Heather felt the irrational urge to swing her legs under the seat of the chair or eat a grape lollipop. The last time she had been in this room, she had been a child. But it still looked the same. Better lighting, some new furniture. New people. But it was definitely the same place. The memories made the impersonal office seem warm and inviting.
The secretary hung up the phone. “Miss Dahl will see you now,” she said.
Heather followed her around a corner and into an office. Susanna Dahl stood up and shook Heather’s hand. “Thanks for seeing me,” Heather said as she took a seat.
“Of course. I’ve been hoping for a chance to talk to you about the state of affairs. I pulled everything I could on your finances after you asked.” She waved to a stack of folders – the House predated computers and, according to legend, paper as well.
“Great. I have a lot of plans for the place. I know it needs fixing up. I just want to make sure that the money is going to be there.”
“Your family had a lot of sense. Your investments are very solid. You’ve lost quite a bit of money during the recession, but, to be honest, it’s a small fraction of the total assets.”
“I’d like to know what my options are for borrowing against those assets. I’m looking at some major construction costs and I’m afraid of taking too much out, you know?”
“Well, there are a few options, but–” Her phone range. “Excuse me. Hello? Oh, good. Send him in.”
“If this is a bad time,” Heather said.
“No, no. Actually, I asked someone to come in to meet you. I think you might have something in common.”
“In common?” Heather repeated and turned around as the door opened.
The man who walked in was stout-chested and middle-aged. He wore a large belt buckle, like a cowboy’s trophy buckle. He loomed over Heather and offered his hand. “Hello. I’m George Ellison,” he said. “So, what have I missed?”
“I remember you,” Heather said. “You’re the who-are-you bullshit man.” She suddenly heard her mother’s voice, repeating the same instructions every time they went out in public – remember what you are.
“Good memory,” he said with a laugh that sounded indulgent, like a condescending uncle. “Did you tell her?” He asked Susanna.
“Let’s not beat around the bush then,” he said as he pulled up a chair and turned it to sit at Heather’s elbow. “I’m prepared to make you a very lucrative offer.”
“Ahem,” Susanna said.
He spared a glance at Susanna. “Excuse me. We are prepared.”
“An offer on what?”
“Your property, of course.”
Heather choked out a laugh even as her stomach clenched under a wave of cold fear which she could not explain. “The House isn’t for sale.”
“Now, Susanna has been very insistent about how long that place has been with your family. Many generations, I’m led to understand.”
“More than you realize,” Heather said.
“But I also know that you have been beating yourself over the head trying to get it fixed up. Home renovation can be very difficult. I’m in the business myself.”
“And how exactly do you know that I’ve been fixing it up?”
He brushed the comment aside. “Susanna told me.”
“When you asked for the portfolio summary,” Susanna said, “I assumed renovations.”
Heather felt creepy-crawlies on her skin, but it was not from any change. “And you want to buy the house from me instead.”
“A place like that is too much work for one little woman like yourself.”
“I’m managing,” Heather said, her voice becoming a growl.
“I’m sure you are.” Heather could envision him patting her on the head. “But what are you going to do with it if you finish fixing it up? Not live there.”
“Why wouldn’t I?” It was the House of Cats and, as her memory of Poppy Lee reminded her, she was a cat.
“A young woman like you doesn’t want to be isolated up a damn mountain like that. Think of what you could buy with the money. I bet a beach-front condo would be perfect for you. Close to shopping and work.”
Heather looked at Susanna, who could not quite meet her eyes. “And my family’s trust? What does it say about this?”
“Well, that is, it’s a little complicated.” Susanna’s hand-wringing suggested it was more than a little complicated. “But I’ve been working on ways around it. Really, as long as you signed the trust over to us, it would be legally acceptable. Of course, all the other assets would be transferred to your name first. Just the property would pass to us.”
Heather wished she carried a purse, so she would have something to gather up in preparation to leave. “I’m sure you understand that this is something I’ll have to think about.”
“Of course. Wouldn’t want to rush into things,” George said, but his self-satisfied smile said he thought he had what he wanted.
“I think I’ll be going now. If I have any more questions, I’ll call you,” Heather said. When a cat cannot fight, she runs.
