This story references the earlier episodes.
It may be read with the other installments or by itself.
See “Burlap Cat” under the “categories” widget.
Joanne could do nothing but stare at the pile of brightly wrapped packages. This year, Santa (or a far more sinister force) had brought her something most unwelcome.
That something was an ancient toy cat made of burlap. It had a large head and a small body, a missing ear and a missing button eye.
Joanne kicked the thing under a table when her parents came down the stairs. She was not one to leave her problems lying around for others to see.
Joanne then had a fuzzy moment with her family, opening presents and pretending not to be scared out of her wits.
It was not until her parents had returned to their room, to get ready for the big Christmas party later on, that Joanne was able to collect herself.
She dragged the burlap cat out from under the lamp table and whispered. “What do you want from me?”
Joanne neither expected or wanted the thing to speak, but she hoped for a sign – a clue, as to how she might banish it for good.
It all started a week ago when her friend David had shown her a website that sold supposedly haunted items. Joanne had only looked at the burlap cat, then three days later it arrived at her door, in an open, unmarked box.
David laughed at Joanne and swore it had been a mistake. He named the cat Marvin and suggested they contact the site that was selling it.
The owners of the site claimed they never had anything like the burlap cat for sale, but they offered to buy the thing for fifty dollars.
Before Joanne could ship it off, the burlap cat somehow managed to leave her house.
The cat reappeared in the arms of David’s two-year old cousin Randy as he was getting his picture taken with Santa at the mall. Joanne and David had been the only ones watching him. Randy ran off with the cat when they asked to see it, disappearing into the crowd.
Joanne and David had cornered the boy in a deserted section of the mall. Randy was safe, and willing to give up the cat, which he had also named – Marvin. If David had been playing a Joke he would have admitted it then – instead he took the cat and shipped it himself.
Joanne had been given two days of restless worry.
It was almost a relief to see the burlap cat again. At least now Joanne could know for certain where it was.
The door bell rang – We Wish You A Merry Christmas – and then David let himself in. He was white even before he saw the cat. Joanne feared to ask what was wrong.
Instead of speaking, David handed Joanne a sheet of printer paper. It was an e-mail from the owners of the site, the very people to whom they had sold the cat, the people who would have still had the cat if the world was a place that made sense.
Joanne read the printout. It was very brief and to the point.
“You may keep the item and the fifty dollars paid for it. Do not contact us again.”
Without saying a word, David grabbed the Burlap cat and headed for the door.
Joanne caught his sleeve. “David, no! That thing could be dangerous!”
“I know” He said. “My father has a gun safe. There are no guns in it now so he has left it open. Not even I know the combination. I figure it’s as good a place as any to keep something dangerous.”
Joanne still didn’t let go of his sleeve.
“What are we going to about this? It can’t go on forever.”
David sighed. “I suppose we can start doing some research. A lot of my Face Book friends are ghost and big foot people so I posted a picture of the cat. I figure if anyone knows anything they’ll tell us.”
Joanne smiled. “Ok, but it’s your funeral.”
David smiled back. Then left the house. He had people of his own who expected to see him in good spirits.
Joanne tried to think about what kinds of cookies and pies her aunts would bring. They thought she was too skinny. Joanne took it as a complement, and as an excuse to live a little.
Joanne retreated to the bathroom to fix herself up. To Joanne fancy dress meant blue jeans without holes and T-shirts without wrinkles. Toss in a hat and some cheep plastic jewelry and she would be ready to meet a queen.
“There is my hippie princess!” said Joanne’s Grandfather later that day as he handed her a twenty-dollar bill. “Merry Christmas!” Joanne made her way past her relatives to the kitchen where she started to pile all manner of delicacies on to a paper plate.
A Toy train whistled around the living room, beside enough doll houses to make up a small city. All the younger children had brought their newest treasures, and Joanne recalled how her dragons once rained fire down upon toy land.
A familiar name distracted Joanne from her slice of chocolate pudding parfait. It sounded like “Marvin”.
There seemed to be a fight among her youngest relatives. She hovered behind the couch and listened in.
“He wants to ride the train!” Whined a smaller girl who was clearly feeling left out.
A bossy older boy took the train away from the girl and set it carefully back on the track.
“If your teddy wants to ride, he can wait at the station.”
The little girl whined. “Trains don’t go to the station. They go to the mall!”
An elderly man intervened. “Easy there.” He said to the children. “I told her that the mall used to be a train station a long time ago, I guess she got confused.”
The mall used to be a train station.
Joanne recalled what little randy had been doing when she and David had caught up with him.
“I found a train!” Randy had said as he peeled paint off of a wall to expose an old poster.
Maybe the cat had been trying to tell them something, something about the mall.
Joanne had a bad feeling.
The toy train sped toward Joanne.
Balanced atop the engine was – the Burlap cat.
Joanne knew it would somehow escape David. She didn’t know how the cat was able to travel from place to place. Neither of them had ever seen it move.
The train struck Joanne’s foot and fell over. Joanne picked up the cat. “Marvin likes you.” said the girl who had wanted the cat to ride the train. The girl was the daughter of an older cousin. Joanne wasn’t good with names. Joanne said “Where did you find this?” The girl replied “Under the couch. Is he yours?” Joanne nodded. “Yes he’s mine. Thank you for finding him.”
The girl went back to her own doll.
Joanne was once again disturbed by the fact everyone called the thing Marvin.
