first, I assumed the calm, well-groomed, grey-and-white shorthair I found in the old lady’s oak tree was the former: a townie’s escaped house cat. I tried to coax the thing down with a can of tuna. No dice. It wasn’t remotely interested in the food – it just stared; black, depthless eyes locked on something that wasn’t me. I stood, tuna can in my outstretched hand, looking like an idiot, for five frustrating minutes before giving up and going to the van to grab Kathy’s net. When I got back, the cat was gone. I never saw it again.
It bothered me all night. It was like the cat had been messing with me.
And it happened again and again. Homeowner after Juniper Valley homeowner, calling Willfell and asking us to remove a cat from their property. Always cats. Always different cats, I don’t think I ever saw the same one twice. The homeowner always insisted he or she had never seen the animal before, and they never had collars. They always appeared well-fed, if not overfed; their fur, though not show-quality, was thick and intact.
It became troubling. Juniper Valley had a population of 842; it was located forty-five minutes from the nearest town, and surrounded on three sides by hills and forest. Everyone knew everyone else’s pets, and the sudden appearance of so many unaccounted-for cats was mysterious, to say the least.
And these cats were not like any cats I’d ever seen before.
They liked fresh water. I’d find them sitting in fountains and kiddie pools. They didn’t seem to like the sun. They’d come out at night, or else be found in some shaded, dark, enclosed space. They were silent, never hissing or meowing.
They were really, really good at getting in and out of places. I found one curled up in the back of a lady’s car. Though she admitted she’d left the door unlocked, the physical act of opening and closing the door should have been impossible for a creature with only paws at its disposal.
They were smart. Supernaturally smart. At times, I fell under the disturbing impression the cat was taunting me. I’d be setting up some trap, or extending the net. The cat would sit there, calm and cool, watching intently. There’d be a minute in which I’d have some semblance of hope I’d finally catch the thing this time, and then the cat would dart out of my grasp. Or vanish the moment I turned my back.
The weirdest part was, once or twice, the cat stopped before running off and looked at me. I could swear it was laughing.
And they all shared the same icy, emotionless black eyes. I wished they didn’t remind me so much of the empty eyes staring from the euthanized corpses I saw at Willfell.
Finally, I caught one.
It was early July. I was quite pleased with my cunning. I bought one of those huge plastic storage tubs from the general store, filled it with water, stuck it in the back of the van, and waited for my feline quarry – a large, pug-faced tabby this time. After an hour of hiding in the cab, the cat climbed down from the roof where I’d found it and into the waiting reservoir. I raced to the back, slammed the van doors, donned leather gloves and prepared for a hissing, clawing fight.
But, surprisingly, the cat didn’t struggle at all. It was fully submerged in the water, curled up on the bottom of the container like a rock. I picked it up, shoved it in a cage, dumped out the water, and drove.
It wasn’t until I was halfway to Willfell that I noticed the smell. Once, my nine-year-old son dropped a fish stick in the back of my car and forgot about it. A humid summer week later, my car smelled just like that cat had.
When we got there, the chubby tabby put up about as much of a fight as it had in the van. I didn’t hold it for long – years of experience with scared animals taught me that the less time spent with claws inches from my face, the better. But the short span of time the cat was in my hands was enough to make me seriously uncomfortable. It was heavy and, somehow, doughy. My hands sunk into its flesh like silly putty. And it was cold.
I left the cat in the ‘quarantine’ cage in Kathy’s office. We usually only used the cage for animals that were obviously ill, which the tabby was not. But there was just something… wrong with this cat. Like it shouldn’t be mixed with others of its species. I gave it bowls of kibble and water, then sat down at the desk to fill out an application for a grant. Kathy was gone for the weekend, visiting her sister in Bakersfield. Jacques was in the back, cleaning out the pony stall.
I couldn’t concentrate. Not with the cat there.
