A personalized short story for Kat.
Sandy and Becca hurried onto the plane, feeling relieved they’d made the flight. That morning had been a blur of gathering suit cases and carry-on bags, checking packing lists and reservation times. The girls were fresh out of college and spending the summer in Japan, a trip they’d been dreaming of since they were kids. Settling into their seats, Sandy and Becca shared a glance and giggled with anticipation. A month and a half in Japan. How lucky they both felt to be alive in that moment! This was the definition of the adventure of a lifetime.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep.” Sandy squeaked softly in Becca’s ear. Their 15 hour flight was a direct one from New York City’s JFK International Airport to HND International Airport, otherwise known as Tokyo International Airport. From there, the girls would take a train another three hours to Kyoto, Japan. The train was the quickest way, according to the travel agent, requiring only one transfer to another train to get to Kyoto.
“Considering we’re about to be in a plane and bus for the next 18 to 20 hours, I think you better at least try.” Becca said as she flashed a smile back at her friend. She was always the voice of reason in every situation. That’s the main reason Sandy’s father had agreed to pay for both the girls to go on this trip. He said he would feel better about Sandy going if it was with Becca.
“I can’t believe Daddy agreed to pay for the whole trip for both of us!” Sandy said, a little louder now.
“I can. He’s been wrapped around your little finger since we were toddlers.” Becca answered. “And don’t say that so loud. I don’t want people giving us that ‘trust fund kids’ look.” Of course, Sandy was notoriously spoiled by her multi-millionaire father and his new (almost Sandy’s age) wife. There wasn’t anything Sandy couldn’t talk her father into buying or doing for her. A true daddy’s girl. Becca was Sandy’s longest and closest friend. She always included her in whatever she was up to. Her father had come to assume he needed to buy two of whatever ticket Sandy was asking for. Becca enjoyed the privilege but never took it for granted. Her own mother was widowed when Becca was only eight years old. In truth, her mother appreciated her daughter having so many experiences from being around Sandy’s family. There’s no way she could provide those same privileges to Becca. She was always reminding her daughter to be thankful to her hosts and enjoy herself.
It was also very grounding for Becca each time she came home from one of those experiences to her mother in their little two bedroom apartment on the other side of town. Her mom was truly her hero, keeping her dressed and fed with her housekeeping job at a huge hotel they could never afford to stay in themselves. Her mom was the hardest worker she’d ever known and missed her when she was away. She even offered not to go on this trip, not wanting to be away from her mom for over a month, but her mom insisted.
“You cannot miss an opportunity like this, honey!” her mom had said. “You go with Sandy and have fun! I’ll be just fine and waiting to hear all about it when you get back.” The two hugged and Becca told her friend the good news.
“I’m in.” she’d said. Sandy was ecstatic on the other end of the phone, yelling to her father to get two of everything.
“I knew she’d come around.” Becca heard him say in the background.
Becca smiled as she sat in the spacious first class plane seat thinking about the events leading up to her being exactly where she was right then. What a crazy life.
The plane took flight and the girls chatted to each other, neither of them able to sleep, as it turned out. Their first meal came and they ate while Becca pointed out that a third of their flight time was behind them. They agreed to attempt sleep after their meal was done. First class was definitely an easier place to fall asleep than Becca had pictured. Sleep found her a short time after it found Sandy, who was softly snoring in the seat beside her. Dreams of art festivals and walks down historic, cobblestone streets visited them in their slumber. Sandy stirred first, having been woken up by the clatter of trays as the second meal of the trip was being served. She gave Becca a slight nudge as she stood to visit the restroom before their food arrived. When she returned, Becca had their trays waiting and they settled in to eat. A little old woman near them leaned in and asked, “What brings you girls to Japan?” in the cutest old lady voice. They both had been warned by their parents not to talk too openly with strangers overseas. Traveling abroad as two young women could be dangerous, or so they were told.
“Adventure, I guess.” Sandy replied with a smile.
“Culture.” was Becca’s answer and the woman seemed to approve of this one a little more.
“So good to see young people appreciating Japanese culture.” she said, smiling at them both.
