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Authors: Jill Nojack

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BOOK: The Familiar
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I find a dark spot as far away from the tempting smell coming down the stairwell as I can and pull my head into my chest as I make myself comfortable for a long day of napping uninterrupted by food. I try not to think about the meal waiting for me upstairs, all wrapped up in a nice green ribbon.

I spend the rest of the day in the showcase window out front when I'm not napping, but the passersby are used to seeing Cat there and think nothing of it. Some of them stop to coo at me and remark on Eunice's new kitten, but apparently none of them possess powers of ESP because I'm thinking extremely choice thoughts at all of them, particularly the kitten-cooers. If they have to be that sickeningly precious, they could at least read my mind and get me something to eat.

Around sunset, I begin to slam myself against the window every time someone walks by. Right now, there's a pair of teens canoodling as they walk past on the street. Come on, get your hands off each other and look at me!

And then, beyond them and across the street, the glint of streetlight on a bald pate flashes and catches my attention.

Kevin is leaning up against the brick facade of the bakery. He looks me right in the eye and smirks. I see it in his face—he knows Eunice has left the building. But how could he? I broke the glass he put the potion in, and I took my smack for it. He saw me do it just before she hustled him out.

And that's when I slept my drugged sleep and woke up after Eunice had gone to bed.

Had he come back? Done something I didn't see? Did he have something to do with Eunice's death? Why else would he be standing there gloating at me from across the street? I can almost hear him thinking
that's right, buddy. See what being the favorite gets you?

In the morning, I hold one paw up so that the drip from the bathtub faucet splashes on to the back. Then I hustle to lap it up before the precious droplet runs off and away. It takes half the day to get a decent drink and slake my thirst. Plus, the hunger's getting worse, and it's only been a day and a half since I woke up next to Eunice's cold body.

The smell is enticing after an additional day to let her juices stew. Cat fights me every second as I resist his instinct not to let meat go to waste. I stay by the glass, meowing piteously whenever someone walks by, trying to let them know I need help. But they just walk on, remarking on the cuteness of Eunice's new kitten.

The phone rings for the sixth time in two days: it's Cassie again, leaving another message, each of them increasingly concerned in tone after Granny doesn't respond to the whimpers about her broken heart. This call's even a little frantic.

Finally, I knock the handset to the floor and do my best crying-baby imitation, a sound passed genetically from cat to cat to control their humans. The crying combined with the phone that will never be placed back on the hook should get some action. She'll be forced to investigate why Granny isn't answering. I hear the click on the other end of the line and picture her running to her car and speeding toward Giles from Boston, throwing everything else aside in concern for her granny's cat. Okay, not for me, maybe, but for her granny, yes.

I think about rescuing the ribbon from Eunice's room to entertain myself until my call for help bears fruit, but then I think better of it. If I get too close, Cat is almost sure to decide the Eunice-steaks upstairs shouldn't be left to age any longer.

So, I'll wreak kitteny havoc to keep his mind off it. What to do in defiance that I would have loved to do when witchy-poo was still alive? My eyes drift around the shop. There it is—the perfect rebellion.

Eunice had a thing for anything Egyptian. She put an entire cemetery's worth of canopic burial jars around the top of the shop a few years ago. In ancient Egypt, they held the internal organs of mummies, but in Giles, they're popular for holding the ashes of the town's beloved pets.

The jar right above the door, the one decorated as a stylized black cat? She always threatened it would be my final resting place if I caused her too much grief. I'd love to send it crashing to the floor and watch it shatter, sending shards of painted clay scattering everywhere. I deserve a celebration for outliving her.

But no matter how I puzzle it out, there's no way for me to get up there. The jars are too close to the ceiling on their specially built ledges, and there's nothing I can use to climb up.

Instead, I maneuver to the top shelf of the potions case through a series of jumps and restarts, which Eunice would never have allowed. I'd have gotten the business end of a broom if she even knew I'd been thinking about it. The bottles are packed together tightly in their ordered rows, but there's just enough room behind them that I can squeeze in and push through the canyon created between the bottles and the shelf. There's a satisfying crash or two as I work my way along, but the majority of the bottles survive my trek. Maybe I'll get lucky and the ones that fell will have something in them worth eating.

When I reach the other side, I try for the top shelf across the aisle, but I misjudge and can only slow myself a little with my claws scrabbling at each of the shelves as I fall. It's not too bad when I hit—I'm still young and flexible. I'm recovering my dignity, shaking my paws ferociously—they're soaked with something that smells suspiciously like cannabis—when I hear a voice sound faintly through the door, "Oh, you poor thing."

It's Gillian, peering in at me. Why would she be here? The shop doesn't open today. Oh! It was me—I did it. Clever me. Cassie must have called her. I knew I'd get someone's attention if I kept at it.

She knocks on the door with a loud rap-tap, and when no one comes to answer, she rings the bell. I sit still and composed, watching her with as somber a face as I can manage given what Cat has to work with.

Gillian tries the door handle, but it doesn't move. I spring into action, running to the door, leaping upward to the old-fashioned turn-latch on the inside to let her in, but I can't budge it, and Gilly doesn't really need my help. If she wants in, she'll be in.

With her hand still on the handle, she closes her eyes, concentrating. I hear the click of tumblers moving on their own. She twists the handle and enters the shop but stops abruptly when she raises her hand to cover her nose and mouth, then comes to me and scoops me up.