Joanne retreated to her room immediately and called David. She almost collapsed when he answered the phone. She gasped “Are you alright?” David answered “Why wouldn’t I be alright?” There was a pause, then he shouted “Don’t tell me the cat came back!”
Joanne didn’t need to answer. David went on. “Look Jo, you have to keep an eye on it at all times. I’ll try to come over as soon as I can.”
Joanne interrupted before he could hang up. “There is something about that old poster Randy found at
the mall. I think we should have another look at it.”
David tried to keep his voice under control. Joanne wondered if David’s parents were nearby. “We can go to the mall tomorrow.” He said. David then whispered. “Stay strong”
Joanne ended the call and pocketed her phone. David never used words like “Stay strong” they seemed far too cheesy. David was too strung out to act cool. This made Joanne afraid too.
Joanne gripped the cat-like she was holding off a Lynx. She looked it in the black, button eye that was dripping dried glue.
“Marvin” she said to the cat. “I will go to the mall and look at this poster. If that is what you want, please behave yourself.”
Joanne woke the next day to find the cat had vanished. The surge of relief almost made her forget that she had made a promise.
“Are you sure it didn’t just fall behind the bed?” said David as Joanne arrived at the mall with her two other friends Shelly and Eric.
Jo would have to choose her words carefully to avoid arousing the suspicions of her friends.
“I looked everywhere for that thing! It isn’t at my house anymore!”
Shelly inquired, “What isn’t at your house?”
“Just some toy.” said David. “I think Randy lost his elf.”
“Good riddance” said Eric. “He probably hit his sister with it one too many times.”
Shelly wanted to shop for shoes and Eric always followed Shelly, so it was all too easy to ditch them.
Joanne never thought she would miss Eric’s lost puppy routine or Shelly’s tendency to shoot down all of her jokes but now they seemed so normal and safe compared to what she and David had stumbled into.
The both of them agreed that they probably had not seen the last of the burlap cat, and that people would think they were crazy if they asked anyone else for help. Given the situation, it was probably in their best interest to learn as much as they could.
The building that contained the mall was huge. Most of it was still empty. The empty parts were roped off, forcing people to crowd into shops in pursuit of post-holiday bargains.
The mall was new but the building was not. As Joanne recalled the place had been saved from the wrecking ball by some historical society or another. More stores were added all the time. Still places remained behind walls and plywood partitions, places not completely given over to the modern world.
It was in one of these places they had lost Randy, only to find him again at the end of a dark, dilapidated hall. Randy was safe but what would become of them if they pushed their luck?
Joanne reminded herself that the only thing to fear was mall security as they slipped unnoticed behind the same partition they had slipped behind in pursuit of Randy.
They were now in the part of the mall that was yet to be opened, the part that was still half-way between old and new. Paint flecks covered the floor like leaves in a forest. Statues and benches were wrapped in plastic and the air seemed even colder than the air outside.
“Do you remember where it was?” said David to Joanne. “Not really” she admitted.
When chasing Randy, it had all been a blur.
They retraced their steps past loose tiles and stacked plywood, past empty alcoves that might someday contain stores.
Something caught their attention from far off.
“Hey cool!” said David. “Their painting a picture on the wall!”
In the gray light of the high windows a detailed landscape came into focus. A railway bridge spanned a ravine, and old-fashioned train engine huffed and puffed across it.
“Wait a minute.” said Joanne. “Look at the edges!”
The edges of the painting were covered up by peeling paint and crumbling plaster. David gasped. “This isn’t new, it’s old! Someone painted over it a long time ago. They must have only just discovered it!”
It suddenly dawned on Joanne.
“David!, Randy Discovered this!”
David nodded. “Randy or the cat, look!”
The train in the painting had seemed like part of an old poster when Randy peeled the paint off of it, but there had been more than just a poster hiding behind all that paint and plaster.
The workers fixing up this part of the building had found Randy’s train. The train was part of a much larger painting that covered the whole wall.
Part of wall was covered in an ancient chalkboard.
Numbers were painted on this chalkboard, numbers and the names of cities.
Some of the cities were places Joanne had never heard of.
“This must be a train bulletin board.” said David. “People would look at it to see when the trains arrived.”
He went on. “The train board looks like it is glued to the wall. Whoever used this building after it was a train station couldn’t get it off so they just painted over it.”
“Maybe they were trying to protect the painting by covering it up.” Whispered Joanne.
“Could be.” said David. He started to take pictures of the old train bulletin with his phone.
He stood on a bench to get a better view.
In their excitement they almost missed the sound of footsteps coming toward them.
“Sssssshh, you hear that.” said Joanne as she dragged David off the bench and into an empty store. The two hid behind crates as a pair of uniformed figures walked slowly past.
“Just what is your problem, Ben.” said one the guards to the other.
Ben hugged his chest. “I suppose you haven’t heard. They found this wall scraped clear last night. No one knows who did it. I swear it’s like the old place is trying to break out of it’s shell. Abby quit, she says she heard scratching noises on her watch. They gave her that job at the old courthouse. The courthouse has some bad vibes, but better bad vibes then something real like this.”
The other guard chuckled. “So your going to join Abby? I hear there is another opening.” “I might” said Ben. “I might.” “Good” said the other guard. “I can use the extra hours.”
The guards retreated down the hall.
David and Joanne sneaked back to the public section of the mall when the guards were out-of-the-way.
David studied the screen of his phone as they sat silently amid the noise of the food court.
There was something about the ancient train bulletin, something they were meant to see.