“What brings you to Japan?” Becca asked. The old woman’s face brightened.
“I was visiting my son but I’m returning home now.” the woman said.
“Awe, that’s sweet. He’s a lucky guy to have you as his mother.” Sandy gushed. The woman smiled politely and looked back down to her half eaten plate. “I will be glad to eat my own food again.” she remarked, half to the girls and half to her plate of food. This elicited a chuckle from Sandy.
Becca asked the kind woman one more question. “What food should we be sure to try while in Kyoto?” The old woman’s eyes narrowed as she turned to face the two young women again.
“Beware the long tailed cat.” the woman whispered ominously. Sandy almost burst into laughter but held it in when Becca looked hard at her.
“What do you mean?” Becca asked.
“Short tails keep evil spirits away. Long tails invite them.” the woman clarified.
“We’ll keep that in mind.” Sandy said with a half giggle. The woman knew they thought she was funny but she’d said her piece. She turned to continue picking at her meal.
“What was that about?” Sandy asked Becca in a low whisper.
“I don’t know, probably a superstitious belief they have over there. Don’t be disrespectful.” Becca scolded. Sandy let out one last little giggle and continued to eat. Becca’s next nap on the plane included a weird dream about a cat with a ten foot long tail chasing her through the streets of Kyoto. Airplane dreams are strange.
Changing altitude woke both girls up. They quickly realized their plane had reached its destination. Excitement overcame them both as they unbuckled their seat belts and exchanged enthusiastic glances at each other. Jet lag aside, they were both ready to start this brand new adventure together. Becca noticed the old woman from earlier give a quick look in their direction before stepping into the isle and walking towards the exit. There was a hint of worry in her eyes that struck Becca as odd. Scrambling for their carry-on bags in the storage compartment made her quickly forget the unusual moment.
Claiming their suitcases was a bit tricky but they used their pocket translators and got through it. Finding the appropriate train was their first adventure but, with the help of some airport employees who were no doubt used to foreigners who didn’t know what they were doing, they made it in time for the first leg of their train ride. The transfer to the next train that would take them to Kyoto wasn’t as difficult because they overheard a couple near them mentioning it several times. The girls followed them and then confirmed the signs before getting on the second train. See? They’d do great on The Amazing Race, Sandy told Becca. Becca simply rolled her eyes at the idea and both girls laughed. Their lack of directional skills was legendary. They’d been given strict instructions to text both their parents once they completed each portion of the travel to their little rental cottage in Kyoto. Each time they did so, their parents’ sense of relief felt like a bit of an insult to their fine travel know-how, the girls joked.
Calling a cab was the easiest part of the trip since they seemed to be everywhere. They merely looked at one and its driver hopped out to help with their bags. Becca showed the address to the driver. He nodded and began to drive.
The scenery was breathtaking once they left the train station. Rolling hills and small village houses, connected and flowing from street to street. Flowers blooming from a warmer than normal spring decorated every house. Their cottage was not very large, which is normal for this part of the world they’d been told. There was a small brick path leading to the front door with pretty pink flowers on either side. The house itself was white with a dark gray roof and the same dark gray for the trim of the windows and doors. It was the flowers and grass that made it picturesque. The other homes were very blocky and connected but this little cottage was on its own piece of land with a small yard and everything. The girls were taken by the look of it and couldn’t wait to get inside.
Walking up the small brick path, Sandy was the first to reach for the door when it opened unexpectedly and startled them both. An older woman stood in front of them, glaring at them with squinted eyes and not saying a word. Dark rings encircled those eyes and hinted at a lack of sleep. Becca convinced herself this was the reason for the strange greeting and spoke first.
“Konnichiwa.” Becca said with a smile. She wouldn’t have been surprised to see dark rings around their eyes, too, considering the jet lag. “We are the renters for the next six weeks.” she added. The old woman just stared at them and then, finally, stepped aside to let them into the little house. As they moved past her, she stepped out of the door and closed it abruptly behind her. They assumed she wasn’t thrilled about renting the place out for some reason but let it go.
