One day, when Topaz came back from exploring the back alleys near his family’s den, the last of his litter mates was gone. He thought, or hoped, she was just out exploring. But dawn came and still she did not return. They never stayed out all night like that. Topaz curled up in their nest of newspaper and old blankets and hid his face under his tail. Being a Maine Coon, even as a kitten his tail was already impressively fluffy. He was the runt of his litter, born healthy, but always behind the others in growing and learning. He was the slow one. But even alone, in his den, he was warm and comfortable.
Topaz woke up when his mother returned. He knew when he saw her that something was wrong. Something had bothered her for some time, but she never talked about it. Now, she watched him like she watched dogs that strayed too close to their den. “So,” she said, “you’re the last. Always slow. You take longer than anyone else. Do you know how old you are?”
“We were born in spring,” he said without certainty.
“And it’s winter now. You should be grown and moved out by now.”
“Don’t call me that,” she snapped. “I know what you are. I would give anything to know which tom was your father.” The low light of early morning behind her, barely strong enough to reach the alley, turned her into a cut-out of black.
“So I could kill him myself! For making me give birth to a mongrel like you. A changing-cat. You might as well be all human.”
“I don’t understand,” Topaz cried. He backed away from her until the back of the den, a cardboard box, stopped him going any farther.
“I’m going to fix this,” she said, half to herself. “I would be protecting some other queen, wouldn’t I?” Then she lunged.
Topaz hissed and scrambled away from her. He was small for his age and took too long at everything, but he was smarter than his siblings and smarter than his mother. And she was too angry to think straight. Barely ahead of her teeth and claws, Topaz dove out of their den and into the alley.
He ran down the alley then jumped from a pile of trash bags to a dumpster and up to the fire escape of an apartment. He could hear his mother behind him. Her heavier body sank into the trash bags and she lost time trying to follow him. Topaz loved to explore and he knew all the fastest ways to get around town. He jumped into an apartment, the one that always kept its window open, and skidded under the bed. He heard his mother rattling up the fire escape stairs outside. She would find him, he thought, and he crawled farther under the bed amid dust and a rolled-up sleeping bag and old tennis shoes.
Topaz stayed there, too tense to sleep, too scared to move, and waited for her to find him. But she never did. Maybe she did not see which window he went in. Maybe she did not know what windows were for, even. Topaz was the only cat he knew who liked to watch humans and all they did. Maybe she just could not smell him out. But after a while, he slunk out, groomed the dust from his golden fur, and went to the window.
He saw no one. He took the fire escape the rest of the way up to the roof. From there, he could get down to a different street and more beyond that. So he walked until he did not recognize anything and did not smell anyone he knew. He kept walking until he thought it was safe to stop. It was a long day before he did.
Topaz dug through an overturned trash bin. He nibbled on something that smelled like it might have been food once. He spat it out. Plastic again, smelling of whatever food it had once wrapped. Yuck.
“You look awful,” someone said behind him.
Topaz sprang from the ground to the top of a newspaper dispenser, the nearest tall object. He hissed and bristled. Five. He could never fight off five cats alone. He would have to run.
“Easy, son,” a different cat said. “No one’s going to hurt you.”
“None of us, at any rate,” the first cat added.
“I found this first,” Topaz said. “Fair and square. No one had marked it.”
“Who would?” The first cat said. “How would you like to eat something more delicious than used baggies and brown paper?”
“We know what you are,” the second cat said.
“The last time someone said that to me, it was my mother, just before she tried to kill me.” Topaz felt like someone else, someone old and tired and jaded, was using his mouth to speak. “So, no, I think I’ll pass.”
The second cat sat and all the others followed suit. “I’m Quell and this is Oden. And you are a changing-cat,” he said. “You don’t know it yet, but you will be able to turn into a human.”
“Cats don’t turn into humans,” Topaz said warily. He remembered hearing changing-cat before. “They don’t.”
“Some do. We do.”
“You can turn into humans? So prove it. Do it now.”
“Can’t. Only during the Leo moon.”
“I thought as much,” Topaz said. He jumped down, never taking his eyes off them. “I think I’ll get going, if it’s all the same to you.”
