by Maddi Davidson
This is our first short story of the Halloween season–while The Cougar isn’t technically a Halloween story it does have a twist that fits in well with the Halloween season.
“You should get rid of that damn cat,” Mark said for the umpteenth time.
I ignored him and continued wiping antiseptic on his arm, a task made more difficult by his squirming in anger and glaring at my beauteous kitty Lucy, who alternatively hissed at him and meowed at me for attention, even batting my arm as I tried to minister to Mark.
“At least declaw the bastard.”
“Since Lucy is a girl, I think you mean bitch, which she isn’t,” I said, pouring more alcohol on the swab than was strictly called for. “And I won’t hear of declawing her; it’s like chopping part of a finger off.”
Mark had shoved Lucy off the back of my couch in an attempt to engage in a bit of cuddling. Lucy, rightly in my view, resented being evicted from her customary drape around my neck and gave him a retaliatory swat. Mark had reacted with such histrionics one would think a Sumatran tiger had lopped off his arm.
Some people, including Mark, seem to instantly dislike black cats, especially those such as Lucy with penetrating yellow eyes. Prejudice comes in many forms, like the spiteful comments I get for dating a man so much younger than me, as if it’s anybody else’s business.
“Evil feline,” Mark muttered, rolling down his sleeve after I slapped a bandage—which really wasn’t needed—on his arm.
“I don’t know why you insist on provoking her, Mark.”
“I was just trying to put my arm around you. Lucy-fer reacted as if I were going to strangle you. Or her. Not that the thought hasn’t crossed my mind on that. Lucy-fer, I mean, not you.”
“Don’t call her that; she’s not the devil.”
I sighed as I returned to the kitchen to retrieve another beer for Mark and something stronger for me: my favorite eighteen-year-old Scotch. Maybe the slight scalding of my throat from the Scotch would keep me from saying what I really thought—that Lucy was a part of me and Mark should back off.
Mark and I had met on a spring day at our local farmer’s market in McCall, Idaho. I was selling essential oils and various elixirs I’d made from plants gathered the prior summer. Mark was a wilderness guide, equally skilled in fly-fishing and navigating rafts of overawed tourists down the Snake River. I was instantly captivated by his longish, dark hair that protruded every which way from under his “Go to Hells” hat, his blazing blue eyes, which were the exact color of a mountain bluebird, and his interest in the flora of the Rocky Mountains. We discussed lupine and fireweed between sales to my farmer’s market regulars and moved on to sego lily and arrowleaf balsamroot over a glass of wine from a Hagerman Valley winery and a dinner of fresh Idaho trout.
Barely a week after we met Mark became my favorite pollinator.
While there were a fair number of single men in the McCall area around my age––thirty-eight and change––many of them resembled the grizzled mountain men in the old Western movies my parents loved: long-bearded, plaid-clad loners who thought botanicals were woo-woo and weird. Or they were impoverished ski bums who only earned enough to get a season pass that could be used at all the big resorts in Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah.
At twenty-six, Mark was a dozen dreamy years my junior and as hot as a July day in the high desert of southern Idaho. Since he topped six feet, I could wear my three-inch heels (when I wore them, which was never in winter as spiky heels and ice don’t mix) and still look up to him. In bed, well, I purred even louder than Lucy did when I dangled a freshly caught fish in front of her. All of which meant that I was willing to ignore the warning signs regarding his character, such as the constant text messages: more beeps than an Arizona valley full of road runners, and at all hours. Mark shrugged them off, saying they were from customers eager to grab a slot on the next raft trip down Hells Canyon.
Customers texting him at 2 a.m.? I wondered, then shook it off.
Also, Mark insisted on spending Friday and Saturday evenings with me at my home nestled in the forest several miles outside of town. I thought it was due to his desire for a little romantic time and only later perceived that he liked to limit his dinner expenditures to twenty-dollar pizzas, with nary a fresh herb in sight. Periodically he’d let me buy the groceries and cook him a meal. I figured it was a reasonable return on my investment for great arm candy and primo sack time until he stopped offering to set the table or clean up the kitchen.
Lucy disliked him from the first. On one occasion she dropped a dead mouse into one of Mark’s shoes, then twitched her tail gleefully at his scream of discovery: his bare foot squashing the dead rodent. Another time she fished a trout he’d caught out of his cooler, ate it, and deposited the head in the cab of his truck where it lay undiscovered until I complained of the stench. Once Mark’s phone turned up in the bathtub where I’d used my own valerian and hops bath oil to draw a relaxing bath. Lucy sat by the door, her tail swishing in a harmonious rhythm I recognized as the signal that she had a fresh kill for me, typically a vole, mouse, or slow bird.
Mark was furious, accusing me of being a witch and Lucy my familiar. He said it all made sense: my herbs and elixirs, Lucy’s sabotaging of his relationship with me, and how she would leave him dead animals as warnings.
I took him to bed and bought him a new phone.
I knew from experience that Lucy took a while to warm up to strangers, if she warmed at all. She hadn’t liked me at first, judging by her yellow-eyed glare and persistent hiss when I tried to pet her. At the time it didn’t matter because Lucy was my friend Maggie’s “precious pumpkin poo.”