“We can still talk now,” Susanna said.
“No. Thank you. I think I’ve heard all I need to right now. Good bye.”
Topaz was waiting to greet Heather as soon as she walked in the door. He had refused to speak to her for almost two weeks. Now, he grabbed her by the wrist and started hauling her up the stairs.
“What the heck?” Heather said. “What’s gotten into you?”
“There’s something you need to see,” Topaz said as he started up the steps into the attic. He planted Heather in front of the blank wall. “Wait here.”
“I know about the door, if that’s what this is about.”
Topaz shook his head. His hair flared out in a lion’s mane, always just a little longer than he would like. “Just wait, will you?”
Heather sighed and crossed her arms and waited. Topaz nodded and got down on the floor. He tripped the cat door and slithered through. It was a pity it was a Leo moon, or it would be easier still. When the human door opened a moment later, Topaz waved Heather into the secret room. Before she could say anything, he hushed her with a finger to his lips. Then he stepped out of the way and pointed to the far wall.
Heather clamped a hand over her mouth, a horrified noise still squeaking out. There was blood. Not a lot, but enough for her to recognize it from across the tiny room. And there was shed fur in clumps, like it had been pulled out. And there was Rune, halfway through a change, though even Topaz was no longer sure in which direction: human or cat?
She took a step forward and, when Topaz did not move to stop her, knelt at Rune’s side. She watched his human finger nails grow long and sharp before shrinking to cat-sized claws. They created bloody furrows through his fingers as they did. The change partly healed the damage, but even as she watched, the change stuttered and reversed, causing more injuries.
“How long has he been like this?” Heather asked in a whisper so quiet, it was more breath than sound.
“I found him an hour ago. But I’ve been spying on him for a few moons now and it’s been getting worse, just like this.”
“When was the last time he took a break day?”
“I don’t understand what you mean.”
“You know, a day off. From the catnip. I take every Saturday off from the cat’s bane to let the transformation get out of my system.”
Topaz let out a bitter little laugh. “Let’s see. Probably not in about eight years. That’s how long someone told me he’s been taking it.”
Heather shook her head. “He hasn’t changed in eight years?”
Topaz tried to hush her as her voice rose, but his had grown a little frantic as well. “I think he’s changed like this, when the pressure gets to be too much. But he doesn’t remember or pretends he doesn’t.”
“This is bad. I’ve never tried to go more than a month without break. And that was a disaster. One of my coworkers filed a missing person’s report, I was out of commission so long.”
“What do we do?” Topaz asked.
Heather ran her fingers over Rune’s dark fur. Some of the blood had come from self-inflicted wounds, like the claw marks raking across his ribcage and the scratches on his face. “I don’t know. We’ll have to wait for the moon to pass.” Rune’s ear twitched in her direction.
“Why? He’s like this all the time now.”
Heather’s voice rose again, trying to drown out Topaz’s objections. “But the moon will make it worse, and–”
Rune lashed out with a slightly deformed paw. His claws connected with Heather’s arm and slashed down the back of her hand. She jerked away and scrambled back from him, but he did not follow. He did not seem to even be consciously aware that she was there. Topaz lifted her to her feet.
“I have to go,” Heather said, shaking all over.
“But what about him?”
“Just keep him in here. I’ll figure something out.”
But Heather had triggered the human door and run from the room. Two pear-shaped drops of blood formed a minimalist trail behind her.
Heather jogged up to the café and the tables out front. “I’m sorry I’m late,” she said to Yvonne, who was placidly stirring her iced tea. “There was a problem at the house,” she added. She self-consciously rubbed at the bandage hastily taped over the back of her hand.
“Why don’t you sit down?” Yvonne asked.
“Thanks. Did you order?”
“Yes, I’m afraid I did.”
Heather busied herself with her napkin and water and silverware, trying to not notice the little lip-curl of disgust Yvonne was giving her. It was probably all in Heather’s head, she told herself. “That’s okay. If you see our waiter, just snag him for me and I’ll figure out what I’m getting.”
“I was so pleased when you asked me to lunch. I should have expected that your responsibilities would complicate things.” Yvonne stroked a fingertip down the side of her glass, wiping away mist and droplets with methodical focus.