“Actually, it isn’t all the same to us,” Oden said. “See, when you change, it’s going to cause a bit of a fuss if any humans see. And that’s bad for all of us.”
“So we would like you to come with us. We can keep you safe. We have a home,” Quell, the obvious leader, said.
“A home? In a building?” Topaz liked buildings. They were warm inside, even when it was cold out.
“And food,” Quell added.
Topaz’s rumbling stomach decided the matter. Two weeks of scrounging through garbage had not agreed with his growing body. “Take me there,” he said.
He fell into formation with the rest of them. They moved around him to keep him in the center, safe and partly hidden. Finally, he started to relax again.
“So, who’s your mother?” One of the other cats asked him.
When he told them, they all laughed. “I heard Brighton say he got to her,” someone said.
“Who’s Brighton?” Topaz asked.
“Local tom,” Oden said. “He throws changing-cats all the time, but won’t ever admit it. He doesn’t change himself, but no queen will touch him if it gets out that he carries shifting.”
“So he’s my father?”
“Probably. He’s the only one we know about, anyway, and we all keep to ourselves, so it wasn’t us.”
“I think one of his kittens is up at the House,” another cat said.
“No, no. The House of Cats. Big place just for changing-cats,” Oden said. “I heard he’s taken the place over these days. Something about the queen being dead or missing. Something like that.”
“Where is this place?”
“North of here,” Oden said. “Probably a month’s travel for us.”
“Do you know the way?”
Quell shook his head. “We don’t know the way and it’s too dangerous to go alone.” He glanced over at Topaz, looking him up and down. “But, if you don’t mind hanging around a while, there might be another way.”
Topaz ran his sensitive fingers over the tough fabric. “Jeans,” he repeated.
“You have to wear clothing as a human. If you go out, at least,” Oden told him. “How’s it feel?”
“Weird,” Topaz breathed. “And also awesome. I want to do this every day.”
Oden shook his head. “It gets old, after a while. But I actually meant how the clothing feels. Does it fit okay?”
“I guess? I’m still mostly wrapped up in the weird.”
“Wait until you get outside. It’s a trip, going into the city for the first time as a human.” Oden pulled a bright yellow object out of his pocket and a flat box. He took something out of the box and put it between his lips.
“What’s that?” Topaz asked.
“A bad habit,” Oden said. He flicked his thumb and a flame sprang out of the yellow thing. “I smoke sometimes when I’m human.” He turned his head away and blew a puff of smoke.
“Amazing! I want to smoke too!”
“Yeah, no. I’ll just get in trouble with Quell for corrupting today’s youth again.”
“Can I at least see that thing?” Topaz asked and reached for the lighter.
Oden sighed and handed it over. “Just don’t burn the house down, yeah? No, no, you’re doing it wrong. See, like this.” He demonstrated again before Topaz had a chance to burn himself. “Now, come on, we’re going to be late.”
When they got downstairs, Quell tried to take the lighter away, but Topaz held it protectively and gave him a piteous look until he gave up. As they walked down the street, he flicked it on and off happily. He ran his palm through the hot air above the flame.
“So, where are we going?” Topaz asked. That was when he really noticed where they were. There was so much color. Every shop had its name written in a different color and style. There were neon signs in the windows and canvas awnings above the doors. Topaz stopped on the sidewalk and stared.
Oden grabbed his wrist and pulled him on down the street. “Don’t get left behind, buddy. This party is for you.”
“Party?” Topaz asked as he loped up to Quell, who was waiting a few shops ahead with an indulgent expression on his face.
“Remember what I told you about there being another way to get to the House of Cats?” Quell asked.
“Uh huh,” Topaz said, still staring around with eyes and mouth wide open. Things were so much brighter as a human. How could all these people just hurry past, barely looking at their own city?
“We’re going to meet her.” Quell touched Topaz’s shoulder to guide him forward again.
“It’s a her?”
“She comes through her now and then, when she gets word of a changing-cat in danger.”
“Naw, we can take care of ones like you ourselves,” Oden said. “She gets the really tough cases. Pet store kittens and ones that have already been bought by humans.”
“Humans buy cats?”
“Awful, isn’t it?” Quell said.
