Nicole Lynn Cohen studied English and Film at Tufts University. Upon graduating, she moved to Los Angeles and became a Coordinator at SpectreVision (Mandy, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night). Most recently, her short story "Little Neck Lowball" was published by VOIS. In addition to fiction, Nicole writes screenplays and teleplays. She advanced to the quarterfinalist round of ScreenCraft's Feature Competition this past July for her script "Crying Laughing Loving Lying." Learn more at nicolelynncohen.com
The sun was setting fast as they passed the gray barn at the edge of the neighbor’s field. She could barely make out the painted sign they had seen so clearly at the start of their walk. Barn Kittens. Free. Perhaps they’d stayed out too long and risked being late for supper. Supper, Mimi had told them on their first day, was served promptly at seven thirty. Supposedly, they were on vacation, visiting the husband’s family in Michigan while he was deployed. The large, homogenous clan was made up of his aunts, uncles, a few cousins, three sisters, and his mother, the despotic matriarch they all called “Mimi.” It was Mimi she’d been avoiding on their evening walks around the property. “Kitties.” The boy whined and squirmed in her arms. “Mama, kitties.” “Will you stop that?”
The boy let his feet dangle from her waist. “Down.” She planted him firmly on the ground. They walked in silence until she said, “I didn’t mean to yell.” “You hurt me.” Still, the boy thrust out his hand, and she took it in hers. Together, they kept moving towards the house. “You never let me see them,” he complained. The mother stopped walking. “All right,”she said, and turned towards the neighbor’s barn. “Come on, then.” “I don’t wanna.”
“Yes, you do.” They cut across the narrow field between Mimi’s domain and the neighbor’s property, trying their best to avoid swamp-like patches. The grass was taller than the boy in some places, and she pushed seed heads away from him with an outstretched arm.
“How many are there?”
“We’ll just have to see.” She knew her husband had been spoiled as a child, the youngest and only male. On this trip, the same favoritism befell the boy. Mimi loved him, her son’s son, coddling him so much that he’d changed in a matter of days. He’d stopped asking for things. Instead, he demanded. She’d developed a newfound urge to deny him everything: sweets, television, wriggling in her lap while she attempted to drink her morning coffee. She hoped her efforts to instill some discipline would be encouraged, or even admired. But she remained unassisted in her mission. The other relatives happily gave the boy free rein over their time and attention. The light had almost faded entirely when they arrived at the barn. Before them, a farmer sat smoking a pipe with weathered hands. A big dog paced around his feet. “Timber, ya old bastard, quit yer jumpin’ now.” “Evening,” the mother said.
“He done heard y’all coming a mile away. Got all sorts of wound up.” He looked down at the dog. “Well, go on’n say hi.” The dog bounded up to them, and the boy hid behind her leg as it ran in excited circles around them. Suddenly, the dog let out a yelp and ran after something. “He’s just chasin’ chipmunks,” the farmer said.
“We were hoping to look at the kittens. He’s been begging me since we got here.”
The farmer got up with a groan and led them inside. The dog circled the barn and whined, looking for the chipmunk, which he appeared to have lost.
They moved into the cavernous space. She heard the mews and suddenly thought about how this was where her husband had grown up, with the smell of musty barns and marshy fields and tobacco smoke and the dirt, which out here was not called dirt, but soil. The dog scraped at the barn walls as they came upon the crate.
She saw the mother first, small and gray with stripes, laying limp against the side of the box. Six kittens squirmed around her, their cries faint but constant. “How old?” she asked.
“Three weeks. These two here are still waiting for their ears t’perk up.”
The boy squatted down next to the box and looked in at the furry mix of gray, orange, and white. “They’re all so different,” she said. “One litter can have different fathers. I’d say as much for this’n.” The dog came back into the barn and plopped down next to the farmer’s feet with a sigh. The farmer bent down and plucked a kitten at random. It was white all over with spots of gray. He handed it to the boy and said, “Two hands, very good, jus’ like that.” Then the chipmunk ran out from under the barn. The dog barked and jolted, startling the group. Her hands flew up around her head. “Jesus H. Christ!” The farmer shouted, spit flying. “Goddamned baster’ dog!” The dog chased the rodent out of the barn, sending dust up all around them. When it settled, she looked down and saw the boy and the small white body twisted over itself, and she knelt to pick it up, but it was dead. The boy whined uneasily.
“It’s okay,” she heard someone say, and it was herself. That’s what you say. The body was warm and soft in her hands.
She looked into the crate. The cat was still on her side swarmed with her remaining young, panting with responsibility.
The farmer chained the dog to the barn. Then he returned, apologizing and saying all kinds of nasty things about the dog and what he ought to do to that mutt, and then he saw her and the boy and he came up to her and looked at what she held. He took it from her. “These things happen,” he said. “Ain’t ‘is fault.”
The weight left her hands, but a residue of dirt and fur remained on her fingertips. She thanked him, her voice barely above a whisper. It was nearly dark. They had to go back.
She pulled the boy out of the barn and picked him up. She carried him across the overgrown field. He wasn’t saying anything, so she repeated soothing things to him.
Soon, he started to cry. “I killed him. I did. I did!”
She carried him down the road, eyes adjusting to darkness, and reminded him that the cat had the rest of her babies to keep her company. She listed the remaining kittens and gave them impromptu names. Cheddar. Stinky. Gert. Maggie May.
The boy’s cries turned to sniffles. He grew heavy in her arms, but his body felt less cumbersome than before. They came to the driveway, and still he clung to her like an opossum. She crept up the farmhouse porch—late for supper, and with no appetite at that—announcing their return with the wooden groans of each labored step.