In a boarded-up house on a dead-end street at the edge of the wild Washington woods lives a family of three.
A teenage girl who isn’t allowed outside, not after last time.
A man who drinks alone in front of his TV, trying to ignore the gaps in his memory.
And a house cat who loves napping and reading the Bible.
An unspeakable secret binds them together, but when a new neighbor moves in next door, what is buried out among the birch trees may come back to haunt them all.
From Catriona Ward, winner of the Shirley Jackson Award and the August Derleth Award, comes The Last House on Needless Street, a book Stephen King calls “a true nerve-shredder that keeps its mind-blowing secrets to the very end.” The novel hits shelves on September 28th from Nightfire.
We’re thrilled to be sharing three excerpts today – read the first part, from Ted’s point of view, over at Tor.com, then read part two, from Olivia the cat’s point of view, below, and then head over to the Tor Forge Blog to read part three, from Lauren’s point of view.
I was busy with my tongue doing the itchy part of my leg when Ted called for me. I thought, Darn it, this is not a good time. But I heard that note in his voice, so I stopped and went to find him. All I had to do was follow the cord, which is a rich shining gold today.
He was standing in the living room. His eyes were gone. “Kitten,” he said over and over. The memories moved in him like worms under the skin. There was thunder in the air. This was a bad one.
I leaned into him with my flank. He picked me up in shaking hands. His breath made roads in my fur. I purred against his cheek. The air began to calm, the electricity subsided. Ted’s breathing slowed. I rubbed his face with mine. His feelings flooded into me. It was painful but I could take it. Cats don’t hold onto things.
“Thanks, kitten,” he whispered.
You see? I was busy when he called but I went to him anyway. The lord has given me this purpose, and I do it gladly. A relationship is a very delicate business. You have to work at it every day.
The lady ted is singing, mournful. I know each song by heart, the little hesitations in her voice, the tiny wrong note on that song about prairies. Her songs play on repeat, day and night, when Lauren isn’t here. Ted seems to need the company. He thinks a cat doesn’t count, I guess. If I were so inclined I might find that offensive. But teds are all needy and you can’t take it personally. I’m speaking in general. I don’t know any teds except Ted. And Lauren, I suppose.
I’ll tell it from the beginning. About how he found me in the storm, the day the cord bound us together.
I remember being born. I wasn’t there, and then I was, just like that. Pushed out from the warmth into the cold, kicking weak paws, tangled in strands of sticky membrane. I felt air on my fur for the first time, my mouth opened for the first time to cry. She bent over me, big as the sky. Warm tongue, warm mouth about my neck. Come, little kit, we’re not safe here. Mamacat. The others we left in the mud. They hadn’t survived the passage. The soft shapes I shared the dark with during all those months, now still and pelted by rain. Come. She was frightened. I could tell, even as little as I was.
The storm must have lasted for days. I don’t know how many. We moved from place to place looking for warmth, shelter. My eyes weren’t open yet so the memories are of scent and touch: the soft earthy place where we slept, the acrid tang of rat. Her fur on my nose as she curled tight around me, the slippery odor of holly leaves.
As my eyes began to open I could see dimly. Rain poured down like shining knives. The world crashed and shivered. I had never known anything different, so I thought there was always a storm.
I learned to stand and then walk, a little. I began to understand that something was wrong with Mamacat, in her body. Her movements were growing slower. Less milk came.
One night we took shelter in a gulley. Overhead, brambles shivered and lashed in the gale. She warmed me and fed me. She purred. The sound grew weak, her warmth faded. Then she was still. The cold began to creep into me.
There was a roaring noise and a blinding beam of light, not the shivering light of the sky, but a yellow circle. A thing like a spider of flesh, gleaming with rain. I had no word for hand, then. It enclosed me, lifted me from my mama.
“What’s this?” The scent of wet earth was strong on him. His cuffs were slick with mud. A beast hummed nearby. He put me inside the beast. Rain hit the metal roof like little stones. He folded me up, warm. The blanket was yellow, with a pattern of blue butterflies. It held the scent of someone I knew, or longed to know. How could that be? I didn’t know anyone, yet.
“Poor little kitten,” he said. “I’m all alone, too.” I licked his thumb. That is when it happened. A soft white glow gathered on his chest, over the place where his heart must be. The glow became a cord, reaching out through the air. The cord approached me. I rowed and struggled. But I was held fast. I felt the light encircle my neck, link me to his heart. It didn’t hurt. It bound us together. I don’t know if he felt it too—I like to think he did.
Then he brought me home to this nice warm house where I can sleep all the time and get stroked. I don’t even have to look at the outside world if I don’t want to! The windows are all boarded up. Ted made me an indoor cat and I’ve never had to worry about anything since. This is our house which is just for us, and no one else is allowed in. Apart from Night-time, of course, and the green boys and Lauren. I could do without some of them, to be honest.
I suppose I should describe us. That is what they do in stories. This is difficult. I can never tell the teds on TV apart. I don’t know what details are relevant. I mean, my Ted is kind of a sandy color? And he has patches of red fur on his face and thicker fur on his head, which is a somewhat darker shade, like varnished wood.
