The Not-Cat — New Short Story

Two cats get involved in a sci-fi mystery…

The Not-Cat

by Catherine Mesick

Sometimes I wonder about them.

I was sitting in the kitchen on a chair, watching Miss Lady and the Goofy One—her hair long and dark, his head shiny and bald, and both of their faces twisted up into very human expressions of distress.

“We can’t let her into Lily’s room,” the Goofy One said, jabbing a finger at me. “Cats can stop a baby from breathing.”

“That’s nonsense,” Miss Lady retorted. “Cats sucking the life out an infant is just an old wives’ tale.”

“That’s not what I’m saying.” The Goofy One shook his head, causing light to dance on it in an entrancing manner. “Amber could settle close to Lily and stop her from breathing accidentally.”

I started a little at the sound of my name—the Goofy One usually just called me “that cat.” I sensed in him an extra urgency which made him forget to be insulting. And he was right—lovely baby Lily was in danger.

But not from me.

“I never suggested that we leave Amber alone in Lily’s room,” Miss Lady said, clearly making an effort to be patient. “We should just take her in there so she can get used to the sight and sounds of the baby—and her scent. She needs to get to know Lily’s scent—that way it won’t be so scary for her.”

The Goofy One snorted at that—not an attractive sound. “Amber could bring in germs—she walks through a litter box, you know.”

And that was when I decided to leave. The Goofy One means well, but there’s a lot he doesn’t understand—and that causes him to say some pretty impertinent things.

Besides, it was almost time for me to watch anyway.

I went outside through my well-hidden cat door in the laundry room and climbed the tree just beyond the deck so I could observe.

From my perch, I could see through the sliding glass door to the two humans, who were still talking animatedly in the kitchen.

They were worried about me.

But I was worried about them.

A small, dark form came running across the back lawn in the gathering gloom, but it wasn’t the one I was looking for.

The form kept running and climbed up the tree, its claws scratching on the bark. It came to sit beside me on my branch as night fell all around us on this soft summer evening.

The familiar scent of Tuxie, the cat from next door, washed over me, and I took in his sleek black coat, white-edged paws, and white whiskers. Two white half circles curled up over his otherwise black chops, giving the impression that Tuxie was perpetually smiling.

The illusion suited him—he was slightly foolish and given to silliness.

Good evening, Amber Eyes, Tuxie said.

My name was actually Queen Amber Eyes, but I permitted diminutive forms. My mother, Heavenly Empress, had given me the name. Heavenly Empress had been a dazzlingly beautiful cat with a snowy white coat and bright, clear eyes—one blue, one amber, and I had inherited the amber. My coat was equally magnificent—I was mostly white with patches of ginger and black. My coat was so beautiful that I often had to stop and admire it when I was cleaning it. Likewise, I was often amazed by the beauty of my own eyes as I looked into my water dish and had to pause to admire them before I could drink.

Miss Lady, thanks to her extraordinary cleverness, had actually figured out my given name and called me Amber Eyes—though this was sometimes shortened to “Amber,” which I also allowed. She hadn’t quite figured out the “Queen” part yet, though she had called me “Princess” a few times.

I knew she would get there eventually—I had faith in her.

Amber Eyes, Tuxie said. Did you hear me?

I looked over at him pityingly. “Tuxie” was his human-given name, and he used it even when he was among other cats. His human had given him the name “Tux” because he looked like he was wearing a human garment known as a tuxedo—and the name had subsequently been transformed into Tuxie. But Tuxie was proud of his name, and I didn’t even know what his original, cat-given name had been. He had even gone so far as to name his human “New Momma,” despite the fact that she wasn’t a cat and couldn’t possibly be his mother.

Tuxie had always been a few crunchies short of a full bag.

Amber—Tuxie began.

Yes, I heard you, I said, twitching my tail. Can’t you see I’m watching?

I glanced over at him.

How did you get outside, anyway?

Miss Lady had wisely installed a cat door for me after I had “escaped,” as she put it, numerous times. It really was quite simple to get out of the human house, and no matter how she tried to lock the place up, I always found a way out.

Miss Lady had told me that the outdoors was dangerous, and that that was why I needed to stay in. But I knew that far better than she did—and that was exactly why I had to go out.

But Tuxie didn’t have a pet door, and I knew for a fact that he had been trapped inside for several days.

New Momma was going out to a party, he said. And I ran outside with her. She was wearing a lot of shiny metal objects—metal strings and rings.

I understood. I had seen Miss Lady wearing shiny metal things when she went outside, too.

