HoC Episode 5: Cats Never Say Thank You

Heather tickled the kitten under the chin. He squeaked and mewled and squiggled across her palm. She set him next to his mother. “He’s beautiful. He looks just like his daddy.”

Lana chuckled. “One of them, at any rate.” His eyelids were just beginning to part in the corners. Once they opened, he would begin exploring in earnest. For now, he was content to bump around Lana on wobbly legs.

Heather leaned back against the couch where mother and kitten were currently nesting. “Have you decided on a name yet?”

“A few of us are all going to ask today.” The kitten cried and squirmed as Lana cleaned him.

“Ask?”

Lana paused mid-lick. “We’re going to ask Rune to choose for us.”

“He’s the, that is, one of the fathers?”

“Oh, no. That’ll be the day.” She laughed. “He barely even looks at any of us. Pity, too. He’s a good-looking tom.”

“So why?” Beyond the window, the hillsides were a patchwork of green and brown and orange. The damp and mild California autumn had allowed a new crop of thin, bright green grass to come up all around the house. Heather thought of Thanksgiving Day dinners being served at Mitchell’s. She had not thought of Mitchell and Marty and the rest of the staff in months.

“Because he’s a wise cat, when he has his head on straight,” Lana said, snapping Heather out of her reminiscences.

“You’re serious.”

She cocked her head. “You don’t believe me?”

“Before I got here, I imagined this dictator, a mad Caesar. Something worth fearing.” Heather tipped her head back to rest on the seat. “Rune’s just a junkie.”

“You’re wrong about that. Come on. I’m supposed to meet them now.”

Heather followed Lana as she carried her single kitten in her mouth. Changing-cats always had small litters, which was a blessing when they all tried to fit into the House. They went upstairs and into a room Heather walked past every day, but never entered. It opened onto a balcony overlooking the front drive of the property. Rune slept in the midmorning sun.

“You’re late,” one cat called to the newcomers.

“We almost started without you,” said the second.

Heather sat a few feet away. Rune did not look at her. The three queens sat with their kittens, all eager to escape, held under firm paws.

“What can I do for you, ladies?” he asked. He seemed relaxed. Must be coming down, Heather thought. He’ll need to fix again soon.

“We were hoping you would choose names for our little ones,” one cat said.

“You know so many cats,” said another. “You’ll know better than we do what’s been taken too many times.”

“Very well. Let me see.”

Lana put her tuxedo kitten in front of him. Rune swept him up with a paw and pulled him between his front legs. The kitten burrowed into the thick fur of his chest and tumbled over his own paws. Rune tucked his chin and gave the kitten a swipe with his tongue.

“His father is a two-color as well?”

“One is. The other had a two-color mother, but he’s all black himself.”

“He’s strong for his age.”

“He likes to kick, too,” Lana said with an indulgent smile.

“I think…Rugby, with your permission, madam.”

So it was in that way that Rugby, Cottonwood and the twins, Castor and Pollux, received their names. Their business finished, the three queens all left Rune. Heather lingered. He had his back to her, once again basking in the sunlight. Beyond the balcony, the tops of trees were transformed into an unbroken sweep of color.

“What do…Did you need something?” Rune eventually asked when she did not leave.

“How do you feel about yams with marshmallows?” Heather asked.

She could not see his face and he did not turn around, but she thought she could hear a smile in his voice when he answered. “I am partial to garlic mashed potatoes, actually. And chunky cranberry sauce.”

Dopple watched Carlisle hook a nail under the edge of the envelope and rip it open. From the doorway to the kitchen, she could look out the sliding doors to the backyard. Heather sat on the lawn, still fighting with the same cat tree she had been trying to assemble for the past twenty minutes. Dopple thought she could hear her cursing through the closed windows. Carlisle slid a neatly folded sheaf of papers from the envelope and unfolded them.

“Any new reports?” Dopple asked, sliding into the seat next to him at the kitchen table.

“Oh, Miss Dopple,” he said. His fur puffed and relaxed in a flash of surprise. “Not as of yet. Though I have developed something of a backlog. Everyone is writing in before the winter sets in.”

“Oh. I see.” She rose from the chair. “I guess I’ll be going then,” Dopple said.

“There was one thing,” he said with a smile.

Dopple’s heart skipped a beat. “Yes?”

“I got a letter from a certain calico beauty queen.”

Dopple was back in the chair in an instant. “When? Where is she? Is everything okay?” She grabbed the pile of letters and started sifting through them. “Can I read it?”

“Ahem.” Carlisle pushed a lone red envelope toward her. “It’s all yours. I’ve not read it yet myself. But she used the perfumed paper, so I imagine that all is well in her world.”

Dopple tore the envelope open with her teeth. A fresh burst of perfumed air filled her nose as she pulled out a single sheet of paper. Dopple scanned the letter once through, searching for any sign of disaster, and then read it a second time more slowly.

“She’s in Canada,” Dopple said. “But she’s heading south soon.” She looked up at Carlisle. “Maybe she’ll come out here,” she said hopefully.

“Perhaps she’ll winter here with the rest of them.”

“That would be nice,” Dopple said wistfully. “It’s been six months, you know, since I saw her last. We met up in Baton Rouge.”

“I remember. She’ll be fine, you know, I’ve no doubt of that. Your fine lady is quite competent.”

“I know. But there’s so much…” She sniffed and tucked the letter into the pocket of her jacket. “I guess we’ll find out when she feels like it, huh?”

“I can send word to a friend in Alberta, if you would like. He can check in with her.”

Dopple put a gloved hand on his head. “I’m tempted. But I don’t need to spy on her. I’ve got to just trust that she’ll come back to me.”

He moved his ears under her palm. “Ah, you can keep that up as long as you like,” Carlisle said.

“Is she okay out there alone?” Dopple asked.

“Who, Mysti?”

“No, our esteemed Queen.”

“I do wish you would give her half a chance.” Carlisle looked out. “Oh, dear.”

Heather had moved on to a larger cat tree and was struggling to keep the central pillar upright long enough to attach the base. It kept tipping while she tried to screw it into place. More often than not, it hit her in the head. Shelves for the tree were scattered around her. A cardboard box, full of tiny nuts and bolts, threatened to spill whenever she moved and bumped it.

“I’d better…”

“No, I’ll go,” Dopple said.

Carlisle twitched his nose at her. “You’re not going to pick a fight, are you?”

“You wound me. No, I just figure I should leave you to your correspondences.” She paused then said without looking at him, “I’d be lost without you.”

“Very well.” Carlisle nodded. “I shall remain here then.”

Dopple went through the sliding screen door and into the backyard. She stood over Heather for a minute until Heather noticed her.