As for me, Ted always calls me “you,” or “kitten.” But my name is Olivia. I have a thin slice of white down my chest, which sets off my coal-black coat. My tail is long and slim like a wand. My ears are large with a wide swivel and a delicate point. They are very sensitive. My eyes are the shape of almonds and green like cocktail olives. I think it’s OK for me to say that I am beautiful.
Sometimes we’re a great team and sometimes we fight. It’s just the way it goes. The TV says you have to accept everyone, teds and cats alike, for who they are. But you also have to have boundaries. Boundaries are important.
That’s enough for now. Feelings are very tiring.
I come out of my doze with a start, to the sound of faraway chimes, or a high voice calling.
I shake my head to clear it of the dream. But the noise goes on. Is there someone tiny singing somewhere? I don’t like it. EeeeeeEEEEeeeee.
The orange rug is lovely on the pads of my paws, like walking on soft little pills. It’s the color of sun setting over the sea. Light dapples the walls through the peepholes. The walls in here are a restful deep red. Ted and I think it’s a beautiful color. We agree on some things! There’s Ted’s recliner, the leather worn shiny at the head and on the armrests. Silver duct tape covers the hole where he stabbed it with a steak knife during a dirt bike race. I like everything about this room except for two things that sit on the mantelpiece, next to the music box.
The first thing I hate is called a Russian doll. It holds a smaller version of itself inside it, and another inside that and so on. How awful. They are prisoners. I imagine them all screaming in the dark, unable to move or speak. The doll’s face is broad and blankly smiling. It looks so happy to be holding its children captive.
The second thing I hate is the picture over the fireplace. The Parents, staring from behind glass. I hate everything about it. The frame is big, and silver, and has a pattern of grapes and flowers and squirrels. It’s gross. The squirrels’ faces look melted and burned black. It’s like someone poured molten silver over living things and then let it cool. But the picture in the frame is the worst part. A lake, black and glassy in the background. Two people stand on a sandy beach. Their faces are just holes into nothing. The Parents were not nice to Ted. Whenever I come close to the picture I feel the empty tug of their souls.
I do like the music box, though. The little woman is stretched up so straight, like she’s straining toward heaven.
EeeeEEeee. The high chiming sound is not coming from the Parents. I turn my back on them, lift my tail and show them my butt.
The pink bicycle lies in the middle of the living room floor, training wheels imperceptibly turning. Lauren. She is Ted’s small ted. Or maybe she belongs to another ted and he just looks after her? I forget. Her scent lingers on the rug, the arm of the chair, but it’s quiet. She must have gone already. Good. But she never puts that god damn bike away. Oh dear. I really do try to say “gd,” not— ahem ahem. I don’t like to take His name in vain.
I go to my crate when Lauren visits. There is room for my thoughts in there. It’s always dark and good. I am sure the lord would not approve of what I’m about to say, but—small teds are awful. You never know what they’re going to do. And Lauren has some kind of psychological issue; I’m not clear on the details but it seems to involve being very rude and loud. Cats are sensitive to noise. We see with our ears and our noses. I mean, with our eyes too, obviously.
In the kitchen my crate stands against the wall. I put my ear to the cool side to listen, but the whining noise isn’t coming from in there, I don’t think. Ted has piled his weights on top of it again, so I can’t get in. Annoying. Lauren has left scrawling, messy doodles all over the whiteboard by the refrigerator. Blah blah blah, she has written. Ted is Ted. Olivia is a cat. What GREAT observations. She’ll go far. The refrigerator makes its rumble, there’s a drip from the tap. But the little chime in my ears goes on, not matching either of these sounds.
In the room with all the humming, everything is as it should be. The cupboards are all secure. I can hear the machines purring quietly behind locked doors. Cellphone, laptop, printer. They sound alive and I always feel that they are about to speak to me, but they never do.
It goes on, the tiny sound like a chime or a high voice. The machines are not making the noise.
I go upstairs. I like going up stairs. It always feels like an improvement of some kind. I also like to sleep on the step that is exactly mid-flight. It makes me feel like I’m floating. The runner is black and I blend in well against it. Ted trips on me sometimes. He drinks too much.
The sound doesn’t seem to get any louder or quieter as I move through the rooms, which is weird. I skirt the attic door, giving it a wide berth. Bad place. I stand on my hind legs to pull down the handle of the bedroom door. It gives with that robust click and swings wide. (Love doors. Just adore them.) There are five or six rolls of duct tape on Ted’s bed. He buys the stuff by the yard. I don’t know what on earth he uses it all for. I lick the tape. It tastes sticky and strong. The eeeooooeee is still chiming softly in my ear. I row with impatience. Do I imagine this, or is the sound slightly metallic, hollow, like it’s coming from a pipe?
In the bathroom I leap up to test the taps. No sound comes from them except the internal echo of air. I give the metal a lick and sniff the scum that covers the edges of the basin. Ted is not a very clean ted. His bathroom does not look like the bathrooms on TV.
