Dopple found a rock in the scraggly backyard. “We’re not going to have a lot of time,” she said. “Do you see her?”
The tom cupped his hands around his eyes and peered in the dark window. “Something must be wrong. I told her we would come tonight.”
Dopple stood by the back door. “Get ready then,” she said and smashed the glass of the window with the rock. She knocked out the jagged shards and reached through to unlock the door.
The house stank of shit and death. It rolled out through the door like a big dog’s rank breath. Dopple caught the tom hesitating, pulling the collar of his shirt up over his nose, and jerked him into the house. Common cats scattered before them. Dopple pushed some away with her boot when they smelled her and thought about picking a fight. She stepped over others too sick or old to care who or what she was. In a corner, a cat mewled repeatedly, half-starved and mad or stupid, rocking against the wall.
They found the queen in the closet. Naked and filthy, she sat with her skinny legs pulled up to her chest. Parasites bloated her stomach so it swelled out from visible ribs. There, in the nest of her arms and legs and belly, a newborn kitten slept.
Dopple kept lookout while the tom scooped her up. The house made the shelters look homey. Hosing out the cages started to make sense to her now. Even in the dark, she could see filth staining the carpets and the smell was unbearable. The human must have burned out her nose years ago; nothing else, not even compulsive hoarding, could explain how a person could live with that smell.
A light went on under a door. “We’re out of time,” she said and hustled the tom to the door. As they ducked out, she heard someone calling out to whoever was there. The cats inside watched her with lifeless eyes. She left the door open behind them; let the common cats escape if they could.
In the car, Dopple kept one eye on the woman stretched on the backseat and one on the road as she drove to the tom’s home. “Did you know she had a kitten?”
He turned away from watching her as well. “She was going to have it any day.”
In the back, the woman stirred under the blanket he had thrown over her. “Where are we going?”
“Someplace safe,” he said. “We’ll take care of you.”
She murmured weakly. “My baby?”
The tom reached back and curled his hands over hers, where the kitten slept. “You’re holding him.”
“Lucky,” Dopple said when he turned around again. “You finding her when you did.”
“He’s not mine, if that’s what you’re thinking,” the tom said. “I normally stick closer to home, but I was desperate for a bit of–” He didn’t say a bit of tail, though Dopple knew he meant it. “For company. So I strayed a little farther than usual. I didn’t want to call the authorities until someone got her out.”
“We have a vet who helps us, but I don’t think she’s going to make it,” Dopple said as quietly as she could. She pulled into the driveway of the tom’s house. He lived as a human full-time, but roamed like any tom during his days off from cat’s bane.
The tom carried her inside. Curled up, she barely took up half the couch. Dopple pulled off a glove and pressed two short fingers to her neck. The pulse there was weak, her heart fluttering under the strain of the dozen infections and parasites the queen no doubt had in her system.
“Can you do anything for her?” asked the tom.
Dopple pulled her glove back on. “Get a glass of warm water with a little salt and sugar. She’s dehydrated.”
Dopple did not see where he went to get it; she barely noticed anything about his house. All she could see was that little black-furred head peeking out of the queen’s bony hands. When she died–Dopple was not deluded enough to think she would survive–he would be left an orphan. She could take him to the House, but what then? Who would take care of him until he was old enough to take care of himself?
Dopple climbed out of her mother’s jacket and tumbled down into her lap. When her mother changed, they spent a few days down in the bushes and palm trees that grew in the far corner of the park with the regular humans. Her mother insisted on keeping her close, but Dopple was old enough to take care of herself. She made a beeline for their normal home, out where the other abandoned and feral cats lived.
She jumped up on the edge of the fountain in the middle of the park and circled around it. In the dark, with just the street lamps for light, the pennies at the bottom seemed to swim and dart through the water. Down on the other side, Dopple ducked behind a bench to hide from a cat picking through a discarded takeout box. She wasn’t supposed to talk to cats she didn’t know. Sometimes they were mean.
Behind the human bathrooms, she found something interesting. Some kind of box, it was made of metal and she could smell something good inside. She sniffed again. It wasn’t tuna salad. It wasn’t sparrow. One end of the box was open. Cautiously, Dopple inched into the small opening on tiptoe.
