Heather had the twitches that day, which made walking even more tiring. Before that, it had been insomnia for several days. She thought there had been some hallucinations in there as well, but she did not want to talk about it. Withdrawal was a bitch.
“Just over the next rise, you said,” Heather complained as they followed the road steadily uphill from suburbs to country. “How many rises ago was that?”
“You’ve not been exercising properly,” Carlisle shot back, his normally polite tone turning distinctly snippy.
“When we get there, the first thing I’m doing — after changing back and finding Mother’s stash of cat’s bane, that is — is taking a nice long bath in that old claw-foot tub.” Heather sighed wistfully. That tub had been her favorite hiding place as a kitten, whenever the other kittens started picking on her for spending so much time as a human with her mother. She found herself moving a bit faster; for the first time in as long as she could remember, she was eager to return to the House of Cats.
Heather had begun to recognize details as they neared their destination: a street name; a storefront where a bakery once was, since replaced by a clothing boutique; a large oak tree in the middle of a mall parking lot. Insignificant locations suddenly carried the weight of nostalgia. The House rose in her mind as a monument of feline comforts, safe and green and quiet. Her fear at returning had diminished in the days of travel and been largely replaced by longing for the pleasures of her youth.
The first glimpse of the House did come when they crested the next small hill. The first thing Heather noticed was not the small valley they would have to cross between the hill they were on and the hill the House occupied, alone amid a crowd of pine trees. Rather, it was something not there to be noticed.
“Where did the tower go?” she asked, blue eyes wide in shock. The tower had been one of the many architectural oddities of the House, a miniature spire connected to the main roof by a widow’s walk. The walk formed a parabola of wrought iron around the top third of the tower. Now, there was only a streamer of twisted metal hanging from the main roof. The tower was no more; a round patch of darkness amid the masonry of the second floor was all that remained.
“Some of the young ones bought fireworks a few years ago,” Carlisle said. “There was an accident. No one knew that water was leaking in. Everything crumbled away.”
Heather stared at him. “And, what, the tower just fell over?” she asked in disbelief.
“No, no. A branch of the tree there broke off in a storm and hit it. We had to pull it down with ropes. The tower gave way.”
“Burned down then sank into the swamp, too,” she muttered. “Nothing,” she said when Carlisle asked what swamp. As she looked across at the House, she could make out the overgrown remains of the gardens. The front lawn had gone brown. Rubbish formed dark heaps around the exterior of the house. The whole area had the lonely, tumbled down look of ruins. “Why didn’t anyone do anything? Why didn’t someone take care of it?”
“I think it would be best if you did not mention exactly who your mother was,” Carlisle said. “Or use your real name.”
“What kind of an answer is that?”
“This will be easier if no one knows who you are. And you’ll see why things have been–” He hesitated then said, “–complicated these past few years. But things will be better, now that you’re home.”
“That’s not my home,” Heather said and wished it was true. She wished the home she had once, maybe, loved still stood as it did in her mind. She wished she could at least come home to someplace warmly familiar. “That is not my home,” she repeated even as she started down the hill toward it.
Topaz licked a spot of blood from his golden paw. Mouse juice. The juvenile next to him sighed appreciatively. She had been trailing him all day. First she scared off the sparrow he had his eye on, and then she interrupted him mid pounce to ask if he preferred the wet or dry food at the House. He batted the mouse over to her and got up in a huff. He left her gnawing on it, still moony-eyed, and walked from the garden in the back to the sunny side of the house. Rune would be there, either sulking or intimidating cats into being friendly with him. Dopple was away from the House; Rune would not be able to play king-and-court until she returned and would be out of sorts about it.
Rune’s gray tabby body was obscured by three kittens, black, calico, and tortoiseshell, who were tumbling over him, tugging on his ears, and batting at his twitching tail, respectively. The older cat giggled and lolled in the tall grass with them. He playfully nipped at one until it cried in alarm and waddled on young legs back to its mother. The mother paced and hovered uncomfortably. Rune tried to follow, but his legs gave out and he rolled onto his back with a hiccup.
“I think the little ones have explored enough for today,” said their mother nervously as she rounded up her kittens. Two followed after her while she carried the third.
Topaz bumped heads with Rune and flopped down on the grass next to him. His brother’s breath smelled intensely of catnip again and a few shredded leaves were crushed under his gray paws. Just finished his morning fix, then. That explained the giddy behavior.
