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Authors: Jill Nojack

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BOOK: The Familiar
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She runs a finger under the collar again and pulls it away from my neck to examine it more closely. I hold my breath in anticipation until she says, "It says 'Tom' in here. Is that your name? Tom?"

I purr up a storm. I rub against her like a madcat. I am one feline love machine.

Cassie laughs a weak little laugh. "Well, even if it's not, I guess you like it. Might as well be Tom from here on in. 'Cat' has always been too generic for my tastes, and you're my cat now, I guess, not Gran's."

Of course, that just sets her off crying again. It may be a while before I can get her to notice what a good Tom I am.

***

I hear the sobs starting to form in Cassie's voice as she talks into the phone, "But Daddy, I held the funeral off this long hoping that you and Jan would change your minds and come. I know you had a terrible relationship with her, but she was your mother."

A male voice responds, but I can't hear what he says.

"Fine. Be that way. Maybe you hate her, but you could be here for
me
!" Cassie flings the phone into the couch, where it lands with a whump.

I hear knocking and rush to the front of the shop to investigate. Cassie trails behind me slowly, laboring to get herself under control as she wipes away her tears.

Gilly waves at Cassie through the glass. Behind her, most of the female members of the coven stand in line with covered dishes and baked goods.

Cassie opens the door, protesting weakly, "You guys shouldn't have."

"We wanted to, sweetie. We know how much work it's going to be to sort out your grandmother's personal affairs, not to mention the house and shop." Gilly sets her basket on the shop counter and pulls Cassie in for a huge hug, rubbing her back to comfort her. "Plus, you'll need to feed people at the wake, so it's not all for you. Now, some of this will need to be refrigerated." Gilly lets her go. Cassie seems calmer now. "Do you want it in the kitchenette or the kitchen upstairs?"

"The kitchenette, I guess. I hadn't even thought about food. Even though I made the arrangements, it's so hard to keep remembering that she's gone." Cassie starts to mist up, and Gillian engulfs her again.

"There, there, sweetheart, you're such a good girl. Your grandmother was so lucky to have you."

From the back of the pack, I hear Natalie add under her breath, "With her poison personality, she was lucky to have anyone." Some of the others must have heard her, too, because they cough quietly to hide their titters.

"Come on, girls, let's get this stowed away in the back." Gillian leads the way, and the other food-bearers follow. I stay well out of the way of all those tramping feet.

Cassie and Gillian say goodbye at the shop door only a few minutes later, and Gillian adds, "Don't hesitate to call me if you need anything at all," as she releases her from a final hug.

Just as Cassie starts to lock up shop again, Kevin yoo-hoos as he bustles along the sidewalk from the café, heading toward her.

She waits as Kevin comes rushing up. He thrusts his hand out for her to shake, which she does, but with little enthusiasm.

"It's been years since I watched you play softball, but I always enjoyed cheering your team on. My father was a great friend of your grandmother—he's Robert Andrews, head of the town council?"

"Yeah, I remember you, Kevin. The shop isn't open yet." What I remember is she and her teammates used to giggle and make vomiting sounds on the phone about "Kreepy Kevin." He doesn't have children. He just gets off on watching teenage girls.

"Oh no, no. I don't need anything from the shop. I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am about your grandmother. Eunice was important to the town. I interviewed her for an article about the store just the other day…I noticed you said "yet" about keeping the shop open. You're continuing with it, then?"

"I don't know. I'll at least be giving it a trial run as long as I'm here. I can't say in the long term."

"Oh sure, sure. I understand." He leans in closer, his eyes darting down to her breasts as he does, and they linger there before returning to her face. "If there's anything at all I can do to help you or make you feel more comfortable here, please don't hesitate to call me." He offers her his card. "I'm available any time, day or night."

He dawdles too long before he lets go of the business card, which she places in the back pocket of her nicely filled-out jeans, and his voice takes on a low, intimate tone. Enough of that.