Something slammed and Dopple darted forward as a rush of air went past her hind feet. She turned in the tiny space and found the end she came in at now closed. She pawed at it, head-butted it, kicked it, but nothing budged it. Dopple called for her mother as loud as she could, but neither she nor anyone else came to find her out there in the dark.
The next morning, humans woke Dopple from a restless sleep. She was hungry, since the food she had smelled had been no more than a mouthful, and hoarse from crying. A big hand lifted up the trap. Exhausted, Dopple mewed plaintively nonetheless and pawed at the gloved hand through the gaps in the metal bars.
“Got one of the kittens in here,” the human said. “Seems pretty friendly. The shelter might be able to find a home for this one.”
“This one’s already tagged,” another one said. Dopple saw it hold up another cage with an adult inside. “You’d think after they got fixed, they wouldn’t want to mess with the traps any more.”
“Aw, you know they don’t remember that long. Just let ’em out and we can head back.”
Dopple was unceremoniously slid from one cage into another in the back of a van. All around her, cats chattered, but no one would talk to her. The doors closed on her last sight of the park.
Dopple woke up slowly, recognizing her surroundings in flashes separated by what felt like days of drugged sleep. She slept on the little round bed by the television. Her fuzzy mouse toy waited just in front of her nose, but she did not have the energy to play with it. One of the humans who fed her moved around the house, though Dopple’s attention lapses made it seem like the human teleported from kitchen to bedroom to garage.
The last time she woke up and stayed awake, she remembered where she was and where she had been. The humans had taken her to the doctor and left her there, where it was noisy and smelled strange and where humans she didn’t know touched her all over. She didn’t like it there. Then she must have fallen asleep, because now she was back in her new home. Her mouth tasted like cotton and her head swam.
Dopple stood up. Her front paws felt like they had been plunged into hot coals and broken glass. The pain raced up her legs and she sprang away. She shook her paws, trying to rid them of whatever hurt them so, but it just made them throb with her pulse. Every flex made the muscles scream. She licked her paws and groaned at the shudder of pain it sent through her body. They tasted of medicine and steel and blood.
No claws scraped against her tongue when she licked across the inflamed pads. The very ends flopped uselessly when she tried to control them, her delicate paws reduced to clubs. And everything hurt.
The human bent over her, a paper bag of food in her arms, and snatched Dopple’s arm away from her mouth. “Don’t lick the medicine, Pepper,” she said, calling Dopple by that ridiculous name they insisted on using to refer to her. And it hurt, hurt, hurt when the human touched her, like she was dying, like the whole world was ending.
Dopple crunched up her body and struck out with her hind feet and at least that worked, at least those still had claws. The human jerked away when Dopple’s feet ripped two sets of long gashes up her arm. And Dopple ran.
She ran on paws stabbed with needles and knives. She ran out the front door and past the car, doors open and spilling more bags of groceries. She ran with the human chasing after her and calling a name that did not belong to Dopple. She ran under bushes and across lawns and behind houses. She ran until the blood and the hurt and the numbed-out, beyond-pain ache of it all knocked her down at last.
Dopple picked her way along the familiar path between dark buildings. It was just past closing time and the restaurant would have put out its garbage for the night. Dopple had to arrive early, before the smell of food left out reached the other cats in the area. Dopple kept her nose clean; she didn’t mess with anyone else’s territory. She ripped into a plastic garbage bag with her teeth and poked through the contents. The lumpy bag felt soft on her sore paws, especially compared to the chewed up concrete in the alley.
Dopple ate well on scraps of salmon and rice and cheese rinds and overcooked vegetables. She wasn’t picky and ate things the other cats wouldn’t touch unless they were truly starving. No one else had arrived, so she took the time to clean her face thoroughly. She had a funny feeling, like maybe her food hadn’t agreed with her. But it wasn’t quite her stomach that was upset. She felt creepy-crawly and restless and grouchy.
She had to lie down for a while, pressed into the corner where the building met the steps leading up to the back door. She panted. Her body felt electric and wild. She knew something strange was happening when she thought she stretched out to sleep and realized her body really did stretch, long and thin. Her legs and arms seemed to unfold endlessly. The corner became too small. The whole alley seemed too small.
The first things Dopple saw as a human were her hands, fingers cut blunt down to the first knuckle. She flexed them. They moved, albeit clumsily. She looked at her bare feet next. Whole. She stood up. Nothing hurt. She didn’t need hands to walk any more. Naked and in a strange body, she felt invulnerable.