“Uh, yeah. Sorry about that. I just never know when the next thing is going to fall apart on me,” Heather said, trying to make it sound funny. “But how are you?”
Yvonne lit up with more genuine interest than Heather had ever seen in her. “My genealogy society is putting on an exhibit at the local library. You should come by.” All her ironic detachment vanished. She was earnest, even a little nerdy in her passion. She was a whole new person. “I’m sure your family tree would be impressive, what with your family being in town for so long. I imagine a wealth of information.”
“Oh, I don’t know. My pedigree is pretty normal. And they weren’t much for community involvement. But I’ll definitely swing by,” Heather hastily added when Yvonne’s face fell. “I didn’t know you were in a genealogy club.”
“I founded it, actually. You could join, you know.” She said it in much the same way a child would offer a new friend admittance into the Tree House of Secrecy.
“Aw, you wouldn’t want me. I’d just be late to all the meetings, wouldn’t I?”
Yvonne tuned out again, her voice going flat. “So, how is the house? No more casualties, I hope?” She flicked a nail at Heather’s bandaged hand on the table.
“Not yet. I’ve tried to figure out what I need to fix and in what order. Do I rebuild the tower? Or just patch up the walls and roof where it used to be? And do I do that before or after fixing the porch?” Come on, Heather thought, where did the other Yvonne go? I need a friend today.
“You’re not planning on just repairing the railing, are you?”
Heather rubbed the back of her neck. “I guess not?”
Yvonne leaned forward and Heather thought some of that spark was back. “Heather, that thing is a death trap. You need to have it replaced.” But she leaned away again and put a barrier of ice tea and glass between them. “Sweetheart, what are you thinking? You can’t just slap some spackle on that house and call it done.”
“I wasn’t. I just–”
Yvonne opened her clutch and handed Heather a handwritten list of names and phone numbers. “I think you need to talk to all these people about what needs to be done up there.”
The neatly printed numbers were followed by half-realized notations of name and profession. Carpenter, landscaper, masonry specialist. “I figured I would need to hire people, but this list is awfully long. I thought I could do at least some of it myself.”
“Yourself? You could have killed yourself with your fall last week.” She reached across and deliberately patted Heather’s sore hand, the faint touch stinging in its condescension. “I would not fix anything more drastic than a hangnail, if I were you.”
Heather snagged the first uniformed person she spotted. “Waiter? Hi, do you think I could get a menu? And a drink?” She grinned and felt the desperate pull across her face, not so much an expression as a prayer for rescue. “Maybe just a whole bottle? Thanks.”
Carlisle shook his head. He put a warm hand on Topaz’s shoulder. “I agree with Heather. If he can get through this moon, we’ll have a better chance after that to wean him off the catnip. We’ll help you, I promise.”
“And what if he can’t get through it now?” Topaz asked. He paced the front room where Carlisle had been working. “Are you sure there isn’t anything we can do?”
“Nothing I know of.” Carlisle shuffled his letters like a nervous tic. “I’m almost grateful for the catnip keeping him insensible. It will keep him quiet.”
“You haven’t seen him. I think it’s just the sensible part that’s been keeping him from doing something really terrible to himself.”
There was a thumping noise upstairs. They both looked up. “He can’t get out,” Carlisle asked, “can he?”
“He can barely stand up most of the time. He just lies there.”
“But if he got up?” Carlisle insisted.
“He must know where the triggers are.”
“Maybe we should check up there,” Carlisle said just as a louder crash was heard.
Topaz bounded up the stairs before Carlisle finished suggesting it. On the landing, he listened and heard a whimper, followed by a short scream. He ran in that direction. Halfway down the hall, he found a door open.
Inside, a young queen held Rune at bay with a chair. Though she was human and he was, from what Topaz could see, fully cat again, he seemed to have the upper hand. He was hissing and spitting. He clawed at the chair and made sudden dashes towards her, keeping his body low to the ground.
Topaz dove for Rune before he could notice another target in the room. Rune twisted in Topaz’s grip like an eel, all long muscles and wide, sharp-toothed jaws. He kicked and clawed and swung his body around in midair.
