HoC Episode 2: Territorial

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.

“Someone’s here.”

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.

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HoC Episode 1: Stray Cats

Carlisle jumped from a trashcan to a window ledge and up onto the roof. Though the sun had set into the nearby ocean long ago, the shingles were still warm under his paws, silver-blue fur tinged gold by the streetlamps. He looked over the edge to the street below. This was Chestnut and– he looked to the west– Main was down there. He ran faster and sailed from one house to another. Almost there. He took two gravity-defying leaps back down to street level and turned onto Main. If he hurried, he could still get to Her in time.

Dopple had found the restaurant on the internet for him. A dout of cats, who had first found where She was, had given Carlisle directions. The information had been three months old by the time it got to him. And cat directions were vague and relative and based on details that shifted constantly. But Dopple knew how to find things the human way. Carlisle was too old for all the new technology; he was an old-fashioned cat. But Dopple was young and clever.

From a nearby window, a queen’s song called to him as he passed. He looked up. She was perched on a human’s balcony. She arched and bowed when she caught his eye. She must have been young, much too young, if she could not smell that he was not her sort of cat. Even if he had been, the cord around his neck constantly reminded him he was on a mission. He chirruped back, just to be polite, and continued on.

He had been lost once already, when he thought that cutting straight across town would be quicker. What were humans thinking, making their roads bend like that? They took you farther away from where you wanted to go instead of closer. He had to backtrack to find the right roads and parts of roads again. After that, he had followed Dopple’s directions to the letter.

There! He saw the light-up sign for Mitchell’s Bar and Grill ahead. That only left crossing the street, a task which, like using computers, was one of the few things to benefit from his unfortunate condition. He, unlike normal cats, knew what a crosswalk was for and what ‘don’t walk’ signs meant. Soon he would be face to face with Her again, for the first time in over twenty-five long years. Soon, everything would be right.

Soon, he would bring the Queen home.

Heather slammed the restaurant’s back door shut and threw her weight against it. Gray fur gone blue like a gas flame in the dark. A thousand unblinking rosettes and two luminous spots fixed on her. Across the room, Marty looked up from his locker. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Heather tried to respond, but she could not get anything but wheezy breaths past her lips. She went to her own locker, casting furtive glances at the door, and scrabbled at the lock. She banged the door open and grabbed the bottle of pills. Her lungs felt too small for her body. Her fingers, shaking as they tried to get the cap off, were turning dark as she watched.

She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror stuck to the inside of the door. Shoulder-length blonde hair with dark tips, which everyone thought was an eccentric dye job, framed her small face. And around her eyes, across her nose, and down over her upper lip, a dark brown mask started to show. Bottle open, she gulped down one pill, then another, the spicy herbal smell leaking past the gel capsules.

Marty put his hand on her shoulder. “Hey, what’s up?” She jerked away, thrumming with pent up energy. “Is it safe to take so many of those at once?” Marty added when she struggled to get a third pill down despite her dry mouth.

“I saw some– I thought I saw–”

He gave a nervous laugh. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid of the dark. It was probably just a shadow.”

Heather shook and nodded her head in fits. “Can you?”

“Can I what?” he asked. “Should I call 911? You’re not going to have a heart attack, are you? Or whatever you do when your heart freaks out?”

“No, I just, I thought I saw someone out there.” She put the bottle back in her locker and had to shut the door before she gave in to the impulse to take a few more pills. She had no purse to carry, ID and cash stuffed in her pockets. “Could you walk me home?”

“Your place is kind of out of the way for me,” Marty said.

Heather tried to give him a sultry look, but it felt queasy more than anything. “I would just feel better with someone I know could protect me.”

Marty scuffed the toe of his shoe against the floor, a little boy gesture which came out whenever she turned her charms on him. “Well, I’d hate for something to happen to you. Sure. Let’s go.”

“Great. Thanks. But let’s go out the front door. More light.” Heather looked back at the door one last time. While Marty’s back was to her, she opened her mouth and silently hissed at it and whoever lurked on the other side.

