Starlight — Free Short Story

Photo credit: (c) Ironika on Shutterstock

Angie hasn’t been feeling like herself for a long time. In fact, it’s fair to say she’s lost her mojo. And then one night, a starlit visitor gives her a chance to start again at life—and at love. (A paranormal romance short story.) This story will be available free on this website for a limited time.

Starlight

by Catherine Mesick

“Star light, star bright,” Angie Hamoncourt murmured to herself.

She looked at the single star in the twilight sky—the first star of the evening—but she couldn’t bring herself to make a wish.

There were no more wishes left in her.

As she watched, the sky deepened into night, and more stars came out. Angie sat on a soft blanket in the grass and watched the dark sky fill up as if with diamonds. As she breathed in the warm summer air deeply, she saw a shooting star streak across the sky and fall toward the earth.

Again, once upon a time, Angie would have made a wish.

But that time was long past.

And that feeling that would have been a wish remained locked inside her heart.

She watched for a few, fleeting seconds until the falling star—a tiny pinpoint of light—disappeared from her sight.

Then she went inside her house.

Lately, she’d been spending a lot of nights sitting alone in her back yard, and this Friday night was no different.

Somehow, it was easier than spending time with other people.

Angie went into her bedroom and looked around at all her familiar, cherished things and felt the same aching distance from them—from herself, even—that she experienced every night. She looked at her own image in the mirror—her face, framed by her long, dark hair, was youthful and unlined—the face of the original Angie. But somehow her eyes had lost their spark, and she felt as if a stranger was staring back at her.

She turned away.

She got ready for bed, and as she turned out the light, she felt as if she was turning out the light in her own soul.

Somewhere in the middle of the night, Angie was aware of a bright glow in her room.

She sat up, and she saw a woman standing in front of her.

She stared in wonder.

The woman’s hair shone as if it were made of a thousand tiny stars, and it cascaded around her shoulders, lighting up the dark bedroom. She was clad in a dress that also seemed to be made of thousands of tiny lights—winking and twinkling like stars in the night sky.

The woman stared at Angie for a moment, her bright eyes enhanced rather than dimmed by her brilliant hair, and Angie stared back.

Then, in the next instant, the woman was gone.

Angie looked around her dark room. The red numbers on her alarm clock were the only light that was visible now.

She wondered for a moment if she could be cracking up.

Then she shrugged the illusion off as the remnant of a dream and went back to sleep.

In the morning, Angie was tempted to text one of her friends about the oddly realistic dream she’d had about a starlit visitor, but in the end, she decided against it.

It had really been too fleeting to be worth mentioning.

Angie went on with her Saturday. She went to her usual places, did her usual things, but somehow something was missing—a light had gone out in her.

When friends invited Angie out to dinner that night, she turned them down.

She sat instead on her porch in the evening and watched the sun setting, eschewing the grass, which was damp from a light summer rain. Once again, she watched as the sky darkened to inky black. But there were no stars on this night—the cloud cover was too heavy.

At no time in particular, Angie went inside, and eventually, she went to sleep.

Somewhere in the middle of the night, a bright light fell on her face, and Angie woke up again.

Then she sat up and clutched at her covers, startled.

Standing in front of her once more was the woman dressed and crowned in stars.

Angie stared at her steadily, and this time the woman didn’t disappear.

“Hello,” the woman said, her voice as musical and silvery as a bell.

“Hello,” Angie replied.

“My name is Maia,” the woman said. “I’m here to be your guide.”

“My guide?” Angie asked.

“I heard your wish yesterday. I’m here to help you fulfill it.”

Angie shook her head. “I didn’t make any wish.”

“You most certainly did,” Maia said, her voice tinkling like crystal in her indignation.

“No,” Angie replied. “I didn’t have a single thought in my head that could remotely be called a wish.”

“You didn’t wish with your mind. You wished with your heart.”

“I didn’t—”

“Never mind the protests,” Maia said briskly. “Your wish was received, and I’m here now.”

“This is a very strange dream I’m having,” Angie said.

“It’s not a dream,” Maia replied. “Now get up. We—or rather you—have a lot to do.”

Against her better judgment, Angie got out of bed, a little self-conscious in her T-shirt and sweatpants, and stood next to the starlit woman.

“Now then,” Maia said. “I have two-and-a-half tasks for you to complete.”

“Two and a half?” Angie said.

“Yes. And you mustn’t neglect that half. It’s just as important as the two full tasks.” Maia fixed her with a piercing stare. “Task One. Find the letter ‘J.’ ”

“Find the letter ‘J’?” Angie echoed.

“Yes,” Maia replied. “Now let’s go.”

