Of all the cat houses, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.
Tory locked eyes with a fat, black cat and shivered. It wasn’t really misquoting Casablanca at her, was it? She was a witch, not a cat whisperer.
It had to be in her mind. The cats she knew wouldn’t lower themselves to speak human.
“I don’t like this place.” Sorcha’s gaze around the cat playroom in the Humane Society was as scornful as if the place was violating the Geneva Convention instead of crammed with carpet-covered climbing thingies and scratching posts, plus strategically placed litter boxes that looked barely used.
Tory glanced around, too, from one cat to another, twenty or more. All colors, all sizes, all ages. Even the fat, black one who’d been staring at her since she walked into the oversized cat cage.
Or, as Sorcha called it, their prison.
“It’s clean,” Max said.
Sorcha stared at her husband, Tory’s brother, her expression as horrified as if he’d said she needed to stop eating ice cream. “So are hospitals. I don’t like them, either.”
Tory sniggered. She could always count on her sister-in-law to cheer her up, even after a break-up with her boyfriend.
She was replacing him with a cat.
Sorcha had told her she was trading up.
Her younger brother Ted had said he hoped she had better taste in cats than men.
“I assure you,” the chubby young woman with earnest eyes and a Volunteer badge said, catching Tory’s attention, “the animals love it here.”
Tory could see why. The place was cleaner and even smelled better than the apartment Tory had shared with three other girls when she lived in New York, her eyes on Broadway, her heart back home in Wisconsin.
“Don’t you have kittens?” she asked. “That’s what I’m looking for.”
“There are advantages to adopting an older cat.” The volunteer scooped up a thin, tiger-striped cat, its eyes widening, its paws windmilling, a loud “Mreowwww” spilling out of its mouth.
The woman set it down quickly. “Perhaps not this one, though if you—”
“I really want a younger cat.” Tory squared her shoulders. If she hadn’t let a man who looked as if he’d walked off the cover of a woman’s romance novel change her mind, she certainly wasn’t going to let this volunteer do it.
As if she’d stop being a witch just because Phil decided making it her career was weird.
She’d thought of putting a bad luck spell on him, but she was a good witch, not a bad one. As Sorcha would say, his punishment was living without her.
A movement drew her eyes downward. The black cat moved closer, next to the volunteer’s tennis shoes, still staring at Tory. No one else. Just her.
“Almost everyone wants younger cats.” The volunteer sighed, her expression as woeful as a Bassett hound’s, then turned to the door.
Sorcha was first behind her, her body language eager to leave, Max at her side, his hand on her back. Supporting her, there for her.
Tory stepped behind them, a tiny ache in her chest because she wanted what they had.
Tory started. That voice inside her mind again. This was crazy. Nuts. It couldn’t really be the cat. Though it sounded oddly catlike and unmistakably male.
Tory’s breath caught. She looked behind her and down, straight at the black cat. It stepped up to her, its back swayed but walking gracefully despite its age and bulk. Close up, Tory saw its fur was mangy in spots.
The cat raised its head, staring into her eyes. Take me. Feed me. Love me.
“Miss,” the volunteer said, her voice lilted, her face lighting up, “are you interested in Samson?”
“No, no.” Tory snapped around and hurried to catch up to the others. Her heart thudded. She was imagining things. She must be.
Even witches didn’t hear animals talk. That only happened in Disney movies.
The volunteer sighed. “I suppose it’s too much to hope for. Not at his age and, um, bulk. His owner died and he’s been with us for two weeks…” Her mouth curved down as she opened the door for them to step outside. “It’s hard when they’re that old. Oh well.”
A shiver crawled up Tory’s spine and onto her nape, but she followed Sorcha and Max out of the room and across the wide hall. This room was long and lined with double rows of cages, each containing one or two kittens.
Sorcha made the same soft sound she used when her twin three-year-old boys slept, the only times they resembled anything close to angelic. The volunteer’s lips curved into a smile. Hard to be sad in a room filled with cute triangle faces and big green eyes.
Tory walked slowly down the row of cages, gazing at each kitten, forcing herself to be selective. She wanted a friendly cat. It had been nearly four years since her brother’s cat disappeared, but she still missed her. When she watched her favorite soap opera, Belle used to sit on her lap and meow a demand to be petted. Tory hoped she’d found a good home.
In the seventh cage, a young ginger cat rubbed her body against the crisscrossed cage wire, purring.
“Is this a girl?” Tory asked. She’d heard males were more likely to spray, and she didn’t want to deal with that. Besides, except for occasional visits from her two brothers, right now her condo was a No Penis Zone.
“It’s a girl.” The woman stepped in front of her, reaching for the latch.
Max pulled one of Tory’s curls. “A redhead like you.”
“Hers is like a lion’s.” Tory patted her hair and repeated what a waiter said yesterday at lunch. “Mine is like a sunrise.”
He rolled his eyes, but the volunteer was handing her the kitten, making it easy to ignore him. Tory held the little bundle of fun against her chest, right over her heart, rubbing the soft fur behind the ears with the tips of her fingers. The kitten purred, her small body reverberating.
“Aw, what a cutie.” It would be easy to fall in love with this kitten.
Take me! The voice shouted into her head from across the hall.
Tory’s muscles tensed but she continued to rub the kitten’s ear, a soothing hum in her throat.
Her teeth clenched. This was getting old. She looked at the door, a scream welling up in her head. No!
The kitten jerked, making a sound like a squeaky door, its legs scrabbling. Pinpricks from her nails pricked Tory’s skin through her sweatshirt.
“You’re squeezing the kitten.” The volunteer wrenched the kitten out of Tory’s arms.
Tory stood with her empty hands still in the air. “I didn’t squeeze her. I would never hurt a kitten.” What was she supposed to say? That she’d shouted silently and the kitten freaked?
They’re going to kill me. I heard them.
Tory glanced behind her, her fingers curling into her palms. If she didn’t answer the voice, it would go away.
They think no one will take me. I’m old and I eat too much.
I can’t take you. Tory gave in. I—
A yowl stopped Tory’s mental voice. It turned into words. If you don’t take me, I’ll die. I don’t want to die. I want to live.
“Tory.” A hand touched her shoulder and she started, realizing she was staring at the door. She whipped her head around, her hair flying out. Max was leaning toward her. “You all right?”
“Did you hear anything?” she asked. “Someone speaking? A voice from across the hall?”
Sorcha stepped next to Max, the crease between her eyebrows matching his, while the volunteer behind them soothed the kitten.
“I know you had a rough time with Phil.” Max lowered his voice, as if talking to a deranged person. “You want me to take you home, just say the word.”
She looked at the door. Why did you choose me?
Because you hear me. No one else does.
“I’m okay,” she said aloud, but she wasn’t. She was crazy. Had to be. If she was sane, she’d be in the parking lot already, telling Max to step on the gas pedal harder and take her far away from this place.
She looked from his face to Sorcha’s, both of them frowning at her in concern. But neither of them said, “Don’t do it, Tory. Whatever the hell you’re thinking, don’t do it.”
Neither of them could read her mind.
Only the cat could do that.
A fatalistic feeling spread inside her like indigestion. The kind she got after she did something really, really stupid. She took a deep breath, and when she let it out, so did words she’d never have thought to say when she woke up this morning, excited at the thought of adopting a kitten.
“I’ve decided to take the black cat.”
While they looked at her as if wondering whether her brain cells had gone funky—something she wondered, too—she heard the cat again.
I’m hungry. Got tuna?
Copyright September 2011