Tuxie continued. She was carrying a lot of boxes, and she didn’t see me when I ran out the door with her.

Tuxie was quite good at sneaking into and out of places—just like I was—and I admired him for that. But at the moment, all I could think about was how irritated I was.

That human is not your mother, I said.

I know, Tuxie replied patiently. She’s my New Momma.

I ignored that. What are you doing here?

I’ve been watching you from the window, Tuxie said. You’ve been up to something lately. And I want to know what it is.

I’m not up to anything, I said. I’m watching.

Why?

You’ll see. It’s almost time.

A moment later, I stiffened as the dark shape I was waiting for appeared.

It slinked through the shadows toward my house, bringing with it its horrible atmosphere of wrongness. In outward appearance, the form was a cat—sleek and well-muscled with beautiful, dark-brown fur. In its mouth, the catlike form held a tiny gray mouse, now deceased.

But it was most definitely not a cat.

The creature deposited the mouse on the deck and sat down to wait patiently by the sliding glass door.

That’s Samson, Tuxie said. You were waiting for Samson?

That’s not Samson, I replied.

Yes, it is. He lives in that big house in the neighborhood across the big road.

Take a sniff, I said.

Tuxie trained his nose on the creature below, and after a moment, I saw him go still.

That’s not Samson, he said.

His sides heaved once. Then Tuxie lifted his head and scented the air again.

I don’t know what that is.

Neither do I, I said.

What’s it doing? Tuxie asked.

It’s come every night for the last three nights and left a mouse at the door, I said.

Why?

It’s trying to get into the house.

Why does it want to get into your house?

The question made me uncomfortable, and I shifted my position on the tree branch.

Just watch, I said.

Miss Lady and the Goofy One were in still in the kitchen—which was their usual habit after dinner—and tonight was no exception.

I’d watched them discussing me before, and from the looks of it, they were still at it.

But I knew something else would have their attention soon.

Miss Lady was the first to look up. She saw the catlike creature sitting on the deck with its mouse, and her expressive face was overcome with sympathy.

She began to open the sliding glass door, and I heard her voice float out onto the air, high and sweet.

“Poor kitty. Are you back again? Would you like to come inside?”

Time to move, I said.

I was down the tree and across the deck in a flash.

Soon I was hissing and slashing with my claws, and the not-cat scrambled off the deck.

I watched as it ran across the back lawn and disappeared into the distance.

“Oh, Amber Eyes,” Miss Lady said, her voice gentle but a little reproachful. “You have no need to be jealous. That poor little guy’s just looking for a home.”

She reached down to pat me, and I let her scratch the top of my head. Then she moved to the always-wonderful area under my chin.

“Do you want to come inside now?” she asked.

But I stepped back and began to walk away across the deck.

“I guess not,” Miss Lady said. I felt her footsteps reverberating through the wood of the deck, and I heard her push the sliding glass door open a little wider so she could go back inside.

“See?” The Goofy One’s voice floated out to me. “That’s exactly why I don’t want that cat in Lily’s room.”

I flattened my ears against the sound of his voice, and moments later, the glass door slid shut, blocking him out.

I climbed back up the tree and returned to Tuxie, whose entire body was quivering.

He soon began to pepper me with questions.

What was that creature?

Why does it look like Samson?

Why did you chase it away?

I ignored all the questions except for the last one.

I chased it away, I said, because it’s after Lily.

Protecting Lily was my job. Actually, protecting all of them was my job.

My mother, Heavenly Empress, had told me when I was a kitten that we had a duty to look after humans. They were lovable, she said, but they weren’t very smart, and they were always getting themselves into trouble.

Since we as cats had a highly developed intellect and far superior senses—not to mention much faster reflexes and greater jumping ability—it was up to us to keep humans from harm. And that included not just harm they would cause themselves, but dangers they might encounter out in the world. Heavenly Empress told me that I would know when I met the human I was meant to guard and protect—and she was right. As soon as I met Miss Lady, I knew she was the one—even though I was a very young kitten.

So Miss Lady became my pet human, and I gave her a new name, and we lived happily together—and I looked after her.

And then the Goofy One had showed up.

He had a loud voice, a loud laugh, and loud feet. But Miss Lady seemed to like him, so I let her keep him.

And I gave him a new name, too—one that suited him. Miss Lady and the Goofy One had the human names of Bonnie and Clyde, and for some reason, that always made other humans laugh.

I didn’t know why they would have names that others of their kind thought were funny, but humans often did irrational things.

