It was a hot, humid day in the middle of August. Richard sat stock still on a hay bale. He was nine years old, a shy, quiet, solemn boy, the kind of boy who easily avoided others' attention when he wanted to. He had escaped his parents' notice and the corresponding threat of being made to do his chores by slipping into the barn to evade them.
There he sat, watching motes of dust dance and swirl in a sunbeam. Big Tom, the largest and meanest of the barn cats, the undisputed leader of the pride, passed by. Suddenly Richard sprang at him and seized him up under his two front legs. Richard had enjoyed annoying the barn cats of late, seeing if he could catch them off guard and lay hold of them. It had become a kind of sport to him.
The startled cat hissed, squirmed, and sunk his teeth into the flesh between Richard's thumb and index finger. Richard shrieked and dropped the cat, who shot away, a yowling streak of gray, to hide behind a stack of boxes.
"Damn! Damn! Damn!" cried Richard, using the worst cuss word he knew. Bad cat! Mean, awful cat! He looked down at his stinging hand. Drops of blood oozed from puncture wounds. The sight blurred as tears filled his eyes.
"Damned cat!" His anger was so fierce and strong that he felt as if his head would burst. His ears rang and his eyes smarted. He sat down and waited until, finally, his breath slowed and he gained control of himself once more.
He would show that damned cat.
Richard wiped his tears away and got to work. He went out into the yard and gathered up several round, egg-sized stones. Then he returned to the barn and took up his father's wooden mallet from its place on his work bench. Then he sat back down on the hay bale and waited. It took nearly an hour, but eventually Big Tom sauntered out from behind the boxes, confident as you please, as if nothing had happened.
Richard's first rock hit its mark dead on. The cat was stunned enough that Richard had a chance to run up to him and strike him on the head with the mallet. Big Tom fell over on his side. Richard raised the mallet up over his head and hit him again, as hard as he could. The cat's body convulsed frantically and a strange gurgling growl came from his throat as he writhed in his death throes.
It was then that Emma entered the barn. She had finished her chores and was looking for Richard. She stopped in her tracks, her jaw hanging open in shock as she saw her brother standing over the dying cat, a bloody mallet held tight in his hand.
Richard was equally shocked to see her. By then the adrenaline was wearing off and a feeling of profound shame crept over him at the sight of her.
As Emma came to comprehend what she was seeing, her large, dark eyes filled with tears.
"He bit me," Richard said plaintively, his lower lip beginning to tremble at the sight of his sister's reaction.
"They only bite when they're scared," she responded softly, her voice breaking.
The twins stood where they were, looking at each other, saying nothing. Neither of them knew what to say. For the first time in their lives, they felt uncomfortable in each other's presence, keenly aware of the disconnect that now existed between them.
Anger flared up in Emma. Fear and sadness turned to indignation. She walked up to Richard and stood nose to nose with him, just a few inches from his face, forcing him to look her in the eye. "Promise me you will NEVER, EVER do that again!" she declared.
"But he bit me," Richard said again, softer and in a trembling tone.
"I promise," he said, looking down, unable to meet her eyes any longer.
Emma sighed as she backed away from him. "Pa'll skin you alive," she said, gesturing to the carcass that lay bleeding in the hay.
"I know," was Richard's forlorn reply.
"The woods," said Emma. She went over to her father's work bench, picked up an empty grain sack and carried it over to Richard. She held it open and tried not to gag at the smell of blood as Richard picked Big Tom up by the back leg and lowered him into it.
The two of them marched somberly out of the barn and down the trail that led into the woods.
As they walked, Emma wrestled with her anger and a feeling of betrayal that her nine-year-old mind did not fully comprehend. Richard was her twin, her double, and she had always understood him. But now, with this brutal act, he had proven himself a stranger to her and she was frightened by what she had seen in him. She crossed her fingers and made a silent wish that he would keep his promise to her.