“Usually it’s just regular cats, the snotty bastards. Those fur balls deserve what they get,” Oden said.
“Now, now,” Quell said. “Let’s not have this argument again. But the point is, this cat saves them before they get caught changing. She is one of the most important members of our community.”
“But why? I mean, that’s nice that she helps them, but what’s the big deal?”
“Secrecy from humans keeps us all safe. Without cats like her, we would all be circus freaks and lab experiments,” Oden said.
“Here we are,” Quell said. He had stopped beside a car parked outside a pet store. “Time to meet your ride.”
The woman who left the store and headed to the car looked a little like a biker chick, Topaz thought, remembering the people who frequented a bar nearby that he liked to explore around. Oden clapped a hand on Topaz’s back. “Good luck, kid,” he said.
“You’re leaving?” Topaz yelped.
“You’ll be fine. Maybe we’ll see you around sometime,” Oden said.
“Take care,” Quell said. Then they left and Topaz faced the scary biker chick.
The woman — the cat, Topaz had to remind himself — wore a short jacket of black leather, gloves, and boots. She had a cat kennel in her arms. Topaz reached out and put his arms around it as well. “Let me help you with that,” he said in his best English.
The woman’s face did a complicated series of expressions, fear and suspicion and hostility and recognition all rippling across it. “You’re a changing-cat,” she said. “Thanks,” she added after a pause and released the kennel into his grip. “You need something?” She unlocked the back door of the car.
Topaz slid the kennel across the seat. The woman pushed him out of the way and reached through to wrap the seatbelt around the kennel and snap it shut. Inside, a white cat chirped in agreement to something she said that Topaz could not hear. “I need to get to the House of Cats,” Topaz said. “Can you drive?”
She straightened up and leaned against the car with one arm draped over the open door. “What’s in it for me?”
“They said you help cats,” he said.
“Yeah, I bust them out when they need it,” she said and jerked a thumb towards the pet shop. The fingertips of her gloves were oddly floppy, like her fingers were not long enough to reach the ends. “But it looked like you had someone to watch out for you.”
“I think my brother is there. I want to find him.”
“Who’s your brother?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh, this should be interesting.” She bumped her heel against the tire for a minute while staring into space. “I might be persuaded to give you a lift,” she said at last. “But I’ll need your help.”
“Help with what?”
“Just a little B and E. This cat says she’s got a cousin who sold before she did. I’ve got to get her back. You up for it?”
“Sure. I’ll help.”
“Good boy. Get in. The house is uptown.”
Being in a car was yet another experience that convinced Topaz that humans had the best lives ever. He pressed his hands to the windows and craned his head in all directions to take in everything they passed.
“You ever broken into a house before?” The woman asked without looking away from the road.
“I’ve gotten in through windows before, if that’s what you mean.”
“Something like that.” He heard laughter in her voice. “If we’re lucky, the humans will all be out.”
“What if they aren’t?”
“But this is the last day of the moon. We’ll change back. We don’t have much time.”
She held up a bottle. “I’ve got the solution right here,” she said and gave it a shake. Something rattled inside. “Here we go,” she said as she pulled up to a house. There were no other cars in the driveway. The whole cul-de-sac looked deserted, being a Wednesday afternoon. “Let’s have a little fun, shall we? Nothing I like better than making humans miserable.”
“But they have such amazing things,” Topaz protested as he followed her around the side of the house and up to a side door into the garage.
“Yeah, just fantastic,” she said. “Hold this.” She handed him a little zippered case. She took a metal tool out of it and started fiddling with the lock on the door. After a minute, it popped open. She eased it open and stuck her head inside. “You hear anything?” She asked in a whisper.
“Good. Go fetch.”
She glared. “You want a ride or not?”
Topaz gulped. “Right.” He ducked low as he went through the door, shutting out all the strange and wonderful things he wanted to look at, focusing just on getting the cat and getting out again.
Topaz escaped into the backyard of the House. No one else was around, so he caught his breath and started exploring. Everyone wanted to talk to the new arrivals, including Topaz, but there was only one cat he wanted to talk to and Topaz had not found him yet. He sneezed once. All the smells there were new and so different from the city he knew. He could hear living things moving around everywhere and every breath of air was filled with the scent of pine.