And so I looked after those two together until Lily came along. Lily, who had a beautiful, new baby smell and who was fragile and hairless as only a human kitten could be. Though I had seen very little of her, I loved her very much, and I knew I was meant to watch over her, too.

And someday, when Lily was a little older, and I had a better idea of what she was really like, I would give her a better name to replace the ridiculous one her parents had given her.

But right now I had more pressing matters to attend to, and I came out of my reverie to find that Tuxie was talking to me.

Why do you think it’s after Lily? he asked.

I can sense it, I said firmly. The not-cat is a predator.

Tuxie paused to consider this. Yes. You are right. I could feel that, too.

I’ve seen its eyes, I continued. The way it stares at Lily. It wants a way in. And it wants her.

Why doesn’t it just use your cat door? Tuxie asked.

I felt a flash of alarm.

It’s well hidden, I said, thinking quickly. Miss Lady was smart to do that. It’s in the door to the laundry room. They don’t use that door anymore, and plants have grown in front of it. You wouldn’t know it was there unless you were looking for it.

I paused uncomfortably. But you’re right. It’s a vulnerable spot. I paused again. Can you take me to Samson’s house?

Yes, Tuxie replied. Why do you want to go there?

I want to see if we can figure out what’s going on. I have a feeling the humans are really going to need our help.

We ran through the growing darkness, and Tuxie led me across the big road to the neighborhood on the other side.

As he ran, his black legs with their white toes became a black-and-white blur, and he looked like a small shadow slipping through the larger ones.

Once again, I admired Tuxie’s stealth abilities.

He led me on past many houses and streets, until we came to a very large, white house with red shutters.

That’s Samson’s house? I said.

Yes, Tuxie replied.

Does he have a cat door?

I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think his humans just let him out. That’s very rare nowadays. Many humans keep cats inside. They think it’s safer. New Momma says there are many dangers in the world.

I thought back to the not-cat, and a deep sense of dread flowed through me.

Your human and the others may be right, I said. But in that case, the humans should stay inside and let the cats go out. That way we can take care of them.

New Momma says she takes care of me, Tuxie said stubbornly. That’s why she doesn’t like me to go out.

But you still sneak out every chance you get, I said.

I like going outside, Tuxie said.

I’d heard Miss Lady sighing when the Goofy One was exceptionally dim.

If I’d been capable of sighing, I would have done so at that moment.

Instead, I returned to business.

Do you think Samson’s humans know someone is impersonating him?

I don’t know, Tuxie replied.

Does the not-cat go in the house and pretend to be Samson? I asked. Or is Samson in the house right now, and the not-cat just runs around the neighborhood?

I don’t know, Tuxie replied.

I think it’s important to find out if Samson is missing or in the house, I said. I also think it’s important to find out if the not-cat has been visiting any other houses with babies. Do you know which houses have babies?

Tuxie thought for a moment. He and I both went out, but he did more exploring, while I did more watching from my tree. He was more likely to know the doings of local humans than I was.

It’s hard to say, he said after a little while. I know of quite a few houses with smaller humans. But babies are harder to know about. They don’t generally go outside much. They usually go straight into the house and then don’t come out for the first few months. And when they do come out, they’re in baskets or carts with wheels.

That’s true, I said. That does make it harder.

Does it have to be a baby? Tuxie asked.

I believe so, I said. The not-cat has been staring very hard whenever it sees Lily in the kitchen. And it doesn’t stare at my other humans at all. And it didn’t stare at the neighbor human when she came over yesterday evening with her smaller human. It was only ever interested in the baby.

That is very disturbing, Tuxie said.

We devised a plan of action together, and soon after that, we parted ways.

Tuxie needed to go home then to eat his gushie food.

He’d explained that since New Momma didn’t know he had gotten out, she would have left the food in his bowl. She’d probably assumed that he was sleeping somewhere and would eat it later.

Tuxie had pointed out that it was important to eat the gushie food before it dried out—and I agreed with him. Gushie food was no good once it became gray and dry, and besides, we would both need food if we were to continue our investigation into the night. After we had both eaten, Tuxie was going to go out again and see if he could find out if Samson was in his house. And I would go out and see if the not-cat had visited any other houses—especially ones with babies.

When I’d asked Tuxie how he was going to get back into his human’s house—since he had sneaked out when she’d left—Tuxie had replied that New Momma typically left the windows open in the summer, and he could climb up and get in through a screen that had a hole in it.

I approved of this greatly. I knew well the joys of screens in windows and doors—both hanging on them and tearing into them.

Tuxie had chosen well.