She held out a slender, delicate hand, and Angie, after a slight hesitation, took it.

In the next moment, Angie found herself floating in the air. She twisted around, startled, but Maia’s small hand held her safely aloft. As Angie watched in astonishment, she and Maia floated right up to the wall, and then soared through it, out into the night air.

They hovered for just a moment, and Angie could see her own lawn below her.

Then, without warning, they flew off into the dark sky.

Angie could see the ground streaking by below her and the stars streaking by above her. She should have been terrified by the height and the speed, but somehow all she felt was a great sense of exhilaration.

Maia and Angie flew on, and before long, they were zooming up to a white house with dark-green shutters.

And then they flew through the walls of the house.

They floated gently to the floor in a dark room.

Even in the dim light, Angie could tell the room looked familiar.

“This is my old room in my parents’ house,” she whispered.

“Yes,” Maia replied in her soft, silvery voice. “What you need is in here.”

“The letter ‘J’?” Angie asked uncertainly.

“Yes.”

“But I don’t have any idea—”

Angie turned to see Maia walking up to a wall, and then disappearing casually through it.

Angie went to follow her.

Instead, she bumped face-first into the wall.

She went to the door and found that it was locked.

Angie rattled the knob and pounded on the door. “Maia! Let me out! This door must be stuck or something.”

“The door will open when you have found what you’re looking for,” Maia said from the other side. “And not a moment before.”

Angie pounded on the door again. “Maia!”

There was no reply.

Angie sighed heavily. Then she turned to her old room and switched on the light.

Her bed and desk and trophies—from photography competitions when she was in high school—were still there, so the room still looked familiar. But now much of the floor space was taken up with cardboard boxes.

Her parents were apparently using the room for storage.

Angie tried the door one last time but found that it still wouldn’t open.

She turned back to the boxes—she supposed she’d better start looking.

She began opening the slightly dusty cardboard lids. Many of the boxes belonged to her parents. But some of them were hers—and they were labeled as such.

Angie decided to focus on those.

They seemed the likeliest place where she would find the letter “J.”

She dragged her boxes to a corner and began to open them.

Some of them held childhood items—toys and books and clothes. And some of them were from later years—college and her first job.

As Angie began to sift through all her old things, memories came bubbling up to the surface.

She found things that made her smile, a few things that made her cry, and even a thing or two that made her laugh out loud.

And then she found a box with her old camera and several long manila envelopes full of photographs.

Angie felt a pang in her heart as she gently touched the camera’s nubby, black surface.

It had been years since she’d lifted that camera—or any camera.

Somehow she’d pushed the feeling that taking photographs had once given her to the back of her mind.

It had been stashed away in a dusty, forgotten mental storage box.

She turned to the envelopes.

The first one Angie opened contained her earliest photographs—the very first she ever developed herself. There were photos of her parents, her parents’ house, her high school friends, and one beautiful photo of jasmine blossoms.

Angie paused as she took that one out—it had always been one of her favorites.

The photo depicted the jasmine bush that grew at the back of the house. The white flowers and their dark leaves looked lovely in the black-and-white photo—each highlighted the others’ stark beauty.

Even though it was one of the earliest photos she’d ever taken, Angie had always felt there was something special about this one. There was power and mystery in it.

She paused. Could this be the “J” Maia had asked her to look for?

She wasn’t sure.

Angie continued to look through the other photographs and opened more envelopes. She found many more pictures of friends and family, trips and vacations, and quite a few more studies of flowers. But nothing really stood out to her.

And then she found the picture of Jason Delbruck.

It felt like ages since she’d last seen him—a lifetime at least. In reality, it had only been about two years since they’d broken it off. But a lot had happened while they’d been together.

Angie set everything else aside and took a long look at the photograph in her hand.

Jason was smiling, looking away from the camera, and even though the photo was black and white, Angie could see with her mind’s eye just how blue his eyes were.

She’d loved his sense of humor. She’d loved his ready wit.

She’d loved him.

Could he be the “J” she was looking for?

Angie continued to look at the photo of Jason. She really had loved everything about him.

But he certainly couldn’t have said the same about her.

Jason had always said that he loved her, but he hadn’t liked her friends.

They had been the first to go.

Then he hadn’t liked her hairstyle or her perfume.

He had gotten her to change those, too.

And even though he’d consented to the photo Angie held in her hand, he hadn’t liked her interest in photography, either. He’d told her that she was no good—she had no eye for a picture—and that photography was frivolous anyway.

He’d told her she should be focusing on a serious career instead.

So Angie had given up on photography—let it disappear from her life.

And even though she’d done everything he wanted, Jason had eventually disappeared, too.