“Has anyone heard from Dopple?” Rune asked while he watched his front paws waggle in the air above his head. “Want to hunt mice?” he added abruptly.
“There aren’t any mice this close to the house. We could go into the woods, though. I caught a mouse there this morning.”
Rune rolled to his side so he faced away from Topaz. His voice, high and jittery a moment ago, had gone flat. “Don’t want to go out there.” The catnip high was wearing off already.
Topaz stood over him. “Come on,” he said and nudged Rune’s shoulder with his head. “It’ll be fun. You’ll be able to see the house the whole time.” No response. “We could bring along that Persian. I think she fancies you.” Come on, Topaz thought, give a damn about something!
Rune stretched out and closed his eyes. “I think I’ll just take a nap. Wake me when it gets dark.”
Topaz started to walk away, thinking maybe he would take that kid along with him to hunt, just to pass the time, when Rune leapt to his feet. His eyes were wide, pupils dilated impossibly wide even in the bright sun, and his tail puffed to three times its size. He sniffed the air.
When Heather and Carlisle arrived at the House, hungry and sore-footed, they found two toms fighting in the front yard. Carlisle and Heather pulled them apart by the scruffs of their necks and sent them off to opposite ends of the estate. But the noise alerted other cats and they came to meet Heather and Carlisle. Once they found out there was a new cat in the House, they herded her along to the back to meet everyone else who was at home then.
That was how Heather ended up just five feet from a straggly patch of cat’s bane, persistently unable to eat any, while twenty cats of all sizes and colors and breeds congregated around her. It was all rather cheerfully suburban. She truly hated all of them, however, for standing between her and her cat’s bane.
“You lived by the beach?” asked a cat with long white fur and a Persian snub-nose. “I have a cousin who lives out that way. There’s nothing better than fish eaten straight out of the water. By the time we get it up here, it’s hardly worth eating any more.”
“Did you live with humans? How come you’re so old?” a kitten, barely old enough to open his eyes, asked. She knew he meant cats normally showed up at the House as young adults and kittens, when it became clear they were different. But all she heard was the same refrain: you’re not a real cat. Oh, she could taste the cat’s bane in the air.
Suddenly, a ginger tom with shaggy fur bounded into their midst. “Best behavior, everyone,” he said in a whisper. “He’s awake, so he’s probably on the warpath.” He grinned at Heather. “Hi, new girl. You must use his brand of kitty litter. Just, um, watch what you say.”
“The hell?” Heather said, baffled. The cats around her had their ears flat against their skulls. Mothers gathered their kittens up and ushered them inside. “What’s happening?”
A few of the bigger cats, Maine Coons like the ginger tom and Ragamuffins and Siberians, grouped themselves into a defensive formation around her then pretended it was all accidental, grooming and staring off into the distance. Nobody was fooled. Something was rotten in the state of cats.
Heather would not have given a second glance to the cat that came around the corner of the house at that point, except that all the others tensed when they saw him. She looked from him to them and back again, trying to figure out what the big deal was. Blue-gray tabby, perfect moon face, short, dense fur that stuck straight out from his body. He listed to one side as he walked, like his legs did not want to work right. His eyes were foggy and had a wild, scared way of rolling from side to side. He looked, Heather thought, like a drunk having a mildly paranoid night. She was unimpressed. Only the array of cats who seemed to guard her prevented Heather from going for the cat’s bane right then.
“Who is he?” she asked the ginger tom, who was to her right. Carlisle had retreated behind her back and was feigning ignorance of the whole situation.
“Head honcho,” the tom said. “Be as normal as you can.”
“Normal?” Heather squeaked as the tabby stalked closer.
“Don’t. Act. Human.”
That sent a fresh rush of desire for cat’s bane through her. She would have given anything to be human for this confrontation. Heather had not interacted with another cat in two decades and change and had, in fact, done her best to forget she knew anything about cat society. She had no time to think of a strategy which would cover up that fact.
“Who are you?” the gray asked as he reached her. He did not stop moving, but circled around her, smelling her, letting his whiskers graze her sides. Utterly possessive and intrusive, Heather thought bitterly. He might as well just stamp her with his initials.
