My Aunt Diane lives on the outskirts of town, in an area typically considered “low-income”. To this day, I don’t know whether it was by choice or just the best she could afford. From the outside, her house looks like a run-down, double wide trailer home, but on the inside, her living room is well-carpeted, sheer white curtains adorn the windows, and even her guest room has an en suite bathroom.
As she’s gotten older, she’s needed more and more help around her house. She’d never married, having once told me “Some people get all the love they need from family.” I know she always appreciates my visits. And she cooks the most amazing foods, like her spicy BBQ ribs and her special “Irish Nachos” made from cooked potatoes instead of corn chips.
When I’d visit Aunt Di with my mother, the noises outside always scared me. She lives so far on the edge of town, you can hear the coyotes howling at night, picking off the stray cats and dogs in the area.
She looked quite young for her age, not a sign of gray in her short, curled brown hair and her brown eyes always seem happy and smiling. The only hint to her age are some wrinkles that have started to appear in later years, but otherwise she has the appearance of a fit, joyful 40-something, even though she’s actually closer to 60!
For as long as I’ve known her, Aunty Diane has always had this one cat, Ornie, a big, lazy tabby. He was a stray when she found him. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him move. Aunty Di would always joke that he was too lazy to be a stray and that he never needs to move farther than five feet from his food bowl. She named him Ornie because door-to-door preachers keep mistaking him for a lawn ornament.
I had a three day weekend thanks to sweet talking my boss out of work and I was looking forward to pigging out on food I didn’t have to cook. This year, the first freeze came in early. My windshield was frosted over by nightfall and Ornie had actually gotten up and moved under the house for warmth. I introduced Aunty Di to the joy of Netflix and we were enjoying the warmth of the gas heater while watching episodes of Poirot before we started to nod off on the couch. Tired, we bid each other goodnight and retired to our rooms.
The guest room is deceptively large, with a ridiculously comfortable four-poster bed and a bookshelf with dozens of books ranging from Agatha Christie to Mary Higgins Clark and even some Louis L’Amour. Beyond that is a comfortable yet well used reclining chair and the en suite, possible my favourite part of the whole house. It’s a bathroom almost the size of the actual guest room with a shower set in top left end of the room and a luxurious bathtub situated in the bottom right corner. When I first saw it, the design made me think it was a squat hot tub with no jet, but the first time I filled it with suds and hot water, I thought I would never leave. That night, I didn’t have the time or the energy to run a bath. Instead, I changed into my pajamas and curled up under the blankets for warmth, finally drifting off to sleep.
It was some time in the late hours of the night when it felt like the room was the coldest it had ever been. Some sort of croaking noise coming from the bathroom awakened me, which was quickly followed by what sounded like scratching. In the darkness of the room, I couldn’t make out much beyond the meager amount of moonlight coming in through the window. I briefly lifted the blankets off me to investigate before realizing just how cold the air was, even with the electric heater Aunty Di had set up in the room. Comfort and warmth soon won out and I put the noises down to Ornie being overly energetic, trying to get in out of the cold. The was a single bump followed by silence, which I took as Ornie’s resignation, so I rolled over and drifted back to sleep.
The morning chill reached the low 40s, but the interior of the house was nice and warm. By noon, the day warmed up enough that I was able to start helping with yard work. Aunty Di has several flowerbeds that line her home that she likes to grow vegetables in, typically tomatoes, onions, and herbs. We spent most of the day digging and burying sheets of newspaper to kill off any potential weeds that might take hold next year.
Ornie would usually watch us from the top of the steps, but he was nowhere to be found that day. I thought nothing of it until I noticed the hole that was dug under the side skirting of the trailer. It was big, probably big enough to fit a medium-to-large sized dog. At first I thought a coyote trying to get to Ornie might have dug it, but then I realised it was inside the fenced yard and there seemed to be pieces of white fur caught on the skirting. When I showed Aunt Di though, she didn’t seem too concerned.
“It’s probably a raccoon trying to keep warm.” I remember her saying, “Don’t you worry about Ornie, he may not move much, but he’s been able to take care of himself all these years.”
I couldn’t help but feel worry eating away at the pit of my stomach. By the time lunch came around, my worries quickly melted away, after taking a bite of the previous night’s leftovers.
In the middle of the second night, I found myself lying in bed awakened by that same croaking and scratching noise coming from the bathroom. It was as if something was trying to push itself up against the floorboards. This time, there was an audible sniffing. Remembering what my aunt had said, I felt some relief that Ornie was still under the house, trying to sneak his way into the warm interior, but that sniffing made me uneasy. It seemed too loud and the scratching too rough to be from a small cat, or even a raccoon for that matter. It was at that moment I heard coyotes howl and yip in the distance and I felt my heart leap into my throat. If that really was Ornie, I didn’t want him being eaten by some tunneling coyote.
The scratching and sniffing ceased and I heard what sounded like scurrying and digging from beneath the house. I listened anxiously for several minutes, expecting to hear the sounds of Ornie attempting to fight off whatever was coming for him, but there were no further sounds. Outside my window, I heard a series of yelps and the sound of coyotes fighting. That was quickly followed by silence. My imagination ran wild with the possibilities of what had happened. I fought hard to to calm myself down. The fighting noises came from outside and out in the streets. Ornie wasn’t likely to leave the safety and warmth of his hiding spot and the coyotes were probably just fighting each other. It took some effort, but I was finally able to fall back asleep.
The next day still brought no sign of Ornie, which served to further fuel my concern. As my aunt cooked breakfast, I went for a quick look around the house. I even checked the surrounding streets, but there was no sign of that cat. I recalled the fighting from last night, so I ran around to the area where I thought the sounds had come from. I found nothing but bloodstains on the road. There was no body. There seemed to be too much blood to come from one cat. The absence of anything made me all the more uncomfortable.
I walked around the side of the home, where I happened upon a second hole. This one was the same size as the last, but it was on the side of the trailer that wasn’t fenced in. When I tried to talk to my aunt about the scratching and the bloodstain over dinner, she dismissed it again.
“Honey, those raccoons get into everything. And a flock of turkey vultures can have roadkill picked so clean before the morning’s done that you’d think there was nothing there to begin with!”
That night, she attempted to calm me down with books and movies. We set up my laptop in the guest bedroom to watch one of my favourite romantic comedies on Netflix. Aunty Di sat in the reclining chair reading. It wasn’t long before I looked over and saw her dozing off, still wearing her reading glasses. Not wanting to leave her in the chair, I carefully moved her to my bed and turned the lights off. As close as my aunt and I are, it seemed awkward to share the same bed together. I set myself up on the couch and closed my eyes for a second.