As she looked down at his smile, Angie realized there was no way he could be the letter “J.”

She didn’t know what the letter “J” was or what it was supposed to represent in her life.

But she knew it wasn’t him.

Angie sifted through her photographs until she found the picture of the jasmine again. She held it up, and she was amazed once more by the power in this simple photograph.

Somehow she had captured something special in this moment.

Angie felt something stirring in her that she hadn’t felt in a long time.

If anything was the letter “J,” it was this jasmine photo. It was the best work she’d ever done.

At that moment, the door opened, and her mother—tall, angular, her dark hair mussed from sleep—entered the room. The hall behind her was dark, and she blinked blearily in the light of the bedroom.

“Angie?” her mother said, startled. “I thought I heard someone rustling around in here. Honey, what are you doing here?”

“I—was just looking through some old things,” Angie said, equally startled.

Her mother frowned. “How did you get in the house?”

“I—uh—” Angie thought back to Maia.

She could hardly tell her mother that a starlit woman had flown her through the sky.

“You must still have that old key,” her mother said, inadvertently saving her. “Anyway, it’s good to see you, even if this is a little unusual. Sun’s coming up. Come with me, and I’ll get you some breakfast.”

Her father—bald, bespectacled, and clearly pleased to see her—soon joined them at the breakfast table for eggs, pancakes, and bacon.

Angie spent the entire Sunday with her parents. She hadn’t seen them in ages—in fact, it had been nearly a year—and it felt good to spend time with them.

While she was with them, she felt something—a little bit of warmth in her heart.

She remembered how nice it was to spend time with family.

When evening was approaching, and it was time for her to go, Angie had a little trouble explaining her travel arrangements. She hadn’t brought her car, and she lived twenty miles from her parents’ house.

She clearly hadn’t walked.

Angie just told her parents that a friend had brought her over—and that that friend would pick her up.

As she stepped out of the house to wait for her “friend,” she certainly hoped that was true.

She stood on the porch and watched the sun set in brilliant colors of red and pink and yellow. Soon, the first star of the evening appeared.

After that, more stars studded the sky.

Angie began to feel anxious. She knew her mother would come to check on her soon, and she wouldn’t have a good explanation for why she was still standing on the porch.

The night continued to darken, and suddenly a bright light appeared by her side.

Maia had materialized next to her in all her starry glory.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” Angie breathed. “I wasn’t sure if—”

“There’s no time to talk,” Maia said, her voice musical but curt. “You’ve found the letter ‘J.’ Now you have one-and-a-half more tasks to complete.”

Maia took her hand.

Suddenly, they were floating in the air, and in the next moment, they were flying through the night.

“But tomorrow’s Monday,” Angie protested. “I have work in the morning—and I haven’t slept. I can’t go on a task tonight.”

“Then you’ll have to work quickly,” Maia replied briskly. “Task Two. Combine fire and water.”

“What?” Angie said, startled. “What does that mean?”

“That’s what you have to find out,” Maia said.

They flew on, and before long, they were floating into a large, square building and settling on a tiled floor.

Angie looked around at the bright lights and the shelves laden with produce.

They were in a supermarket.

“What are we—”

Angie turned around.

Maia was gone.

Angie looked around the supermarket in some trepidation.

She wondered if she would be trapped in the store like she’d been trapped in her old room.

She didn’t relish the idea of spending the night in a supermarket.

Angie glanced around again. She was standing near a display of cantaloupes, their round, tan forms piled high like little boulders.

She thought idly that she really liked cantaloupe, but she couldn’t eat a whole one—not by herself.

“It’s a shame, isn’t it?” said a voice by her side.

Angie looked up.

A young man with reddish-brown hair was standing next to her.

“When you’re single,” he said, “you’re really better off with half a cantaloupe.”

Angie stared at him.

The young man blushed, and Angie noticed that his eyelashes were the same reddish-brown color as his hair.

“Not that I’m saying you’re single,” he stammered. “I am. But that doesn’t mean you are,” he added hastily. “I’m just looking for half a cantaloupe—that’s really all I’m saying. But I don’t see any, do you?”

Angie looked around. “No, I don’t. But I do know what you mean.”

The young man brightened. “You do? I live around here. Do—you live around here?”

Angie frowned. “I’m not actually sure.”

She paused and looked down at her clothes. She was still wearing the T-shirt and sweatpants she’d worn to bed on Saturday night.

She must look as if she’d just run out of the house to grab a few things from the store.

The young man nodded. “That’s cool. I understand if you don’t want to tell me where you live. I’m Brian, by the way. Maybe I’ll see you around.”

“Nice to meet you, Brian,” Angie said. She looked at him. He had a friendly, handsome face, and he seemed like a nice person.