“What?” Heather snapped.

“Give it here.”

“You’re actually going to help?”

“I am trying to be nice right now,” Dopple ground out. “It will go a lot better if you don’t talk.”

Heather stared then nodded without a word. She passed the pillar to Dopple, who steadied it while Heather bolted it into place. They worked in silence, moving around each other on sense and instinct and rhythm, until the last tree was assembled and placed around the yard.

When Heather tried to leave, Carlisle was waiting for her. He pushed away from the door of the hall closet where he had been leaning. “I’d like to come along,” he said, “if you’ll have me.”

“What’s the occasion?” Heather asked, looking over his slacks and sweater.

“Do I need one?” He opened the door and motioned her out.

“Hey, I won’t argue. I’m going to need an extra set of hands to cart all this home,” she said as she looked over a list of groceries.

“I thought we could get a taxi, just this once,” he said as they walked down the long and sloping gravel drive that led from the house to the main road at the bottom of the hill.

“Big spender,” she said with a laugh. “Sounds good. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, though.”

He shook his head. “No other shoe.”

After a few minutes, they reached the main road. It was a treacherous stretch, favored by motorists cutting from one side of town to the other. On either side of the House driveway, the road turned sharply and overgrown brush obscured oncoming cars until the last second. Carlisle and Heather listened and waited. Then they dashed across to the wide shoulder on the other side and turned right into town.

“I spoke to Dorian and the others about what happened when you went out,” Carlisle said.

Heather kicked a small stone farther down the road ahead of them. “They ratted me out, huh?”

Carlisle reached it and sent it ahead again. “I am under the impression that they were rather impressed by you.”

“No kidding. And what about you?” Heather sent to stone flying off to the left into the brush where it was lost. They continued in strained silence until they reached the first shopping center in town.

Carlisle pushed a shopping cart after Heather, who stalked the aisles with determination. “I should not have spoken to you as I did,” Carlisle said while Heather compared two brands of boxed stuffing mix. “I’m not surprised you failed to tell me about Topaz’s escapades, after the way I acted.”

“It wasn’t really his fault,” Heather said as she put two of each in the cart. “I should have thought it out before I let them go wild.”

“He’s a grown cat. He should have shown a little restraint,” Carlisle said as he struggled to open a plastic produce bag.

Heather took it from him, opened it, and handed back. “I’m going to go out on a limb and say he was distraught over a certain bobtail cat I know.” She poured in several scoops of green beans from a bin.

“Distraught? Hardly,” he said. He spun the bag and tied off the top. “He was in a snit because I did not show sufficient enthusiasm.”

Heather dropped a huge sack of potatoes into the cart. “If you say so.”

“You seem to have seen something I did not,” Carlisle said. He leaned on the handle of the cart while Heather picked out yams and chives and garlic bulbs.

“There’s a first for everything, I know,” she said. She tossed three onions to him in rapid succession and laughed when he scrambled to catch them. “Just, ease up on him. He takes it hard when you treat him like a kitten with muddy paws.”

“Then perhaps–” Carlisle started to snap then broke off with a huff. He followed Heather as she moved on to the meat department and the search for the perfect turkey. Or three perfect turkeys, as the case proved to be.

“You two might as well pull each other’s pigtails,” Heather said as she hefted the last one in.

“I beg your pardon?”

Heather rolled her eyes. “You’re sweet on him and you don’t want to admit it, so you both snap and snarl at each other. It would be cute if it wasn’t becoming a pain in my ass.”

“I would like it if he showed a bit more restraint, more forethought.”

“You might like it, but you wouldn’t like him the same way.” She leaned a hip against the meat counter and crossed her arms. “Come on, I know you. You’re convinced your bad boy days are behind you.”

“As evidenced by my four-week stretch of reading mail and paying bills without setting foot outside,” Carlisle admitted.

“Uh huh. So you’ll let Topaz be the bad boy for you. You like him this way.”

Carlisle snorted. “I do believe I will change the subject now, if you are quite finished analyzing my love life or lack thereof.”

“Fine. You go get two cans of pumpkin pie filling,” she said, taking the cart.

“You mean you don’t plan to puree it yourself?”

“Shush, you. Even I know when to make things easier on myself. And cooking for fifty cats is one of those times,” Heather said as he left.

Carlisle paused. “I do believe we have rather more than fifty right now,” he said.

“But I thought they all went away again after the Festival of Black Cats,” Heather said, sounding desperate.

“Winter is closing in and the House is a popular place to spend the cold months.”

“So how many are we up to?”

“At least seventy-five, for now,” he said with a sympathetic wince.

Heather sighed. “Make that three cans, then.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Carlisle wandered the aisles and shivered in the cold. A wool sweater was no substitute for a cat’s coat. Everything smelled vaguely of packaged chicken and floor cleaner. He grabbed a stack of pumpkin pie cans and took a meandering path back to Heather.

“I’ve got everything, I think,” Heather said, tossing a can of condensed milk from hand to hand.

“Famous last words,” Carlisle said as they got into line to check out.

“Why don’t you go use the payphone out front to call a cab while I check out? But don’t let them send one too soon. I have one more stop to make.”

“Very well. Am I forgiven for my misdeeds yet?”

Heather passed food from left hand to right and onto the conveyor belt in swift succession. “I’m not mad at you.”

“Good. Does that mean I don’t have to help you cook all this?”

Heather made as if to kick him. “Get out of here, wretched boy, before I change my mind.”

“As you wish, milady,” Carlisle said and dodged out of the way.

Heather knocked on the door. It was another room she had never seen inside.

“What?” The voice on the other side sounded annoyed. At least she knew she had the right room, Heather thought.

“It’s Heather,” she called back.

“Will you leave me alone if I ask you to? I can even be polite, if that helps.”

Heather grinned. So accommodating, she thought. “Not really.”

“Fine, whatever, open the door.”

The room was furnished like a human bedroom. Curtains hung in the window and matching sheets and blankets made up the bed. It was the mirror image of Heather’s private quarters, if all the papers and books and clothing were tidied up.

“I spend so much time human,” Dopple said when she noticed Heather staring, “that I got the luxury suite.” She sat on her bed cross-legged with a pile of fluffy pillows behind her back. “You’re going to catch flies that way.”

Heather closed her mouth. It was a very nice room for just one cat. Heather understood that Dopple managed all the rescue missions the House undertook: buying changing-cats from pet stores, adopting them from shelters, and stealing them from human owners. It was not done just out of charity; it was essential to maintaining the secrecy and safety of the whole changing-cat community. But Dopple lived like an ambassador among cats. Heather began to wonder if Dopple actually outranked her.