I looked over my shoulder every other minute. Each time, I’d see the same thing – the flat-faced tabby, sitting in its water bowl, staring at me. It never blinked. It never moved. It didn’t even appear to breathe. The rotting, fishy odor filled the room.
Finally, I cracked. I double-checked the latch on the cat’s cage, locked the office door, and pretended to be busy feeding the dogs. I called the vet and asked if he could come by and take a look at the feline, but he said he wouldn’t be able for another week.
The next morning, I found the office window wide open, the quarantine cage open, and the cat gone. I wasn’t disappointed.
Not long after that, everyone started talking about little Charlie Henderson.
Charlie was 12, and had been skateboarding alone, shortly before midnight, in the parking lot by Lake Collette. The lake was still scum-covered and fenced off, and the occupants of the nearest homes had long since packed it in for the night. The way he told it, Charlie had been approached by a cat. He bent over to pet it, and the cat danced away, leading him to a grove of trees behind the lake.
He followed the cat. Then, suddenly, he was attacked by a small army of cats. They jumped from the trees and emerged from the shadows, latching onto his clothing and limbs and dragging him towards a hole in the fence. If a lost car hadn’t pulled into the parking lot and turned around, causing the cats to scatter and giving him time to run away… well, who knows what they’d have done with him?
No one believed him, of course. Everyone assumed he’d been attacked by, maybe, one feral cat, and his imagination had taken over. Because cats don’t corner people and jump them – that takes organization and planning, intelligence not possessed by house pets. And his story got weird, too. He claimed one of the cats had stretched itself, like silly putty, and grew an opposable thumb.
Then Jane came back.
It was a cloudy afternoon, and I was taking advantage of the slight cool-down to deep-clean the dog kennel. Kathy was gone again, in Riverside watching her granddaughter play softball. I was busy scraping dried dog crap off the concrete when Jacques ran out to tell me there was a lady asking for me. I wiped off my hands and went inside, to find Jane Kitornes staring at me from Kathy’s living room.
Jane had never been fastidious about her appearance. But, if I hadn’t known her so well, I would have assumed the gaunt, trembling figure in a stained wife-beater was a homeless woman. Her hair was a frizzy, matted mess of grey. She looked unwashed; her arms and chest were striped with lacerations of varying degrees of depth, in various stages of healing. And her eyes, which had once seemed to serve as a window to a rational, calculating mind, now allowed a glimpse into bloodshot insanity.
“Jane!” I said. “What… are you okay?”
She didn’t smile. “Do you have any?” she asked.
I frowned. “Any what?”
“Cats, Marlena,” was the curt reply. “It’s the cats. I need the cats. They’ve been wandering.”
I gave her what I hoped was a kind smile. “Okay, Jane. I can show you the cats. But Kathy said I’m not allowed to have any of them adopted without her around.”
That was a lie, but I wasn’t about to pass Jane custody of a pet rock, let alone a living, breathing creature. She was obviously not in the physical, emotional, or mental state to care for anything, not even herself.
I walked her out to the cat kennel. As expected, a small herd of dogs ran towards Jane to sniff her and beg for attention. Then, about three feet from her, the dogs stopped. They sniffed the air, whined, and loped off in all directions. Not a single one got any nearer.
Jane looked over the cats seriously, then sighed in disappointment. She shook her head, turned around, and paced back to Kathy’s house.
“You haven’t caught any,” she said.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
She glared, looking through me. She could cut through anyone’s bullshit and see their soul.
“You know what I mean, Marlena. My cats. Call me if you catch one. There’s so many of them now. And they’re getting bigger.”
With that, she walked out the door. She stopped. She turned around.
“And Marlena? Watch the lake.”
I spent the rest of the day in a daze. I’d been wondering where the weird cats came from – they didn’t belong to anyone in Juniper Valley, and it was hard to believe that they’d all migrated from Palmdale. Jane took in homeless cats. Maybe they were hers. I didn’t know why they would have left food, water, and shelter to wander for miles along an isolated road and into a neighborhood, but it was at least a possibility.