I returned home and ate myself, and then I headed out into the night.

Tuxie might have seemed like the obvious choice to go exploring the surrounding neighborhoods, since he tended to do that anyway. However, Tuxie didn’t get along well with other cats, and I did. I wasn’t very territorial, and had no interest in taking over another cat’s domain—and somehow they always seemed to sense this. Tuxie, on the other hand, despite his general air of harmlessness and cluelessness, often got into fights with other cats. Those fights usually ended in a whirling ball of fur, with both combatants separating abruptly and running for their respective homes.

That was not how we needed things to go tonight.

We needed other cats to talk to us—to tell us what they’d seen.

And as usual, I was the best cat for the job.

I spent several hours canvasing my neighborhood and the one beyond the big road. I could have gone even further—but it wasn’t necessary.

I found what I needed close to home.

Two cats had seen the not-cat, and both had noticed that it smelled funny—and wrong. The first cat—the gray one with the black stripes—also knew Samson and was quite sure that it wasn’t the same cat. The other one—the cream-colored one—had witnessed the not-cat attempting to get into his house.

And he lived in a house with a baby.

That was all I needed to hear. I returned home and slept for several hours. Tuxie and I had planned to meet in the morning to share what we had learned. I had only ever seen the not-cat at dusk, and my witnesses had told me the same thing.

Meeting in the morning would give Tuxie and me plenty of time to plan our next move.

After I’d had my morning crunchies, I went out through the cat door and climbed up my tree to wait.

I didn’t have to wait long—before an hour had passed, I saw Tuxie’s black-and-white form moving toward me through the dewy grass.

Soon he’d climbed the tree I was perched in, and he stepped out on the limb where I was seated and walked over to me.

Good morning, Amber Eyes, he said.

Good morning, I replied.

Did you have good hunting last night?

Yes, I did. I told him quickly about the two cat witnesses I had interviewed.

At the end of my tale, I could feel concern radiating off Tuxie.

Then you were right, he said. The not-cat is after human babies.

How about you? I said. Did you have good hunting?

Yes, Tuxie replied. I found out what I needed to know. But the news isn’t good.

What did you discover?

The not-cat isn’t wearing a collar—and Samson does. And there are pieces of paper with Samson’s picture on them posted on the telephone poles and fences. Samson hasn’t been back to his home in several days.

Then the real Samson is missing? I said.

Yes, Tuxie said. And there are rumors that he was carried out of his house in the middle of the night.

Carried? I said. By a human?

Tuxie paused for a long time.

No, he said at last. It was a creature like a skink with too-blue eyes. And it was tall like a human.

Tuxie shuddered.

A skink? I said. Do you mean the lizard with the blue tail?

Yes.

Why would a tall lizard take a cat?

It was a skink, Tuxie said. And I don’t know. I think we should tell New Momma.

New Momma? I said. Why?

Tuxie’s tail twitched. New Momma is a human guard. I think she can help us. And we need help.

I considered the problem for a moment. It might not be a bad idea to have help—even if that help was only human. But the human brain was very limited, and my mind boggled at the idea of trying to explain something this complex to a human.

They wouldn’t be able to comprehend it, I said. They would get confused and think we just wanted food or toys.

We should tell New Momma, Tuxie said stubbornly.

Once again, had I been human, I would have sighed.

Tuxie could be really thick.

You can go ahead and try, I said. But what words will you use? How will you tell New Momma that a tall lizard has carried off Samson? And how will you tell her that there is now a not-cat running around the neighborhood impersonating Samson?

Tuxie stared at me for a long time.

Then he continued to stare.

I assumed from his silence that he couldn’t answer my questions.

Here’s what we should do, I said. The not-cat always appears around dusk. We should wait till he comes to my house, and then once I chase him off, we should follow him. We should follow him all night until we figure out what’s going on.

Tuxie stared steadily down at the tree limb we were sitting on. His ears weren’t back, but I could tell he was angry.

Will you come with me tonight? I asked. Your stealth abilities would be very valuable.

Tuxie maintained a stony silence.

I know you love New Momma, I said.

Tuxie looked up. I do love New Momma.

I love Miss Lady, too, I said. And Lily and even the Goofy One. That’s why I want to do this.

Cats are in trouble, aren’t they? Tuxie said. And human babies.

Yes.

I will help you, Tuxie said. But I still think we should tell New Momma. She’s very smart.

I thought it was sweet that he had so much faith in his human.

You must do what you think is best, I said.

Tuxie ran down the tree and disappeared across the yard. I climbed down, too, and went back in the house.

