Cat turned down the music on her speakers as she slowed down and squinted through the darkness.
“Turn right in 10 meters,” the automated voice repeated. “Turn right in ten meters.”
“There’s no road, dummy,” she muttered, resisting the urge to throw it.
She glanced up and down the long road, surrounded by tall, dead grass and mud on either side of the worn concrete. If she tried to turn, she’d end up stuck in the mud.
“Turn right in five meters. Turn right in five meters.”
There weren’t any other cars in sight, so Cat flashed her brights. It did little, except quickly highlight the fact she was on some dark back country road. There were tattered hand-painted wooden signs that said things like “Warning: Bigfoot Crossing” or “No Trespassing in Faery Circles.” Someone nearby obviously had a sense of humor.
She quickly switched back to her normal headlights. She knew it wasn’t illegal to turn on her brights, but she couldn’t help but feel she was doing something wrong.
“Please turn around,” the GPS reprimanded. “Recalculating.”
Cat groaned and pulled over, cranking her wheel to turn around.
She wondered if she should call Mom. Maybe she’d call to say she tried, but she was just gonna head home now.
Except home was at least seven hours away.
Cat pressed her foot on the gas as she swung her car into a U-turn.
A large shape bounded in front of her car. Cat slammed on the break.
She remembered seeing something large and furry in front of the car as her forehead hit the steering wheel. Then, there was something small and green running after it. Both figures disappeared into the brush. Cat pulled to the side of the road and rubbed her head.
God, a bruise right on her forehead would be so embarrassing, she thought. She didn’t even think to bring her makeup because there was no one here to impress.
“Turn left in five meters. Turn left in five—”
Cat closed the GPS and looked outside her window. Whatever had run in front of her was gone now.
What was it? she wondered.
She was pretty sure South Texas didn’t have any bears. But that thing looked big enough to be a bear. Or even eat a bear.
Cat screamed. Someone was tapping on her passenger’s side window.
The figure raised both hands in surrender quickly and slowly walked around to the front of the car. It was a woman, dressed in a plaid suit and carrying a walking stick. Cat wondered how hard she hit her head, but she cracked the window slightly and squinted up.
“Sorry to frighten you, dear,” the woman said. “But I heard a car hit the brakes and got worried someone was hurt.”
“Oh, I— I’m okay,” Cat said slowly, still trying to figure out if this woman was real.
She looked straight out of a history book, with a pale face and stylish curls that seemed out of place.
“Sorry, do you live nearby?” Cat asked.
“In the area,” the woman replied with a wave of her hand. “I was just out for a walk.”
The woman peered at Cat.
“You look familiar,” the woman said. “You wouldn’t by any chance be related to Ms. Betty, would you?”
“I’m her grand—” Cat began before pausing. “Her, uh, granddaughter, of sorts.”
“Oh! She mentioned you were visiting!” the woman said excitedly. “You really shouldn’t be driving out here at night, though, for one so young.”
“I hit some traffic passing Austin,” Cat admitted. “And then I tried taking some back roads to make up for lost time and… got lost.”
“It’s so easy to get lost in new places,” the woman agreed with a nod of her head. “Do you need help getting to Ms. Betty’s? I’d be glad to show you.”
Cat hesitated. She wasn’t sure following directions of a woman who’d be walking at night in a three piece suit was a smart idea.
“I won’t try to get in your car,” the woman said, as if reading her mind. “It’s just up the road here, so I’ll walk over, and you can follow in your car.”
“Oh, thank you.”
“Smart girl,” the woman said with a wink. “Never invite strangers inside.”
The woman glanced around before crossing the street and waving Cat over. Just next to a dead-looking tree, the woman trotted down a small road Cat didn’t see before. If it could even be called a road. More like a muddy line surrounded by tall grasses. She saw a few tire tracks imprinted into the ground, but there wasn’t even a mailbox or sign to imply anyone lived nearby.
She drove slowly, making sure she wasn’t close to running the woman over, but the woman moved surprisingly fast for someone in knee-high leather boots. Just over the hill, a house came into view. It was completely dark, but Cat thought she saw something glowing a soft blue around it. She pulled into the driveway next to an ancient pickup truck.
“What’s that?” Cat asked, stepping out of the car and stretching as she pointed towards the blue line around the house.
“Oh, that’s just a metal ring,” the woman replied with a shrug. “It gets hot during the day and keeps snakes away.”
Cat never heard of that, but she was all for anti-snake safety measures. The woman walked over to a small box near the metal circle and pressed a silver button.
