Up on the ladder, Rune swept the brush left and right, spreading a thick daub of paint across the molding where the wall met the ceiling in the solarium. After the experience of falling out of that tree–not landing on his feet being yet another reason he disliked a human body–he would have preferred to avoid the ladder. But Heather had stubbornly refused to give up her spot over at the nearest window, where she swept a brush swiftly around the wood framing the taped-off glass.
Heather had been strange for at least a week and, no matter how often he hashed out his impressions with Topaz, Rune could never get more specific than “strange.” She seemed jumpy, becoming inexplicably snippy if anyone came up behind her or if she had to spend a long time outside. Then she would laugh it off and tell Rune she had made dinner for the two of them. Or, as more often was the case, the ten of them, since Heather’s dinners had started to take on mythic proportions. More and more, she invited Topaz and Carlisle, Dopple and Mysti, Rafflesia and Valoria to join them and referred to the meals as “family night.”
Rune descended the ladder and moved it over to the next couple feet of unfinished wall. He ran his thumb across the masking tape protecting the edges of both wall and ceiling from the contrasting paint of the molding. Rune had relented to the hiring of professional painters for the outside of the house in exchange for Heather’s cooperation on painting the inside themselves. He also relented about taking cat’s bane. The emergency use of it when Heather was kidnapped had pushed him past the last wall of reluctance. He didn’t like it, but being human had stopped being a source of unthinking terror for him.
Below him, Heather sat down on the plastic-covered couch in a whuff of displaced air. She pressed the back of her wrist into one closed eye and then the other. Rune held his brush over the mouth of the paint can and asked, “You need to take a break?”
Heather sniffed and pressed her wrist to her mouth as well. “I’m so sick of these fumes.” She went over to the already open sliding door and stuck her head out. Her shoulders rose and fell with deep breaths.
Rune stepped down from the ladder again and he could see her wince at the way his boots rattled the metal against itself. “Why don’t we quit for the morning? You go do your thing with Carlisle.”
Heather nodded. She looked ready to cry, face pinched and eyes wet. “Thanks. We can finish the room this afternoon.”
Rune watched her leave to change out of the paint-flecked jeans and t-shirt she wore, and then he went back to his painting. Heather might have other business to take care of, but Rune still contented himself with acting as the resident handyman. Apart from that, he had no other demands on his time or attention these days, which made him about the only one in the increasingly busy House.
Carlisle watched Heather’s hair split to either side of her bowed neck as she bent to sign the papers. She straightened up and pushed the papers over to the man behind the counter. He signed below both Carlisle and Heather’s names, stamped and sealed the papers. The process of notarizing the paperwork was horrifically dull, yet Heather seemed stressed.
Heather collected the papers back into a sheaf while Carlisle paid the fees. The bell over the door rang as another customer came in. The noise must have startled Heather because Carlisle heard the flutter of papers flying into the air. But even as he watched, Heather caught them up into a rough pile again, practically picking them out of mid-air. He had noticed that since she had started spending more time as a cat, her reflexes had improved. But she had also become alert almost to the point of hyper vigilance.
On the sidewalk outside the notary office, Heather tapped her fingertips against the manila envelope of papers. “I have another stop to make, if you don’t mind,” she said.
“Lead on, then,” Carlisle said and followed her back to the street and east. He had needed to go with her to sign the papers with a witness, but the truth was that no one wanted Heather to go anywhere alone. After what happened with Ellison, Carlisle had to concede that hyper vigilance was not an inappropriate response. “How did Dahl take it when you called?”
Heather glanced over at him. Her hands hovered at stomach level and held the envelope like a shield. Inside it were contracts and trusts and wills describing who controlled what at the House and in what order control passed to them. Susanna Dahl, who had managed the trust for years before Heather came home, was no longer anywhere on that list. No human was. “I think she was relieved to not have to work for us ever again.”
“Do you think she believed Ellison?” Carlisle had hesitated to bring up the subject after what happened. Heather had, if anything, become more obviously distressed as more time passed.