Two days later, when Heather opened the door of her apartment to get the Sunday paper, a cat, spotted gray and bobtailed, trotted in. It was every bad dream come true. It was a purgatory of playing the mouse to some other cat, all the other cats. She lunged after him, intent on grabbing him and putting him out the door by force. Only scoundrels and kittens were ever picked up. Not even enemies deserved that dishonor. He ascended a bookshelf, destroying a lamp on the way, and crouched on the top of it. He was not even out of breath; Heather was gasping. He smoothed the fur on his shoulders for a moment, ignoring her frantic curses, and then tucked his paws under his chest and closed his eyes. He seemed content to stay there indefinitely. Heather would have none of it.

She returned with a broom. “Get out of my home,” she said and flailed at the cat with it. He hopped down with a hiss. “Leave me alone,” she shouted as he dove into the bathroom. She followed and found him holed up in the cupboard under the sink. She prodded him with the handle of the broom. He growled low and inarticulate at her.

Furious, she made a grab for him barehanded. Her hand came back with bloodied claw marks raked down it. She slumped back against the wall and pulled her knees up to her chest. Her arm stung and blood dripped onto the linoleum. What started as a deep breath turned into a sob. Soon her face was wet with tears and her nose was streaming down over her lips. She scrubbed her sleeve across her face and kept crying.

A rough tongue rasped against her hand once, tentatively, then settled into bathing her whole arm. She hiccupped and laughed until she lapsed into tears again. She could not say why she was crying: because someone had come to drag her back to her old life or because someone had finally cared enough to come looking for her. The cat just kept cleaning her, the touch a painful comfort.

He eventually decided that she had cried long enough and climbed into her lap. He put his paws on her shoulders and butted the top of his head against her wet cheeks. Without thinking, she started petting him, running her hands down his sides and scratching behind his ears. She had not heard a cat purr in twenty-five years.

She finally batted him away and stood over the sink to splash water on her face. The cat watched her with his head cocked to one side. She took one of her pills just to be sure she would not change. She looked down at the cat, who was washing his face while he waited.

“So. You’re here. I’ll get you something to eat. And you can tell me what you want from me.”

Heather sat on her battered couch while Carlisle sat on the coffee table, eating from a plate of shredded cold cuts. He was a little thin, mostly from dehydration. He had lapped up the dish of water she gave him before touching the food. His coat was coarser than she remembered it being, though the fur of his muzzle was still richly blue-gray, not a trace of white. He was three years younger than Heather, but where her human body had kept her in near-stasis for years, his cat body had quietly aged. She felt the pricking of guilty tears behind her eyes. They had been kittens together. He looked up at her and gulped down his mouthful of turkey.

“What’s that look for?” Carlisle asked. “I don’t have something in my fur, do I?” He started grooming anyway.

“I was just thinking,” Heather said slowly, trying to reacquaint her mouth to the halfway language used to talk between human and cat forms. “It’s good to see you.”

“Is that so?” Carlisle asked. “I must have just imagined that you were avoiding me.”

Heather stretched out on the couch. “I would still like to be avoiding you. But. But I’m glad you’re alive to be avoided.”

“High praise,” Carlisle said and jumped onto the couch. He stalked up her legs to perch on her chest.

“Besides, I was au natural yesterday. I can’t waste my days off on socializing. I need to get the change out of my system.” Her hands gravitated to his fur again.

“And you didn’t invite me in then? We could have enjoyed ourselves.” He arched into her petting.

“Like I wanted company then. It’s bad enough when I can sleep through the experience.” Her fingers stuttered over something in the thick fur around his neck and shoulders.

“I didn’t believe the rumors, but I guess it’s true. You’re living furless.”

“What’s this?” Heather asked and hooked her fingers in the cord around his neck.

“Take it.”

She followed it down to the two keys strung on it. One was old-fashioned, silver tarnished into a pock-marked lump of black. The other was nondescript, indistinguishable from the key to her own front door or any other modern lock. One symbolic, one practical. She pushed Carlisle off her lap and sat up.

“Now, don’t get your tail puffed,” Carlisle said patiently.

“What are you doing with the House Keys? Did Mother send you?”

“Your mother didn’t send me.” She started to interrupt and he hissed at her. “Your mother has been dead for eight years, Heather. You are the Queen of the House.”

Heather shook her head. She rose from the couch and paced aimlessly. She looked at him and started to respond, but the words died on her lips. She had no tears left, but her throat was filled with a tight, choking pain. “Dead?”

“Do you understand now? Why I’m here? Why you have to come back to the House?”

Hysterical laughter exploded past the lump in her throat. “I’m not coming back to the House.”