That night, following a tangled motivation I couldn’t put into words, I borrowed my father’s car and drove to the parking lot by Lake Collette. Where Charlie Henderson had been attacked. I pulled right up to the fence, turned off my car, let my eyes adjust to the darkness. I obeyed Jane. I watched the lake.
I hadn’t sat for ten minutes before I saw movement. A black shape, creeping out of the shadows and approaching the water’s edge. More movement, against the clump of trees to my right.
Cautiously, quietly, I opened the car door and stepped out. I shut the door gently and tiptoed towards the fence.
A large black cat waded in the dirty lake. Its paws were inundated. It kept on going.
A subtle creak. I came closer, until I was grasping the metal links of the fence, and I felt it quiver under my fingers. I looked to my right and saw them. Two more cats. Huge cats, the biggest I’d ever seen. Cats climbing down the fence like monkeys, head first, completely vertical. One, then the other, jumped gracefully to the ground and stepped into the feeble light bleeding from the two streetlights. One was yellow, the other a tabby.
The first cat was almost completely submerged. With the lightest gurgle, it ducked under the scum-covered waterline. Into the black hole, the toothed tar pit.
The light wasn’t good at all. It looked as though the second and third cats had… had flattened when they hit the ground, like play-doh thrown at a wall. And there was something about how they moved. They jiggled, their legs bent the wrong way. Or maybe it was just the shitty lighting.
Where was the black cat? It couldn’t still be underwater.
Ripples in the lake, small islands of yellow scum shifting in gentle waves. I didn’t feel a breeze. There was something else in there.
A cadence of nerves was triggered in my brain, forgotten but immediately recognizable like a song. I was scared of Lake Collette, scared like I had been as a child, when the black water had seemed from my bedroom window a depthless well. I ran to the car. I did a donut in the parking lot and sped home.
The next morning was hot and bright and, under the cloudless sky, it all seemed ridiculous. I was letting the Charlie Henderson rumors get to me.
I walked past Lake Collette on my way to Willfell. I went right up to the fence. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary; no cats in sight. A light breeze ruffled the water.
I breathed in and gagged. It smelled like rotting fish mixed with a McDonald’s dumpster. It smelled like the pug-faced tabby I’d caught.
Cats don’t like water. Cats don’t swim. I’d spent nearly half a decade surrounded by cats, and the cats I’d been chasing around yards and spying on the night before weren’t… cats. That smell. The way the tabby I’d caught had felt when I held it – bloated and putty-like. Cold. Those cats didn’t purr or meow. They didn’t eat. They didn’t poop. Their intelligence. And that stare – those glassy, corpse-like eyes that seemed to take in everything and nothing.
And Jane. Her cats, she’d said. They’ve been wandering. They’re getting bigger. Maybe she was going nuts, living out there alone in the wilds, a mile away from her nearest human neighbor. The dogs wouldn’t come near her. Her own cats had been attacking her, apparently – how else to explain the scratches all over? Yet still, she was desperate to have them back.
I had to talk to Jane again.
Kathy was still gone and it was Jacques’ day off, so I planned on heading to Jane’s lonely dirt road as soon as I fed the animals. But a couple from Palmdale called unexpectedly, asking if they could come by with their daughter to pick out a pet. By the time they’d selected a Corgi mix and made arrangements to have the dog neutered, it was after five.
It was fine. It was still light out. I locked up, grabbed the keys to the van, and made my way into the hills.
My teen-aged bravado waned as I traveled farther and farther away from Juniper Valley. There’s no defined town line, but when you reach the intersection of Skylark and Oak Tree Lane you’re essentially watching civilization shrink in your rear-view mirror. I’d forgotten just how far away Jane’s shack was from anything, and just how desolate and lonely the mountain road became. I didn’t see a single other car the whole time.