“Did you want something specific, or were you just going to admire the decor?”

Heather tossed a small tube to Dopple, who let it drop to the bed before picking it up. “I’m trying to be nice right now. It will go a lot better if you don’t talk,” she said.

Dopple raised an eyebrow at the mimicry. She turned the tube over in her hands then tore the plastic seals off it with her teeth.

“Pepper spray. So you can defend yourself the next time you need to go out. I made them let me try one. You can make it spray just using your thumb, so it shouldn’t be a problem with your hands.”

Dopple tucked it into the pocket of her jacket. Then she rolled over on her bed and started reading something. Heather’s audience with the ambassador had evidently ended. She shut the door and jogged downstairs. Debt repaid, she started planning her strategy for Thanksgiving dinner.

Topaz watched the sun set from his perch on a warm rock. He had slept most of the afternoon away, but awoke just in time to go on the prowl once night fell. He cleaned his face and rubbed the sleep grit from his eyes. He yawned and stretched and stepped down into the tall grass. Then he saw Carlisle, just beyond the first trees of the woods. Human. Topaz thought about turning away, finding somewhere else to hunt. He could not bear the thought of yet another argument. But Carlisle raised a hand in greeting and Topaz wove his way over, following furrows in the grass left by other cats.

“Take this,” Carlisle said and offered him one of those cat’s bane pills Heather took all the time. Most everyone else just made do with the powder by itself, though it was something awful to choke down that way.

Topaz crunched it until he could swallow. Carlisle looked away while he made the change to human. Then he handed him the ragged jeans Topaz liked to wear. He pulled them on, wishing for something warmer. The night was cold, colder still without fur.

“What’s up?” Topaz asked.

Carlisle took him by the wrist and pulled him onto a path between the trees, nothing more than a foot-wide strip worn smooth with use. “Walk with me,” was all Carlisle said.

They had to squeeze close to fit between some of the trees, whose upper branches were woven into a solid canopy over their heads. Their shoulders brushed, the wool of Carlisle’s sweater scratchy against Topaz’s bare skin.

“You’re not just taking me out here to murder me, are you?” Topaz asked.

“I had not planned on it, no.”

“That’s good. Because it would be a real bummer if you killed me.”

Carlisle stopped walking. “You are so strange, sometimes I think you are just doing it to anger me,” he said. His voice was soft, but frustrated.

“Did we come out here to argue?” Topaz asked.

“No. On the contrary, it was my intention to make amends for my no doubt intolerable behavior recently.”

“Just in general or did you have something specific in mind?”

“Heather said, if I recall, that I should ‘ease up’ on you.”

“Well, good on Heather,” Topaz said. He rubbed his hands over his arms to warm them up.

“Are you cold?” Carlisle asked. He placed a hand above Topaz’s and squeezed his arm. The touch of skin to skin — not even fur to separate them — sent a shiver of foreign pleasure through Topaz. Carlisle pulled him closer and moved his other arm around Topaz’s back. “Better?”

Topaz swallowed, mouth gone dry. “It’s a start,” he said. He took a step closer again and now their chests were touching. “Is this you making amends?”

“It’s a start,” Carlisle echoed, his face close enough that his breath warmed Topaz’s face when he spoke.

“I thought you said I was too young for you,” Topaz said, because he was not going to let go of his hurt feelings just yet. He was not that easy.

“You must have heard me wrong.” Carlisle’s thumb traced the furrow between the muscles of his arm. “As I remember it, what I said was that you were too young to know that I was once far more exciting than I am now.”

“Is that so? And now?”

Carlisle moved his hand up to Topaz’s neck, thumb now sweeping over the line of his jaw and making the pulse there stutter. “And now, I begin to see the wisdom in reliving the recklessness of my youth,” he said.

They both closed the distance between them and so there was no telling who started the kiss. Topaz brought both hands up to cup Carlisle’s face, all hesitation gone, all bitterness forgotten. One kiss turned into many, short and long and longer, while their fingers skimmed over the unfamiliar smoothness of human flesh.

Carlisle put a hand against Topaz’s chest and pushed him just far enough away to speak. “I can’t give you much more than this,” he said. “I’m no tom and–”

Topaz curled his fingers into Carlisle’s hair. “Shut up, man,” he said. “First lesson in living a reckless youth: live in the moment.”

“Well spoken,” Carlisle said and drew Topaz back into his warm embrace, where Topaz was content to stay the rest of the night, no matter how cold.

Rune paced along the island in the kitchen. He had seen Topaz change and disappear into the woods with Carlisle. Were they planning to spend the whole night out there?

“Should I find someone else?” Rune wondered aloud. “Dopple can’t cook, or so she says.” He shuddered at the thought of asking any other female to change. “It has to be Topaz. He’s the only one I can trust myself with.”

Then Rune heard footsteps approaching and he hid himself in the pantry. Through the gap by the hinges, he watched a satisfied-looking Carlisle walk through the kitchen and into the living room beyond. Rune braced himself. He’s just a man, he repeated in his mind again and again. You can cope with a man.

When he heard the door open and close a second time, Rune stepped out of the pantry and jumped back onto the island. “Topaz. Come here.”

Topaz jumped like he had been caught sneaking in after curfew. “Nothing! Fine! What?” He relaxed when he saw Rune, though Rune wished he could feel the same way. “What’s up, bro?”

“I need your help,” Rune said. He tried to not look at Topaz directly. Out of the corner of his eye, Topaz still looked like a golden blur. That was good. No big deal. It had worked when Heather came in with the queens that morning. It would work now.

“I kinda had plans,” Topaz said and jerked his thumb in the direction of the rest of the house, though Rune had no doubt that he meant a room with a door, more specifically.

“Please?”

The golden blur grunted and hopped onto the counter. “Shoot. What do you need?”

“Can you cook? Do you know how?”

“Not really. Be honest: not at all.”

“If I tell you exactly what to do?”

“Just be your hands?”

“Yes. Just, just be.” He couldn’t bring himself to say it, because it would mean imagining it too. “That,” he finished lamely.

“So are we cooking now? It’s kinda late.”

“That’s the plan. I need everything ready right when Heather wakes up.”

“Heather?”

Rune rubbed his paw across his nose, suddenly embarrassed and wishing he had never said anything. “I want to make breakfast for her. She’s getting up early tomorrow to cook Thanksgiving dinner.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s a human holiday. American humans. It’s a meal for families.”

“And she’s cooking it for us?”

“That’s the rumor.”

“And you’re cooking for her.”

“She– She did something nice for me when she had no reason to.”

Topaz nudged him with an elbow that Rune tried not to notice. “You’re going to ruin your badass reputation, man.”