Topaz heard someone moving behind him and he turned. “Hello,” he said and then he actually registered what the cat looked like. It was a cute bobtail cat with a spotted coat. He was intensely attractive. Topaz trotted over, tail swaying in the air. “I’m Topaz.”
The bobtail bowed his head slightly in a way that looked just like a human. “My name is Carlisle. Welcome to the House of Cats.”
“Thanks. So, you wouldn’t happen to be in charge here, would you?” Topaz really hoped he said no, because if this was his brother, he would have to wash his brain out after the thoughts he was having.
“After a manner of speaking, I suppose. Was there something you needed?”
“I was told I was looking for a cat who sort of took the House over a while ago.”
“Ah. Well, in that case, I’m afraid I am not the one you are looking for,” Carlisle said. Topaz hoped that the note of disappointment was not imagined. His list of cats to talk to definitely had a new entry. “That would be Rune,” Topaz barely heard Carlisle say.
“So his name is Rune.”
“You don’t have some sort of vendetta against him, do you? I shouldn’t be surprised, given his behavior sometimes, only it will be a bit of trouble.”
“I think he’s my brother,” Topaz said, suddenly shell-shocked at the prospect of actually finding him.
“Tell me, are you related by mother, or father?”
“The top tom around my old home was, I think, a changing-cat. His name was Brighton.”
“Then, as the official record keeper of the House, including pedigrees, I am pleased to tell you that Rune is your brother. At any rate, he has stated that a cat named Brighton was his father as well.”
“Is he here?”
“Follow me.” They walked around the corner of the house, into a grassy area full of the brightest, most golden sunlight Topaz had ever seen. Everything was warm and comfortable. And there was a gray tabby sleeping in the sunlight. “Go on,” Carlisle said, giving him a nudge. “He sleeps all the time, so you can’t possibly do him any harm by waking him.”
Topaz looked down at Rune, his brother, his family. The only family he had that might still accept him. He was too nervous to say or do anything to wake him. But the shadow Topaz cast over Rune must have awakened him.
Rune rolled over and squinted up at him. “Yeah?”
“I think I’m your brother, well, I mean, I’m pretty sure I am and my name’s Topaz and hi,” Topaz said in a rush.
Rune sat up and looked him over. “Huh. We don’t look much alike.”
“Different mothers,” Topaz said.
Rune wiped a paw across his eyes and blinked a few times. “Sorry, seeing spots. So.” He tipped his head, motioning Topaz to lie down in the warm grass. “Tell me about yourself.” Topaz felt all his nervousness and all his longing evaporate like dew on the sun-heated lawn.
Topaz regarded the two patches of cultivated ground behind the house. Catnip. Cat’s bane. Two plants, two beds. Dopple had told him she took cat’s bane to go on her trips as a human. And Carlisle had told him, after too many occasions of weird behavior from Rune, that his brother had an addiction to catnip.
Topaz wanted to go into town. He had not been away from the House since arriving and he wanted to see human things again. He peeled off a stalk of cat’s bane with his teeth. He sniffed it. Would it really make him change right then and there?
“Who gave you permission to do that?” Rune bellowed.
Topaz looked up then flinched away. Wherever Rune had come from, he was suddenly right on top of Topaz, all flattened ears and bristled tail. “I’m sorry,” Topaz said immediately, backing away. “I didn’t know it was yours.”
“Don’t ever touch that,” Rune said. He sprang and if Topaz had thought his mother was frightening, it was nothing compared to his brother. There was no getting away from him. Topaz kept leaping away, but every time he did, Rune got closer still. Rune knocked him to the ground and bit his ear viciously. Topaz yelped and jerked and threw Rune off him.
Topaz had grown and would get bigger yet, if his breed was any indication, but Rune was full-grown and fit and quite possibly insane. Rune caught Topaz with both front paws around his rump, like a lion taking down a zebra, then tumbled him to the ground. This time, Rune bit his neck near the shoulders and shook him.
“Never, never, never,” he repeated around his mouthful of fur and loose skin. “No one changes, do you understand me?”
“Yes, fine! Lemme go!”