She hissed and lunged at the first cat to join her in the alley. She laughed when it ran, tail bristling, and hugged herself. She was like her mother and, whatever else that meant, she was free from her tottering walk and her constant pain and her terror of anything bigger and stronger than she.
But beyond the alley, there were humans and cars and noise. She couldn’t stay where she was like that. Her mother had always kept a stash of clothing near their home for when she changed–and suddenly all Dopple’s memories of her mother made some kind of sense–but Dopple had no such resources. But if her mother had changed like this, there had to be more of them. If Dopple could find them, she would find a safe haven as well, she was sure.
She untied the top of one of the other garbage bags. Her hands still hurt to use, but she gripped the bottom corners between her thumbs and the sides of her first fingers. The upended garbage bag vomited kitchen scraps and waste paper. Dopple tore holes in the bottom and corners and pulled the stinking thing over her head. In the dark of night, it would hide her nakedness long enough for her to steal clothes.
Fearlessly, she prowled unfamiliar streets beyond the heart of her city, looking for just one unlocked door or open window. All she needed was a way in and she could have whatever she wanted.
Dopple came to a screeching halt when she realized someone else was already in the attic. And in a house full of cats-turned-human, he still had all his fur. Instinctively, she hissed at him, never thinking how unlikely it was that a common cat would hang out in their attic. He was certainly no kitten and so had to be old enough to change.
He cocked an ear at her when she hissed. “Flea bite you? What’s with the display?”
Dopple sank back and shook her head. “Thought you were common. How come you’re all–” She waved her hand to indicate his general state of being. “Thought we all had to change for the same moon.”
He unfolded his body and padded over to her. He was a big cat, and muscular, and if she had been on the street, she would have run at the sight of him. Even now, after a couple of months in the House, she wanted to escape the masses of other cats she encountered in every room. She had thought the attic would be a safe place to hide out for a few hours. The cat jumped up onto a dusty suitcase next to her. “Catnip suppresses it. I didn’t feel like being human right now.”
Dopple wrinkled her nose. “I like being human,” she said hesitantly. “Walking on two feet is way better than four.” She saw the cat focus on her hands and she reflexively curled them into protective fists.
“You should wear gloves. Might help,” he said.
Dopple set a hand on one of the cardboard boxes stacked in the attic. “I came looking for more clothes. There’s nothing good in the trunk downstairs.”
The cat shrugged. “I know where there’s a pair. I’ll trade you for them.”
“If you go down to the garden and bring me back some more catnip, I’ll tell you where a pair of gloves are.”
Dopple nodded. “Catnip grows out back, right? With that other plant.”
“That’s cat’s bane. It’ll keep you human.”
Dopple hardly heard the rest of what the cat said. Cat’s bane would let her stay human a little longer. She scurried downstairs before he finished talking. She would trade him catnip for gloves, but she already owed him, even if he didn’t know it, for that tiny piece of information.
Maybe, if the gloves helped her hands, she could get money to go buy a pair of her own. She wouldn’t even have to worry about when the moon ended if she ate cat’s bane. She dashed through the house, ignoring the cats she had been so nervous around, and thought of all she could do if she could pick and choose when she turned human. Maybe that spotted cat, Carlisle, who ran everything now that the queen had died, maybe he would trade her money for something. Maybe she could work for the House.
Dopple grumbled under her breath and turned down a different aisle of cages when the fifth cat that day hissed as she passed by. The humans started giving her funny looks. It was never this hard when she went to the shelters. She always knew what she was looking for when it was someone’s girlfriend or son or friend who got picked up by animal control. But the cat show came with only the vague instruction from Carlisle to “check it out,” because show cats tended to be young, young enough to not yet change, which made them ticking time bombs for the secretive House of Cats.
The truth was, Dopple could hardly tell the difference between common cats and changing-cats. Cats at the House claimed you could tell by smell, by eye shape, by size or tone of voice. But Dopple just saw and smelled and heard “cat” from all of them. And they all elicited the same response: avoid when possible; respect everyone else’s territory; eat early and eat alone; know who’s in charge and keep on their good side or their blind side.