“Not everyone can be a people person.” Becca said as Sandy rolled her eyes. They chose their rooms and got settled in. It was only mid day so the girls decided to take a stroll through the neighborhood. There was a cute little market just down the street that they both made a note to check out while in the cab. It turned out to be just a one minute walk from their front door. Vendors of all kinds lined the street and offered trinkets or finger foods as the girls walked past. A delicious smell filled the air as they walked past a food stall serving little round balls of something. Not wanting to pull out their translators, Sandy took out some money and purchased two small paper dishes of the little balls and thanked the vendor. The girls exchanged a shared look of hope as they each bit into a ball. The look of relief on their faces made the vendor giggle as she watched them try her food. It was an interesting blend of flour, onion, and some kind of seafood with a lovely sauce drizzled over it. Becca was the more adventurous eater and enjoyed every bite. Even Sandy finished the mystery dish with enthusiasm, although her sweet tooth was legendary. This savory dish was just going to make her want something sweet, Becca thought. The girls motioned a thank you bow to the vendor and continued to walk.
Heading back toward the house after an evening of shopping, the girls were exhausted. Many of the people on the street were closing their shops, including the young woman who’d sold them the mystery dish earlier. By the time they passed her, the young lady had locked up her stall and was pushing a small cart of supplies just behind them. She was a pretty girl with long, jet black hair and silky smooth, pale skin. Her thin figure and youthful eyes hinted at a ripe old age of sixteen. Maybe eighteen, at most. The girls, being in their early twenties, thought this young lady was adorable. They would’ve surely become fast friends with her if it weren’t for the language barrier. Instead, they glanced back and nodded a hello to her. She smiled back and that was the extent of their friendship with her. Or so they thought. She would end up being much more important to them than they realized in this brief moment walking back from the market.
When Sandy and Becca turned to walk up the small path to their front door, they heard an audible gasp from the young woman behind them. Turning to see her face, the young woman quickly realized she’d been heard, looked away, and kept walking down the street and out of sight.
“That was weird, right?” Sandy asked, still looking in the direction the young woman had gone.
“It was.” Becca answered. “Maybe she knows the cross old woman who owns the place and is surprised anyone would rent from her.” Becca said.
“That seems like a good theory.” Sandy agreed. “The old lady didn’t exactly seem happy to meet us.”
“People are weird.” Becca said while holding the door for her friend. They entered their cottage and immediately readied themselves for bed, having been up with only cat naps for more than thirty six hours. Their sleep that night was deep and sound. A freight train might not have stirred them, if there’d been one anywhere near them. This city was indeed a tourist destination but Sandy’s dad had done an excellent job of finding them the perfect little spot to vacation. Or at least his assistant had. They were off the beaten path of the big part of the city, tucked away in a cute little area with locals on every street and a real small town feel. Tucked warmly in their beds, the girls slept for a full twelve hours.
Waking first the next morning, mid morning actually, Becca started the coffee maker and opened a window. The birds outside were singing their morning songs beautifully and she didn’t want to miss a single chirp. Sitting at the small table taking in the sights, smells, and sounds was better than coffee for Becca but she knew Sandy would need her morning cup. She was a pill without it. No one knew that better than Becca.
While in mid thought about Sandy’s morning coffee routine, Becca became acutely aware that the birds had stopped singing. All of them. In fact, there were no wildlife noises at all. Becca stepped nearer to the window to investigate and almost fell back as the old woman who’d greeted them yesterday suddenly walked past the window. Unaware that she’d let out a quick shriek of surprise, Becca jumped a second time when the old lady’s head jerked in her direction as she continued past the window and into a small guest house at the back of the property. Her stride seemed off. A kind of limp motion occurred with each step and her posture seemed crooked. Sort of leaning forward, one would say. She glared at Becca for a moment and then turned completely the other way, as if to hide her face. Becca stared as the woman awkwardly stepped into her little house and slammed the door.
That’s when the most bewildering thing happened. As soon as that door was shut securely, the birds began singing again. All of them, at once. Like they were waiting for the old woman to leave. Becca stood at the window and stared at the little house. She couldn’t wrap her mind around what had just happened. She didn’t even notice Sandy walking up behind her.