“Be quiet. So are you in or not?”

“Yeah, I’m game. What do we need?”

“You have to get her cook book. She keeps it in her office.”

“Has she gone to bed?”

“Yes, yes, of course. She insists on sleeping at night.”

“Back in a tick then.”

Rune went back to pacing while he waited for Topaz to return. Pancakes. Eggs — but how did she like them? Scrambled? Over easy? Was there any juice in the fridge? Would she like toast too? No, toast and pancakes, that’s overkill, he thought. Bacon! Did they have bacon? What was breakfast without bacon?

“You don’t seriously expect me to cook something from this book, do you?” Topaz asked, flipping through the pages of the book while he walked.

“Why not? Is it complicated?”

“Man, I have no idea what any of this means. I read the words, but I don’t get it.”

“Just find me a pancake recipe. I’ll worry about the rest.”

The two brothers both leaned low over the book. Then Rune said, “Right. First thing is flour. Big white sack, in the pantry.”

“Got it,” Topaz said. “Next?”

“Salt and sugar.”

“I can handle that.”

“Baking powder. It’s a little — there, that one. Yes. Now, in the fridge. An egg. Butter. Just grab a stick. And the jug of milk.”

“All this for breakfast?” Topaz asked with his hands full.

“This is just to make pancakes.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me. How does Heather do it?”

“I wonder that myself. Okay, check the cupboard there for a big mixing bowl. The measuring cups and spoons are in that drawer.”

“Humans seriously do this to all their food?”

“Not everyone cooks,” Rune said, reluctant to start a conversation about humans.

“I would hope not,” Topaz said.

“Now, the hard part,” Rune said when they had all their ingredients and tools assembled on the counter. “We’ll make the batter, and then cook everything at the same time. I think. I hope.”

“Don’t look at me. This is all on you.”

“Just be quiet and break the egg in the bowl.” And so Rune and Topaz bumbled their way through cooking in the dead of night.

Heather fidgeted in her room. She could not bring herself to walk out. On the other side of the door, Topaz called to her. “How ya doing?”

“I’m not sure I can do this.”

Carlisle said, “Yes, you can. You’re ready.”

“Come on,” Topaz said. “I have to go carve the turkey.”

“Okay.” Heather took a deep breath. “Right. Here goes nothing. Open the door.”

Topaz opened it for her and he and Carlisle waited expectantly. Heather stepped into the light. One step at a time, she walked out of her room and into the hallway.

“I don’t know,” she said.

Topaz stooped down. “You’re fine. You look great.”

“Are, are you sure? I mean, I look–”

“You’re the prettiest cat in the House,” Topaz said.

“Are you ready to go downstairs?” Carlisle asked.

“I think so. Just, let me go slow.”

“Take your time,” Carlisle said. “We’ll stay with you.”

The house looked so different. Everything loomed over her. Tables and lamps became threatening giants.

“Breathe,” Topaz reminded her.

“Breathing. Let’s go.” Heather eased herself down the first stair. Then the next. She took them a little faster, letting her body move the way it wanted to over the wide steps. She reached the bottom without realizing it. Then they rounded the corner and walked into the kitchen. Around the room, the eyes of twenty cats turned to watch her. Another fifty milled through the living room and dining room and solarium. In the entire house, there was only one human. And that was Topaz.

“Want to help me carve the turkey?” Topaz asked in the silence.

Heather whimpered her assent and jumped up onto the counter. She looked around from her perch. The other cats had gone back to their conversations. No one was paying any attention to her. No one minded. Heather let out a soft sigh.

“See? It’s all good,” Topaz said. He brandished a carving knife. “Let’s see what I can do to butcher this.”

“I’m sure you’ll do fine. You managed pancakes, eggs, and bacon well enough,” Heather said very quietly.

Topaz glanced over to where Rune was talking to Dopple. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Rune made you breakfast.”

“Carlisle did tell me that Rune had a sous-chef.”

“Meh. I’m just a pair of hands.”

“Did he tell you why?”

“Something about you doing something nice when you didn’t have to. So, does this mean you’ll help me?”

Right, Heather thought. Operation Detox. “I’ll help. But only as a friend to you. And maybe to him. I still won’t seduce him.”

“If you say so.”

“I say so.”

“Check it out,” Topaz said to the rest of the room. “Turkey dinner for all.” He carried the platter of turkey, sliced more or less nicely, into the dining room. There it joined mashed potatoes, yams, chunky cranberry sauce, green beans, stuffing, gravy, and several pumpkin pies.

Topaz and Heather had brought out the cat benches for the occasion earlier that day. So some cats jumped up onto the high benches that brought them level with the table. Kittens ate from plates on the floor, which was covered by several old bed sheets to save the carpet. More cats ate at coffee tables and at the kitchen counters. The whole House had come together for the meal.

“Are you sure you don’t need any help?” Carlisle asked Topaz. “I can change and serve with you.”

“Nope. I’m doing community service today,” Topaz said brightly. “It’ll take a little while, but I’ll get it done.”

“He certainly is being mature today,” Heather said when Carlisle joined her. She sat at one end of the table. Carlisle sat next to her, while the space on her other side was reserved for Topaz.

Down at the opposite end, Rune jumped up onto the bench between Dopple and Evergreen. Heather scanned the faces at the table. Dorian and Annabelle and Lana, Valoria and Rafflesia were all there and many more besides. Heather was still learning their names and faces, getting to know them as friends. It was a slow process for her. But suddenly, in a room full of cats, Heather no longer felt like an outcast.

She looked up from her plate, where Topaz had just given her a slice of turkey that smelled, if she did say so herself, absolutely amazing. At the other end of the table, Rune caught her eye. He did not look away. Heather cocked her head and smiled. A cat’s smile is rare and lovely indeed, for they smile with their whole body, not just their face as a human does.

They had not spoken since Heather had come down to the kitchen that morning to start cooking and discovered a covered platter of breakfast. She had asked Carlisle if he knew anything — after taking a pancake to eat on the walk upstairs — and found out about Rune and Topaz’s midnight kitchen foray.

Rune made a point of sniffing in the direction of the mashed potatoes — garlic strong in the air — and smiled back. Heather’s stomach did a flip-flop that had nothing to do with transformation nervousness.

“Everybody, let’s eat,” Topaz said when he had served everyone what they wanted.

“Enjoy,” Heather said just as the cats took their first bites. “We have a lot to be thankful for today.”

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Heather tickled the kitten under the chin. He squeaked and mewled and squiggled across her palm. She set him next to his mother. “He’s beautiful. He looks just like his daddy.”

