Jack is killer, Jack is king, Jack is vein and muscle and monstrous joy, spatter-painted in blood in the kingdom of his backyard. The fucker’s splay-legged and smiling at Leta through a thicket of cat intestine, as if to say look what I brought you, as if to say I will fucking kill you if you take it away.
Murdermouth, Leta says. Kitty ripper. She turns the hose on him. In a second, he’s drenched, and he drops the carcass, his grin and his spatter-paint gone. He looks at her mournfully, tucks his tail, trots back to his pen. Leta shakes her head. As if it matters. Lock’s broken.
The carcass is blood-colored now. Impossible to tell what it was before Jack got to it. Leta has no love for the neighborhood strays, which spit and growl at her like racoons, but she can’t just dump the cat in the trash. Her father’ll find it. He was the one who found the first cat last month. Leta came home from school to find Jack snarling over a calico ripped open from throat to belly and her father circling Jack with a broom.
Get my gun, Leta, he said.
No, she said. And she picked up the garden hose and turned it on the both of them. They yelped with surprise. After a moment, she lowered the hose, and her father pointed a finger at her. Next time, he said, and he raised his thumb, then pointed his hand at Jack like a gun.
That night, after her father tossed the calico’s carcass into the dark of the alley and drank himself to sleep, Leta crept downstairs and snuck Jack inside. He curled up underneath the covers and put his head on the pillow next to her, same as he’d done every night since her mother died. It was hot, cooler outside than in, so she cracked the window behind her head. Jack’s breathing steadied, slowed. Outside, a thousand clacking, whirring things. A breeze lifted a thread of smoke to her nose, the scent of magnolias on the cusp of rot. Leta rubbed Jack’s ear between her thumb and her forefinger, ran her knuckle across his nose. There, under the pad of her finger, the scar where he’d gotten caught in barbed wire. Here, the notch where he’d lost a chunk of ear, the divots where something had sunk its teeth in. All these scars, but never once had she seen him violent, until today. She opened his mouth. His eyes stayed closed but his jaw hung open. Slowly, she put her hand inside. He did not press even a single tooth to her skin. She removed her hand, kissed the top of his head. I’ll fix the lock tomorrow, she remembers thinking just before sleep.
Shoulda fixed the fucking lock.
In the kitchen, Leta puts on dishwashing gloves, pulls a plastic bag from under the sink. In the backyard twilight, she scoops the cat carcass up, dumps it in the bag. The intestines coil at the bottom like a glistening snake. Behind her, Jack shifts in his pen, catching the scent of blood again, and she hisses at him, a warning. She ties the bag tight, shivers, holds it to her chest. Where to put it now?
For a while after this night, the earth will spin. It will make its slow arc around the sun without wobble or hitch, but Leta will mark every millimeter of its orbit. For a while, she will stand in her backyard at night and feel the heat of the great dark maw of the universe as it opens itself to 400 million stars and 400 million more. After a time, the dark will recede. After a time, the pricks of bright will shine through again.
And then one day, Leta’s son will place a kitten, fresh and wriggling, straight from its mother’s womb and into her arms, and her skin will recall that night long ago, that clutching dampness: the grocery bag leaking against her chest when her father walked into the kitchen. How he stared at the blood like it was spilling from her own wound. The way he said take your clothes off and so she did, and when she stood there, naked, the bloody clothes balled in her hands, he opened the bag with the cat inside and he put her clothes in too. First this, then that fucking dog, he said, and he tied up the bag and took his gun off the wall. Then he looked at her like she was the one who wounded him. Look what you made me do, he said, and he pushed open the screen door. The bag dripped blood, like small red coins, across the floor and out into the yard.
For a while, Leta will close her eyes, and the memory will orbit away. She will put a palm on her son’s head, silky as Jack’s ears once were, silky as the kitten’s fur will be once its mother bathes the blood away. She will clutch the kitten to her chest. Its mouth will open, its jaw working towards its first mewl. She will wait for the sound. And the memory will begin the slow arc of its return.
How easy it would be to lose her hold on the kitten’s slippery body, to grasp it tighter, to somehow break its neck. Easy as the opening of an old screen door, as the dripping of blood from a bag. Easy as the dog that lifts his head at the scent of it. Easy as the slip of a broken lock. Easy as a hesitation before the hiss of warning, as one small beat of silence while the dog bears down.