Finally, I came to the rusted blue mailbox with Jane’s numbers on the side. I turned on the dirt road. The van jerked violently as I climbed up the hill. When I reached the apex, I saw Jane’s shack. Carefully, foot on the brake, I made my way down into the valley.
It didn’t look like Jane was home. There was no light coming from the windows. I pulled up closer, into the driveway, past the house, to the carport in the back. The back door was wide open, and Jane’s El Camino was there.
The cats weren’t.
No cats lounging in piles by the stairs. None prowling around the yard. I’d never been within a quarter-mile of the house, day or night, rain or shine, without seeing at least a few cats.
I pulled beside Jane’s car, climbed out of the van, strolled into the backyard. Jane’s empty property looked lovely in the approaching dusk. Tall grass surrounded by gentle golden hills, spindly naked trees reaching for the heavens, majestic firs meeting fluffy white clouds like an Old West movie backdrop.
She must have been hiding in the house. She must have crept up behind me. Because I don’t remember feeling the blow.
I woke up lying in cool, moist dirt. I was looking at water. Lake Collette? No, I saw nothing but hills and foliage in the distance. Where the fuck was I?
I sat up. My head spun; I felt blood in my hair. I was sitting on the bank of a small pond. The water was greenish and thick with algae, covered in thick yellow scum. I took a breath and lurched. The smell. Rotting fish, rotting flesh, fast-food dumpster – stronger than I’d ever smelled it before.
The water moved. Something was emerging a few feet in front of me. Swimming to shore. A black cat, paddling with uncomfortable, almost human strokes. I scrambled backwards, away from the approaching creature.
It reached land. It pulled itself onto the bank. It stood up.
Anyone who grew up watching Looney Tunes knows what a cat, in theory, looks like standing on two feet. This was nothing like that. The black cat’s weight shifted. Its belly bulged, its lower legs swelled, became shorter and fatter. The effect was the same as squeezing a stress ball. Instead of a creature with a skeleton and tendons and muscles, I was being approached by a thing, with the consistency of jelly, wearing a furry suit.
I screamed. I stumbled to my feet. Then I felt icy fingers curl around my neck.
I struggled, and instinctively horse-kicked my unseen attacker. The hand loosened, and I whirled around.
I was face-to-face with Jane Kitornes.
But it wasn’t Jane.
Her face was round and flat, boneless. The wrinkles under her eyes had smoothed themselves out, and her nose bulged like a mushroom. And her eyes…
The maniacal glint was gone from her eyes. So was the consciousness, so was the recognition, so was the vitality. Her pupils were so dilated her irises were no longer visible, and what had been white was now completely red.
Her eyes didn’t move. They were those of a corpse.
A wobbling arm extended, and I was falling backwards, back towards the pond. Towards the demented, anthropomorphic cat. I turned my body and caught myself as I slid, my left arm plunging into the murky water.
A cold weight on my shoulder, knocking me backwards. Then the cat… cat thing… was sitting on my chest. It held out a paw, then stepped on one foreleg with the other. Its paw bulged, then… reshaped itself. Its toes grew fatter, skin stretching, and a small nub popped out of the side. An opposable thumb. Like putty in a rubber glove.
Then something in the water grabbed my hand. Something soft and cold and rubberlike, slimy but very, very strong. It pulled me. It was pulling me into the water. Then something else jerked a my hair.
Jane stood over me, smiling. She bent down, hands outstretched. Pudgy, bloated hands, attached to rope-like arms that jiggled and curled and changed shape…
What happened next is a blur. I remember clawing, kicking, screaming at the top of my lungs… and then I was running, stumbling, lungs burning, stinging, aching, cursing the spongy, weeded ground that gave under my feet. I pushed through dry shrubs and jumped over tree branches, praying I was going in a direction that would lead me to humanity, and that the crinkling of grass behind me was only my imagination.