Under ordinary circumstances, she might have liked to stop and chat with him a little.

But right now, she had something she had to do.

“I’ve got to go,” Angie said, her tone apologetic. “Have a good night.”

Brian gave her a sad look, and her heart went out to him.

Angie knew what it was like to be interested in someone who didn’t seem to have the time of day for you.

But she really did have to go.

She moved off quickly.

Angie walked up and down the aisles in the supermarket without really finding anything.

How was she supposed to combine fire and water? Put tabasco sauce with cereal and milk?

Make a smoothie out of jalapeño peppers and frozen bananas?

Nothing in the store seemed like it could be any help.

Angie continued to wander, and eventually she found herself near the cash registers and the automatic doors that led out of the store.

She stopped and watched people entering and exiting with shopping carts and baskets.

Getting out looked so easy—surely the automatic doors wouldn’t refuse her.

She waited until a family was heading out together, and then Angie hurried forward and walked out along with them.

She sighed in relief as the big, glass doors opened with a soft shush to allow them all out, and then closed behind them with an equally soft sound.

Angie stood out in the cool night air and looked around gratefully. She hadn’t fulfilled the second task, but she wasn’t trapped. As she continued to look around, she realized that the front of the store looked familiar.

She was actually at a supermarket in her own neighborhood.

Angie felt another surge of relief. She wouldn’t have to spend the night in the store, and she could now go home and get ready for work as if this were a normal Sunday night.

Angie began to walk the few blocks to her house.

The night passed as many Sunday nights had—in chores and preparation for the workday tomorrow—and as Angie climbed into bed at the end of it, she began to wonder if she would receive a visit from Maia.

But no starlit visitor showed up to scold her for not fulfilling her task, and eventually, Angie fell asleep.

She went to work as usual on Monday and then came home. Once again, Maia didn’t appear that night, and Angie slept peacefully—without any interruption—until her alarm went off in the morning.

Tuesday passed the same way, and Angie began to wonder if she’d imagined the whole thing.

However, she had mysteriously shown up at her parents’ house on Saturday night in her nightclothes without a car—something her mother had remarked on quite a few times over the phone.

So something had happened that night, and Angie was unable to explain it all away.

As the week wore on, Angie found herself going back to the supermarket where she’d magically appeared on Sunday night. She would wander the aisles, looking for something to jump out at her, but she saw nothing that could reasonably be construed as the combination of fire and water. But Maia—if she did exist—had wanted her to find something in this particular place.

What could it be?

Angie didn’t know.

She kept going back to the supermarket, and she began to remember how much she used to love to cook—something else Jason had told her she was no good at.

Angie fondly recalled the times when she used to have all her friends over, and she would cook something simple—like a big pot of pasta. And then they would all talk and laugh and have a great time.

And then sometimes, when a friend was going through a difficult time, she would make her special soup—her own recipe—and they would talk it out.

Angie began to wonder—should she try to contact her old friends? Maybe make her special soup? She had friends now, of course, but they were mostly friends she’d met through work. She liked her new friends, but she missed her old ones—the ones she’d had before Jason.

Maybe she could invite them over—see if they might come back into her life.

The more Angie thought about it, the more she liked the idea.

Another week went by, and then Angie decided she would do it. She found old email addresses for three of her best friends and sent them an invite—she didn’t even know if the addresses were still good. Then she went to the supermarket and bought ingredients for her special soup. Angie decided she would make it even if no one wanted to come.

A day went by, and then an answer came in. Her friend Nina Gayle said she would be happy to come. Angie was overjoyed. Then another day went by, and two more replies came in. Both Joy Zyma and Eva Martinez said they would come, too.

Angie spent Friday night cleaning her house. Then Saturday morning she got up early and began to prepare her soup—time was needed for the flavors to meld properly. She began chopping herbs—basil, oregano, and thyme—and vegetables—parsnips, carrots, and celery. Then Angie turned the dial on her gas stove and got one of the burners clicking. A moment later, a blue flame with an orange tip sprang to life. Angie placed a pot full of spring water on the flame and waited for it to boil. Then she began adding ingredients and let the whole thing simmer.

Later on, she would add some minced turkey and some noodles.

Once it was done, she would garnish it with mint and a dollop of sour cream.

That evening when the doorbell rang, Angie jumped up to answer it.

Nina, Joy, and Eva had all arrived together, and when they saw Angie, the three of them wrapped her in a big hug.

Angie stepped back to look at them.

Nina—a friend she’d known since high school—was staring at her with her big, soulful brown eyes.

Eva had been her friend even longer—they’d known each other since childhood—and she was looking at Angie as if she couldn’t really believe she was seeing her again.