“Doorbell,” the woman explained. “If I knock on the door, Ms. Betty wouldn’t hear it.”
Cat gave a polite smile and looked at the house. She couldn’t see any lights on. She wondered if she would be stuck outside all night.
“Who is it?” an old lady singsonged from the box in a crackly voice.
“Well, hi, Ms. Betty!” the woman said loudly in a sweet voice. “It’s just Ms. Peregrine dropping off your lovely granddaughter.”
Cat saw a light flash on in the house through faded yellow curtains. She realized there were thick bars on all the windows as the lights slowly turned on inside.
“Is this a heavy crime area?” she asked.
“Well, little old lady in the countryside,” Ms. Peregrine said with a shrug. “Better safe than sorry, right?”
“Yeah,” Cat said, trailing off as she looked around. “Do you, um, have bears? In the area?”
“If we do, I’ve never seen one,” Ms. Peregrine replied. “Why?”
“Oh, I thought I saw…” Cat began and then paused. “I mean, when I hit the brakes, I thought I saw…” she forced herself to laugh. “I mean, unless y’all have a Sasquatch roaming around.”
“You saw Ms. Betty’s signs,” Ms. Peregrine guessed with a small smile.
“She put those up?”
“Oh yes, she has quite the sense of humor,” Ms. Peregrine continued. “She loves spooking people.”
“Oh,” Cat said slowly, trying to think back to the creature in the road. “Whatever was out there looked a lot like the signs warned.”
“You’ve been on the road for a long time,” Ms. Peregrine said with a sympathetic smile. “The mind can play funny tricks on sleepy drivers. Ah, here she comes.”
Cat heard no fewer than five locks click before the door swung open. Bright green eyes peered at her through large fishbowl glasses as an automatic light flickered on the porch.
“Well, now,” the old lady who looked her over said slowly. “You’ve grown so much, Mare-Bear.”
“No, Gran, it’s Cat,” Cat said awkwardly. “Mom—I mean Marie—isn’t here.”
“Oh, what a shame,” Gran replied. “Come on in, dear.”
Cat slowly stepped over the metal circle and walked up the stairs. She noticed Ms. Peregrine didn’t move.
“Good evening, Ms. Betty!” she called. “Hope we didn’t wake you.”
“It’s fine,” the old lady replied with a smile and a shaky wave. “Would you like to come in?”
“Oh, no, I should get going,” Ms. Peregrine said. “I’m meeting some friends for dinner.” She waved at Cat. “Nice to meet you.”
“You, too,” Cat replied politely.
“Oh, and Ms. Betty,” Ms. Peregrine said.
Cat thought Ms. Peregrine was trying to give the old lady a warning look.
“Lock your doors tonight,” she said. “Catherine thought she saw a bear on her way here.”
“A bear?” Gran repeated, glancing at Cat. “Well, now, that’ll be a first.”
“She said either a bear or a Sasquatch,” Ms. Peregrine said with a humorless smile. “I’ll leave it to you to figure out which is more likely.”
Gran chuckled and used her cane to usher Cat inside as she wished Ms. Peregrine a safe trip home.
Cat wasn’t sure what was weirder: Gran waving off Ms. Peregrine to walk home after hearing about a bear, or the fact that Ms. Peregrine knew her full name when Cat was sure she didn’t tell her. It was probably a lucky guess, she figured.
Gran slammed the door and clicked all five locks back into place.
The house smelled like old people. Dust, baking, and too much potpourri. She could already feel her allergies acting up.
“Well, now,” Gran said, turning to look at Cat. “You’ve grown so much, Catherine dear.”
“I, uh, go by Cat.”
“How cute! I love cats!” Gran then added in what she probably thought was a mutter, “I’d never name myself after one, though.”
Cat was already regretting visiting. Not that she had a choice.
Gran slammed her walker about a foot in front of her. She grabbed the cane that hung on a walker with a shaky hand.
Tap, tap, tap.
She hobbled up to her walker.
“Come in, dear,” Gran said, though she was only a few steps ahead of Cat.
Tap, tap, tap.
Cat had to slowly shuffle as she followed Gran towards the living room. It was literally a few good strides away, but it seemed to take five minutes before Gran got to her chair.
“Did, uh, did Mom tell you I was coming?” Cat asked awkwardly, sinking into the couch.
“Oh, yes, Mare-Bear called just last week,” Gran said. “Such a shame she couldn’t come, too.”
Such a shame she couldn’t have come instead, Cat thought.
“She has a new project at work,” Cat replied. “But I’m taking you up to stay with us for the summer, so you’ll see her soon.”
