From its shelter deep in a thick mat of dormant grasses and winterkilled weeds strangling the fence line of the pasture, wary eyes of an animal watched as Marissa inched closer. Having shed her heavy coat, she kept her body low and small in attempt to look as nonthreatening as possible. Still, the animal cowered, shrinking in response to Marissa’s advance. When it could retreat no further, the creature hissed, finally revealing itself to be what Marissa had suspected all along; a feral cat.
She knelt on the frozen earth, pulled her sweater tight against the winter chill, and waited. Gradually, she sensed the animal relax as it too settled in to watch her. The night was too dark to determine the size or health of the cat, but it’s eyes never wavered from hers, indicating it was mentally alert. A good sign.
Cautiously, as to not startle the cat with sudden noise or movement, Marissa unwrapped scraps of her cheeseburger and French fry dinner she’d brought with her from the car. The food had gone cold, stale, but its aroma remained strong. She took a small bite of the cheeseburger, then broke off a piece and set it on the ground an arm’s reach in front of her. She did the same with the last of her fries, setting out a trail of offerings. And then, she waited.
The moon slipped behind a cloud, further darkening an already black night. Marissa fought back a shiver, exhaled a breath of warm air into her frozen hands and held them against her numb ears. And she waited.
A steer bellowed. Across the field, another bellowed in reply. A frigid gust of wind whipped Marissa’s hair up from her neck to slap against her cold cheeks. Still, she waited.
Eventually, hunger drove back fear. Hunkered low, with tentative steps, the cat slowly emerged from the protective cover of the underbrush. It kept its watchful eye on Marissa, its belly to the ground.
Another gust of wind brought the cat on instant defense. Its back arched, its fur bristled. Its tail fluffed to exaggerated proportions and pointed straight to the ground as a threatening growl rumbled from its chest. Marissa held a submissive stance. The wind died down, the cat calmed, and it continued its arduous journey.
As the moon emerged from behind its cloud cover, Marissa could better see the animal’s injuries; its damaged ear, bloodied neck, gimpy paw. It was malnourished and emaciated. Sharp hipbones jutted from beneath its dingy and matted fur. Still, the cat stepped with dignity, as though too proud to acknowledge defeat, too determined to entertain pain.
Marissa had emerged from the same field, in similar fashion, once upon a time.
She watched as the cat took delicate bites of the leftover cheeseburger and cold fries and was surprised when it did not run off with the last bite of scraps. Instead, with its fur still bristled but its back no longer arched, the cat eased onto its haunches, and watched Marissa with a prudent eye.
“I have nothing more to offer you,” she said, her voice no more than a whisper in the wind.
As though sensing different, the cat eased down to lay on her belly and wait. Or, maybe, it was simply too exhausted to journey back. The cat was young, small, battered. In the dark of night, it was difficult to determine fur color or eye color, but Marissa could see the cat was as cold as she felt. They shivered in unison.
She offered a hand, palm down, fingers relaxed, and was rewarded with a timid nuzzle.
“Fine. I’ll take you to the vet, get you cleaned up, make sure you’re alright, but don’t get any bright ideas about living with me. I don’t need any more stray animals in my house.”
Without giving the cat the opportunity to object, she scooped it up and tucked it securely beneath her arm. The cat struggled, kicking against Marissa’s side, gouging with its back claws, but it was weak, the struggle short lived. By the time they reached the car, the animal had surrendered to its fate.
It was long past closing time for most businesses in Allman Falls, but as Marissa had hoped, the lights still shone bright in the back buildings of the veterinary clinic. She found the door unlocked and stepped inside.
As a rural vet, Dr. Alex Hart cared for large and small animals alike. His kennels were occupied by a mix of dogs, scraggly cats, a handful of rabbits, and a hog. In the stable, two horses stood side by side in one of the stalls. A goat wearing blinders munched from a feed bucket in another.
In the third stall, Marissa found Dr. Hart in the middle of a rather intimate examination of an indignant cow held still by a hydraulic chute. She waited for him to remove his glove-clad arm from the animal’s nether regions before calling out, “Hello, there!”
With hardly a glance in her direction, Dr. Hart said, “The clinic is closed. Unless it’s an emergency, come back tomorrow.”
His voice was deep, carried on an air of authority and impatience. He removed his glove, jotted some notes on a clipboard, and picked up a stethoscope.
“It’s not an emergency,” Marissa said. “I just need to drop off this cat I found in a field.”
She held up the terrified cat, who now clung to her for security in the unfamiliar landscape, bright lights and strange smells of the barn. Dr. Hart’s attention was focused on the cow, not on Marissa and her burden. He did not respond.
“Can I just stick it in one of these cages?”
She took his continued non-answer as an affirmation and opened one of the empty units in the bank of stainless-steel cages. It required multiple attempts and a quick hand to simultaneously disengage all of the cat’s claws from her sweater and deposit it safely in its new home. The cat skittered to the back wall and compacted itself as small as possible in the shadows.