And Joy—a pal from college—lived up to her name just like she used to. She beamed, and her bright green eyes sparkled.

Angie found that there were tears in her own eyes.

Angie and her friends sat around her kitchen table and ate her special soup just like they had in the old days. They laughed a lot and cried a little, and Angie found that it seemed like no time at all had passed—they were all still friends.

They talked well into the night.

At the end of the evening, Nina made them promise that they would all come to her house next Friday for a movie night.

As Angie stood by her front door, watching her friends depart, she felt a warmth in her heart that hadn’t been there in a long time. She glanced around at the dark night studded with stars and admired its beauty.

Nina, Eva, and Joy all waved one last time, and then they got in the car. The thunk of their car doors closing was loud in the quiet night air, as was the roar of Nina’s mustang as it started.

Angie watched her friends’ car until the red taillights disappeared.

Then she went back inside.

As Angie closed the door, she found she was enveloped in a dazzling, golden glow.

A woman in a dress made of tiny stars with starlit hair appeared right in front of her.

It was Maia.

She stepped forward and hugged Angie, and her embrace was as delicate and ephemeral as a butterfly’s kiss.

“You did it!” she exclaimed, in her silvery voice. “You completed Task Two!”

“I—what?” Angie said.

“You combined fire and water,” Maia said, stepping back and taking Angie’s hands. “You made your special soup!”

“I guess I did combine fire and water to make that,” Angie said, feeling disoriented. “I didn’t even think of it that way.”

Maia beamed and squeezed Angie’s hands lightly. “My job here is done. You’ve completed both your tasks, and now your unspoken wish is fulfilled. You’ve gotten yourself back.”

Angie frowned. “Both my tasks? You said I had two and a half.”

Maia winked. “I’ll let you in on a secret. You really only had to do two to fulfill your wish. The half is just for you—if you want it. It’s entirely up to you.”

Maia let go of Angie’s hands and began to float toward the ceiling, which Angie also found disorienting.

“Goodbye, dear Angie. I don’t believe I will see you again, but it was lovely to meet you.”

“Wait!” Angie cried. “What do you mean, the half is just for me?”

But Maia was already gone.

Angie went back to the kitchen to put away her soup.

In the morning, Angie got up early to catch the golden hour and take some photos with her phone—she didn’t have a new camera yet, but she was planning to get one this week.

After a very satisfying nature shoot in her own neighborhood, Angie returned to her house, and she realized she’d only bought ingredients for her special soup the last time she’d gone shopping.

She was perilously low on breakfast foods.

She hurried to the supermarket.

Angie picked up some cereal and milk, considered eggs briefly, and then drifted over to the produce aisle—she figured she could use some fruit.

The bright-red strawberries and dark, almost purple blueberries both looked good, but then Angie spied what she really wanted—a half cantaloupe, its orange center and tan rind wrapped in plastic.

She hurried over to it.

Just as she reached it, she saw another shopper moving toward the cantaloupe, his hand outstretched.

Angie stopped and looked up at the approaching figure—the tall man with the reddish-brown hair looked familiar.

She studied his lean face—which was intent on the cantaloupe—and she noticed that his eyelashes were the same reddish-brown color as his hair.

Then she recognized him—it was Brian from the night she’d been magically transported into the supermarket.

His hand touched the half cantaloupe, and then he looked up and noticed Angie standing nearby.

He broke into a grin when he saw her.

“I was hoping I’d see you again,” he said.

“Hi, Brian,” Angie replied, cheered by how happy he was to see her.

He lifted his long, lean hand and gestured to the plastic-wrapped fruit. “I see we’re both after the same thing—the legendary half cantaloupe.”

Angie glanced at the fruit. A half cantaloupe.

The half is just for you, Maia had said.

Angie glanced up at Brian. He seemed like a nice person.

She figured it couldn’t hurt to get to know him a little better.

She held out her hand. “My name’s Angie, by the way.”

Brian took it. His hand was warm and strong.

“Nice to meet you, Angie.”

He looked over at the half cantaloupe. “I’m happy to relinquish my claim on this particular piece of fruit. It’s all for you.”

He picked it up and held it out to her.

“Thanks,” Angie said, as she accepted the melon. “The next one we see will be for you.”

Brian glanced at her shopping basket. “Looks like you’ve got a few perishable items in there, so you probably want to get going. But would you like to meet for coffee some time?”

Angie looked at Brian. His smile seemed genuine, and she felt stirrings in her heart that she hadn’t felt in a long time.

“I’d like that,” she said.

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

© 2018 by Catherine Mesick

Thanks very much for reading! You can pick up my book Pure free here: https://catherinemesick.com/books/.