The bathroom cabinet door is open. The tubes sit in long brown rows on the shelves. I stroke them with the tip of my tail, and then give a little nudge. The tubes fall in a clatter, pills raining from their mouths. Pink, white, blue. He never closes them properly, because they’re safety caps and he can’t get them off when he’s drunk. The pills are all mixed up on the dirty tiles. A couple have landed in a puddle, left over from his morning shower. They are already bleeding pink into the water. I bat a green-and-white capsule across the floor.
EEEEeoooeeee. The high song. It’s a message, I know it, and it feels like it’s just for me. But there’s no more time to figure it out because it’s time for her.
I am bound to Ted by the cord, and he is in my care as the lord has decreed. But I do have a life outside him, you know? I have interests. Well, one. It’s time for her now and that is very exciting.
I race down the stairs and to the window, avoiding the pink bike, taking another route behind the couch, leaving paw prints in the dust. I can’t help being afraid that I’m late even though I know I’m not. But the circles of light are at exactly the right angle on the walls. I hop up on the small green macramé table. If I stand on my hind legs and stretch a little, I can just look out of the peephole that catches the street, through the little oak tree. The cord trails behind me in the air, a luminous silver.
The other peepholes are ted height and I can’t reach them. This is my only glimpse of the outside. It’s a small hole, the size of a quarter, maybe. I can’t see much; a twisted stretch of oak trunk, some bare winter branches, through them a couple of feet of sidewalk. As I watch, the gray sky gives and snow starts to fall gently in the silence. Gradually the sidewalk vanishes under white, each tree branch bears a narrow line of snow.
This is all I know, this little coin of world. Do I mind? Do I miss going outside? Not at all. It’s dangerous out there. This is enough for me, as long as I can see her.
I hope Ted doesn’t move the macramé table. It would be just the kind of thing he might do. Then I’d have to get really mad and I hate being mad.
If she doesn’t come I’ll wait. That’s what love is about, of course. Patience and endurance. The lord taught me that.
Her scent precedes her, falls through the air like honey dripping onto toast. She comes around the corner with her graceful stride. How can I describe her? She’s striped like a little dusty tiger. Her yellow eyes are the same color as ripe gold apple skin, or pee. They’re beautiful, is what I mean. She is beautiful. She stops and stretches, this way and that, extends her long black claws. She blinks as snowflakes come to rest on her nose. She has something silver sticking out of her mouth, a tail, maybe. A small fish like a sardine or an anchovy. I have always wondered what real fish tastes like. I get nacho cheese and leftover chicken nuggets, or old chuck from the discount aisle at the 7-Eleven. And when I’m really hungry I have to ask Night-time to hunt for me. (I abhor violence of any kind, but I didn’t make the world and when I must, I must.)
I hope your fish is delicious, I tell the tabby silently. I stroke the plywood with a paw. I love you. The wind builds to a moan, the air is thick with whirling snow and she is gone in a flash of black and gold. Show’s over. The lord giveth, and he taketh away.
Usually after I see her I like to just sit and think for a spell. But the little whine is back, louder now. I rub my ear with my paw until it’s glowing and sore. This makes no difference. Where the heck is it coming from? OOoooeeeeooooee it goes, on and on. How can I get anything done with that in my ear? It is like a little clock. Worse, because it almost feels like it’s inside me and will not stop. This idea makes me uneasy. What is the little clock chiming for? What hour is come? I need guidance.
I go to my Bible. Well, it is mine now. I think it belonged to Ted’s mother. But she went away and until she comes back, I don’t feel bad using it. The pages are thin and whispery, like dried flower petals. It has gold on the cover, which catches the corner of the eye like a secret. Ted keeps it on a high table in the living room. It’s wasted on him, honestly, he never opens it. The book is becoming somewhat battered, but after all, I must do my devotions.
I leap up beside the book. This part is fun because I always feel I am about to fall off. I tremble perilously in space. Then I push the book with a paw, nudging it over the edge.
It falls to the floor with a great crash, splayed open. I wait, because it’s not over yet; a few moments later the house shakes and there is a rumble in the earth. The first time it happened I yowed and hid under the couch. But I came to understand that these are His signs that I’m doing the right thing.
I leap down, landing neatly on all four paws and the lord points my eyes at the verse He wants me to see.
Beloved, let us love one another, for
love is from God, and whoever loves has
been born of God and knows God.
I tremble with the rightness of it. I love my Ted, my tabby, my house, my life. I am a lucky cat.
When I find a verse I like, I try to remember it—like that one I just said. But it can be hard to hold phrases in the mind whole. It’s like oversetting a cup of marbles on a hard floor. They run in every direction into the dark.
The book is just a guide, really. I think the lord is different for cats. He prefers to speak to us directly. We don’t see things the way teds do.
I settle down on the couch in a disc of sunshine. I deliberately turn my back on the fallen Bible, so that Ted will know it’s nothing to do with me. The whine has quieted some.
Now, why do I still have a bad feeling? What could be wrong? The Bible verse could not have been more positive. Anyway the trick to life is, if you don’t like what is happening, go back to sleep until it stops.
Excerpted from The Last House on Needless Street, copyright © 2021 by Catriona Ward.