Right now, the show floor smelled of cat and kibble and shampoo. There was human and potted plant and, somewhere, peanut butter and jelly being eaten. The benched cages were done up with ribbon and flowers and glitter-crusted letters. Cats glared out at her from each one. She smirked at one wearing a ruffled, lacy collar and pulled the collar of her leather jacket up around her neck. She was nobody’s show cat.
She walked by more cages, waiting and hoping that a changing-cat, if there was one at the show, would recognize her, even if she couldn’t recognize it. She concentrated so much on picking out some subtle difference in their faces or their attitude that she almost did not notice the woman tailing her. She stopped in front of an information display put on by a local cat fanciers’ branch, expecting the woman to stop as well or break off or, well, do anything normal in stalking a person.
Instead, the woman walked right up to Dopple, cocked a hip against the table, and said, “If you wear a little perfume, it throws them off. As long as you don’t hold still for long, they’ll think you’re human.”
Dopple glanced around, making sure the unmanned booth was still empty. “That’s, uh, good to know.” Dopple tried to not be obvious about sniffing in the woman’s direction. She did smell faintly of perfume, flowery and totally different from a natural cat scent.
The woman tucked a lock of bright orange hair behind her ear and offered her hand. She had tricolor hair, so classically calico that Dopple wondered how people didn’t guess what she was all the time. “I’m Mysterium, but call me Mysti,” she said, still with her hand outstretched.
Dopple curled her hand around Mysti’s, who offered just a delicate press in return. “You’re not, I mean, you’re here on purpose, right?”
Mysti tilted her head to the side and the lock of orange hair slipped free. “On purpose?”
Dopple looked around again and lowered her voice. “I work for the House of Cats.”
Mysti’s face lit up. She slipped her arm through Dopple’s and guided her back into the flow of people. “You’re a smuggler,” she said with a little laugh. “I’m surprised you weren’t the one following me.”
“I’m not–” Dopple started to say she wasn’t able to tell the difference, but it was stupid to reveal that kind of weakness, so she settled for giving a noncommittal wag of her head. “I’m having trouble finding anyone.”
“This show has popular veteran and house pet divisions, so everyone’s mostly too old. Sammy’s the only one I’ve found today. Now, tell me about your House.”
While Mysti cut a swaying path across the hall to where she had found a young changing-cat, Dopple told her about Rune and Carlisle, about Poppy before that, and about the woman Heather who Dopple had never met but whose name she wore like a borrowed fur coat, full of money and power Dopple didn’t know how to use. With her gentle touches and her bold manners, Mysti had Dopple talking about everything.
Dopple heard the commotion of people chasing after the loose cat, but there was a long wait before Sammy wove into sight between the legs of oblivious humans. Without acknowledging him, Dopple walked into the ladies’ room. She felt him dart past her feet as the door opened and closed.
Behind the closed door of the stall, Dopple held open the tote bag Mysti had allowed her to borrow. Sammy hopped inside and Dopple arrange a silk scarf, wallet, keys, and cell phone over top of him before zipping it shut. The door to the room opened. Someone walked down the row of stalls, each door squeaking as they were pushed open in turn.
“Is someone in here?” A voice asked when they couldn’t open the stall Dopple occupied.
“Yes. Just a minute,” she called back. She hoisted the heavy bag onto her shoulder and flushed the toilet.
It was one of the ring assistants, ducking down to look under the sinks and behind the toilets. “There’s a loose cat. Someone said she saw him come in here.”
Dopple watched in the mirror while she washed her hands. “I didn’t see anything.” Had someone seen her let him in?
The door opened again and Mysti strode in. “Please tell me you found my phone,” she said.
Dopple stared mutely, feeling the assistant’s eyes on her, and finally nodded. What was Mysti thinking? Dopple unzipped the bag. Under the scarf, Sammy stayed frozen. Dopple took the cell phone from the pile and handed it to Mysti.
Mysti flipped it open, as though checking that it was really hers, and snapped it shut again with at satisfied air. “That’s what I get for keeping it in my back pocket,” she said. She turned to the assistant. “So, did you find that cat? He definitely ran past me when I was heading down here.” Mysti didn’t wait for an answer and Dopple followed her out.
They left the show unnoticed and Mysti took Dopple through the parking lot to a white car. “Don’t let him out until we’re out of here,” she said while she unlocked Dopple’s door first.