I slept for a long time, and throughout the day, I had water and crunchies from my special bowls to fortify me. By the time dusk rolled around, I was refreshed and alert and ready to tackle the evening’s work.

I was ready to take on the not-cat.

I went outside to climb my usual tree to watch for Tuxie.

Soon I saw him hurrying across the grass toward me. His ears were folded back, and I had a feeling I knew what was troubling him.

Tuxie soon joined me up on my tree limb. His ears were no longer back, but I could see his angry face silhouetted against the orange and pink of the sky.

You were right, he said without preamble.

Right about what? I asked—just to be polite.

I tried to tell New Momma. But she just couldn’t understand.

I looked at Tuxie then, and I could see that his face wasn’t so much angry as despairing.

It’s not your fault, I said. And it’s not New Momma’s fault, either. Humans just have trouble comprehending more complex ideas. But they do the best they can. And I was proud of you for your belief in your human. The more we believe in them, the better they will be able to do.

Tuxie looked up at me. You really think so?

I do.

It’s not just that New Momma can’t understand, Tuxie said, and I could sense both frustration and fear welling up within him. It’s the whole thing. This isn’t just about babies or cats. It’s big—very big. I can sense it.

I was even prouder of Tuxie now—he was embracing his true destiny as a protector of humans.

And I realized he was right. We had to protect the humans.

All of them.

We’ll fix it, I said. We’ll figure out what’s going on tonight. Then we’ll figure out how to stop it.

Tuxie sat for a minute and seemed to absorb that. Then his body relaxed, and he looked noticeably less distressed.

So what do we do now? he said.

We just wait for the not-cat, I replied. Then we follow it. And then we take care of this once and for all.

We didn’t have to wait long.

Soon I saw the sleek, brown creature that should have been Samson but wasn’t wending its way through the grass. It walked all the way across the lawn and passed by the tree where Tuxie and I perched without even glancing at us.

It jumped up onto the deck and deposited a mouse by the sliding glass door like it usually did. Then it sat down to wait.

Miss Lady and the Goofy One were in the kitchen after dinner per their usual custom. After a few minutes, Miss Lady noticed the not-cat and began to walk toward the door.

Time to move, I said.

Tuxie and I scrambled down the tree.

Just as Miss Lady was extending a hand to pet the not-cat, I reached the creature’s side, and my claws flashed out.

Miss Lady let out a soft sound of dismay, but I didn’t have time to comfort her. The not-cat took off immediately, its body a brown flash against the green grass, and Tuxie and I took off in pursuit.

After a while, it slowed but didn’t pause to lick itself as a normal cat would have done. Instead, it simply continued to walk, seemingly unaware of our presence.

Tuxie and I both slowed also and continued to follow the creature.

Where’s it going? Tuxie asked.

I don’t know, I said. We’ll have to continue to watch.

The not-cat led us across three streets to a blue house with white shutters. There it waited by another sliding glass door, though this time it didn’t have a mouse. After failing to attract the attention of the humans inside, the not-cat got up and moved on.

Darkness was gathering slowly as it did in summer, but the night was on its way.

What if the not-cat just wanders around all night? Tuxie asked anxiously.

Be patient, I said. We’ll figure this out.

This time, the not-cat led us to a green house with darker green shutters, and I recognized it as the house of Peanut Butter, the cream-colored cat I had interviewed.

Be alert, I said to Tuxie. This is a house that has a baby.

Tuxie stared at me with big round eyes, and I could see his body tense with anticipation.

The not-cat hurried up to a screen door at the back of the house and scratched at it. The inner, wooden door was standing open, and I could hear the sound of a TV from somewhere deeper in the house.

The not-cat scratched again.

“Mommy, I heard something!” cried a childish voice.

The voice was followed by scampering footsteps, and a human girl with yellow hair looked out through the screen door. When she saw the not-cat, her eyes lit up.

“Mommy! The brown cat is back!” she shouted. “Can we keep him?”

“Caitlin!” called an older female voice from somewhere in the house. “Do not open that door! We already have a cat, and one is enough. We are not taking in a stray.”

“But, Mommy!” Caitlin wailed. “The poor kitty just wants a home!”

“Caitlin, get away from that door!”

The girl’s face disappeared from the screen door, and soft footfalls stepped away.

After a few minutes, the soft footsteps returned.

The screen door opened ever so slightly, and a foot with five tanned toes set itself down on the concrete step. Moments later, a small face appeared.

