Something woke Darcy the night her neighbor died, the kind old man next door, Mr. Bowman, who lived with an ageless black cat, Cooper. Darcy once fell on the sidewalk in front of his house, skinning both knees until lines of bright red seeped through tears in the previously pristine pinkness of her flesh. It was the first time she felt the pain – the inability to see, focus, or think – that she called her “migrates,” even though her mother always corrected her. Mr. Bowman had been the first one there that first time, to pick her up.
Grimacing, she could barely speak. Her knees were forgotten, overshadowed by the pain in her head. “Owww, it hurts so baaaad!” she hissed, unable to raise her voice.
“I know, Darcy,” Mr. Bowman said with a comforting smile, letting her lean into him for support as he guided her back home, telling her a story.
Mr. Bowman knocked on Darcy’s front door, and when her mom finally answered, Darcy was hurried inside. “Thank you, Albert,” Darcy’s mom said. Mr. Bowman just nodded, and went home.
But Darcy was asleep.
Her dream was bright, almost blindingly so, filled with happy noises and color. She was surrounded by her best friends – Irene, Holly, Gwenie, Faye, and Evie – as her mom appeared carrying a giant cake. To one side, her father leaned over the circle of girls to take a picture, not really looking at her or the cake or her friends, but transfixed by the glowing screen. His lips pulled back from shining white teeth, and for a brief moment, she thought of those big toothy leg traps from cartoons, the ones hapless bears or rascally rabbits got caught in. The camera flash burst with light. She blinked. Go away, Daddy, you’re hurting me!
But the cake… Darcy’s eyes tried to take in the entire chocolaty deliciousness of it. On its surface were seven candles, arranged in a sort of spiral, coiling in toward the middle where her name was written in delicate pink cursive. Three-dimensional flowers punctuated the top and sides like fireworks of sugar. Still, the best thing of all sat directly in the center: the happy but nearly featureless face of a white cat. Dots for eyes and dashes for whiskers, little triangles for ears. Somehow those were enough to send her giggling.
Just to the side of the cat’s adorable face, there was an imperfection in the otherwise smooth icing, a strange collection of bumps and valleys that, in the too-bright light, looked a bit like a face, or a skull.
Her father inhaled and began to sing, dragging the others along by force of will and habit. “Haaaaappy biiirthday tooo yooouuuu…”
Something touched Darcy’s leg under the table.
The others chimed in, leaning closer until Darcy’s world was cake and singing faces. Beyond their circle was only bright white.
Something touched Darcy’s leg again. Something she couldn’t see under the flowing edge of the polka-dotted tablecloth. She wanted to ignore it, but it touched her a third time.
She heard mewling. Darcy swiped at the tablecloth, pushing it away from her, yet somehow the singing continued as if nothing had changed.
The space below the table was so dark, the contrast making it hard for her to see clearly. Two small circles appeared, and there was a flash of white as a tiny voice spoke. “I know, Darcy.”
A black cat sat beside her leg, and she would swear it was smiling at her. Its voice was strange, the blend of a kitten’s purr with an old man’s rasp.
Something woke Darcy.
The tablecloth fell around her, a dark pool in the blue-blackness of night.
She wasn’t sitting at a table.
Or having a birthday.
She was alone, at night, in her dark room, sitting up in bed with the covers pushed down.
Darcy never woke in the middle of the night. Her room, normally a place of playtime, a home for her doll friends, a comfort, was silent, still, and dark.
The space seemed bigger, emptier, full of secrets.
Something moved by the door.
Darcy turned toward the movement. Straining so that one blob of darkness might make sense amid the rest, her head immediately began to hurt. She was all too familiar with the feeling, the pain that started at the base of her skull, then crept upward until thinking was impossible. Nothing was possible except sleep.
No. How could she sleep? Something moved by the door.
Involuntarily, she sucked in a great gasp of air. The sound seemed so loud in the cavernous, dark room. She couldn’t be sure, but she thought a patch of the wall by the door had darkened. She felt more than saw a shadow there, something hovering low by the floorboards.