“Why’d you send someone in after us?” Dopple asked as they drove away. She watched out the window as they pulled onto the street. She had never been in a car before.
“The best defense is a good offense,” Mysti said. “You opened the bag with an assistant watching. No one would believe you were stealing a cat after that.”
“You could have at least warned me,” Dopple grumbled. The car sped through a tightly curved on-ramp and onto the freeway. “How’d you learn to drive?”
Mysti smiled and tapped a fingernail against the steering wheel. “You can let him out now,” she said. While Dopple twisted around to reach the bag in the back seat, she said, “I know all kinds of useful things. Like how to hide in plain sight. And how to drive. I had to have some kind of hobby in my old age.”
“Old age?” Dopple snorted.
“I had to stop showing when I was old enough to change. I couldn’t hide it from my humans. And I don’t think they would let me enter as both owner and cat in the same show.”
“Well, thanks for the help. I’ve never been to one before,” Dopple said. She didn’t look forward to going back. In the back seat, Sammy groomed himself and curled up to sleep.
“I noticed. Also, you should think about learning to drive, too. Public transportation isn’t going to serve you well in California if you plan to keep going on these rescue missions.”
“How would I learn?”
Mysti held her right hand out, palm up, like she was offering something. “I could teach you,” she said. “While I’m at your House. Provided you’re a fast learner.”
“You aren’t going to stay?” Dopple tried to shrug off her disappointment, but she liked Mysti. She was so different from other cats. So different from Dopple as well. Dopple wore her humanity like a shield, but Mysti wore it like a string of pearls. Just another chance to charm others.
“I’m looking for something,” Mysti said. The explanation of what kept them occupied the whole, long drive back to the House of Cats.
Dopple opened the door to her rooms and found Mysti methodically destroying a fuzzy mouse toy. Mysti shoved it under the bed and out of sight; she knew Dopple couldn’t stand them. She even knew the story of how one had been the first thing she saw after being de-clawed. “Welcome home,” she said and rubbed up against Dopple’s leg. “How did it go with the hoarder?”
“Piss poor,” Dopple said wearily. She was worn out from popping cat’s bane to get her through the end of the moon, from driving all night and then some. Her stomach knotted. “There’s something I need you to see.”
Mysti followed her down the hall and into another room. “I don’t remember Donya having two kittens,” she said when she saw the little black newborn nursing while Donya’s own kitten, now two months old and an enthusiastic explorer, played nearby.
Dopple raised a hand in greeting when Donya looked up then pulled Mysti back out of the room. “She had given birth before we got to her,” she said. “And now she’s dead.”
Mysti leaned against her in an approximation of a hug, which Dopple needed more than she was willing to admit. “I’m so sorry.” She backed away to look up at Dopple. “But I’m guessing there’s something more.”
Dopple tugged on her gloves, pressing between each finger to get them to fit as snugly as possible. She looked at them instead of Mysti. “He’s going to need someone to take care of him. I mean, not just nursing him.”
Mysti was quiet for so long that Dopple’s hands started to hurt from fussing with them while she waited. “He looks like your side of the family,” she said at last.
Dopple dropped her hands. “You have black in your coat too. And his fur’s longer than mine.”
Mysti seemed to think it over. “And I suppose you can’t do it alone. Not if you’re going to be a working mom. I’ll have to stick around, then, to take care of him when you go gallivanting around the country.”
Dopple scowled. “Who goes gallivanting? Remind me, I think I forgot.”
“Hush now.” Mysti looked into the room again. Dopple knew the feeling. The little kitten compelled her attention like nothing else. She had spent the drive home with him tucked into her jacket, a warm glow against the cold sorrow of watching another cat die. Mysti said, without looking at her, “You know, it’s a complete waste, not passing on a pedigree like mine.”
“Maybe. But you can pass on the things that really make you special. Your confidence. Your charm.” Dopple turned away and scrubbed at her blushing face. She cleared her throat and said gruffly, “So is that a yes or not?”
She saw Mysti roll her eyes. “I don’t know. Are you ever going to let me go in there and meet my son or not?” She started across the room to him. “And can we give him a proper name? Something I wouldn’t be ashamed to see on papers?”
Dopple chased after her. “What do you mean, proper? Are you saying there’s something wrong with my name?” She hoped the kitten liked the sound of bickering; he was in for a lot of it, now that he was stuck with them.