Wired to explode from being so close to the cat’s bane she desperately craved, Heather found herself incapable of submitting to this treatment. She circled with him, touching and smelling and almost sick with the felinity of it, but she never let him get away from her. They said nothing for long minutes, until circling turned into tentative grooming. He nipped at her ear and she knocked him upside the head with a paw. He tried to stand over her and she butted her head against his shoulder. He lost his balance and ended up sprawled at her paws.
He looked up at her and his eyes cleared. The lights were on upstairs, finally. She stared back and, without breaking eye contact, licked the back of her paw in an off-handed kind of way, as if to say, did you want something?
The message, it turned out, was clear. “Welcome to the House of Cats, ma’am.” The cat word for ma’am really means “queen in her territory and mother of infinite kittens.” The languages of cats are very efficient. “I’m Rune,” he said belatedly. Then he left, headed back to the bright sun on the other side of the house. It was all a bit of a letdown, Heather thought.
Everything was still. He disappeared from sight. And the ginger tom exploded into sound and motion, pouncing on Heather with wild laugher. “You’ve got balls, honey,” he said. “No one ever stands up to him. I can’t believe he let you do that. I can’t believe you’ve still got both eyes after that.”
Heather tuned him out and shoved him away. “‘cuse me,” she said and ran for the cat’s bane.
She heard nothing but the sounds of her own body changing as the transformation took her. She let it roll over her, offering no resistance. It was like putting on a favorite sweater, fresh from the dryer.
She sat up, human once again and feeling magnanimous about everything. “That’s better,” she said. “Anyone got any clothes?”
Heather tried to not look at her reflection in the store windows she passed. The stockpiled clothing at the House had seen better days. Heather did not look like she had any good business in the rather upscale shopping center that was closest to the House. Her aimless wandering had started to attract a few curious glances as well. She tried to look purposeful, but she just ended up pacing and staring and pacing some more.
She sat on a bench by a small fountain in the middle of the shopping center. A couple teenage girls were sitting on the edge, each holding one side of a fashion magazine. Heather watched the mist of the fountain float down over them. If Rune was really the “head honcho,” he must want to defend his position from Heather, the hereditary leader of the House. Was that why Carlisle was so worried? But why bring her back if he was just going to keep her undercover? And why be afraid of the resident catnip fancier?
She stood up and started pacing the sidewalk again. She could not imagine why anyone would want to use catnip. Trapped in that body all the time. Powerless. Mind full of cobwebs. She swore she could smell the stuff even now, it had been so heavy on Rune’s breath.
Carlisle had tried to talk to her after she changed back, but she had dodged him. Some of the other cats showed her where the clothing was kept. She broke into her mother’s untouched office to get a copy of the family credit card, her name printed on an unused card in the desk drawer. Then she walked (oh, how she was tired of walking after her journey home), following half-remembered routes into town, and ended up at the outdoor shopping mall.
She stopped and sniffed. She really could smell catnip. She looked in the direction of the smell. A home and garden store. She followed the bright tang of catnip and the rich, damp smell of packaged potting soil. She paused at the door. Would they suspect her of stealing things? What could you steal from the garden department? She grabbed a cart to be safe and pushed it down the first isle of seedlings.
Even in fall, everything was a riot of colorful blooms. She stopped at a familiar sight. White vinca. She remembered that the walkway up to the House used to be lined with vinca flowers. She reluctantly passed it by. She tried to avoid the section that smelled of catnip, afraid that it might change her back from smell alone. Nasturtiums would be nice and tasty in the backyard. And lilac and sweet peas would attract butterflies, which were wonderful fun to chase.
She stopped and stared out the far side of the garden, past a clump of elephant ear, to a patch of blue sky above the nearby rooftops. She closed her eyes and saw, in perfect detail, what the House used to be like. Cats were happy there. Everyone was free to come and go. Everyone helped out with chores. Everyone got to do whatever felt right to them. There were good things to eat and creatures to hunt and plants to nibble.
It was not, she thought tentatively, that she hated the House. It just had been all wrong for her. She had bigger dreams. She did not want to be a cat. She was not a very good cat, after all, she added hastily. But the others. She did not have anything against them. The building they lived in now was a disgusting heap of rubble. Not like the one she had grown up in. Maybe…
She picked up a tray of leafy nasturtiums and put it in the cart. She would be stuck at the House until she could get up enough money to strike out on her own again. She could get a job while she was there, though the walk every morning would be awful. So. She had some time to kill.