Everyday Magic — New Short Story

Image courtesy of Free-Photo, Pixabay

Olivia is feeling under the weather—and more than a little sorry for herself. She wishes there was a magic cure for her illness and her current solitude. Can she dream her way out of her predicament?

Everyday Magic

by Catherine Mesick

Olivia King was not feeling well.

She was twenty-five years old, living in a tiny apartment by herself, and trying to battle a severe cold.

And she was wishing that she wasn’t all alone.

Her light brown hair was piled in an untidy bun on the top of her head, and her cornflower blue eyes were rimmed with red and drooping as she tried valiantly to stay awake.

She lay on her couch in front of the TV, listening to its vague burble, but she wasn’t really sure what was on.

Beyond the TV, she was aware of the bright, sunny day outside. It was June, and the weather was probably lovely, but Olivia wasn’t going anywhere any time soon.

Her head was swimming, and her whole body ached. Somewhere, she knew, there was a box of extra-soft tissues that might offer comfort to her sore, stuffy nose. But as she searched blearily without lifting her head from her pillow, she couldn’t find it in her immediate environs.

Then Olivia saw it.

The blue box with the fluffy white tissues was on the table at the other end of the couch—down by her feet.

She raised her head for a moment and then decided against trying to move her aching body.

She figured she could live without the tissues for right now.

Olivia rested her head back on her pillow and pulled her red fleece blanket up to her chin. Within moments, she was asleep.

She found herself in a beautiful dream.

Above her head was a dark sky filled with stars, and below her bare feet was a sandy beach that sloped down to gently plashing water. The air was warm and soft and filled with the tang of salt. And the water itself was wondrous—in its dark depths it appeared to have as many gleaming stars as the sky above.

As the surf washed up onto the beach and then rolled away, it left the glittering, golden stars on the dark sand.

Olivia marveled at the stars’ beauty. Then she waded out into the waves and scooped up a handful of the warm, sparkling liquid.

She brought her cupped hands to her lips and gingerly tasted the water, which was warm and salty and somehow very wholesome—like a rich, savory broth.

She drank it down and was amazed at how soothing the star-filled water was.

Moments later, a strange, melodious chime rang out across the dark beach, and Olivia looked up.

At the same time, she started awake, and she mourned the loss of her dream-concocted broth.

The chime rang out again, and Olivia realized her phone was ringing.

She blearily scanned the room for it.

Unfortunately, she discovered that the phone was on the table at the other end of the couch—along with the blue box of tissues.

Reluctantly, Olivia levered herself into a sitting position and then pushed her aching body until she could stretch just far enough to reach both phone and tissues.

She clutched the box of tissues to her body and then fell back against her pillow with her slim, dark phone pressed against her ear.

“Hello?” Olivia croaked.

She hadn’t had the energy to glance at the luminous number that had popped up on her screen and therefore had no idea who was calling.

“Hi, hon.” It was her mother, her voice warm and soothing. “How are you doing?”

“Not great,” Olivia admitted.

“Do you feel as bad as you did yesterday?”

“I’m afraid so,” Olivia replied, wondering how the simple act of talking could require so much effort.

“I wish I could be there.” Her mother sighed softly. “You’re so far away now.”

Olivia could picture her mother sitting in her sunlit San Diego kitchen, while she herself languished on her slightly lumpy couch in her postage stamp of an apartment in the New Jersey suburbs.

It was the price she paid for getting a coveted position with a fancy New York law firm.

“You could bring me some of your famous minestrone soup in a matter of minutes,” Olivia said, feeling her eyes watering as she smiled.

She had a vague notion that she was telling a joke of some kind, but now that she thought about it, she wasn’t too sure what it was.

“I would definitely bring you some soup.” Olivia could hear a smile in her mother’s voice, so maybe she had succeeded in saying something amusing. “I wish I could do a little magic, snap my fingers, and send you some right now.”

“What kind of magic makes soup?” Olivia asked. She chuckled—a dry, rasping noise that sounded more like a cough.

“Everyday magic,” her mother said with sympathy in her voice. “I don’t want to keep you talking, honey. I just wanted to check in and see how you were doing. Try to get some sleep now.”

Olivia put the phone down and wished that everyday magic was a real thing.

Then she fell asleep.

She found herself in another dream.

This time, she was standing on a towering mountain with a green valley below. The view was beautiful, but the air was cold, and a biting wind whipped around her. Olivia could see dark clouds roiling as a storm brewed close by, and soon she was enveloped in sharp, icy rain.

Olivia searched frantically for shelter and, instead, found a pair of silver wings nearby on the ground. The feathers were long and soft and shining, and somehow, the rain slipped right off them.