Heather jogged through a cross walk so that Carlisle was left behind even though the signal had only just changed for them. When he caught up, she said, “I don’t know, but she didn’t make any threats when we spoke. She made some noise about wanting to know we were satisfied as clients, but I could tell it was lip service. So maybe she suspects, but I think she’d rather not know anything.”
Carlisle hesitated before bringing up the next subject as well because Heather had been so determined in her course of action. “I’m going to have to brush up on my investing skills, with the way you set up the stocks.” Which was an understatement: Carlisle had been officially reassigned to managing all the House’s assets himself, with the certificates being held by a company that left most everything but the actual work on the stock exchange floor to the customer.
Heather turned into another strip mall with several glances over her shoulders. “Not really. The House is the definition of long-term stock. We’ve had most of those companies since they went public. If you don’t want to touch anything with quick turnarounds, you don’t have to,” she said with a careless shrug at war with her tense body language.
Carlisle made a neutral noise in response. Heather had come back from her kidnapping with some strong opinions on what changes needed to be made to the House. She stopped in front of a store and pointed to a bench a few feet down from its door. He looked up at the name. “Phones?”
“You can wait outside if you want. It might take a while to get signed up for service.” Heather had a hard expression on her face that dared him to make the mistake of questioning her plan.
“I’ll come in. They can show both of us how to use them. I’m not familiar with them.” Carlisle tucked his hands in his pockets and tried to look inoffensive. Heather nodded and whirled into the shop. Carlisle followed her, trying to walk the fine line between protecting her and getting his head bitten off.
Dopple stroked her bare thumb down her son’s spine and across the thin whip of his tail. He squiggled across the bedspread on pudgy legs and bumped his head into her other hand. His eyes were still closed, but everyone told her that was expected; changing-cats took longer to do everything as kittens.
She curled her arm around him and hitched her body up over his a bit when she heard a knock on the door. “Who is it?”
Heather stepped in quietly, eyes going to the kitten largely hidden by Dopple’s body, and silently took up the desk chair. “He asleep?”
Dopple relaxed enough to let her hip settle onto the bed again, but kept her arm curled around him. “Just woke up, so he’s bored.”
“Have you decided on a name yet?” Heather fidgeted with the top flap of a cardboard box. She kept turning it in her hands so Dopple couldn’t make out the writing on the sides.
“Mysti keeps vetoing everything. I’m threatening to call him Pudding if she doesn’t start helping me pick.” She jerked her chin towards the box. “What’s that?”
Heather stopped tumbling it and faced the label toward her. The front had a plastic window through which she could see a flip style cell phone. “I got the family plan,” Heather said and pulled the plastic packing out of the box.
“We’re getting phones?” Dopple uncurled her arm from the kitten to accept the phone Heather offered.
“That’s just for starters.” She handed Dopple a slip of paper. “These are all the numbers you need to put in.” It listed numbers for Rune, Carlisle, Topaz and Heather. “Carlisle says you know something about computers.”
Dopple grimaced. “Mysti taught me a little. I can use the things if I have to.” Typing hurt though and her fingers didn’t have the right reach to easily use a full-sized keyboard.
Heather picked at a tear in the corner of the box and peeled off strips of the glossy coating on the outside. “If we got a computer and ran cable lines up here for internet, could you use email?”
Dopple raised her eyebrows. “Who am I going to be chatting with?”
Heather had reduced the corner of the box to confetti. “I’m not sure yet. Just, could you be technical support if I go through with it?”
Dopple shrugged the shoulder she was not bracing on. “Between Mysti and me, we can manage.”
Heather smiled and Dopple noticed she looked a little flushed. “Thanks.” She took the damaged box with her as she headed for the door. At the threshold, she turned back. “How is it?” At Dopple’s questioning wave of her hand, Heather said, “Being a mom?”