Why not spend that time fixing the place up a bit? She hefted a potted lilac shrub into the cart as well and was smothered by a wave of sweet scent. She would fix it up so that Carlisle and the rest of the cats could be comfortable. And they would be grateful. And they would let her go in peace. They would owe her that much, after all.
She backtracked to the vinca and picked out a dozen healthy plants, feeling suddenly full of confidence. She had her right body back. She had a plan for the House that would make Carlisle happy. Most importantly, she now had a way to get out again.
Rune pulled his gaze away from the blue jay carrying on in the pine tree and focused on the intruders again. He had trouble concentrating. A man and a woman, both completely human, both dressed in suits. This would never have happened when Poppy ruled the House, rest her nine souls. They were speaking in low voices. He really wanted to kill that noisy jay. The women kept shaking her head no to whatever the man was saying. The blue jay carried a bundle of twigs up to her nest.
Rune felt the thump of someone jumping onto the balcony from the nearby window. He looked back. Topaz shook a cobweb out of his tail and stalked over. “Can you hear them?”
“No. They’re the same ones from last week, right?” Rune asked.
“Yep. And I’ve seen his car cruise past a few times besides.” Topaz looked through the railing of the balcony, ears perked forward.
“Do you think we could get fish up here while it’s still fresh if we had a car?”
Topaz looked over at him and cocked his head. “Bro, you have too many thoughts. Concentrate.”
“Right,” Rune muttered. Why did he have to get saddled with a little brother, and a smart-ass at that, at his age?
A voice finally drifted up to them from the front yard. It was the woman. “Well, I haven’t heard from her in a couple months,” she admitted grudgingly. “But all the bills are getting paid from here. The money is going out from the account and the lights are on here. So there must be someone taking care of the place.”
Dopple took care of all those things. But why was the human talking about their House?
“But look at it,” the man said. “It’s gone to pot.” Rune bristled at that. “All I’m saying is, maybe you could mention that she could get some good money for the place. That you have a buyer who’s interested. That’s all.”
Rune and Topaz shared a confused look. A buyer?
“I went through the records, after you asked me the first time. The trust has been in place longer than our agency. The paperwork doesn’t even go back that far. I can’t figure out how long her family has owned the place, but I don’t think–”
“These are hard times,” the man interrupted. “I’m sure a nice chunk of money would be more advantageous to your client than a rundown mansion.”
Rundown, indeed. Rune flexed his claws, growing more agitated by the minute. Then he spotted a pale figure trudging up the road. It had something in its arms. He sniffed: flowers and cat. “Who’s that?” he asked.
“Uh, the new girl,” Topaz answered. “I didn’t catch her name.”
“Who let her get into the cat’s bane?” Rune asked. She made a pretty human, he thought, and hated himself and her for it.
“Not me, that’s for sure.” Rune glared. Topaz might as well have whistled, he looked so falsely innocent.
“I’ll mention it,” the woman said and her voice dropped steadily as she noticed the newcomer, “but you have to understand my position. I’m just the executor; the family made the rules. I don’t think this old place is going anywhere any time soon.”
“Excuse me,” the man snapped. “Who are you?”
The new girl wiped sweat from her forehead with her wrist. “I live here,” she said, puffing with exertion.
“George, stop,” the woman said. “Are you the caretaker?”
“No. I’m, well, I guess I’m the owner.” Rune froze. Next to him, Topaz stood up. “I’m Heather Lee.” Topaz threw himself onto Rune even as she spoke. He did not need to hear her say it to know, but the words seemed to boom from the sky now. “Poppy Lee was my mother.”
Heather shifted her cardboard box of flowers to her left arm and hip and offered the woman her hand. “Sorry about the dirt,” she said when the woman hesitated. “I’ve been picking out plants all afternoon and I guess I got a bit grubby.” Finally, a chance for human interaction and Heather could not properly enjoy it. She was hot and sweaty and tired from lugging the plants all the way home and she was freaked out to see humans at the House.
“Oh, no, not at all,” the woman said quickly and shook her hand. “I’m just surprised to see you. I thought you were still in Alberta. You sound so different in person than on the phone.”