“What do I do?” Topaz shouted to Carlisle, who appeared in the doorway. “I can’t hold onto him.”
“I’ll get one of Dopple’s carriers,” he said, already moving away.
“No! If he changes again, he’ll get hurt in there.”
Carlisle hesitated for precious seconds. “Then take him back to the attic. You’ll just have to guard him in there.”
Topaz wrapped his other arm around Rune’s middle and immediately got a vicious kick with both hind feet. “Damn it, Rune, stop!” Topaz held him tighter, one hand still on the scruff of his neck and the other arm pinning him to Topaz’s belly. Blood and fur went tacky against one another. He tried to kick again, but could not fold up tightly enough to get at Topaz’s arm. Topaz half walked, half ran for the attic. Ahead of him, Carlisle tripped the cat door.
“Try to push him through here,” Carlisle said.
“Oh, yeah, right,” Topaz complained. Rune had worn himself out and hung limp in Topaz’s arms. But he still made an eerie, low growl that rose into a screech and a hiss when Topaz pointed him into the open doorway. Topaz reached in as far as he could while still holding Rune. As soon as Topaz released him, he turned around in the doorway and slashed at Topaz’s retreating hand. But he backed away after that until he cleared the doorway and was shut into the little room.
Topaz sat back heavily and cradled his battered arm to his chest. Behind him, Carlisle sighed loudly. “That was an adventure,” he said. “I’ll go get something to clean up your arm. Stay here. If he tries to get out again,” Carlisle said and trailed off.
“I’ll think of something,” Topaz said. He pressed his arm to his shirt to stop the bleeding. He sat and listened for any sign of what his brother was doing on the other side of the wall. And he tried to think of something useful to do.
Heather trudged up the hill to the house. Yvonne’s criticisms still rattled around in her head. The worst part was that Yvonne tried to be nice. Heather felt certain she meant well when she said those things. Heather stopped in front of the house. There on the porch was the pile of lumber, hand saw, nails, hammer and measuring tape, all waiting for her to patch up the porch. She had not told Yvonne about that.
Heather really had thought she could fix it herself. She sat down on the steps and picked up the measuring tape. She pulled it out and let it coil itself back up again. Maybe Yvonne was wrong. Yvonne did not look like she had done a lot of home repair, after all. Maybe it was not as bad as all that. Heather stood up. She would show Yvonne. She was a competent young woman. Person. Cat. Something. She could figure this out.
She measured the space between supports where the railing had broken. Then she measured out that same length on a board. It would not look good, she thought to herself as she used a fingernail to mark a line across the board, but it would be functional. It would serve its purpose, until she figured out what she would do next.
She propped the board against the wall at an angle, held it in place with one leg and one hand, and started sawing. And that stupid George, she thought. What did he know? Heather could take care of the house on her own. She expected him to call her “little lady” at some point. Pig. Who did he think he was? Heather bet he had bullied Susanna into letting him show up. He was that big a jerk.
The board clattered to the floor in two pieces. “Triumph,” Heather said aloud. She picked up one piece and went to the rail. All she had to do was drive nails into it at a slant and they would catch in the support beams. Ugly, but functional, she told herself again. She held the board up against one side. It would not stay. She looked over at the other side. Something was not right. She held the board in the middle and looked at both sides. It was too short. Just by a little bit, but when she centered it, there was a visible gap on either side.
“Maybe I picked up the wrong half,” Heather said. She grabbed the other piece off the floor and held it up. It was even shorter. Heather stared at them in disbelief. She screwed it up completely. It was all wrong.
With a cry of outrage, she threw one half and then the other past the porch and into the front yard, where they gouged out divots. Why was everything so hard, she thought miserably. Heather sank to the floor, covered her face with her hands, and cried. She hated the house and everyone in it. She hated Yvonne and George for being right. She took a gasping, shuddering breath. She hated herself for proving them right. She wished the world would just blow up and leave her in peace. She shook her head, on the verge of throwing herself to the floor, kicking and wailing like a child, and wallowed.