Lana chuckled. “One of them, at any rate.” His eyelids were just beginning to part in the corners. Once they opened, he would begin exploring in earnest. For now, he was content to bump around Lana on wobbly legs.

Heather leaned back against the couch where mother and kitten were currently nesting. “Have you decided on a name yet?”

“A few of us are all going to ask today.” The kitten cried and squirmed as Lana cleaned him.

“Ask?”

Lana paused mid-lick. “We’re going to ask Rune to choose for us.”

“He’s the, that is, one of the fathers?”

“Oh, no. That’ll be the day.” She laughed. “He barely even looks at any of us. Pity, too. He’s a good-looking tom.”

“So why?” Beyond the window, the hillsides were a patchwork of green and brown and orange. The damp and mild California autumn had allowed a new crop of thin, bright green grass to come up all around the house. Heather thought of Thanksgiving Day dinners being served at Mitchell’s. She had not thought of Mitchell and Marty and the rest of the staff in months.

“Because he’s a wise cat, when he has his head on straight,” Lana said, snapping Heather out of her reminiscences.

“You’re serious.”

She cocked her head. “You don’t believe me?”

“Before I got here, I imagined this dictator, a mad Caesar. Something worth fearing.” Heather tipped her head back to rest on the seat. “Rune’s just a junkie.”

“You’re wrong about that. Come on. I’m supposed to meet them now.”

Heather followed Lana as she carried her single kitten in her mouth. Changing-cats always had small litters, which was a blessing when they all tried to fit into the House. They went upstairs and into a room Heather walked past every day, but never entered. It opened onto a balcony overlooking the front drive of the property. Rune slept in the midmorning sun.

“You’re late,” one cat called to the newcomers.

“We almost started without you,” said the second.

Heather sat a few feet away. Rune did not look at her. The three queens sat with their kittens, all eager to escape, held under firm paws.

“What can I do for you, ladies?” he asked. He seemed relaxed. Must be coming down, Heather thought. He’ll need to fix again soon.

“We were hoping you would choose names for our little ones,” one cat said.

“You know so many cats,” said another. “You’ll know better than we do what’s been taken too many times.”

“Very well. Let me see.”

Lana put her tuxedo kitten in front of him. Rune swept him up with a paw and pulled him between his front legs. The kitten burrowed into the thick fur of his chest and tumbled over his own paws. Rune tucked his chin and gave the kitten a swipe with his tongue.

“His father is a two-color as well?”

“One is. The other had a two-color mother, but he’s all black himself.”

“He’s strong for his age.”

“He likes to kick, too,” Lana said with an indulgent smile.

“I think…Rugby, with your permission, madam.”

So it was in that way that Rugby, Cottonwood and the twins, Castor and Pollux, received their names. Their business finished, the three queens all left Rune. Heather lingered. He had his back to her, once again basking in the sunlight. Beyond the balcony, the tops of trees were transformed into an unbroken sweep of color.

“What do…Did you need something?” Rune eventually asked when she did not leave.

“How do you feel about yams with marshmallows?” Heather asked.

She could not see his face and he did not turn around, but she thought she could hear a smile in his voice when he answered. “I am partial to garlic mashed potatoes, actually. And chunky cranberry sauce.”

Dopple watched Carlisle hook a nail under the edge of the envelope and rip it open. From the doorway to the kitchen, she could look out the sliding doors to the backyard. Heather sat on the lawn, still fighting with the same cat tree she had been trying to assemble for the past twenty minutes. Dopple thought she could hear her cursing through the closed windows. Carlisle slid a neatly folded sheaf of papers from the envelope and unfolded them.

“Any new reports?” Dopple asked, sliding into the seat next to him at the kitchen table.

“Oh, Miss Dopple,” he said. His fur puffed and relaxed in a flash of surprise. “Not as of yet. Though I have developed something of a backlog. Everyone is writing in before the winter sets in.”

“Oh. I see.” She rose from the chair. “I guess I’ll be going then,” Dopple said.

“There was one thing,” he said with a smile.

Dopple’s heart skipped a beat. “Yes?”

“I got a letter from a certain calico beauty queen.”

Dopple was back in the chair in an instant. “When? Where is she? Is everything okay?” She grabbed the pile of letters and started sifting through them. “Can I read it?”

“Ahem.” Carlisle pushed a lone red envelope toward her. “It’s all yours. I’ve not read it yet myself. But she used the perfumed paper, so I imagine that all is well in her world.”

Dopple tore the envelope open with her teeth. A fresh burst of perfumed air filled her nose as she pulled out a single sheet of paper. Dopple scanned the letter once through, searching for any sign of disaster, and then read it a second time more slowly.

“She’s in Canada,” Dopple said. “But she’s heading south soon.” She looked up at Carlisle. “Maybe she’ll come out here,” she said hopefully.

“Perhaps she’ll winter here with the rest of them.”

“That would be nice,” Dopple said wistfully. “It’s been six months, you know, since I saw her last. We met up in Baton Rouge.”

“I remember. She’ll be fine, you know, I’ve no doubt of that. Your fine lady is quite competent.”

“I know. But there’s so much…” She sniffed and tucked the letter into the pocket of her jacket. “I guess we’ll find out when she feels like it, huh?”

“I can send word to a friend in Alberta, if you would like. He can check in with her.”

Dopple put a gloved hand on his head. “I’m tempted. But I don’t need to spy on her. I’ve got to just trust that she’ll come back to me.”

He moved his ears under her palm. “Ah, you can keep that up as long as you like,” Carlisle said.

“Is she okay out there alone?” Dopple asked.

“Who, Mysti?”

“No, our esteemed Queen.”

“I do wish you would give her half a chance.” Carlisle looked out. “Oh, dear.”

Heather had moved on to a larger cat tree and was struggling to keep the central pillar upright long enough to attach the base. It kept tipping while she tried to screw it into place. More often than not, it hit her in the head. Shelves for the tree were scattered around her. A cardboard box, full of tiny nuts and bolts, threatened to spill whenever she moved and bumped it.

“I’d better…”

“No, I’ll go,” Dopple said.

Carlisle twitched his nose at her. “You’re not going to pick a fight, are you?”

“You wound me. No, I just figure I should leave you to your correspondences.” She paused then said without looking at him, “I’d be lost without you.”

“Very well.” Carlisle nodded. “I shall remain here then.”

Dopple went through the sliding screen door and into the backyard. She stood over Heather for a minute until Heather noticed her.

“What?” Heather snapped.

“Give it here.”

“You’re actually going to help?”

“I am trying to be nice right now,” Dopple ground out. “It will go a lot better if you don’t talk.”