Heather smiled blankly. Who the heck was this woman? There was a commotion over at the house and Heather turned away from her. A cat yowled. That was just what she needed — a bunch of cats coming out to investigate. She realized that the woman was still talking and looked away from the house.
“Oops! Where are my manners? I’m Susanna Dahl.” She took a business card from her purse and handed it to Heather. “We’ve talked so many times over the phone; I forget we haven’t actually met before.”
The card said Susanna Dahl, and then Meyers, Parkhouse, and Young Law Firms. “Oh! The executor,” Heather said. She wondered what she could say to make the woman leave soon. “Right. Great.” She noticed that the man had slipped away and his car had just started down the dirt road leading to the street.
The racket at the house increased. Something was coming closer. “Do you hear–” Susanna started to say.
But it was too late. Something gray and spitting launched itself out of the grass and toward them. She heard Susanna scream and guessed that the flash of moving color beside her was Susanna cringing away. The cat headed for Heather, rather than the human as she expected.
But if there was one thing good about being a cat, it was the reflexes. As a waitress, she had avoided many a spilled drink and dropped tray by dint of her inhuman speed. She twisted away from the cat and caught it as it sped straight past her.
Forward momentum halted, it turned into a hissing, clawing ball of fur. She held it by a fistful of loose skin at the back of its neck, arm stretched away from her body to avoid the flailing claws and bared teeth. “Will you excuse me? I need to do something about this. I’ll be sure to call you sometime.”
Heather hefted her box of flowers and headed off to the house, while Susanna waved goodbye with a bewildered expression. So much for human interaction, Heather thought.
She gave Rune a little shake as she stomped up the porch steps. He had grown tired and stopped to catch his breath, but this sent him into a new fit of rage. “Are you out of your mind? Oh, that’s right, you’re probably high on catnip and hallucinating that I’m a giant fuzzy mouse toy.”
“False pretenses!” Rune howled along with a stream of incoherent, raging babble. “Sneaking bitch! Betrayer!”
When Heather threw open the front door, the pack of cats basking in late afternoon sunlight all leapt in different directions with fur bristling. They realized it was another cat and relaxed. They realized that Heather had Rune by the neck, carrying him around like a human and her pet, and panicked all over again.
“I’ve got something to say, so you all better listen up.” The golden tom rushed in from the hallway then skidded to a stop when he saw her. “I guess it’s big news that I’m Poppy’s daughter.”
Carlisle appeared in another doorway and she brandished Rune at him. “I am told that I’m Queen of the friggin’ House.” She started slurring, mouth not yet reacquainted to cat-speak. “I am told that the House needs me. You couldn’t take care of things by yourselves. You needed mommy to clean your room for you. So, YOU GOT IT.”
“Heather, I think Rune is–” Carlisle tried to say.
Whatever he thought was wrong with Rune, Heather was not hearing it. “He should have thought of that before he made a scene in front of a human. I am not going to put up with this catnip-eating, house-destroying, cover-blowing bullshit. Everyone will clean and everyone will hunt and everyone will patrol. Anyone who doesn’t had better be nursing still or on their deathbed.”
More cats had joined the crowd when she started her rather loud speech. They whispered amongst themselves when she paused. She tossed Rune so that he landed on a fur-covered couch. He backed into the corner between the back and the arm, crouched and ready to attack again.
“If anybody would rather leave him–” she stabbed a finger at Rune– “in charge, feel free to speak up. No? Fine. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
The cats could not quite meet her eye. No one looked at Rune either. It was not quite the mandate Heather would have liked to receive as the new queen, but she could make it work. “Now I’m going to lock myself in my new office for an hour,” she said. “When I come back, I’m going to fix dinner for anyone who wants it. If you can’t handle the new management, clear off before then.”
Carlisle spoke up again. “Our laws state–”
“Yes, thank you,” she snapped. “I’m not kicking any cats out of the House. I’m just giving a friendly suggestion to anyone who might not be able to cope with having a new queen in the cattery.”
And with that, she stepped over a bank of cats assembled to watch her, walked calmly up the stairs, and closed the door to her mother’s old office. She took a deep breath and shook with tension. She swallowed a cat’s bane pill from the bottle on the desk. She sat down in the leather office chair. Then she stared out the window and wondered what the hell she had just done.