Heather padded downstairs, rubbing her red and sore eyes after a nap that left her feeling worse than ever. She sniffed. What was that smell? She hoped it was not someone cooking. The last thing she needed was company in her favorite room. She scrubbed again at her eyes, which seemed to sting more with each second. She sniffed again. Really, where was that smell coming from? She turned into the kitchen.
Several cats cowered against the kitchen counter, embracing one another, too scared to move. Heather turned. She felt it as several distinct stops. Turn her body. Let her head follow. Change the focus of her eyes from inside the house to outside. See the fire. Freeze.
“No,” she breathed. “No, no, no!” Her body broke free of the spell it was under and she surged forward. “Someone get the extinguisher,” she shouted. “Under the sink!”
She could feel the flames through the glass doors as she shoved them open and ran out. Six feet of flame greeted her, along with the smell of burning plastic and floating embers of half-burned leaves. She ran for the garden hose. She was so focused on what she needed to do that she did not see Topaz until he wrapped an arm around her and caught her up.
“Let it burn,” he said with terrifying calm.
Heather wasted critical time staring at him without comprehension. Then she thrashed and shoved him away. “You idiot, the house! The house will burn!” She bolted away while she could. The hose lay coiled at the corner of the patio.
“It’s stone,” Topaz said above the crackle of the fire and the whistle of the wind it generated. “It’ll be fine.”
“The porch won’t be,” Heather shouted back. “The windows won’t be. One spark gets in and the whole place goes.” She turned the hose on full tilt and ran back towards the fire. The water hissed and steamed as it hit the fire, which sent up huge plumes of black smoke.
She heard a metallic clatter behind her. Someone had thrown the fire extinguisher out the door, but no one dared come outside to use it. “Topaz, damn it, help me!”
Topaz still just stood against the wall and watched the fire consume the garden. Heather saw the lumber she had bought for the porch at the bottom of the flames, the planks glowing orange between a layer of crackled black. Heather pulled the hose as far as it would reach and grabbed up the extinguisher. She fumbled with it, trying to pull the pin with her hands full.
Someone took the hose from her left hand. She fought to get it back until she saw Carlisle’s grim face. She did not waste time explaining; she just pointed the extinguisher at the flames and squeezed the trigger. With the white spray shielding her, she advanced on the heart of the fire, a pile of plastic bags of dry herbs atop the crossed planks of wood out in the middle of the garden.
She saw Carlisle fight it from the side out of the corner of her eye. Inch by inch, then foot by foot, the flames died back, replaced by choking smoke. They both continued to douse the embers until there was no sign of flame amid the blackened wreckage. Heather kicked the ashes with the toe of her shoe. Carlisle soaked the newly exposed embers in water. Finally, only the smoke and foam and soupy ashes remained.
Heather let the spent extinguisher drop to the ground. She wiped the backs of her hands across her sweaty face and they came away dark with soot. She jumped when Carlisle set a hand on her shoulder. “What happened?” Carlisle croaked.
Heather could not make her mouth work. She turned, though, back towards the house. Topaz still stood against the wall. His face had no expression. He pressed his hands palm-first against the wall. In a voice scratchy from breathing smoke, he said, “It was all I could think of doing.”
Topaz stuffed another set of jeans and a moth-eaten sweatshirt into the brown paper bag Dorian had brought up. He checked that his lighter was in his pocket. Satisfied he had what little belonged to him packed up, he tucked the bag under his arm. “I’m ready,” he said. Dorian followed him downstairs.
Rafflesia met him at the bottom. She scrubbed tears from her eyes and thrust a large plastic bag at him, full of assorted leftovers from the refrigerator. “Hey, thanks,” he said, but she ran out of sight without a word. Topaz set the food in with his cloths. He squared his shoulders and prepared himself.
In the front room, Carlisle stood at the door with his arms crossed over his chest. He had a smudge of soot still on his face. Topaz’s hand twitched, ready to reach up and brush it away, but he held himself back. The room was full of residents, watching with funereal solemnity.
Carlisle met his eyes as though he could not have cared less what was happening. “As per the rules of the House of Cats, which state–”
Topaz held up a hand to cut him off. “Spare me the ceremony,” he said. “I know the rules. I won’t put up a fight.”