"Oh, my Goddess...the smell! Come on. Let's get you out of here." She carries me outside, leaving the shop door wide open.

Gilly fumbles her cell phone out of her bag one-handed and dials three digits. The police are quick to respond. Not surprising, since most of them spend all their time in the café down the street guzzling endless cups of coffee with Kevin while he pretends to be a newsman. I'd seen him slip doses of a light-blue potion with coppery flecks into their cups when they weren't looking, a fact I dutifully reported back to Eunice. She smiled and kept her reasons to herself. More of their blasted secrets.

Gillian strokes me behind the ears and cuddles me against her shoulder as she waits on the various officials to complete their jobs. "I never liked her much, but it's still sad when someone dies alone like that."

Gillian was always kind. I was such a fool to be led astray so long ago. I rub the side of my head against her chin, marking her as mine. Maybe, if I can't be human again, she'll take me in, and I can live out my last three Cat lives with her. It's the second best thing I can think of having happen.

After Eunice's remains are carried down in a body bag and stowed in the mortuary van, Gilly goes back into the shop, still snugging me close with one hand. She walks around the counter to find my cage and moves it onto the counter top, then gently sets me inside. "Now, let's get the windows open." She gives me one last chuck under the chin, and I lick her hand furiously, hoping she'll get the hint. She laughs. No, she doesn't get it. I give her a gentle bite. "Ouch! You little scamp! I've got a couple more calls to make, but first, maybe I should find you something to eat."

Holding the phone against her shoulder with her cheek while her busy hands scoop out food into a dish, she pages through the phone book and finds a specialty service for emergency cleanup. She agrees to stay until the service arrives, her demeanor totally business while she describes the situation. A bed and a smell to be removed, she says. It's growing dark as she calls Cassie, her voice at its most soothing.

"Cass? It's Gillian. I'm at the house now like you asked, and I have very bad news about your grandmother."

I don't hear the rest of the call. I'm purring madly with my face shoved gratefully into a dish of fishily fragrant wet food that masks the lingering, sweetish smell of death.

***

I was bummed out after Gilly left that night. That's what? Two days ago now. I'd hoped she'd take me with her, but she made her excuses sweetly, saying, "I'm sorry, Cat, but I have to leave you here. I have my Polly, and she's too old now to try to adapt her ways to having a cat around. I think one or the other of you would end up in a bad way."

I'd forgotten about Polly, my cockatoo. Man, she'd cared for her all these years? I suppose I should have known she wouldn't just abandon her. But she was right: Polly would dispose of Cat easily. He'd never have a chance against that beak.

Gilly comes in the morning to feed me my wet food and set out a bowl of the hard stuff for later in the day, but she doesn't stay long. Why would she? I'm her rival's cat, as far as she knows. She loves me up and talks to me, but I'm less attentive to what she has to say. I'm going feral and Cat is taking over. Gillian's words are nowhere near as interesting as smells and patterns and the birdsong coming in through the windows.

Cat spends hours trying to compact himself small enough to get out through the two-inch high crack in the back window so he can run to the woods to hunt. After a while, he catches on that he's never going to get through and takes a nap. But then he's right back at it afterwards. He's forgotten what he learned about the solidity of his own head the first time. And I've forgotten, too.

It's starting: I'm beginning to lose my human, thinking half.

"Gilly filled me in on the new Cat, but I didn't think you'd be such a tiny thing." Cassie lets the door swing shut and sets her suitcase on the floor as she reaches out a hand to me. Cat sniffs it before he'll let her touch him. He's losing his domestic habits, so I hope Cassie is here to stay. I don't know if it will work for someone other than Eunice, but I need to find a way to get her to say those two little words, "good Tom," and I need to do it quick.

"It's so quiet without customers or Granny." Her voice breaks. She stops scratching my ears and picks up her case again. She walks up the stairs, and I trail behind her. Cat wants to rub against her ankles, get her attention back, but I fight him with every ounce of control I've got. The last thing I need is for Cassie to trip over me and end up at the bottom of the stairs with a broken neck. That wouldn't help me out, that's for sure.

A few years ago, Cassie was a sweet but naive teenager who Eunice ordered around like a navvy. I always wished she'd get a little spunk although I couldn't help feeling a little protective of her. And, oh, the angst that can pour out of a teenage girl to a cat who's willing to listen in exchange for chin-scratching, ear rubs, and long, sensual strokes along the length of his back.

But when Cassie was around for the summer, I didn't get to spend much time in human form. How would Eunice have explained me? I was stuck with the bare minimum time when Cassie was out for softball practice or seeing a friend. I admit I sometimes resented her a little. But if she's my only shot to make it back to humanity instead of losing myself forever to Cat, I'll do anything to keep her safe.

She stands for a while, peering into Eunice's red-draped bedroom. The bed is gone now, taken by the cleaners, but the rest of the room still looks like a cross between a Victorian sitting room and a seventies sex-palace. Through Cat's eyes, the room is furnished in dull grays, but the reds are there for me when I'm human. They were a nice change of pace when I came back from being Cat. She'd planned it one weekend when she was especially pleased with me. Unlike most of the gifts she gave me, she never took that one back.

BOOK: The Familiar
5.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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