Then I was on top of a hill, looking down at Jane’s shack. And then I was in Jane’s yard. I saw the van and lunged for it, threw myself in the driver’s seat, silently thanking the spirit or guardian angel that distracted me so I’d left the keys in the ignition. I slammed the door.
I looked up. Out the windshield. And into the red-and-black, empty eyes of the thing that had been Jane. It was smiling. She’d always reserved a special smile for me.
I turned the key. I gunned it.
The van jerked violently. I slammed on the brakes, kicking up dirt like smoke. I felt a sticky moisture against my cheeks. I took a breath, and barely managed to pull open the door before I projectile-vomited. Even thinking about that acidic, rotting-seafood stench induces a nauseous tickle in the back of my throat.
I’d crushed Jane under the front right tire. I’d popped her.
God must have been smiling down on me that night, because the van still ran. I drove it straight to the police station. In the parking lot, I surveyed the damage. The front bumper was dented, and a headlight was out.
There was no blood. The mangled metal was splattered with glossy, opaque white goo.
I was almost completely honest with the sleepy-eyed desk cop. I said that Jane tried to drown me in the hills behind her home, chased me to the van, and then I ran her over; but I left out the part where her body had taken on the properties of pasta and silly putty. The cop asked sarcastically if I’d been doing any drugs, but radioed a car to the site.
Over the next week, I was questioned multiple times by the police. Their questions became increasingly bizarre, to the point where they were asking about toxic chemicals and lights in the sky (seriously) and whether I was, or had ever been, involved with a heavy metal band and/or a witch cult (this was the late 90’s). I was chastised for driving down a lonely backroad, alone, to approach a crazy woman. But I was never charged with a crime.
The cops were cagey, but they’d found something.
By the next morning, Oak Tree Lane was blocked off by the County Sheriffs, and the inhabitants of the hills had been roughly evacuated with no explanation. Then came more sheriffs, then the unmarked cars, then the tall, black, barbed-wire fence around Lake Collette. Jane’s death was reported as a “freak accident.”
I tried to forget. I holed up in my room, watching happy movies on VHS, until my mom came to take me back to Van Nuys. I went back to school. I threw myself into studying and applying for college. When I needed to, I snuck my mom’s sleeping pills.
Eventually, however, curiosity overwhelmed my fear. I wanted answers. So I elected to spend the following summer, my last before college, in Juniper Valley with my father.
Willfell was no more. Kathy had left the animals with a larger no-kill shelter in Acton, retired, and moved to Riverside. There was a large “for sale” sign in front of what had once been her home. And it had been a dry winter. The chain-link fence, broken and bent, still surrounded Lake Collette, but the lake was little more than a puddle.
I flirted my way into a job waiting tables at the bar/restaurant (they weren’t great with checking ID’s). I spent my nights serving burgers to bored townies, trying to strike up conversations about the strange events of the previous summer – the shadowy agents, the fence, the crazy cat lady. I was offered nothing but rumors, speculation, and good old-fashioned lies.
Finally, I met a man named Aaron. He was in his twenties, chubby, and socially awkward. He worked as a counselor at a camp for disabled children. He talked about Dungeons and Dragons a little bit too much. And his uncle was a local cop. It was a slow night; I shot the shit with Aaron for awhile. When I asked him if he’d heard about the “crazy cat lady” who’d died last year, he played it off like a tabloid headline.
“What crazy… oh, that lady!” He laughed nervously. “Yeah, I heard about her. They found her body and drained some pond in the hills, and all her cats were missing. That’s about it.”
But I’d noticed his eyes widen and his hands tremble.
I guess I got lucky. Aaron’s cop uncle, apparently, had a weakness for Jack Daniels and a tendency to ignore police confidentiality when drunk. And that weakness must have been genetic, because a sloppy, giggly hour later Aaron was singing like a canary.
The night Jane had tried to kill me, two cops had been dispatched to her home off Oak Tree Lane, expecting to find an empty bottle of Everclear and a discarded bag of ‘shrooms. Instead, they found what had been Jane Kitornes.