“Oh, you’re staying for the summer?”
“No, Gran, you’re coming up to see us,” Cat corrected. “I was thinking we could leave tomorrow.”
“Oh, that won’t do,” Gran said. “Would you like some iced tea? You must be thirsty after your drive.”
She slowly and shakily rose from the chair.
“It’s fine,” Cat began.
Gran began her trek to the kitchen.
Cat sighed and sank deeper into the couch. Her phone buzzed.
“Mom, what the hell?” Cat whispered, answering the phone. “Gran doesn’t want to come up. She thinks I’m staying with her for the summer.”
She heard her mom’s sigh on the other end of the line.
“I just talked to her yesterday,” Mom said. “She told me she would start packing.”
“You said two days tops,” Cat hissed. “I have things to do at home.”
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” Mom replied. “I’ll call her again in a bit and convince her to come with you.” There was a long pause. “How is she?”
“I mean, it doesn’t seem like she’s all there,” Cat said honestly. “But that’s just an old person thing, right?”
Mom sighed again.
“Okay, well, I’ll wait til I see her before making any decisions,” she said. “I’m sorry I couldn’t come, Cat. I’ll make it up to you when you’re back.”
“Yeah,” Cat muttered.
Tap, tap tap.
“Gotta go, Gran’s coming back.”
She hung up as Gran shuffled back in with a cup of sweet tea. Cat accepted it with a smile.
“I’d offer you food, but there’s not much in the kitchen,” Gran said. “I need to get to the store, but everyone’s too busy to give me a ride.”
“I can take you,” Cat offered.
“Oh, how sweet!” Gran said with a smile. “Let’s go tomorrow. I can treat you to a nice breakfast place I know. They give me a senior citizen’s discount.”
“We probably don’t need much food, since we’re leaving tomorrow,” Cat said.
“You look very tired,” Gran said. “It’s already ten o’clock.”
“I’ll just sleep tonight and be good to go in the morning,” Cat said quickly.
“I should get you a towel so you can have a nice, hot shower,” Gran continued. “And I made up the guest room for you, too.”
“Did you pack?”
Thunk! Gran began her shuffle out of the room. Cat took a gulp up the tea and tried to hold her temper. One conversation with Gran, and she was already regretting everything.
Cat tried to not be salty. It wasn’t Gran’s fault for being so old, she told herself. And it wasn’t Mom’s fault for getting assigned to a new project just before coming to fetch Gran. Still, she needed someone to blame.
It was someone’s fault she had to spend her first summer with a valid driver’s license picking up Gran instead of frequenting the ice cream shop that Aiden worked at part time. She knew it would only take a few trips for him to notice her, then she could pretend he looked vaguely familiar.
Oh, you’re in my class right? Wow, what a coincidence.
She would play cool and aloof, and not mention the fact that she spent all last semester obsessed with his sandy hair and hazel eyes. By the end of the summer, she’d be wearing his varsity jersey and going to the movies, only to spend the whole movie with her lips locked with his—
Gran was back with a fluffy red towel, smiling sweetly at Cat.
“The bathroom’s down the hall,” she said. “And the guest room is just over there.”
She pointed a shaky finger down the other hallway.
“It’s the only door that’s unlocked,” she said with a chuckle. “So, if in doubt, jiggle all the door handles.”
“Well, I’m off to bed, dear. It’s so nice to see you again.”
Gran leaned over and kissed the top of Cat’s head.
“Make sure you drink all the tea,” she instructed. “And use a coaster on the table. It’s an antique… like me.”
Gran chuckled at her own joke and shuffled out of the room. Cat sighed and finished her tea slowly. She looked around the room. Unsurprisingly, it looked like a stereotypical old person’s house. There were lace doilies covering hardwood tables, oversized chairs with loud floral prints, and a small layer of dust everywhere. And the odor of potpourri, though Cat couldn’t find the source anywhere.
Cat felt her headache slowly clear as she sipped on the tea. She hoped she didn’t get a bruise on her forehead when she hit the steering wheel.
What was that thing on the road?
It was a large, hairy monster. Maybe. But, looking back on it, Cat thought it might have just been the shadow that was large. Maybe it was just a big dog. Or a deer. Or a wild boar. The more she thought about it, the less it seemed to matter what it was.
Cat shook her head and went into the kitchen to drop off her empty cup in the sink before heading off for a shower.
By the time she made it to the guest room, her head didn’t even seem to hurt anymore, and the memory of a strange creature in the road was almost completely forgotten.