He jumped to the back of the couch to look her in the eye. “We need you. We’re in trouble.”

“Trouble? What kind of trouble?”

“Humans. They’ve started invading the grounds. We don’t know why. Dopple has been keeping the executor of the trust satisfied, but things are getting out of control. The House needs a human face,” he added, though it galled him somewhat to admit such a thing.

Heather had no idea who Dopple was and she had only vague memories of her mother making phone calls to the lawyer who managed the House’s finances. “I can’t help you.”

“You are the Queen. You are the only one who can help us.”

She turned her back on him. “No.”

“All the paperwork. All the accounts. All the bills. They’re all tied to you. You are the House of Cats.”

She whirled around. “I don’t want to be!”

He ducked his head. “Sometimes, we can’t have what we want,” he said cautiously.

She looked out her window onto the city street below the apartment. It had been time to move on anyway, she told herself. She could only stay so long before people started to notice. She didn’t get older. She had strange incidents that could not be explained by her fictional “heart condition” and the pills she took religiously. There was something subtly off about her and after four or five years, people began to ask questions.

So. She would quit her job. Leave her apartment. Start over in a new city. Maybe it would take another twenty-five years for Carlisle and the other cats to track her down. Maybe they would give up on her before then. Maybe she would finally be rid of the cat’s shadow that followed her.

“You can stay until tomorrow. Get your strength up. Then you’re leaving.” She went to her bedroom and shut the door behind her. With a pillow over her head, she could not hear if Carlisle said anything to her through the door. But she could hear her voice form the cat-speak word for mother. She could hear herself cry for a cat dead and buried and half-remembered.

Carlisle watched Heather prepare for work the next morning. She had permitted his company the previous day after a few hours sulking and ultimately allowed him to spend the night curled against her back while she slept. Carlisle felt only the same quiet affection he ever had. It was one of the pleasures available only to fixed cats, to love without the lusts and jealousies nature impelled others towards.

Though, it was impossible to maintain the notion that she was a noble Queen gone astray. She was just Heather, as he had always known her, full of flaws and virtues. Cat to the core, whether she believed it or not. And he was her friend, not her serf.

He watched her take her first pills before rising from bed, supplied from a bottle on her night stand. While she showered, he basked in the steam, lounging on the counter, and noticed the identical bottle there between the lotion and the mouthwash. He ate more cold cuts while she dressed for work. She took another pill before leaving.

“I can’t leave any windows open, so you’ll have to wait until I get back,” she said. “I’ll let you out then. Unless you want to leave now?”

“No, thank you. Have a nice day at work.” The cat-speak word for work more accurately translated to “hunting and marking territory,” but was understood to encompass more human pursuits as well, such as waiting tables. He listened to her footsteps, down the hall to the lift. Then he ate the last bite of meat, stretched, and started to explore.

There was the bottle of pills in the bedroom and the one in the bathroom. There was a large bottle, a refill, he thought, under the sink. Next to it were two pills on a dessert plate. The cat’s bane itself he found in the pantry. There was a big plastic sack of it, loose leaf, from Eleanor’s Bulk Herbs. It was labeled “horehound,” but any changing-cat knew its true name. There was a coffee grinder. There was a bottle of empty gel caps to be filled.

Heather had everything she needed to keep herself human indefinitely. He knew all about cat’s bane. It was a subject of great contention at the House these days. Dopple used it often to carry out those duties which required a human form. But it was dangerous. Not as dangerous as catnip, but still. Carlisle was glad to know that Heather set aside a day to return to her cat form. That her last transformation had been only two days prior was an even greater boon. He was not sure she would survive changing back if she had been human for over two decades without interruption.

He considered how to go about his task. As a cat, he could not leave the apartment. As a human, he would be naked and no better off. But as a human, he could at least open child-proof caps and operate the sink’s garbage disposal. It was, he reflected, a good thing that Heather provided for just this situation. The pills on the dessert plate were no doubt there for when she had finished her one day of feline form. Or in case of emergencies.

He hooked his paw around the door of the bathroom cupboard and pulled it open. Two pills would last about two hours. He tried to swallow them whole, but the capsules stuck to his tongue. He had to crunch through them instead. His mouth filled with slightly bitter herbal powder. He smacked his lips and returned to the kitchen for the dish of water Heather had set out. Then he rested and waited for the change. He felt like a young cat again, out on the town with the Blue Road Dout, shifting between cat and human whenever it struck their fancy. Ah, that was a lifetime away. But it was nice to remember, he thought sleepily, just for a little while.

