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First place

"Old Scratch"

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Laurah Norton Raines is a lecturer of English at Georgia State University, and lives with her husband and two dogs in a very strange neighborhood near the Starlight Six Drive-In. She is founder and fiction editor of SUB-LIT literary journal (www.sub-lit.com) and is an assistant editor at Five Points. Her fiction has appeared or will appear in Fringe, Night Train and Post Road. She currently is working on a novel.

They had been at war for weeks. It seemed serious this time; change blew on the tepid Georgia wind, and we took notice. They'd fought more this season, and the worst bit came at the end of September. The house shook for hours under the baleful gale. We peered across the street, hoping for answers, but the gray shutters folded back like wings, revealing nothing. The front steps gathered early fall leaves.

The Walkers remained mysterious in their anger, and kept to the house. In recent years, we had only seen the wife through the kitchen window, face like a wad of wet dough folded around suspicious black eyes. The husband left sometimes to get groceries, his eyes cast down and impossible to search. Otherwise, they remained entombed – we saw the awful cat more often than its owners.

We almost forgot them in between the tempests, which came a few times a year, and mostly at night. We could hear them from the street, screaming like banshees. About what, we couldn't say, but we did know this: With the battles came the holes. Sometimes, there'd just be a few; other years, a dozen rings of fresh red mud sprung up across the lawn like pustules, one for each night of screaming. Mr. Wilder, the Walkers' across-the-street neighbor, told us it was the old man who appeared at night with the shovel and dug like one possessed. What he was looking for, Wilder couldn't say. After a few nights of this, the Walkers would quiet down, and we'd talk of other things: Mrs. Sorensen and the UPS man, or Mr. Sorensen's trouble keeping a job, and whether cheapskate Jack Miller would finally buy Girl Scout cookies this year.

This time, though, they kept at it much longer, even in daytime. Crashes punctuated the yelling, and glass shattered so often that Mrs. Miller wondered that they had any dishes left. Some mornings, broken furniture crowded the curb – that had never happened before. New holes appeared until the yard was honeycombed, and the man no longer left for groceries. In fact, the front door opened only once. It was a Saturday, and nearly everyone gathered in Wilder's driveway for beers and Braves talk. It was then that we forgot baseball altogether; we stared at the door, anxious for answers, for a glimpse inside. Why did they fight so ferociously?

But answers weren't forthcoming. The couple stayed inside, and the gray cat, the one the kids called Scratch, slithered down the steps like a stream of dirty water. Our children shuddered. Scratch had hurt all of them, pouncing unannounced from under cars as they played, always hungry for a bit of flesh. They feared the cat as only children could: It became mythic, not easily dismissed by a mother's broom. Everyone gave the thing wide berth. Scratch's attacks were calculated, and its eyes held a malevolent intelligence. One summer, Mrs. Miller found dead squirrels on her front steps for weeks. Entrails dripped down her stairs, and dull eyes stared up from her welcome mat. It got so she'd only use the back door. Wilder reminded us the squirrels had come right after Mrs. Miller reported a Walker domestic disturbance, but we told him to hush. How could a cat know such things?

Mr. Sorensen, the dour mechanic six doors down, made noise about poisoning the thing, but Mrs. Sorensen worried that dogs would stumble upon the bait. So, Scratch continued to reign. Sometimes the cat wasn't seen for weeks, and sometimes it was everywhere, leaving thin scars and shredded garbage in its wake.

This day, Scratch wasted no time. It bounded across the street, and the children drew against us, shaking like cornstalks. Scratch disappeared into a hedge, reappeared, was gone again, and then bounded onto the hood of Wilder's Buick. The cat's nails scraped against the paint, spraying the asphalt with blue shavings. Wilder shouted and threw a beer bottle at the thing, but his aim was bad. The bottle landed beyond the driveway with an impotent thump, and Scratch let out a happy hiss. The cat reeled back and leapt straight into the air – six feet, at least, though Wilder later estimated 20. Children scattered, screaming. Scratch touched down briefly by Wilder's mailbox, then swooped away, back to the Walkers' porch. The front door banged open, and he disappeared into the darkness.

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