Dopple looked down at where her son gnawed on the pad of her thumb with needle-sharp teeth. He had his arms wrapped around the ball of her thumb and she counted–again–the little pink and white claws just peeking through the black fur. “I’m scared all the time, even when he’s right with me, that something might hurt him. And I spent four hours the other day watching him nap after Donya nursed him.” She shrugged again. “I wouldn’t change anything. Now I’m not just myself. I’m his mom first.”
Heather’s smile looked a little less shaky this time as she nodded and let herself out of the room. Dopple flipped open the phone. She stretched over to the desk and snagged a pencil. The buttons for the numbers were too small for the blunt ends of her fingers, but with the eraser end, she typed in the numbers for the other phones in their new fleet, adding Mysti’s, long ago memorized, first.
George’s cell phone started vibrating to tell him he had a message, just as the foreman led him past the skeletal walls of a house being built. His thumb pressed the keys to start playback without looking away from where the foreman used a rolled up blue print to point out something a couple of workers were doing up on the roof of another house.
“Message received on. Monday. June 7th at. 7:53. AM,” the automated voice chanted. Then the voice changed and became richly, viciously human. “Hello. It’s Susanna. I called when I knew you wouldn’t answer because I wanted to say this without having to listen to you interrupt me and shout at me and tell me how stupid I am.”
George turned the volume on his headset down a bit, so that Susanna’s voice became a murmur underlying the outside world. And outside, the foreman droned on about fire-resistant materials. “So. Um. What I wanted to say is, I think you’re a real bastard.” She paused as though she had surprised herself by saying it. “I tried to walk on eggshells around you when you were busy and pissed off and I told myself it was just the work getting to you. And that, if I brought over dinner or went to work late to see you when you weren’t busy, you would start having more time and be good to me again. That didn’t exactly work, now did it?”
The foreman picked up a shingle from a pile and showed it to George. With a flick of his nail, the shingle rang brightly. “I’m a busy woman, too, you know,” Susanna whisper-shouted in his ear. “I have a career that takes all my attention and I thought you understood that. I thought you wanted to spend time with me. That’s what the stupid house was about, you said. But no, it was all just about going after Lee.” George instinctively growled, prompting a confused look from the foreman. George noticed just long enough to make a dismissive noise.
“God. Do you have a crush on her or something?” The foreman led him over a crunchy section of rocks, out beyond the last house being constructed, so they could look down over the rest of the development where a machine crawled over overturned land on caterpillar treads. “Because God knows you’re horrible to the women you like.”
“Was I always just a way to get at her? I had my misgivings–you never really stopped obsessing over that house–but I thought it was just a thing for you. A sticking point. But it’s not like your whole life revolved around that one house.”
George followed the foreman back across the lots to the trailer he used as an office. “Except, apparently I was wrong about that. So.” As he walked, the foreman fanned out the blueprint and tried to hold it with both hands and point to something with a third one he didn’t have.
“I guess that’s everything. You never cared about me, I see that now, and you used me and you were so rude to me I can hardly think about it. And now I think you might be completely insane.”
George followed the foreman up the steps into the trailer. “And I don’t ever want to see you again.” The foreman waved him into a seat. “Goodbye.” Before he sat down, George pressed the button to delete the message and flipped his phone shut again.
Heather leaned over Rune’s shoulder and pointed to one of the brightly colored icons on the little screen of the cell phone. “See, you go there to change the settings,” she said. She reached around his side and tried to press the buttons.
Rune pulled the phone out of her reach and scowled over his shoulder. “I know how to use a phone,” he said. He leaned over the arm of the couch in the front room to get away from her, which didn’t exactly make her feel great.
Heather jerked back. “Well, I didn’t,” she snapped. And yes, maybe her attempts to teach Rune how it worked had turned into taking the phone away from him and doing it herself, but damn it, he wouldn’t ever do it the way she told him to. “I had to make the man in the store explain everything to me and he looked at me like I had two tails.”
Rune continued to press buttons and the phone obediently beeped back at him. “If you had told me what you were planning, I could have gone with you.”