“What’cha looking at?” Sandy asked. Becca jumped about five feet in the air and let out a yell.
“You scared the shit outta me!” Becca shouted.
“Sorry. I didn’t know I was supposed to warn you first. What are you doing over here? You looked like you were studying something pretty seriously.” Sandy asked.
“I don’t know. Something weird just happened.” Becca answered.
“Well, what was it? Lets hear it.” Sandy said, getting a little irritated now. She needed her coffee.
“I was sitting here, listening to the birds and then they all stopped singing. They just all stopped at once.” Becca began.
“There was probably a cat around.” Sandy said. “They didn’t want to get eaten.” she joked.
“As I was looking out the window to see why they stopped, that creepy old woman from yesterday walked past the window and nearly scared me to death.” Becca said.
“Worse than I scared you?” Sandy said with a snicker.
“I didn’t see her there and everything was so quiet. She was walking really weird. She stormed off into that little house over there. I think that’s where she lives.” Becca continued.
“You’re just jumpy today. Have you had your coffee? Maybe it was too much caffeine for you.” Sandy said.
“It’s not the coffee. She looked weird. And she acted weirder. She hid her face from me.” Becca insisted.
“Okay. Well, I’m gonna drink this coffee and then shower. We should go exploring today.” Sandy suggested.
“The birds started singing again once she was in the house with the door shut. It was just so strange.” Becca continued, sort of talking to herself at this point.
“Yep. We need to go exploring. Get your mind off the crazy bird lady that lives in the back of our rental property.” Sandy said with a giggle. She was having fun with Becca and that was fine. But Becca had some real questions that she just couldn’t answer. How on earth did all of that just happen? Why didn’t the birds sing? The sound of the shower turning on snapped her out of her thoughts and back into the little kitchen with the open window. The open window with the birds now happily singing outside.
The rest of the morning was uneventful as the girls showered and dressed for the day. They planned to take another walk and go farther this time. They’d only been down the main street with the market on it but there seemed to be a beautiful park with a gravel type walkway that they both wanted to investigate. It was a little past noon when they finally left the cottage. The street market was in full swing by then. People mingled here and there, looking over items for sale. Some were tourists like Sandy and Becca but the majority looked to be locals doing their regular shopping. What a beautiful place to live, Becca thought. Within walking distance of such a neat little street market. Becca was still enjoying the hustle and bustle of the street when someone tapped her shoulder. It was the young woman from yesterday. The one who’d gasped at the sight of the girls walking into their cottage. Only now, she was holding something in her hand and gesturing for them to take it.
“Omamori.” the girl said while holding two silk pouches out to Sandy and Becca. “Omamori. Take.” the girl said, insistently pushing the trinkets toward the girls.
“Oh, no thank you.” Sandy said, thinking the young lady was trying to sell her something.
“No, I think she’s trying to give them to us.” Becca said. She held out her hands and the girl put the silk things into her hands.
“Omamori.” the girl repeated again. She then bowed slightly and walked away.
“What’s an o-ma-mori?” Sandy asked, pronouncing the word slowly.
“I don’t know.” Becca answered. “They’re very pretty.” she said as she handed one to Sandy. The silk pouches were identical. They were red silk with gold stitching of Japanese symbols the girls couldn’t read. They resembled bookmarks in that one end was tapered with a string loop going through the top of it. Sandy tried to open hers but the string at the end was knotted tightly.
“Just keep it and we’ll figure out what it is when we get home.” Becca suggested.
“What if it’s some weird curse or something?” Sandy asked.
“I don’t think that girl would curse us.” Becca answered. “I’m sure it’s fine.” she said as she stuffed it into her pocket and began to walk again.
“Fine but if we get murdered, it’s your fault.” Sandy declared.
“I can live with that.” Becca said. The girls continued on their way and had a great time exploring more foods in the market and the beautiful path at the end of it. There seemed to be a bench next to every pond they passed and Becca wanted to see the view at every one of them. Sandy was into it for a while but she lost interest after about the tenth bench and wanted to go back to the cottage.