Rune let him go and Topaz wriggled out from under him. Topaz achieved minimum safe distance and shook his fur out. He used a paw to wipe the blood from his punctured ear tip. Then he noticed that a crowd of cats had formed by the back door. They were watching, not with the air of spectators to a blood sport, but like hostages. Then Carlisle burst out of the crowd and ran over to Topaz.
“What happened? Where are you hurt?”
Topaz shrugged him away. “I’m fine. It was just a misunderstanding.”
“What did he do to you?” Carlisle asked and cast a glance at Rune. Dopple had gone to Rune’s side, but they were not talking. “Did he attack you?”
“It was nothing. We were just messing around and got carried away.”
“You don’t have to cover for him,” Carlisle said in a whisper. “This isn’t the first time he’s done this.”
“It’s fine,” Topaz said emphatically. He looked at Rune. The first day he had arrived, Carlisle told him the rules of the House. First among them was that all changing-cats were welcome in the House, always. Except. Except if they brought harm to another changing-cat or to the House itself. That was the only reason they could ever be kicked out. And the rules were always enforced.
“Please, just say the word,” Carlisle said with an imploring look. “He’s a danger to everyone here. Please, I need you to say it.”
Topaz looked at Rune and met his eyes across the yard. He was Topaz’s only chance for a family. Topaz looked back at Carlisle. “Nothing happened.”
Carlisle seemed to cave in on himself. “Very well. Come inside and I’ll clean your ear for you. We mustn’t let it get infected.” He snorted and shook his head. “We would never be allowed to change and take you to a doctor.”
Topaz followed Carlisle back to the house. The crowd dispersed before them with murmurs and nervous looks. Topaz could not save them, not at the expense of his brother. But, he thought, maybe he could save his brother.
Topaz stretched and yawned and rolled over so the sun in the window could warm his belly. He cracked his eyes open and saw Heather, upside down, at the door. She closed the door behind her with a foot, as her arms were full with two boxes.
“What’s that?” Topaz asked, flipping himself around and chasing after her.
Heather looked down at the top box. “I know I ordered one thing, but I’m not sure what the other is. It’s for me, but I don’t recognize it.”
“Maybe it’s a present from a secret admirer,” Topaz said as he followed her into her office and jumped on to the desk.
She flopped down in her chair. “Highly unlikely,” she said. She slit the tape on both boxes with a letter opener. “Guess we’ll find out,” she said as she folded the flaps of the box back. She lifted out a plastic bag filled with something light brown and crunchy. She tossed it in her hand so the label faced her.
“Well? What is it? Something good? A gift? Food?” Topaz bounced from paw to paw.
“It’s catnip,” Heather said, her voice flat.
Topaz stopped bouncing and sat down heavily. “Catnip? Why would you order that? I thought we had an agreement.”
“I didn’t order it,” Heather insisted.
“He didn’t buy it himself.”
Heather shook her head. “The other Heather.”
“Dopple,” Topaz said, understanding and rather wishing he did not.
“I knew he couldn’t be getting it from the garden,” Heather said. She sounded frustrated and relieved at the same time, now that the mystery was solved for her. “Not at the rate he uses it.” She closed the box up and set it and the other one aside.
“Aren’t you going to open the other?” Topaz asked. He could not imagine anything worse could come from it.
“I already know what’s inside,” Heather said. She was not meeting his gaze.
“What?” Topaz insisted.
Topaz stood up. He sat down again. He tried to make the words come out, but his brain was stuck on the feeling of betrayal. “You. I don’t. You’re just like him!”
“Topaz,” Heather said and reached out to him.
“No! You said you would help, but you’re just as bad.” He jumped down to the floor and paced. “You probably think it’s just fine for him to use it.”
“I don’t think that. I’ve been trying.”
“Not hard enough, if he has Dopple restocking for him,” he said.
“Topaz, this isn’t something he’s going to drop overnight. You need to be patient.”
“No! I’m sick of being patient.” His tail lashed behind him. “You can say that. You’ve only been here a few months. I’ve been here over a year and it’s just getting worse.”
“I know it is.” Heather fiddled with the letter opener in her hands, still not looking at Topaz. “I can’t just take it away from him. He has to be ready to quit.”