Darcy couldn’t move. The pain in her head was spreading. She wanted to shout for her parents, wake them, but her voice wouldn’t obey. She inhaled another sharp breath, then another.
The spot by the door grew darker still, until it seemed all the light of the world had been removed from that one spot. Then she saw two small circles blink to life.
There was a black cat sitting in her doorway, with its two eyes gently glowing, picking up the tiniest glimmers of available light and reflecting them toward her. It stayed still, as if watching her.
We don’t have a cat.
Involuntarily, the story came into Darcy’s mind. The story Mr. Bowman told me. That day. He spoke the words as he tried to calm her, take her home after her fall. “Have you ever heard the story of The King of the Cats, Darcy?” he asked. She couldn’t respond, not the way she felt, not even to nod or shake her head. “Well, once there was an old gravedigger who came rushing home to his wife and their cat, Old Tom. The man told them the strangest tale. He said he’d been digging a grave when suddenly appeared nine black cats carrying a small coffin, and on that coffin was the mark of a crown. The gravedigger stared in disbelief as the cats approached. Finally, the cat in front turned to the gravedigger and spoke. Tell Tom Tildrum that Tim Toldrum is dead, the lead cat said.
Someone’s cat is dead? Why did he tell me that? It scared me, Darcy remembered. As they waited for her mother to answer the door, Mr. Bowman finished the story. “Well, the gravedigger’s wife didn’t know to say, but the cat, Old Tom, jumped up with a gleam in his eye. What? Old Tim is dead? Then I’m the King of the Cats! And Old Tom rushed up the chimney, never to be seen again!” Then Mr. Bowman smiled, an old man’s smile, full of creases and wrinkles.
Darcy didn’t think his eyes were smiling.
She believed, from that day, that each time someone died, a cat would carry the news.
Is this cat here with news? Did someone die? She shuddered. Or is someone about to? Wait! Is that Cooper? Mr. Bowman’s cat, Cooper, was a standoffish thing, always flicking his tail back and forth. He still had claws, unlike others in the neighborhood, so Darcy’s parents told her to stay away. Cooper had a spot of white on his chest. She started to step out of bed, trying to get close enough to see if there was a spot, to see if it was Cooper.
The black shape at the door with the two light eyes suddenly stood, arched its back, and hissed at her. Darcy gasped, falling back into bed and pulling the covers up over her head for protection. Surely her parents had heard and would come. How long would it take her daddy to arrive? She imagined the path he would take, running from his door, a right at the top of the stairs, then another right, a third into her door, at the end of the hallway. Imagining made her head hurt more.
Slowly, she peered past her clenched fists, but the cat – Cooper, if it was Cooper – was gone.
The pain stabbed deeper in her head, and she knew that if she didn’t act, she’d be unable to move. Throwing aside her covers, Darcy leapt down from the bed and ran, not toward the unknown dangers of the doorway, but toward a second door: her armoire.
As quietly as possible, she pulled the louvered door open, stepped in, and closed it again.
Inside, the space was small and tight, hanging clothes and wooden sides bumping against her, the antithesis of the wide open room. The horizontal slats of the door let in just enough muddy greyness that she thought she could see the doorway, tell that the cat was gone.
Sometimes she hid in the armoire for fun. And sometimes she used it to close out the world, to try to make the migrates go away. It had worked, once or twice, and once or twice was better than never at all. Plus, she felt safer there, closed inside.
Darcy crouched in the small space, her breath coming in uncontrolled shivers. Beside her in the darkness sat her ladybug boots, things that usually shone in red and white and joy and home and peace. In the fuzzy dimness of the armoire, they were giant insects, waiting coldly for her to look away.
Where are you, Daddy? I’m scared.
The pain now filled most of her head and little sparkles of light swam in her vision. She pressed her eyes into the open space between slats, looking for the cat, and sucked in another breath.
I’m so scared.
Close behind her, just over her ear, the purring, raspy voice from her dream spoke again.
“I know, Darcy.”