She placed the wings on her back, drawing them on like a cashmere sweater, and they unfurled behind her—strong and gleaming.

She gave her new wings an experimental flap, and soon she was soaring up into the bursting sky.

She hurtled up through the storm as lightning flashed all around her, and she kept flying upward until she found herself above the dark, churning clouds. She flew in the direction of the warm, life-giving sun until the clouds disappeared and she could see the green earth below.

Olivia fluttered down to the ground and set her feet down on the lush grass of a beautiful garden. There was a thick blanket of blossoms just in front of her—a riot of color with flowers in red, pink, lavender, gold—even blue.

She let the silver wings slip off her shoulders, and they fluttered away—off into the bright, sunny sky.

Olivia stepped forward and lay down on the bed of flowers—their petals soft as silk—and felt herself relaxing as their sweet fragrance enveloped her in a healing cloud and the sun high above warmed her skin.

Just as she felt the last of the rain-borne chill drifting away, a strange chime rang out, shattering the garden and the warmth.

Olivia jolted awake.

Her phone was ringing again.

Luckily, it was lying right by her side this time.

She pressed it to her ear.

“Hello?” Olivia drawled.

“You sound terrible.” It was her best friend, Ellen Stanhope, her voice kind but a little startled.

“I’m afraid I feel terrible,” Olivia admitted.

“You poor thing,” Ellen said. Olivia could picture her friend’s warm, brown eyes brimming with sympathy. “I wish I could be there for you, but we’re going to be in Chicago all week.”

“I’m glad you and Jim finally got to go on vacation,” Olivia said, making an attempt to sit up and sound normal. “You don’t need to think about me at all. You guys just have fun.”

“What about the new guy—Travis?” Ellen asked. “I’m sorry, but I’m blanking on his last name. I only met him the one time.”

Olivia smiled despite herself, and for a moment the aches and the chill in her body seemed very far away.

“Travis Haberly,” she murmured.

His handsome, good-natured face rose in her mind’s eye. She could picture his curly black hair, his green eyes, the way his cheeks dimpled when he smiled.

“That’s right,” Ellen replied, a hint of apology in her tone. “Any chance he’ll stop by to check on you?”

“We’ve only been dating for a few weeks,” Olivia said with a twinge of wistfulness. “I think it’s too early for that. Taking care of a sick girlfriend is a later stage.”

“Does he know you’re sick?”

“Yes,” Olivia said regretfully. “I had to break our dinner plans tonight. I’m just not in any shape to make it.”

“Well, I’m sorry to hear that.” Ellen’s voice was soft and soothing. “Take care of yourself. I’ll check in on you again tomorrow.”

Ellen hung up, and Olivia settled back down on the couch. Her eyes drifted to the TV.

She was vaguely aware that a cooking show was on.

As Olivia watched fresh green herbs get chopped expertly and then dropped into a steaming pot, she felt another twinge of regret over her lost evening out with Travis.

It was also a lost opportunity to see that dimpled smile.

As the TV pot began to bubble, the green herbs roiling in a golden-brown liquid, Olivia felt her eyelids growing heavy.

She closed her eyes and opened them in a dream.

Olivia found herself standing in a kitchen. She wanted to make something delicious for Travis, who—she thought hazily—was coming to see her soon. But instead of ingredients, utensils, and mixing bowls, all she had was a bare wooden table and a magic wand.

She waved the magic wand once, and a bronze goblet appeared in front of her. She waved the magic wand again, and a handful of gems of all colors and sizes appeared in front of the goblet.

Olivia scooped up the gems and dropped them one by one into the goblet—first yellow, then green, then blue, then violet, and finally ruby red.

Every time a gem touched the metal of the bronze goblet, it began to fizz and disolve into a liquid. Soon the goblet was full to the brim and warm to the touch, and Olivia breathed in the delightful aroma of hot mulled apple cider.

She was just raising the goblet to taste the drink when there was a terrible sound of thunder—as if someone were breaking down the walls of the kitchen in which she stood.

Olivia’s eyes flew open. There was indeed a loud sound in her apartment, but it was just someone knocking on the door.

She pushed herself to stand with reluctance and shuffled to the door, clutching a tissue.

She looked out through the peephole.

Standing in the hallway outside was a tall, lean figure clutching a brown paper bag.

Olivia felt her heart flutter.

It was Travis.

Olivia opened the door a crack and peered out at him.

“Hey, Travis,” she said. She was excited to see him but horrified by how she must look.

“Hey,” he said, dimpling at her. Olivia felt her heart give another little flutter. He was wearing black trousers and a white dress shirt with sleeves that were rolled up, revealing his tanned forearms.