Heather stared then nodded without a word. She passed the pillar to Dopple, who steadied it while Heather bolted it into place. They worked in silence, moving around each other on sense and instinct and rhythm, until the last tree was assembled and placed around the yard.

When Heather tried to leave, Carlisle was waiting for her. He pushed away from the door of the hall closet where he had been leaning. “I’d like to come along,” he said, “if you’ll have me.”

“What’s the occasion?” Heather asked, looking over his slacks and sweater.

“Do I need one?” He opened the door and motioned her out.

“Hey, I won’t argue. I’m going to need an extra set of hands to cart all this home,” she said as she looked over a list of groceries.

“I thought we could get a taxi, just this once,” he said as they walked down the long and sloping gravel drive that led from the house to the main road at the bottom of the hill.

“Big spender,” she said with a laugh. “Sounds good. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, though.”

He shook his head. “No other shoe.”

After a few minutes, they reached the main road. It was a treacherous stretch, favored by motorists cutting from one side of town to the other. On either side of the House driveway, the road turned sharply and overgrown brush obscured oncoming cars until the last second. Carlisle and Heather listened and waited. Then they dashed across to the wide shoulder on the other side and turned right into town.

“I spoke to Dorian and the others about what happened when you went out,” Carlisle said.

Heather kicked a small stone farther down the road ahead of them. “They ratted me out, huh?”

Carlisle reached it and sent it ahead again. “I am under the impression that they were rather impressed by you.”

“No kidding. And what about you?” Heather sent to stone flying off to the left into the brush where it was lost. They continued in strained silence until they reached the first shopping center in town.

Carlisle pushed a shopping cart after Heather, who stalked the aisles with determination. “I should not have spoken to you as I did,” Carlisle said while Heather compared two brands of boxed stuffing mix. “I’m not surprised you failed to tell me about Topaz’s escapades, after the way I acted.”

“It wasn’t really his fault,” Heather said as she put two of each in the cart. “I should have thought it out before I let them go wild.”

“He’s a grown cat. He should have shown a little restraint,” Carlisle said as he struggled to open a plastic produce bag.

Heather took it from him, opened it, and handed back. “I’m going to go out on a limb and say he was distraught over a certain bobtail cat I know.” She poured in several scoops of green beans from a bin.

“Distraught? Hardly,” he said. He spun the bag and tied off the top. “He was in a snit because I did not show sufficient enthusiasm.”

Heather dropped a huge sack of potatoes into the cart. “If you say so.”

“You seem to have seen something I did not,” Carlisle said. He leaned on the handle of the cart while Heather picked out yams and chives and garlic bulbs.

“There’s a first for everything, I know,” she said. She tossed three onions to him in rapid succession and laughed when he scrambled to catch them. “Just, ease up on him. He takes it hard when you treat him like a kitten with muddy paws.”

“Then perhaps–” Carlisle started to snap then broke off with a huff. He followed Heather as she moved on to the meat department and the search for the perfect turkey. Or three perfect turkeys, as the case proved to be.

“You two might as well pull each other’s pigtails,” Heather said as she hefted the last one in.

“I beg your pardon?”

Heather rolled her eyes. “You’re sweet on him and you don’t want to admit it, so you both snap and snarl at each other. It would be cute if it wasn’t becoming a pain in my ass.”

“I would like it if he showed a bit more restraint, more forethought.”

“You might like it, but you wouldn’t like him the same way.” She leaned a hip against the meat counter and crossed her arms. “Come on, I know you. You’re convinced your bad boy days are behind you.”

“As evidenced by my four-week stretch of reading mail and paying bills without setting foot outside,” Carlisle admitted.

“Uh huh. So you’ll let Topaz be the bad boy for you. You like him this way.”

Carlisle snorted. “I do believe I will change the subject now, if you are quite finished analyzing my love life or lack thereof.”

“Fine. You go get two cans of pumpkin pie filling,” she said, taking the cart.

“You mean you don’t plan to puree it yourself?”

“Shush, you. Even I know when to make things easier on myself. And cooking for fifty cats is one of those times,” Heather said as he left.

Carlisle paused. “I do believe we have rather more than fifty right now,” he said.

“But I thought they all went away again after the Festival of Black Cats,” Heather said, sounding desperate.

“Winter is closing in and the House is a popular place to spend the cold months.”

“So how many are we up to?”

“At least seventy-five, for now,” he said with a sympathetic wince.

Heather sighed. “Make that three cans, then.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Carlisle wandered the aisles and shivered in the cold. A wool sweater was no substitute for a cat’s coat. Everything smelled vaguely of packaged chicken and floor cleaner. He grabbed a stack of pumpkin pie cans and took a meandering path back to Heather.

“I’ve got everything, I think,” Heather said, tossing a can of condensed milk from hand to hand.

“Famous last words,” Carlisle said as they got into line to check out.

“Why don’t you go use the payphone out front to call a cab while I check out? But don’t let them send one too soon. I have one more stop to make.”

“Very well. Am I forgiven for my misdeeds yet?”

Heather passed food from left hand to right and onto the conveyor belt in swift succession. “I’m not mad at you.”

“Good. Does that mean I don’t have to help you cook all this?”

Heather made as if to kick him. “Get out of here, wretched boy, before I change my mind.”

“As you wish, milady,” Carlisle said and dodged out of the way.

Heather knocked on the door. It was another room she had never seen inside.

“What?” The voice on the other side sounded annoyed. At least she knew she had the right room, Heather thought.

“It’s Heather,” she called back.

“Will you leave me alone if I ask you to? I can even be polite, if that helps.”

Heather grinned. So accommodating, she thought. “Not really.”

“Fine, whatever, open the door.”

The room was furnished like a human bedroom. Curtains hung in the window and matching sheets and blankets made up the bed. It was the mirror image of Heather’s private quarters, if all the papers and books and clothing were tidied up.

“I spend so much time human,” Dopple said when she noticed Heather staring, “that I got the luxury suite.” She sat on her bed cross-legged with a pile of fluffy pillows behind her back. “You’re going to catch flies that way.”

Heather closed her mouth. It was a very nice room for just one cat. Heather understood that Dopple managed all the rescue missions the House undertook: buying changing-cats from pet stores, adopting them from shelters, and stealing them from human owners. It was not done just out of charity; it was essential to maintaining the secrecy and safety of the whole changing-cat community. But Dopple lived like an ambassador among cats. Heather began to wonder if Dopple actually outranked her.

“Did you want something specific, or were you just going to admire the decor?”

Heather tossed a small tube to Dopple, who let it drop to the bed before picking it up. “I’m trying to be nice right now. It will go a lot better if you don’t talk,” she said.