Heather made a rude noise and thumped over to the opposite end of the couch. She leaned her back against the arm and propped one leg up on the couch. She flipped through the instruction booklet, letting her left arm drape over her belly between page turns. After a chilly pause, she said, “It’s not like you tell me anything about your past. How should I know what you know about cell phones?”
Rune shut his phone with a loud snap. “Can we get this fight over with soon? You’ve been weird lately and I can’t help but think I’m the reason.”
Heather looked at him over the top of the booklet and curled up a little more. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m not mad at you.” At least, she hadn’t been before she gave him the cell phone.
“So why are you riding me?” Rune asked and pulled the booklet out of her hands to toss it on the floor by the rest of the packaging from the phones. “And I’m not talking about the phone. You threw a book at me the other day because I didn’t knock before I came into your room.”
“You startled me. I didn’t know it was you.” Heather thought of Dopple’s answer: I’m scared all the time.
“Do a lot of people attack you in your room?” She saw the moment when he realized what a small leap it was from “kidnapped in your driveway” to “attacked in your room.” He lurched across the middle of the couch and put a hand on her bent knee. “Is this about–”
“No,” Heather practically wailed because she got enough of the post-traumatic psychology talk from Carlisle as it was. “This isn’t about, about that night,” she said. Part of her continued to be bitterly disappointed, as it had been for the past week since she realized what was going on herself, that Rune had not just guessed what was on her mind.
“Because I can talk to Dorian about setting up more daytime patrols and rigging up more booby traps,” Rune said, like he didn’t hear anything she said, just relentlessly pursuing the wrong trail.
Topaz found Rune in the attic, which didn’t bode well when he had just seen Heather restlessly thumping about in the kitchen and refusing to talk to him. Even when he said he still needed her to help him with the new phone and if she had time now, he would go take some cat’s bane, she just snarled that he should ask Rune because he knew all about them. She had a big knife in her hand. He booked it out of there.
Rune was human, at least, which meant he hadn’t taken any catnip. Yet. Topaz trotted over to where he leaned against an ancient steamer trunk. A bar of light from the tiny window slanted down across his face. The light washed out the lines and cast everything past the hard line of his jaw into shadow. Topaz thought he might have looked like that as a young man.
Rune rolled his head to the side to look at Topaz then back again. He shut his eyes against the light. “Heather’s pregnant,” he said. Desperation put a hysterical edge to his voice.
“Dude, you don’t waste any time,” Topaz said. He sat next to Rune and flicked his tail in the dust of the floor.
Rune groaned. “I didn’t mean to.”
Topaz snickered. “Uh, bro, you do know how this works, right?”
Rune opened his eyes just enough to glare. “We weren’t really thinking about it at the time.”
Rune really did sound desperate, so Topaz took pity and dropped the teasing tone from his voice. “Isn’t this an okay thing? You two have been, what’s the word, dating? Dating for a while.” Cats translated the human concept of dating as “patrolling the same territory amicably.” Topaz thought that was a pretty good description of the two and their strolls around the property. “What did you say to Heather?”
Rune winced and Topaz braced himself for whatever deeply insensitive thing Rune had probably blurted out. “I don’t think I said anything. I kind of just stared at her for a while and then I went away.”
Topaz grumbled in the back of his throat. It was worse than he thought. “Man, Heather’s pissed. What were you thinking?”
“I was thinking I can’t be a father!”
“Did she ask you to be?” Because lots of queens, most, in fact, raised their kittens alone or with someone who wasn’t the actual father. Just because a queen thought a tom was good enough to have his kittens didn’t mean she wanted to be stuck with him the rest of her life.
Rune seemed to hear all the unspoken remainder of Topaz’s thought. “Heather lived as a human most of her life. She’s going to expect me to help if I’m going to be part of her life any more.”
Topaz scoffed. “Heather’s not going to break up with you. She wouldn’t be this pissed if she didn’t care too much to let you walk away.”
