This is one of the Newcastle Herald Short Story Competition 2020 finalists. For a full list of the finalists revealed so far, head here.
Jack knew. He always knew.
From the moment she brought him home from the shelter Jack knew that Louise was his human, that she would protect him.
I'll call you Jack, she said. It's a strong name. I like it.
Me too, thought Jack.
He'd been given other names before, most of them not memorable although he'd never forgotten being called Princess. That was from a young kid who thought she was getting a girl cat. She refused to call him anything else, something she said over and over to her mother.
Jack didn't like the other human in Louise's house. The male one. Louise had tried to introduce them but Jack knew He was not a cat person. When he saw Him Jack scrambled back into Louise's arms, pinning himself to her. Jack couldn't help but scratch her.
Oww Jack, Louise cried, tapping him on the nose.
Then His face leaned in at Jack and Louise.
What do you expect Louise? It's a cat. Its instinct is to scratch.
Grabbing her by the elbow, He spat the words at her, reminding Jack of a tomcat he knew once. Louise pulled Jack closer to her, shrugging off the grip of His hand. Her body shook as He laughed and turned away from them.
Jack was smart. He had learnt the names of some things but he'd never been able to figure out why some humans were kind and others were cold and hard like the thing in the kitchen they called a fridge.
Louise was different when He wasn't there. She would sit and flick through a book with Jack nestled on her lap, tapping her fingers on his back. Or she would be in the kitchen creating delicious smells. Jack would curl his tail around her bare legs and she would lean down, patting him, then filling his bowl with milk so he wouldn't feel left out.
Later in the day when the light started to fade Louise would start to move, not in the usual easy way she was with Jack, but hurried. Jack sensed darkness coming. She would pack everything away, her books, the food and other things in the kitchen. Even his food bowl would be tucked away between the fridge and the door. Louise would then pick him up and take him to the doorway of her room. Kneeling down to meet his eyes, she would kiss him on the nose.
Jack didn't like the other human in Louise's house. The male one.
In you go Jack, she said. You will be safe in there.
After this happened a few times, Jack knew that when He came home it was time to hide. Then the noise would start. The slam of a door. The scrape of a chair on the wooden floor. The rise in His voice. The absence of Louise's voice. Jack knew it was all because of Him.
One day the noise was louder than normal. There was a crash, a thump, a thud, then the slam of the door. The house was quiet for a moment or two. Jack's fur bristled, his ears pricking up at the silence, as he peered out from under the bed. Then he heard something soft, like the sound of the kittens at the shelter. He crept out towards it.
The noise came from Louise who was sitting on the kitchen floor, her head leaning toward her lap, her hands loose on the floor. Jack's bowl was upside down, his food scattered brown dots on the floor. A pool of milk was moving toward the fridge. Jack padded over to Louise, one paw in front of the other, watching her. He climbed into her lap as water dripped from her face and sunk into his fur. He rubbed his face backwards and forwards across her chest which pounded in his ears.
Louise brought her hands up and ran them through his fur.
It's alright Jack. We'll be alright Jack.
She said it over and over again until her chest slowed and her face dried.
When he woke the next day he could not find Louise. She wasn't in any of her usual places. Then he looked in a room he had never been in as the door had always been closed.
There was a bed, a lot smaller than Louise's, and it was covered with dolls. Jack knew they were dolls because the girl who'd called him Princess played with dolls all the time, more than she had ever played with him.
Above the bed was something that dangled, that moved and flashed in the light. If Jack had seen it before he would have wanted to jump up and grab it with his paw. He thought that's probably why the door was never open.
On the end of the bed was a red box with a lid. Jack jumped up, at first just looking in, then he put one paw in then another until he was all in. There were soft warm things inside that smelt of Louise. He sat down and waited for her to find him.
There you are, Louise said from the doorway. I've been looking for you.
Ditto, thought Jack.
Louise walked over and took his face in her hands. Something about her had changed. It was nothing he could put his paw on. A sharpness in her scent perhaps. A brightness in her eyes.
Oh Jack, it's been a while since I've been in here but I had to come and say goodbye before we leave.
Jack knew the word "leave". He'd heard it a few times in his life.
Not sure where we're going Jack. A long way from here.
Louise picked him up and sat him next to the box. Leaning over, she picked up one of the dolls placing it inside the box before she closed it, then she picked it up and turned toward the door.
Follow me, Jack.
Anywhere, Louise, anywhere.