“I’m just going to leave the door open a little,” Caitlin whispered, peeking out from behind her yellow hair. “It’s okay if you want to come in for a while.”

Her little fingers slid a metal ring along a bar, and the screen door remained open as if by magic.

Caitlin quickly ran back into the house.

The not-cat stared at the open door for just a moment.

Then it ran inside.

Tuxie and I swiftly followed it.

Inside, it was cool and drafty, as if someone had a large fan blowing somewhere. The room appeared to be a kitchen, and the not-cat ran for a cabinet and hit underneath it. Tuxie and I hid behind a trash can that was next to a row of shelves.

Caitlin came pattering back into the room expectantly. She looked around the kitchen but didn’t see the not-cat or us.

Her shoulders slumped in disappointment, and she left the room.

The not-cat waited quietly under the cabinet for a very long time, and we waited behind our trash can with equal patience. The garbage was pungent, and I could smell fruit peels, wet coffee grounds, and the welcome aroma of an empty tuna fish can.

I could also smell the wrongness of the creature.

The humans came and went, and eventually the TV turned off.

Once the house settled into darkness and silence, the not-cat emerged.

Tuxie and I both straightened.

The creature slipped stealthily out of the kitchen and stole without a sound down a dark hallway.

We followed.

Then it slipped into a room with an open door.

Tuxie and I hurried in after it.

Inside was a white crib that loomed out of the dark, and I caught the unmistakable fresh, beautiful smell of a baby.

The not-cat padded silently toward the crib and then stopped.

As I watched, the creature began to grow taller.

It kept growing until it was the size of an adult human.

I stared in horror as the giant cat reached into the crib with its enormous paws.

As it did so, the not-cat continued to transform. Its fur turned into scales, and its face became flattened and snub-nosed like a lizard’s. Its eyes turned a bright, piercing blue, and light actually shone from them like headlights on a human car.

The creature reached out with webbed fingers and picked up a sleeping baby that had been nestled in the crib. The baby stirred, and the creature sprinkled a red powder on its nose.

The baby went back to sleep.

Then, cradling the human baby with one hand, the creature dropped to the floor onto its other three limbs and scuttled out of the room.

Tuxie was staring after the creature with horror in his big yellow eyes.

Did you see that? he said.

Yes, I said. We can’t let it get away!

Tuxie and I ran after the lizard-like creature, following the glow of its blazing blue eyes through the dark.

It ran back to the kitchen, and I realized with alarm that it was running back to the open screen door.

The grown human woman in the house had eventually noticed that the screen door was open and had shut both it and the wooden door—and locked it.

But Tuxie and I had watched as Caitlin had sneaked back into the kitchen later on, and had opened the wooden door and propped the screen door open again—no doubt still hoping to entice the not-cat to come in.

But now the not-cat was using the door as an exit, and it escaped out into the night.

Tuxie and I ran after it.

The creature wasn’t difficult to follow. It wasn’t particularly fast, and its peculiar, three-legged gait—necessary to keep hold of the baby—was hard to miss against the moonlight.

And then there were its eyes—blue and glowing like lamps in the night.

And so we pursued the creature as it ran with its precious captive across lawns and streets.

Eventually, it plunged into a forest.

Tuxie and I ran in after it.

Before long, the creature came to a huge, black metal object that lay on the forest floor. The object looked like a human house that had been squashed to be longer and flatter.

It’s a house for tall lizards, I said to Tuxie.

They’re skinks, he said obstinately.

The creature paused before it and stood on its hind legs. It appeared to be tapping on the black house with its free hand.

I bet it’s going to go inside, I said.

Tuxie was alarmed. We can’t go in there.

We have to, I said. We have to get the baby back.

A door in the big black house began to open.

Come on, Tuxie, I said.

He stepped back. I can’t.

You’re a cat, I said. You can do anything.

This is too much. We need New Momma.

You trust New Momma, right? I said.

Right.

Well, I trust Miss Lady. And she told me a story, I said. She said a big cat came down from the trees and wrestled an alligator and won. She told me then that cats can do anything. And I believe Miss Lady.

Oh, Tuxie said. What’s an alligator?

I don’t know, I admitted. But Miss Lady said they’re very big and have big teeth.

So what does that mean? Tuxie asked, his fear filling the air.

It means we go in, I said firmly.

The door in the big black house opened all the way, and the creature stepped inside.

The door began to close.

Come on, Tuxie, I said.

I sprinted for the closing door.

Moments later, I heard Tuxie following me.

We slipped inside and the door clanged shut behind us.

We looked around.