“So what are you doing here?” Olivia asked, trying to smooth out the croak in her voice.

“I know you’re not feeling well,” Travis replied, sounding a little uncertain, “so I took off work a little early. I thought I’d bring you some soup.”

He held out the paper bag, and Olivia stared at it in surprise.

“I know it’s a little soon,” Travis said quickly. “We’ve only known each other a little while. But I really wanted to bring you something to make you feel better. Sorry if it’s weird.”

“No, it’s not weird at all,” Olivia said, feeling warmed by his smile. “That’s very thoughtful.”

“It’s chicken noodle,” he said. “From Lisa’s Deli. I’m afraid it got a little cold on the way over. I can come in and warm it up if you like, and I promise I’ll only be here a few minutes. And then I’ll leave and let you rest.”

Olivia glanced down at the paper bag. She loved Lisa’s Deli, and she’d told him that once.

And he’d remembered.

“Thanks, Travis. That’s exactly what I’ve been wishing for.”

He stepped into the apartment, and Olivia settled back onto the couch.

Travis went into the kitchen and bustled around for a few minutes, and Olivia could hear the beeping of the microwave.

Then Travis brought her the chicken noodle soup in an oversized mug with a little side of saltines.

Olivia sipped the soup gratefully, inhaling its healing warmth, and looked up at Travis.

She realized that there was such a thing as everyday magic after all.

And it was even better than she’d dreamed.

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

© 2021 by Catherine Mesick

Thanks very much for reading! You can pick up my free novel Pure here: https://catherinemesick.com/books/.

Little Sun is Now Available for Pre-Order!

Hi everyone! I’m very excited to announce that Little Sun, Book 5 in the Pure series, is now available for pre-order!

Thank you very much to everyone who has been asking about it, and I’m sorry about the many delays. But we are finally ready to go! Get your pre-order copy here:

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B095CVMLHJ.

Apple Books: https://books.apple.com/us/book/id1569060287

I’ll be adding pre-order options for Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Google Play over the next few days, so check back in for those stores!

And here is the blurb:

Will Katie sacrifice everything for true love?

Seventeen-year-old Katie Wickliff is tired of running. She’s decided it’s finally time to take the fight to the Werdulac—the ancient vampire who’s been trying to capture her and use her to spark a war with his oldest enemies.

William Sursur, Katie’s true love—and a cursed, incomplete vampire—is right by her side as she begins her perilous journey to uncover the Werdulac’s secret lair. But after a prophecy is revealed, she begins to fear for his life. One of golden blood must make the ultimate sacrifice in order for the all-powerful Werdulac to be stopped—and William seems to be the most likely candidate.

For William began life as one of the Sídh, an ancient race gifted with great beauty and power, and their blood is said by the vampires to be golden.

The Werdulac must be stopped, but Katie can’t bear to let William sacrifice himself for her.

She decides that somehow—some way—she must take his place.

Little Sun is the fifth book in the Pure YA paranormal romance series. If you like urban fantasy, ancient magic, and tales of true love, then you’ll love this page-turning, romantic book by Catherine Mesick.

Unlock Little Sun and enter a new world of love and magic today!

***********

Thank you again, everyone for your kind words and for your interest in the fifth book! For anyone who hasn’t read the first book yet, you can get a free copy of Book 1, Pure, here.

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.

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Thanks very much for reading!

Mae Wedding–Free Short Story

Dani is running late for her sister’s wedding. As she hurries to the wedding site—far out in a mysterious stretch of woods—she runs into her ex, Gabe. Can Dani and Gabe rekindle their lost love? Or are they fated to remain on separate paths? (A paranormal romance short story by Catherine Mesick.)

This story was available free for a limited time. If you’ve missed it, there are other free stories available on this website. Just have a look around! 

The ebook is also available here.

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Thanks very much for reading!

Share Your Gift

All this month, I’ve been making an effort to focus on what I am thankful for. And one of the things I am truly thankful for is the talent of others.

Maybe you’re a math maestro, or you love to paint, or when you play the guitar, you make other people want to get up and dance. Whatever your particular gift is, I hope you will share it with the world—even if what you do isn’t perfect. In fact, especially if what you do isn’t perfect—because perfect can be a little boring, and it’s actually pretty wonderful to watch someone’s gift grow and change and metamorphose into something beautiful and unique. No two butterflies are ever exactly alike, and no one else has the exact same gift that you have.

So I hope you will code, solve problems, invent things, teach others, sing, dance, write, and make other people laugh. Whatever it is that you love to do, share it with us.

Share your gift.

*You probably have more than one gift. I hope you’ll share them all.