“I’m heading back.” Sandy announced.
“I just want to see that big pond over there.” Becca said, pointing to a pond about a quarter mile down the path. That one had trees around it and little plaques that she wanted to check out.
“That’s so far.” Sandy complained. “I’ll see you at the cottage.” she said as she turned to walk away.
“Are you sure we should be separating?” Becca asked. “We’re not familiar with the area that well.”
“I know how to follow this path and then walk through the market, Becca. I’ll be fine. Just don’t get kidnapped while you’re out here all alone.” Sandy warned.
“Alright, but text me when you get there. I won’t be very far behind you, maybe twenty minutes.” Becca said.
“Okay, mom.” Sandy replied.
“Well, somebody’s got to mother you.” Becca responded with a chuckle. The girls went their separate ways with Sandy walking back towards the market and Becca carrying on towards the big pond at the end of the path. The plaques ended up being for different members of the community who’d been honored with a tree planted for them. Becca thought it was sweet and read each one. Thankfully, they had English captions at the bottom of them. Her phone buzzed with a text from Sandy and Becca relaxed a little as she continued around the big pond. She’d told Sandy twenty minutes but, in truth, it was more like forty.
She got back to the cottage just as daylight began to dim. Birds were drawing their songs to a close. Crickets and other bugs were beginning to take over for the evening when Becca saw the old lady peeking through her front window, the only window on the front of her tiny house at the back of the property. In the dim light, her eyes almost looked cat-like, catching the remaining sunlight as a cat’s would in the cover of darkness. Becca turned away and hurried to the front door of the cottage, afraid the woman might come out and try to talk to her. Not that she had yet. So strange.
Sandy didn’t wait for Becca to set her belongings down before she was on her, holding her phone in front on Becca and pointing.
“Check it out! I found these pouches online. Not the same one, of course. I think ours are handmade.” Sandy said excitedly. Becca looked at the screen and saw a similarly shaped pouch with a decorative string on it.
“It says they’re a good luck charm with well-wishes written inside. You aren’t supposed to open it because it will lessen the power of the luck or something.” She explained.
“That’s actually pretty sweet.” Becca commented. “I wonder why she gave them to us.”
“I don’t know. Maybe she knows the lady that lives in the back is crazy.” Sandy answered. “It says here that one of the things the pouch can do is ward off evil spirits.” Her eyes got wide when she said that last part. “Didn’t you say birds stopped chirping when that lady walked by?” Sandy asked.
“That did seem to be the case.” Becca said, although it was becoming a distant memory and she started to doubt herself. A hundred different things could’ve caused the birds to pause what they were doing. Or maybe the woman just startled them like she startled Becca. She was running these scenarios through her head when a straggly black cat with bright green eyes jumped onto the open window sill and scared both girls this time.
“Oh shit!” Sandy screamed while Becca jumped back a step.
“It’s just a cat.” Becca said with relief.
“Look at its tail.” Sandy said. This cat had a long tail. No, not long. Very long. Unusually long, even. “What kind of cat has a tail that long?” Sandy asked.
“It’s got to be at least two feet.” Becca agreed. “It’s creeping me out.” she said and tried to shoo it back out the window. The cat hissed for a moment and then jumped back outside. It slowly walked about five feet from the side of the house and then sat, staring into the window at them.
“I love cats. You know I do. But that thing gives me the creeps. Maybe that’s why the birds stopped singing. They probably saw that in the bushes.” Sandy said. Becca quickly closed the window so the creature couldn’t sneak back in. It continued to stare, its eyes piercing through the evening light.
“Yeah, lets keep this window closed for a while.” Becca said. The girls talked about their time apart, Becca explaining the plaques and Sandy telling of walking back past the young girl at the food stall.
“She gave me a weird glance and then avoided eye contact after that. She’s definitely acting weird.” Sandy remarked.
“Well, it’s not like we can ask her what’s wrong.” Becca said. “Can these pouches be a curse?” she asked, not really believing the girl to have cursed them but wanted to cover all their bases.