I have his ankle before he has time to fend it off, and I get in a good chomp through his thin dress sock. He bursts out with, "Damn that cat," as he looks down. Cassie looks down, too.

"Bad Tom!" Cassie blurts out before he shakes me off forcefully and sends me sliding across the fresh-waxed floor.

She runs after me and grabs me up to the bosom Kevin has no business admiring. She strokes me soothingly as she turns back to him, "You didn't have to be so harsh. He's just a kitten!"

Kevin doesn't quite have himself back under control yet. "Oh yes,
just
a kitten." He looks switchblades at me. "He started it." He lifts his pant leg and shoves his sock around his ankle to reveal four small drops of blood oozing from the bite. "Got a good one in, too." His public face takes over again before he says, "But I'm sorry I reacted so strongly."

Cassie's anger recedes as her natural concern for others kicks in. "I had no idea. Sorry I yelled. He can be a little pest. I'm sorry he hurt you, but you have to admit he's adorable."

"Oh yes, adorable," he says, but his expression is predatory. I've been a cat for a long time, a predator myself. I've known what he is since I flew across the table to break that glass. I'll be keeping two watchful eyes on him for Cassie's sake.

Cassie has been a blubbering mess since she got up this morning. When Gilly appears in the doorway of the back parlor that leads to the shop, her face overflowing with loving concern, I'm more than glad she's here. Cat is fascinated by the swirling fabric of her flowing black skirt, but I use all the focus I have left to keep him from going after it. I bound onto the couch and coil into a ball to keep myself under control. She tells Cassie, "The sign is up on the door to come around to the back now, and I've shut and locked the door into the shop. The last thing you need is Giles' less refined residents making off with your stock in Eunice's memory."

Cassie thanks her as she loads one of Eunice's silver trays with a selection of finger foods and then places it back in the fridge. "I'm ready, I guess. As ready as I can be."

She looks sophisticated with her hair tucked up into a neat bun, and she's attired elegantly in a simple black dress. How is it that I never noticed how pretty she is? Eunice was strikingly beautiful when she was young, and Cassie doesn't have a patch on that, but there's something about Cassie that is definitely her own. I see it now. I don't know why I haven't before.

"Come on then, let's go say goodbye, pet. I know it's overwhelming right at the moment, but a good funeral does a lot to get the healing started." Gillian hands Cassie the small black purse that matches her funeral attire and takes her arm. I like seeing them together like this. Cassie got the wrong grandmother.

They're on their way then, but Cassie stops, comes back, and gives me a quick scratch behind the ears just before they head out the back door. "Tom, you be a good boy while I'm gone." Gilly's back stiffens just the slightest at my name. She turns to stare at me, then shakes her head and rolls her eyes, smiling quietly to herself.

Phew! If Cassie had put those words in a slightly different order, things would have gotten freaky fast. There'd be more than a quizzical look and the shaking off of what Gilly must believe is a silly thought. I can't make my first human contact with Cassie with my ex-wife as a witness. I'd have too much explaining to do. What could I say after all these years? Sorry wouldn't even scrape the surface.

***

In November, 1967, Eunice was a young man's ideal Mrs. Robinson with her white gloves, petite hat, and fitted Jackie Onassis suits. I know she wasn't hip, but she was one foxy older woman. And Gilly had started pressuring me to let her stop taking The Pill and start making babies. I just wasn't ready for the family trip. I was only twenty-one.

The affair was a blast at first. Eunice was newly divorced and knew things that none of my previous partners had a clue about. She was a true advertisement for the charms of an "experienced woman." But after a while, I didn't like being treated like a toy Eunice could set on a shelf until she wanted me. She was dating Robert by then. I don't think she had any feelings for him, but he was beginning to build power within the city government and that appealed to her. She made it clear she wanted to continue what we were doing, but we couldn't be public, at least not right away. I guess she assumed I'd want to leave Gillian for her after I'd tasted her charms.