Dopple raised an eyebrow at the mimicry. She turned the tube over in her hands then tore the plastic seals off it with her teeth.

“Pepper spray. So you can defend yourself the next time you need to go out. I made them let me try one. You can make it spray just using your thumb, so it shouldn’t be a problem with your hands.”

Dopple tucked it into the pocket of her jacket. Then she rolled over on her bed and started reading something. Heather’s audience with the ambassador had evidently ended. She shut the door and jogged downstairs. Debt repaid, she started planning her strategy for Thanksgiving dinner.

Topaz watched the sun set from his perch on a warm rock. He had slept most of the afternoon away, but awoke just in time to go on the prowl once night fell. He cleaned his face and rubbed the sleep grit from his eyes. He yawned and stretched and stepped down into the tall grass. Then he saw Carlisle, just beyond the first trees of the woods. Human. Topaz thought about turning away, finding somewhere else to hunt. He could not bear the thought of yet another argument. But Carlisle raised a hand in greeting and Topaz wove his way over, following furrows in the grass left by other cats.

“Take this,” Carlisle said and offered him one of those cat’s bane pills Heather took all the time. Most everyone else just made do with the powder by itself, though it was something awful to choke down that way.

Topaz crunched it until he could swallow. Carlisle looked away while he made the change to human. Then he handed him the ragged jeans Topaz liked to wear. He pulled them on, wishing for something warmer. The night was cold, colder still without fur.

“What’s up?” Topaz asked.

Carlisle took him by the wrist and pulled him onto a path between the trees, nothing more than a foot-wide strip worn smooth with use. “Walk with me,” was all Carlisle said.

They had to squeeze close to fit between some of the trees, whose upper branches were woven into a solid canopy over their heads. Their shoulders brushed, the wool of Carlisle’s sweater scratchy against Topaz’s bare skin.

“You’re not just taking me out here to murder me, are you?” Topaz asked.

“I had not planned on it, no.”

“That’s good. Because it would be a real bummer if you killed me.”

Carlisle stopped walking. “You are so strange, sometimes I think you are just doing it to anger me,” he said. His voice was soft, but frustrated.

“Did we come out here to argue?” Topaz asked.

“No. On the contrary, it was my intention to make amends for my no doubt intolerable behavior recently.”

“Just in general or did you have something specific in mind?”

“Heather said, if I recall, that I should ‘ease up’ on you.”

“Well, good on Heather,” Topaz said. He rubbed his hands over his arms to warm them up.

“Are you cold?” Carlisle asked. He placed a hand above Topaz’s and squeezed his arm. The touch of skin to skin — not even fur to separate them — sent a shiver of foreign pleasure through Topaz. Carlisle pulled him closer and moved his other arm around Topaz’s back. “Better?”

Topaz swallowed, mouth gone dry. “It’s a start,” he said. He took a step closer again and now their chests were touching. “Is this you making amends?”

“It’s a start,” Carlisle echoed, his face close enough that his breath warmed Topaz’s face when he spoke.

“I thought you said I was too young for you,” Topaz said, because he was not going to let go of his hurt feelings just yet. He was not that easy.

“You must have heard me wrong.” Carlisle’s thumb traced the furrow between the muscles of his arm. “As I remember it, what I said was that you were too young to know that I was once far more exciting than I am now.”

“Is that so? And now?”

Carlisle moved his hand up to Topaz’s neck, thumb now sweeping over the line of his jaw and making the pulse there stutter. “And now, I begin to see the wisdom in reliving the recklessness of my youth,” he said.

They both closed the distance between them and so there was no telling who started the kiss. Topaz brought both hands up to cup Carlisle’s face, all hesitation gone, all bitterness forgotten. One kiss turned into many, short and long and longer, while their fingers skimmed over the unfamiliar smoothness of human flesh.

Carlisle put a hand against Topaz’s chest and pushed him just far enough away to speak. “I can’t give you much more than this,” he said. “I’m no tom and–”

Topaz curled his fingers into Carlisle’s hair. “Shut up, man,” he said. “First lesson in living a reckless youth: live in the moment.”

“Well spoken,” Carlisle said and drew Topaz back into his warm embrace, where Topaz was content to stay the rest of the night, no matter how cold.

Rune paced along the island in the kitchen. He had seen Topaz change and disappear into the woods with Carlisle. Were they planning to spend the whole night out there?

“Should I find someone else?” Rune wondered aloud. “Dopple can’t cook, or so she says.” He shuddered at the thought of asking any other female to change. “It has to be Topaz. He’s the only one I can trust myself with.”

Then Rune heard footsteps approaching and he hid himself in the pantry. Through the gap by the hinges, he watched a satisfied-looking Carlisle walk through the kitchen and into the living room beyond. Rune braced himself. He’s just a man, he repeated in his mind again and again. You can cope with a man.

When he heard the door open and close a second time, Rune stepped out of the pantry and jumped back onto the island. “Topaz. Come here.”

Topaz jumped like he had been caught sneaking in after curfew. “Nothing! Fine! What?” He relaxed when he saw Rune, though Rune wished he could feel the same way. “What’s up, bro?”

“I need your help,” Rune said. He tried to not look at Topaz directly. Out of the corner of his eye, Topaz still looked like a golden blur. That was good. No big deal. It had worked when Heather came in with the queens that morning. It would work now.

“I kinda had plans,” Topaz said and jerked his thumb in the direction of the rest of the house, though Rune had no doubt that he meant a room with a door, more specifically.

“Please?”

The golden blur grunted and hopped onto the counter. “Shoot. What do you need?”

“Can you cook? Do you know how?”

“Not really. Be honest: not at all.”

“If I tell you exactly what to do?”

“Just be your hands?”

“Yes. Just, just be.” He couldn’t bring himself to say it, because it would mean imagining it too. “That,” he finished lamely.

“So are we cooking now? It’s kinda late.”

“That’s the plan. I need everything ready right when Heather wakes up.”

“Heather?”

Rune rubbed his paw across his nose, suddenly embarrassed and wishing he had never said anything. “I want to make breakfast for her. She’s getting up early tomorrow to cook Thanksgiving dinner.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s a human holiday. American humans. It’s a meal for families.”

“And she’s cooking it for us?”

“That’s the rumor.”

“And you’re cooking for her.”

“She– She did something nice for me when she had no reason to.”

Topaz nudged him with an elbow that Rune tried not to notice. “You’re going to ruin your badass reputation, man.”

“Be quiet. So are you in or not?”

“Yeah, I’m game. What do we need?”

“You have to get her cook book. She keeps it in her office.”

“Has she gone to bed?”