Both the creature and the baby had disappeared.

I lifted my head and sniffed. The scents inside the house were bad—very bad. And the feeling in the air was worse.

This was the lair of predators.

I caught the scent of the baby and the creature.

This way, I said, running off down a long hallway.

Tuxie followed me, looking rattled.

Did you notice how that creature turned into a giant cat back at the house? Tuxie flattened his ears against his head as he ran. That was terrifying.

Yes, I noticed, I said.

Did you notice how it turned into a giant skink next? Tuxie asked.

Yes, I noticed, I said.

That was terrifying, too.

Yes, tall lizards are kind of terrifying, I agreed, scenting the air once more.

They’re not lizards. New Momma calls them skinks.

Tuxie’s ears were back again.

We can call them skinks if it makes you feel better, I said.

Tuxie’s ears perked up again, so I assumed that that did, in fact, make him feel better.

We continued on, tracking the skink and the baby, and the halls we passed through were long and black like the house itself. There were no other doors apart from the one we had entered through, and the halls seemed to go on forever. But the scent of the skink and the baby continued to draw me on. And even though there were many other strange scents in the air, it was easy to follow their trail.

Where do you think these tall skinks come from? Tuxie asked. I’ve never seen anything like them before.

I don’t know, I said. Maybe they come from Florida. I’ve heard it’s far.

Tuxie considered the information for a moment.

You could be right, he said at last.

Several more turns brought us to a large, open room—and there in the middle was our original not-cat with its blazing blue eyes, along with two other tall skinks with equally bright eyes—one of whom held the baby. The room was black, like the halls had been, and the light would have been very dim for human eyes. Luckily, our superior cat vision had no trouble with the low light, and I could see everything quite clearly.

The skinks were standing around a black table that had three clear boxes on it. In one box was a motionless gray mouse. In the next one, there was a sleek, brown cat, clearly asleep. And the third box was empty—the skinks were placing the baby into it.

Look, Amber Eyes, Tuxie said. There’s the baby. And there’s the real Samson. What should we do?

I see them, I said. Wait just a minute.

Once the baby was in the box, one of the skinks closed the lid and latched it. Then another skink began to press buttons on a wall. Our original skink placed his hands on the box. After a moment, he turned into a human baby.

He began to fall and the skink beside him caught him.

The skink by the wall pressed more buttons, and he argued with the other one in a harsh, rasping language—they both appeared to be very angry. Only the skink that had become the baby remained silent—which, from my experience, was a very unbabylike way to behave.

After a moment, the two tall skinks seemed to give up in frustration, and the baby-skink assumed its original form after its chubby hands were placed back on the box and more buttons were pressed.

Then the three skinks left the room, all rasping at each other.

Once they had disappeared, I jumped up on the black table and sniffed at the boxes.

Tuxie did the same.

What’s going on here? he asked.

I don’t know. I sniffed at Samson through the clear box. But I do understand why they took Samson now.

Why?

They put him in this box so they could look like him. That skink turned into Samson and the baby.

Tuxie sniffed at Samson. At least he’s okay.

He scratched at the box and meowed at Samson.

But Samson didn’t wake up.

Tuxie sniffed at the mouse next. The mouse is dead. Why do they have a mouse?

That skink can turn into other creatures if they put them in these boxes, I said. He probably turned into the mouse, too.

Tuxie stared hard at the mouse for a long moment as if he were puzzling something out.

I think I see, he said. A skink was seen carrying Samson out of his house. I bet he went in as a mouse and then took Samson out. And they need small creatures so they can fit in their boxes.

You’re right, I said.

Tuxie looked pleased.

Why not just use a mouse instead of Samson? I asked.

Tuxie stared hard at the box again.

People will kill mice, he said after a moment. But cats and people are family. A skink is less likely to be attacked if he goes in as a cat.

It was my turn to stare.

That’s very clever, Tuxie, I said. I’m proud of you.

Tuxie looked so pleased I thought he would burst.

So what do they want? I asked. They want mice to get to cats. And they want cats to get to babies. Why do they want babies?

Tuxie thought hard, but he said nothing.

I thought hard, too.

And then it came to me.

The baby couldn’t turn tall, I said.

I am very glad that it didn’t, Tuxie replied. The idea seemed to horrify him.

But they wanted it to, I said. I bet that’s what all the skinks were arguing about. They wanted the not-cat to grow big.

And be a giant baby? Tuxie looked petrified.

I think they want him to look like a grown-up human, I said. But babies and human adults are very different.