“You don’t understand,” Rune said, leaning forward to drop his head between his knees. “She knows about,” and his voice trailed off into a strangled mumble. He sat back up and fixed Topaz with a hard glare. “I had a human wife and I got her pregnant and she had a human daughter,” he said in one rough breath. “And I ran away. And Heather knows.”
Rune gave Topaz a minute to chew on all that information. He thought maybe Rune was a big asshole for running off like that, except then Topaz would never have met him and Rune wouldn’t have met Heather and life just generally started to look like a foreign country. “Do you want to be a father?” Topaz asked at last.
Rune’s face twisted painfully. He held his hands out like someone would drop the answer into them. “I don’t want to be the kind of man I was before I met her,” he said and it sounded like he was choking on the words.
Topaz rolled his eyes. Leave it to Rune to bury the truth about whatever he was feeling under fifteen feet of only vaguely related crap. “So let her know you plan to stick around.”
“I can’t afford to buy her a ring, if that’s what you’re thinking. Unless I borrow money from her, which is pretty tacky. I’ve got about fifty bucks left to my name.”
Topaz hadn’t been thinking of a gift, but now that Rune mentioned it… “Something for the kitten would just make it seem like you want her to act like a regular cat. So something human.” He could see Rune hesitating, talking himself out of the whole idea. “I’ll get changed and go with you, so get your tailless butt off the floor and get that money.” He trotted away before Rune could argue. Really, he understood Heather’s pain; talking to Rune was like convincing a mouse to braid your whiskers.
Rafflesia hooked her claws at the pages of the newspaper and scrabbled them open to the one she wanted. A6, [UNIVERSITY], where they kept talking about tuition and books and protests and students. Her tail flicked across the dining room table, where Heather had left the newspaper. Rafflesia could read, but a lot of the words didn’t mean anything to her. She left the paper behind, unable to carry it, and hopped down from the table.
In the kitchen, Heather sliced peaches with quick, fluid motions. The room smelled of juice and vanilla and paint fumes from down in the solarium. A burst of lemon scent joined them as Heather squeezed half of one over the bowl of peach slices. She glanced at Rafflesia as she came into the room and jumped onto the counter then Heather went back to reducing peaches to paper-thin slices.
Rafflesia sniffed a pot cooling on the stove. It was filled with a cream-colored goop that smelled strongly of vanilla. “Whatcha making?”
Heather pointed her knife at the large glass bowl set back against the wall. “Trifle,” she said. The bottom of the bowl was lined with sticks of pound cake. A carton of whipping cream and a bottle of orange juice sat next to it, along with the plate bearing the partially sliced pound cake.
Rafflesia snuck a quick lick of vanilla goop from the wooden spoon lying next to the stove. Pudding. Delicious. “Did you make all this right now?”
Heather grunted a yes-like noise and used a bright red brush to spread orange juice on the cake in the bowl. Then she started arranging peach slices in a starburst pattern. “Did you need something?” Heather asked, hitting the word need hard, like anything less than life-or-death desperation would be ignored.
Rafflesia thought of asking her what was wrong, because any idiot could see she was upset, but Rafflesia knew she cooked to forget about her problems. So instead, she said, “What is a university? And what is tuition?”
Heather picked up the wooden spoon and scowled at the long stripe of clean wood through the middle of the pudding residue. “You’ve been reading the paper again?” She asked as she washed the spoon in the sink. “It’s a type of school. They’re talking about increasing how much you have to pay to take classes there.”
“So it costs to go to school?”
Heather spooned a big glop of pudding into the bowl and used the back of the spoon to push it around, covering up the cake and peaches. “Yeah. This one is a state university, so the government runs it and it costs less, so lots of people can go.”
“Costs less than what?”
“Than a private college,” Heather said and started making more sticks of cake.
“What do you have to do to go there?”
Heather raised her eyebrows but kept her eyes on the swiftly moving knife. “Well, mostly, humans apply while they finish high school and, if they get accepted, they start taking classes at the university.”