Carlisle cleared his throat and just started up where he left off. “Which state that any cat found guilty of harming another resident without just cause or of endangering the House itself, whether through direct action or neglect, may be evicted at the discretion of the Queen or her delegate, I hereby banish you from the House of Cats, effective immediately.”
Somewhere, Topaz heard Rafflesia’s girlish, hiccupping sobs. He kept his eyes straight ahead, focused on a spot of nothing just past Carlisle’s ear. “I understand,” he said.
“You no longer have a home here,” Carlisle said and his jaw clenched like he wanted to say something else, but would not let himself. He stepped away from the door.
Topaz put his hand on the door handle. “Say goodbye to me?”
Carlisle’s nose flared. He swallowed hard. And he walked away. Topaz sighed and opened the door. He tried to think of something to say, some way to make them all understand. I had to do it, he told himself. I had to save him, no matter the cost. But I didn’t want to hurt anyone.
But he did not say anything. He shut the door behind himself. He put one foot in front of the other until the hill and the trees blocked the House from view. The road opened up, cars appearing and disappearing around the bend like ghosts. And Topaz just kept walking.
Heather took a pinch of catnip from the little pet store plastic bag. She rolled her desk chair over to her bed, where Rune rested, a panting, shaking mess. “Here you go,” she said. She pushed his lips apart with her fingertips and placed the dusty herbs as far back on his rough tongue as she could. She grabbed the mug of water and spooned some into his mouth next. “Swallow, please, or you’ll get my bed all soggy,” she said in a soft voice. Rune smacked a few times. Heather gave him more water until his mouth did not make dry, sticky noises.
Carlisle slipped into her room silently and stood beside her. “How is he?”
“This stuff is pretty weak, but the last dose calmed him down a lot. I just gave him more because he started shaking again. I’m sorry–” She could not think how to say it right. Sorry I made you kick out your boyfriend while I played nursemaid to someone who might be dead soon. “–I left everything else to you.”
Carlisle hung like a phantom behind her, pale and soot-smudged and heart-sick. “Has he changed again?”
“Not since he turned cat. Did you get the bandages?”
Carlisle held up a roll of plastic-wrapped gauze. “Are there any wounds now?”
“I found some blood under his fur where he scratched himself. And his face is a little swollen. His paws seem to have healed.”
“That’s a small mercy, at least.”
“Until he shifts again. The pain in his human body makes him hurt himself even more.”
“How long do you think this will go on?”
Heather shrugged helplessly. “A normal change lasts, what, thirty seconds? Not long. I went for a month once and lost a few days to this. I just had constant shifts though. No damage.”
“A week? Two?”
“Longer. If he survives that long,” Heather added.
“What if you gave him a larger quantity and then worked him down again?”
Heather rubbed a knuckle across her forehead. She had wondered the same thing. “Every minute more he spends on this just adds to the toxic build-up his system has to get rid of. I hate to say it, but Topaz may have had the right idea.” Carlisle crossed his arms and Heather could see him shut down. “Ahem. Well, the best I can do for Rune is use this to keep him calm. A little seems to ease the symptoms. I just hope it’s little enough that it doesn’t make matters worse.”
“How much of this is physiological and how much is,” Carlisle searched for the words, “whatever it is that makes us change in the first place?”
“That’s a question for a philosopher or a doctor. Both. I don’t know. All I know is, whatever causes the changes, it will keep trying harder and harder to make us shift until we do.”
“And he has eight years to work off.”
“Maybe not,” Heather said, letting herself sound hopeful. There was no chance the hope would go to her head, not when Rune looked half-dead. “Topaz said he’s seen him human before, recently. He may have been changing a little each moon for some time now. But Topaz said Rune never remembered changing.”
“Do you think he will survive?”
“He’s pretty much the most stubborn bastard I’ve ever met.” Heather looked up at Carlisle, knowing he had just sent his boyfriend packing, best intentions notwithstanding, just to uphold the rules of the House. “And I’ve known a lot of contenders.” She stroked Rune’s thick fur, smoothing it over the rumpled patches where he had clawed and bit himself. “If anyone can get through this, it’ll be Rune.” Just one more tomorrow, she thought. Last through one tomorrow after another.