Yes, Tuxie said. Babies can’t walk. Babies have to crawl. They also can’t go out by themselves.

That’s it! I said. They want to look like tall humans. They want to look like adults. They want to get into human houses and replace them. And do all the things grown-up humans can do.

Tuxie’s yellow eyes opened wide, and he took a step back.

Why?

They are predators, I said. They want to take over the humans’ territory. And get rid of them.

Tuxie began to tremble. Even New Momma?

Even New Momma.

I turned to the boxes on the table and began to claw at them.

We have to do something, I said. We have to save them.

Tuxie trembled for a moment longer.

And then he began to help me.

We scratched and meowed at the boxes with Samson and the baby, but we couldn’t get into the boxes, and neither Samson nor the baby would wake up.

Tuxie and I both sat down in frustration—there was a latch on all the boxes. There was no way we could open them.

I thought and thought.

And then I had an idea.

We need to tell New Momma, I said suddenly.

What was that? Tuxie asked.

Didn’t you say New Momma was a human guard?

Tuxie was ecstatic. Yes. She wears special blue clothes and everything. You really want to tell her?

Yes, I do. New Momma has hands—not paws. She can open a latch. And she can bring others to see the skinks and chase them away.

Tuxie jumped down from the table in excitement. Let’s go!

Then he paused.

But how will we make her understand? I couldn’t do it before.

I jumped down beside him.

You know New Momma’s shiny metal objects that she wears? I asked. The strings and rings?

Yes, Tuxie replied.

Does she have a special one?

Yes.

Can you get to it?

Yes.

Then we can bring her here, I said.

We found a vent in the big black house and escaped outside.

Then we ran all the way through the dark forest back to New Momma’s house.

Tuxie led me in through the torn screen, and then he led me into the bathroom.

There in the semidarkness, on a shelf next to the sink, was a pile of metal.

Tuxie jumped onto the shelf. This metal string with the ring on it is the most special one.

Pick it up in your mouth, I said.

And then what? Tuxie asked.

And then we run.

Tuxie stared at me for a moment, and then comprehension dawned on him.

Oh, he said.

He grabbed the metal string with the ring on it, and we went into New Momma’s bedroom.

She was asleep, snoring loudly.

I meowed until the snoring stopped and she woke up, and then she turned on the lights and stared at us blearily.

“Crazy cats,” she muttered. Then she squinted at Tuxie. “What have you got there?”

Her eyes widened. “Tuxie, is that my mother’s ring? What are you doing with that?”

In response, Tuxie turned and ran. I followed him, and New Momma followed both of us, shouting at us to stop.

We ran to the window with the torn screen and slipped outside, making sure that she saw us. We waited in the back yard until New Momma made it out of the house and spotted us once again.

Then we led her on a chase.

We ran across lawns and streets, and eventually we plunged into the forest, always making sure that New Momma could keep up with us.

And then we led her to the big black house.

New Momma stared at it for a long time. Her mouth opened and closed.

But no sound came out.

Then she took out a slim phone she had brought with her and talked into it. Soon, cars with whirling red and blue lights showed up, bringing human guards in blue clothes. Not long after, loud flying cars with bright lights appeared in the sky, and even more human guards showed up—this time dressed in dull green. The three skinks came out, and there was a lot of fighting—with many loud explosions. Tuxie and I flattened ourselves against the ground.

But there were more humans than skinks, and eventually the skinks were captured. Their long lizard-like hands were wrapped in metal bracelets, and they were herded onto the flying human cars. The human guards went into the black house and brought out Samson and the baby.

We heard lots of words like “scout ship,” “attack,” “invasion,” and “saved the world,” and all the human guards congratulated New Momma.

I knew Tuxie and I had actually saved everyone—but I was proud of New Momma for paying attention.

I’d done my job as a guardian, and that was all I needed to know.

Once I was sure everyone was safe, I turned for home.

Morning was well on its way by the time I made it in through the cat door.

I walked into the kitchen for breakfast, and Miss Lady hurried out to greet me.

“There’s my beautiful Amber Eyes,” she said, scratching my head. “We were worried about you.”

“This is exactly why I said we shouldn’t have a cat door,” the Goofy One said, coming into the room. “She could get hurt wandering around all night. And she’s covered in dirt. She’s bringing germs into the house. We can’t have germs in the house with a baby.”

“A few germs never hurt anybody,” Miss Lady said. “Did you have a big adventure last night, Amber? Did you? Did you save the world?”

I had—and it was just like Miss Lady to understand.

******************

Thanks very much for reading!

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