“I don’t think so. I didn’t see anything about them being bad. Only good.” Sandy answered.
“Well, at least that’s good.” Becca said. “We’ve got a crazy lady living in the back and a creepy cat lurking about. I think that’s enough to worry about.”
Becca cooked dinner that night from what they could find in the kitchen that looked familiar. Rice with cooked veggies and biscuits. She’d always been the better cook, between the two of them. She had to cook dinner some nights when her mom worked late. She was always happy to do it. Sandy didn’t have that worry and that was okay, too. They just had completely different circumstances. It’s what made them such good friends.
They turned in at around 11pm after playing uno and then trying to watch TV without being able to understand a word of it. Becca laid in bed facing the ceiling, thinking about all the things they would be exploring in this beautiful little town when she heard a slight bump on the roof above her. Their rental had a mostly flat roof so she figured some critter must’ve jumped onto it from a tree. She tried to resume her previous train of thought when the footsteps went from soft to medium to loud, as if whatever was up there had suddenly gained a hundred pounds. Becca sat up to listen more closely.
The heavy steps went from above her room across the house to where she imagined the bathroom to be, getting softer with each step. Why on earth is this sound getting heavier and then softer as it travels, she wondered. Becca stood and took a few steps toward the bedroom door, listening intently. The sound was definitely moving toward the other side of the house, although it was hard to pinpoint as it got more quiet. It would probably be over the kitchen or bathroom by now, she estimated. Then, a frightening realization came to her. Sandy had been leaving the bathroom window open at night, arguing that the little cottage needed some cool, night air. Not wanting whatever that was to get into the house with them, Becca rushed toward the bathroom to close the window.
The hallway was dark but she could see in the little bit of moonlight that the bathroom door was slightly ajar. No, it was slightly ajar but opening further, slowly, as if something had brushed up against it. Oh god, she thought. What if that weird, creepy cat got in here? She cautiously approached and closed the bathroom door without even looking inside to see if the window was indeed open. She knew it was. Just like she knew something was now inside their cottage. Deciding it would be better to be together, Becca crept into Sandy’s room. Easing the door closed so as not to wake her friend, Becca settled in a cushy chair near the bedroom door and pulled the throw cover off the back of it, using it as a blanket. She did not want to be alone tonight. Something felt terribly off.
Sitting in the chair, watching her friend sleep, Becca wished she could turn her brain off and drift off. Every shadow seemed to be filled to the brim with some spooky being ready to pounce on her. As an adult, she knew that wasn’t true but she was really spooked. While convincing herself that the shadows weren’t actually out to get her, Becca saw something dark move from across the room. It was small and darted with such speed that she wasn’t entirely sure it was real. Maybe her mind was playing tricks on her because she was so creeped out. She sat trying to decide if she’d really seen something when a smell drifted past her nostrils. The distinct smell of decay hung in the air, like rotting flesh laid out in the sun for days. Becca gagged involuntarily. Sandy stirred, looked up from her bed and said, “Jesus, Becca. Was that you?”
Before Becca could answer, a low growl filled the room. Both girls sat straight up, eyes darting from shadow to shadow, trying to figure out where the sound was coming from. Again, the sound rumbled in their ears. A shadow in the corner next to the closet moved and grew. The black cat with the unusually long tail stepped from behind a small chair in the corner, hissing and stinking of death. Becca gasped and then choked on the foul air she’d just breathed in.
“What in the actual….” Sandy began but didn’t finish.
The hissing cat continued to step out from behind the chair but twisted and grew with each step, shifting and changing its shape from that of a cat into a grotesque cross between a cat and the cranky old woman they’d seen before. Her legs were malformed, causing her to limp as she stumbled towards them. Her face was still slightly elongated with whiskers sprouting from her cheeks, causing a drop of blood to form at the base of each one. Cracked and snarling lips parted just enough to show yellowed, pointy teeth. What should have been paws turned into hands, bent and furry from an incomplete transformation. Long fingernails on each of the mangled fingers threatened to slice the girls from neck to navel if the creature made it to them. The back door was closest to Sandy’s bedroom and they both sprinted to it, looking for the quickest way to escape the monster before them.