“Why? Why does he have to be ready?” He ran to the box and put his paws up on it. “Why can’t we just throw all that away? Then he’ll just have to deal with not eating it.”
Heather put her hand on the box as well. It was like a passive game of tug-o-war. “That would be dangerous. He’s too dependent. His body needs it.”
“His body doesn’t need to kill itself,” Topaz yowled.
“You don’t understand how this works.”
He stalked away from her then back again. “I don’t understand why no one is saving him. Why no one is helping me.”
“I’m trying to,” Heather said.
“I’m sorry, Topaz. I really am.” Topaz did not think she sounded sorry. She sounded patient and patronizing. She sounded calm and he could not tolerate anyone being calmer than he was just then. “But you’re just going to have to trust me. I’m making progress. He’s getting to the point where he wants something better from his life than just one high after another. Just give it a little more time.” She took the box and set it on top of the desk.
“What will you do with that?”
“Give it to Dopple, I suppose,” Heather said with a resigned shrug.
“So she can give it to him.” Heather started to say something more, but Topaz turned his tail on her. “Just don’t. I don’t want to hear about it.” He ran from the room before she could argue any more. Nothing she said could make any of this right for him.
Topaz camped out in front of the front door. He knew Dopple was heading out again on a recovery mission; it was only a matter of time before she tried to get past him. When she did, she greeted him like she always did. “Hey, kid. Done any burglaries lately? Want to make this run with me?” She pulled her leather jacket out of the hall closet.
“Why are you buying catnip for him?” Topaz asked.
Dopple squatted down to get on his level. “He’s the boss,” she said simply. “I do what he tells me.”
“Even if it hurts him?”
“I’m not his mother. He can make decisions for himself.” She blew the fringe of her bangs out of her eyes. “If I think they’re stupid decisions, it’s not really my business. And if I second guessed every order he gave me, I would never get anything done.”
“Orders? What orders? Is he some, some sort of general? Is this an army? Make your own decisions,” he spat.
Even as a human, Dopple flinched away from him at his outburst. “It’s not that simple.”
“I’m making it that simple. Better is he’s mad at us than dead.”
“I can’t do that. I need to know he will take care of me.”
“You’re an adult too. Take care of yourself.”
“That’s a low blow, kid. You know I can’t.” She looked down at her gloved hands. “You know why.”
Topaz was so tired of hearing their excuses. No matter what, they had a reason to say ‘I can’t.’ “You could live as a human, like Heather does,” he said. “You would be safe that way.”
“I’m nothing like Heather,” Dopple said even as she instinctively looked up at the staircase to make sure Heather was not listening. “She’s a coward for no reason.”
“But no one’s going to kick you out of the House for defying him. He’s not in charge any more. You don’t have to impress him all the time.”
“Guess it’s just a bad habit of mine then,” she said with a shrug. But she added, voice suddenly fierce, “I’ll stick by him no matter what.”
“Doesn’t it matter that your boss, your friend, is killing himself?”
“What would you have me do? If I stop helping him, he’ll find someone else. Maybe he’ll even stop me from doing my job any more. Maybe he’ll stop watching out for me. What do I do then?” She reached out to stroke the back of her hand along his spine as if to reassure herself they were still friends.
“Please,” Topaz said and butted his head against her hand. “Why can’t you see that I need you to help me, not him?”
Dopple pulled away. “I don’t see you standing up to him either. One good tussle and you slunk away with your tail between your legs, if I remember correctly. You want him to like you just as much as I do. You said he’s your last chance at family. You’re not going to give that up.”
“I will if I have to. I will if it will save him.” Please, he thought, just don’t make me go it alone.
“Brave words, but I’ll believe it when I see it. I’ve got to head out, kid. I have work to do. You should find something to keep you busy as well. And leave Rune to his own devices. He’ll take care of himself just fine. He did before either of us came along.” She closed the door.
Topaz sat staring at the door for a long time, watching a distorted square of sunlight slide across it. He was on his own. But that was okay. He had been there before and he always figured things out. He would come up with something. He just had to outsmart all the adults around him. He had to think like a kitten again. He had to do something rash. He grinned, showing his fangs to no one. He could do rash.