“Yes, yes, of course. She insists on sleeping at night.”

“Back in a tick then.”

Rune went back to pacing while he waited for Topaz to return. Pancakes. Eggs — but how did she like them? Scrambled? Over easy? Was there any juice in the fridge? Would she like toast too? No, toast and pancakes, that’s overkill, he thought. Bacon! Did they have bacon? What was breakfast without bacon?

“You don’t seriously expect me to cook something from this book, do you?” Topaz asked, flipping through the pages of the book while he walked.

“Why not? Is it complicated?”

“Man, I have no idea what any of this means. I read the words, but I don’t get it.”

“Just find me a pancake recipe. I’ll worry about the rest.”

The two brothers both leaned low over the book. Then Rune said, “Right. First thing is flour. Big white sack, in the pantry.”

“Got it,” Topaz said. “Next?”

“Salt and sugar.”

“I can handle that.”

“Baking powder. It’s a little — there, that one. Yes. Now, in the fridge. An egg. Butter. Just grab a stick. And the jug of milk.”

“All this for breakfast?” Topaz asked with his hands full.

“This is just to make pancakes.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me. How does Heather do it?”

“I wonder that myself. Okay, check the cupboard there for a big mixing bowl. The measuring cups and spoons are in that drawer.”

“Humans seriously do this to all their food?”

“Not everyone cooks,” Rune said, reluctant to start a conversation about humans.

“I would hope not,” Topaz said.

“Now, the hard part,” Rune said when they had all their ingredients and tools assembled on the counter. “We’ll make the batter, and then cook everything at the same time. I think. I hope.”

“Don’t look at me. This is all on you.”

“Just be quiet and break the egg in the bowl.” And so Rune and Topaz bumbled their way through cooking in the dead of night.

Heather fidgeted in her room. She could not bring herself to walk out. On the other side of the door, Topaz called to her. “How ya doing?”

“I’m not sure I can do this.”

Carlisle said, “Yes, you can. You’re ready.”

“Come on,” Topaz said. “I have to go carve the turkey.”

“Okay.” Heather took a deep breath. “Right. Here goes nothing. Open the door.”

Topaz opened it for her and he and Carlisle waited expectantly. Heather stepped into the light. One step at a time, she walked out of her room and into the hallway.

“I don’t know,” she said.

Topaz stooped down. “You’re fine. You look great.”

“Are, are you sure? I mean, I look–”

“You’re the prettiest cat in the House,” Topaz said.

“Are you ready to go downstairs?” Carlisle asked.

“I think so. Just, let me go slow.”

“Take your time,” Carlisle said. “We’ll stay with you.”

The house looked so different. Everything loomed over her. Tables and lamps became threatening giants.

“Breathe,” Topaz reminded her.

“Breathing. Let’s go.” Heather eased herself down the first stair. Then the next. She took them a little faster, letting her body move the way it wanted to over the wide steps. She reached the bottom without realizing it. Then they rounded the corner and walked into the kitchen. Around the room, the eyes of twenty cats turned to watch her. Another fifty milled through the living room and dining room and solarium. In the entire house, there was only one human. And that was Topaz.

“Want to help me carve the turkey?” Topaz asked in the silence.

Heather whimpered her assent and jumped up onto the counter. She looked around from her perch. The other cats had gone back to their conversations. No one was paying any attention to her. No one minded. Heather let out a soft sigh.

“See? It’s all good,” Topaz said. He brandished a carving knife. “Let’s see what I can do to butcher this.”

“I’m sure you’ll do fine. You managed pancakes, eggs, and bacon well enough,” Heather said very quietly.

Topaz glanced over to where Rune was talking to Dopple. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Rune made you breakfast.”

“Carlisle did tell me that Rune had a sous-chef.”

“Meh. I’m just a pair of hands.”

“Did he tell you why?”

“Something about you doing something nice when you didn’t have to. So, does this mean you’ll help me?”

Right, Heather thought. Operation Detox. “I’ll help. But only as a friend to you. And maybe to him. I still won’t seduce him.”

“If you say so.”

“I say so.”

“Check it out,” Topaz said to the rest of the room. “Turkey dinner for all.” He carried the platter of turkey, sliced more or less nicely, into the dining room. There it joined mashed potatoes, yams, chunky cranberry sauce, green beans, stuffing, gravy, and several pumpkin pies.

Topaz and Heather had brought out the cat benches for the occasion earlier that day. So some cats jumped up onto the high benches that brought them level with the table. Kittens ate from plates on the floor, which was covered by several old bed sheets to save the carpet. More cats ate at coffee tables and at the kitchen counters. The whole House had come together for the meal.

“Are you sure you don’t need any help?” Carlisle asked Topaz. “I can change and serve with you.”

“Nope. I’m doing community service today,” Topaz said brightly. “It’ll take a little while, but I’ll get it done.”

“He certainly is being mature today,” Heather said when Carlisle joined her. She sat at one end of the table. Carlisle sat next to her, while the space on her other side was reserved for Topaz.

Down at the opposite end, Rune jumped up onto the bench between Dopple and Evergreen. Heather scanned the faces at the table. Dorian and Annabelle and Lana, Valoria and Rafflesia were all there and many more besides. Heather was still learning their names and faces, getting to know them as friends. It was a slow process for her. But suddenly, in a room full of cats, Heather no longer felt like an outcast.

She looked up from her plate, where Topaz had just given her a slice of turkey that smelled, if she did say so herself, absolutely amazing. At the other end of the table, Rune caught her eye. He did not look away. Heather cocked her head and smiled. A cat’s smile is rare and lovely indeed, for they smile with their whole body, not just their face as a human does.

They had not spoken since Heather had come down to the kitchen that morning to start cooking and discovered a covered platter of breakfast. She had asked Carlisle if he knew anything — after taking a pancake to eat on the walk upstairs — and found out about Rune and Topaz’s midnight kitchen foray.

Rune made a point of sniffing in the direction of the mashed potatoes — garlic strong in the air — and smiled back. Heather’s stomach did a flip-flop that had nothing to do with transformation nervousness.

“Everybody, let’s eat,” Topaz said when he had served everyone what they wanted.

“Enjoy,” Heather said just as the cats took their first bites. “We have a lot to be thankful for today.”

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About Joyce

Joyce Sully lives in Southern California. She graduated from UC Irvine. She likes to knit and cook and play video games. But mostly she writes. Joyce writes short stories and novels, songs and poems, scripts and instructions to feed the cat if she stays out late. She has been spotted as far afield as Seattle, but travel makes her nervous. She believes in magic and dragons and ghosts, but is not convinced her next-door neighbors are real.
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