Amy Foster found her cat first, lounging around on Mrs. Harrison’s front porch. Lust was the easiest cat to find. No one indulged more in that sin than Mrs. Harrison. Amy carried no weapons. She simply walked up to the cat and held it in her hands. Just then Mr. Foster stepped out and quickly closed the door behind him. When he saw his daughter standing in front of him, black in her hands, red ribbon around its neck, he jumped back slamming against the front door. Amy said nothing. Mr. Foster was pressed against the front door as if to get as far away from his daughter as possible.
Mrs. Harrison, curious as to what banged against her door so forcibly, swung it open prompting Mr. foster to fall back onto her. Her satin robe fell off her shoulders, revealing the straps of her lace bra. Both adults never took their eyes off Amy, who still held that cat out in front of her. With almost no effort she squeezed and a black cloud dispersed in front of them. The only thing left was the red ribbon. Her face remained void of any emotion when she took the ribbon and placed it in Mrs. Harrisons hands.
Rory was second to find his. He didn’t have to venture far, in fact he didn’t even need to leave his home. He went into the basement to gather supplies. His older brother Mason lay slumped over on their old couch. An endless stream of magazines, cans of off-brand cola, and mounds of dirty laundry were scattered across the basement. Mason didn’t notice his brother’s presence and Rory tried to ignore his. He almost didn’t see the cat snuggled into a small pile of laundry. Rory paused to look at the cat. As if to acknowledge him, the cat stood up, turned towards Rory, yawned, stretcheed and lay right back down. Rory began making his way across the basement again.
Rory passed his brother on the couch without so much as a glance in Mason’s direction. He went over to the biggest pile of laundry and picked up the extra-large hoodie lying on top. He then made his way to his brother’s bubble, blocking the view of the TV. Mason complained in an incomprehensible manner. Rory didn’t wait for him to finish and calmly caught the cat, smothering it beneath the hoodie.
It faded away, leaving nothing but its ribbon. Rory picked it up and dangled it in his brother’s face dropping it when his brother tried to grab it. Mason struggled to sit up. He decided that reaching for the ribbon required too much energy and retreated back into the couch.
Owen, Hazel, and Joshua, longtime friends, decided to search together. Their cats seemed to linger around the same general area anyway so it made sense. Owen assumed the leadership role. He suggested they check the town square. Hazel knew better. There wouldn’t be many people out. The long-standing tradition of the town scared most people. They didn’t want to be involved or become a receiver of a red ribbon. As if staying in their homes kept them safe from their sins.
Hazel was right about no one being in town. The lights were on and bright like any other Friday night but the streets were deserted. Shops were closed except those few family-owned ones who had kids old enough to run them. Joshua went into one. He came out with a Snickers bar and a can of beer. Hazel asked if Mr. Wright actually sold that to him. Joshua exclaimed, of course not. His son did, and he gave it to Joshua for free.
Joshua suggested they wonder the neighborhood. All the adults were afraid to come out of their homes. Why be afraid of the sins you’ve been committing all year long? Hazel wondered It was all fun and games until the possibility of having to answer for them. Hazel promised herself she would never let herself be consumed with sin, or at least, she’d get out of this shit town before she had the chance.
It seemed like they all grew up with memories of their parents talking about their plans to leave this town. They never did. It was as if the town inhibited them from doing so, and it was the only thing Hazel was afraid of. She didn’t want to get stuck there, subjected to that fear one day.
They found Owen and Joshua’s cats first. It took them a while of wandering the streets. There was house after house of nothing. All the blinds were pulled down and lights were out. Only a few orange street lamps lit the way. And then on Temple Lane came the Dawson’s house. Theirs looked just like the others except you could hear them shouting over each other. Mr. Dawson was screaming at the top of his lungs, accusing Mrs. Dawson of spending all their money. Mrs. Dawson was desperately trying to justify all her needs.
A rumbling came from the side of the house distracting the children from the raised voices. Joshua turned his phone’s flashlight on, revealing a black cat violently attacking a full-grown rat. Owen quickly pushed past Joshua, claiming the cat as his. Halfway there, a second cat appeared. It tried to sneak off with the rat but the first cat wouldn’t let go. The first cat became extremely violent, clawing at both the rat and the other cat. The second simply dodged and eagerly tried to claim what it wanted. Both boys slowly crept towards the cats. Without hesitation, they plunged onto the cats’ backs.
Inside the house, the Dawson’s continued to argue. Mr. Dawson yelled so loud you could hear every word he said from across the street. Mrs. Dawson tried to explain why she needed more from him and more from life. When Owen and Joshua approached the door, they heard Mrs. Dawson say she wanted a bigger house and more clothes and more money and more everything. The list went on, and so would the Dawnson’s had they not been interrupted by the children.
When they rang the doorbell, the yelling came to stop. The Dawson’s opened the door to meet the boys. They said nothing to them, handed them their ribbons and walked away. The Dawson’s didn’t look surprised, but they quickly turned to blame each other. The boys returned to Hazel who was waiting on the sidewalk. She commented on how pathetic the Dawsons were and they went about their journey.
After an hour or two of walking around, the group started to feel discouraged. Owen and Joshua asked if Hazel had any strange feelings about where the cat might be. Hazel explained that he had some sort of gut-feeling to check their neighborhood. She had a feeling, but she didn’t think it was for the cat. It felt like something was calling her home. It was then that she realized she was afraid of something more than not being able to leave her shit town.
