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Authors: Jill Nojack

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BOOK: The Familiar
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"Cassie, stop crying. You're worth ten of him, sweetheart," Eunice murmurs into the phone in the deceptively kind tone she saves for her granddaughter. I hear the girl's sobs from where I'm still hiding under the bed.

When she talks this way, a listener might think Eunice truly cares, but her interest in Cassie, like her interest in anyone, isn't genuine. She wants something from the girl. I know it, and I want to protect her from it, but I've never been able to figure out what it is. Still, she's been over-solicitous of her granddaughter's well-being since she was eight or nine. Cassie had been hit by a car, and Eunice not only donated blood, she stayed by her bedside for days. From then on, Cassie stayed with us on her summer vacations. She was someone nice for Cat to cuddle with. She never demanded more than I wanted to give.

"No, dear, no, you don't pack his things up for him nice and tidy. You found him in bed with your best friend! No, his things go on the lawn. Preferably in the rain, with the crotch cut out of all his pants...that's the only thing for it, dear. Are you listening? Go find the scissors now before you forget. I'll wait..."

Ten minutes pass while Eunice waits. "Lovely, dear. How did it feel? Yes, I said so, didn't I? Granny Eunice always knows what to do...and remember, on the lawn once you're finished. He needs to know that final is final. He'll not be forgiven, not by you. Not ever."

Eunice makes her goodbyes and places the phone back in the cradle as a smug expression plays across her face. She airs her thoughts out loud, perhaps to herself, perhaps because she knows I'm still lurking under the bed.

"I cannot believe that disaster zone of a girl found someone to get engaged to and nearly ruined everything! In any case, that's sorted things nicely, if I do say so myself."

She walks through the hall to the small kitchen / breakfast room combo at the end. She calls out, "Cat!"

I don't have a choice. My cat self has a painfully empty stomach due to being freshly reanimated and cowering in the woods all night, and while I might regret it, I sweep out from under the overhang of the bedspread, stopping only briefly to bat at the fringe, and then rush along the hall toward the sound of the can opener and the smell of something savory. I leap from the floor to the chair to the tabletop, where my blue ceramic dish contains a pile of fishy-smelling slop. I eagerly shove my little pink nose into it and chew away daintily as Eunice rubs me behind my tiny black ears and waits for the kettle to boil.

I hate myself for purring. Cat forgives everything so easily when food is involved.

"Well, Tom, I'm sorry that you can't join me for tea. I prefer the company of Cat right now, given your behavior last night. Such a shame you're not always as sweet-tempered as a kitten."

I glance up from my meal, and she gives me a quick scratch under the chin. "You do look charming. Perhaps I'll leave you that way, and you can go fully cat from now on." She's a shark when she smiles. "How would you like that, Tom?"

I try to arrange my face into an expression of horror, but I'm sure my wide-open eyes and plastered-back ears just make me adorable. No, I wouldn't like being fully cat from now on. Every time I'm Cat too long, I start to lose my human self.

The last time Eunice forgot to let me spend time in human form, I almost didn't come back from it. She was having her brief but unsavory affair with Kevin after school in one of the cabins she owns in Corey Woods. She was in her late fifties at the time. Despite Eunice's trim figure and piercing blue eyes, young Kev must have been one hard-up teen to do it with a woman old enough to be his granny. And Eunice? I've never been able to figure out what she'd want from such a soft, greasy chunk of high school wedgie bait.

It was a week, at least, before she got the itch for me again and sprang me from Cat's body. I held her immobile with my teeth gripping the back of her neck, and she arched, scratched, and growled when I treated her to a little lovin' the tomcat way. Later, as we lay together, perspiration shining on our exhausted bodies, she rubbed up behind my ear with one hand as if I were still Cat, and said, "The teeth were a nice touch."

Despite her approval, there's no way she'd want me asserting myself
outside
of the bedroom. She never left me as Cat that long again.

"Something special today, or just the usual, Robert?"

Although he keeps his eyes on Eunice, I can tell he's aware of me playing possum on the top of a shelf with one eye cracked open.