Maggie had been my best friend ever since we went on a class hike in third grade where I’d correctly identified the paw print of a cougar. The class was terrified when I announced my discovery. The teacher, Mrs. Gladwine, argued that no, it was clearly a dog’s paw print, until I pointed out the distinctive difference between the front and rear paws, the size of the print, and why it couldn’t be anything but a very large cat. I noted the cat had recently been on the trail because the tracks were dry but the trail had been wet earlier in the morning from the dew. Wide-eyed Maggie was newly moved with her family to Idaho from Orange County, California where cougar had a vastly different meaning among the Botox-and-filler class of rich, bored housewives. She adored cats and was fascinated by the cougar tracks.
A few switchbacks later I pointed out another track to Maggie. Mrs. Gladwine became defensive and berated me for scaring the other children. Then she turned the entire class around to head back two hours early, which I reckoned was validation of my tracking skills whether she admitted it or not.
One night a week later when Mrs. Gladwine let her Terrier mutt out it disappeared. The next day a cougar track and a bloody tag from the collar were discovered.
I could have predicted it.
Together Maggie and I explored the great Idaho outdoors, went to summer camp at Lake Coeur d’Alene, followed the Nez Perce Trail after our senior year in high school, attended college at the University of Idaho, were maids of honor in each other’s destination weddings at Sun Valley, and were divorced within a year of each other.
After our divorces were final, we hiked to the Council Mountain Hot Springs where we soaked and dished dirt about our significant others, past and present (she’d found a new boyfriend before the ink was dry on her divorce papers). I brought a bottle of champagne for us to chug with our trail mix and we giggled all the way back to the trailhead. Champagne soaks became part of our girly routine. Our last hot springs outing was the day before she was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.
Maggie asked me to take care of Lucy after she died. By that time Lucy knew and liked me, at least as well as Lucy liked anybody. When Maggie was flown to Boise for her last hospitalization, I went to her house and Lucy ran into my arms as soon as I opened the door, as if she knew Maggie had left for good.
After Mark’s first mauling, he claimed he was allergic to cats, yet he didn’t have sneezing fits except when the sagebrush was in bloom. He suggested that I get rid of Lucy. I told him that I couldn’t, that I’d made a promise to Maggie. Truth was, I wouldn’t get rid of her, promise or no promise, and it irritated me that Mark kept bringing it up. Lucy had become part of my family, while my feelings for Mark were, even on a good day, ambivalent. I may have introduced him to people as my boyfriend, but only because boy toy, sex partner, or friend with benefits raised eyebrows in small town Idaho.
We’d been together for nearly six months when Mark admitted he was married, but separated from his wife. Really separated: she lived in Colorado. I’m by no means a goody two shoes, but until then I had made it a point never to be The Other Woman.
I might have severed our relationship that instant except I needed Mark’s help. He’d volunteered to take care of Lucy when I flew to Seattle to assist my father in settling my mother—who had early onset Alzheimer’s—in a nursing facility where she could recover from a broken hip.
“I know we don’t get along, but at least she knows me, knows my smell,” he had said. “And I can stay out of range of her claws.”
I should have listened to her. Instead, I accepted his uncharacteristically generous offer.
When I returned from Seattle, Mark declared that Lucy had disappeared: the first day he went to check on her she’d escaped the house. He hadn’t called me because he “didn’t want me to worry.” He’d spent “hours and hours” searching.
I put up flyers and notified vets and rescue centers from Grangeville to Boise, none of which Mark had done. Clearly Mark believed that with Lucy out of the way he could move in and become a kept man. He’d made a huge mistake. I had planned to dump him, but now he was going to pay, just like my ex-husband.
After moving in with his slut, my soon-to-be ex, Jason, had returned home to pick up his possessions. Unbeknownst to him, I’d used a needle to doctor more than a few bottles of his extensive wine collection with a tincture of yarrow and other herbs. Jason’s prior experience with yarrow had given him severe nausea. While I couldn’t be bothered to infuse two hundred plus bottles, they all had needle holes in the top, so he’d have no choice but to dump the lot––ample payback for his dumping me.
I convinced Mark that I wanted a romantic weekend camping on a crisp, clear October day, so we drove a couple hours to the Nez Perce National Forest, hiked through the pine-scented timbers, and settled ourselves in an idyllic spot near a flowing brook. I slipped one of my special elixirs into his after-dinner coffee and he rolled up in his sleeping bag early. The sun was well up the next morning when Mark awoke to find himself bereft of clothing with his hands and feet bound and the rope secured around a nearby spruce. He screamed bloody murder when I said I was leaving him then and forever, but there was no one except turkey vultures to hear him. When I departed, I took all his clothes and equipment except for a pair of boots, his wallet, and car keys.
I gave him a fighting chance, which was more than he gave Lucy. I used half hitch knots on the tree, which tighten when you pull on them. A boy scout––Mark claimed he made Eagle––should have been able to free himself inside of five minutes. The trailhead was a five-hour hike, far enough to allow him to generate a bit of body heat against the chilly fall temperatures.
I spent the next several days hiking on my own, gathering plants, and rarely crossing paths with other people until I reached SR 14 and caught a lift home. When the car reached Grangeville, I finally picked up cell phone service. No word from Mark, not that I cared. The big surprise was the voice mail from the Humane Society in Boise reporting that Lucy had been found.
Once back home I dumped my pack and immediately drove to the shelter to pick up a svelte fur ball who was ecstatic to see me.
Three days later a couple hiking with their retriever discovered Mark’s remains. Cougar tracks were found near the body. Hunters from the Department of Fish and Game planned to track down and kill the cat. I felt confident they wouldn’t find it.
Mark was half right when he called me a witch, but he got my feline familiar wrong.
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