Pieces of her were scattered across the ground like debris. They radioed for backup, and a small posse spent the remainder of the night on a scavenger hunt for vital organs. They found skin, plenty of skin. The piece that once covered her back was folded up in a torn white tank top. Her bones and organs seemed strangely melted, as though pulled from a vat of acid. Or digested. It was like, one officer had said, Jane had been skinned from the inside, then filled with acidic goo like a water balloon.
Everything was coated in a white, translucent jelly substance. The officers had taken a sample to be tested. But by the next morning, it had evaporated into a powdery white stain.
The big guns were called in. Sheriffs, agents from multiple government divisions; he couldn’t say who exactly; the local cops had been pushed out of the investigation by that point.
He had heard that, upon searching Jane’s property, they found an axe, multiple firearms, boxes of ammo, and ten cat skins buried a foot and a half deep in the backyard. Mostly with their heads detached, and all coated in the familiar white powder.
They scoured the hills behind Jane’s property, and they found the pond. The small sag pond that, according to land surveying reports, had not existed before the earthquake and the rains of the previous winter. They drained it. At the bottom, they found twenty-four more cat skins.
The insides were all gone, yet the skins were unmarred; at no point had they been cut apart or sewn together. Again, it appeared as if something had eaten or dissolved all the blood, bones, and vital organs. Except for the teeth, and the eyeballs. The eyeballs were left intact to stare hauntingly into oblivion.
After this discovery, they dragged Lake Collette as well. Aaron didn’t know what they’d found there. The lake was thoroughly searched, and even after the government agents left, the citizens of Juniper Valley were urged to stay away.
It’s been nearly twenty years. I’m a veterinarian now, a divorcee, a mother. I’ve done some digging, spent hours in corners of the internet where I’ve seen things I can’t un-see, made some new friends. But I still don’t have answers. I don’t know what changed Jane’s cats that summer. Were they infected? Usurped? Possessed?
I think it was something in the water. Hyper-intelligent, blob-like things that had lain dormant for years, brought to the surface by the earthquake, revivified by water, able to invade the bodies of other creatures. Jane had allowed her cats to wander the hills. The cats had found the pond. They’d leaned in to take a drink…
Maybe the blob-like things drowned them first, then got inside them via mouth or anus, and digested their unfortunate victims from the inside out. Then, they wore the skins like wetsuits. To exit the water, perhaps – maybe their bodies were weak against air and sunlight. To look for more prey.
Or to look for replacements. Skin and eyes decompose, eventually.
But, as they consumed cat after cat, they grew too big to stay in the sag pond. They needed a bigger body of freshwater to make their home – Lake Collette. They grew too big to fit inside a cat’s skin. They needed clothes in a larger size. They needed humans. Little Charlie Henderson.
And Jane. Jane figured it out before anyone. Jane, who could cut through bullshit and see a naked soul, realized some of her cats no longer had one. So she chased them down. She killed all she could. God knows how many there were – the ten she killed, how many more?
Finally, they got her. She – it – found me. Knocked me out. Dragged me to the pond’s edge. I was going to be its next outfit, its next meal.
But this is all conjecture. My opinion.
All those years ago, I told Aaron, the chubby camp counselor, everything. He listened, eyes widening but never doubting. The next morning, he and I took his car down Oak Tree Lane, to the rusting blue mailbox, and finally the abandoned shack where I’d passed so many teen-aged summer days. We hiked a mile into the hills, carrying two shovels and my father’s rifle.
We found the hole that had once been a sag pond, now a weeded ditch. And we got to work. It was hard work. It was dirty work. It took a few trips. But, by the end of August, we had leveled the land and completely filled the hole with dirt.
I don’t know what was down there. But if there’s more, they’re not getting out.
Credit: Nicky Exposito (a.k.a. NickyXX)
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