“We’ve got to hide!” Sandy yelled as they both ran out into the open backyard. She instinctively ran towards the nearest hiding place which was the little house toward the back of the yard. Becca followed out of sheer panic but instantly regretted her decision. That same smell of death overwhelmed them both just as soon as they crossed the threshold of the front door. A loud, angry growl came from across the lawn and Becca hurriedly closed the door even though her lungs begged for the fresh night air in place of the putrid stench of rot. They had to find a place to hide or, better yet, a back way out of this house of horrors. The girls crept into the little living room and found only small bones and scratched up furniture. It looked like a cat had been trapped in there for days, maybe weeks.
“Let’s try this room.” Sandy said. Slowly turning the knob, they both held their breath half expecting another twisted cat to pounce from the darkness of the next room. Instead, what they found beyond that next door was almost worse. Laying in the middle of the small room, beside a twin sized bed, was a full sized human skeleton. The bones were white and cleaned of any meat that should’ve been attached. Little scratches were present on every inch of every bone, as if something had nibbled them clean. The floor beneath the skeleton was filthy and caked with dried fluid, probably from the body that was there before the demon cat licked the bones spotless.
“I’m hungry.” a hissing voice said from the front door. To their horror, the jingling sound of keys was followed by the lock turning and the door slowly pushing open. In came a staggering hag of a woman with pointed ears, whiskers, and furry skin. She poked her head inside and sniffed while Sandy and Becca fled deeper into the little house. The bedroom window was boarded up but the small bathroom window wasn’t. Becca went to work opening the old, stubborn window while Sandy scrambled to close the door. The two of them barely fit in this little bathroom at the same time but Sandy managed to get the door closed and locked just as the cat lady reached the door. She didn’t claw at the bottom of the door as any normal cat would because she was no normal cat. She was upright and almost as tall as they were. Her dreadful nails were tearing at the door just above the knob, trying desperately to create a hole she could reach through to unlock the door.
“Hurry up.” Sandy whispered. “She’s clawing through the door.” The panic in Sandy’s voice was all Becca needed to hear to know they had to get out of that room immediately. Finally, the screen popped free and Becca yelled “Got it!” much louder than she’d intended. The cat lady instantly stopped clawing. Sandy practically launched Becca through the small window, pushing her backside as she squeezed through the opening. Becca landed with a thud and Sandy was already half through the window when she heard the front door open.
“She’s outside!” Sandy yelled. Becca grabbed for her friend and pulled with all her might sending Sandy falling to the ground just as Becca had done. There was little time to check for scrapes or bruises, nor did the girls even think of that. They were on their feet and racing around the house, hoping to make it to the street before the monster realized where they were. Although, they had no idea what they’d do when they got there. The girls had no cell phones and no translators. They were barely even dressed. Stumbling out onto the street, they were shocked and thrilled to see a familiar face standing under a distant street light. It was the young girl who’d given them the silk pouches. She was accompanied by an older man. Their mouths dropped open in shock when they saw the girls stumble out onto the road.
The older man called to them with surprisingly good English, something the girls were relieved to hear since they had much to tell. “Come. This way.” he yelled in something just above a loud whisper. “Quickly.”
Becca and Sandy practically fell on the two strangers. No other words were exchanged between them until the girls were ushered safely into a house at the other end of the street. Once inside, the man locked the door and hung another silk bag on a nail sticking out of the door. There was an exchange of words between him, the young girl, and a beautiful woman who emerged from one of the bedrooms. They all looked terrified, which didn’t make Sandy or Becca feel any better.
“Shouldn’t we call for help or something?” Becca finally stammered.
“Authorities cannot help us. We will call those who can. Until then, stay away from windows and doors. Bakeneko have very strong sense of smell.” he instructed.
“What’s that?” Sandy asked.
“Bakeneko is evil spirit who lives in cat. It kills and eats person, then changes shape to look like them. Walks around pretending to be the person.” he explained.
“Is this real life right now?” Becca said, struggling to comprehend what they’d just seen and heard.