It was a long time ago, well before he fathered that mess of a boy who turned out to be Kevin, but Robert was my rival for Eunice's romantic attention. The two Andrews men couldn't be much different. Robert is dapper and well put together. He's never gone in for the casual style that's so popular these days. Even now, when he's just out shopping for herbs, his crisp cotton suit is perfectly tailored to fit his tall, thin frame. If I'm any judge, he's still handsome for an old man.

Although he never progressed in magical power to a point that allows him to challenge Eunice in spell-making, he's been the high priest of the coven for twenty years and the mayor for longer than that. Between the two of them, they own most of Giles. I'm convinced he hopes to increase his share when she's gone—if not for himself, then for his psycho son. Giles is an insulated place. Exactly the kind of town where bad magic can really get a claw in.

"I'm thinking about trying something new for pain. The arthritis has been at me. New kitten?"

"Indeed. Out with the old Cat and in with the new. The last one met up with an accident, but there's never any shortage of black kittens available."

"When did you get the first Cat, Eunice? Maybe Kevin could work up a piece on your shop for the Free Times. Might bring in a few summer tourists hoping to take a peek at the famous Cat."

"It was in sixty-seven," Eunice says as she steps out from behind the counter with a dust-cloth and walks stiffly toward a display cabinet. Walking has become more difficult for her in the past few weeks. You can almost hear her creak. Robert trails behind her.

"Hmm...same year that young fella from the choir went missing, wasn't it?" It's ridiculous, but even with no civilians in the room, Robert always uses the euphemistic "choir" instead of just coming out and saying "coven.” His shiny bald head reflects the overhead lights, pulling Cat's attention like a beacon. If I could get enough launch power under me...

"Tom, you mean? Gillian's young man? I believe it was."

"Wasn't there some rumor about you and..."

Eunice turns to him abruptly. I drop to a crouch, my back legs begging to spring. "Your point, Robert?"

"It's simply interesting that he disappeared, and then Cat showed up around the same time."

Eunice goes back to her dusting. "It's time to close for lunch. If you're not buying anything, you should move along."

He doesn't leave.

She turns back to him, a sharp edge to her words now. "Anything else you need? Anything?"

Robert shakes his head, ending the conversation. No one in Giles is brave enough to intentionally annoy Eunice except Gillian. As he nods, the lights shift enticingly from side to side on his glistening dome. I hunker down, ready to spring, but Eunice catches me with her eyes and gives me a fierce look that stops me before I can leap. I reluctantly settle in for a nap and tuck my face up under a leg so I can't be distracted by shiny things.

***

After Robert leaves, Eunice picks me up and cradles me to her withered bosom. "I know you don't like him, Tom. But imagine if he knew you were spying on him all those years. Don't you think he'd kill you as soon as look at you? I know I would. And you only have the nine lives. I won't have you lose another one so soon." And that's the problem. The old witch probably loves me in her own wicked, controlling way. And I'm dependent on her whacked-out love for everything I have. Still holding me close, she walks to the front door and flips the "Open" sign to "Closed" and locks up after checking the mailbox just outside the door. Her latest Archeology Today magazine has arrived, and I can see she's anxious to start paging through it. I've never known what she's looking for, but she always gets excited when a new one is delivered.

She heads toward the downstairs kitchenette, flipping through the pages in the digger's journal as she goes. "Will you behave today, Tom? If I fix you a nice lunch?"

I nod my adorable, tiny, kitten head and follow her to the kitchen.

"Good Tom," she says, absently.

I shift then, unexpectedly. I won't be eating out of my blue bowl after all. Once I'm oriented to my human limbs again, I walk upstairs to the bedroom and collect my red satin robe from the closet before I join her for our meal. At least she doesn't expect me to be naked every moment I spend in human form. No bare bottoms at the table, as Eunice says. She's all class, that one.

She also knows I'm easier to control if she lets me be a civilized human being for an hour or two every couple of days. Without that time, it's her own fault if Cat comes on strong even when I'm Tom. That she's letting me out already today tells me she has no intention of leaving me as Cat for too long, no matter how angry she was yesterday. She likes me as dependent as possible.