The doctor waved in the general direction of the far wall, where Marissa found a utility sink, clean bowls, and labeled canisters of food. She filled one bowl with cool water, another with a scoop of kibble, and returned to the cat’s cage. The frightened creature pretended noninterest, just as it had to the scraps of cheeseburger in the field, but its nose sniffed furiously at the air. Marissa clicked her tongue and wiggled her fingers through the cage bars to entice the cat forward.
“You should leave it alone,” a small voice said from behind Marissa. “It’ll eat when it’s ready.”
She turned to find a young girl with kinky hair and emerald eyes dressed in Carhart overalls and pink plaid flannel. Marissa was terrible at guessing age, but judging by her small stature, she pegged the child at no more than five or six-years old.
“What’s your cat’s name?” the girl asked. She held a clipboard similar to that of the veterinarian’s and a fat purple marker at the ready.
“It doesn’t have a name.”
The girl scribbled some notes. “Boy or girl?”
The girl frowned, scribbled some more. “And what brings you and your cat here today?”
“Look, the cat’s not mine. I found it in a field.”
“Hmph.” The girl looked dubious. “Are you sure you’re not just dumping it?”
“I am dumping it, but it’s not mine.”
“That’s what they all say,” said the girl with a heavy sigh and a dramatic roll of her eyes.
“Esme.” Dr. Hart said the girl’s name with a tone of warning.
Esme rolled her eyes again, this time in defiance. Marissa liked her immediately.
“I found the cat hiding in a fencerow,” Marissa said. “I don’t know whose it is, but it’s cold and hungry and has a pretty messed up ear.”
Upon hearing of the injury, Esme set down her clipboard and pulled a stool up against the bank of kennels. She climbed up to get a better view of the cat, who was hunkered back in the corner, desperate to disappear.
“Aw, poor kitty. Alex, come look.”
Dr. Hart stopped by the wash station to scrub his hands and slipped on a clean pair of gloves while Esme opened the kennel door and coaxed the injured cat forward. With practiced ease, the veterinarian transported the animal to a stainless-steel table and performed a thorough examination.
“The ear’s a loss and the neck wound needs stitches,” the doctor determined. “But she’ll be fine.”
“She?” Marissa repeated, though she’d had a feeling the cat was female. She could see it in the feline’s strength. Her intelligence. Her determination. She was a survivor.
“Can I name the cat?” Esme asked eagerly. “Please, please, please?”
“She is a queen,” Marissa interrupted at once. “The cat’s name is Queen.”
Esme wrinkled her nose in displeasure. “That’s a stupid name.”
“You’re stupid,” Marissa countered.
Esme stuck out her tongue. Marissa mimicked her.
“Enough,” Dr. Hart said, his tone scolding before he addressed Marissa directly. “I want to keep her overnight, make sure we get a handle on the infection in her ear, but you can pick her up tomorrow afternoon.”
Marissa placed a gentle hand on the terrified animal, felt the rumble of its low growl, the tight tremble of its agitation. Behind the angry fear darkening its eyes, she caught a glimmer of a deeper emotion, almost as though she could sense its innate loneliness beseeching Marissa to stay.
“She’s not my cat,” she said to the doctor, to herself, to the cat.
“Then you don’t get to name her,” Esme said with all the sass a tiny girl could muster.
“Fine. Whatever. You name her. I don’t care. She’s just a stupid cat, anyway.” She walked away before her heart could change her mind.
That night, in her dreams, haunted memories of the earth beneath the burr oak entwined with what Marissa imagined were the horrors suffered by the queen in the frozen pasture. She awoke with a start to the chiming of her alarm, her cheeks wet with tears, her heart wedged in her throat, fresh panic encircling her chest.
Quickly, she showered and dressed for work, styled her hair and applied makeup to practiced perfection. Inside, her emotions still wavered, anxiety quickened her heart, but to the outside world, she projected the poise and confidence of a young woman in firm control. She returned to the job she’d wanted to quit the night before, to the tight, familiar confines of her cubicle, and she returned Glenn to his place of honor beside her computer monitor on her desk.
As the morning crept along, she tried to concentrate on filing applications, verifying titles and calling patrons to remind them of loan payments due. But her mind continued to slip back to the field, to the night, to the cat she’d rescued, and then abandoned anew.
She picked up the phone to call a guy whose name she recognized as a former high school classmate who was now three payments behind on an unsecured loan and in danger of being turned over to the corporate office for collections. But she misdialed. Dr. Alex Hart answered instead.
“Hi, I was just calling to check on my… um…” She faltered, tried again. “I brought in a cat last night—a stray cat. The one with the wonky ear? I just wanted to see how it was doing.”
“The antibiotics are working. You can pick it up this afternoon.”
“No, I… Uh…”
“And since the cat is malnourished and pregnant, I’m going to send her home with a special food rich in nutrients to help support the development of the kittens.”
“Wait, what? Pregnant?”
The veterinarian continued to recite instructions on care, but Marissa could only focus on a singular thought, a particular horror that explained the injuries, the distrust, the determined show of strength when confronted. The queen had been raped.
Angered and awash with a sense of urgency, Marissa disconnected the call with the veterinarian and dialed the phone number she should have called days before, the instant she heard news of that bastard’s return.
When Pastor Tom answered, she stated with conviction, “We need to talk.”