Hazel told the boys to go on ahead to the town square. She would find her cat on her own.
They parted ways and Hazel started to make her way home. On her way, she ran into Lucy and Todd. They stood inside Mr. Cunningham’s diner which was being run by his two eldest sons. A large man named Joe was arguing with the two boys about the contents of his meal. He told them there wasn’t enough meat on his sandwich and there wasn’t enough cheese on his fries. He also wanted double-mozzarella sticks and another stack of onion rings. The cat was below him, eating up the many pieces of food that Joe dropped. Just as Hazel walked in, Lucy grabbed the cat which left behind a pile of hoarded scraps. Lucy tied the ribbon around Joe’s wrist. His fingers were too greasy to grab it on his own. He asked her if it meant he got more food but she just walked away.
The three of them left the diner together. Todd told Hazel how they found his cat earlier in the night. He told her how shiny its fur was and how it held its head high when walking. They found it in front Mr. Allen’s barber shop. Mr. Allen said he wasn’t afraid of the town’s tradition because he knew he was too good for it. Needless to say, he was shocked when Todd handed him the ribbon. He tried to give it back to Todd, insisting they got it wrong.
Lucy and Todd asked Hazel if she needed help, but she told them the same thing she told the boys. The feeling of dread grew stronger within. She quickly parted ways with the two and made her way home.
Her house looked like all the others. No lights were on and nothing could be seen through the thick curtains. She rushed inside only to find her mother a drunken mess on the living room floor. She begged her mother to wake up and tell her what was wrong but all her mother kept say saying was that it wasn’t fair. Her mother’s words weren’t making sense until she looked up and saw it. Hazel’s stomach dropped when she saw that cat sitting in front of them. Her mom kept going, aware of the cat. She asked why Joan got the promotion instead of her, and why selfish Tina got the car she always wanted, and why slutty Lina had a faithful husband. Hazel tried to comfort her mom. She tried to reassure her with the good things about life. She kept looking to the cat as if convincing her mom would make it go away.
Hazel had always been afraid of being trapped in this town, but never thought her own mother would be chosen. It was too late to run now. She told her mom they had to go to the square. Too drunk to say no, her mother followed her daughter to the town square. Everyone else was already there waiting.
Everyone looked shocked to see Hazel accompanied by her mother. Even more shocking was the cat who still followed behind Hazel. Everyone was concerned as to why the cat hadn’t been deal with. Hazel hadn’t come to fulfill the tradition but rather to challenge it.
She asked everyone if they even remembered the origins of this tradition. When no one could give her an answer, she asked why they were doing this in the first place. She pleaded to her peers to help her end the useless tradition, but no one would listen. They were too afraid of what might happen if it wasn’t fulfilled. Amy was quick to remind her that no generation of kids had ever failed, and she didn’t intend on this generation being the first. She also said that it didn’t matter how the tradition came about because all that mattered was that it kept their town from misfortune.
Hazel examined the faces of all her friends and the ribbon receivers. No one’s expression gave way to even a little sympathy. Owen and Joshua looked uneasy, not wanting to abandon their friend. Hazel’s mom had always been kind to them, but if she had been chosen there was nothing they could do. Hazel tried to get them on her side. They turned away from her, unable to look their desperate friend in the eyes.
Amy insisted that Hazel step aside. If she couldn’t get the job done, then someone else would. Without hesitation Hazel turned to face her mother. In a desperate attempt to save her mother, she cried out to her. She told her to confess and accept her sins. Hazel reassured her mother that she had given her everything she could ask for and more in life. She encouraged her mother to show everyone that she acknowledged her sin and promised she’d do better. Hazel turned her back to her friends and proclaimed passionately that no one had to die to purge their town of sin.
Hazel’s mom’s eyes swelled with tears. She held her daughter in her arms and begged her for forgiveness. She apologized for not being the best mom she could be. She apologized for always being too preoccupied with the lives of other to notice the greatness of her own. She apologized for her sins, because now they meant she’d have to leave her daughter all alone.
Hazel and her mom held each other and cried. Owen and Joshua came around to comfort their friend. The others joined in, surrounding the mother and daughter. Amy stood her ground. She gave a nasty look to the ribbon receivers who looked like they wanted to join the huddled group. Just as Amy lost her patience and made her way to dismantle the group, the last black cat stood in front of her. She tried to walk past it, but it hissed at her.
The cat then turned to Hazel and her mom. It looked Hazel’s mom in the eyes, and bowed in approval. It snuggled between the two and let out a soft whimper. It nudged its little head in Hazel’s mom’s hand and then faded away leaving only the red ribbon. She closed the ribbon in her fist and it began to vanish as well.
Hazel and her mom hugged each other, understanding that the cat had released them of their duty. The other receivers followed their example. Mrs. Harrison apologized to Amy for her relations with her father. She then proceeded to call a long list of other men she needed to cut ties with. Mason asked his brother Rory if he’d help him clean up the basement and his life. The Dawson’s apologized to each other and started kissing as passionately as they argued earlier in the night. Mr. Allen broke into tears, only now accepting that he’d really been chosen. He wept at Todd’s feet, saying he couldn’t help that he was so good at what he did. In his twisted, mind that somehow counted as an apology. Joe, from the diner, smiled at Lucy and offered her a piece of chicken from the bucket he had. She kindly refused, but his ribbon disappeared and so did every other receiver’s.
Hazel’s mom wiped the tears from her daughter’s face. They both smiled at each other and started to make their way back home.