“We saw long tail cat days ago. Then you moved in. We knew you would need help so we watch. We give you good luck charm but Bakeneko too strong. Charm didn’t have enough time.” he said. His wife nodded to him as she put a cell phone down. “They will be here soon. We will be still and quiet until they are done. Understand?” he asked.
“I think so.” Sandy began. “How do they get rid of it?” she asked.
“Yamabushi banish the evil spirit with prayer and charms. Their magic is old religion. The ones who bow down in the mountains.” the man said. “Hush now. We wait.”
Sandy and Becca sat quietly with their new hosts, waiting for some indication that the evil cat lady had been vanquished. Such a strange situation they found themselves in. Never would Becca have believed they would be where they were right now. This kind of thing just doesn’t happen, she thought. After some time, her eyes began to feel heavy. She could see that Sandy had already dozed off along with the mother and daughter. The father was still diligently sitting straight up, watching and listening for any sign of trouble. Becca finally let herself doze and was sleeping for what felt like only a few seconds. However, when she opened her eyes, light shone through the curtains of the front windows and their hosts were in the kitchen discussing something and preparing food.
Seeing that Becca was awake, the mother came and sat a platter of food in front of them, motioning for them to eat. Becca nodded her head in a slight bow and then gave Sandy a little shake. “Time to wake up.” she whispered to her friend. Sandy was obviously not ready to face the world for a moment and then seemed to suddenly remember all that had transpired the night before. She sat bolt upright, eyes darting around the unfamiliar room.
“Where is it?” Sandy blurted out.
“The cat lady? I don’t know. I just woke up. They gave us this food.” Becca answered.
“I don’t want to eat.” Sandy angrily whispered. “I want to know where the damned cat thing is.”
“Don’t be rude. Eat something. I’m sure he’ll fill us in soon.” Becca said, hoping the mother couldn’t hear the irritation in Sandy’s voice.
“Bakeneko is gone.” the father said as he entered the room. Becca flushed with embarrassment.
“I’m sorry. She’s just afraid.” Becca said, motioning to Sandy who was stuffing a dumpling looking thing in her mouth.
“I understand. You both have been through much. Eat your fill. Then go prepare yourselves for travel. It is not safe for you to remain here. More spirits will be drawn here and you are less protected than we are.” he instructed.
“Oh my god. That will not be a problem. I don’t want to be here for another minute of another day.” Sandy said. She scooped up two more of the dumplings and stood.
“You saved our lives. We are forever grateful. Is there any way we can repay you?” Becca said with tears forming in her eyes.
“Go and be well. That is payment for us.” he answered. With that, he stood and left the room. Becca placed a few pieces of food on a napkin and arose, suddenly aware of how scantily she’d dressed for bed the night before. Her face flushed a second time and she hurried out the front door and followed Sandy, who was already halfway to their rental cottage. The girls immediately called Sandy’s father and explained very little. Only that they couldn’t stay any longer and were coming home right away. Becca’s mom was worried but glad to hear that they were okay. Packing their belongings was going smoothly until Sandy heard the muffled sound of a cat meow.
“Did you hear that?!” Sandy yelled to Becca, who was already shoving things into bags and breathing heavily.
“I heard it. Pack faster. I’ve already called a taxi.” Becca said in a determined voice.
“Oh god. I thought maybe it was my mind playing tricks on me. I hoped it was.” Sandy said.
“Hurry up.” Becca ordered, suddenly glad neither of their families had any cats.
Back at the airport, the girls checked their bags on the new flight they booked from their phones on the train ride back from Kyoto. It was while they were sitting in the boarding area waiting for their plane that they seemed to remember the same interaction at once.
“The old woman on the plane!” Becca said.
“She said to watch out for a long tailed cat!” Sandy said, finishing Becca’s sentence for her. They stared at each other for a moment and then sunk into their chairs, glancing around the large room of people waiting for the plane. How many of these people were evil spirits in disguise, Becca wondered. She knew their world would never be the same.
Thank you for your interesting answers to my story prompt questions, Kat! I had a lot of fun writing about this interesting Japanese spirit for my so-host!
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