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.
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.”