When Heather returned home from work, the first thing she did was go to the bathroom to get one of her pills. She always took one before leaving work, in case she was delayed for some reason. But that was half an hour prior and she had to keep the doses layered so she never ran out. The bottle, when opened, proved to be empty.

“Must have used the last this morning,” she said to herself. She noticed Carlisle in the doorway and nodded hello to him as she took the refill bottle from under the sink. She knew from how light it was that it was empty as well. She did not let herself think about the strangeness of it. She just put it back, next to the empty dessert plate, and went to get the bottle in her bedroom.

Carlisle twined between her legs. “Go on, will you? I’m busy,” she said. The bottle was not there. Now, she thought, now was not the time to panic. No, everything was fine. She went out to the kitchen. Ah, yes, there it was by the sink. She had just misplaced it.

Empty, too. Heather felt her breath coming in shallow puffs. It was fine. Her last pill was still with her. She had time. Deep breath. She. Had. Time. She went to the pantry. Gone. All gone. The whole sack of it.

She felt betrayed. As though it had disappeared just to spite her. She noticed she was leaning on the door jam, almost doubled over, wheezing like an asthmatic. She thought lowering one’s head was supposed to help with panic attacks. It was not working.

Work! She had a bottle at work, inside her locker, full and lovely. Thank her ears and whiskers; that would fix everything. She would…she would run! She would run and make it there before the last pill wore off and then everything would be fine and–

Carlisle sat in front of the door. “You’ve been thinking out loud,” he said.


“I’m sorry, Heather. I really did want this to be easy.”

She grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and tossed him aside. She felt light-headed and could not catch her breath. With a yowl, he sprang and bit at her ankles. She stumbled and slammed the door she had barely opened. Carlisle clamored up her leg, leaving a trail of dot-dashes with his claws. Heather’s mind spun with hysteria and sparkles of pain and the black-orange pulse of too little oxygen.

“Please,” she sobbed as she lost her balance and fell to her hands and knees. “Please, don’t do this. Give it back.” She rolled onto her side. The carpet scraped rough and thin against her cheek. But it was cool and she was so hot.

Carlisle, who had jumped clear as she fell, came closer. “I can’t do that. All down the drain. It took a long time. Your pipes might not be too happy about all those leaves.”

“Carlisle, if you loved me, you’d let me live how I want,” she whispered. She was sleepy. Much too sleepy to move. “You wouldn’t make me go back.”

“I love you very much, my old friend,” he said. He curled up by her head and licked her ear, nibbling now and then. “So much that I can’t let you run away this time. I have to have you back. I need you. We all do. And you need us.”

Heather rolled onto her back. The ceiling spun and the floor tilted. Sounds battered around in her ears. “This isn’t what I wanted,” she said. “This is all wrong.” She flung her arms in the direction of the rest of the apartment then let them collapse at her sides. She had no strength left to fight it.

Carlisle made noncommittal noises and washed her face for her until she slept. His transformation had been easy, if not pleasant. No cat enjoyed when their fur fell out and their teeth ground themselves flat against nothing. He knew there were useful aspects to being human. But in moderation. Heather would thank him, one day, for what he had done. For making her wake up and realize she was living a lie and not even enjoying it.

But then things started to go wrong. Heather writhed. She sweated. She cried out in a fever sleep. Was it like this every time she changed back? Carlisle could almost understand why she hated it so. There was nothing he could do but comfort her. The cat’s bane was well and truly gone. He paced, wondering what to do, until he noticed her shivering. So he curled up against her and she put her arms around him without waking up. And he waited.

The hair on her head was the first thing to go. It evaporated and left behind a short fuzz of cat’s undercoat. Her bones turned soft and supple and melted into foreign shapes. More vertebrae grew for her tail, covered by newly made skin stretched thin and tender. She shrank, contracting in on herself with painful speed. Smooth human nails coalesced into claws. Teeth fell out to disappear like nuggets of dry ice on the floor. The ones left behind dripped long and sharp. A fresh coat of hair popped from her skin like stubble, then like spines, then lay flat at last.