We dine on finger sandwiches and carrot sticks, as urbane as you please. She's quiet as she finishes skimming through her magazine. She makes a sour face as she closes it. Disappointed again. Maybe she's hoping they'll discover the body of someone she killed long ago and hid on an ancient magical site. It's just the kind of thing she'd love to gloat over.

She turns to me and comments on our latest visitor. "Every time Robert looks at me, I feel the wheels turning. Any minute, someone will arrive from the old folk's home with orders to take me. It's not enough that he controls the farmland on the north side of town, he wants my woodlands on the south as well. Probably thinks he'll control the coven if he controls the meeting grounds. And why was he asking about you after all these years, Tom?"

"Because he was in the car when Kevin ran me over."

"What's that?" Her eyes narrow to slits. Wrinkled, evil slits.

"I was going to tell you this morning, but you know I've never mastered Morse code by paw tap." Sometimes she enjoys my sarcasm. Other times, I'll find myself transformed and stuffed into my cage.

"He saw you after the death shift?"

"Kevin did. And if he described me—well, unlike someone uninitiated into 'our' world, Robert won't write it off as Kevin seeing things." It's wise not to tell her about the wink.

"This is very bad, Tom," she says, then inhales deeply when she realizes she's inadvertently issued a command. I shrink rapidly downward into the chair, growing fur. When the change is done, I pop my head back up over the edge of the table and use a paw to bring the last of my sandwich to my mouth. Although the question is now rhetorical because Cat can't answer, she exhales hard and asks harshly, "How could you let them see you?"

Like it matters. What do I care if people finally know what Eunice is capable of? What could she possibly do to me? She doesn't need to give me the snip: I'm already neutered.

I hop up onto the tabletop and lap at my tea while she rants.

***

Lunch hour is almost over when I hear a peck, peck, pecking at the door, "Yoo-hoo, Eunice, are you in there? Dad asked me to stop by about that interview."

Ugh. It's that smarmy wiggler, Kevin. As if having Dad around in the morning wasn't sufficient, now we've got Junior pushing his ugly face in. The only way he's an improvement is that he's still got just enough of a comb-over left that I won't be tempted by the full-on dome shine. Eunice's reaction isn't any kinder than mine. "Faugh! Now it's the son. I'll never be rid of them."

She has to go back out to the shop. Lunch hour is done, and we're open again for business. I follow her and retreat to a corner, but I'll be keeping an eye on him. The tip of my tail taps out a leisurely beat up, then down again, as I give him the full, unblinking evil eye through the door glass.

Natalie, local councilwomen and longstanding member of the "choir", is peering in the picture window to Kevin's side with her hand shading her eyes. Nat's shiny, red vinyl handbag hangs from her other arm. She'll be here for her "Magic Youth Masque", a Cat's Magical Shoppe specialty, mixed up fresh every week for any of the local residents willing to pay the price. Sometimes Eunice even sets me the task. The ingredients are simple enough, and Eunice only needs a second or two to add the magic. Natalie swears by it. She might not be so keen if she knew the main ingredient is finely grated fetal pig.

Eunice unlocks the door, ushering them in. As Nat walks by, she says, "Eunice, dear, you look nice today. Is that scarf new?"

"Just an old one I'd forgotten." Which, of course, she hadn't. Eunice never forgets. That works out well for holding grudges.

"It's nice all the same, dear. Is my treatment ready?"

"It's in the back. I'll get it. Kevin, you don't mind waiting." She doesn't bother to pretend it's a question, but Kevin does.

"No, no, Eunice. Plenty of time today. Take what you need." Kevin's public smile stays plastered on tight as he lurks toward the front of the store. He scans a pamphlet that touts seaweed as a restorative until she returns, packs up Natalie's treatment, and bids her goodbye, calling after her, "Don't forget to bring back the empty jars you still have at home, and I'll give a discount next week!"

BOOK: The Familiar
6.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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