The cat had been a nuisance from the day Gilda and Stephen had parked their trailer on that land. Stephen had been trying to scare the thing off their property longer than Jack had been alive, and Jack had learned from his father that when that cat showed its face around the Winter estate, all was fair in hunting felines. Stephen made it clear: he didn’t care how Jack got the damn thing off their property just as long as it was gone.
Before Jack started school, he spent scorching afternoons chasing that stray across their two acres, wielding a stick as big as he was in case he managed to catch up with it. When he hit first grade, Stephen bought him a slingshot for his birthday. Jack spent an entire month nursing his new obsession. He taught himself to shoot rocks as well as Robin Hood, preparing for the next time that roving cat crossed his path.
He never did catch up to it. After years of poaching, he’d secretly grown fond of the trespasser that drove his daddy crazy. By the time Jack entered the fourth grade, he was leaving milk in a shallow dish behind the lot’s furthest tree. He didn’t dare risk placing it any closer: he knew that if he was caught fraternizing with the enemy, he’d get the beating of his life.
The year he went soft on that stray was the year he started visiting the graveyard more and more often. The cat, which had grown fond of Jack as well, crept through the tall grass, watching the boy through slit yellow eyes while Jack sat among the headstones for hours on end. It kept its distance, venturing closer as the days wore on until, one afternoon, that feline found itself sitting next to Jack as compliantly as a lifelong pet.
Jack patted the animal on top of its head, his eyes fixed on a point beyond the trees. For a brief moment, two sworn enemies found solace in each other, enjoying the spring breeze that rustled the leaves and bent the grass to the earth in gentle arcs. And then, with his hand stroking the cat’s back, Jack saw those black bottomless eyes in the shadow of an oak.
His fingers tensed, biting into the animal’s fur like a pair of jaws. The stray shrieked and bounded away, then stopped to glare at its old enemy. It didn’t like what it saw. Reflexively, it arched its back, fur bristling with agitation. Opening its mouth as wide as it could, it exposed its fangs with a hiss, then turned and dashed out of view.
On any other day he would have shrugged it off and forgotten the whole thing, but that particular day wouldn’t allow Jack to let bygones be bygones. The way the animal’s back bent into an S-curve, the way it had bared its teeth—something about it made his blood boil. Rage curdled in the pit of his stomach. His fingers dug into the soil. All at once he was on his feet, running after it, determined to catch it once and for all, to string it up like he should have long ago. Years of effort burned in his lungs like oil; all the hours he had spent hunting.
The cat was mocking him. It had tricked him into bringing it milk, scratching behind its ears when nobody was looking.
Jack’s nostrils flared. He ran harder. He could see it ahead of him, dashing toward the trailer like a fur-covered missile. Jack slowed when Stephen stepped onto the sagging porch, aimed his BB gun, and fired as the stray bolted by him. It was a miss.
“Son of a bitch!” Stephen barked. He turned to his ten-year-old son, the kid winded and gulping for air, dark hair plastered to his sweat-covered forehead. “You think you’re gonna catch ‘im with your bare hands?” he asked.
Maybe not with my bare hands, Jack thought to himself. But I’ll sure as hell catch him.
That night, long after Stephen and Gilda had gone to bed, Jack snuck out the front door with a saucer of milk. He crossed the front yard with careful steps and placed the bowl at the base of his Momma’s oak—a huge old tree that shaded their trailer from the burning Georgia sun. Armed with a spool of his father’s fishing line, he tied a slipknot onto the end and looped the line along the ground, leaving that saucer in the middle as bait. Then he climbed up into the branches of that tree and waited, the end of the line held tight in his hands.