Then it was over. Instead of a human body, furless and flat-faced, Carlisle was curled against another cat. Her color-point coat had not a single dark hair out of bounds, nor a single cream hair to mar the seal brown of her face and tail, legs and ears. She was as young and sleek as she had been the last day he saw her. He had been the one running away then, going off to have adventures. She had barely aged.

When she woke, the first thing she did was bite him sharply on the ear. “You son of pig-dog!” She bristled, every long fur sticking straight out. She was a two-tone tumbleweed. She did not seem close to thanking him any time soon.

“There’s cat’s bane growing at the House,” he said in a rush as he bolted away from her.

She stopped chasing him and glared. “Convenient, that is. Why should I believe you? You’ve not been very straight-forward so far.”

“I’m hurt.” He flattened his ears in fear and offense. “I haven’t lied about anything. I told you exactly what I needed. You chose to ignore me. So I forced your hand.”

“Oh, well, that’s much better,” she howled.

“There’s only one choice left for you,” he said. “Come back to the House. What happens after that, I can’t say. But you must do at least that much.”

“How do you propose we get out, genius? Can you turn doorknobs?”

Carlisle came closer and, when she did not attack, sidled up against her. “I left the bedroom window open to the fire escape. I do think these things through, you know.”

Heather took one last look around her apartment. Around her life. “I hope you know the way then,” she said at last. “I don’t fancy dragging this out.”

“It’ll be over before you know it.”

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Working Review: Wake up at 3 AM

The first book I will be reviewing here is Brian Kiteley’s The 3 A.M. Epiphany. The book includes 201 exercises, plus a great deal of extra material in the chapter introductions, exercise explanations, and appendices of articles. The chapters cover storytelling topics (such as POV, time, description), language topics (your own sentences, other writers’ sentences), and content topics (childhood, work, travel).

Kiteley’s background is in teaching and the exercises were originally directed at his students at the University of Denver. Some of the material in here is very, very literary. By that, I mean that it is focused on the artistry of language more than plot, on internal states more than external action. I am normally far more concerned with which words I need to get the plot out than with which ones will sound prettiest.

The first exercise I am going to do is from the POV chapter and it is called “Imperative.” It calls for a short “fragment” of a story, composed entirely of command forms: (you) do something.

When I was in college, my first short story class read one of Lorrie Moore’s stories– referenced in 3 AM— and I wrote an imitation of it then as well. At the time, I found it difficult to make it a true imperative. I kept slipping into a present tense, second person narrative (you go here and there, even if I did not command it), which isn’t really the same. Despite the difficulty, I found it a strangely satisfying exercise then; there was more emotional depth than I expected from a frivolous, diet book sort of style. Neil Gaiman has a poem in Fragile Things, “Instructions,” that uses the same idea.

For exercises in style, rather than subject, my difficulty always lies is choosing a topic. Writers are, at their core, incredibly bossy people. We make our living ordering around fictional people– their unwillingness to go along with us notwithstanding. But we temper this with ideas about motivation and consequences and theme, as though we have no direct hand in what actions they undertake. And outside of writing, ordering people about tends to be frowned on. This exercise, then, is distinctly uncomfortable for me. Who may I order around? What may I force others to do?

Well, I’ll admit, it may be uncomfortable, but it’s also pleasurable. With fairytales in mind from Gaiman’s poem, I think I will order around Sleeping Beauty or a similar princess-in-trouble.

Save Yourself

When the village priest tells your parents you were born under an unlucky star, do not despair. Grow up: pretty, but never beautiful; clever, but never genius; hard-working, but never adept. Your parents will try to keep you inside, where it is safe. Do not let them.

When you are four, play in the little pond behind the house. Though you fall in, you will not drown. When you are six, befriend a stray dog. Though it growls, you will not be bitten. When you are eight, walk to the village square alone. Though you get lost, you will come to no harm.

When you are ten, try to sneak outside before supper. Get caught. Your nanny will give you a biscuit and tell you to be a good girl. Do not listen. Try again.

When you are outside, do not follow the fence– they are looking for you. Walk down the hill instead. Follow the field mouse into the forest. When you catch him, do not harm him. If he speaks to you– I have no doubt he will– offer him the biscuit. He will show you somewhere warm and dry to sleep. Though you are hungry, do not go home.