“And how to you get into high school?”
Heather set the knife down and looked at Rafflesia. She stood with one arm folded across her stomach and the opposite elbow resting on that arm. She circled her hand around in a sort of get on with it motion. “Why the sudden interest in schools, Raff?”
Rafflesia drew herself up to her full height. “I want to go to school and learn lots of things so I can come back and teach the other kittens.”
Heather relaxed out of her stern stance. “You want to be a teacher? Here? The way you talked, I thought for sure you would want to leave home again. Maybe go stay with Umber for real this time.”
“That’s just it. I want to learn all about life outside, but I want to come back and tell people about it. Then the other cats would know enough to go out and have their own adventures.”
Rafflesia tiptoed across the edge of the stove, still warm from use under her feet, to sit right next to Heather. “This is important to me. I really, really want to do this.”
“I guess, if we can get some papers for you, you could get your GED and apply with that. You might have to start at a city college before a university will take you. And I’ll have to talk to Carlisle about paying for tuition, but I’m sure we have more than enough. And…” Heather kept talking to herself, thinking of details and complications and solutions. And Rafflesia listened to everything and added to her list of words to ask about, filing away GED and city college and dormitories for later consideration, missing nothing.
Rune switched the handles of the paper bag from one hand to the other and wiped his sweaty palm against his jeans. “Are you sure Heather will like this?” He looked down into the oversized bag at the box labeled “immersion blender.”
“She doesn’t have one, does she?” Topaz asked. His brother made a big show of walking along the narrow ridge of asphalt along the shoulder of the road. Even with Topaz’s effortless balance, Rune thought it looked like too much trouble. “She already has a cook book she likes. And this looks pretty cool.”
Rune wasn’t sure why anyone would need an immersion blender, cool or not, but they had argued the point three times already. He had bought the thing and that was that. “I just feel like I should be getting her jewelry. Or flowers. Women still like those, don’t they? Human women, I mean.” Except apparently his brain wasn’t all on the same page and needed to circle around the problem a little longer.
He could feel Topaz roll his eyes at him. “Does Heather even wear jewelry? I mean, if you were trying to impress Mysti, I’d say sure.”
“Impressing Mysti could never be worth pissing off Dopple,” Rune grumbled. As they rounded the sharp curve in the road, he caught sight of the mailbox. His stomach flip-flopped. If Heather didn’t like it…
“The point is that you know Heather is not like other women. She’s not like other women to you and Rune, look out!”
Rune had barely stepped out to cross the road. Stupid, stupid, his mind repeated in the brief eternity it took to turn enough to see the car already braking hard as it came around the turn at him.
Even with the driver simultaneously laying on the horn and the brake, the car clipped Rune. The impact broke his left leg, he thought distantly, and the image of Poppy Lee, ancient before her time and leaning heavily on a cane, came unbidden to his mind. The force bucked him up over the hood, but the angle made him roll up and off to the side, instead of into the windshield.
The worst part was hitting the ground. His brain already protected itself in an absorbent layer of shock, so he heard, rather than felt, the crunch of his ribs cracking and something going pop in his shoulder. Asphalt scraped his cheek. The prickle of dry oak leaves all over his skin was a relief because it meant he was off to the side of the road, out of the way of crushing tires.
It hurt too much to move, so he felt grateful he ended his rag doll roll on his back. Above him, a half sky of blue and a half canopy of leaves twisted in a dizzying rhythm. If he lay still and took shallow breaths, his body just seemed to buzz, foreign and ignorant of his suggestions, but somewhere out the other end of pain.
He heard Topaz screaming at the human, telling it to get out of here. That was good. He couldn’t go to a human hospital and the human would want to call an ambulance, but maybe not as much as it wanted to be let off the hook. Rune forced himself to croak out some assurance, some variation on it’s just a scratch, just a flesh wound. He couldn’t hear over the ringing in his ears whether or not it came out right. Were his eyes even open any more?
To be continued…