I think Gilly knew, but she never said anything. What could she do? Ask for a divorce? Times were different. Women had a hard time on their own. I knew she'd stick it out with me. And I knew she loved me. I finally made the decision to tell Eunice it was over, but I ended up a cat anyway. I don't know how it happened. I woke up after our one-last-time-for-old-time's-sake, and everything had changed.

"Write it, Tom," Eunice said, handing me the pen and a sheet of paper with a Boston hotel's watermark. I refused.

"Come on, Eunice, don't be a drag. It was fun, but now it's over...so wave your magic wand and let me get back to my wife."

"Don't be bad, Tom."

The first time I shifted, I thought I was having a nightmare. I was sure I'd wake up and be back to normal when it passed. I had no idea how important those words would become to my life.

We went back and forth for most of an afternoon. I thought she'd tire of it—bad Tom, good Tom—as I was first a cat, then a man, then cat, then man again. The change was horribly painful those first few days. It's not much better now. I'm just used to it.

After she kept Cat in a cage for two days without food and water, I caved in. I wrote what she wanted me to write, the letter that told Gilly I'd had an affair with Eunice, that I'd left because Eunice had thrown me over and I couldn't bear life without her.

It must have been convincing. Gilly never accused Eunice of anything more than driving me away.

***

I have no time to waste. Although Eunice's funeral is today, I can't sit mourning for her, even if I was sure I'd want to.

How can I leave Cassie another message, one that can't injure her? I take a tour of the upstairs—it has to be up here, because the downstairs will soon be inhabited by the Giles "choir" and assorted hangers-on. The message I need to leave has to be somewhere private that only Cassie will see.

No one would go into Eunice's room even if they do venture up the stairs to avail themselves of the upstairs bathroom. I'll have privacy for my efforts if I keep them in there. And I have just the thing.

I jump to Eunice's vanity. It's from the thirties with a fancy mirror which has lost its silver in spots. Her collection of potions and lotions sits on a gold tray, waiting for her to return and go through the daily ritual that kept her face and body younger looking than her years. I glimpse my own face in the mirror, my cat face with its inscrutable eyes. What would be there about Eunice, if I could read the human ones behind them? I'm not sure. Something. Anger or pain. A little of both. Maybe even loss. I don't know. I'm out of touch with interpreting human emotion. I put my energies where they serve me now. And emotion? Better off without it.

The smell of roses scents the air. The lid of one of the larger pots, which I know is full of a pale pink potion that would be easy to spread but thick enough to stick, is lying loosely across the top of the jar. It's open. Isn't
that
convenient? Just in case it's a trap Eunice set before she died, I bat at the lid and jump away as it goes end over end onto the floor. But nothing goes poof. That's a good sign.

I creep back up on the pot of face cream, cautious, and it looks okay. It doesn't have to be a trap. Eunice had become forgetful over the last few weeks of her life. At our last supper, she went to the fridge and back three times before she remembered to bring the salad dressing she'd gone there for. It wasn't like her, but I put it down to aging, not to impending doom. As it turns out, her slow decline may have helped me. She would have hated that.

I steel myself against Cat's reaction—he's going to have to deal with a wet paw for a while—and dip my right one into the cream. It's cool, and I'm sure it would feel soothing if Cat weren't going crazy over the wetness of it.

With every bit of concentration I can muster to control the instinct to shake that paw, I make my mark. First, the top part of a capital G. Then, the straight part that hooks up with it and goes down. And then again, after another dip of the paw, the curve at the bottom, and finally, the sticking-in part at the end. I let my paw down and admire my work, leaving an oily spot on the embroidered, antique linen that covers the vanity top.

It's painstaking and difficult, but when it's done, it says "GOOD TOM"—all caps for emphasis—in rose-scented pink lettering with only a few random streaks that don't interfere with the overall message. I think she'll get it this time. Hopefully she'll make it into Eunice's room again soon. I'll need to shadow her closely, stay awake when she's awake. It would be disaster for her to discover my careful work when I'm downstairs napping.

BOOK: The Familiar
10.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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