In the morning, search for something to eat. Find a wildcat instead. Do not scream! When she tells you that she serves the lady of the wood, ask to go with her to the lady’s house. You will not find it otherwise. It lies in deeper forests than any man living has seen or even heard of.

Thank the wildcat. Let her enter first. Do not show her your back.

Ask the witch– for the lady is a witch, make no mistake– to teach you her craft. Ask three times. Do not leave when she refuses. If she needs the jar just out of reach, hand it to her. If she needs water from the well, fetch it for her. If she hands you a mortar full of woody herbs, smelling of pepper and pine, grind them for her. When night falls, take supper with her at the scarred and bleached table. Sleep by the fire, wrapped in the blanket she sets out for no one in particular. Never ask her why she let you stay.

Work harder than you ever imagined it was possible to work. You have only yourself to rely on. Study the witch’s ancient books. Talk to oak and ash trees and listen to their secret tree-words, the shish-shish and plushaplush of wind in leaves and sap in trunks. Hibernate for a winter to understand bear magic and sleep magic and death magic. Get news from passing starlings. Learn the movements of planets and the patterns of stars. Cast your own star chart and see what the village priest saw when you were born.

Go outside on a cold and cloudless night. Climb to the roof of the witch’s house and look up through the trees. Find the star that spells your doom– white and red and yellow against thick purple. Fall asleep. Watch it in your dreams.

Wake up cold and stiff. Look out into the forest from your high perch. Spy a man. It will perhaps be your sixteenth birthday, for strange things happen on such a day. He will be lost. Cursed, too. Show him the way out of the forest. Fall in love, just a little, when he tells you he seeks to break his curse, no matter the danger. Do not forget him.

From a flock of starlings and the field mice and the skulking raccoon, discover that a great calamity threatens your family and your village. Tell the witch you are leaving. She may give you a charm or a weapon or a farewell kiss. Leave the forest. Return to the village. Be a stranger.

Seek out your parents, grown sallow and old with sorrow in your absence. They will not know you but they will let you lodge with them. Watch them grow lively again. Give them what comfort you can spare.

Speak to the village priest: it is a star which falls towards the village. It is your doom star, the eye of your constellation, which breaks loose of the sky. Find the cursed man there as well. He seeks the priest’s guidance, but will receive none while the star still hangs its fire over the heads of the villagers.

When the star falls, catch it. It takes no magic. It takes much more. You must have the suppleness of saplings. You must know how to die without dying, as a bear does. You must know that a star burns without flame and travels without movement. You must know what you are capable of.

Catch it. Save yourself. Live under a no-star, a fateless sky, a cheated doom.

Save yourself.

Catch it.

Leave the village behind. Go home. Let the cursed man follow you as far as the forest. Say nothing. Refuse to teach him when he asks. If he still follows, take him home. Teach him. Let him save himself.

Whew. I went well over the suggested word count (500), but I wanted a complete arc of narrative to make up for the weirdness of the exercise. Once again, I found this to be a delight to write. I ran into the same problem as the first time I did this, slipping into second person present. I tried to combat it by making it into a future tense instead. It seemed to mesh with the commands better by sort of ordering around possible events. I tried, as much as possible while remaining coherent, to just write commands. I sketched out the plot I wanted to have before I tried to write. Of course, this was composed of smaller commands (go into forest, learn magic, and so on), so I really did the exercise twice.

What I found most interesting was the way that command forms created a sort of plot outline for me. I could see the shape of a larger story as I created it in miniature. I am quite tempted to try the exercise the next time I need to work out the plot for a larger project. I could run each of my main characters through it, sketching out their personal plot arcs. Because while the result can have details and lyrical moments– can be a finished product in itself– it is largely comprised of broad strokes and covers as much ground as possible in a small space.

An imperative piece is largely an oddity. No one would read a novel written entirely in this form (no one I have met, at any rate). But it does such interesting things to the brain and makes you think of plot in a unique and excellent way.

It is a common problem for writers, myself very much included, to let things happen to your characters. In the desire to heap problems on them and have nice juicy conflict, it is tempting to let them just sit back and be buffeted by this sea of troubles. No good. This exercise can only work if the “you” in question becomes the agent of actions. (Well, you could cheat and just use forms of to be. Be kidnapped. Be sad. Be a helpless twit.) This makes for delicious, consequence-riddled fiction. I really recommend trying it.